In a Rut in Idaho

Samuel D. Hunter made a big splash—excuse the pun—with his play The Whale, for which he won a special Drama Desk Award in 2013. Earlier this year he was honored with a MacArthur “genius” award. His latest play is Pocatello, at Playwrights Horizons, where The Whale was mounted, and it takes place, as his plays usually do, in Idaho. But, although it starts out ambitiously, it falters midway.

Set in an Italian restaurant along the lines of Applebee’s or Old Country Kitchen, the play explores the bonds of families under stress. The opening scene sets the tone, as customers at two tables bicker and snipe. At one table is the family of the manager, Eddie (a trim, wry T.R. Knight), complaining about the lack of gluten-free pasta, among other things. At another are the wife, daughter and father of Troy (Danny Wolohan), a waiter at the restaurant. They’re the only diners during what a multicolored banner proclaims is Famiglia Week. And they’re all straight from hell.

The introductions of the characters, in the midst of chaos, are carefully choreographed by director Davis McCallum with overlapping dialogue and flurries of action all over Lauren Helpern’s inviting, pitch-perfect set, replete with hanging grapes. 

Meanwhile, Eddie strives to recreate the joyous meals of his childhood, but his family, already reluctant to meet, slinks away. Since Eddie is gay, at first it seems that Hunter is exploring the way that gay people must make their own families (a subtext of many Noel Coward plays, e.g. Present Laughter). After all, Eddie is also the patriarch of his "restaurant family," which, along with Troy, who used to work at a paper mill, includes Isabelle, a waitress, and Max (Cameron Scoggins), a waiter and former methamphetamine addict whom nobody else would hire. But unbeknownst to the staff, the restaurant is slated for closure, and Eddie hasn’t told them their jobs are in jeopardy.

The plot twists abound, and for a long while Hunter manages to juggle them skillfully. It is no easy thing to make decency interesting on stage, but Knight does it extremely well, usually wordlessly. He flashes a wry smile at times, or does subtle takes as other characters speak. He’s engaging and likable even as Hunter’s story starts to unravel.

The central conflict between Eddie and his family, in particular his mother, is related to his coming out. It’s simply inconceivable that a character as sensitive and intelligent as Eddie wouldn’t have traced the stress and estrangement from his mother to that event, especially since the behavior that we witness amounts to unvarnished emotional abuse. Her confession is written as a big revelation, but it feels like bogus pop psychology.

In an important scene, Eddie’s sister-in-law, Kelly (Crystal Finn), tries to explain that Nick and his mother want to run from Pocatello. “You’re trying so hard, with your family, with this place,” she tells him, but maybe you’re not gonna fix all this. Maybe it’s not worth fixing.” She echoes Nick’s exhortation: "Get out of town, make your own life.” It’s a suggestion that will probably have already occurred to the viewer, and it makes Eddie seem like a bit of a sap for not recognizing it.

The acting is generally fine. Scoggins and Jessica Dickey as Tammy enliven their addict characters with a variety of colors, and Wolohan and Hogan excel in a deeply touching exchange when Troy finds his father has escaped the assisted living home and made his way to the restaurant.

The last scene, in spite of its lack of credibility, does carry an interesting ambiguity—whether Eddie and Doris have made a pact to live in limbo, i.e., Pocatello, or whether they are at the start of a new phase of their lives. But by that time the viewer may not think it matters.

Playwrights Horizons presents Pocatello through Jan. 4. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, visit playwrightshorizons.org or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.

 

 

 

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Back to Verona

William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet early in his career, and it’s one of his most frequently performed works. During the past year, New York City has seen two high-profile presentations of the play, both of which were handsomely outfitted and disappointing. The youthful artists of What Dreams May Company (WDMC) are currently offering a frugal production of Romeo and Juliet that strikes fire where the efforts of those more affluent troupes fizzled.

Soon to observe its fourth anniversary, WDMC has been producing streamlined, penny-pinching Shakespeare in a tiny, upstairs space on West 133rd Street. For Romeo and Juliet, the company has moved to larger, though still modest, street-level quarters in the East Village. Scenic designer Joseph Sebring retains the black-box aesthetic of WDMC's Harlem productions. Director Chris Rivera and his 16 actors are making effective use of several additional square yards of playing area, especially in the soirée at which the lovers first encounter each other and the violent scenes, which have been skillfully choreographed by fight director Nicole Schalmo and assistant Justin Kirck.   

Rivera is working with a radically uneven cast, whom he guides through the play's complicated text with an assured directorial hand. His greatest asset is Jonathan Emerson, seen in 2013 as Macduff, the moral center of WDMC's Macbeth, and, earlier this year, as an unnervingly sour Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. Emerson has transformed himself, both in affect and physical appearance, from those prior roles. His Romeo isn't far beyond adolescence and, obsessed with romantic notions, he's at once sophomoric and sympathetic. With Juliet, he's earnest and shy; but, when he's in the company of his buddies (Casey Noble as Benvolio and Nicole Schalmo as Mercutio), a swaggering machismo testifies to his youthful insecurity. Emerson's every stance and gesture, though unmannered and seemingly unstudied, contributes to an arresting, thoroughly believable interpretation of one of English literature's most familiar characters.

As Juliet, Christina Sheehan embodies young love’s impatience in interesting ways: she’s audacious and, at times, downright pushy. There's a naughtiness about her that suggests she learned a lot that Renaissance maidens weren’t supposed to know from the bawdy jokes and unbridled recollections of her Nurse (Clare Solly). In Solly's hands, that Nurse (often treated as an Elizabethan stock comic) is full of verve and lusty humor with an undertone of profound melancholy. In the last moments of the play, Solly conveys complex grief -- she has previously spoken of the untimely death of her own daughter, Susan, and it's clear that, for her, the news of Juliet's sorry fate disinters all the pain of that earlier loss.

Since its founding in 2011, WDMC has been committed to counteracting the limitations of the Shakespearean canon by creating on-stage opportunities for women. Schalmo, who was a hyper-sexual Lady Macbeth last year, demonstrates her range as Mercutio, cousin of the Prince of Verona and close friend to Romeo. In Schalmo's nontraditional interpretation, Mercutio is a brazen, seemingly carefree, aristocratic young woman capable of becoming serious as soon as she's drawn into the Montague-Capulet feud. Schalmo proves herself adept at broad comedy, drunk scenes, and dying in clear view of the audience; and, in her duel with Tybalt (Marcus Watson), she demonstrates some graceful moves and convincing sword-handling.

On opening night, director Rivera stepped into the role of Friar Lawrence, replacing Matthew Healy who had been injured in an accident. Youthful in appearance, Rivera plays the good Friar as a well-meaning soul who fled the world for the monastery before gaining sufficient experience to make him a reliable aid to the hapless lovers seeking his guidance. In the second half of the performance under review, Rivera relied on a script disguised as a prayer book; both on script and off, he gave an assured, insightful reading of this pivotal character.

WDMC, which produces in association with the nonprofit Queens Shakespeare, is adept at operating on a shoestring. Sebring's simple scenic design for Romeo and Juliet utilizes three revolving panels for entrances and exits, boldly colored wall hangings by painter Matthew Emerson, and a couple of scarlet draperies. Like the set, the costumes (primarily white and black) feature bright red accents. Costuming is credited to Rivera but the actors are dressed in items that could come from their own closets. The Verona that this production conjures, like the themes of Romeo and Juliet, is at once timeless and up-to-date.    

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, presented by What Dreams May Co. in association with Queens Players, runs through Dec. 20 at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street between the Bowery and 2nd Avenue). It runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7 p.m. Tickets: $18. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission. Tickets may be purchased by visiting http://wdmcstarcrossed.brownpapertickets.com or calling 1-800-838-3006.

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Whose Lyric Is It, Anyway?

Back when I was in high school, my cousin and I made up an impromptu jazz-age musical called Loser: The Musical, wherein a lowly, poor broom boy (based on a broom boy at the local Dunkin' Donuts whom my cousin and her sister insisted I had a crush on — don't ask) falls in love with a rich girl he stumbles upon one day. As one could expect, there were cheesy numbers galore, with inclusion — of course — of the musical's title theme, "Loser," which our hero would sing forlornly as the rich girl drove away with her Also-Rich-But-Also-A-Jerk fiance.  Needless to say, Loser never got past my living room couch in Queens (thank God), though I do regret we never recorded any of the hilarious tunes my cousin made up off the top of her head. Such is life, as the poets say — and apparently, such is theater.

It is practically biblical testament that in theater, not one performance is ever the same night after night. Theater is ephemeral. A new show currently playing at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) called Blank! The Musical is taking this idea to a whole new level, with the clever inclusion of an iPhone application. Yes, you read that right. In an age where everyone can personalize everything from music playlists to their social network profile pages (all hail the invention of cover photos), an app with which a different audience night after night can create their own personalized musical seems long overdue.  

And how! 

Created and produced by Second City and ImprovBoston alums Michael Girts, T.J. Shanoff and Mike Descoteaux (who here also serves as the show's music director and deserves a kudos-filled shout-out; you'll find out the reason why in a minute) in conjunction with Upright Citizens Brigade, Blank's conceit is simple enough: come to the show fully equipped with an iPhone and, when prompted, log onto the show's wi-fi connection with the password provided and visit the Blank! App. As the show's emcee T.J. Mannix greets you onstage (all the while charming the pants off you), you are told to follow his instructions carefully and get ready to create your own musical!  With the show's spiffy app — designed by LiveCube — audience members get to choose the musical's title, its signature songs, the score's signature theme and even a dramatic piece of dialogue (this night's choice line, taken from a brave dude who shouts it out hilariously from the back of the theater: "There's nothing left for us here in this storage locker"). As a result, we are left with Is This Supposed to Smell? The Musical, about the life and times of the good people (and whales) who frequent a local car depot in Portland, Maine.  By the time the actors come out and the show finally gets going ("Maine is (The Maine Thing)"), all you need do is sit back and watch your weird but wonderful creation come to life.

Here, the cast of characters of Is This Supposed to Smell? range from a couple of cabbies (Douglas Widick and Andrew Knox), who fall in love with two best girlfriends who wish to go out on the road and change their life ("Think Bigger"), to a rich May-December couple who take on the decision of having a child, only to have it backfire in ways they could never imagine ("We Were Way Off"), to the endangered whales of the Pacific Northwest whose only problem seem to be some literally stinky and painful dental work ("Ouch! My Baileen"). Tackling material that was never-before-rehearsed until this night is no doubt a difficult task, and the actors pull it off effortlessly, if by breaking out of character every once in a while to let out a chuckle or two themselves. It's perfectly ridiculous fun watching them come up with the stuff they do; Dufresne and Van Colton, in particular, are hilarious as the elder(ly?) wife recently deceased from failure to carry a child — which should be heartbreaking, if not for Van Colton's turn as the husband who somehow manages to carry a child himself (the child ends up being a weird whale-human half-breed).

Yep, it's that kind of show.

Just as with the book and lyrics, none of the music has been rehearsed, either. Descoteaux and his band (which also consists of Daniel Bennett on reeds and Al Vetere on drums, with Descoteaux himself on piano) do a fantastic job not only in keeping with the night's chosen chord structure (D/E/F/G) thematically throughout, but also in following along the each of the actors' whims, especially when Hastings goes on one of her signature let's-jam-some-extra-syllables-into-the-lyrics-because-this-is-all-totally-made-up-so-why-not riffs, garnering some extra giggles from the crowd.  

For the irregular theater-goer looking for an unconventional musical to check out, Blank! The Musical is the show to see. To put it in tech-speak: it'll not only make you "LOL," but also "ROTFLYAO.".. and then some!  

Blank! The Musical is running in a special limited engagement at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) through Dec. 14. Performances are Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m; and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $29-$69 and can be purchased at Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or at www.telecharge.com. For more information, visit www.blankthemusical.com

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Straight White Talking Heads

Playwright Young Jean Lee looks for a challenge in every new play, asking herself "what's the last show in the world I would ever want to make?" — and then making that show.  Indeed, Lee is known for her provocative, timely, and exciting productions.  Her newest play Straight White Men, however, is less effective in packing a cultural and philosophical punch than past pieces, such as Untitled Feminist Show and We’re Gonna Die.  While the production overall makes for an enjoyable evening, the majority of its content skirts the issue of straight white male privilege, opting to please rather than challenge the audience. 

The production excels in its sexy design, especially from a sound standpoint. Upon entering the Martinson Theater at the Public, aggressively loud rap music affronts audience members as they find their seats.  From the extreme pre-show music, to the transition songs, to a bacchanalian dude dance party, Lee and sound designers Chris Giarmo and Jamie McElhinney create meaningful moments of aesthetic bliss via their aural/visual collaboration. Visually, the production’s brilliant box set designed by David Evans Morris is fully visible when one enters the theatre space, the layout smacking of a network television sit-com recorded before a live audience. The set is a portrait of middle class American "game room" culture: a beige couch and armchair, white carpet everywhere, stacks of plastic tupperware stuffed with Christmas decorations, and book shelves bursting with paperbacks, board games, and assorted tchotchkes.

The comedic timing of the brothers’ endless quips also add to the middle-class white family charm. Lee's direction  establishes a nuanced family dynamic between Austin Pendleton (Ed), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt), and Gary Wilmes (Jake). The physical timing of Wilmes and Simpson are especially polished, both of whom deliver physical gags and witticisms with expert alacrity. Towards the end of the play, however, actors seemed to struggle with the dialogue. This is perhaps because, in the final third of the play, the characters stylistically morph from sit-com buddy boys into existential talking heads. This transformation is awkward and somewhat disorienting, which could be productive except for the fact that their dialogue becomes miresome.  It is unfortunately at this point that Straight White Men fails to fill in the space between slapstick and heady cultural commentary, with the end feeling tacked-on rather than part of the world of the play.  All in all, while the production is part of a larger conversation about straight white male privilege, its ultimately value lies in the the charming performances and appealing design.

Straight White Men runs through Dec. 7 in the Martinson Theater at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Member tickets are priced at $30, and single tickets are $35. To purchase tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.

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Shared Truths and Lies

Is there anything more romantic than a tale of two writers falling in love in Paris? Probably not, but an opening with an argument over who or what was the greatest rock performance of all time is a bit more intriguing.

For their first performance, Play.Sing.Give. presented Fiction, a story of two successful writers who are thrown into an unsuspecting tragedy and decide to share their personal diaries. Written by Steven Dietz and directed by Zoe S. Watkins, the two have created a witty, yet intense play about what happens when a couple decides to share too much.  

Journals and diaries are reminders of thoughts that are ironically never revisited, with the idea that another will never read them. That thought alone is gut wrenching, but the result is that, “No life, it turns out, is an open book.” From the outset, Michael (Levi Morger) and Linda (Stacy Lynn Gould) bicker like an old married couple and remind the audience that there's no greater bond than a shared hatred. Linda is a very matter-of-fact, best-selling author turned professor that has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Michael is a caring husband living in the shadow of his wife’s success; that quotes Dante, only drinks beer from brown bottles, arranges his diaries in chronological order, and doesn’t like the idea of a door being ajar.

They have an unusually honest relationship, but after sharing each other’s coveted secrets, Michael and Linda’s bond is put to the test when they are forced to decipher between fact and fiction, past and present, and shared truths and lies. Add a third character to the equation, Abby (Alison Wien), and three becomes a crowd. Linda’s piercing facial expressions and Michael’s often discomfort leave the viewer confused on which character they feel the most sympathy for — the dying wife, or the could-be-lying husband?      

Dietz has written an extremely smart play, full of soliloquies — a performed novel, right down to an included plot twist. Wordy, but with hilarity that is so unexpected, it goes unnoticed. An intimate cast of three, Wien drops in with perfect timing, while Morger and Gould’s on-stage chemistry is so strong, the need for additional characters to complete their story isn’t necessary. The close proximity between actors and audience almost begs for audience involvement, with audible gasps and the occasional, “No way!”

It also helps that Fiction is a part of a “giving event.” In an effort to provide a creative platform for actors to showcase their talents and give back to the community, Play.Sing.Give offers one full-length play plus 12 cabaret performances for a two-week run in November. Their goal was to make self-sufficient performances, with all ticket sales going into the productions, and any additional profits given to charity.

With some amazing acting, the opportunity to give, and the sponsorship from the Dutch Kills Theater Company, the hope of a return of this production is very high. That's all truth, no lie. 

Fiction ran until Nov. 22 at The Producers’ Club (358 W 44th St).

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Unmasking the Fables

After reading the tales of Snow White, Thumbelina, Sleeping Beauty, or Belle, have you ever felt that something was missing? With the lyrics of Nick Luckenbaugh, director and choreographer Megan Mekjian uses the musical Royal Fables to fill in the gaps of these familiar fairy tales.

The musical begins with Scheherazade (Livie Castro), a young bride from One Thousand and One Nights, who sings her song about the murderous king and how she must sing a different song each night in order to persuade the king not to kill her on their wedding night.  From this song, she introduces and guides the audience through the tales of female protagonists from various fairy tales — each singing a song that relates to their own fable. The twist is that these songs have never been heard, and each song reveals an inner thought these women have never shared with anyone else before.

Although a cleaver plot, Royal Fables' creative story line is confusing to the audience members who haven't read the program prior to the show. With no dialogue, the audience is only left with the lyrics of the songs as they sort out the characters and plot. Although some of the women could not be heard over the three-person band (Ansel Cohen, Jimmy Lopez and Mike McGuckin), there were a few subtle hints that could be found within the technical aspects of the show such as the set and costumes.

Set on the wooden floors of a large room, the cardboard box inspired set added a child-like feel to the environment. The homemade bookcases added depth to the stage and created a convenient backstage for the actors. The images on the bookcases matched the images in the program and allowed the audience to figure out which fables would be included in the show.   

The short, whimsical-styled costumes left us with little to no clues at which fable the women came from, but instead created a loosely uniformed look for the princesses and allowed them to freely perform their choreographed routines. As stated in the libretto, each princess wore a mask until it was their time to sing their own song. In this sense, the masks became a symbol of taking off their guise to reveal their own truths. However, yet again, there wasn't an obvious distinguishing design on the masks to help the audience identify which female character was singing the song.

With a cast of 18 actors, Royal Fables' contained plenty of raw talent. The cast's dedication to the show was obvious in their flawless execution. Without the actors’ mesmerizing performances, the play would have fallen flat, especially since the musical had no clear climax. Although the songs were beautifully sung, there was no build in the plot and nothing to propel the story besides the actors’ high energy.

Royal Fables ran until Nov. 15 at the Access Theater (380 Broadway between Walker and White Sts.). For more information, visit www.libratheater.org.

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One Note, A Thousand Stories

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a note can tell a thousand stories — at least that is what Davy teaches us in the musical Found. The main character Davy is based on the real-life story of Davy Rothbart who created the magazine Found. By combining the book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree with the music and lyrics of Eli Bolin, the story of Davy’s life becomes a very quirky and enjoyable musical that can change how a person looks at a lost note or letter. 

Davy (Nick Blaemire) is a young man who finds a note on his windshield after a very bad day. With the discovery of this note comes the inspiration to create a magazine that he names Found — a collection of notes and letters that people have left behind. These notes range from children’s notes (“Dear Mom, summer camp is not fun anymore, everyone is dying”) to lovers (“You bring the paper bag, I’ll bring the handcuffs… let’s party”) to notes reflecting on one’s life (“With a baby in my dream all my life now, I’ll be questioning what it would be like with a child to call my own… just maybe this is a sign that I’m not meant to have a child…”).  With each note comes an unknown story that can be interpreted and read in different ways.

With the help of his lifelong friend Mikey D (Daniel Everidge) and his roommate Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed), the magazine becomes extremely successful. Together they bring the magazine on tour, reading the notes to audiences across the United States. However, the plan to keep the original messages is challenged when Davy falls in love with a producer, Kate (Betsy Morgan). Davy loses himself in fame and fortune, which could potentially change the magazine forever.

With a 10-person cast, many of the actors successfully played multiple characters without confusing the audience. The brick walls and wooden stage created a comfortable atmosphere where the audience could laugh and emotionally connect with thousands of untold stories in the notes.

With the simple plot of a young man needing to venture out into the world before he realizes the girl back home and his old life was what he wanted all along — this play would appear to be very unoriginal. However, this play proves to be unique and entertaining by having this very basic story line propelled by interweaving the original notes published in Found into the script. The notes are used as the inner thoughts of characters or as side commentary on the scene that is unfolding. Sometimes, entire songs will be composed of a single note. For instance, while on tour, Davy sings the song “Pi Shop” — a note that is written by a mathlete and his friends about the wonders of Pi. Or even the heartbreaking love song, “Barf Bag Breakup,” which is based off of a note that was written on the back of a white paper barf bag. The use of notes to reveal inner thoughts, commentary and songs creates a connection between the audience, making them relate to the messages on the notes and think about all the thoughts they never wrote down. 

The connection between the audience and the notes could not have been successful without the use of projection. With various handwritings, crossed-out mistakes and irregular spelling, projection designer Darrel Maloney creates a visual representation of the notes that are found and displays them for the entire audience. These notes, projected on the walls of the set, create a realistic image of what these notes might look like when they were found.

Although the pop-rock music songs were catchy and enjoyable, they were often times overshadowed by the bizarre and heartfelt notes that the audience sees and hears. Although the playwrights go off on tangents with additional songs that do not add to the story arch or create scenes that reenact why a note was written, these tangents bring more laughs to the entire show. 

So maybe the next time you walk down the block and see a crumbled up note, read it, and see what story you find within the mystery of someone else’s thoughts. 

Found ran through Nov. 9 at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th St.). For more information, visit http://atlantictheater.org/playevents/found/.

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What Would You Do For Sex?

In hopes to bring humanity to the story of the male consumers of prostitution, Nikkole Salter’s play Carnaval focuses on thee African-American men who travel to Rio, Brazil to honor the death of their friend. Once in Brazil, Demetrius (Bjorn DuPaty), Jalani (W. Tre’ Davis), and Raheem Monroe (Gabriel Lawrence) are immediately faced with the temptation of prostitution. However, this trip goes downhill when one person in the group disregards the “rules” of Rio and lands them all in trouble.

This coming of age story with a twist combines the need to escape the stereotypes and obligations an African-American man has to his brotherhood with the undeniably timeless lesson that one’s actions do have consequences — all with the backdrop of Brazil’s sexual tourism.

While there are some big gaps in the story line (such as the development of the dead friend, Jared, and the reason for his death), the actors' flawless execution made the audience forget that there are only three men on the stage. They successfully streamline the passing of time and convince the audience that what we see is a valid timeline of what has happened on their trip to Rio.

The camcorder projections by Emre Emirgil contain only images of scenery and short clips of the men. These images complimented the world of the play by reminding the audience that this play focuses only on the bodies of these men and excludes any images of the women that are in their lives or the women that these men cross paths with in Rio. This forces the audience to only imagine women through the eyes of the men. For example, the audience is only able to imagine the female prostitutes as “Full lips. Tiny waist… white girl hair. Spanish girl skin. Black girl booty. And southern girl attitude” courtesy of Jalani’s description given on the first day the three men arrive in Brazil.

According to the playwright in the traditional discussion after every show, the play purposefully excluded women from acting in the show or using the images of female bodies in the projections in order to limit the exploitation of women within her show. Instead, we are forced to make connections with the male consumers on stage. Throughout the show, these three characters' authentic personalities make you laugh at the cultural references they use, as well as draw you in emotionally with the sob stories they share with each other. These characters are three-dimensional and fit into the 1990's time period.

By the end of the play, there is no resolution or grievance towards the prostitutes and women they exploit on a daily basis. Instead, many audience members can be left with a dread in their heart and hopeless feeling that people don’t realize the mistakes they made or what the mistake even was.

However, to help ease the pain of the soul, dramaturges Ebony Noelle Golden and Sade Lythcott create a display in the lobby of the theater which offers the historical explanation of why people within our society are so detached and nonreactive to the sexualization and objectification of Black women’s bodies in the media and within our lives. Without this display, there would be an almost unsatisfying feeling to the play.

Overall, the play successfully takes a first step at bringing awareness to sexual tourism and sheds light on how the African American community are affected by international matters. It provides sufficient insight into understanding the demand side in the “demand and supply” of sexual tourism in countries such as Brazil. 

Carnaval ran until Nov. 16 at the National Black Theatre in Harlem (2031 5th Avenue between 125th and 126th Sts.). For more information, visit www.nationalblacktheatre.org.

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Blessed Assurance (or Lack Thereof)

George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara challenges Percy Bysshe Shelley’s assertion that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." So long as governments co-exist uneasily and individuals are unable to live in harmony with those sharing the planet, suggests Shaw in his 1905 play, munitions-makers will rule the global roost.

Major Barbara, currently revived at The Pearl Theatre Company, didn't arrive on Broadway until 1915, by which time World War I was well underway in Europe. The play begins as high comedy, shifts disconcertingly to naturalism in Act Two, and concludes with a fantastical debate in which the title character (Hannah Cabell), a Salvation Army officer, and her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins (Richard Gallagher), undergo changes of heart that strain credibility to a greater extent than usual in Shaw's work. Despite its structural flaws, Major Barbara is a perpetual crowd-pleaser; this comedy-drama and its heroine may be second only to Pygmalion and its principals, Liza and Professor Higgins, as Shaw's audience favorites. 

When the last prominent New York revival of Major Barbara opened (with Cherry Jones in the lead), the towers of the original World Trade Center still drew the eye to lower Manhattan; and Americans were enjoying the benefits of an extended era of peaceful (or relatively peaceful) relations abroad. Six days before the play’s scheduled closing, the Trade Center was attacked by air and both towers were destroyed. That tragedy moved the U.S. President to declare a Global War on Terror and to sign, two days after the play's closing, the Authorization for Use of Military Force. The years since have been marked by American combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, as well as fluctuating economic conditions, with an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Shaw's concerns about poverty, privilege, war, and religion seem more urgent now than they did in the summer of 2001.

As always at the Pearl, an array of accomplished actors is on view. Dan Daily gives the evening’s most notable performance as Barbara's father, the fiendishly clever Andrew Undershaft, an armaments kingpin who believes poverty to be the world's most heinous crime. Undershaft riffs on the Republic: “Plato says … that society cannot be saved until either the Professors of Greek take to making gunpowder, or else the makers of gunpowder become Professors of Greek.” Daily is well-matched by Gallagher as the geeky Greek tutor who, against all odds, becomes Undershaft's heir both in the family and on the world's political stage.

Major Barbara is directed by David Staller, founding artistic director of the Gingold Theatrical Group which is co-producing with the Pearl. The stylish production is designed by James Noone (scenery), Tracy Christensen (costumes), Michael Gottlieb (lighting), and M. Florian Staab (sound). Six of the nine actors handle two roles (or, in one case, three), moving effectively up and down the social ladder. In a program note, Staller explains this doubling as inspired by a remark of Shaw’s that, “but for an accident of birth,” characters such as the aristocratic Lady Britomart and the middle-middle-class Mrs. Baines, the Salvation Army Commissioner (both played by Carol Schultz), or the prim, high-born Stephen Undershaft and the unemployed lout Snobby Price (played by Alec Shaw), “might have become one or the other.” Christensen’s resourceful costume designs aid the actors in shifting swiftly from one social stratum to another in plain view of the audience. It’s a dash of Brecht in an evening of Shaw.

The great Irish dramatist named his play for Barbara but, as he revised it, her father emerged as the most forceful of the dramatis personae. In the wrong hands, Undershaft can overwhelm the other characters (especially in the last scenes). Daily tempers his performance, a model of actorly restraint, so as to recalibrate the lopsided exuberance of Shaw's text and ensure balance among Undershaft, Adolphus, and Barbara in their memorable but tricky last-act trio.

Shaw called the conclusion of Major Barbara “terrible” and lamented that, despite a quarter century of post-premiere tinkering, he couldn't eliminate the flaws. In the 2001 revival, the principal actors made the final scene convincing with the emotional force of their performances. Under Staller's supervision, the Pearl's cast does justice to the wit of Major Barbara but seldom conveys the raw feeling that ought to animate the brainy talk. Without that, there's no accepting the conviction of Barbara and Adolphus that they can save the world by forsaking charity and classical learning for the armaments industry.

Major Barbara is playing through December 14 at the Pearl Theatre Co. (555 West 42nd St.). Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m.; and Thursday–Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65 for regular admission; $39 for seniors; and $20 for students and rush Thursday. For tickets, please visit pearltheatre.org or by call 212-563-9261.

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R&H Hit the Avant-Garde

When it first appeared in 1947, Allegro was clearly a departure from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earlier shows, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). Influenced by Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town (1938), Rodgers and Hammerstein intended it to be staged experimentally—without scenery and employing a Greek chorus. (Stephen Sondheim, a protégé of Hammerstein, was a gofer on Allegro, and he has attributed his willingness to experiment in his own works to the experience he had on his mentor’s show.) The simple plot—the life of a doctor from birth to age 35—seemed appropriate for a pared-down approach. But the musical flopped.

Still, Allegro is one of those fascinating footnotes that one hopes deserves another chance with the right director. John Doyle, who is at the helm of the current revival at the Classic Stage Company, employs his signature style for it—performers also play the instruments. That fits in nicely with a production that still has the choral commentary and still feels unsettlingly weird coming from the team known for their intensely romantic stories—their next show was South Pacific (1949). Doyle also cuts the show to 90 minutes with no intermission, and it helps.

The show’s major drawbacks remain, however. One is its cinematic quality: it’s a series of snapshots in the life of its hero, Joseph Taylor Jr. It begins with the grown, dressed Claybourne Elder as the infant Joe Jr. sitting next to his mother (Jessica Tyler Wright) with his head on her lap, Pietà-like. Elder manages to capture the innocence of a newborn in the lovely scene. As the book jump-cuts to further episodes in Joe’s life, the chorus comments: Joe learns to walk (in the terrific song “One Foot, Other Foot”), loses his Grandma (an affecting Alma Cuervo) and makes friends in school, notably Jenny Brinker (Elizabeth A. Davis). She is his first love, and eventually she becomes his wife, but Jenny’s father is rich, and he wants her to marry someone with a moneyed future. Though Joe idolizes Joe Sr. (Malcolm Gets) and his small-town, hands-on practice, Jenny steers Joe toward wealthy patients and the big city (Chicago).

That is the second problem. Elder, good as he is, can’t bring excitement to the meek Joe, who never really seems his own man—he’s manipulated by Jenny and others. As his loyal nurse, Emily (Jane Pfitsch), sings in the show’s best-known song, “The Gentleman Is a Dope.”

When Allegro opened, some critics read it as an attack on the wealthy. Hammerstein, who had also written the book, complained that it was being misunderstood, that it was instead a critique of the distractions of big-city life. But a show with a song titled “Money Isn’t Everything” inevitably lacks nuance. Stephen Sondheim, in his book Finishing the Hat, is savvy about the shortcomings of some of his mentor’s lyrics—notably the redundancy in the title song: “Brisk, lively, merry and bright/Allegro.” (That Hammerstein tendency to hammer away is more obvious in another song, “Ya-ta-ta”: “Broccoli, hogwash, balderdash/Phoney baloney, tripe and trash!”)

Near the end, when Joe protests his boss’s dismissal of a lifelong nurse because she has supported union activism in the hospital, the boss (Randy Redd) pays him no mind: “Ah, my boy, but there’s such a thing as discipline—loyalty! We must do many things we don’t want to do. Duty—we must be good soldiers!” It's an obvious echo of the just-concluded Nuremberg trials, where defendants had used the same excuse for their participation in torture, medical experiments, and mass murder. The blunt-force irony comes off as preachy even now, and it must have registered even more forcefully then. The didacticism of Hammerstein’s book also recalls that of Brecht, and Jane Cox’s lighting draws on German Expressionism with its harshness. Twice the lights go up on the audience for the performers to harangue us.

Still, CSC is to be commended for giving this thorny work another look. Rodgers’s music is lovely, and the actors do a fine job playing their instruments and injecting energy into the show. Doyle has paced it well, and it’s not boring. It’s like catching up with an old friend who’s just passing through—the visit may be pleasant, but the next one can wait awhile.

Evening performances for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. The musical runs through Dec. 14. Tickets start at $70 and are available at www.classicstage.org or by calling 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111, or at the box office at 136 East 13th St. (between Third and Fourth Aves.). 

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This Side of Princeton

If there can be too much of a good thing, the Prospect Theater Company’s production of the musical The Underclassman provides the evidence for it. It’s a reworking of a 2005 effort called The Pursuit of Persephone, by composer and lyricist Peter Mills and book writers Mills and Cara Reichel, that was itself an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. In what is clearly a labor of love on their part, the more favorably titled The Underclassman focuses on the college-age Fitzgerald's time at Princeton and his ill-fated romance with Ginevra King, a nationally desirable Chicago debutante.

The score is crammed with gorgeous melodies. The lyrics are sharp and rhyme as cleanly as those of any classic Broadway lyricist. Christine O'Grady's choreography is deft and appropriate. But the story—lower-class boy meets high-class girl, they fall for each other, then boy loses girl—is ultimately too thin and familiar to sustain a running time of more than two and a half hours (with intermission), even if the hero is a great American novelist, and even if one of his classmates is the future heavyweight literary critic Edmund "Bunny" Wilson (Billy Hepfinger), who can't seem to get Fitzgerald to meet a story deadline. Indeed, if Fitzgerald weren't the protagonist on the stage, one might not find as much patience for the endeavor.

Matt Dengler, a fine singer and actor, embodies Fitzgerald’s youthful energy and élan as well as the budding writer’s self-doubt and class consciousness. Jessica Grové is Ginevra, who flirts and captures the writer’s heart. Her motto is “I have to dance to beat the band.” She’s a charmer, but she’s also superficial and self-indulgent. She wants a husband who’s more than just solvent.

At Princeton, Fitzgerald wrote stories (for Wilson’s magazine) and scripts for the Triangle Club, the theater group. Several of the big numbers are Triangle shows that recall the frivolous musicals and revues of the period from the hands of P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. But the score includes a range of melodic songs, from the sinister, all-male “Black Ball,“ to the comic love duet “Let’s Don’t.”

The Underclassman introduces many characters, all of them skillfully drawn and well-acted. Piper Goodeve is Ginevra’s lovelorn best friend, Marie Hersey (aka “Bug”), who is carrying a torch for Fitzgerald and who winds up finding solace with the often romantically clueless Wilson. The Triangle Club Boys include the handsome, dashing Trip Everett (Jordan Bondurant), who merits a tragic story line; the director of the group, “Ham” Samuels, played with cheery demeanor and peppy exhortation by Jeremy Morse; and Clive Bagby, (Jason Edward Cook), an eager opportunist who wants more important parts on stage.

Still, the musical doesn’t show Fitzgerald and his rich cronies as people of much depth. He’s a romantic and, in the tired old trope, “playing the game”—although Ginevra is far better at it. Wilson is a typically stolid second banana, and the crossed amours have been seen before. If you look past the glitter, the plot—the game of love turning unexpectedly real; the lovestruck boy reaching for the stars, as it were—is less than fresh.

Perhaps that’s why Marrick Smith, as the devoted John Peale Bishop, Fitzgerald’s roommate, makes such a deep impression. J.P., whose future is poetry, struggles with leaving school and fighting in the war in Europe; he is also, possibly, a bit in love with Fitzgerald. Smith communicates depths of feeling and substance in glances and intonation throughout his performance that make his character more interesting than the main event. He points up the callowness of Fitzgerald, and he steals every scene he’s in.

Wilson finally gets a story from Fitzgerald that he can publish, and his assessment is: “It lacks structure; it lacks focus; it lacks brevity; and yet…the whole preposterous farrago is animated with life.” The Underclassman is in much better shape, though its length is unwieldy. It is splendidly sung and gorgeous to look at, but it needs trimming from a director who is not so attached to the material. The weight of the talent on display is too much for its modest shoulders to bear.

Tickets for The Underclassman are available online at Dukeon42.org or by calling (646) 223-3010. The show runs at the Duke, 229 42nd St., to Nov. 30. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday; at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 24 (a Monday) and 25. There is no evening performance on Nov. 26 or 27. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Nov. 29, and 30; there is also a 2 p.m. matinee on Tuesday, Nov. 25.

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A Lesson on Rape Culture

While circuses and clowns are amusing, rape is far from a laughing matter. In R Culture, playwright Cecilia Copeland uses the world of a circus act to invite people into a safe space to talk about our culture in relationship to rape. The show is conducted by the ringmaster played by Jennifer Harder. With the help of two clowns played by Romy Nordlinger and Rachel A. Collins, this three-women traveling circus act promises to “…dazzle you and make you uncomfortable” and sure enough they will. From bridezillas to college campuses, from strip clubs to a little girl playing with her dolls — the series of vignettes makes you question why you are laughing at these scenarios that break down and expose rape culture. At the same time, the play also makes you wonder why we are so immune to these events and images that appear in our daily lives.

The Ring Master states it best when she says that “…Our Culture IS Rape Culture!” — thus explaining the title’s double entendre: “R” relates to "our” as well as the first letter in "rape." This dark and edgy satirical play is constructed with vignettes that will make you laugh or cringe. This is due to the play containing some very crude language and jarring scenarios which are balanced with the very hilarious or serious moments. The combination of vignettes allows this three-women traveling circus act to push the entire audience into recognizing the issues in our culture and to push everyone into making social changes, or at the very least be willing to have an open discussion about it.  

One of the ways to promote the audience participation is by requesting each audience member to complete a short survey before the show begins. Remember to be honest, for the actors will use the results in the show in order to create an extra scene at the end of the performance.

In efforts to generate awareness and resources, the producers of R Culture are collaborating with organizations including Safe Horizons, Crime Victims, Treatment Center, Beth Israel Medical Center: Rape Crisis and Domestic Violence Intervention Center, and We End Violence. Representatives from these organizations will appear at facilitated discussions during designated performances.

Overall, director, producer and survivor Emily Lerer’s production of R Culture is filled with entertaining and unforgettable scenes that will cause you to think about the content of the show even after you leave the theater. Rather than another show filled with cheap laughter, R Culture ignites a necessary discussion on combating the proliferation of rape culture in society. 

R Culture runs until Nov. 23 at the IRT Theater (154 Christopher St., 3rd floor). Performances are on Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m. with an additional performance on Thursday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/844961 or www.rculturetheplay.com

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Making a Change

A play that addresses incarceration, LGBT issues, racism with the States, and gender inequality is a piece of work that does not cross your path every day, and a play that should not be ignored. Presented by the Castillo Theatre, Accept "Except" LGBT NY has been performed in New York City before, but contains a timeless message that still applies to our society today. 

Written in 2013, Accept "Except" LGBT NY is the second rendition of Karimah’s series Accept "Except." The original rendition featured two male fugitives who cross paths in a tree. Their stories address the high juvenile incarceration rates and the effects incarceration has on families and communities. The play was written in response to the 13th Amendment which reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” After the creation of the original play, various renditions were created — such as Accept “Except” LGBT NY, Accept "Except" LGBT Philly, Accept "Except" Male Nashville, and Accept "Except" Male Detroit

Although all the plays are related to the 13th Amendment and address similar issues, what differentiates Accept “Except” LGBT NY from any other renditions is that it focuses on a very specific demographic of being black and queer in New York. Directed by Tony-Award winner George Faison, Accept “Except” LGBT NY features two queer people, Sirus — a gay man from the plantations during the 1700s, and Mike — a lesbian woman from the 21st century penitentiary. As a result of the racism and homophobia in our culture, being black and queer does not make life easy for these two characters, no matter what time period they live in. In addition, these characters are fugitives who constantly must hide from hate crimes in order to survive. Despite the specificity, because of the play's dynamic, the issues that these characters address also highlight the universal problem of longing for acceptance.

Mike phrases it best when she states ““I don’t want to change people. I just want them to accept that they can’t change me.” This moment highlights one of many moments in which these two characters realize that despite their differences, they both are human. They both have been surviving in society rather than living. However, there comes a point where a person has to stop hiding and “come out” in order to make a change.

This idea is reinforced in the discussion after the performance. It becomes clear that the play is a vehicle to address societal issues in a safe environment. Questions ranging from “How can the past help influence our future?” to “Who is actually free in our society and who is still imprisoned within the societal structures?” can be thrown around, forcing the audience to look within themselves and reflect on their own lives.

So as Sirus asked Mike, I am going to ask you…“What are you doing to help make a change?”

Accept “Except” LGBT NY runs until Nov. 23 at the Castillo Theatre (543 West 42nd St.). Performances are on Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered by phone at 212-353-1176 or www.newfederaltheatre.com. 

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Souls in Exile

Set in a dilapidated summer cabin in upstate New York, David Auburn’s engaging new play, Lost Lake, focuses on two people who might otherwise never have shared a stage. Yet Auburn, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Proof, develops a relationship between them that’s both believable and compelling. The result is a personal drama that resonates politically as well. 

Veronica (Tracie Thoms) is a young black mother from New York City who, in the first scene, is negotiating the rent of a cabin for a week toward the end of summer. It’s March now, and Veronica has taken a bus to the cabin to inspect it personally and negotiate with the ostensible owner, Terry Hogan (John Hawkes). Hogan, shambling and pigeon-toed, is gregarious and optimistic but at times uncomfortably pushy, overselling the cabin (nicely detailed by J. Michael Griggs, with a broad upstage window and shabby plaid furniture). Yet Hogan also knows when he’s pushed too hard and needs to change the subject. But Veronica is no pushover, and Thoms invests her with the confidence and street smarts that make her unafraid to deal with Hogan. 

When the summer week arrives, so does friction. Hogan hasn’t fixed the dock as he’d promised, and it’s rickety and dangerous for the children. He promised an extra bed; it’s not there. Worst, there’s no hot water. It’s a nightmare rental for Veronica, but Hogan tries to sell the bright side: “The kids are having a good time, right?” They bicker, and Auburn keeps one guessing where it’s all going. Daniel Sullivan’s superb production will make you want to stay along for the ride. 

Sullivan deftly brings out the despair of these two lost souls. Their mistakes resonate with questions for the viewer. Is it possible to make a terrible mistake in one’s life and never be able to recover? Is there no chance for redemption? Hogan, it turns out, has a daughter from whom he is estranged, and a long record of failure. Veronica has a job that’s in jeopardy because of a mistake she has made, and is probably at the beginning of her decline. Auburn peels back layer after layer of their woes with astute dramatic timing. They are likable, flawed people trapped in limbo by their mistakes. The lake, a symbol of a carefree, pleasure-filled life, has been lost to them, perhaps forever.

It’s not all gloom. Hogan, slippery though he is, tries not to dwell on his misfortunes. Rather, he attempts to put a positive spin on Veronica’s troubles. No hot water? “I really don’t see how a few days of cold showers, which is good for the circulation by the way—you’re a nurse, you should know that—could be worth—how much did you say you wanted?” Hawkes delivers those lines with a brilliant balance of supplication and gall. Veronica has refused to pay the last installment of three days’ rent, but, Hogan argues, she hasn’t paid the installment so the water's being cold those first three days is immaterial. 
 
There’s humor, too, in Hogan’s rants against his sister-in-law, Debbie, who, he claims, wants to squeeze him out of ownership of the cabin. Meanwhile, Thoms has a scene of physical comedy when she tries to get a cellphone signal. She holds up the cell; waves it; climbs on the window seats and stretches her arm up high. But the scene is also a physicalization of the characters’ predicament. Veronica and Hogan are literally out of touch with everyone else.
 
The homeowners’ organization, which represents lake residents but also, more broadly, society, wants Hogan out of their midst, isolated though he is already. And it’s unclear whether his good intentions led him to overextend himself by taking on the job of repairing the dock or whether he was a chump that the association took advantage of. But repairing the dock—and his life—is beyond his ability. 
 
Hawkes, with his squinched, angular face, changes moods and emotions like a chameleon. Thoms has the more sympathetic role, and she handles herself admirably, restraining herself when she might justifiably explode, always trying to argue rationally, and becoming by turns exasperated and sympathetic. Lost Lake is a poignant portrait of America’s fringes, where an unforgiving society exiles its sinners.
 
Manhattan Theater Club presents Lost Lake through Dec. 21, with performance times varying week by week. Tickets and information are available by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212, online by visiting www.nycitycenter.org, or by visiting the box office at New York City Center, 131 West 55th St.

 

 

 

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Naturalism with a Southern Twang

One of August Strindberg’s most famous plays, Miss Julie, has been widely produced and adapted around the world.  Recently, August Strindberg Repertory Theatre has kept the play in the year 1888, but relocated it from a farmhouse in Sweden to a plantation house in antebellum Louisiana.  Also, this version of Miss Julie takes place on the bacchanalian occasion of Mardis Gras.  Edgar Chisholm’s adaptation of language in the script makes this production’s geographical relocation work well, as does the costume design by Marisa Ferrara.  On the other hand, some of the confusing directorial and acting decisions pull this production in another, more discordant, direction.

There are several key visual moments emblematic of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and this production’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it highlights them all without being fussy or contrived.  In fact, director Robert Greer subtly seems to slow down time with the boot-kissing scene; the image of John (played by Reginald L. Wilson) slowly pressing his lips to the extended boot of Julie (played by Ivette Dumeng) is both erotic and disturbing.  Other well-done iconic moments are the placement of the master’s boots and coat prominently so that they oppressively loom with his presence from slightly upstage, and John’s beheading of Julie’s bird at the end of the play.  With these moments in mind, it is clear that both director and production team have done their homework, and they succeed in capturing Strindberg’s quintessential staging moments without overdoing them.

On the other hand, there is one moment that is less popular in the production history of Miss Julie: the interim ballet.  According to Strinberg’s original stage directions, this strange interlude involves a parade of peasants that pours into the kitchen while John and Julie abscond into his room to have sex.  Meant to evoke and eclipse the main characters’ illicit sex act, this weird sequence is often eschewed by contemporary directors who seek to maintain the play’s naturalistic core.  Strindberg Rep has decided to stage the ballet, but in a contemporary fashion in a sequence choreographed by Ja’ Malik.  Rather than have a whole troupe of peasants invade the kitchen, Malik has choreographed a sexually-charged dance for two.  While dancers Alison MacDonald and Brian Binion are strong, beautiful, and talented, their choreography is much too literal.  Their sequence eventually culminates in faux-fornication atop the kitchen table. Awkward and clearly fake, this choreographic choice mostly defeats the suggestive potential of dance and robs the sequence of its mystery and eroticism.

In his preface to the play, Strindberg described the titular character in his preface to Miss Julie as a “a victim of the errors of an age, of circumstances, and of her own deficient constitution.”  While Dumeng certainly victimizes Julie as deficient and tortured, I wish that Greer had encouraged Dumeng to harness more of an internal power and tension – a tension that must be present for Julie to believably “snap” in the end.  Furthermore, the lack of tangible passion between Julie and John makes their night of passion seem contrived.  With the exception of a few too contemporary sleights of speech, Wilson nails his southern accent, but Dumeng’s accent distracts by sounding affected and inconsistent.  Eboni Flowers stands out in the small but powerful part of Christine: her physical poise and vocal conviction make Strindberg’s character truly shine.

Overall, this is a clean production in the sense that it honors and perfects Miss Julie’s classic moments.  The interim ballet is commendable in its experimental spirit, but its literalness falls short of real eroticism.  The acting is strong in moments, but the developmental arc of John and Julie’s romance needs more detailing.  For those interested in Miss Julie, its adaptations, and its history, this production is definitely worth seeing.

Miss Julie runs to November 8, 2014 at the Gene Frankel Theatre on 24 Bond Street (between Bowery and Lafayette in the East Village).  Shows are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 general admission; seniors and students $12; student groups $9. You can buy tickets by calling SMARTTIX at 212-868-4444 or at www.smarttix.com.

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Sentimental Vessel

The Last Ship, the new musical scored by Sting, has arrived on Broadway after a long gestation, including an Off-Broadway concert version at the Public Theater in 2013. The result falls into a niche of shows about the British working class and industrial strife. They include Billy Elliott, in which Margaret Thatcher is excoriated for breaking the miners’ union; A Time for Singing, a nearly forgotten, gloriously melodic 1966 musical about a Welsh miners’ strike that has just closed at the York Theatre; The Full Monty, whose unemployed steelworkers turn to stripping to survive; and The Boat Factory, a Northern Irish two-hander that visited the Brits Off Broadway series in 2013 and focused on a Belfast shipyard that had built the Titanic

John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s book for The Last Ship mingles working-class lives and hard labor with a light-headed romanticism. The story follows Gideon Fletcher, the son of an autocratic mineworker who expects that Gideon (Collin Kelly-Sordelet plays him as a teenager; Michael Esper, as an adult) will grow up in the same line of work. But Gideon wants to get away from his small town, Wallsend, a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north of England. Even after his father suffers a stroke and needs him to provide, Gideon plans an exit with his girlfriend Meg (Rachel Tucker). They talk romantic nonsense about becoming stowaways and pirates, but at the last minute she stays behind. 

Fifteen years pass, and Gideon (Esper) returns to Wallsend for his father’s funeral, with the intention of settling down with Meg. His expectation that she’ll be ready to resume their love affair is, of course, foolish. She is living with a shipyard worker, Arthur (played with a confident level-headedness by Aaron Lazar), and she has a son, Tom (Kelly-Sordelet again), who is 15, and, even to those flummoxed by math, obviously Gideon’s. 

The lyrics (also Sting’s) and book exalt the dignity of the laborers at the boatyard who are unemployed yet insist that the shipyard must  reopen. The new owner, however, intends to convert it to handling junk and salvage. “What are we men without a task to complete?” lament the proud shipbuilders, who are scraping by. They scorn the offer of retraining, seize the shipyard, and sing, “Steel in the stockyard, iron in the soul/We’ll conjure up a ship where there used to be a hole/And the ship sets sail, and the tale gets told/And the only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.” Sting was born and raised in the community, and one can feel the truth of the camaraderie and frustration in these lives.

The men plan to build one last ship, one that hasn’t been commissioned by anyone. Who’s paying for it? Father O’Brien, a parish priest (played with dry ennui by Fred Applegate), who has siphoned the money from a church building fund. “A man’s work is a sacrament,” he says. If the premise seems preposterous, it is drawn from incidents in Scotland in the 1970s and in Poland more recently, though possibly given a more romanticized spin. In spite of the working-class trappings and David Zinn’s vivid chain-link fences metal ladders, and catwalks, The Last Ship is a fable. But there are unusual elements too: religion, redemption, and grace figure in the story to a startling extent. 

Tucker’s Meg reacts to Gideon’s return as you might expect, acid at first, then softening. Lazar as the devoted, level-headed Arthur does a fine job making her choice difficult, offsetting Esper’s passion as Gideon. 

The show survives by dint of gorgeous music, even when the plot bogs down. Sting’s rich score is varied and Celtic, strong on fiddles and drones. There’s a nice comic number to launch Act II, and a first-act powerhouse one called “Dead Man’s Boots” that Gideon delivers about his father. The love ballads and wild Celtic verve are amply supplied in Joe Mantello’s superb production. And Steven Hoggett has choreographed testosterone-infused, foot-stomping dances. 

The book suffers from repetition, however. You may notice at the end of a song in the middle of Act II that you knew everything it tells you back in the middle of Act I, and wonder why the plot hasn’t moved more quickly. And the ending swells with romanticism without really solving the workers’ futures. As a piece of theater, The Last Ship is enjoyable to watch and listen to, and its message about the value and honor due to hard work is important. But whether it's completely satisfying may depend on your respect for a futile gesture.

The Last Ship plays at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St. For tickets, call 877-250-2929, or visit Ticketmaster.com.

 

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Shut Up, Sit Down, and Enjoy!

A mix between stand-up comedy show and play (it’s billed as a “plomedy”), Shut Up, Sit Down and Eat has charm, wit, laugh-out-loud humor, and a few touching, “aw”-worthy moments as well.
Four Italian Americans—three men and a woman—sit in a waiting room for a group therapy session. The only problem is, it becomes clear the shrink isn’t showing up. Instead, these four strangers trade memories and stories in their own hysterical form of therapy.

The comedy is based on a shared Italian-American experience. The three men continually bless themselves at the mention of Sinatra, bicker over the proper terminology for sauce vs. gravy, and make some off-color jokes about zeppoles. Nonetheless, non-Italians are sure to find the show wholly relatable as well, as it touches on universal themes like family, death, marriage, and sex.

The cast of four features comedians Tina Giorgi, Joe Moffa, Chris Monty, and Eric Tartaglione. These talented individuals, along with Tom Ingegno, also wrote the script. Giorgi, Moffa, Monty, and Tartaglione each bring their own style to the show, and none overshadows the others thanks to skillful directing by Eve Brandstein.

Each actor plays a character with the same name, raising the question of just how much truth lies in these vignettes. Tina Giorgi, the lone female, is fascinated by the psychological terminology in her book. Married to a Southerner, she feels utterly trapped between the two different worlds inhabited by her and her husband’s families. Giorgi delivers the most moving monologue of the production, though she is also capable of deadpanning about sperm and turkey basters at another point in the show.

The divorced Moffa recently lost his job and now must contemplate the ways of hanging himself in a basement apartment with six-foot ceilings (taping his ankles to his ass, naturally). He may be able to joke about it, but it becomes evident that he’s truly hurting—especially because of the strained relationship with his daughter, which he is at a loss to salvage.

Monty still lives at home with his parents and grandmother, but is sick of being treated like a child. He has met a girl he cares about, despite the fact that she’s Polish, so what’s stopping him from moving out and moving on with his life? Perhaps it’s the fact that his grandmother makes him great biscotti.

Tartaglione is perhaps the funniest of the four, conjuring thoughts of Danny DeVito. But, as with the rest of his castmates, Tartaglione has an impressive ability to transition seamlessly from vulgar jokes to heartfelt confessions. He is married to a woman who drives him crazy. But who isn’t driven crazy every now and then by a significant other? What really makes his performance memorable is his love for his adopted daughter, who took his last name and decided to keep it when she got engaged.

The production’s lighting subtly distinguishes the play’s action is it moves from the private thoughts of the characters to a series of individual short monologues that range from tear-jerking to gut-busting.

An intimate space lends itself to this type of show, but the sound of other productions could be heard through the Snapple Theater’s thin walls. It was an unfortunate and sometimes frustrating distraction.

Shut Up, Sit Down and Eat offers more than a few cheap mafia jokes. Audiences catch a glimpse into the relatable lives of four complex individuals—with with a countless number of hopes, fears, dreams, regrets and, most important, jokes.

Performances of Shut Up, Sit Down and Eat are Sundays at 5:15 p.m. through the end of December at the Snappple Theater Center, 1627 Broadway. The run is open-ended; tickets may be purchased here

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6 Women in Search of an Auteur

Mario Fratti’s Six Passionate Women, currently on view at Theater for the New City, concerns a creatively (and sexually) frustrated Italian filmmaker and the women from whom he seeks inspiration for his next movie. Nino (Dennis Parlato)  is a cad who aims to spark his imagination by crawling into bed with multiple partners. He’s also a pied piper, with all six passionate women of the title under his spell.

Sonia (Giulia Bisinella) is trying to seduce Nino and land a leading role in his film. The motherly Valia (Donna Vivino), like Sonia, wants to see her name in lights. Nino’s wife, Marianna (Coleen Sexton), is in denial about her husband’s transgressions, though her best friend (Laine Rettmer) tries to tip her off about Nino’s infidelity. Franca (Carlotta Brentan), Nino’s loyal assistant, has fallen in love with the boss, despite her usual levelheadedness. Then Mrs. Gunmore (Ellen Barber) arrives on the scene. A rich American widow, embittered by years of living with an unfaithful husband, she promises Nino funds to produce his film. What she really wants is to lure him into creating a film that will reveal his hatred of women. As the drama proceeds, the six passionate women band together to punish Nino for the impact he has had on their lives.

With a running time of only 90 minutes, Six Passionate Women suffers from too many plot lines, too little time. The narrative is unfocused and the characters underdeveloped. Without knowing the characters sufficiently, the audience cannot care about them. There are a number of interesting scenes in the play, but Fratti leaves crucial questions unaddressed. For example, it’s clear that Nino and Marianna have a deep love for each other, despite Nino’s inability to be satisfied by one woman. How did they meet? When did he first stray? How and why has she put up with it for so long? There is a perplexing point at which the play’s focus shifts from the women manipulating Nino to make a film about his misogyny to the women making a film about hating Nino. Adding to the confusion are the facts that Fratti never convinces his audience that Nino hates women or that any of the women other than Mrs. Gunmore believe that Nino is a bad person.

Fratti collaborated with playwright Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston on Nine, the 1983 Broadway musical adapted from Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8-1/2. Nine, which garnered seven Tony Awards, concerns a blocked filmmaker on location in Venice with a number of passionate women. Six Passionate Women reportedly served as an early inspiration or template for the musical’s libretto. If Six Passionate Women is viewed as a “draft” of the musical to come, the lack of structure and focus suddenly makes much more sense.

The play, ably directed by Stephan Morrow, is well-acted by a cast of eight. (In addition to Nino and his six women, there is another man, best friend William, played by Kevin Sebastian). The production’s lighting, costumes and set are dull and uninspired. Audiences will be charmed by the performances of Parlato and Brentan, who give the production its style and verve. But they're likely to leave the theater wishing they'd spent the evening with the passionate women of 8-1/2 or Nine.

 Six Passionate Women plays through Oct. 26 at Theater for the New City, 155 1st Ave., between 9th and 10th streets. Tickets can be purchased here.

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Surrounded by Aching Hearts

Dating in New York City has often been represented in situation and romantic comedies, from On the Town to First Date the Musical, and on TV shows like Sex and the City. In fact, the neuroses and eccentricities of New York singles have provided inexhaustible fodder for playwrights and screenwriters.

Add to this mix director Michael Counts’s immersive theater experience, Play/Date, a collection of 22 one-act plays about the dating scene in the Big Apple. The plays—which stage hookups, breakups, and everything in between—take place simultaneously in an actual nightclub, Fat Baby, on the Lower East Side. This production’s greatest strengths lie in its design: the stimulating lighting by Ryan O'Gara and Marcello Añez’s sexy soundtrack, along with Counts’s staging, create an experience that surrounds the audience. The production’s weakness, however, is an overall inability to convey many honest or original messages about the trials and tribulations of dating in New York City.

Just as any other night at Fat Baby, audience members must wait behind velvet ropes before entering Play/Date. Though the interior of the club is emptier than it would be on a regular night, the rave lights are on, and the bar is open. But the bar is only one of the spaces where these solo and small-cast one-acts take place: various concurrent scenes take place at the tables upstairs, on the dance floor, and in dark enclaves around the club. There is even a series of projections, in which the texts of a character on a cellphone are displayed on the wall behind them.

For the most part, the simultaneity and technique of the short plays are managed impressively well, though there are some moments when it is hard to hear performers. As with many immersive productions, audience members are generally able to roam about and watch any scenario they like; these free-form periods are interspersed with moments when the action comes together in choreographed spectacle. As the plays progress, characters and audience become progressively drunker—for the performers, this means the usual fights, along with regrettable phone calls and lurid meet-ups in bathroom stalls. Because of these simultaneous storylines, one will find it impossible to see everything that Play/Date has to offer in just one visit.

While the physical space of the nightclub is thrilling to explore, and the ensemble is talented and committed, the plays that I encountered do not really say anything new or different about New York City dating. Overall, they mostly redistribute the tired narratives that are already prevalent in television, movies, and theater. Many of the plays overreach in their commentary on technology and its insipid ubiquity through dating websites, social media, and smartphones.  

Although there are some unexpected moments involving hand puppets, alien conspiracy, and a random shirtless woman, they are overshadowed by the production's sexiness, reading ultimately as trite rather than meaningful. Overall, there is something more generous to be said about dating in this crazy city, something that these plays are too short and too scattered to capture. Play/Date is worth seeing for its production elements and site-specific location, but do not expect to walk away with an especially nuanced understanding of the New York City dating experience.

Show times for Play/Date are Sunday through Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Fat Baby (112 Rivington St., between Essex and Ludlow streets, on the Lower East Side). Tickets start at $55 for general admission; reserved tables are $75. The new $95 "Friends with Benefits" ticket option includes reserved priority table seating with waiter service, plus an opportunity to fully interact with the performers in specially created scenes that take place at the table. Tickets are available by calling Ovationtix at 866-811-4111 or visiting www.playdateny.com.

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Romance in a Wired World

The playful title Signal Failure refers, on the one hand, to a subway signal and, on the other, to signals between Brian and Lorna, a young couple who connect through their dogged observations of people in the London Underground, aka the "Tube" (they’re British and the show comes from the Edinburgh Festival), and then face some bumpy times.

Structured as a series of monologues, sometimes interlocking, from two lonely people, and then eventually incorporating scenes between them, as they connect for sex and their common interest, Signal Failure relies for its charm and romanticism on the immense charm of its two stars. Sasha Ellen, who plays Lorna with a matter-of-fact optimism and a touch of daffiness, also wrote the piece. Her opposite, Spenser Cowan, plays Brian, who begins their story, relating his hobby of watching men and women on the Tube.

“There’s a bloke sitting opposite me. About my age,” says Brian. “In a suit that makes him look small. Scruffy. He majorly oversteps the initial 10-second window. Not just that, but he does it with a girl I wouldn’t even open that window with. She stares intently at her iPad but stops moving her hand. She’s frozen but she doesn’t look up.” She knows she’s being watched, of course.

Brian’s hobby eventually becomes more dogged, as he follows the couples he sees connecting on the Tube, noticing when they leave together and whether they are wearing the same clothing on the following day. “I create a basic structure and watch my stats improve,” he says. It turns out that his own life is empty, through no fault of his own, and he is just trying to fill it.

One day, though, while reading the newspaper, “I find a column with what seems to be personal ads. But when I look closer is actually people texting in about other people they’ve seen on the train. People they’ve liked the look of. Asking them to get in touch. Like an Underground dating agency in a newspaper column. Each text smacks of hope desperation. Most of the messages are generic. ‘To the pretty girl who smiled at me in a crowded carriage’ kind of messages.”

For her part, Lorna becomes clued in to the ads when she tries to comfort a friend, Maddy. “She tells me that she read something that she was convinced was for her. She hands me the newspaper, folded open on a page towards the back. I don’t get it at first but then it clicks. All these people writing in to the paper. Trying to get in touch with someone they glimpsed on the train. It’s quite a cool idea in theory. I try to talk to Maddy, but she’s distraught and I’m a stranger. She wipes her eyes and leaves. I sit in the bathroom for a bit and read the other posts. They are pretty varied in sincerity and tone. Ranging from ‘Yo 2 da curvy blond’ to ‘I believe we are meant to be together.’ ”

Eventually Brian and Lorna meet and sort of click. They make rookie mistakes. Some of the best scenes are these lurching, nuanced ones as they both hang in for the long haul to happiness. As with all romance, eventually their lonely and unhappy pasts trickle out and cause problems. They’re a bit contrived, but the actors are persuasive. (It’s a wonder that Ellen’s first-date description of beams of light shooting out of her pelvis doesn’t scare him off.)

Although the drama is low-key, director Peter Darney keeps the focus on the remarkable chemistry between his actors. (The only set elements are two large wooden cubes and a platform that become table or bed.) Ellen and Cowan are endearing as they stumblingly come together. There’s playfulness from Lorna as she sends a near-naked Brian out to the kitchen as a signal to her roommates that she’s successfully had a night of passion. Meanwhile, a variety of emotions play on Brian’s face the morning after; and when he says, “I will call you, maybe,” it’s with an amusing ambivalence; he’s trying not to be vulnerable. Should he see this girl again or not?

Although Signal Failure may feel small, it carries the weight of truth and serves as an enjoyable calling card for two talented actors you’ll want to see again.

Signal Failure plays at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., through Nov. 16. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (with no performance on Nov. 6). Matinees are 3 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday, and 5 p.m. on Saturdays. For tickets, visit www.sohoplayhouse.com.

 

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