Arts In LA
Arts In NY archives 2016–2017
(these shows are closed)


 
Falsettos
Lincoln Center Theater at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Guillaume Tell
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two current operas—or one opera and a sort of opera—provide New York audiences with contrasting musical experiences. Technically Falsettos isn’t really an opera, even though it is sung-through with only a line or two of spoken dialogue. But it does evoke high emotions for the modern age despite it’s being close to 25 years old. The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, almost three centuries old, offers more traditional musical thrills, and at over four hours it’s quite the challenge for the non-buff, but its rousing third act is well-worth the wait.
   The new production of Falsettos for Lincoln Center Theatre isn’t that much different from the original 1992 Broadway production. Both are directed by James Lapine, who collaborated on the non-spoken book with composer-lyricist William Finn. The show is a pairing of two one-acts—March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland—both presented Off-Broadway in 1981 and 1990, respectively. They follow the chaotic domestic relations of Marvin, a gay man who bursts out of the closet, leaving his wife Trina and son Jason to move in with the younger party boy Whizzer. Trina later marries Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel and the makeshift extended family, which also includes Marvin’s lesbian friends Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, faces a crushing blow when Whizzer develops AIDS. Set decades before gay marriage, this chamber musical chronicles the painful journey of Marvin from frivolous boyhood to a messy maturity. All the male characters deal with maturity issues, hence the falsettos reference in the titles.
   Once again, Lapine moves the nearly three-hour show at a quick pace, skillfully balancing its lighter and darker elements, and Finn’s rich, complex score comes across brilliantly. The new cast, bouncing around David Rockwell’s building-block set, gives as deep performances as the originals. At first, Christian Borle is stingingly entitled as the self-centered, neurotic mess Marvin. But as his character grows in compassion, the limning becomes more shaded. Likewise, Andrew Rannells’s Whizzer branches from a shallow boy to a tragic figure. I didn’t think anyone could top Barbara Walsh’s marvelously manic Trina from the original, but Stephanie J. Block equals her dizzying confusion and desperate neediness, particularly in the hilarious “I’m Breaking Down,” Trina’s comic lament at losing her husband to another man. Brandon Uranowitz makes Mendel lovably nebbishy. Anthony Rosenthal delivers an impressive Broadway debut as the precocious adolescent Jason, and Tracie Thoms and Besty Wolfe are an adorable couple as the lesbians next door.
   This new Falsettos doesn’t provide any stunning new insights into the material, but it offers a heartfelt portrait of an unconventional family struggling to find a way to live and a glimpse at a time when such unions were beyond the pale of mainstream America (and, with our new radically conservative president, may be again).

Another Lincoln Center production also focuses on a family in crisis. Guillaume Tell, Rossini’s last opera, receives its first Metropolitan production in more than 80 years. It is probably best known for its overture, which was employed as the theme for the Lone Ranger radio and TV series. In recent weeks, the production made offstage headlines when an audience member sprinkled the ashes of his late opera-loving mentor in the orchestra pit during intermission, causing a police investigation and the cancellation of the performance. The powerful work deserves notoriety on its own rather than for these associations. Pierre Audi’s bizarre production places the 14th-century story of the archer forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head in an abstract dreamscape (George Tsypin's minimalist, weird sets feature upside-down cows and boulders). In addition to the set are kooky, distracting staging concepts. One of the strangest is having the decadent court of the tyrant Gessler got up by costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer in black leather and top hats and forcing the downtrodden townspeople to do the can-can.
   But all this eccentricity is forgotten in the climactic third act, which culminates in that famous feat of archery. Gerald Finley is a manly, heroic Tell, matched by the rumbling bass of John Relyea. John Osborn and Marina Rebeka deliver gorgeous duets and solos as the prerequisite star-crossed lovers. Opera or almost-opera, Lincoln Center delivers prime examples of both.

November 10, 2016
 
Plenty
Public Theater

Love, Love, Love
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Donmar Warehouse at the Booth Theatre

Vietgone
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward


Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber in Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two current Off-Broadway productions provide a 70-year historical overview of narcissistic British behavior and the decline of that country from envied empire to self-absorbed ruin. David Hare’s 1978 Plenty at the Public traces the crackup of the country from World War II into the 1960s through the scattered and destructive choices of its neurotic but charismatic heroine. Mike Bartlett’s 2010 Love, Love, Love at the Laura Pels in a Roundabout staging picks up where Plenty leaves off, taking us from the mod Beatles era into the 21st century. Love chronicles the tsunami-like romance of Kenneth and Sandra, a Baby-Boomer Everycouple, who destroy everything and everyone in their path and are meant to represent all of the crimes committed by their heedless generation. Both playwrights are angry at their native land and score stinging points, but Hare’s impassioned indictment retains the ring of honest dramaturgy in spite of a less-than-stellar production, while Bartlett’s heavy-handed bash has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
   Plenty holds a special place for me. The American premiere directed by the playwright at the Public’s Newman stage was one of the first plays I saw when I moved to New York in 1982. I still remember Kate Nelligan’s impassioned yet calibrated performance as the complicated Susan Traherne, shattered by her country’s postwar banality after serving as a courier in the French resistance. Romanticizing her wartime exploits, Susan stumbles through a series of unfulfilling jobs and relationships, paralleling Britain’s national identity crisis after losing its position of world dominance.
   Seeing the play in the same theater raises personal memories but also unfavorable comparisons. David Leveaux’s muted new staging seems to exist primarily as a star vehicle for Rachel Weisz, who is in love with Susan’s theatrical breakdowns and takes every opportunity for a diva display. Thus she becomes a weepy victim rather than the complex architect of her own downfall (as Hare and Nelligan saw her in the original). Instead of connecting with the character and the situation, Weisz is saying, “Look at me act!” There are physical sparks between Weisz and Corey Stoll as Brock, her diplomat husband, but no emotional connection, making his self-sacrifices hard to believe.

The limning and bonds among the cast in Love, Love, Love may be more convincing, but Bartlett’s script is less so. Like Susan, his protagonists Kenneth and Sandra are colossal egotists, wrecking lives in order to pursue their individual ends. Divided into three acts, this dark comedy follows them as they careen from a summer of free love in 1967 to suburban opulence in 1990 to retired self-indulgence in 2010. Bartlett has a way with witty, sharp jabs, but, unlike Susan, his characters are symbols of social and political positions rather than flesh and blood. (His earlier play Cock suffered from the same cardboard depictions.) Kenneth and Sandra’s selfish actions lead up to a screaming confrontation with their estranged daughter Rose. In the third act, she gets to deliver a big condemning monologue blatantly indicting her parents and their peers for all of her woes and those of her country. Though Zoe Kazan performs this speech with honest passion, we can hear the playwright talking instead of Rose.
   Bartlett pushes his creations to fit his political theses rather than letting them develop organically and consistently. Would Kenneth and Sandra, the feckless flakes of Act One, become the financially prosperous executives of Act Two? (We never do find out how either of them makes money after dropping their pseudo-hippie personae.) Would the alcoholic, unreflective Sandra of the entire play suddenly become capable of responding with self-awareness and insight to her daughter’s harangue in the show’s final minutes?
   Fortunately, Michael Mayer delivers a fast-paced, wickedly entertaining production—the on-target period sets and costumes are by Derek McLane and Susan Hilferty—and Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan give outsized, eye-catching turns as the explosive main couple.

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber play a similarly combustible duo in another British production. Like Plenty, Les Liaisons Dangereuses had a sensational New York production in the 1980s (with the sleekly serpentine Alan Rickman and the lusciously lascivious Lindsay Duncan), and this new edition from Donmar Warehouse must fight the memory of its predecessor. Many critics have given it a thumbs down, finding Josie Rourke’s less ferocious production several grades below Howard Lindsay’s elegant, intense original. More than a few scribes have also called the broodingly naturalistic Schreiber miscast as the sleekly artificial Vicomte de Valmont.
   But I thoroughly enjoyed this remounting, taking place in designer Tom Scutt's derelict museum with cast members gradually removing all the discarded art works between scenes, suggesting the decay of the pre-Revolutionary French society that Valmont and the equally malevolent Marquise de Merteuil dominate with their deadly sexual games. Schreiber is a charming cad whose tasteful veneer hides his brutal interior. Rourke takes a decidedly feminist approach to the material, staging Valmont’s carnal conquests for what they are—assaults. She almost makes us sympathize with the villainous Marquise who says to Valmont she was “born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” McTeer gives us even more cause to identify with her by providing a multilayered portrayal of this stylish viper. At first she is deliciously evil, playfully enumerating her principles of deceit with little hand gestures. But this seductive surface gives way to the needy woman underneath when Valmont genuinely falls in love with one of his conquests. McTeer drops her silky voice an octave at precisely the right moment and her small movements become clawing attempts to suppress her suppressed genuine longings for Valmont. Yes, this is a slow-starting Liaisons, but once it gets going, it burns and consumes.

Finally, the only American play I recently encountered considers the immigrant experience from a decidedly unusual angle. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at Manhattan Theatre Club chronicles the refugee journey of his South Vietnamese parents after the fall of Saigon through a broadly comic lens rather than via the usual noble, tear-jerking tropes. Rap music, ninja movies, African-American slang, and Twitter are added to mix in this crazy collage. It’s broad, tragic, funny, satiric, and serious all at once in May Adrales’s cartoonish and clear-eyed production featuring another sizzling star pair: Raymond Lee and Jennifer Ikeda.

November 3, 2016
 
Nat Turner in Jerusalem
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward

I tire of metaphor. We are talking in circles,” cries lawyer Thomas R. Gray to Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave revolt, toward the end of Nathan Alan Davis’s earnest but drawn-out play Nat Turner in Jerusalem, now at the New York Theatre Workshop. Gray could have been speaking for me. The dry work so repetitively examines the motives behind Turner’s infamous insurrection involving a small band of his followers killing more than 50 white citizens of Southampton, Va., that it feels long even at 90 intermissionless minutes.
   We are in Tuner’s prison cell the night before his execution. Gray, an itinerant lawyer, is bent on extracting from the condemned man the names and plans of similar conspirators. With the information, the financially strapped Gray can collect a fortune as well as a place in history and the goodwill of the nation. But the prisoner refuses to comply, instead preaching of hearing voices from God and attempting to make Gray understand the crushing injustice the charismatic Turner wished to correct. There are alternating scenes between Turner and his simplistic guard (played by the same actor as the lawyer) where the latter offers a more pragmatic view of events.
   There is a potentially engrossing play here. Turner and his bloody, abortive attempted revolution have been fodder for rich dramatization—including a novel by William Styron and the upcoming film Birth of a Nation. Davis’s premise is promising and rooted in a fascinating scholarly debate. Gray recorded and secured a copyright for Turner’s confession and published it, claiming it was in the rebel leader’s own words. But Gray’s accuracy has been challenged, and the play imagines what really transpired between the two men.
   There are a few chilling moments offering startling parallels to contemporary America. “Do you know what happens when white people get scared?” Gray asks Turner, sounding uncannily like a 21st-century observer commenting on police abuse of African-Americans. But Davis keeps returning to same points and dragging out the final confrontation. Megan Sandberg-Zakian attempts to inject variety into the proceedings by moving set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers’s simple platform into different positions along a strip of playing space with the audience seated arena style on either side.
   Phillip James Brannon captures the title character’s intelligence and passionate anguish, but he has been directed by Sandberg-Zakian to hit his dramatic high notes early in the evening and has nowhere to go. His final exit before the gallows has little impact since he’s been close to screaming all night. Unburdened by such heavy theatrics, Rowan Vickers delivers more shaded and complex work in his dual roles of Gray and the surprisingly sympathetic guard.

October 3, 2016
 
 Sweeney Todd and The Crucible
The Glimmerglass Festival

Fidelio
Caramoor Festival of the Arts

Reviewed by David Sheward


Zoie Reams, center, as Tituba in The Crucible
Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Opera and theater merge and meld in two offerings at this summer’s Glimmerglass Music Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 Broadway bloodbath Sweeney Todd receives a confused staging, while Robert Ward’s 1961 operatic adaptation of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s drama of the Salem witch trials, succeeds with a more straightforward production.
   It’s hard to erase the memory of Harold Prince’s elaborate original Sweeney, which evoked the horrors of the industrial revolution by setting the story of the murderous title barber and his cannibalistic companion Mrs. Lovett in a giant factory. John Doyle gave it another imaginative spin in 2005 by placing the story in a mad house and having the patients act out the gruesome tale in a grim music therapy session. In the current Glimmerglass iteration, Christopher Alden takes a leaf from Doyle’s book with a similar play-within-a-play model and the actors moving chairs around to suggest the shifting scenes. This Sweeney is situated in a 1950s rural British town hall where the locals are putting on the show after munching on Mrs. Lovett’s infamous pies.
   It’s a perfectly valid basic concept—exposing savage appetites beneath suburban primness—but Alden piles on too many distracting elements and weakens the terrifying story’s brutal impact. Halfway through the first act, Andrew Cavanaugh Holland’s appropriately tacky set flies apart and the staging gets so busy it’s hard to tell what’s going on. A male chorus member in drag as a charwoman throws a bucket of blood every time Sweeney slashes a throat. Three choristers don elaborate papier-mâché bird heads and flap their wings during “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett put on traditional Pearlie costumes of London street entertainers for the classic Act 1 climax, “A Little Priest.” All distractions from Sondheim’s gorgeously clever score.
   Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has the right rumbling tones for the bloodthirsty Sweeney, but he lacks the acting chops to convey the torment of the character’s losing his wife and daughter that drives him to such evil deeds. Conversely, Luretta Bybee displays a Cockney comic flippancy perfect for Mrs. Lovett’s cheerful amorality, but she lacks the vocal power to fully put over the complicated music. Plus, there’s little chemistry between the two leads.
   Conductor John DeMain leads a magnificent orchestra, and the chorus does particularly well in delivery and enunciation given the challenge of Sondheim’s intricate lyrics, but this Sweeney is more of a muddle than the desired horror fest.

Glimmerglass artistic director Francesca Zambello’s production of The Crucible tells its story with less fuss and more power. Ward’s complex symphony-like opera won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize and is frequently performed nationwide but rarely in New York. Perhaps that’s because the original nonmusical is put on with some frequency, including a dazzlingly innovative Broadway reinvention by Ivo van Hove just this season.
   While the Glimmerglass cast is given to a bit more melodrama than suits me—theater has more room for subtlety than opera does—this Crucible burns with a passion. Zambello and conductor Nicole Paiement mine Miller’s drama and Ward’s score for their emotional riches without unnecessary flourishes. Neil Patel’s haunting set and Mark McCullough’s spectral lighting create an atmosphere of forbidding danger where susceptible minds might well spy witches lurking. Brian Mulligan vocally and dramatically conveys the anguish of John Proctor, the conscientious farmer who defies his hysterical fellow townspeople. Jamie Barton’s Elizabeth Proctor is equally effective; the mezzo-soprano skillfully limns her conflict between martial loyalty and doubt over her husband’s motives. Ariana Wehr makes for a formidable Abigail Williams, the spiteful ringleader in a campaign of finger-pointing. There are also heart-touching moments from Helena Brown’s Rebecca Nurse, Zoie Reams’s Tituba, and Maren Weinberger’s Mary Warren.
   Jay Hunter Morris possesses a towering vocal instrument, but, as the presiding Judge Danforth, he practically twirls his mustache while sentencing innocents to the gallows. Likewise Frederick Ballentine’s Reverend Parris and Michael Weller’s Thomas Putnam come across as hissable villains rather than frightened men cowering behind superstition. But overall, Crucible produces real chills while the more overtly terrifying Sweeney raises few hairs.

Another summer arts venue, Caramoor Festival for the Arts in Katonah, N.Y., recently presented a hybrid performance: a concert of Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, with minimal staging. Most musical scholars cite the soaring love story as sonically sublime but dramaturgically weak. Of course, opera plots are notoriously short on credibility, but even by their standards, Fidelio requires a significant suspension of disbelief. The brave Leonore disguises herself as a boy named Fidelio in order to work as a guard in the prison where her husband, Florestan, is being unjustly held captive by the cruel governor Don Pizarro. To add to the bizarre plot, the head jailer’s daughter Marzelline has fallen in love with the cross-dressing heroine.
   “The script is ridiculous but the music is glorious,” said one audience member at intermission. Perhaps that’s why a concert staging is a more appropriate presentation than a full-on theatrical one. As with all opera, the music is primary over plot, and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado delivered a stunning rendition of Beethoven’s vision of transcendent love triumphing against adversity. The cast couldn’t have been better. The magnificent Elza van den Heever’s clear soprano reached heavenly heights in her dual role of Leonore and Fidelio. Paul Groves made the most of Florestan’s extended aria at the top of the second act, but this opera belongs to the soprano. Alfred Walker was darkly menacing as the governor, while Kristinn Sigmundsson as Rocco, the chief jailer and Georgia Jarman as his flirtatious daughter provided admirable comic support and sturdy vocals.

August 9, 2016
 
Troilus and Cressida
Delacorte Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

This summer’s free Shakespeare in the Park season has consisted of two of the Bard’s most difficult works for contemporary audiences. The first offering was a misfiring Taming of the Shrew, which attempted to balance the piece’s inherent sexism with an all-female cast and jiggering of the script. The second piece, the notoriously unwieldy Troilus and Cressida, is much more successful but unfortunately only has a brief run after its official opening was postponed due to the injury of a major cast member.
   Troilus and Cressida’s main problem is its sprawling storyline, split between the battlefield and the bedroom. Set during the protracted Trojan War, the title characters are a pair of Trojan lovers separated by the conflict while a battle of egos rages between the greatest fighters on the opposing sides, Achilles and Hector. Prince Troilus discovers his Cressida has been disloyal after she has been taken to the Greek side in an exchange of prisoners, and he rails against the faithlessness of women as he slaughters his enemies in combat. Meanwhile, his brother Hector, the epitome of a noble warrior, is ultimately vanquished by the conniving Greek Achilles. As craft conquers honor and fidelity is crushed, the play ends with the lecherous Pandarus, Cressida’s pimp-like uncle, succumbing to venereal disease and the cynical Thersites, a lowly Greek soldier, cleaning up the mess.

Director Daniel Sullivan overcomes the unwieldy nature of the play with a tight, modern-dress production employing Uzis rather than swords and shields. Parallels are drawn between America’s military involvements and the ancient squabble over Helen of Troy’s romantic habits. The love match between the title characters takes a back seat to literally explosive battle scenes and military intrigue.
   The army brass dominates here with the grudge match between Bill Heck’s restrained Hector and Louis Cancelmi’s blustering Achilles taking center stage. (Cancelmi took over the role during previews when David Harbour was injured.) The homoerotic undertones in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (a sprite-like Tom Pecinka) are brought out in the open, and Pandarus (the delightfully lascivious John Glover) is a barely hidden closet case. John Douglas Thompson and Edward James Hyland bring bristling authority to the Greek generals Agamemnon and Nestor. Corey Stoller plays the manipulative Ulysses as a civilian-clad State Department official with a terrifyingly calculated manner. Max Casella’s caustic Thersites and Alex Breaux’s oafish Ajax provide comic relief.
   Recent Yale graduate Andrew Burnap is a sturdy Troilus and Ismenia Mendes does her best to justify Cressida’s abrupt change of heart when she switches sides. They make a lovely couple, but the spotlight here is on the battles, emphasizing Shakespeare’s theme of the madness of war.

August 12, 2016
 
Iris
Bard Summerscape at Sosnoff Theatre, Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

Reviewed by David Sheward

Pietro Mascagni’s rarely performed 1898 opera Iris receives a magnificent production at Bard College’s annual Summerscape Festival, revealing a hidden treasure overshadowed by the composer’s politics and the similar Madama Butterfly by Mascagni’s friend and one-time roommate Giacomo Puccini. Both works share a librettist; take place in Japan, a location of exotic fascination in the late 19th century; and center on an innocent young woman who meets her end due to the careless egotism of male seducers.
   Iris preceded Butterfly and was initially received better. Mascagni’s sumptuous, lyrical score influenced Puccini, who he even borrowed the idea of a humming chorus. Mascagni’s music remains fresh and enchanting, featuring innovations such as a teacup balanced on a violin to produce an eerie tinkling sound. But Puccini’s later work featured more diva-centric arias and melodramatic moments, becoming a beloved choice of stars and audiences. Iris is more integrated and lacking in showstoppers, plus Mascagni’s enthusiastic support of Mussolini alienated European and American opera bigwigs after World War II. So this lovely gem was confined to a back shelf.
   Fortunately, director James Darrah and conductor–music director Leon Botstein have rescued the damsel from her dusty closet. Eschewing kimonos, elaborate wigs, and kabuki movement, set designers Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jay Mock and costume designer Peabody Southwell have placed the story in a surreal, dream-like world where Iris is abducted from the simple home of her blind father by the pimp Kyoto and the rich young man Osaka who is enraptured by her innocent beauty. She is taken to Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Tokyo; the sets and costumes here resemble the futuristic milieu of Fritz Lang’s sci-fi silent classic Metropolis. After rejecting Osaka’s advances, Iris jumps into the sewer and perishes as she moves toward a beam of sunlight glistening in the darkness.

Soprano Talise Trevigne delivers a shattering, soaring performance in the title role. Her clear, liquid tones and her straightforward acting avoid the tear-jerking usually associated with Butterfly. Tenor Gerard Schneider lends great variety and range to Osaka’s pleas for Iris’s favors, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams makes for a devilishly attractive, dark-hued Kyoto (the characters were symbolically named for Japanese cities.) Matthew Boehler is piteously evocative as Iris’s desperate father.
   Darrah creates numerous stunning stage pictures, supplemented by Neil Peter Jampolis’s lighting. These include the opening scenes in the heroine’s garden, featuring a stage awash in brilliant color and falling petals; Iris’s long, Alice-in-Wonderland descent into the sewer; and her final ascent on a mountain of trash toward the redeeming light. Let’s hope that the long-neglected Iris rejoins the repertoire of major opera houses, for it has glorious music and many vocal opportunities.

July 27, 2016
 
Privacy
Donmar Warehouse and the Public Theater at the Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Daniel Radcliffe
Photo by Joan Marcus

How many times have you gone to the theater and been asked to leave your phone on? This singular request occurs before the lights go down for Privacy, the new meta-play at the Public Theater, when artistic director Oskar Eustis’s gentle voice delivers a set of instructions in the manner of an airline steward, requesting that ringers are switched off, but phones left open. There’s even a huge illustrated card in the seat in front of you, just like the ones you’re supposed to read before your flight takes off, to help along the luddites. It’s an amusing beginning to an amusing evening. But the overall play is not an in-depth analysis of the ever-increasing and potentially dangerous role technology plays in our lives.
   Created by playwright James Graham and director Josie Rourke, the work was previously presented in London at the Donmar Warehouse (where Rourke is artistic director) and revised for this American premiere. The slim premise focuses on an equally slim character called The Writer (played here by Daniel Radcliffe), attempting to be more open with his emotions after a bad breakup. He goes so far as to move from Britain to New York City because we Americans are so outgoing, and also the former lover just happens to have moved there. The Writer equates letting down his guard with joining the social media revolution, and his adventures in cyberspace form the slender thread of the plot.
   This quest is really an excuse for a combination debate on issues of privacy and demonstration of tech wizardry. Graham and Rourke interviewed dozens of journalists, entrepreneurs, and politicians on the impact of digital media on our lives. Five versatile performers play the real-life commentators, acting as a 21st-century Greek chorus to the protagonist’s journey as he orders from Amazon, joins Facebook and Twitter, uses ride share apps, seeks romance through dating sites, and even channels a video image of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden reciting lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (I suppose likening the Bard’s magical isle to the unknown territory of the internet).
   The audience becomes involved as characters ask us to use our phones to snap selfies, check our ranking as Uber customers, and step on stage to play potential dates for The Writer. Onstage “Research and Digital Associate” Harry Davies and projection designer Duncan McLean create the surprising and entertaining effects. At the performance attended, I heard one woman cry out, “That’s my house,” as images of ticket buyers’ residences and their estimated worth flashed on the giant screen.

The proceedings are more fun than frightening, even when things turn somewhat sinister as the information gathered from the audience gets twisted into anti-government evidence (at the final curtain, Radcliffe requests we not give away any spoiler details). The final scenes feel more like Saturday Night Live skits—Rachel Dratch, an SNL alum, is in the company—and the desired chilling effect is lost.
   Radcliffe, one of the few child stars to grow into a respectable legit stage actor, does his best to fill in the sketchy Writer. He conveys the necessary heartbreak, but the author has created a catalyst for conversation rather than a flesh-and-blood man. The supporting cast has an easier time delivering quick observations and zingers. Dratch, Reg Rogers, Michael Countryman, Raffi Barsoumian, and De’Adre Aziza juggle personae, genders, and accents with dexterity.
   Privacy raises numerous important issues about our media-crazed, totally public world but addresses them with parlor tricks rather than with serious thought.

July 23, 2016
 
Hadestown
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward

There was a while there when it looked as if the original American musical was on the intensive-care list. Jukebox tuners, British imports, and adaptations of movies dominated. But in recent years, innovative shows such as Hamilton, Fun Home, Next to Normal, and Dear Evan Hansen have revitalized the genre both on and Off-Broadway. You can add Hadestown, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, to the roster of imaginative fare engaging younger audiences.
   Songwriter Anais Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin, who also co-developed the piece, adapt the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a folksy, down-South tall tale of love versus commerce. In the Greek legend, minstrel Orpheus follows his dead beloved Eurydice into the underworld and, with his golden voice, charms the realm’s dread lord into releasing her. In this retelling, Hades is a heartless industrialist who sings of building an immense wall around his underground factory, Hadestown, to keep poverty out. (Sound like a certain presidential candidate?) Here, Eurydice becomes a sex slave to Hades, selling her soul for the financial comfort her lover, the idealistic artist Orpheus, cannot provide.
   Mitchell and Chevron also throw in elements of the story of Persephone, the goddess of the spring, who must join her husband Hades in his subterranean stronghold for Earth’s six months of winter. Persephone is an enchanting good-time gal, spreading joy and moonshine during her stay above ground and rebelling when she must take the train to Hadestown. The two couples’ star-crossed affairs clash in a heart-wrenching conclusion. A rumbling-voiced version of the messenger god Hermes narrates, and a trio of backup singers acts as a Greek chorus of Fates.

Mitchell’s infectious score combines roots music, bluegrass, Dixieland, and pop for a heady and satisfying gumbo. Chavkin employs the same kind of intimate, environmental staging that distinguished her productions of The Royale and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
   Damon Daunno and Nabiyah Be display sweet voices as the doomed lovers, and Amber Gray is an entrancing Persephone. Chris Sullivan delivers a rowdy Hermes. Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Erica Sweany make for a sassy, close-harmony set of Fates. But the real star here is Patrick Page as the terrifying Hades. His basement-level bass shakes the foundations of the theater like an earthquake, sending shockwaves of evil charisma through the spines of every theatergoer. It’s the most electrifying portrayal of a musical villain on or Off-Broadway.

July 11, 2016
 
The Crucible
Walter Kerr Theatre

The Father
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

All is not as it appears in two recent Broadway openings. Dutch-Belgian director Ivo van Hove turns The Crucible, the oft-produced Arthur Miller witchcraft trial drama, inside out and Frank Langella takes a harrowing journey into dementia in the American premiere of French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father. Van Hove eschews a traditional, literal staging for a modern-dress allegorical setting. Zeller’s work, translated by Christopher Hampton, purposefully confounds and confuses as it re-creates the experience of losing your grip on reality, which many experience as they advance in years. Both productions can be baffling and upsetting, but they push us into dark, scary places as all effective drama should.
   This is the sixth Broadway Crucible, Miller’s 1953 indictment of rigid politic conformity, employing the hysteria of colonial Salem as an example of unthinking fear overturning common decency. It is also a great favorite of community and academic companies (I even played the Reverend Parris, the sanctimonious spiritual leader of the community, in college). But forget about the usual pilgrim hats and wooden cabins you get with most stagings. As he did in his production of Miller’s A View From the Bridge seen earlier this season, van Hove strips the play down to its essence. Unconcerned with props or period accuracy, the innovative director places the action in a drab schoolhouse (his frequent collaborator Jan Versweyveld created the imposing environment) and costumer Wojciech Dziedzic dresses the Salem residents as modern PTA members and students.
   At the time of its opening, the play was seen as a metaphor for the ruthless Communist-baiting tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, but van Hove has broadened its scope so that its message can be applied to any repressive regime in any age. He has added special effects, Tal Yarden’s frightening video designs, and a creepy, haunting score by avant-garde icon Philip Glass. The spooky turns are just frightening enough to suggest they come from within the minds of the characters who genuinely believe there are satanic forces among them. But the flying girl and shattering windows do not overwhelm the action.
   At heart this is the story of rough but basically noble John Proctor, a simple farmer who refuses to falsely confess to witchcraft in order to save his life. Reed-thin Ben Whishaw is the last person you would think of for this role, but he infuses it with a solidity and weighty moral authority belying his slender frame. Sophie Okonedo is equally moving as his wrongfully accused wife, Elizabeth. Saoirse Ronan deftly provides the counterweight of selfish ego as Abigail Williams, the girl leading the cry of demonic mischief in order to cover up her carnal longings for Proctor. Ciaran Hinds is the heavy, imposing voice of authority as Judge Danforth, while as Reverend Hale, Bill Camp ably represents the quavering conscious of those who allow evil to be done in the name of expediency. The magnificent cast also includes Tavi Gevinson’s rattled Mary Warren, Jason Butler Harner’s self-serving Reverend Parris, Brenda Wehle’s saintly Rebecca Nurse, and Tina Benko and Thomas Jay Ryan as the envious and malicious Putnams. All make this a fiery and scalding Crucible.

While The Crucible burns, The Father freezes as its central theme slowly creeps up on you. Florian Zeller’s 90-minute play is just as frightening as Miller’s work, but rather than political horror, Zeller examines the inevitable demise of the human mind. The premise is deceptively simple. Adrian, a formerly robust and domineering engineer now in his 80s, is deteriorating mentally as his put-upon daughter Anne must find a means for his care, either live-in help or a nursing home. The action is seen from Adrian’s point of view as his gradual slipping down is dramatized in a series of increasingly bizarre scenes. The furniture in Scott Pask’s elegant apartment setting constantly vanishes and reappears, different actors play the same people in Andre’s life, and flashes of light like bursting synapses illuminate blackouts in a disturbing simulation of the protagonist’s disorientation.
   We don’t know the difference between what is really happening and what is in Andre’s mind. Information is changed, rearranged, and twisted. Is Anne living in London with her new boyfriend or in Paris with her dad? Did she just bring home a chicken for dinner or is it breakfast time? Is that her husband or Andre’s doctor? We never know for sure, and neither does Andre.
   Frank Langella, who has played such towering figures as Sherlock Holmes, Sir Thomas More, Richard Nixon, King Lear, and Count Dracula, is shatteringly small-scale as Andre, clutching desperately at his disappearing dignity. His transformation from grandiose tyrant to babbling infant is full of terror and pity. Kathryn Erbe is appropriately and beautifully restrained as the eternally patient Anne. Doug Hughes’s staging is slick and smooth, but also deeply affecting as the rug is forever being pulled out from underneath the audience. It’s a harrowingly real hour and a half on usually bouncing, fun Broadway.

April 19, 2016
 
Broadway and Off-Broadway Roundup:
Bright Star, Hold on to Me Darling, Head of Passes, Ironbound, Familiar, and Dry Powder

Reviewed by David Sheward

At the top of the second act of Bright Star, the onstage bluegrass band cuts loose for a brief hootenanny, which sets the audience to clapping and hollering. Unfortunately, it’s the highlight of the show. The surrounding story and songs by comedy legend–banjo plucker Steve Martin and Grammy winner Edie Brickell offer a few sparks and smiles but not much more. The sappy plot is reportedly based on a true incident but comes across as soap-opera fodder.
   There are two timelines. In 1920s North Carolina, brainy but poor Alice Murphy has a ill-starred romance with rich boy Jimmy Ray Dobbs, resulting in a pregnancy but no marriage. Twenty years later, Alice, now a literary editor, encounters a promising young writer just back from Word War II. If you have an ounce of sense or ever read a book or seen a movie, you’ll predict how the two tales will merge before the final curtain. Director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes provide innovative flashes, Carmen Cusack makes an impressive Broadway debut as Alice, and a regiment of Main Stem veterans such as Dee Hoty, Stephen Bogardus, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Michael Mulheren, and William Youmans earn their paychecks, but Bright Star fails to shine.
   Off-Broadway another country-themed show bursts into intermittent flames. Kenneth Lonergan, one of my favorite playwrights, takes a hard look at our entertainment-obsessed culture in Hold on to Me Darling at Atlantic Theater Company. Timothy Olyphant of TV’s Justified and Deadwood is hilariously self-centered and clueless as country-western superstar Strings McCrane, who foolishly attempts to chuck his celebrity lifestyle to return to work in the feed store in his Tennessee hometown. While Bright Star drips with familiar homilies and nostalgia for honeysuckled mythos, Darling is a razor-sharp satire of American shallowness, directed with just the right combination of winking parody and hard-edged reality by Neil Pepe. Jenn Lyon delivers a slyly multilayered turn as Nancy, Strings’s biggest fan and later his avaricious wife. She shifts so subtly from innocent admirer to emotional vampire you barely notice the change.

Two more Off-Broadway attractions feature similar miraculous performances, but in works of varying merit. Phylicia Rashad perseveres through and finally conquers Head of Passes, Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s rather mawkish rewrite of the Book of Job at the Public; while Marin Ireland dazzles as a wily Polish immigrant in Martyna Majok’s clever but slightly flawed Ironbound, a co-production of Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and Women’s Project Theater. Head of Passes takes the familiar dysfunctional-family-reunion route in the first act and then veers into a tour-de-force monologue for Rashad in the second. She plays the domineering Shela, a religious matriarch whose faith is severely tested when her home and relationships are destroyed. Rashad rises above the familiar material and as does G.W. Mercier’s collapsing set.
   Majok’s Ironbound has a more inventive premise. At one grim New Jersey bus stop (Justin Townsend did the brilliantly drab set), Darja goes through 22 years and a repetitive series of dead-end jobs and romances. Loose ends are tied up a bit too neatly, and a teen hustler character is extraneous. But, like Rashad, Ireland wrestles the flawed play to the ground and beats it into submission. Her Darja is crafty, pragmatic, tough, tender, broken, and indomitable all at once.
   Danai Gurira deals with many of the same themes as Majok in Familiar at Playwrights Horizons: immigration, identity, the difficulty of sustaining relationships. The author, whose Eclipsed is currently a hit on Broadway, has a sure hand with dialogue and situation, but tends to tip a bit toward the sitcom and melodrama in this otherwise delightful comedy-drama about an Zimbabwean-American family coping with a stressful wedding and conflicts over their traditions and assimilation. Fortunately, director Rebecca Taichman and a solid cast—including Ito Aghayere, Roslyn Ruff, Tamara Tunie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor—keep the action moving at a rapid clip so that Gurira’s occasional lapses such as an absurd reaction to a family secret and, as in Ironbound, a too tidy conclusion don’t impair the overall experience.

To wrap up this roundup, we return to the Public for Dry Powder, Sarah Burgess’s witty comedy of equity funds, leveraged takeovers, and economic imperialism. It’s funny and clever, and Thomas Kail of Hamilton fame gives it a sleek staging, but Caryl Churchill covered this territory nearly 30 years ago in her Serious Money, as did Jerry Sterner in Other People’s Money. The big revelation here is that financial managers are ruthless—surprise! The four-person cast does its best with the stilted yet well-spoken characters, but Claire Danes has a particularly tough time making Jenny, the empathy-impaired numbers whiz, more than a series of nasty quips. Unlike the previously mentioned Off-Broadway productions, Dry Powder doesn’t rise above its limitations.

April 11, 2016
 
Hungry
The Public Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Political thought and reaction is sadly missing from the American stage, few of our plays or musicals reflecting our raging national conflicts. The British tend to consider social and political context in their theater, but here not so much. One of the few exceptions is Richard Nelson, whose penetrating and subtle works often provide a double focus on the private and the public. From 2010 to 2013 he wrote a series of plays for the Public Theater, featuring the same cast, about the Apple family of his native Rhinebeck, N.Y. Each work took place on a significant day and reflected how the likes of Obama, Clinton, and Romney seeped into the Apples’s troubles with death, senility, and sibling rivalry. There wasn’t much “plot” in this quartet, just the family gathering, talking about current events, reading from old books and letters, and discoursing on the state of themselves and the country at large. Through arguments, anecdotes, and revelations on life, love, and work, Nelson captured the uneasy mood of an insecure and jittery America.
   Nelson returns to this format with The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, three works compressing his perspective in one political cycle from the primaries to election night. The first play in the trio, Hungry takes place on March 4 (also opening night). The larger event is the battle for the presidency—it’s the Friday after Super Tuesday—but the Gabriels are more concerned with a memorial for son, husband, and brother Thomas, a novelist and playwright who died four months before. In the kitchen, Thomas’s third wife, Mary (a moving Maryann Plunkett), is suppressing her grief and rage as she prepares his favorite meal for the family and copes with the needy Karin (deceptively quiet Meg Gibson), Thomas’s first wife. (“There’s another wife in between, we both hate her,” Mary explains.) There’s also Thomas’s brother George (brilliantly simmering Jay O. Sanders) and sister Joyce (sarcastic Amy Warren), both struggling economically in low-paying jobs, as is Hannah (warm Lynn Hawley), George’s wife. All are concerned about elderly mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell in a sharp cameo), who is slowly losing her strength and memory.

As they discuss family difficulties, their disillusion with both political parties, and the loss of grace and elegance as exemplified by the dumbing-down of the nearby national park at the home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Gabriels become a microcosm of our unsettled society. Nelson’s writing and his direction is almost invisible. It feels as if we are listening in on private confabs, an effect enhanced by the intimate set by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West.
   The gestures are small and concise. The tone of conversation is quiet. But there are reams of subtext in those hushed tones and half-completed movements. I look forward to joining the Gabriels again for the next play, set to open in September, and listening in on our national conversation.

March 30, 2016
 
Eclipsed
Golden Theatre

Blackbird
Belasco Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Sexual exploitation is a rare subject on Broadway, but two new productions are addressing this explosive topic. Both have honorable intentions, but only one totally succeeds while the other suffers from a strained starring performance. Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is stunning in its total approach to the sensitive topic, allowing humor to mix with pathos, while the brutal impact of David Harrower’s Blackbird is lessened by Michelle Williams’s bizarre reading of a damaged child-woman.
   Eclipsed had a smashing run Off-Broadway at the Public Theater earlier this season and has moved uptown mainly on the strength of its star, Lupita Nyong’o, who gave a luminous Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years a Slave and also graces the back cover of the Playbill in a glamorous perfume ad. Ironically, she eschews the Hollywood routine as a downtrodden victim of war and sexism. But this is far from a one-woman show. The rest of the all-female cast is equally intense and moving.
   The blighted principal setting (Clint Ramos created the appropriately ragged sets and costumes) is a ruined hut in the midst of war-torn Liberia. Three women bicker, gossip, and bond as they wait to be called to sexually attend to the unseen rebel commanding officer. Taken as carnal prizes in a bloody civil conflict, they have lost their homes, families, and even their names, referring to themselves only as Wife #1, Wife #3, and The Girl. Wife #2, who appears later, has sought another avenue out of this hell by becoming a soldier. The fifth character, Rita, is a peace worker struggling to help the end the women’s degrading servitude. But Rita also has a somewhat melodramatic ulterior motive; she’s searching for her abducted daughter. Her storyline is the only extraneous element in Gurira’s otherwise well-observed script.

Nyong’o is heartbreaking as The Girl, detailing every step of her desperate attempts to escape her impossible plight, seeking to protect herself from the horrors around her. Watch as she joins Wife #2 in the army, rounding up young women like herself for the same fate. Nyong’o puts on the hard shell of a ruthless killer, but when confronted with imposing misery on others, she lets the emotional covering crack open, revealing the tender soul underneath. Saycon Sengbloh captures the wounded pride of Wife #1 who takes on the mantle of mother figure for both the wives and the commander. Zainab Busia brilliantly blusters and bristles as the warlike Wife #2 but also displays brief flashes of her buried humanity. Pascale Armand is a sparkplug of vitality as the spunky Wife #3. Akosua Busia makes of the most of the dramatic-device role of Rita.
   Eclipsed sounds like a dark devastating night in the theater, but Gurira and director Liesl Tommy have also injected plenty of leavening laughter, much of it derived from the women reading and commenting on a biography of Bill Clinton. These various elements and observations, along with Tommy’s balanced direction, make for a multilayered portrait of women swept up in a tidal wave of despair and doing their best to swim rather than sink.

Blackbird, a gut punch of a one-act, is not as richly varied. It had been presented Off-Broadway in 2007 by Manhattan Theatre Club with the same director (Joe Mantello) and lead actor (Jeff Daniels), where it gradually built to a crescendo of pain and loss. This new Broadway edition starts at a screaming pitch and has nowhere to go. Daniels plays Ray, a 50-ish office drone confronted with a ghost from his troubled past: Una, the young woman he had a “brief affair” with when she was 12. In the bland break room at the dental supply company were Ray now works (realized with grey corporate accuracy by set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt), Ray and Una replay their twisted relationship, which ended in a jail sentence for him and a dysfunctional adulthood for her.
   Mantello turns the decibel level all the way up, so the impact is not as devastating. Daniels modulates Ray’s compulsive obsession somewhat, but Williams goes way over the top from her first entrance. She delivers a studied, actress-y performance with little honesty and too much hysteria. Only during her long monologue describing the characters’ pathetic tryst are there moments of verisimilitude. Then we feel as if we are listening to a broken girl’s plea for help rather than sitting in a theater watching a movie star dine on the scenery.

March 19, 2016
 
Angel Reapers
Signature Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

In such pieces as Vienna: Lusthaus and Belle Epoque, director-choreographer Martha Clarke is not concerned with telling a story, but with evoking a specific time and place. Fusing dance and theater, Clarke creates a third, hybrid form. Movement and dialogue convey the interactions and life-blood of communities. Her Angel Reapers, featuring text by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Alfred Uhry and traditional hymns and works songs as the score, portrays the Shakers—the religious sect so called because of their erratic, uncontrolled physical vibrations during worship services. (The work is now at Signature Theatre but was previously presented in 2011 at the Joyce Theater.)
   The group’s ecstatic gyrations were probably manifestations of their repressed sexual urges. One of the tenets of this offshoot from the Quakers was celibacy. They believed married couples should live chastely as brother and sister to avoid the original sin of Adam and Eve. That explains why their numbers gradually dwindled from 6,000 Shaker villages in the mid-19th century to only one in 2016.
   Such suppressed carnality is a perfect vehicle for a dance piece, and Clarke devises fascinating moves of longing for her company of 11 actor-dancers. Bodies twist around each other and explode in rhythmic outbursts. There is a thin sliver of narrative with bits of storyline for each of the villagers. There’s the historically accurate Mother Ann Lee, the sect’s leader, who along with her brother William, sternly preaches abstinence. Brother Jabez burns for the caress of a male farmer, while the orphan Brother Valentine chafes under the enclave’s harsh restrictions. When he runs away with an equally rebellious young woman and she returns in a worldly colorful dress, the contrast with the community’s severe garb is startling. Donna Zakowska’s costumes are particularly effective here.
   Equally apt are Marsha Ginsberg’s stark meeting-house setting and Christopher Akerlind’s sun-drenched lighting. The company is intensely fluid and expressive, employing scant back history to convey three-dimensional people, especially Sally Murphy as the puritanical Mother Ann. Running at little more than an hour, Angel Reapers is a mood piece more suited for dance fans than theater aficionados who expect a more robust story with their choreography.

March 2, 2016
 
Hughie
Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

“Jesus, what a dead dump,” moans a melancholy Forest Whitaker as Erie Smith, the down-on-his-luck gambler assessing the seedy hotel he calls home in Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 one-act Hughie. Unfortunately Erie could be describing Michael Grandage’s lifeless revival, as well as Christopher Oram’s appropriately funereal set. Whitaker, an insightful and moving actor on screen in such films as The Crying Game, Bird, and The Last King of Scotland, is vague and removed, mistakenly playing a tentative character tentatively. He speaks haltingly, frequently pausing in odd places as if searching for the next line. There were published reports of his being unsteady in delivery during previews and lurking by an onstage water cooler behind which a stage manager would feed him dialogue.
   The star appears to have somewhat overcome the memorization problem, but he still hasn’t solidified a through line for his role. The brief play consists of a run-on monologue in which Erie laments the unexpected death of the hotel’s night clerk, the titular Hughie who served as Erie’s combination lucky charm and sounding board. With Hughie gone, Erie has lost his confidence, hasn’t had a big win in weeks, and is on the run from thugs out to collect his overdue losses. The only other character is the new desk jockey, an amiable cipher who occasionally responds to Erie’s ramblings and gradually takes his predecessor’s place as mascot. Like the pipe-dreaming drunks in O’Neill’s four-hour epic The Iceman Cometh, Erie dissolves into despair when faced with the bleakness of his existence. Stripped of romantic delusions of money and Broadway glamour, he fears climbing the stairs to his empty hotel room. He recovers the false joy of living when the clerk takes on the role of a “sap” to listen to his daydreams of winning big stakes at racetracks and crap games.

It’s a potentially powerful short play, but Whitaker is so shaky and insubstantial that Erie’s desperate situation seems no more important than a toothache. The marvelous character actor Frank Wood manfully tries to bring life to the clerk, but even his one flash of emotion expressing a desire to burn down the city is weirdly muted. Grandage attempts to fill the gap by inserting dramatic shifts in Neil Austin’s noirish lighting and Adam Cork’s purple original music during pauses in the action. It’s like switching channels between a Humphrey Bogart flick on TCM and live feed from a fleabag hotel. If you need the lighting designer and the composer to supply the tension, your show is in serious trouble.
   O’Neill wrote the piece as part of an unfinished series of playlets called “By Way of Obit,” focusing on characters dealing with the demise of close ones. It was not produced until after his death, in a Swedish production. Subsequent stagings have starred Jason Robards, Al Pacino, Ben Gazzara, and Brian Dennehy. The latter two wisely paired it with a second short play. Running barely more than an hour, Hughie makes for less than a full evening of theater, particularly with this limp staging and especially not at steep Broadway prices.

February 27, 2016
 
Our Mother’s Brief Affair
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Late in Richard Greenberg’s Our Mother’s Brief Affair, the luminous Linda Lavin brilliantly delivers a long, quiet monologue about a seemingly small incident from her character Anna’s past that has haunted and colored her entire life. You can hear the proverbial pin drop as Lavin carefully takes the audience into Anna’s mind and skillfully explores how her cold, narcissistic nature, sterile marriage, and arms-length relationship with her emotionally stunted adult children was informed by ignoring a tiny request from her dying sister when they were girls. (The characters first appeared in Greenberg’s Everett Beekin.) It’s a beautiful, heart-stopping moment, but it’s not enough to save an otherwise meandering, anemic work.
   You would think the collaboration between Greenberg and Lavin would have been a match made in theater heaven. Lavin has been giving individual spins to acid-tongued, withholding matriarchs in several shows—from her Tony-winning turn in Broadway Bound to the tyrannical grandmother in Hollywood Arms to the manipulative mother in The Lyons. Greenberg has written complex explorations of American families wrestling with love and identity, such as the aforementioned Everett Beekin, Three Days of Rain, The American Plan, and The Assembled Parties. By the way, this is Greenberg’s 11th collaboration with Manhattan Theatre Club.
   Greenberg is once again portraying a compelling woman in the midst of a crisis played to a sharp-edged T by Lavin. But as in many of his previous works—both stronger and weaker—too many of the characters speak as if they had swallowed dictionaries. (Anna’s daughter Abby describes New York City as having a sense of “apocalyptic intimacy.” Huh?). In addition, Greenberg spends too much time telling rather than showing.
   There is an overabundance of direct address to the audience by Anna’s son Seth, flashbacks within flashbacks, plus action-stopping explanations for an obscure historical figure. This is probably the first Broadway show with live footnotes.
   As she is lying on her deathbed—for the umpteenth time—Anna reveals to Seth and Abby that she had a short dalliance with a mysterious man while dropping off the adolescent Seth for viola lessons at Juilliard. The twist—and the footnotes—arrive at the Act One curtain when she adds the additional whammy that her clandestine lover was a heinous peripheral player in a real-life Communist spy scandal of the 1950s.

Is Anna’s liaison the truth or a product of her trashy-romance-filled imagination—and what does it say about her blighted emotional life? That’s the crux of the second act, but it’s hard to care what happens because Anna is so unpleasant and her children, both gay incidentally, are so cold and bland (neither seems to be invested in finding or keeping a relationship). As noted, Lavin delivers her customary insightful work, adding eloquent facial expressions to Greenberg’s dense dialogue, but even she cannot make up for her character’s unrelenting narcissism. Greg Keller and Kate Arrington are similarly strapped by the narrow emotional confines of Seth and Abby, but they do their best with the limited raw material. In a dual performance, the reliable John Procaccino bring some light to Anna’s lover and to her horrible husband. MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow gives the play an efficient but passionless staging.
   Santo Loquasto’s suggestive scenery and Peter Kaczorowski’s autumnal lighting sets the right tone for this ruminative memory piece, which would have worked better as a short novel, where introspection can be king, rather than as a play, where action is necessary.

January 24, 2016
 
Noises Off
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Michael Frayn’s Noises Off has turned into a reliable laugh machine. The British backstage farce premiered in London in 1982 and then transferred to a long run on Broadway the following year. A 2001 revival starring Patti LuPone also had a respectable stand. Now Noises is back for yet another New York engagement, this time from Roundabout Theater Company with an ensemble of stage vets emphasizing the human dimension of this knockabout yuk-fest. Director Jeremy Herrin, whose last New York credit was the massive, two-evening, Tudor-era historical pageant Wolf Hall, gets most of the necessary split-second timing right but also slides in a bit of character development.
   The ingenious premise consists of running the same first act of a brainless, door-slamming sex comedy called Nothing On three times. First, it’s a disastrous dress rehearsal for the show’s regional tour, financed by fading sitcom star Dotty Otley who is playing an eccentric housekeeper. This sets up the intricate action of pratfalls, misplaced props, and mistaken identities, so it takes time for the action to get going. The second act of Noises Off takes place backstage during another performance of Nothing On, when multiple offstage dalliances have ignited jealousies and frazzled nerves. Everything that can go wrong does, and the hilarity increases as the mistakes pile up. The third act of Noises Off wraps it all up with a totally horrendous rendering of the show toward the end of the tour, when all semblance of order has broken down. The joke is that farce requires exquisite blocking, and watching it fall apart can be even funnier. (Frayn got the idea for the play while watching one of his shows from the wings.)
   The missed cues and accidents are all in place, but the current director and company have added dimension to the stock characters. In the previous Broadway productions, their heinous behavior came across as mere triggers for mayhem. The director Lloyd Dallas has simultaneous affairs with the mousy stage manager Poppy and the buxom ingénue Brooke, while Dotty carries on with leading man Garry and then sets her cap for the witless supporting actor Frederick. Here the farceurs’ foibles are more honestly arrived at rather than inserted to get laughs.
  Andrea Martin’s Dotty is a self-dramatizing drama queen grabbing the attention of younger men as she clings to illusions of a grand career. Megan Hilty makes a complete fascinating character of dumb-blonde clichés as the gorgeous but empty-headed Brooke, stuck in her memorized part no matter what mishaps are happening around her. Campbell Scott delivers a narcissistic and aggravated Lloyd, desperate to escape lowbrow hijinks and sink his teeth into Shakespeare. David Furr hilariously accentuates Garry’s mental tick of not being able to complete a sentence, and Jeremy Shamos skillfully expresses Frederick’s neuroses and need for acting motivation (watch as he fondles a box of props as if it would save him from the chaos surrounding him). Tracee Chimo makes the weepy Poppy into a lonely little girl, while Rob McClure gives backstage handyman Tim a magnificently overblown case of the jitters when he is forced to go onstage. Kate Jennings Grant captures the oversolicitousness of company gossip Belinda, whose attempts to correct the madness just makes things worse. Daniel Davis is riotously forgetful as the alcoholic Selsdon, missing lines and secreting whiskey around Derek McLane’s complex set.
   Noises Off doesn’t have much on its mind other than making audiences laugh. This production does that in spades but also gives us a group of real people falling down the stairs, slamming doors, and slipping on dropped sardines, which makes the antics all the funnier.

January 17, 2016
 

 

 
Notes From the Field
Second Stage Theatre

Women of a Certain Age
Public Theater

Sweet Charity
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

The recent presidential election has shifted the subtext of two Off-Broadway plays. With the unexpected triumph of Donald Trump as president, irony has been added; and at the performances attended, the audience sighed with regret at lines that would have had a different meaning if the outcome had favored Hillary Clinton. Both plays still offer telling and sharp snapshots of America at this moment as we are balanced on a knife-edge precipice between a conflicted recent past and an uncertain future.
   The most ironic post-election moment in Notes From the Field, Anna Deavere Smith’s latest hybrid foray into journalism and theater, comes late in the evening. As Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Education Fund, Smith states in the next three years, the country will be making a major investment and, hopefully, it will be in education. After speaking those lines, the actor-playwright turned her face from the audience and paused for a few moments to dead silence. One can only imagine that with Trump headed to the White House, Smith may have been struck by the missed opportunity for a renaissance in public education, given the Donald’s statements on drastically cutting federal government funding in this area.
   It’s a heartbreaking image in a play of heartbreak. As with her earlier works, this is a collection of monologues derived from the author’s interviews with hundreds of subjects affected by the same topic, with Smith playing all the characters. She has examined the Crown Heights riots (Fires in the Mirror), the Rodney King controversy (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), the relationship between the White House and the press (House Arrest), and the American health care system (Let Me Down Easy). In Notes, she plays educators, politicians, students, and activists caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. She begins with the staggering number of high-profile incidents of fatal encounters between unarmed African-American men and the police and then moves to individual stories of the struggling public school system, revealing how the two are connected.
   Among the most striking portraits are a Latino mother going to extreme lengths to keep her kids out of trouble; a woman imprisoned as an accomplice to murder, regretting her choices but deriving joy from training dogs; and a teacher detailing the arduous work of keeping order in her classroom (“It’s like running a jail without a gun”). Each of the 17 characters comes to intense life as Smith assembles a vibrant collage of voices. Leonard Foglia provides smooth direction and transitions between the pieces while cellist Marcus Shelby elegantly accompanies and humorously interacts with Smith.

The election has an even greater impact on Richard Nelson’s Women of a Certain Age, the third and final play in his trilogy about an American family in this tumultuous year. We are once again in the Gabriel kitchen in the upstate New York town of Rhinebeck. It’s Election Day, Nov. 8, in the early evening, a few hours before the returns come in. As the Gabriels prepare a meal, they revive old hurts, face new challenges, and seek comfort as the nation is about to change. As in the earlier works in this cycle, Hungry and What Did You Expect?, politics creeps slowly into the conversation, but it underscores everything that is said in hushed tones.
   The play takes place before the ballots are finally counted, and much of the political dialogue focuses on Clinton and what her victory would be like. But the prospect of a moderate woman president instead of a fire-breathing demagogue does not brighten the Gabriels’s discourse or outlook. (The eventual outcome makes the discussion all the more shattering.) The family house must be sold; all of its members are still grieving the recent death of elder brother Thomas, a playwright; and they are facing limited employment prospects. None has faith in government no matter who runs it. Once again, Nelson’s quiet subtle direction and his Chekhovian script evoke a realistic, slightly humorous, and movingly melancholic milieu. The cast continues to excel. Maryann Plunkett’s gracious Mary; Jay O. Sanders’s befuddled, teddy-bearish George; Lynn Hawley’s feisty Hannah; Amy Warren’s wounded, passive-aggressive Joyce; and Meg Gibson’s desperately needy Karin pull at our heartstrings without tugging too hard. Most devastating of all is Roberta Maxwell’s defeated matriarch, Patricia. The fiery spirit she exhibited in the earlier plays is quenched by circumstance and bad choices. Maxwell shows us the ember of Patricia’s barely flickering personality as she attempts to make sense of a confusing new world.

The current political climate even has resonance in a revival of a seemingly frivolous musical from the late Golden Age of Broadway. Sweet Charity was conceived as a star vehicle for Gwen Verdon by her then-husband Bob Fosse in 1966. Shirley MacLaine headlined the 1969 movie versions, and subsequent Broadway productions starred Debbie Allen and Christina Applegate respectively. Cy Coleman’s peppy score and Dorothy Fields’s witty lyrics still snap, crackle, and pop despite the occasional dated reference. Neil Simon’s book transforms the heroine of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria from a soft-hearted Roman prostitute to a soft-hearted Manhattan dance-hall hostess. The position of women allowing customers to paw them as they tango together might have vanished from our culture, but the exploitation of female sexuality continues—even allegedly by the president-elect and the ousted head of Fox News. Director Leigh Silverman puts a dark, feminist spin on the musical in her intimate revival for The New Group at the Signature Center.
   The band is all female, offering an ironic slant on female objectification, and costume designer Clint Ramos has dressed Charity and her fellow not-quite sex workers in matching spangled halters and big wigs so they look alike, a chorus of overpainted dolls catering to male fantasies.
   Shining through the gloom is the luminous Sutton Foster as the heartbreaking Charity. Her sad-clown antics bring to mind the tender-toughness of Giuletta Masina (of the original Fellini work), the comedy genius of Lucille Ball, and the musical-theater pizzazz of Verdon and MacLaine. This is a performer who will do anything to illuminate her role from literally crawling all over a repulsive boyfriend to being splashed in the face with water (twice) to baring Charity’s confused and torn soul in the climactic “Where Am I Going?”
   Shuler Hensley is brilliantly neurotic as her pathetic suitor Oscar; and Joel Perez impressively quadruples as the abusive boyfriend, an Italian movie star, the scuzzy manager of the dance hall, and a flaky cult leader. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are delightfully gritty as two of Charity’s co-workers.
   At the end of the show, Charity is standing alone in Central Park with no love, no money, and no job, but she looks at the dawn and smiles with hope. Here’s to looking ahead like Charity with belief in ourselves and our national destiny.
  

November 23, 2016
 
The Cherry Orchard
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The new production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904) is pretty to look at and listen to. Scott Pask’s spare, evocative set; Michael Krass’s elegant costumes; and Donald Holder’s poetic lighting convey a delicate, ghostly world, while Nico Muhly’s tender music is sensitively played by three onstage musicians. Too bad Simon Godwin’s staging is such a hot mess. Godwin has made a reputation in Britain of modernizing classics such as Shaw’s Man and Superman (which I saw and admired in a high-definition screening), but here he has pushed the Russian masterpiece into a frenetic modern-day concept without regard to its delicate balance between comedy and tragedy.
   This is a favorite of regional and university theater because of the large variety of juicy roles. The Gayev family, their neighbors, and servants represent a broad spectrum of Russian society on the brink of cataclysmic change. No one is a complete villain, hero, or clown as the estate with the gorgeous but useless titular trees falls under the auctioneer’s gavel and then the axe. But in an effort to infuse relevance and energy in what sometimes can come across as a dusty warhorse, Godwin pushes his stellar company to mug like maniacs without establishing connections. (The jarringly contemporary adaptation by Humans playwright Stephen Karam is similarly out of whack.) With few exceptions, I had a hard time believing these people even knew each other much less that they were related or intimate friends.
   Top-billed Diane Lane looks the part of Ranevskaya, the reckless matriarch returning to her childhood home with her heart broken after the death of her son and a messy love affair in Paris. Exquisitely outfitted by Krass in flattering frocks, Lane is a stunning picture. However, she fails to go beyond surface indications. The usually reliable and realistic John Glover as her even-more-frivolous brother veers toward the buffoonish. Fashion blogger and online editor Tavi Gevinson, who keeps getting cast in Broadway shows, fails to register as the younger daughter Anya. Harold Perrineau captures the drive of former serf Lopakhin, but not the inner conflict between his affection for Ranevskaya’s family and his desire to take over their land.
   In the plus column, there is Joel Grey playing the befuddled servant Firs as a distracted pixie, Celia Keenan-Bolger subtly conveying the frustrations of eldest daughter Varya, and Chuck Cooper lovably carousing as a bull-in-china-shop family friend.

In spite of these bright spots, there are too many wrong notes to make the evening complete. The bumbling clerk Yepikhodov plods into the third act soiree—now an overdone costume party—in a turkey outfit (a little too on-the-nose). The vagrant wandering through the estate in Act 2 is now a threatening drunk quoting from Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty inscription (not in the original, and another too obvious choice).
   The only sequence that really works is the wistful fourth act, in which the dispossessed must leave the deserted and doomed house. Though Godwin has chosen to have them distractingly switch from period clothes to 2016 fashions—perhaps to demonstrate they are entering the modern world?—a genuine sense of loss and tragic missed opportunities is conveyed. But a strong final 20 minutes does not save this Orchard from an over-pruning director.

October 20, 2016
 
What Did You Expect?
The Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Once again playwright Richard Nelson mixes politics and cooking for a rich feast of thought in What Did You Expect?, his second play in the series The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, at the Public Theater. Like his Apple Family plays presented from 2010 to 2013, this new trilogy focuses on a middle-class clan in Rhinebeck, N.Y., as they discuss their own economic and emotional crises, which reflect the tumultuous state of the nation at large. Each play takes place during a single significant day in the 2016 election cycle. The first piece, Hungry, was set on March 4, the Friday after the Super Tuesday primaries. The current work takes place on Sept. 16 (also opening night), the Friday before the first debate between the major party candidates. The third, Women of a Certain Age , will open on Election Day.
   Once again we are in the family kitchen and a meal is being prepared. But this time, instead of dinner for themselves, the characters are fixing an elaborate picnic for a potential rich client of brother George, a carpenter desperate for employment. All of the Gabriels are on financial and psychological edge, just as their countrymen are spooked by a hysterical national election between two equally mistrusted candidates (“Everybody’s scared,” George’s wife Hannah remarks).
   George and Hannah have recently sent their son to college while George’s elderly mother Patricia has fallen victim to a cash-advance scheme. To raise funds, they are selling the beloved family piano. Meanwhile, memories are dredged up as the papers of Thomas, George’s recently deceased brother, a playwright, are gone through by Karin and Mary, Thomas’s first and third wives, both now living in the family house. They are seeking anything of literary value that can be sold.

Like the confused aristocrats of The Cherry Orchard, the Gabriels are bewildered by the shifts in their circumstances and have somewhat contributed to letting their security slip away. “What did you expect?” asks George’s cynical sister Joyce. Mary’s license to practice medicine has expired. Patricia’s rent for her retirement home has gone unpaid for months. They are equally flummoxed by the country’s political dialogue (or lack thereof) and the news media. “Everyone is screaming at each other,” says Hannah of the state of election coverage. References to America’s forgotten literary heritage provide ironic commentary on its shallow present. The picnic they are preparing for is meant to re-create a famous outing whose participants included Hawthorne and Melville, but it’s being planned by George’s possible patron, who is portrayed as frivolously wasting his wealth.
   Directed with understatement by Nelson, the tightlyknit company is so natural it feels as if we are eavesdropping on private conversation rather than sitting in a theater. The verisimilitude is so deep you can almost feel the weight of the family’s sadness as their scratched but cherished piano is sold. Jay O. Sanders captures George’s baffled but earnest struggle to stay afloat amid economic squalls, while Lynn Hawley conveys Hannah’s starchier pragmatism. Maryann Plunkett continues to astonish as the bereaved Mary, nursing her widow’s sorrow and soldiering on, while Meg Gibson’s Karin hovers on the edges of the action, seeking a way into the family. Roberta Maxwell skillfully portrays Patricia’s helplessness and the shadow of her previous strength. Amy Warren’s Joyce balances anger with wry observations.
   All of Nelson’s Apple and Gabriel plays have captured frightening and real moments in America’s national dysfunctional family drama. The politics are never forced, the dialogue is always lifelike. Unspeakably moving in its intimacy and poignant sense of loss, What Did You Expect? is my favorite so far.

September 23, 2016
 
The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theatre

The Total Bent
Public Theater

Himself and Nora
Minetta Lane Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

With its celebration of Elizabethan-era sexism, The Taming of the Shrew has always been a challenging production for modern audiences. In bringing the rebellious Katherina to heel, the chauvinistic Petruchio employs starvation, abuse, and possibly even rape, and is rewarded with an obedient spouse and riches from his father-in-law who essentially sells the contentious bride to be rid of her. Most contemporary stagings sidestep the work’s essential misogyny and concentrate on the comic elements, but the current Shakespeare in the Park edition faces it head on in a radical interpretation featuring an all-female cast staged by a female director. The intentions may be honorable, but the results are mixed at best.
   Stager Phyllida Lloyd shifts the action from 16th-century Italy to a weird American circus where a beauty contest is taking place. The unseen emcee sounds suspiciously like a certain presidential candidate who ran the Miss USA pageant. The ironic concept of male objectification and oppression being portrayed by cross-dressing women is intriguing but feels imposed on the text as the beauty pageant scenes are tacked onto the rough-and-tumble courtship between the contentious leads. In another awkward sequence, Judy Gold who plays Gremio, one of the unsuccessful suitors of Katherina’s sweeter sister Bianca, drops her Shakespearean character and launches into a contemporary standup routine decrying the advancement of women and longing for the good old days when tired businessmen would come home from work to a submissive wife and dinner on the table. Gold, a veteran comic, delivers the monologue with expert timing and gets her laughs, but it’s as if she and director Lloyd were hitting us over the head with a feminist cudgel. “See, look how terrible these sexist pigs are,” they seem to be saying.
   Despite the directorial overkill, Lloyd knows how to keep a show moving: With numerous cuts and no intermission, this is a rapid Shrew at only two breathless hours. Plus, there are performances to cheer. Janet McTeer is irresistibly infectious as a macho Petruchio, mocking the masculine posture by exaggerating his swagger, but she does not make him a cardboard bully. Cush Jumbo’s Kate is spirited and fiery, but she fails to make sense of the heroine’s final conversion to domesticity or the frantic denouement imposed by Lloyd (no spoilers but the director choses to invert Shakespeare’s conclusion and tie in the beauty pageant theme, which had been abandoned much earlier in the evening).
   Donna Lynne Champlin is a surprisingly vivid Hortensio, and Gayle Rankin delivers a coquettishly ditzy Bianca. Mark Thompson’s appropriately garish sets and costumes reflect the carnival atmosphere. I confess I did love Petruchio’s massive RV smashing onto the Delacorte stage and steamrolling everything in its path. Too bad Lloyd did the same thing to the play.

Meanwhile, downtown, the Public Theatre presents another uneven production. Like Shrew, The Total Bent, the new rock musical from Stew and Heidi Rodewald of Passing Strange fame, starts out with a potentially strong premise. TV gospel singer-preacher Joe Roy vies with his gay son Marty, a talented songwriter-performer, over race and identity. As the Civil Rights movement rages, Marty seeks his own destiny away from his recreant dad, eventually becoming a rock star. Vondie Curtis-Hall and Ato Blankson-Wood give thrilling vocal and dramatic limning of the combatants, and the score is sizzling. But the plot becomes repetitious and feels drawn out at under two hours.

Himself and Nora, another Off-Broadway musical playing in the Greenwich Village area, is adept but shallow. This portrait of literary giant James Joyce and his strong-willed romantic partner Nora Barnacle—they lived together for 27 years and had two children before marrying—is a like a musical Wikipedia entry. All the facts are there, but author-composer Jonathan Brielle doesn’t probe very deeply into the creator of the greatest works of the 20th century nor his primary relationship. The five-member cast is proficient and lively, and director Michael Bush paces the proceedings smartly enough, but Brielle’s choices are conventional. Hardly fitting for the most unconventional of authors. While Shrew goes too far, the two Off-Broadway musicals don’t go far enough.
  

June 19, 2016
 
Indecent
Vineyard Theatre

The Signature Plays
Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two highly theatrical productions demonstrate that the avant-garde stage can challenge as well as mystify. Paula Vogel’s Indecent at the Vineyard Theaters is a combination theater history lesson and searing docudrama on the impact of censorship and the oppression of groups deemed as “other.” Signature Plays, a triple bill of one-acts by revered playwrights in celebration of Signature Theatre’s 25th anniversary, offers bizarre examinations of death, loneliness, and race. Both shows are not for the easygoing theatergoer who just wants to sit back and be entertained. They ask you to think about what the plays mean and how they reflect your world.
   In Rebecca Taichman’s brilliantly imaginative staging, Indecent follows the long path of the little-known Yiddish drama God of Vengeance from acclaim in Europe to a controversial Broadway premiere resulting in the arrest of the cast. Written in 1906 by Sholom Asch, Vengeance centers a Jewish brothel owner who strives to keep his family life separate from his business. But when his virgin daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes, his two worlds collide and his hypocrisy is exposed. Despite featuring sympathetic views of hookers and a lesbian relationship, the play was a dramatic smash in Berlin and across the Continent. After a staging on New York’s Yiddish Second Avenue district, it moved uptown to Broadway in an English translation but closed after being raided by the police when a rabbi filed a complaint calling the play immoral. The show closed after only a few performances and the author, who now moved to America after fleeing the horrors of Europe, never wrote another work for the theater.
   Vogel uses this daring play’s trajectory to create a history of Jewish and gay struggles in the first half of the 20th century. From acceptance in the capitals of Europe to demonization and destruction by the Nazis to blacklisting in the 1950s, the performers who stage God of Vengeance strike out to be heard. Vogel traces their artistic battles with passion and flair.
   Taichman creates numerous staggering yet simple stage effects. Most striking is the introduction of the main characters by the enthusiastic but awkward stage manager Lemml (a heartbreaking Richard Topol). As each comes forward, they dance to music provided by the three-piece onstage band, and dust copiously falls from their sleeves. The dust represents both the fleeting, ephemeral nature of theater and the fate of many of the characters, victims of the Holocaust. In addition to Topol, the six actors and three musicians create a kind of fascinating cultural cabaret.
The Signature Plays takes an equally unconventional route. Each one represents an absurdist view of its subject and has received a previous production during Signature Theatre’s quarter century. Edward Albee’s The Sandbox (1959) provides a darkly comic take on mortality and jabs at middle-class suppression of emotion. The 20-minute cartoon takes place on a blazingly bright beach (Mark Barton’s lighting is appropriately summery). Archetypal suburbanites Mommy and Daddy dump Grandma in the sand and await the Angel of Death, who turns out to be a gorgeous young man performing calisthenics. Phyllis Somerville sharply delineates the feisty-to-the-end Grandma’s final exit, while Alison Fraser and Frank Wood are wickedly funny as the shallow Mommy and Daddy. Ryan-James Hatanaka gets laughs as the muscular but brainless messenger for the inevitable. In Sandbox, Albee greets the unknown with a sardonic chuckle rather than a scream of terror.
   Maria Irene Fornes’s Drowning (1986) is much bleaker and more confounding. In what appears to be a desolate bus station or cafe, three human-like mud creatures moan over the failed love affair of one of them. The play was written in response to a Chekhov short story, but this staging is so slowly paced and obscure it fails to generate any of the insights of the human condition usually associated with the Russian master. This despite Mikeah Ernest Jennings’s shattering sadness of the afflicted Pea. It doesn’t help that there is a dull nine-minute pause to change scenery between the Albee and the Fornes pieces, filled only with an actor (Nicholas Bruder) listening to a radio.
   The uneven evening concludes with Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964). This Obie-winning nightmare of a play is set inside the mind of Sarah, a self-hating African-American academic who identifies with such Caucasian figures as Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg. While yearning to be white, cool, and emotionless, she is haunted by reminders of her race, especially her father, represented by Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated leader of Congo. These fantasy figures—Jesus Christ is another one—skulk through Mimi Lein’s grim set while Brandon Wolcott’s spooky original music plays.
   Funnyhouse has its moments of effective anguish, mostly provided by Crystal Dickinson’s tormented Sarah. But Lila Neugebauer stages this hour-long piece like a Hammer House of Horror screamfest, punctuated with total blackouts and crescendos. (In an annoying distraction, the safety lights for the theater aisles keep snapping back on after each submersion in darkness.) Too bad Neugebauer gets the right tone for the witty Sandbox only. She lets Drowning drown and Funnyhouse is more like a haunted house.

May 24, 2016
 
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Dear Evan Hansen
Second Stage

Fully Committed
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

A pair of intense lead performances illuminates two new productions on and Off-Broadway. Jessica Lange’s shattered Mary Tyrone unexpectedly dominates Jonathan Kent’s searing revival of Eugene O’Neill’s massive classic Long Day’s Journey Into Night for Roundabout Theatre Company, while Ben Platt’s heartbreakingly lonely teenager is the soul of the sensitive musical Dear Evan Hansen at Second Stage. A piercing profile of O’Neill’s own family, Long Day’s Journey is meant to be a quartet of agony, but Lange’s high-strung playing of Mary’s drug-addicted pain turns it into a concerto with the other three Tyrones on second fiddle. It’s still a moving, vital production but not the full symphony of sorrow O’Neill intended. Platt’s Evan is meant to be the center of the show, and he delivers the necessary ache and yearning.
   In Journey, each of the four Tyrones plays out his or her toxic relationship with the past in a single day in 1912 at the Tyrones’ gloomy summer cottage. Tom Pye’s set features a low ceiling tilted at a menacing angle to signify the clan’s sense of inescapable misery, while Natasha Katz’s lighting provides the right ghostly atmosphere. Father James is a famous actor handcuffed to regret because his Shakespearean ambitions were crushed by the easy lure of a lucrative melodrama (O’Neill’s real father starred in the kitschy Count of Monte Cristo for many seasons). Partially because of James’s stinginess, mother Mary became dependent on morphine and is in relapse after a brief clean period. Sons Jamie and Edmund have their own demons of alcoholism and tuberculosis, respectively.
   Lange’s physical life is so precise you can feel the pangs of Mary’s withdrawal and the cherished release into her drug-induced dream world far from the miserable guilt of her marriage. This comes as something of a surprise because Lange’s previous Broadway attempts at great-lady roles were either too small—Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire—or overblown—Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. Perhaps it’s because she played the O’Neill role on the London stage in 2000, but the Oscar winner’s stagecraft has caught up with her film brilliance.
   Gabriel Byrne’s James is too subdued, and John Gallagher Jr.’s Edmund comes across as whiny rather than tormented. Michael Shannon’s quirky Jamie is frighteningly oft-kilter and arresting, but he doesn’t have enough stage time to equal Lange’s impact. Colby Minifie provides welcome comic relief as the maid Cathleen.
   Despite the imbalance, Kent’s production is haunting and intimate. He often has the characters come to extreme edge of the stage, practically throwing their desperate plights into the audience’s collective lap.

Dear Evan Hansen also deals with families in pain. The title character is an isolated teen outsider with a long-absent father and an overworked mother. At Evan’s school, another suffering kid, rebellious Connor Murphy, falls over the edge of despair and commits suicide. Through an accidental meeting between the two, Evan becomes involved in an elaborate Internet hoax, convincing the world and Connor’s grieving family that the boys were best friends when in fact they didn’t even know each other. But his new status as encouraging pal of the dead kid makes Evan into a media hero, a substitute son for the Murphys and boyfriend to Connor’s sister Zoe. Should he tell the truth and go back to being a nobody?
   That’s the crux of this jarring, small-scale gem, directed with his usual fluid grace by Michael Grief (aided by Peter Nigrini’s impressive video designs re-creating the universe of the Internet). Steven Levenson’s compassionate and witty book goes far beyond Afterschool Special clichés, and the songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, run the gamut from riotous comedy to wrenching ballads to piercing character portraits. As mentioned earlier, young Platt is stunning as the shy Evan, making the young man’s urgent need for companionship so real you can feel his pain—just as Lange makes you feel Mary’s morphine cravings. The rest of the ensemble is equally moving, especially Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s well-meaning but bewildered mother, and Laura Dreyfuss as the angry, needy Zoe.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson of TV’s Modern Family, makes an attempt at a bravura performance in the revival of Becky Mode’s solo play Fully Committed. But his energetic if narrow limning of 40 characters led me to admire him for trying such a monumental task rather than becoming absorbed in the crazed action. Originally presented Off-Broadway in 1999, the show employs one actor to play the stressed phone-reservation worker at a posh Manhattan eatery, his co-workers, his family, and all the demanding clients at the other end of the line. Ferguson can be endearing and amusing, but he has a limited range of funny voices and mannerisms, which lose their freshness well before the 90-minute running time is up. Much like the show’s trendy restaurant that features ridiculously expensive dishes dusted with edible dirt, this Fully Committed is a cute little show but not worth the Broadway prices.

May 14, 2016
 
King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings
Royal Shakespeare Company at BAM Harvey Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Shakespeare’s majestic cycle of Richard and Henry plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Parts I and II; Henry V) gets a rousing marathon treatment from the Royal Shakespeare Company in a stunning, four-evening repertory touring presentation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. Gregory Doran’s lively staging is short on the usual pomp and long on pathos. The quartet also emphasizes an element usually missing from stodgy productions: humor. Yes, there is always the madcap Falstaff, the recreant mentor-in-mischief to young Prince Hal. This rotund, lovable rascal always gets his yuks, and Antony Sher earns them by the boatload here. But the entire galaxy of the contentious court has its moments of levity balanced with bitterness and sorrow. In other words, these are no stuffy saints done up in purple robes, but real sweating, laughing, and crying three-dimensional people who happen to be vying for the English crown.
   In addition to Sher’s life-embracing Falstaff, David Tennant, best known as the 10th Doctor Who, mines the tragic depths of Richard II. His monarch is a mincing egomaniac whose downfall seems justified, but the actor makes him so tenderly human that we feel for him anyway. Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke, Richard’s nemesis, is refreshingly down to earth rather than the usual tin hero. Alex Hassell does the heaviest lifting as the fiery Prince Hal, the son of Bolingbroke, later Henry IV. Hassell brilliantly chronicles the prince’s twisting journey from rebellious reprobate to warrior king. You can read the conflict on his handsome face as he rejects Falstaff after ascending the throne and sense the rage in his heart as he marches across the fields of France in the battle-scarred final play. As a rollicking conclusion to the whole cycle, he engages in an edgy and witty war of words with Jennifer Kirby as a feisty princess Katherine for a memorable wooing scene. Leigh Quinn is a wise and knowing Alice, Katherine’s lady in waiting who acts as translator for her French mistress.
   Even the smaller supporting roles are solidly enacted. The subtly dry Oliver Ford Davies contributes a lovably befuddled Duke of York, a delightfully senile Justice Shallow, and a cozy Chorus leading the audience through Henry V with a wink and a smile. There are several priceless moments with Shallow where Davies draws howls with just a raised eyebrow. Jane LaPotaire makes a devastating impression in two cameos as the grieving Duchess of Gloucester and an imploring Queen Isobel. I also loved Joshua Richards’s bumbling Bardolph and pompous Fluellen, Sarah Parks’s gravel-voiced Duchess of York and Mistress Quickley, and Sam Marks’s smooth-faced but duplicitous Aumerle, Poins, and Constable of France.

April 29, 2016
 
Broadway and Off-Broadway Roundup:
Bright Star, Hold on to Me Darling, Head of Passes, Ironbound, Familiar, and Dry Powder

Reviewed by David Sheward

At the top of the second act of Bright Star, the onstage bluegrass band cuts loose for a brief hootenanny, which sets the audience to clapping and hollering. Unfortunately, it’s the highlight of the show. The surrounding story and songs by comedy legend–banjo plucker Steve Martin and Grammy winner Edie Brickell offer a few sparks and smiles but not much more. The sappy plot is reportedly based on a true incident but comes across as soap-opera fodder.
   There are two timelines. In 1920s North Carolina, brainy but poor Alice Murphy has a ill-starred romance with rich boy Jimmy Ray Dobbs, resulting in a pregnancy but no marriage. Twenty years later, Alice, now a literary editor, encounters a promising young writer just back from Word War II. If you have an ounce of sense or ever read a book or seen a movie, you’ll predict how the two tales will merge before the final curtain. Director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes provide innovative flashes, Carmen Cusack makes an impressive Broadway debut as Alice, and a regiment of Main Stem veterans such as Dee Hoty, Stephen Bogardus, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Michael Mulheren, and William Youmans earn their paychecks, but Bright Star fails to shine.
   Off-Broadway another country-themed show bursts into intermittent flames. Kenneth Lonergan, one of my favorite playwrights, takes a hard look at our entertainment-obsessed culture in Hold on to Me Darling at Atlantic Theater Company. Timothy Olyphant of TV’s Justified and Deadwood is hilariously self-centered and clueless as country-western superstar Strings McCrane, who foolishly attempts to chuck his celebrity lifestyle to return to work in the feed store in his Tennessee hometown. While Bright Star drips with familiar homilies and nostalgia for honeysuckled mythos, Darling is a razor-sharp satire of American shallowness, directed with just the right combination of winking parody and hard-edged reality by Neil Pepe. Jenn Lyon delivers a slyly multilayered turn as Nancy, Strings’s biggest fan and later his avaricious wife. She shifts so subtly from innocent admirer to emotional vampire you barely notice the change.

Two more Off-Broadway attractions feature similar miraculous performances, but in works of varying merit. Phylicia Rashad perseveres through and finally conquers Head of Passes, Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s rather mawkish rewrite of the Book of Job at the Public; while Marin Ireland dazzles as a wily Polish immigrant in Martyna Majok’s clever but slightly flawed Ironbound, a co-production of Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and Women’s Project Theater. Head of Passes takes the familiar dysfunctional-family-reunion route in the first act and then veers into a tour-de-force monologue for Rashad in the second. She plays the domineering Shela, a religious matriarch whose faith is severely tested when her home and relationships are destroyed. Rashad rises above the familiar material and as does G.W. Mercier’s collapsing set.
   Majok’s Ironbound has a more inventive premise. At one grim New Jersey bus stop (Justin Townsend did the brilliantly drab set), Darja goes through 22 years and a repetitive series of dead-end jobs and romances. Loose ends are tied up a bit too neatly, and a teen hustler character is extraneous. But, like Rashad, Ireland wrestles the flawed play to the ground and beats it into submission. Her Darja is crafty, pragmatic, tough, tender, broken, and indomitable all at once.
   Danai Gurira deals with many of the same themes as Majok in Familiar at Playwrights Horizons: immigration, identity, the difficulty of sustaining relationships. The author, whose Eclipsed is currently a hit on Broadway, has a sure hand with dialogue and situation, but tends to tip a bit toward the sitcom and melodrama in this otherwise delightful comedy-drama about an Zimbabwean-American family coping with a stressful wedding and conflicts over their traditions and assimilation. Fortunately, director Rebecca Taichman and a solid cast—including Ito Aghayere, Roslyn Ruff, Tamara Tunie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor—keep the action moving at a rapid clip so that Gurira’s occasional lapses such as an absurd reaction to a family secret and, as in Ironbound, a too tidy conclusion don’t impair the overall experience.

To wrap up this roundup, we return to the Public for Dry Powder, Sarah Burgess’s witty comedy of equity funds, leveraged takeovers, and economic imperialism. It’s funny and clever, and Thomas Kail of Hamilton fame gives it a sleek staging, but Caryl Churchill covered this territory nearly 30 years ago in her Serious Money, as did Jerry Sterner in Other People’s Money. The big revelation here is that financial managers are ruthless—surprise! The four-person cast does its best with the stilted yet well-spoken characters, but Claire Danes has a particularly tough time making Jenny, the empathy-impaired numbers whiz, more than a series of nasty quips. Unlike the previously mentioned Off-Broadway productions, Dry Powder doesn’t rise above its limitations.

April 11, 2016
 
She Loves Me
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Reviewed by David Sheward

A big, chocolate-centered valentine, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of She Loves Me is just sweet enough to instill bliss but not so sweet as to give you sugar shock. Written at the tail end of the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, this intimate, innocent romance lacked overblown pizzazz—there wasn’t even the traditional huge chorus—and had a relatively brief run in 1963. But the enchanting score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (who are also represented this season with a powerful production of Fiddler on the Roof) lived on in a cast album featuring the immortal voice of Barbara Cook. Bock’s music wisely employed the story’s Hungarian setting without borrowing too heavily from that country’s tradition, while Harnick’s deceptively clever but straightforward lyrics were simultaneously specific enough to advance the plot and general enough not to require an intimate knowledge of same.
   The show remained a cult item for 30 years until Roundabout delivered the first Broadway revival in 1993, a gorgeous candy box of a show staged with love by Scott Ellis. Now Ellis has returned to the material with an equally enchanting but totally different staging. Joe Masteroff’s slightly screwball but cute book still enchants. After all, the original play, Parfumerie from 1937, about two bickering clerks who are romantic pen pals without knowing it, also provided the template for such cherished film comedies as The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail. Set designer David Rockwell has created a Fabergé egg–world of old-time Budapest.

But the strength of this production is in its perfect casting. As the dreamy shopgirl Amalia, Laura Benanti impresses with her considerable vocal skills and flawless comic timing. Zachary Levi displays the perfect blend of manly charm and humorous self-deprecation as her unbeknownst admirer Georg. Jane Krakowski takes the supporting role of the unlucky-in-love, slightly daffy Ilona and turns her into a three-dimensional figure, albeit one who does splits and runs through sprayed perfume to catch the scent.
   Gavin Creel oozes oily charisma as the rogue Kolday, while Michael McGrath perfectly embodies the lovable but obsequious Sipos, Georg’s confidante. Byron Jennings provides bite and backbone as Maraczek, the officious but ultimately unraveling owner of the shop. Nicholas Barasch is fresh-faced and appealing as the delivery boy, Arpad. Peter Bartlett in the tiny role of a put-upon headwaiter delivers a comic gem of a performance, and Michael Fatica is deliriously clumsy as his klutzy busboy. Even the small roles are sources of joy in this lovely and loving She Loves Me.

March 30, 2016
 
The Robber Bridegroom
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre

The Royale
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Inventive direction and design enliven two Off-Broadway productions, providing a pair of exciting evenings in the theater. Alex Timbers has helmed such unexpected and creative events as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher, and Here Lies Love. His latest blazing staging is a revival of the cult musical The Robber Bridegroom for the Roundabout Theatre Company at its Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. Based on a fanciful Eudora Welty novella, this charming show had brief runs on Broadway in 1974 and 1975 and is chiefly remembered because Barry Bostwick had an unexpected Tony win for Best Actor in the title role for the second production.
   The country and western–flavored score by Robert Waldman and Alfred Uhry and fairy-tale book by Uhry provide the ideal springboard for a festive backwoods hoedown. Severed heads, magical potions, swapped bodies, and disguises figure in the storybook plot. The enthusiastic performers play birds, sit on audience members’ laps, and generally have a rip-roaring good time as they tell the story of Jamie Lockhart, gentleman thief in mystical 18th-century Mississippi. Donyale Werle’s homey juke joint of a set, Jake DeGroot and Jeff Croiter’s jamboree lighting, and Emily Rebholz’s fun period costumes provide just the right atmosphere of foot-stomping pleasure.
   Steven Pasquale is a swoon-worthy rogue as the dashing Jamie, and Ahna O’Reilly combines sass and sweetness as his lady love Rosamund. But the biggest thief is Leslie Kritzer as Rosamund’s wicked stepmother Salome. With nasty asides to the audience, fearless pratfalls, and delightful devilishness, Kritzer steals this Robber. Andrew Durand as a luckless thug and Greg Hildreth as Salome’s slow-witted henchman also deserve mention.

Like Timbers, Rachel Chavkin has directed dazzling productions—including Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 181, the dinner-theater adaptation of a segment of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, due on Broadway next season. In Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, she manages to create startling theatrical equivalents of boxing matches. Based on the real-life career of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, the play considers the intersection of racism and sports as Jay, the Johnson figure, prepares to take on the reigning white titleholder in the early 20th century. Like his successor Muhammad Ali, Jay is cocky, brash, and unstoppable, which enrages white America enough to retaliate against random African-Americans. A visit from Jay’s frightened sister Nina causes him to hesitate in his quest for the prize.
   Johnson also serves as the inspiration for the 1968 play The Great White Hope, which made a star of James Earl Jones and delivered a more complex mosaic of its subject and the country he challenged. Ramirez’s take is simpler and more obvious than the earlier work. You can see the playwright’s hand in the forced interactions. But Chavkin’s boldly daring direction of the opening and closing pugilistic encounters (along with exciting lighting of Austin R. Smith) grab your attention with their intricate choreography, hand-clapping punctuation, and ingenious use of the ropes and metal rods of the boxing ring to suggest body blows. However, the scenes in the middle feel clichéd and overly familiar.
   The magnificent cast includes Khris Davis’s cyclonic Jay, John Lavelle’s bombastic promoter, Clarke Peters’s wily trainer, McKinley Belcher III’s earnest sparring partner, and Montego Glover’s powerful Nina. They help make The Royale a solid bout, but it’s still not quite a knockout.

March 19, 2016
 
Disaster!
Nederlander Theatre

Red Speedo
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward


Catherine Ricafort, Roger Bart, Baylee Littrell, Seth Rudetsky, Rachel York, Kevin Chamberlin, and Olivia Phillip in Disaster!
Jeremy Daniel Photography

Water figures prominently in two diverse new productions, each incredibly seaworthy but very different types of stage vessels. Disaster!, the wild spoof of destructive film thrillers, takes place on a doomed floating casino and is a hilarious guilty pleasure. Its only aim is to make audiences laugh, and it succeeds admirably. Red Speedo, Lucas Hnath’s devastating and dynamic one-act play, features an onstage swimming pool and provides a tightly structured mediation on the American Dream. It will make audiences think, as well as gasp and laugh.
   Disaster! sails into Broadway’s Nederlander Theater after two previous Off-Broadway voyages. The basic concept sounds as if it might work for a 15-minute TV sketch: Throw together elements from such 1970s crash-and-burn epics as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno, and a slew of pop and disco Top 40 hits from the same era, and hope for laughs. Though there are slow spots in the book by Seth Rudetsky (who also appears in the cast) and Jack Plotnick (who also directs), they are remarkably few. Most of Disaster!’s humor comes from the absurd shoehorning of the songs into its zany plot—such as the “ooka-chaca” opening from “Hooked on a Feeling” supplied by rescue helicopters and “Muskrat Love” denoting rabid rodents about to attack cowering passengers. There’s even a clever use of “Nadia’s Theme,” the instrumental association with the beloved Romanian gymnast.
   The kooky material is given its best possible treatment by a seasoned cast displaying clockwork timing. A slew of Tony winners and nominees expertly plays a shipful of stereotypes—including the low-class casino promoter (razor-sharp Roger Bart), his ditzy lounge-singer girlfriend (delightfully daffy Rachel York), and a heartbroken heartthrob waiter (sexy and full-voiced Adam Pascal) and his former love, a gutsy reporter out to expose the dangers of the ship (cute and incisive Kerry Butler). Rudetsky gets in a few zingers as a know-it-all scientist determined to prevent the inevitable explosions and fatalities.
   Even amid this expert company, there are a few standouts. In the Shelley Winters role of a good-natured matron dying of a weird disease, Faith Prince mines comic gold from the character’s shtick symptoms of uncontrollable pelvic thrusts and cursing at inappropriate times. She also leads one of the funniest numbers, tap dancing lifesaving information in Morse code to “A Fifth of Beethoven.” (Unfortunately, Kevin Chamberlin as her jolly husband is given too little to do, as is Max Crumm as Pascal’s pal who gets bumped off early in the second act.) Young Baylee Littrell deftly switches genders as opposite-sex twins, and Lacretta Nicole displays impressive pipes as a down-on-her-luck disco diva.
   But the real star of this shindig is Jennifer Simard as a glum nun set on saving souls as her gambling addiction kicks in. Simard, who has been toiling Off-Broadway for nearly two decades, gives a brilliantly deadpan performance, delivering every line with the clouded darkness of a miserable soul yearning to find release amid the gaming tables. She can make falling down (with exaggerated stiffness) or just looking at another actor (with blank incomprehension) riotous. Her ecstatic rendition of “Never Can Say Goodbye” to a slot machine is the comic highlight of the season, and I am praying she gets to perform it on the Tony Awards.
   Is Disaster! the most brilliant musical in years? No. But it is a goofy, silly ride, transforming the Nederlander into a joyful amusement park.

As noted above, there’s a real swimming pool onstage at New York Theatre Workshop for Red Speedo, but it’s not a source of fun like the crazy ship in Disaster! Designer Riccardo Hernandez’s magnificent environment provides the setting for a brutal examination of the cravenness of the modern sport scene in particular and America in general.
   Swimming champion Ray may be implicated in a doping scandal just before the Olympic trials and a lucrative endorsement deal. His brother and manager, Peter, who is heavily dependent on Ray raking in Speedo money, desperately attempts to keep the situation under wraps while Ray’s coach threatens to go public. Meanwhile, Ray wants to get back with his ex-girlfriend, sports therapist Lydia, whom Peter deeply mistrusts and who may have supplied Ray with the illegal drugs.
   As with his earlier plays, The Christians (seen at Playwrights Horizons earlier this season) and Death Tax (presented at Actors Theater of Louisville a few years back), playwright Hnath constructs an intricate web of needs and counter-needs, with the four players each battling and scheming to come out on top (the quartet of actors deliver sharp, piercing work). Lurking underneath the surface of the plot is a bitter indictment of our winning-at-all-costs culture. Peter has a particularly scary monologue, delivered with just the right amount of offhanded arrogance by Lucas Caleb Rooney, justifying his dishonesty and avarice for the sake of his young daughters. (“Because poor kids have it so rough,” he rationalizes.)
   Hnath’s script and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction are as lean and muscular as the bare torso displayed by Alex Breaux, who gives a deceptively complex rendition of Ray, balancing the athlete’s apparent guilelessness with a cunning and aggression as ruthless as his sibling’s. When the two clash in an ugly climactic fistfight (staged with gut-wrenching detail by Thomas Schall), this depth charge of a play hits you where it counts.

March 14, 2016
 
Prodigal Son
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center

Women Without Men
Mint Theater Company at New York City Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

New York City Center is playing host to two plays with academic settings. On the larger, main stage, Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting Prodigal Son, John Patrick Shanley’s new autobiographical play, which focuses on a troubled young student from the Bronx adjusting to a preppy New Hampshire private high school. In the small studio space, the Mint Theater Company offers Hazel Ellis’s 1938 Women Without Men. This rarely produced work concentrates on the teachers at an all-female academy in rural Ireland. Both are fascinating character profiles employing familiar tropes and revitalizing them or fleshing them out to their fuller potential.
   Shanley employs the artist-as-a-young-man template to portray his own early education and the influence a caring set of teachers had on his development as a writer. The Shanley stand-in, Jim Quinn (charismatic Timothee Chalamet), a brilliant but combative kid, earns a scholarship to the upper-crust Thomas More Preparatory School in the mid to late 1960s. He challenges the conformist attitudes of his tough-as-nails headmaster, Carl Schmitt (solid-yet-tender-underneath Chris McGarry). The headmaster’s compassionate wife, Louise (caring Annika Boras), offers tea and sympathy. Jim’s biggest champion is English teacher Alan Hoffman (precise, complex Robert Sean Leonard), who sees promise in Jim, describing him as “the most interesting mess we have this year.” Each of the adults has a secret of his or her own, which plays a part in each one’s relationship with the troubled young protagonist. The main dramatic question is whether he will graduate despite brawling, drinking, and stealing.
   The fluid and sharp script from Shanley, who also directs with subtlety, and a keenly well-observed performance from young Chalamet, rescue Jim from being seen as a self-centered know-it-all. Like his classic predecessors Holden Caulfield and Stephen Daedalus, Jim is a smart kid, but he overindulges in his own existential angst. Shanley views his youthful flaws though a loving lens and asks the audience to do the same. “You remember 15,” Jim addresses us at the start of the play as if begging our indulgence when judging his teenage follies. The noteworthy ensemble is completed by David Potters as Jim’s nerdy, supportive roommate.

Meanwhile, across the lobby and down the hallway at City Center’s smaller studio space, the Mint Theater Company is staging a play with a more conventional approach to similar material. Women Without Men also uses plot devices of clandestine criminal acts among students and teachers, but the underlying theme is the destructive pettiness that results from the degrading work conditions suffered by the female faculty. Newcomer Jean Wade (confident Emily Walton) struggles to find her place and make peace with her backbiting fellow teachers who snipe at one another in jealousy and frustration over low pay and a punishing workload.
   You would think modern audiences would cringe at the portrayal of these pathetic women as frustrated spinsters. One characters even says married women with abusive husbands have a better situation than the dull grind of these sad instructresses. “At least tragedy is interesting,” she sniffs. But Ellis’s compassionate, detailed writing overcomes the social limits of her era, offering three-dimensional pictures of people living one-dimensional lives. Jenn Thompson directs with a sure hand, and the proficient cast is perfect, down to the smallest roles of three rebellious students. Kellie Overbey is particularly moving as the haughty Miss Connor, who invests her whole existence in a never-completed manuscript on the history of beauty. At the play’s end, we see this woman’s entire bleak future on the map of Overbey’s crushed features.
   After writing Women Without Men, Ellis, an Irish actor-playwright, married and retired from the stage. This involving production reaffirms the Mint’s mission to resurrect neglected gems.

March 6, 2016
 
Dot
Vineyard Theatre

Pericles
Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Reviewed by David Sheward


Between them, Susan Stroman and Trevor Nunn have collected 10 Tony Awards and are two of the hottest directors on Broadway and the West End—with such smash hits as The Producers, Contact, Nicholas Nickleby, and Cats on their respective résumés. These superstar stagers are currently represented by less-than-stellar Off-Broadway productions of lesser works. Stroman is taking on a rare nonmusical venture: actor-playwright Coleman Domingo’s family dramedy Dot at the Vineyard Theatre. Nunn tackles Shakespeare’s muddled and infrequently performed Pericles for Theatre for a New Audience. Both shows have their moments of flash and invention, but are ultimately disappointing.
   Dot is part of Coleman’s semi-autobiographical trilogy of plays—the others are A Boy and His Soul and Wild With Happy—depicting the same West Philadelphia neighborhood. The play follows the pattern of a dysfunctional-family gathering during the holidays, serving long-suppressed resentments and secrets along with the turkey and stuffing. Dot has the misfortune to open near the Broadway transfer of Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which handles the same basic template with no clichés. Coleman employs the standard-issue big, screaming confrontation precipitated by a party game. Karam knows such set-ups and blow-ups rarely occur in real life and wisely avoids this overused gambit that we’ve seen in such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Boys in the Band. While Domingo displays wit and compassion for his characters, too much of Dot descends into familiar family-drama and sitcom tropes.

That’s a shame because the play starts off so promisingly. We’re in a chaotic kitchen, designed with an expert eye for domestic detail by Allen Moyer. It’s two days before Christmas, and eldest daughter Shelly—a single mom and lawyer—has summoned her siblings Donnie and Averie to help cope with their mother, Dotty, who is drifting into dementia (another plot element shared with The Humans). As Shelly tries to get the increasingly forgetful Dotty to eat breakfast, former neighbor Jackie visits and unloads her own problems, including an affair with a married man resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. It sounds contrived, but Coleman injects saucy humor and realistically messy grace notes, creating a believable and insightful first scene.
   But the script, acting, and Stroman’s direction become increasingly broad as more characters arrive—including Adam, Donnie’s husband (of course the gay couple are having relationship problems); and Fidel, Dotty’s cute young home aide from Kazakhstan. Coleman does make some rewardingly unusual choices such as not overemphasizing the racial and gay aspects of the situation. Dotty and her children are African-American while Jackie, Adam, and Fidel are white. But he lets the familiar jokes and melodrama take over.
   The characterizations—especially Sharon Washington’s harried but loving Shelly, Marjorie Johnson’s valiant but sinking Dotty, Finnerty Steeves’s befuddled Jackie, and Libya V. Pugh’s buoyant Averie—contain sparks of verisimilitude, but they are drowned out by the play’s excesses.

While Dot employs overused 20th-century templates, Pericles throws in everything including the 17th-century equivalent of the kitchen sink. A latter work from the Bard, which may have been co-authored by George Wilkins, Pericles borrows elements from The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice. There’s also a wicked queen straight out of Snow White, bawdy panderers, bloodthirsty pirates, musicians, and dancers. The titular prince (Christian Camargo) goes through an endless series of adventures—including trials by riddle for a future bride, numerous battles, and losing his wife and daughter only to be miraculously reunited with them years later. Working with an American cast, Nunn almost succeeds in making this combination shaggy-dog story and picaresque romance fun, particularly when we get to a brothel where Pericles’s virtuous child Marina has been brought by the aforementioned pirates. Patrice Johnson Chevannes as a no-nonsense madam and John Keating as her lascivious servant are deliciously dirty when sparring with Lilly Englert’s spunky Marina who is determined to keep her virginity.
   Shaun Davey’s delightful music and Stephen Strawbridge’s poetic lighting almost overcome the Bard’s seemingly endless melodrama, but there’s too much silly storytelling and not enough dramatic meat on this Pericles’s bones.

March 1, 2016
 
Maria Stuarda
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

A cry of despair arose from the audience at the Metropolitan Opera when the stage manager appeared before the curtain rose on Donizetti’s 1835 Maria Stuarda and announced that soprano Sondra Radvanovsky would still be playing the title role but that she had been suffering from a cold. No one need have worried. Though Radvanovsky’s upper registers have a Callas-like acidity, she delivers an intense and passionate performance of the martyred monarch. She is scheduled to play the composer’s additional Tudor monarchs in Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux during the current Met season. Here she fiercely defines Mary’s full-throated, proud demands for freedom and respect, and then shifts dramatic gears with a piteous and tearful confession scene before mounting an ominous stairway to the executioner.
   Donizetti’s lush score more than makes up for the historical inaccuracies of the libretto, based on Friedrich Schiller’s play. Mary and Elizabeth, cousins vying for the English throne, never met in real life. But the central scene of both the play and the opera is a spectacular confrontation between the two with the elegant, saintly Mary calling out the more calculating Elizabeth as a bastard unfit to reign.

As Elizabeth, Elza van den Heever is as impressive as Radvanovsky, though David McVicar has directed her to move with the stiff limbs and clumsy gait of a sumo wrestler. This odd staging choice may have meant to portray Elizabeth as graceless and tough compared to the delicate and feminine Mary, or perhaps it was meant to conjure up an image of Elizabeth as a masculine, tyrannical ruler like her father Henry VIII. Van den Heever overcomes this bizarre choice with a sweet, clear soprano and an intense liming of the queen’s inner conflict between her desire for power and jealousy for the courtier Leicester, who in this version yearns for Mary.
   In his Met debut, Celso Albelo is a proficient Leicester, delivering a strong tenor line, but failing to convince us that two powerful rulers would be fighting for his romantic favors. Kwangchulk Youn is a commanding Talbot, Mary’s ally in Elizabeth’s court; and Patrick Carfizzi is appropriately dark and devilish as the implacable Burghley who advocates for Mary’s death.
   McVicar’s 2012 powerful production puts the battling queens center stage in a bloody matchup. Designer John Macfarlane sets the appropriate brutal tone with a startling show curtain depicting a blood-soaked British lion and eagle roaring at the audience. Once that gigantic curtain rises, his sets and costumes have the right regal flair, illuminated by Jennifer Tipton’s sensitive lighting for this exciting diva fight.

February 3, 2016
 
Marjorie Prime
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Sheward

The elusiveness of memory is the theme of Jordan Harrison’s delicate and wonderful short play Marjorie Prime at Playwrights Horizons. Running at a precise 80 minutes, this sensitive Pulitzer Prize nominee explores the fragility of human connections and the slow encroachment of technology on love and family. Set sometime in the mid-21st century in Laura Jellinek’s appropriately sterile living room–kitchen set, the play begins with the plight of the elderly Marjorie, who is losing her recollections of a long and rich life along with her health. To regain her past, her daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon have bought an android that looks exactly like her late husband Walter at around age 30. The function of this computer is to provide companionship and prompt Marjorie’s remembrances of her days with Walter.
  Complications arise as Tess grows jealous of the artificial Walter and fears her mother is becoming a different person. Varying versions of family anecdotes are fed into the computer’s motherboard, and the past becomes blurred. Gradually, the humans are replaced by the “primes,” and this little community’s shared history becomes distorted into a fake, rosy dream.
  Harrison explored similar ideas in his clever comedy Maple and Vine (also produced at Playwrights) in which two couples attempt to create an Ozzie-and-Harriet world in a planned 1950s community. In that play, idealized images of the past warp the present. Here he goes a step further by examining the possibility of machines designed to aid and comfort humanity eventually replacing us.

There are no big dramatic shifts. Harrison and director Anne Kauffman subtly indicate the tiny changes to Marjorie’s narrative. Walter’s marriage proposal at the bland movie My Best Friend’s Wedding is replaced by the more romantic Casablanca . Marjorie’s rejected ordinary boyfriend morphs into a world-class tennis pro. All these variations take place with such gradual ease that we barely notice them until they become the new reality.
   The cast follows this shaded approach. The invaluable Lois Smith brilliantly embodies the slipping-away Marjorie and the remnant of her younger self. You can see the glint of devilish fun in her eye as she describes Marjorie’s girlish escapades even as her body imprisons her. Lisa Emery performs a miraculous balancing act of displaying Tess’s massive depression without making her into a drag. She manages to make Tess’s prickly anger a symptom of her frustrated love for her mother. Stephen Root is a sympathetic Jon, and handsome Noah Bean skillfully handles the difficult task of playing the computerized Walter, making him almost human, affording us a scary look at an attractive but frightening future.

January 17, 2016
 
Website Builder