It’s almost three decades since Richard Greenberg distinguished himself as the baby boomers’ Philip Barry. For audiences of the late 1980s, the dialogue of Greenberg’s breakout comedy Eastern Standard was as racy and iconoclastic as The Philadelphia Story had been to playgoers in the late 1930s; and the frolicsome plot and screwball characters had a joie de vivre reminiscent of Barry’s Holiday. At a moment when the Great White Way was being colonized by super-sized, techno-heavy musical productions imported from afar, Eastern Standard appeared to be reclaiming the New York Theater District for native wit and homegrown perspectives.
He was a jack of all trades artistic and master of them all. Trendsetter and admired cultural icon, Noel Coward was a British actor, playwright, dancer, composer and lyricist of songs, musicals and operettas, screenwriter and director, painter, novelist, and diarist, whose style, rapier wit, and intellect dominated the worlds of British theater and entertainment throughout the 1930’s, ’40s, and ’50s. Coward is the larger-than-life subject of Simon Green and David Shrubsole’s intimate evening Life Is for Living: Conversations with Coward at 59E59 Theaters. The presentation, the newest in a series of this British team’s collaborations devoted to Coward, uses Coward’s songs with excerpts from his diaries, verse, and letters, to offer us a glimpse into the breadth, artistry, life, and wit of the Master.
Star wattage backed up by first-rate acting gives Sam Gold’s production of Othello a must-see status. Indeed, one suspects that without the celebrity power, Shakespeare’s rarely staged tragedy might have taken even longer to reappear on the boards. (John Douglas Thompson gave a superb interpretation in a traditional production back in 2009, although there is currently a rap version, Othello: The Remix, playing in midtown.)
The title of Stan Richardson’s play Private Manning Goes to Washington suggests that this fictionalized drama is about the life and trials of whistleblower and transgender woman Chelsea Manning. Instead, Manning’s case is used as a jumping-off point for the parallel case of Aaron Swartz (Matt Steiner), a freedom of information activist and Internet prodigy. As the story unfolds, it quickly becomes evident that Manning’s imprisonment acts as a spark for Swartz to get his childhood neighbor, Billy (E. James Ford), to help him write a play about Manning.
Dan LeFranc’s Rancho Viejo, like his excellent 2012 play The Big Meal, echoes with cosmic significance. The Big Meal was life itself; in Rancho Viejo the subject is more difficult to discern, but it seems to be the way assimilation into a society comes about and the obstacles therein. The title is the name of a residential community that exists in Dane Laffrey’s set as one beige, minimalist, Southern California living room, with floor-length windows upstage looking onto a garden path, no matter which of several homes the action cycles through. The viejo—Spanish for “old”—applies to all but one of the characters, who are firmly in middle age.
Pia Scala-Zankel’s 2014 play Street Children captures a small slice of life for gay and transgender kids on the streets, and features an ensemble of transgender, queer and gender-fluid actors. Set in the late 1980s around the West Side piers on the outskirts of the West Village, sex is currency in their milieu. When Jamie, played skillfully by Eve Lindley, arrives for the first time at the piers, her nose has been bloodied by a trick gone bad. She’s 17 and unschooled in this world yet she has nowhere else to go. Like all the kids who arrive here, she has been rejected by her family and society at large.
Such iconic sound bites have infiltrated our collective consciousness, making The Wizard of Oz one of the most beloved feature films in cinematic history. The Builders Association—one of New York’s beloved downtown theater companies—brings to theatrical life the immense web of cultural references to Oz in its latest postmodern performance, entitled Elements of Oz. Using a truly innovative format, the company combines film, theater and an interactive phone app to produce a performance that is both technologically astounding and culturally nostalgic.
Signature Theatre, known for year-long retrospectives of the careers of living playwrights, is offering a sensory rich revival of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead by Suzan-Lori Parks. This 1990 work from the writer whose Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 exists at the crossroads of theater and lyric poetry.
This Day Forward continues playwright Nicky Silver’s meditation on parent-child relationships that he made a success of with The Lyons. His caustic new play focuses on the damage that parents can inflict on children—it’s a broad canvas of emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse, distilled into two acts set a generation apart.
As one of Shakespeare’s most famed tragedies, Othello has seen quite a number of adaptations over the years. The artistic duo Q Brothers take their stab at adapting this timeless play with Othello: The Remix, which discards Shakespeare’s original iambic pentameter in favor of modern rhyme set to rap music. In the spirit of Hamilton and other sung-through and hip-hop-infused musicals, Othello: The Remix is 80 minutes of fast-paced lyricism—spun live by cast member DJ Supernova and with hardly a breath in between. While there are a few questionable production choices, the massive amount of creative energy and impressive talent on display in Othello: The Remix make it hard to resist.
The musical Sweet Charity has good bloodlines—book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse—yet the 1966 show has never occupied the top tier of musicals, such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof or Gypsy. It has hardly languished in obscurity—there was a decent Broadway revival in 2005—but the New Group production directed by Leigh Silverman is such a persuasive delight that you may come away thinking it is top-tier after all. The production benefits from a terrific performance by Sutton Foster, a two-time Tony winner (and star of TV Land channel’s popular series Younger) in the title role. Foster is better known for big-budget Broadway shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, but it’s a thrill to see her work magic in close quarters.
There is much to laugh about in Theatre for a New Audience’s (TFANA) production of Carlo Goldoni's raucously entertaining farce The Servant of Two Masters, and boy, do we laugh. Every formula for comedy is either turned on its head or played to its full predictive hilarity. And when the unpredictable moments happen—this archetype of commedia dell'arte requires a fair amount of improvisation and ad-libbing—the risk of going off-script is richly rewarded. Sobering allusions to our current political theater, and maniacally incoherent strings of dialogue chock-full of anachronism, are rendered tolerable and even enjoyable under the guise of farce. Goldoni's capering plot still holds considerable sway over modern theater: Richard Bean's adaptation of this play, One Man, Two Guvnors, was acclaimed on Broadway in 2012 and made a star of James Corden. The genre possesses enough to buoy the weary theatergoer: ostentation, levity and music. But even endless entertainment has its limits, and Goldoni's 1746 story of cross-dressing sisters and miserly fathers hangs by a silken thread.
Every now and then a theatrical experience comes around that breaks the mold. It’s no simple task to categorize Gideon Irving’s performance piece running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Part musical, part stand-up comedy, (very small) part magic act, and part intriguing night in a complete stranger’s living room, My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually is far from a one-trick pony. On the contrary, the hour-and-45-minute show is constantly surprising audience members with laughs, gasps, songs and even snacks!
Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans’ Poison, directed by Erwin Maas for Origin Theatre Company, delicately tells a story of loss, pain and grief with an unspoken complexity. This gnawing two-person play, elegantly translated in to English by Rina Vergaano, unfolds in a nondescript white room with an equally nondescript vending machine, a perfect room for waiting. As the audience arrives, actor Michael Laurence, who plays a character known only as He, is found doing just that—waiting. He is checking his phone, pacing, drawing intrigue by the slightest shake of his foot. Laurence conveys the growing stress on He’s nerves, until the light goes down and the play begins. Soon after, his character is joined by an anxious Birgit Huppuch as She, and the intricate layers of their relationship begin to reveal themselves. After having been separated, without speaking, for nine years, the couple has been brought together to discuss what is to be done about the groundwater poisoning that is seeping into the grave of their deceased young son.
Editor's note: Sweat, which opened on Broadway March 26, was reviewed in November for Offoffonline by Charles Wright. His review is reprinted here:
Lynn Nottage's Sweat is tailored for the current juncture in American political life. This dark, often humorous drama concerns eight Rust Belt factory workers grappling with effects of industrial mechanization and the transfer of blue-collar jobs to other countries, especially Mexico, where operating costs are well below those in the United States.
Dead Poets Society, a new play written by Tom Schulman, the screenwriter for the 1989 film that starred Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, is a deft, engaging stage version superbly directed by John Doyle for his first production as the artistic director of Classic Stage Company. The story, set in 1959 in a boys’ prep school, Welton Academy, follows a half dozen young men whose lives are affected by John Keating, an English professor. Keating is the kind of teacher who believably inspires his students and urges them to think for themselves rather than unquestioningly follow the rules adults have set out. In its way, Dead Poets Society is a veiled attack on the dangers of fascism that resonates particularly since the election.
Ardor, the fourth play by playwright and director Matthew Gasda, reflects an impressive literary talent. Gasda has given the actors in his new ensemble drama material that is raw, fresh, honest, poetic, deep, daring and, clearly, a joy to perform. Their conversations are at once innocent and knowing, as well as both painfully cutting and a pleasure to hear.
MJ Kaufman’s latest play, Sagittarius Ponderosa, tells the story of a young man returning home to help take care of his ailing father. The play, staged by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), begins at a Thanksgiving dinner with the young man, his father and mother, and his grandmother expressing what each is grateful for. This opening scene is telling. On one hand, it’s a precursor to many familiar stories: a young person returning home attempting to make his way in the world, and his struggle with sexuality, love, and attachment; a child taking care of an elderly parent; a wife coming to terms with the eventual death of her husband; a grandmother’s struggle with hearing issues, and, more important, her desire to see her grandchild married. Even though Kaufman sets Sagittarius Ponderosa squarely within an Asian-American family, each of these stories is universal.
It’s a turning point in American history when a candidate for President suggests, ominously, that should the election not go his way, he will not go quietly into the good night of a peaceful transition of power. Bertolt Brecht’s sprawling farce The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a piercing look at the rise of a thug and petty tyrant whose lessons will not be lost on viewers in this election season. Written in a mere three weeks in 1941, the play is Brecht’s effort to radically deflate the mystique, worship, and awe that despots typically inspire. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, viewed his creation of the myth of the Führer as his greatest achievement, an achievement that made possible Adolf Hitler’s consolidation of power even as he was curtailing civil liberties and murdering real and perceived threats to his power. Brecht’s weapon of choice: humor!
The playbill for the Red Bull production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged Coriolanus gives the time period as "Rome, 493 B.C.E. Here, now." But, under Michael Sexton’s direction, the latter prevails: military men in camouflage fatigues and dress greens, a First Citizen with a T-shirt that reads “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” and several female soldiers all declare it’s now. There’s virtually nothing identifiable from 493 B.C.E.