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

The Children
Manhattan Theater Club/Royal Court Theatre at Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Farinelli and the King
Belasco Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The year ends with two emblematic productions for Broadway: The Children, presented by Manhattan Theater Club as part of its subscriber season, and Farinelli and the King in a commercial limited run at the Belasco. Both are transfers from London complete with British casts. We Yanks are supposed to salivate over these shows because of their snob-appeal pedigree. Both feature exquisite acting, but only The Children connects to its audience on a level deeper than stagecraft. Farinelli stars one of the finest actors in the English-speaking world, Mark Rylance, but his breathtakingly realistic technique is in service of an overly familiar, underwritten play.
   There are no actual kids in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children; the title refers to adult offspring and possible future generations of the three characters, all in their 60s. The setting is a remote cottage in a very possible near future where a nuclear accident has devastated Britain. (Miriam Buether’s askew set parallels the disastrous outlook for the world of the play.) Retired married scientists Robin and Hazel are coping with rationed food, electricity, and bleak prospects. Rose, a former colleague of the pair and lover of Robin’s, pays them an unexpected visit. To reveal anymore would lessen this deceptively simple plot’s impact. Suffice it to say that Kirkwood structures her compassionate, heart-wrenching treatise on social responsibility with such craft, you become wrapped up in the interrelations of this trio without even realizing they are symbols of modern society, poised on the brink of annihilation yet struggling to redeem itself.
   James Macdonald’s direction keeps the action on a credible level with a welcome lack of showy theatricalism. This subtlety is echoed in the acting, particularly by Deborah Findlay as Hazel. She keeps the character’s bottled-up rage well-corked, allowing it to burst out in short spurts and then pushing it back down. We see all of Hazel’s anger, love, and finally fear mixed together through Findlay’s eloquent expressions and gestures. Ron Cook is equally understated as Robin and convincingly conveys his sorrow over the scientific tragedy and Robin’s resolve to make it right. Francesca Annis as Rose is a little too reserved in the Masterpiece Theater style for my taste, but she does limn the interloper’s conflicted attitudes toward her hosts with depth.
   Though this production is definitely praiseworthy, it raises a red flag. Manhattan Theater Club brought it over directly from its Royal Court Theatre run with the British ensemble. MTC’s previous production at the Friedman this season was Prince of Broadway, a plotless musical revue, and the next show will be a revival of Shaw’s Saint Joan. Hopefully MTC is not abandoning presenting new American plays on Broadway.

Like The Children, Farinelli has an intriguing concept, but here the execution is wanting. Based on historical events in the 18th century, the play focuses on the strange relationship between the mentally erratic Spanish King Philippe V and the heralded castrato Carlo “Farinelli” Broschi. The unhinged monarch was soothed by the dulcet tones of the high-voiced singer who became a member of his court. Like The Madness of King George III, the play traces a royal’s bizarre behavior and how a civilian attempts to cure him. But unlike George’s dramatist Alan Bennett who skillfully constructed an intricate portrait of power and insanity, Farinelli’s author Claire Van Kampen is a first-time playwright, and she fails to develop her premise beyond some keen acting opportunities for her husband, Mark Rylance (who plays the king) and staging possibilities for director John Dove.
   We get the familiar tropes of court intrigue, backstage politics, a few speeches in praise of high musical art, and a hastily stuck-in romantic triangle, but there are no real stakes here. It’s never fully explained why we should care if Philippe is deposed, if the gorgeously voiced singer stays or leaves the court, or if the queen acts on her attraction for Farinelli.
   Fortunately, Rylance delivers his usual magnificent work, delivering Van Kampen’s somewhat clichéd dialogue as if it were Shakespeare and imparting Phillipe’s shattered sensibilities with a combination of humor and pathos. His debate with a goldfish, which opens the play, is priceless. Sam Crane captures the tortured Farinelli’s struggle between his craft and living a normal life. In an arresting stroke of staging, the castrato’s singing is done by famed countertenor Iestyn Davies (alternating with James Hall at certain performances) in identical costumes to Crane’s (Jonathan Fensom designed the luscious period sets and clothes). The musical interludes are beautifully staged by Dove with two performers expressing the gorgeousness of Handel’s arias and the inner turmoil of the artist. With the candlelit atmosphere and period instruments expertly played, these moments are superb mini-concerts. Farinelli makes for an entertaining historical curio, but not a full dramatic experience like The Children.

December 23, 2017
Describe the Night
Atlantic Theater Company at Linda Gross Theater

Twelfth Night
Fiasco Theater at Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Mixing myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory, and historical fact, Rajiv Joseph creates a weird tapestry of truth and lies in his new drama Describe the Night at the Atlantic Theater Company. Set in various parts of the former Soviet Union and Europe over nearly a century of political turmoil, this overwhelming saga asks hard questions about the relationships between government and media, regular citizens and dictators, and how people manage to live through decades of upheaval. As in his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj, Joseph depicts individuals caught up in the tide of history, swept along by fanciful and real events.
   Shifting back and forth between regimes and locales, Night traces the difficult and slippery path trod by writers and journalists through the dark forest of various forms of Russian tyranny. Real Stalin-era figures such as Odessan novelist Isaac Babel and Soviet secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov are connected with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2010 plane crash that killed the entire top level of the Polish government. In fascinatingly poetic and detailed dialogue, Joseph links the various epochs, demonstrating how the truth can be twisted to suit the purposes of whoever happens to hold the reigns of power, be it Stalin, Putin, or—by extension—our current US president.
   The title derives from the opening scene in which the idealistic Babel and the brutish Yezhov become unlikely friends while presenting their alternative impressions of the night after a battle in 1920 Poland, the same area where the plane crashes 90 years later. By a series of coincidences, Babel’s journal, a symbol of artistic freedom, passes from hand to hand right up until Putin’s regime. The plot stretches credulity—some characters live to be older than 100—but in Joseph’s shadowy world, it doesn’t matter. This is a dreamscape of epic proportions enveloping theatergoers with Joseph’s storytelling magic as it stuns with unrelenting anger at authoritarian monsters.
   Yet none of the multilayered characters is completely good or evil; each has a mixture of both. Babel is a gentle soul but also launches an affair with his friend Yezhov’s wife, Yevgenia. In turn, Yezhov commits numerous atrocities as Stalin’s stooge and also lovingly seeks to shield his wife and granddaughter from government purges. Vova, who closely resembles a certain Russian president, is a thug, but also a damaged child seeking his mother who abandoned him. Giovanna Sardelli’s subtle and sleek staging emphasizes this ambiguity, as do the shaded performances, particularly Danny Burstein’s charming but wary Babel, Zach Grenier’s bearish Yezhov, Tina Benko’s delicate yet steely Yevgenia, and Max Gordon Moore’s brutal, insecure Vova.

Meanwhile, Classic Stage Company is presenting another Night but it’s not as complex nor intriguing. The company hosts Fiasco Theater’s staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. My only previous experience with Fiasco was its intimate and clever small-scale version of Into the Woods, so I was looking forward a new take on this oft-produced comedy.
   Unfortunately, the unimaginative direction by Noah Brody and Ben Seinfeld, who also play Count Orsino and the clown Feste respectively, never rises above the level of a competent college production. The concept seems to have been to plunk the dizzy lovers of the Bard’s Illyria down in a New England fishing village so the cast could warble atmospheric sea shanties between scenes. There is not much spark between the various victims of Cupid’s arrows, and those with comic roles push their zany shtick too hard to elicit any honest laughter. Too bad this is just a so-so Twelfth Night after such a brilliant take on Woods.

December 14, 2017
The Parisian Woman
Hudson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It seemed like the perfect set-up. A political comedy-drama written by the creator of Netflix’s House of Cards starring the elegant Oscar nominee Uma Thurman in her Broadway debut. That’s why it’s a pity that The Parisian Woman, the first major Broadway show to tackle the Trump administration, is such contrived claptrap. Listed in the program as “inspired by” Henry Becque’s 1885 play La Parisienne, Beau Willimon’s uneven script has the creaky feel of a century-old potboiler.
   Willimon peppers his overboiled plot with pointed barbs directed at the Orange President, which draws appreciative laughs and some applause from the sympathetic New York audience (the play opened in 2013 at South Coast Repertory and has undergone some rewriting to reflect current events). Yet popular progressive sentiment fails to save this Woman from soapy suds and unconvincing characterization both in the writing and acting.
   Thurman plays Chloe, a Washington socialite not above using her considerable charm and sex appeal to advance the career of Tom, her tax-lawyer husband. When a federal judgeship opens up, Chloe schemes to secure it for Tom. The pursuant twists and turns among the political elite fill the show’s 90 minutes. At first Chloe and Tom appear to be a ruthless power couple whose only goals are achieving power and influence—not unlike Frank and Claire Underwood, the main characters of House of Cards. But in order to advance the storyline, the author has them undergo a 180-degree personality change midway through, and suddenly they’re altruistic liberals out to thwart the regressive agenda of the new prez. More unbelievable reversals follow, plus ridiculous dialogue such as, “Do you really think so little of me?” and “It’s a miracle what we have; to be so free together.”

Director Pam MacKinnon won a Tony Award for breathing new life into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but she fails to make these cardboard figures believable even though her staging is smooth and sleek (Derek McLane’s attractive D.C. sets help). Thurman and Josh Lucas are beautiful to look at but cannot overcome the impossible switcheroo demands Willimon has placed on them. These are glittering shells rather than flesh-and-blood people. Martin Csokas does make a hissable high-level Trump insider, though it’s hard to believe Thurman’s character would ever become involved with this guy, even to gain political advantage. Blair Brown has moments of authenticity as a Republican power-broker, and Phillipa Soo from Hamilton briefly breaks through the melodrama to create a credible young idealist abused by the machinations of the other characters.
   Today’s off-stage drama, leaving us reeling after every news cycle, is much more exciting and scary. Willimon was forced to suspend production on Cards when his leading man Kevin Spacey was slammed with allegations of sexual harassment, and before the play opened Thurman tweeted she might have damning material against disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. An in-depth examination of either of those incidents would have made a more compelling evening of theater than The Parisian Woman.

November 30, 2017
The Exterminating Angel
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Existentialist angst is not your usual fodder for the opera stage, but Thomas Ades’s The Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Bunuel’s classic 1962 film, explores the terrifying territory of lost identity and purpose. Now at the Metropolitan Opera after a world premiere last year at Salzburg and a production in London, this disturbing work challenges notions of traditional musical staging.
   The libretto, by director Tom Cairns and the composer, follows the original screenplay by Bunuel and Luis Alcoriza. The setting is the home of Edmondo and Lucia De Noble, where a glitzy dinner party attended by the cream of Mexico City society is about to take place. But the dazzling affair takes a bizarre turn as almost all of the servants flee in terror, and after dinner the guests find themselves unable to leave. Days pass and the formerly elite attendees descend into madness and savagery as food runs out, their tuxedos and ball gowns become rags, and bodies turn dirty and smelly. An elderly gentleman expires, and a pair of lovers commits suicide in a closet. Finally, the survivors are able to break the spell of confinement, but the streets outside are just as full of chaos. The partygoers are a microcosm of upper-crust society, including an opera diva, a conductor, a doctor, and a countess. But art, wealth, and titles are no protection when the characters must confront their inner terrors.
   Ades’s modernist score emphasizes the darkness at the core of Bunuel’s vision. Even during the brighter moments when the guests exchange frothy chitchat as they enter, the music stirs and rumbles. There are occasional brief forays into Spanish-influenced, flamenco-like tones, but the prevalent leitmotif is ominous. Within this limited palette, Ades delivers a gripping musical vocabulary of foreboding.
Likewise, Cairns’s staging manages to maintain tension even though there is no ultimate resolution. Yes, the guests are finally released from their hellish predicament, but there is no relief when they flee to the outside world, and there is no explanation for their inertia. The pacing flows smoothly as Hildegard Bechtler’s stark, sleek set revolves slowly, and the action builds to a harrowing climax of despair as the guests spill into the city and an enormous chorus erupts into further panic.
   Soprano Audrey Luna reaches vocal and dramatic heights as the temperamental opera singer. Joseph Kaiser and Amanda Echalaz capture the anxiety and nervous bluster of the hosts. Sophie Bevan and David Portillo as the suicidal lovers infuse an especially intense duet with passion and despair. The rest of the stunning company—which includes Alice Coote, Christine Rice, and John Tomlinson—conveys the bleakness of Bunuel’s view of the human condition.

November 17, 2017
People, Places, and Things

National Theatre/Headlong at St. Ann’s Warehouse

Reviewed by David Sheward

The first 20 minutes of Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places, and Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse after a smash-hit London engagement, display the most bracing collaboration of playwright, actors, director, and designers in recent theatrical memory. At first, it appears we are watching the final act of a revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull. But the actor playing Nina seems a bit unsteady on her feet. She is slurring her words and lurching as she moves. She slips and asks the actor playing Constantine if he remembers shooting a seagull and laying at her feet “earlier in the play.” She catches herself, realizing she has broken the performance’s delicate fabric of illusion and then does so literally by ripping down a gauzy back curtain. Immediately James Farncombe’s jagged lighting design and Tom Gibbons’s heart-throbbing soundscape explode, attacking our senses as Bunny Christie’s stark-white, hospital-like set shifts into several different locales at once. With shattering precision, director Jeremy Herrin choreographs the the actor’s subsequent smash-up.
   Images swirl and scatter like fragments of a dream, all from her bleary point of view, similar to the staging in The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another London-to–New York transplant featuring a set by Christie. Through strobes and deafening backbeats, we can barely perceive that she has entered a club, gotten even more drugged out and drunk, and crash landed in a rehab center where a patient is ranting in the reception area. As the inebriated thespian—we eventually learn her name is Emma, or is it?—Denise Gough launches into a tour-de-force monologue, pleading with her mother on her iPphone to dispose of all the drugs in her apartment while battling to stay conscious.

The remainder of this harrowing play’s two hours lives up to this devastating beginning. Without sentiment or shame, MacMillan leads us on Emma’s soul-churning journey to sobriety, realized with daring imagination by Herrin and his inspired team. The story is told through the actor’s eyes, and when she sneaks a hit of cocaine or endures the agonies of withdrawal we feel it too, as Christie’s elastic set breaks apart and the lighting and sound re-create her altered sensibilities. The clear-eyed script is refreshingly cliché-free. Emma is not a noble victim or a valiant warrior; she’s nasty, difficult, and too clever by half, fighting her therapist and fellow recovering addicts every step of the way. Most rehab stories end with the protagonist as either a tragic corpse or an energized saint. MacMillan takes the more realistic middle path, depicting the messy steps to becoming a functioning human being.
   Gough, who won an Olivier Award for her London liming in this role, brilliantly portrays the whirling kaleidoscope of Emma’s psyche—her distinct intelligence, her narcissism, her defiance of the 12-step program, and, finally, her vulnerability as her last defense is dropped and she must confront the underlying causes of her excesses. The rest of the ensemble is equally incisive, especially Barbara Marten who creates three distinct women: Emma’s doctor, therapist, and in a devastating turn her unforgiving mother. Later this season, Gough will re-create her Harper Pitt in the Broadway transfer of the National Theater’s Angels in America. If this performance is any indication, it should a dazzler.

November 3, 2017
Time and the Conways
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre

Measure for Measure
Public Theater/Elevator Repair Service

A Clockwork Orange
New World Stages

Reviewed by David Sheward

Experiments with time, space, and staging can illuminate or obscure a playwright’s intent. Three current productions on and Off-Broadway juggle traditional concepts with varying results.
   The most conventional of the three is Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways. This is the first time the time-tripping British family drama has been seen on Broadway since 1938. Priestley had written several plays exploring in heavily ironic terms how seemingly unimportant acts can have devastating effects. Stephen Daldry’s surrealistic interpretation of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, wherein an upper-middle-class family is indicted for lack of social responsibility by a mysterious policeman, proved a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1990s.
   Rebecca Taichman’s production of Conways for Roundabout Theater Company is far less way-out than Daldry’s nightmarish vision, and the impact is not as devastating, yet it still produces a sting of recognition and sadness. The story is relatively simple: A contented bourgeois clan in an English provincial town looks forward to a bright future as World War I ends and daughter Kay celebrates her 21st birthday. The twist comes in the second act as we jump forward almost 20 years to 1937. Not surprisingly, each of the six Conway offspring and their flighty mother are leading miserable lives. For the third act, we double back to Kay’s party in 1919. All their rosy predictions ring hollow since we know the dismal outcome. Kay and her sanguine elder brother Alan may have a chance at happiness, since both have a glimmering of the second-act vision.
   Taichman’s direction is tight and measured, though she allows some of the cast to limn their upper-crust cluelessness a bit too broadly. There is an arresting coup de théâtre between the two eras as Neil Patel’s golden-hued living room (brightly lit by Christopher Akerlind) recedes into the back of the theater to be replaced by a melancholy, blue version descending from the flies. The 1919 version of the set can be glimpsed through the windows creating a visual equivalent of Priestley’s vision of the past and the present overlapping each other.
   As the matriarch, Elizabeth McGovern gets top billing and the only solo curtain call because of her Downton Abbey fame. She delivers a creditable portrait of the impulsive, child-like Mrs. Conway. But the bulwark of this production is Charlotte Parry’s conflicted Kay, the only sibling aware of the crushing demands adulthood can bring. Parry intensely charts Kay’s struggle to comprehend the vagaries of life, and her final moments of attempting to reconcile youthful optimism with mature reality are heartbreaking. There are also moving moments from Gabriel Ebert’s compassionate but weak Alan, Steven Boyer’s blustery son-in-law, Brooke Bloom’s disappointed radical daughter, and Anna Baryshnikov’s life-affirming yet doomed Carol, the youngest. Though the ironic storyline is predictable, particularly in the third act, this is Time well spent.

Elevator Repair Service takes a more radical approach in its breakneck rendering of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. ERS has previously tackled such literary giants as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner in imaginative realizations of these authors’ classic works. In this bizarre production at the Public, they take on the Bard for the first time, armed with projections of the text and a caffeinated pace. Director John Collins imposes a meta sensibility, throwing out conventional staging. He assumes we know the plot of the publicly moral and privately corrupt Angelo forcing himself on the virginal Isabella in return for her brother Claudio’s life. (Given the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, these scenes are particularly relevant.)
   With the words of the script rapidly scrolling on Jim Findlay’s utilitarian set, the cast races through the dialogue striking exaggerated stereotypical poses and posturing in mock “Shakespearean” style. Some speak with stagey British accents like Monty Python characters on amphetamines. The idea may be to comment on overused methods of Elizabethan stagings, and there is a sort of fascinating slickness to the approach, but it negates the wit and the still-relevant sharp commentary on government hypocrisy. Yet just as Collins’s quirky concept wears thin, the speed-freak patter slows down during the jailhouse scene between Isabella and Claudio (a stunningly real Rinne Groff and Greig Sargeant). She has to tell her brother he must die because she’s refusing Angelo’s vile offer. Speaking deliberately and slowly on old-fashioned French telephones, they connect on such an honest level, it’s as if they’re in a different production. The contrast with the self-conscious previous scenes increases the emotional resonance and temporarily brings a stunning authenticity to this Measure, but the rest is a showy, if interesting gimmick.

The message is also lost amid flashy direction in the stage version of Anthony Burgess’s groundbreaking dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, now at the multiplex theater New World Stages in a transfer from London’s West End. Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s highly stylized staging employs sleekly choreographed mayhem and fisticuffs to Emma Wilk’s ear-splitting soundscape incorporating classical musical and ’90s pop tunes. The all-male ensemble displays impressive pecs and abs as they go through their perfectly timed gut punches and kicks to the groin. Jono Davies, who also serves as fight captain, exudes a raw, nasty charisma as Alex, the rancid-souled teen transformed via a government experiment into a law-abider, ending up as out of place as the title oxymoron. It’s entertaining and flashy, yet Burgess’s themes of free will versus social safety are lost among the biceps and jetés. It’s an attempt at combining a Chippendales revue with 1984, but only the former emerges strongly.

October 15, 2017
Red-Letter Plays:
In the Blood and Fucking A

Signature Theater Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender
Belasco Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

As the last millennium ended, when Suzan-Lori Parks penned her Red Letter Plays—two theatrical riffs on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter—the horrifying issues of alienation, racism, misogyny, and class oppression that they raised were prevalent. Then we had a black president, and for a few brief moments, it seemed we really were living in a post-racial world. Or, at least, the more extreme manifestations of these nightmares appeared to be laid to rest. Now almost 20 years since these pieces were written, those same demons have crawled out of their hiding places. Their resurgence in the Age of Trump makes the Signature Theater Company’s tandem revival of both works especially moving and relevant.
   In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000) create modern variations on Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, demonized and branded with a red letter “A” for adulterer by her Puritan fellows for bearing a child out of wedlock. The parallels in contemporary society of castigating female sexuality are strongly and equally developed in the two pieces. Blood’s Hester LeNegrita is condemned to a life of poverty for bearing five children by a quintet of fathers. Fucking A’s Hester Smith exists in a dystopian world where she is forced to perform abortions because of a minor crime.
   Both productions sock you in the gut with their visceral and violent imagery, but I would have to give a slight edge to director Sarah Benson’s imaginative interpretation of Parks’s vision with In the Blood. The characters are symbolic and derived from Hawthorne’s originals (Chili for Chillingworth, Hester’s first love, and Reverend D. for Reverend Dimmesdale, the minister who betrays her), but Benson and a sensitive cast makes these allegorical figures into living, breathing people.
   The physical production is also arresting. The script calls for Hester and her brood to be living under a bridge. Benson and her set designer Louisa Thompson have re-imagined the setting as a combination abandoned subway stop and garbage dump. Refuse periodically spews out of a giant tube which the family repurposes as toys and furnishings. At the back is a curved wall used as a slide by the kids, but it’s also impossible to climb to the street, so Hester can literally never get the financial “leg up” she keeps saying is all she needs. Saycon Sengbloh is luminous and heartbreaking as the downtrodden Hester. In a clever casting move specified by Parks, the five children are played by the same adult actors who portray the unwed mother’s faithless lovers and friends, and Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder, and Frank Wood give equal depth to their dual assignments.
   Jo Bonney’s staging of Fucking A emphasizes the allegorical aspects of Parks’s script, which takes on a more Brechtian tone. The characters directly address the audience, they sometimes speak in a bizarre invented language called Talk, there are harsh Weill-like musical numbers, and the actors double as musicians. Though we are always aware we are sitting in a theater and never identify with the people stage as much as we do with those from In the Blood, Parks’s prescient insights are particularly haunting. Christine Lahti’s Hester is forced to clean up the messes made by the upper class, first as a cleaning woman and then as an abortionist. Marc Kudisch plays a Trump-like duplicitous mayor. Brandon Victor Dixon is Hester’s son Boy, who escapes prison and is labeled a monster (“Better a monster than a boy,” he claims, echoing the rage of minorities driven into the pipeline-prison system.) The cast, which also includes Joaquina Kalukango as a no-nonsense prostitute and Elizabeth Stanley as the Mayor’s desperate wife, provides piercing perspective on damages wrought by misogyny and class oppression.

Meanwhile on Broadway, filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore takes a more direct approach to challenging the status quo and the results of the recent presidential election. “What the fuck happened?” he asks as soon as he steps on the stage of the Belasco Theater in his one-man man The Terms of My Surrender, following clips of the Trump triumph accompanied by ominous music. In the following two and half intermissionless hours, Moore preaches to the choir on the current dark political climate, taking occasional detours to relive past insurrections and play game-show parodies with the audience. The show is a combination standup comedy routine, rant, memoir, and cozy chat. As in his documentaries Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko, Moore builds his arguments against the current administration with deceptively comforting humor and startling statistics. (“That can’t be true,” said one woman behind me when the star revealed that 53 percent of women voted for the Donald.)

   Moore is not a Broadway-caliber comic and he mocks his lack of musical skills with a refreshing self-deprecation, but his delivery is sincere and his expressions and timing produce laughs. (Watch as he lovingly caresses a bag of chips.) Director Michael Mayer delivers a smooth evening, with strong visual support from Andrew Lazaro’s projections and video design. There are a few surprises saved for the final curtain, but this is mostly a familiar call to arms for Moore’s left-leaning fans.

September 17, 2017
Prince of Broadway
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

No one can deny the incredible track record of Harold Prince, the winner of a record 21 Tony Awards and the director and/or producer of almost 50 Broadway shows over six decades. His innovative stagings of such landmark works as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Phantom of the Opera (to name just a few) revolutionized American musical theater. Having said that, his highly anticipated career retrospective, Prince of Broadway, now in a limited run from the non-commercial Manhattan Theater Club after an earlier version played Japan, is perfectly enjoyable but not the stunning blockbuster we’ve come to expect from Mr. Prince.
   The show is basically a series of numbers from 17 of Prince’s productions, loosely strung together by first-person narration by David Thompson (presumably based on interviews with and quotes by the subject), shared by the high-caliber nine-member cast. Unlike previous helmer hoedowns such as Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Fosse, the material doesn’t flow smoothly or fit together neatly. That may be because those previously mentioned productions celebrated the works of single choreographers—creating evening-long pieces with a unified vision and theme of movement, whereas Prince is a jumble of mostly solo or small-scale singing vignettes from a multitude of sources. There are 35 book-writers, lyricists and composers listed on the title page of the Playbill.
   Thompson’s narration provides scant context and fails to tie together the wildly divergent selections or answer such questions as “What is Prince’s aesthetic? And what do all these shows have in common other than the fact that Prince was involved in their creation?” Despite the solid production by Prince and his choreographer and co-director Susan Stroman and top-drawer design elements (particularly Howell Binkley’s lighting), the structure resembles a random “And-Then-I-Directed-or-Produced” pageant. One similar number follows another, and the pace slackens considerably in the second act, especially when two static songs set in prison (from Parade and Kiss of the Spider Woman) are placed next to each other.

To be fair, one doesn’t go to the theater for a documentary or a lecture in stage history, and there is much to relish even if the overall package is not greater than the sum of its exemplary parts. Tony Yazbeck has a spectacular dance solo from Follies (fantastic choreography from Stroman). Emily Skinner corners the market on wry regret with “Send in the Clowns” and “Ladies Who Lunch.” Chuck Cooper delivers depth as Tevye, Joe from Show Boat and Sweeney Todd. Brandon Uranowitz is a delightfully decadent Emcee from Cabaret. Bryonha Marie Parham conveys the poignancy of Sally Bowles from Cabaret and the joyful sass of Queenie from Show Boat . Karen Ziemba pours reams of subtext into her Fraulein Schneider and Mrs. Lovett. Kaley Ann Voorhees displays a lovely soprano in vignettes from West Side Story and Phantom. Michael Xavier and Janet Decal are zesty and zippy in “You’ve Got Possibilities” from Prince’s short-lived Superman musical.
   There is so much potential here. Too bad the experience was like leafing through a photo album (remember those?), or to use a more up-to-date reference, clicking through a series of YouTube videos that happen to pop up when you type “Harold Prince” in the search engine.

August 31, 2017
A Parallelogram
Second Stage Theater at the Tony Kiser Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram, now at Second Stage Theater after productions at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, certainly has a flashy gimmick, which director Michael Greif employs with just the right touch of subtle spectacle in his crisp staging. Through means of a device resembling a TV remote, the central character Bee is able to rewind or flash-forward through moments of her life, reliving and altering her actions, but she discovers the ultimate outcome remains the same. These adjustments are cleverly accomplished thanks to Rachel Hauck’s flexible set, Kenneth Posner’s suggestive lighting, Matt Tierney’s electronic sound design, and Greif’s smart supervision. But this is not just the stage equivalent of that 2006 Adam Sandler movie Click, which features a similar premise.
   Bee has plenty to reconsider in her jumbled life. There are cracks in her relationship with her current live-in boyfriend Jay, who has left his wife and two small children for her. She has an unfulfilling job as a manager of a Rite-Aid and is beginning to be drawn to JJ, her hunky Latino handyman. And, through the means of her fast-forward device, she learns the whole world is in for major trouble. Can she make a positive change, or is it all futile?
   Norris asks, “Would we change if we knew the truth about ourselves and how our lives turn out? Is it possible to make a real difference in this crazy, self-destructive world?” That’s a powerful theme, and the playwright affords fascinating explorations of this existential dilemma, but the central shtick of redoing scenes gets repetitive long before the evening ends. There are also several holes in the plot. Bee is brought her magical remote by a future version of herself who pops up in various guises, sometimes visible to others, sometimes not. The reasons for Bee 2’s retro visits to her younger self are never made clear. But is the whole thing a hallucination? Even if it is, in order for us to care about the outcome, there must be some internal logic within the illusion.

Fortunately, the adept four-person cast brings much shading to these confused characters. Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Bee has warmth and humor as she struggles to find her way out of a philosophical maze. Stephen Kunken gives a hilarious spin to Jay’s self-absorption, launching into breathless monologues defending his narcissistic behavior, pausing for a split-second to allow Bee to have her say, and then either continuing or running out of the room to watch the football game on TV. Anita Gillette is sharply wry as the various future Bees, and Juan Castano has a welcome charm as JJ, a relatively small role that could have been thrown away.
   Norris has previously presented complex and layered puzzles in his plays, examining in depth such vital topics as racism (Clybourne Park), sexuality (The Qualms), sexual politics (Domesticated), and social responsibility (The Pain and the Itch). But Parallelogram comes across as a one-joke sketch stretched out to two acts.

August 6, 2017
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Theatergoers may feel as if they are back in high school when they enter Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse venue for Pipeline, Dominique Morisseau’s searing close-up of the public school system and its failure to serve minority youth. Set designer Matt Saunders has transformed the back wall of the intimate space into a blank white cement canvas not unlike the drab interior of an urban hall of learning. As the play begins, Justin Ellington’s jarring soundscape and Hannah Wasileski’s video projections take us inside a bleak secondary institution where the main character Nya, an African-American English Language Arts teacher, is slowly unraveling as her son Omari struggles to stay afloat at a private school upstate. Though there are moments of melodrama, Morisseau delivers a piercing and powerful indictment of educational breakdown.
   Omari is at a crisis point. He has assaulted a teacher, and Nya battles to prevent him from being expelled—or worse, incarcerated. (The title refers to the view that public schools are a conduit to prison for too many African-American males.) Pressure mounts on Nya as she clashes with the establishment, her estranged ex-husband, a potential new love, and her students. In one intense sequence, Nya’s personal and professional spheres collide when she teaches Gwendolyn Brooks’s grenade of a poem “We Real Cool” and she imagines her son living the razor-edged lines depicting black drop-outs who “lurk late, strike straight,” and “die soon.”

Morisseau creates a startlingly realistic world in which societal preconceptions corner young people into back alleys of despair. The production is tightly directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and unflinchingly acted by a spot-on ensemble, particularly Karen Pittman as the disintegrating Nya; Heather Velazquez as Jasmine, Omari’s fierce Latina girlfriend; and Tasha Lawrence as Laurie, Nya’s bombastic white colleague. Namir Smallwood captures Omari’s rage and intelligence. Jaime Lincoln Smith brings humor and bite to Dun, the school security guard who seeks romance with Nya. Morocco Omari is solidly supportive as Xavier, her former spouse.
   But there are serious flaws here. Clocking at 90 minutes, the script has little fat, but there are areas where the story is too lean. Omari’s parents often mention his current altercation is his “third strike,” but we never learn about the previous two offenses or their context. Likewise, the rift in Nya and Xavier’s marriage is glossed over. More details on these vital plot points would have increased the impact. Nya herself is a bit thin, despite Pittman’s best efforts to provide subtext. She is defined by her relationships with the men in the play rather than having a strong vision of herself. As a result, two supporting characters—Jasmine and Laurie who have more clearly defined character throughlines and grittier, less clichéd dialogue—emerge as more compelling. Despite these clogs, Pipeline explores a vital topic and should be seen.

July 25, 2017
Marvin’s Room
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Most plays get broader when they move to Broadway, but Marvin’s Room, the 1990 comedy-drama about a family coping with death and disease, has grown more intimate in its first production on the Main Stem. The late Scott McPherson’s touchingly dark piece premiered in regional productions at the Goodman and Hartford Stage and then at Playwrights Horizons in 1991 before a commercial Off-Broadway run (a financial impossibility these days). Tragically, McPherson died of AIDS at age 33, not long after the play opened. That NYC production won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play (a rarity for an Off-Broadway production), and I recall David Petrarca’s polished staging as hitting the comic notes with a professional sharpness.
   Anne Kauffman, who directs the current Roundabout Theatre Company revival now at the American Airlines Theatre, has sacrificed some of the laugh lines for a more naturalistic tone. At first, this seemed to be an error. The quite moments appeared to be lost in the vastness of Laura Jellinek’s open-ended set depicting several locations in breezy, beachy Florida. But gradually, the small scale of the performances and the direction draw us in, causing us to listen carefully and become more involved with the people onstage.
   Those characters are heartbreakingly sad and hilariously eccentric. Like the protagonists of the novels of John Irving and Anne Tyler, they find themselves in tragic situations but see the humor in them. McPherson perfectly balances both sides of the human equation in his lifelike portrayal.

The casting is another factor in the show’s success. Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo resemble each other facially and stature-wise, so they really do seem to be the estranged sisters Bessie and Lee, reunited when Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia and must reach out to her sibling as a possible bone-marrow donor. Bessie has been selflessly caring for their elderly father (the Marvin of the title) and Aunt Ruth, both of whom have a multitude of medical issues. But Lee has troubles of her own with a failed marriage, a burned-down house and two troubled sons, also potential donors for their Aunt Bessie. The collisions and conflicts within this quirky clan make up the action of the play as Bessie must transition from caregiver to patient and Lee attempts to straighten out her messy life.
   The opening moments set the mood of unhappy circumstance leavened by comic observation. Bessie is getting blood work from a fumbling doctor (a funny Triney Sandoval) who drops hypos, swats at cockroaches and chastises the receptionist who happens to be his brother. All of this while Bessie must face the possibility of a fatal disease. Taylor subtly limns Bessie’s calm grace and acceptance of the comic and tragic overlap. Garofalo doesn’t push Lee’s clueless narcissism, so that while we may not entirely sympathize with the character, at least we can understand her. In the same vein, Celia Weston wisely downplays Ruth’s batty behavior (her obsession with a TV soap opera got many appreciative chuckles). As Lee’s troubled teenage son Hank, Jack DiFalco is not the raging terror he could have easily been, but a boy in pain. All the choices in this tender revival reveal an involving and human story, unmarred by overdrawn theatrics. Like the family at the end of the play, it feels as if we are in Marvin’s room rather than watching actors in a theater.

July 18, 2017
Fulfillment Center
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage II

Reviewed by David Sheward

Abe Koogler gives the interconnected-lives format a quirky spin in his play Fulfillment Center, now at Manhattan Theatre Club’s studio space at City Center. The title is an ironic reference to the giant New Mexico warehouse where two of the characters are employed by an unnamed Amazon-like service. Neither they nor the two other people in the play are finding fulfillment in their work or relationships in an America where jobs and love are temporary and tenuous.
   Suzan (the indispensable Deirdre O’Connell) is a 60-ish former folk singer with physical and financial challenges. She barely manages to keep up at filling orders at the warehouse as she attempts to scrape together enough cash to get her car fixed so she can drive to a friend’s home in Maine. Her supervisor, the much younger Alex (a lovably dorky Bobby Moreno) wrestles with high managerial expectations and his conscience over saving the pathetic Suzan’s job. Meanwhile, Madeleine (a hilariously sharp-edged Eboni Booth) has left New York City to move in with Alex, cannot stand her new desolate surroundings, and panics when he brings up the possibility of marriage.
   To relieve her doubts and anxiety, Madeleine drinks too much and embarks on a hook-up with John (a laconic and spooky Frederick Weller), a handsome but scraggly drifter she meets online and who just happens to live in the same campground as Suzan (that’s the interconnected part, get it?). The emotional lives of all four seem as blighted and empty as the nowhere town of the setting. But Koogler and director Daniel Aukin inject this sad quartet with a desert-dry humor.
   In a series of brittle, two-character scenes on set designer Andrew Lieberman’s bare strip of a playing space, the dialogue and staging pop and fizz like freshly opened summer sodas. A reconciliation between Alex and Madeleine becomes a riotous verbal duel over sandwich choices. The contrast between Suzan’s chatty neediness and John’s repressed longing boils over in a frightening yet touching encounter in the front seat of John’s truck. Though Fulfillment Center runs less than 90 minutes, it is stuffed with such meaty moments and is a filling offering.

June 22, 2017
Hudson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

While it is not a direct response to the young Trump administration, the bracing and horrifying stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 arrives on Broadway at a startlingly appropriate time. Though it was published in 1949, the trends Orwell was spotting in political and social life are even more prevalent nowadays. The newspeak and shifting truth perpetrated by Big Brother, the tyrannical leader of a repressive future state, are shockingly similar to the “fake news” and “alternative facts” surrounding us today. The denizens of Airstrip One, the decimated remains of London after an atomic conflict, are mesmerized by their TV sets just as anyone you see on a New York City subway is locked in an embrace with their smartphones. “They won’t look up from their screens long enough to know what’s happening,” warns Winston Smith, the tragic Everyman hero of the tale.
   There have been film versions produced in 1956 and in the titular year, as well as a limited-run Off-Broadway production in 1987. This new edition, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, has had four British stagings and arrives on the heels of the controversial Central Park Julius Caesar depicting the assassination of a Trump-like figure and the resultant political chaos as a fascist Marc Antony rises to power. That production is a picnic compared to this nightmare vision of the alternative future.
   The familiar plot of Winston and his lover Julia vainly attempting to thwart the authoritarian dictates of the pervasive party remains. But Icke and MacMillan have rewritten it as a sort of dream, framing the action with a meeting of a group of intellectuals from even further in the future discussing the merits of the original book (here it is Winston’s diary) and debating if it is real or not. This tension between reality and illusion pervades the script as scenes are repeated several times with slight, disturbing variations; Chloe Lamford’s initially bland yet cozy set comes apart and reconfigures; Natasha Chivers’s frightening lighting blazes on and off’ and Tom Gibbons’s blaring soundscape assaults our eardrums. The idea is to makes us as unsettled and unsure as Winston as he faces the monolithic power of Big Brother.

That impact is fully revealed in the final section of a harrowing, intermissionless 100 minutes in one of the most realistic depictions of torture I’ve ever seen presented on any stage. Winston’s final degradation and capitulation to the state is presented to us like a Soviet show trial in a stunning coup de theatre. The lights are brought up and we become complicit witnesses in Big Brother’s final victory as Winston pitifully cries, “Someone stop it. Make them stop!” The future-historian device, which reappears at the end, somewhat lessens the shattering impact, but this production remains devastatingly memorable.
   Tom Sturridge plays Winston like a sleepwalker occasionally waking up to his terrifying surroundings. You can feel his pain, horror, and rage as his lethargy is slowly shrugged off and he realizes what an inescapable trap he’s in. Olivia Wilde’s Julia is simultaneously seductive and innocent, a wild animal and a frightened little girl. As the party official O’Brien who oversees Winston’s destruction, the reliable Reed Birney is chillingly ordinary, a shark with a quiet smile. His is the bland, calm face of Big Brother’s world and it’s frighteningly familiar. He is watching us indeed.

June 22, 2017
The Whirligig
The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center

Building the Wall
New World Stages

Reviewed by David Sheward

Hamish Linklater is one of our most versatile actors, enlivening sitcoms and Shakespeare. He’s one of the few who has not abandoned the latter for the former, appearing regularly on New York stages after finding success on the small screen. He now has written The Whirligig, at the Pershing Signature Center in a production from The New Group, displays a performer’s instinct for juicy, conflict-stuffed scenes. There are flaws in construction, but overall, it’s a worthy effort.
   This is one of those plays that opens with a group of seemingly unrelated characters drawn together by a central crisis. Gradually, we find out they have been interconnected for years and their apparently random, innocent-at-the-time actions have led to the defining crisis. The seams are showing and Linklater is guilty of oversimplification. In his world, a single day or event can lead to a tragic outcome. That seldom happens in reality, but he makes up for this error with engaging dialogue and heartbreaking pathos.
   The focus of this whirligig of dysfunction is the fatally ill twentysomething Julie, who has returned to her home in the small Massachusetts town of Pittsfield after years of substance abuse. Her parents, former best friend, drug dealer-boyfriend, high-school English teacher, and assorted others gather around her deathbed, wrangling over their guilt and dealing with blighted relationships. The first act spends too much time going over the past while the superior second act shows us these conflicts in flashback rather than telling us about them.
   Director Scott Elliott and a solid cast valiantly attempt to keep the rehashing as vital as the flashback scenes where the seeds of Julie’s addiction are planted. Julie is actually the least interesting character since Linklater gives her minimum stage time. Everyone else seems to have more fascinating problems. In fact, the high point of the play is a funny, off-kilter exchange between Kristina (a stingingly caustic Dolly Wells), Julie’s frustrated mom, and Trish (a quirky Zosia Mamet), the girl’s stoned best friend. Grace Van Patten fills in the missing spaces in Julie’s psyche and Norbert Leo Butz infuses Michael, her alcoholic actor father, with the appropriate rage, narcissism, and regret. Noah Bean as Trish’s put-upon husband and Alex Hurt and Jonny Orsini as a pair of conflicted brothers create in-depth portraits, while veteran Jon DeVries makes the most of the peripheral Mr. Cormeny, who mostly sits on a barstool and drinks.

Robert Schenkkan is also guilty of rehashing in his new play Building the Wall. Written in a rush of anger after the presidential election, this two-hander imagines a dystopian future as a result of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. In a 2019 maximum security prison, African-American historian Gloria questions white detention-center runner Rick on his role in a massive racist crime. Director Ari Edelson gives the work a taut edge. James Badge Dale makes Rick a believable three-dimensional being, in over his head, rather than a monster bigot. And while Gloria is mostly a sounding board for Rick, Tamara Tunie imbues her with individual details. But neither character changes or learns anything new. Much of their dialogue consists of previous actions, statistics, headlines, and talking points. You can almost hear Schenkkan saying to himself, “Better put in some personal stuff, so they don’t sound too much like talking heads.” Yet despite the shortcomings, our interest is held for its 80 minutes.
   The playwright has previously created affecting work on American history such as the Pulitzer Prize–winning Kentucky Cycle (a fictional saga spanning two centuries) and the Tony-winning All the Way (a fact-based account of the early LBJ presidency). But here he has allowed his passion to overrule his dramaturgy, and we get the theatrical equivalent of a hastily drawn political cartoon.

May 27, 2017
War Paint
Nederlander Theatre

The Little Foxes
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The new musical War Paint and the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939) featuring alternating leading ladies represent more than just two spectacular rounds of dueling divas—though that would be reason enough for rejoicing. Both productions afford fascinating takes on the shifting role of powerful women and how they are portrayed in popular media.
   Hellman’s Southern melodrama is set in 1900 when women had to use charm, subtlety, and sexuality to achieve prominence. War Paint profiles two pioneering titans of the cosmetics industry who shattered glass ceilings from the 1930s into the ’60s, but still meet male resistance. Attitudes about female empowerment have significantly altered, as well. Hellman’s avaricious Regina Giddens is a hissable villain, as rapacious as her cutthroat brothers in her quest for material wealth. She is countered by her teenage daughter Alexandra, who slowly realizes her mother’s cravenness and vows to fight it at the final curtain. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, the heroines of War Paint, are portrayed as admirable and courageous, even if they are almost as implacable as Regina and just as unscrupulous in their business practices (though they do stop short of Giddens’s negligent homicide). In addition, I found both productions tremendously satisfying.

War Paint has largely been greeted as an opportunity for theater fans to worship at the feet of its super-size stars, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, who give their usual spectacular performances, while the show itself has been criticized as uneven and lacking in spark. We don’t know whom to root for, whine its detractors: Both women are portrayed as ruthless and remote, so it may as well be a PBS documentary. Yes, Doug Wright’s book is inspired by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s TV doc The Powder and the Glory and Lindy Woodead’s book War Paint, and it doesn’t take the traditional Broadway musical route of asking the audience to identify with its protagonists. Instead, Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie present their characters warts and all, just as they did in the equally unconventional Grey Gardens.
   Wright offers a fascinating history of 20th-century fashion and makeup, as well as an insightful character study, directed with speed and style by Michael Greif. The incomparable decades-spanned designs are by Catherine Zuber (costumes), Angelina Avallone (makeup), and David Brian Brown (wigs). The score is sharp, funny, and intricate, employing the musical vocabulary of its various eras to convey rapid changes and emotional depths.
   Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, and Arden, a farm girl from Ontario, remade themselves into queens of beauty and business, and were at each other’s throats for 50 years. They never actually met, so opportunities for clashes are limited. But, just as Schiller invented an encounter between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, for Mary Stuart, Wright fabricates a greenroom tête à tête for his ladies near the final curtain. LuPone and Ebersole milk this climactic scene for all it’s worth, each dripping with contempt and then gradually admitting grudging admiration for the other.
   Before this they command the stage separately but equally. LuPone’s Rubinstein is a defiant force of nature, a bejeweled battleship. The Slavic accent is a bit thick at times, making Korie’s lyrics somewhat blurry, but the star’s magnetic charisma, unique vocals, and impeccable timing cut through the fuzziness to establish a figure as strong and memorable as Evita or Mama Rose. She’s not afraid to show Rubinstein’s unattractive drive for immortality in offbeat numbers such as “Forever Beautiful.”
   Ebersole’s machine-gun delivery and empathic acting capture Arden’s elegant façade and her tough-as-nails interior. In ballads such as “Pink,” reminiscent of several of her numbers in Grey Gardens, Ebersole delineates the executive’s regrets and anger as Arden is forced to sign away her company and her worth is reduced to her signature color. John Dossett and Douglas Sills offer sturdy support as their right-hand men, but the show belongs to its two divas.

Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon forge a similar partnership in Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of The Little Foxes, alternating between the lead role of the domineering Regina and the supporting one of her pathetic alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie. (I saw Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie.) Director Daniel Sullivan provides a rip-roaring production dripping with melodrama and histrionics, but never going over the top into camp territory. Linney’s Regina is a monster of deceit and narcissism, stunning in her beauty (Jane Greenwood’s gowns and Tom Watson’s hair design are particularly flattering) and seductive in her use of feminine wiles. Watch as the smile fades from her face and her eyes narrow into slits when she is thwarted and must switch from honey to venom to achieve her ends. This is no victim of sexism as Stockard Channing played her in a feminist interpretation for the 1997 Lincoln Center revival.
   Similarly, Nixon asks for little sympathy as Birdie, the dipsomaniac aunt shoved into a corner. She doesn’t overplay this desperate woman’s loneliness but conveys the intense lengths she goes to to mask it and her brief moments of self-awareness and honesty made possible by drink.
   Richard Thomas as Horace—Regina’s ailing, conscience-stricken spouse—provides a fiery curtain speech as he denounces his wife, while Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein are suitably wily as the grasping Hubbard brothers. The audience utters an audible gasp when Ben states the Hubbards and their kind “will take over this country some day.” Hellman’s warning of corporate greed trumping the common good is coming true, and she accurately saw that women will be on both sides of the fight.

April 19, 2017
Present Laughter
St. James Theatre

Walter Kerr Theatre

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kevin Kline and Kate Burton in Present Laughter
Photo by Joan Marcus

Charm and whimsy are the main ingredients in three recent theatrical offerings on and Off-Broadway. Each has its own unique tastes and flavors—one is a reliable old favorite, the second a delightfully frothy new dessert, and the third a strangely interesting soufflé of emotions, ideas, and observations on modern life.
   The most charming and familiar of this trio is Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (1939), an autobiographical romp centering on Garry Essendine, a comically vain British stage star, not unlike Coward himself, as he prepares for a whirlwind theatrical tour of Africa and untangles a web of friends, lovers, and crazed fans. I missed the first two American Broadway stagings with Clifton Webb (1946) and Coward himself (1958) since they were put on before I was born, but I did see it with productions starring George C. Scott (1982), Frank Langella (1996), and Victor Garber (2010). Kevin Kline, still dashing and trim at nearly 70, makes a joyously pompous Garry. He is full of funny, over-the-top bits meant to convey Garry’s inflated ego and tendency to histrionics. Watch as he puffs up like an offended pigeon when accused of overacting or when he stops to check out his thinning hair in front of a hall mirror, even when answering a frantically rung doorbell.
   But Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s uneven direction makes this production not nearly as dizzying a knockabout farce as Scott’s self-directed show or the highly sexualized almost-orgy Scott Eliot made of the Frank Langella version. This is more along the lines of Nicholas Martin’s mildly amusing 2010 Victor Garber edition for Roundabout Theatre Company, fun but not wildly so. There are several fits and starts as the comic engine of Coward’s intricately constructed plot warms up in the first act. It isn’t until the hilarious second act when Garry must juggle two lovers, his former wife, a jealous husband, a kooky stalker, and a dignified titled visitor that the action really gets going. After that pinnacle of merriment and confusion, the engine runs down and the evening ends on an anticlimactic note.
   The reliable Kristine Nielsen nearly steals the show as Garry’s sarcastic secretary. She matches Kline gesture for gesture and expression for expression. Kate Burton, who made her Broadway debut in the 1982 production as the ingénue (here played winningly by Tedra Millan), returns with dry wit as Liz, Garry’s former but still loving wife. Ellen Harvey does a delicious deadpan as the chain-smoking Swedish housekeeper. Not quite as successful are Bhavesh Patel (overplaying the nutty adoring fan), Cobie Smulders (lacking allure and passion as the temptress Joanna), and Reg Rogers (using the same Cowardly Lion/Snaggletooth voice he’s employed in numerous other roles). David Zinn’s stylish set and Susan Hilferty’s gorgeous costumes provide the perfect atmosphere for this light entertainment.

Equally bubbly, but with an emphasis on whimsy rather than charm, is Amélie, the new musical based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant’s 2001 French hit film. The title character is sort of like Garry. She’s a dreamy waitress at the center of an odd assortment of friends, but instead of complaining about their eccentricities, she performs secret good deeds for them. Director Pam MacKinnon proves she is as adept at staging enchanting adult fables as she is at enlivening dramas such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. The Gallic bon-bon features a sweet score by Daniel Messe and Nathan Tysen, a tidy book by Craig Lucas, and an enchanting lead performances by a spritely Phillipa Soo. The boyishly endearing Adam Chanler-Berat makes a sweetly offbeat love interest. A versatile ensemble delivering memorable work includes Tony Sheldon as a reclusive artist, Paul Whitty as a friendly fish and an amorous plumber, Randy Blair as Elton John-like rock star and a struggling writer, and Alyse Alan Louis as a daffy hypochondriac.
   Present Laughter’s David Zinn designed the candy-colored costumes and the adorable set suggesting a fantasy version of Paris, lit like a Renoir by Jane Cox and Mark Barton. At a fast 100 minutes, Amélie is a sweet and tasty crème brûlée of a show.

Sarah Ruhl’s awkwardly-titled How to Transcend a Happy Marriage starts out as neither whimsical nor charming. The audience is greeted by the carcass of slaughtered goat hanging over the smart contemporary set designed by (who else?) David Zinn. The first act unravels like a tacky sex farce as two straight couples voyeuristically discuss a charismatic temp worker who lives in a triad arrangement with two men and kills her own meat (hence the animal corpse). They invite the threesome (or throuple) over for New Year’s Eve for bicurious games. Sexual and spiritual complications follow in the deeper second act. The characters gain dimension, and the proceedings acquire a fantastic, whimsical, and yes, somewhat charming tinge as the participants consider the serious consequences of their salacious actions and the tempting temp undergoes a magical transformation. The play becomes much more than a dissertation on the trendy topic of polyamorous arrangements, addressing the very nature of family.
   Director Rebecca Taichman and an adept cast handle the transition with dexterity, shifting from naughty jokes to existential sorrow to communal joy. As George, one of the straight wives and the play’s confused narrator, Marisa Tomei paints the stage with a palette-full of emotional colors—bright comic reds, deep sad blues, and fascinating purples when they get mixed together. It’s a startlingly affecting performance in a surprisingly effective play that transcends categories.

April 3, 2017
The Glass Menagerie
Belasco Theatre

Sweeney Todd
Barrow Street Theatre

Man From Nebraska
Second Stage Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve,” says Tom, the melancholy narrator of Tennessee Williams’s beloved The Glass Menagerie. “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In the new Broadway revival, the seventh since its 1945 premiere, director Sam Gold has stripped this delicate memory play of the magic Tom evokes. The stage is bare, the walls of the Belasco Theatre are exposed, there are few props, and Adam Silverman’s lighting is as unforgiving as the naked light bulb that exposes Blanche DuBois’s true age.
   Unlike John Tiffany’s 2013 haunting, surrealistic dream vision, Gold offers a raw, unvarnished retelling of Williams’s autobiographical tale of the fantasy-ridden Wingfield family and the brief, heartbreaking visit by a charismatic Gentleman Caller to the painfully shy daughter Laura. Tiffany’s staging stressed the script’s ephemeral memory aspect but also brought out the deep love among the Wingfields. The deep affection among the family is here thanks to soulful connections between Joe Mantello’s layered Tom and Sally Field’s somewhat clownish, rage-filled Amanda, the desperate mother. But Gold’s inconsistent, concept-driven direction obscures this bond, as well as Williams’s themes of comforting lies versus harsh reality.
   Why have a drenching onstage rainstorm during the Gentleman Caller dinner scene when you’ve established a minimalist, no-frills aesthetic? Why have that sequence accompanied by a contemporary song when the rest of the score evokes the time of the play, the late 1930s to early ’40s?
   To add to the confusion, Gold has cast Madison Ferris, an actor with muscular dystrophy, as Laura, whom Williams describes as having a limp. Ferris exudes a confident air even as she is helped in and out of her wheelchair and moves with difficulty by herself. This is totally contrary to Williams’s depiction of Laura as a pathetic creature who can’t even sit through a typing course without being ill. This Laura can take care of herself, a choice that diffuses the impact of the tender encounter with Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, played as a shallow narcissist by Finn Wittrock.
   It’s understandable that Gold would want to try a startlingly different tack, since the play has been done so often and Williams’s original intent was to shake up theatrical conventions. I have previously seen the play three times on Broadway (with Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, and Cherry Jones). I’ve seen it Off-Broadway (Judith Ivey), in summer stock (with Maureen Stapleton), in regional theater in Philadelphia (Geraldine Fitzgerald), in community theater, Off-Off-Broadway, in film (Gertrude Lawrence and Joanne Woodward), and on TV (Katharine Hepburn). (I have not yet seen the restored 1966 broadcast with Shirley Booth.) So a fresh approach is admirable, but why blast away all the poetry?

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s magnificent musical horror show Sweeney Todd is as gritty as Menagerie is gauzy, and a radical staging shift does not diminish its power. Harold Prince’s original 1980 production was set in a giant factory. In 1989 Susan L. Schulman placed it on a crowded London street. In 2005, John Doyle moved it to an insane asylum, and last summer’s Glimmerglass version was played out in a 1950s town hall. A new production imported from London places the thrilling tale of a throat-slashing barber and a cannibalistic cook in its most logical setting—a meat pie shop—and the results are deliciously devilish. Designer Simon Kenny has transformed the Barrow Street Theatre into a cozy eatery with audience members crowded into shared tables and benches, munching on Mrs. Lovett’s delicacies before the show starts.
   Like Sam Gold, director Bill Buckhurst has stripped Sweeney down—there are only eight actors and three musicians—but he has not attempted to deconstruct it. Buckhurst uses the intimate setting to create a terrifyingly close experience, having the actors move around and on top of the tables. It’s like being trapped inside a closet with a razor-wielding maniac (Amy Mae’s lighting, with the instruments hidden behind gratings, makes the atmosphere particularly spooky). At one point, the deranged Sweeney screams “Move!” to a theatergoer so he has enough room to strangle a victim.
   That bloodcurdling command is uttered by Jeremy Secomb, a holdover from the British production and probably the most frightening Sweeney you’ll ever see. His rumbling baritone and imposing physique are accompanied by a thousand-year stare, which he fixes on certain patrons. Siobhan McCarthy captures Mrs. Lovett’s jolly amorality with precise comic timing. Two other Brits, Duncan Smith and Joseph Taylor, create memorable impressions as the vile Judge Turpin and the spritely Toby. Among the fine American players, I especially enjoyed Betsy Morgan’s double turn as the addled Beggar Woman, and the boisterous rival barber Pirelli. Music director Matt Aument and his trio manage to impart the lushness of Sondheim’s complex and gorgeous score.

Tracy Letts’s Man From Nebraska at Second Stage begins minimally but gradually takes on the weighty subjects of faith and finding your place in the universe. The opening scenes depict late-middle-aged businessman Ken Carpenter and his wife, Nancy, on a typical Sunday, with very little dialogue: attending church, eating out, visiting Ken’s elderly mother in a nursing home as the TV blares, driving home, going to bed. But suddenly Ken bursts into sobs and cries, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” The rest of the play follows Ken as he searches for meaning in a meaningless world. Letts’s script is packed with subtext, brought out by an insightful cast and director (David Cromer). As he did in last season’s The Humans, Reed Birney as Ken creates a shattering and affecting portrait of a man suddenly without moorings. Annette O’Toole is equally heart-wrenching as his alienated spouse. The playwright is best known for the Pulitzer Prize winner August: Osage County, which was something of a massive melodrama about a large dysfunctional family right out of Shepard and Albee-ville. He achieves more devastating effects by tightening his focus onto one Man adrift.

March 12, 2017
Sunset Boulevard
Palace Theater

Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Most Broadway revivals of classical musicals featuring the original stars have been museum pieces vainly attempting to re-create the first incarnation’s magic. The resurrections of Yul Brynner in The King and I, Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!, and Angela Lansbury in Mame are examples of this waxwork genre. Fortunately, Glenn Close’s returning to her Tony-winning role of the demented silent-film diva Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard two decades later does not fall into this category of delusional retreads—which would have been ironic since Desmond is foolishly striving to revive her faded cinema stardom. Not only has Close deepened her interpretation, but Lonny Price’s new staging, imported from London, is an imaginative stripped-down retake of Trevor Nunn’s gargantuan 1994 edition.
   Andrew Lloyd Webber’s synthetic score and the simplistic book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton still fail to approach the noir nightmare vision of Hollywood created in Billy Wilder’s legendary 1950 film. But with Price’s more intimate staging, Close’s magnificent performance is even more striking. She is no longer competing with a massive set. Designer James Noone has placed a spooky soundstage around the onstage orchestra with grainy projections of vintage film premieres adding to the ghostly atmosphere. Perhaps inspired by Sondheim’s Follies, Price has added a ghost of Norma’s younger self to haunt this tragic tale. Close also takes a cue from Follies and goes deeper into Norma’s dementia both psychologically and vocally. She actually sounds like an aging star whose singing range has diminished, often going into a falsetto. At once a narcissistic monster and a frightened child, Close’s creation is so much more than an above-the-marquee turn, it’s a shattering portrait of dashed fame, endless ego, and voracious lust. Like a boa constrictor, she grips her victim, the young writer Joe Gillis, and never lets go. She’s also totally convincing when Norma makes her claim that “With One Look” she can manufacture any emotion.
   While Close is the engine that drives this vehicle, Michael Xavier, as Joe, actually has more stage time. He displays an impressive voice and physique and knows when to take center stage and when to give the spotlight to the star. Fred Johanson makes for a frightening Max, Norma’s looming butler keeping up his employer’s fantasies (though he does resemble Ted Cassidy as Lurch on The Addams Family a bit too closely). His magnificent bass gives an eerie tone to “The Greatest Star of All.” An able chorus gives dimension to multiple supporting roles, with Nancy Anderson and Katie Ladner particularly vivid as struggling cinema workers.

Obie-wining playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon, Inappropriate, Gloria) also revitalizes old material—really old material. His Everybody, now at the Signature Theatre Center, takes the 15th-century allegorical play Everyman and transforms it into an intense meditation on modern mortality and morality. In the original, the titular symbolic figure is summoned by God’s messenger, Death, to give an accounting of his life to his creator. He is allowed to bring a companion along the journey from which there is no returning. Characters representing Friendship, Family, and Possessions turn him down. Only Love will make the trek as all earthly connections disappear.
   Jacobs-Jenkins gives this relic a modern twist and adds the somewhat gimmicky element of having five of the roles assigned at random at every performance. This could have come across as a shallow parlor trick, but director Lila Neugebauer and her sharp company endow these abstract concepts with weighty detail, as does the playwright, making an intellectual exercise into a visceral experience. The grandmotherly Marylouise Burke is a delightfully unexpected Death, Jocelyn Bioh miraculously transforms from a friendly usher to the ominous voice of God, and Chris Perfetti is a compassionate Love. Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Lakisha Michelle May take up the remaining roles. At the performance attended, Cancelmi made a moving Everybody, Bloom was a sassy Friendship, and Kelly was a riot as Stuff, Everybody’s material possessions.
   Both productions show that even dusty plays and musicals can have new life if the right cast and director get to work.

February 21, 2017
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s hard to pick one, but Jitney is probably my favorite in August Wilson’s decade-by-decade, 10-play cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. It’s kind of the underdog of this mammoth collection, and maybe that’s why I like it best. There are no star parts. There are no flashy elements of mysticism, which can be found in The Piano Lesson and Gem of the Ocean. Jitney was one of Wilson’s early plays, written even before his breakout hit (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). It was the first Wilson play to premiere in NYC in an Off-Broadway theater (Second Stage in 2000) and is only now making its Broadway debut, in a dynamic revival from Manhattan Theatre Club.
   While other Wilson works contain powerhouse central roles and have attracted big names such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington (Fences), Whoopi Goldberg (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Phylicia Rashad (Gem of the Ocean), and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams (King Hedley II), Jitney is a true ensemble piece with the dramatic weight almost equally distributed among its nine characters—the original won Drama Desk and Obie awards for the entire company. The setting is a run-down Pittsburgh car-service station in 1977 (David Gallo, who designed the 2000 version, returns with a different but equally arresting and detailed environment).

Taxis don’t travel to this section of the city, so residents rely on unlicensed cabs for transportation. Becker, who runs the station, provides moral support as well as wheels. He’s an unofficial leader of the community, finding jobs for nephews and cousins attempting to get their lives in order and organizing his fellow businessmen to protest a city plan to tear down their buildings. But while he’s a figurative father to the neighborhood, his own family is in ruins. His son Booster is being released from prison after 20 years, and their strained reunion is one of many threads in the vivid tapestry of the play.
   The drivers and their steady clients come and go, telling stories and dreams, and living out their personal narratives, which sometimes cross over each other. There’s gossipy Turnbo, constantly inserting himself in others’ dramas; alcoholic Fielding, barely scraping by on his fares and subsisting on visions of the past; wily Shealy, using the station’s pay phone to run his numbers operation; and fiery Youngblood, a Vietnam vet struggling to hold down three jobs to support his girlfriend Rena and their infant son.
   There are flaws—obvious exposition and a silly subplot involving jealousy and secrecy between Youngblood and Rena. But Wilson creates a rich, fully inhabited group portrait of a community struggling to define itself in the shadow of bureaucratic and corporate white America. The symbolism and poetry are subtle, and the characters are brilliantly alive.
   Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Featured Actor Tony Award for Wilson’s Seven Guitars, brings out more humor than Marion McClinton did in his 2000 staging. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James’s splashy 1970s outfits for Shealy draw audience guffaws with his every entrance. The more serious moments are equally intense. A minor dispute over a cup of coffee can escalate into near tragedy. A confrontation between father and son becomes an earth-shattering debate over the black man’s dignity and how to achieve it.
   John Douglas Thompson, one of our best actors in classical roles, turns in his usual stellar work as Becker, skillfully displaying the man’s strength and his heartbreak. Brandon J. Dirden is a worthy opposite as his struggling son Booster. Anthony Chisholm, a veteran of the 2000 production, is deeply affecting as the tippling Fielding, particularly as he recounts a dream about his estranged wife. Michael Potts captures the anger underneath Turnbo’s pettiness; and the reliable Keith Randolph Smith makes a wise Doub, a driver who shares his wartime experiences with Youngblood. André Holland and Carra Peterson clash and connect with conviction as Youngblood and Rena. Harvy Blanks and Ray Anthony Thomas provide comic support as Shealy and Philmore, customers with woman trouble.

Since Wilson’s death, in 2005, few African-American playwrights have gotten their work produced on Broadway—interestingly most have been women. Katori Hall, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lydia R. Diamond, and Danai Gurira have had one or at the most two shows on the Main Stem, and Lynn Nottage will make her belated Broadway debut this spring with a transfer of her play Sweat from Off-Broadway. Wilson’s voice remains one of the most important in all American theater, but it speaks volumes that he is the sole African-American author to have had a consistent presence on the country’s main commercial stage for the past three decades. We should be grateful that Jitney has driven onto New York’s most popular theater thoroughfare and more audiences will be exposed to it, but more productions from new young authors of all races will truly reflect our national psyche.

January 19, 2017
The Present
Sydney Theatre Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The box office draw of radiant Cate Blanchett may be the reason The Present, Australian playwright Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s first untitled play, in a production from Sydney Theatre Company, is now on Broadway. But the double-Oscar-winning star is just one shining jewel in a mostly dazzling show full of farcical humor, heartbreaking pathos, and pointed political observation. Clocking in at three hours, the comedy-drama has its slow points; the third of four long acts is especially lead-footed. Yet the intense and witty moments more than make up for the snooze-inducing snatches.
   Usually when a classic work is translated into a modern setting, it feels mismatched, like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. But Upton, Blanchett’s husband, has managed to fit the late-19th-century work, unpublished until long after Chekhov’s death under the title Platonov, into a contemporary slot without shoving or straining. We are still in Russia, but rather than the original pre-Revolutionary era, it’s post-glasnost with the oligarchs in charge rather than the tsar. In celebration of her 40th birthday, the vivacious Anna Petrovna (Blanchett) has gathered a group of friends to her late husband’s estate for a festive weekend. Chief among the celebrants is Mikhail Platonov (the charismatic Richard Roxburgh), a failed but still vibrant intellectual approaching middle age who attracts all the women at the party.
   Like their country, everyone at the gathering is in a state of upheaval. Their emotional turmoil parallels the national state of confusion as the rigid Communist structure gives way to chaotic quasi-capitalism with Anna attempting to play influential elderly suitors against one another as she eyes Platonov. Mikhail performs a similar romantic juggling act, barely balancing Anna, his wife Sasha, and Sophie and Maria, the respective romantic partners of his two best friends Sergei and Nikolai.

This plot summation makes the play sound like a riotous farce, but it’s also a sharp portrait of the shifting state of Russia. Anna’s dead husband, referred to as The General, and his contemporaries represent the ruthless former regime, while the younger guests are the confused and displaced inheritors of a broken system. John Crowley’s sharp staging expertly blends comedic and melodramatic elements. The polished performances of the Australian cast allow us to differentiate among the myriad characters and keep their complex relationships straight.
   In addition to Blanchett and Roxburgh, I particularly enjoyed Chris Ryan’s comically insecure Sergei, Susan Prior’s conflicted Sasha, and Marshall Napier’s blustering Ivan (Sasha’s alcoholic father). The action flags after intermission when we discover a drunken Platonov seated centerstage bemoaning the mess he has made of his and everyone else’s life. One by one, his fellow guests approach him to restate their individual problems and then wander off into the night. This gets repetitive really fast, but fortunately, the final scene, where all the conflicts come to a crashing conclusion the next morning, regains the dizzying pace of the earlier sequences.
   The title refers to both senses of the word—a gift as well as the current time. Though it has its flaws, this Present is a stunning evening of theater and an insightful examination of how echoes of the past can influence how we live now.

January 9, 2017
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward

The moment you enter New York Theatre Workshop for Sam Gold’s searing production of Othello, you know it will be a startlingly different interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the noble Moor. Set designer Andrew Lieberman has reconfigured the normally spacious playing area into a tight, claustrophobic army barracks. Mattresses and macho gear like nudie magazines, snack food bags, and electric guitars are strewn everywhere. There’s even an actor’s actual artificial limb by his bedside. Audience members are crammed like sardines into uncomfortable wooden bleachers to view this tense drama of jealousy, manipulation, and power. Jane Cox’s striking lighting employs headset flashlights and floodlights to create an eerie, battle-torn atmosphere.
   In Gold’s unsparing staging, Othello and his followers are modern American and English soldiers occupying a Middle Eastern territory. Parallels are drawn between the Bard’s themes of racism and misogyny and contemporary issues of the same conflicts along with imperialism and cultural oppression as the self-hating, Cockney, Caucasian Iago (a brilliantly devious Daniel Craig) is driven to distraction by the merits and advancement of the foreign, dark-skinned Othello (David Oyelowo in a powerhouse, career-defining performance). You could infer similarities to Trump and Obama, but that’s up to you.
   Regardless of the political implications, the production has the impact of a gut punch. Iago and Othello are engaged in a wrestling match to the death, which sometimes becomes literal (kudos to fight director Thomas Schall). Craig captures the broiling rage of Iago and his insidious drive to spread lies and “fake news” about Desdemona’s fidelity. This is an Iago akin to Richard III in his quest to destroy anyone who has what he doesn’t. His envy of Othello’s happiness in marriage and career inspires him to infect the Moor with the same disease. Many only know Craig as James Bond, but his performance here—and in Broadway productions of A Steady Rain and Betrayal—displays a subtle craft unseen in the 007 franchise.
   Oyelowo matches Craig in intensity and masterfully calibrates Othello’s descent into uncontrolled madness. He begins as the assured general, confident in his military ability and his love for Desdemona (a charming and spirited Rachel Brosnahan) despite the heated disapproval of her bigoted father Brabantio (an appropriately indignant Glenn Fitzgerald). His doubts, fed by Iago’s lies, gradually take over Oyelowo’s noble visage, twisting it with fury and turning him into an inhuman monster. His humanity returns with devastating force at the final denouement when the truth of his wife’s faithfulness and his ensign’s deceit trigger a howl of despair that seems to come from the pit of hell.
   Even the supporting roles are fully fleshed out. Marsha Stephanie Blake is a flinty Emilia, Finn Wittrock is a valiant but flawed Cassio, and Nikki Massoud makes a heartbreaking Bianca, a role usually thrown away. Special mention to Matthew Maher, whose comic timing and honest limning give depth to the normally buffoonish Roderigo. At one point he crawls out of a footlocker. I’m not sure how this was accomplished, but it was just one arresting moment in a landmark production.

December 29, 2016
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
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

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
The Front Page
Broadhurst Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

If you think of the new revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page as an all-star baseball game, then Nathan Lane is the closing relief pitcher, hurling perfect comic strikes with every throw. He doesn’t come on until the last few innings, and his team has been flagging with a few walks but not many solid base hits. Director Jack O’Brien has not given his cast the proper pacing for this frantic 1928 farce of foul-mouthed scandal-sheet scribblers cracking wise and chasing scoops in corrupt Chicago. This comes as a surprise since O’Brien is such an adept hand at large-scale ensemble pieces such as the musical Hairspray, the conflation of two Henry IV plays, the three-evening The Coast of Utopia, and a London stage adaptation of His Girl Friday, the 1940 movie version of Front Page that transformed the original into a romantic comedy by switching the lead character’s gender to female.
   That central relationship is between ace reporter Hildy Johnson (John Slattery of Mad Men) and his ruthless “anything for a story” editor Walter Burns. Just as Johnson is about to chuck his ink-stained-wretch status for a well-scrubbed fiancée (the charming Halley Feiffer) and a cushy New York job in advertising, Burns pulls him back for the biggest byline ever, covering the escape of unlikely convicted cop killer Earl Williams (rabbit-like John Magaro).

Hecht and MacArthur based this knockabout romp on their own raw experiences as newspapermen with two dozen denizens of the sleazy side of the fourth estate and various hangers-on trouncing through the courthouse press room (appropriately squalid set by Douglas Schmidt). Burns enters late in the action and is meant to be a capper to the mad media circus. But, in the current staging, the preceding one hour and 45 minutes is only intermittently rollicking, and Lane delivers a much needed jolt with his amazing timing, phrasing, and reactions. (Watch his body slump as he attempts to move a huge roll-top desk or his face contort into a galaxy of horrified disgust at a hack writer’s poetic drivel.)
   As Hildy, a game Slattery anchors the action for much of the show and valiantly attempts to keep up with Lane, but Slattery pales once his co-star steps onto the field. The remainder of the large company is perfectly acceptable but rarely reaches Lane’s Olympic-level antics. Those who come closest are Dann Florek as a pompous, platitude-spouting mayor; Micah Stock as a dim-bulb cop on a psychology kick; and Jefferson Mays as that would-be rhymester, a fussy proto-Felix Unger, prissily spraying disinfectant. Sherie Rene Scott achieves genuine pathos as the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, and Robert Morse earns guffaws in the cameo role of a nebbishy messenger. Lewis J. Stadlen and Dylan Baker register the strongest among the crowd of Hildy’s fellow newshounds. John Goodman goes for Foghorn Leghorn cartoonishness as a goofy, good-ole boy sheriff. They’re a strong team, but Lane is unquestionably a star among stars.

October 26, 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
The Encounter
John Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

What was that blowing in your ear? Did it send a chill up your spine? Was it a real whisper of air or just the sound of one? Simon McBurney and a brilliant crew of technicians provide such auditory thrills in The Encounter, that rare Broadway event: a solo show that opens minds rather than celebrating individual personalities or showcasing a star’s facility with accents and quick costume changes. Inspired by Petru Popescu’s book The Encounter: Amazon Beaming, the piece ostensibly focuses on real-life National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre’s 1969 mind-altering journey into the Amazon rain forest where he meets up with the primitive Mayoruna tribe or “Cat People.” The Mayoruna are constantly on move, escaping from the civilizing forces of the white man. The photog’s perceptions of time and space bend and twist as he follows the tribe deeper into the forest. The tribe’s chief, who seems to be able to communicate with McIntyre telepathically, relays that they are going back to their “beginning,” a possible reference to death, to preserve their identity.
   This could have been a simple action-adventure tale with McIntyre as a Harrison Ford–type hero caught in a trap with suicidal maniacs and scheming for a daring rescue. But McBurney, who also directs the show, adds layers of meaning and dimension. He begins with deceptive casualness, strolling onto Michael Levine’s sound-studio set while the house lights are still on and the audience is testing out the headphones found on their seats. Almost offhandly, he introduces the concept of reality being a shared illusion. “We’re all here on what we agree is a Saturday night at 8 p.m. in New York City,” he says without even batting an eye, and then launches into McIntyre’s bizarre journey, employing Cheese Doodle bags, unstrung videotape, and other found material to create an immersive soundscape. The voices of academics, journalists, philosophers, and commentators dart in and out of the tale, along with occasional visits by McBurney’s little girl asking her daddy for nocturnal drinks of water and stories as he reads the book that will become the play we are watching.

Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin’s sound design envelops us completely as McBurney draws us in, aided by Paul Anderson’s evocative lighting. We’re watching a live podcast, and the sounds create the mesmerizing environment. McIntyre begins to doubt his place in the universe when he loses all his possessions—including his camera, clothes, and even his sense of identity as the tribe keeps moving and ritualistically burns everything it owns.
   As artistic director of the innovative British theater company Complicite, McBurney has challenged our notion of what a play is and should be in such genre-shattering works as Mnemonic and A Disappearing Number. Here he forces us to question our reality as he breaks down the familiar conventions of theater, eventually transforming McIntyre into a wild beast trashing the set. The creator-performer daringly submerges himself into an alternate universe of sound and sensation, taking venturesome theatergoers on a wild ride.

September 30, 2016
 Sweeney Todd and The Crucible
The Glimmerglass Festival

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
Neil Simon Theatre

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Meow and forever, Cats is back. After a smash London premiere, the original NYC production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline phenomenon became the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history, inspiring devoted loyalty among fans and disdain among naysayers. The rambling cat-alogue of frisky vignettes ushered in an era of Eurospectacles that were long on flash and glitter and short on substance (Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, etc. The latter is returning to Broadway next spring, God help us). I confess I never saw that original Cats staging live—but I did catch a PBS filmed version. The new production is largely the same with a few tweaks here and there. Trevor Nunn’s staging remains as sleek and taut as an alley kitty skulking after a tasty mouse, and Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler has been brought in spice up Gillian Lynne’s original choreography.
   Derived from a book of poems by T.S. Eliot in a rare whimsical mood and chock-a-block with Lloyd Webber’s pastiche ditties, Cats is the theatrical equivalent of sitting by the fire with Tabby and stroking her fur—for over two hours. Like Sondheim wrote in Gypsy “Some people can get a thrill/Knitting sweaters and sitting still…. But some people ain’t me.” The whisker-thin plot—if you can call it that—consists of a group of pussycats competing for the right to take a ride on a huge tire to the “heavyside layer,” whatever that is, and start a new life, apparently after the customary nine have been used up. In between specialty numbers, the shaggy leader Old Deuteronomy goes missing for a few minutes, Grizabella the ex-glamor cat wanders around looking sad, and, after a big build-up about how nasty he is, the menacing Macavity scratches a few of his fellow felines. That’s it for the storyline. Anybody for a warm saucer of milk?
   I did enjoy a few individual numbers, particularly in the second act. Jeremy Davis exuberantly leads a merry, bouncy tour of sleeper cars as Shimbleshanks the railway cat, and Ricky Ubeda dazzles like a furry Liberace as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. Christopher Gurr is adorably pompous as the rotund gourmand Bustopher Jones and the sweet doddering Gus the theater cat. British pop star Leona Lewis takes on Grizabella’s showpiece aria “Memory.” She has vocal power but no nuance, rendering what could have been a soaring epiphany anticlimactic. John Napier’s oversized junkyard setting and anthropomorphic costumes still enchant, while Natasha Katz’s dynamic lighting creates more drama and conflict than the wispy script.

Meanwhile, not all is shallow caterwauling in NY theater. As we enter into a new phase of the seemingly endless 2016 presidential campaign, Lincoln Center Theater presents a powerful theatrical reminder that political plays can be just as spectacular as high-budget musicals. J.T. Rogers’s Oslo portrays the heroic and unheralded efforts of a Norwegian couple to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table when U.S. attempts resulted in stalemate. Derived from real events in 1992–93, this three-hour epic is as gripping as a spy thriller and as absorbing as a Ken Burns documentary.
   Currently playing at the Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse, Oslo will transfer to LCT’s Broadway venue the Vivian Beaumont in the spring, just in time for the 2017 Tony Awards, offering an adult alternative to juvenile fare such as Cats. It’s indicative of the Broadway theater scene that not only is this a rare instance of a nonmusical dealing with a serious political topic, it’s one of only two new American plays announced for the current Main Stem season.
   Bartlett Sher provides his usual exemplary direction, making clear a potentially confusing story with dozens of characters and story threads woven into a tapestry of international intrigue. Donald Holder’s ghostly lighting, the eerie projections of 59 Productions, and Catherine Zuber’s monochromatic costumes give Oslo the feel of a half-remembered black-and-white dream.
   Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle balance steely command with patient deference as the Norwegian facilitators. They are so restrained for most of the play that Michael Aronov and Joseph Singer as fiery Israeli officials nearly steal the show, but in a final devastating montage where the cast recounts the violent history of the region after the Oslo accords, Mays and Ehle deliver a shattering conclusion, equal parts despair and optimism. The rest of the large cast is uniformly excellent as well.
   Ideally there should be room on Broadway for both Cats and Oslo, but it will be interesting to see which will draw the bigger crowds.

August 5, 2016
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
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
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
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
Golden Theatre

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
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
Buried Child
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

The Humans
Helen Hayes Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The American family comes in for a drubbing in two productions: The New Group’s revival of Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize–winning Buried Child and the Broadway transfer of Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which could well win the same award for 2016. Both plays tear apart the idealized view of the nuclear clan, exposing the disillusionment and despair beneath the rosy exterior. Though the plays are written almost 40 years apart, their observations are startlingly similar. Shepard is more savage and Karam more compassionate, yet both are subtle and mysterious in their examinations of the terrors in everyday life.
   Buried Child premiered in San Francisco and then Off-Broadway in 1978. A revised version produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company played Broadway in 1996 (the playwright’s long-overdue Main Stem debut). Gary Sinise’s 1996 staging was ominous to the point of Hitchcockian suspense with a huge staircase right out of the mansion in Psycho dominating the set. In the current production, now playing at the Off-Broadway Signature Center, director Scott Elliott emphasizes the dark humor so that the grim revelations are more startling.
   Derek McLane’s deceptively simple set with its faded wallpaper and beat-up furniture suggests the ruin of the characters. The patriarch, Dodge, is confined to the couch, an alcoholic shell of his once-vital self. The family’s decimated farm is suddenly sprouting huge vegetables. His delusional wife, Halie, indulges in fantasies of her dead son, Ansel, as an all-American hero, while their living children Tilden and Bradley are respectively damaged psychologically and physically. Into this decaying milieu comes Tilden’s long-absent son, Vince, and his girlfriend, Shelly, for what they think will be a friendly visit. But no one recognizes Vince, and a horrifying secret is gradually revealed. Shepard leaves a lot unsaid. Who was Vince’s mother? What trouble did Tilden get into in New Mexico? How did Ansel die? The buried child of the title doesn’t answer any of these queries, but it symbolizes the devastated dreams and fake hopes of the family and American society.
   Ed Harris’s Dodge dominates the action, a weakened lion growling with an echo of diminished power, furious at his weakness. He finds the brutal comic punch in Dodge’s fury. Amy Madigan, Harris’s real-life, is appropriately pinched and repressed as Halie and expresses shattering anger as her illusions are destroyed. So does Rich Sommer’s Bradley, a bully with the spine of a coward. Paul Sparks is heartbreaking as the diminished Tilden. We don’t know all of this tragic figure’s wrecked past, but hints can be found on Sparks’s eloquent features. Larry Pine is hilariously befuddled as Rev. Dewis, Halie’s ineffectual spiritual advisor and possible lover. As Vince and Shelly, Nat Wolff and Taissa Farming, young actors with mostly film and TV credits, fail to plumb the depths of Shepard’s dark vision.

Shepard is merciless in his unraveling of the comfy American dream, while Karam shows compassion for those whose slumbers are beset with nightmares. The Humans, opening at the Helen Hayes Theatre after a hit Off-Broadway run with the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels, takes a familiar template—a holiday gathering with too much drinking leading to too much truth—but gives it a ghostly twist.
   The Blakes are victims of strange nocturnal horrors such as a faceless woman and an endless tunnel. They also obsess over apocalypse-predicting websites, natural and man-made disasters, and monsters in comic books and on TV shows. These are manifestations of their anxiety and inability to cope with economic and social pressures. Like the Buried Child family, their illusions have been exploded.
   Joe Mantello’s tight direction and the sterling, deeply felt performances from a magnificent ensemble of six are intact from the Laura Pels engagement. David Zinn’s two-tiered set might have some sightline problems for those on the extreme ends of the narrow Helen Hayes Theatre house, but that is the only quibble for this stunningly accurate snapshot of how we live now.

February 17, 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


Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

The Public Theater

Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage II

Reviewed by David Sheward

“Nobody knows what any of this shit means!” cries one of the characters in Ayad Akhtar’s gripping play Junk, now at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater after a previous production at the La Jolla Playhouse. The line is spoken by a government agent investigating the monetary tomfoolery of Robert Merkin, a fictional version of junk-bond king Michael Millken. The character is expressing the exasperated view of most of the public who are not in the financial field when the intricacies of big-time investment are discussed. Fortunately, Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer for Disgraced, and his director Doug Hughes makes these complex maneuverings fascinating and exciting, if not entirely understandable.
   The story follows the not-strictly-legal shenanigans of Merkin (played with a savage gusto by Steve Pasquale) who upends Wall Street in the 1980s by hostilely taking over blue-chip corporations with high-risk, debt-rich securities known as junk bonds. The money trail takes us from Los Angeles to New York to Allegheny, Pa., home of Everson Steel, Merkin’s latest target, a third-generation family business ripe for plucking. Along the way we encounter insider trading, poison pills, white knights, racism, anti-Semitism, class conflict, political ambition, and the disturbing observation that Merkin’s predatory practices have become commonplace in both business and public life. Akhtar paints a compelling and large canvas depicting an America celebrating massive wealth and moral bankruptcy.
   Hughes’s crisp staging on John Lee Beatty’s chrome-and-steel unit set keeps the action moving as fast as those neon symbols on the stock market news zipper, and the large cast (more than 20, which is huge for a nonmusical Broadway show) creates distinct and vibrant characters so we follow the sometimes confusing storyline. Particularly memorable are Michael Siberry’s patrician financier, Rick Holmes’s bewildered and blustering steel tycoon, and Joey Slotnick’s shady stock trader.

Like Akhtar, Richard Nelson has created a compelling view of an insider world. His Illyria focuses on the theater folk behind the fledgling New York Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 1958 as they face myriad financial, artistic, and political setbacks and prepare for a production of Twelfth Night (which is set in the imaginary idyllic land of the title). Illyria is being presented at the Public Theater, the current home of the NYSF, now a respected cultural institution. Unlike Akhtar, Nelson has not invented thinly veiled fictional versions of his characters, but gives their real names. In another dissimilarity, Junk is full of bombast while Illyria is played and directed (by Nelson) in such a low-key manner it’s like eavesdropping on private conversations. But that’s exactly the effect the playwright-director is after. In his Apple and Gabriel family plays, also produced at the Public, we seemed to be dropping in on real-life situations where tiny, everyday details mix with momentous events.
   The main conflict is between the Festival’s fiery-tempered, imaginative producer Joseph Papp and the cooler, more pragmatic resident director Stuart Vaughan. Papp sees the free Shakespeare venue as a service to underserved audiences and an end in itself while Vaughan views it as a temporary steppingstone to a Broadway career. Nelson skillfully mines this struggle to explore such themes as art versus commerce, the rich against the poor, theater’s place in society, and the use of public space. His technique of underplayed dialogue is deceptively simple. He slips in the big ideas amid debates over which movie to see and who’s dating whom.
   John Magaro conveys the fury and brilliance of Papp while John Sanders captures Vaughan’s measured cautious nature. They and the rest of the company create an illusion of intimacy as a legendary theater is born.

While Akhtar and Nelson have made their mark, Anna Ziegler is emerging as a vital new voice. Her play The Last Match is currently playing at Roundabout’s Laura Pels, and her Actually recently opened at Manhattan Theater Club’s studio space after engagements at the Geffen Playhouse and Williamstown Theater Festival. The play could not be more timely as the flood of sexual-harassment allegations raises a myriad of issues. This sharp and scary two-hander pits what some see as black-and-white into troubling realms of gray. Sexual and racial overtones arise as African-American Tom and Jewish Caucasian Amber give separate accounts in alternating monologues of a night that may or may not have been a date rape, depending on whom you believe. Ziegler wisely does not choose sides but endows each character with virtues and flaws. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz manages to maintain tension and intensity through the play’s 90-minute running time despite the limitations of the format. Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha bring a galaxy of conflicting emotions to these confused young people. Like Illyria, Actually with its modest set and tiny cast, sneaks up on you.
   These Off-Broadway shows may not be as overwhelming as Broadway’s Junk, but their punches are just as powerful. You just won’t feel it right away.

November 21, 2017
Torch Song
Second Stage Theater at the Tony Kiser Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

When Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award in 1983, presenter Diahann Carroll wasn’t even allowed to accurately describe the tender, hilarious play. While giving a detailed synopsis of each of the other nominees, her copy for Torch merely summarized it as being “about love and the merciless mayhem loves wreaks.” When the play unexpectedly won, producer John Glines sent shockwaves across America by thanking his male lover. (I remember Johnny Carson made a joke about it on The Tonight Show the following evening.) Even the show’s TV commercial covered up its then-controversial content. Producers were afraid if Straight John and Jane Q. Public knew the show was about an unapologetic gay drag performer’s quest for a long-term relationship and an extended family, they’d shy away.
   After Falsettos, Will & Grace, Ellen, same-sex marriage, and Transparent, Fierstein’s heartwarming work no longer shocks, but it still moves. Originally presented as three separate one-acts Off-Broadway, the nearly four-hour comedy-drama with Fierstein repeating his role as the autobiographical Arnold Beckoff, Torch Song made the case for gay romance outside of bars and bathhouses. The current revival at Second Stage has been wisely slimmed down to two hours and 45 minutes with only one intermission, and the title has been shortened (not to be confused with Joan Crawford’s 1953 film sudser of the same name).

Moisés Kaufman’s trim and slick production veers a bit too far into sitcom territory with broadly limned performances and borderline-shticky staging, yet the cast remembers there are pulsating hearts amid the pratfalls. At first Michael Urie’s Noo Yawk–accented Arnold comes across as clownish. Plus it initially appears the athletic and boyishly cute Urie is all wrong for the gravel-voiced, self-deprecating Arnold. (“I’ve never been young or beautiful,” he confesses to the audience in a revelatory opening monologue.) But Urie makes us believe that Arnold sees himself as unattractive and alone. He shows us the yearning beneath the mascara and that makes the sometimes exaggerated comic lines ring true.
   Mercedes Ruehl is his equal as Arnold’s sharp-tongued, judgmental mother (a role that led Estelle Getty to be casted on Golden Girls). She deals dexterously in pathos as well as punchlines. So do Ward Horton, Michael Rosen, Jack DiFalco, and Roxanne Hope Radja as various friends and lovers.
   Later this season, there will be Broadway revivals of Angels in America and The Boys in the Band. Along with Torch Song, it will interesting to see how these snapshots of gay culture play in today’s somewhat-more-accepting climate.

November 14, 2017
M. Butterfly
Cort Theater

The Portuguese Kid
Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage I

The Last Match
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The war of the sexes rages on various fronts in Julie Taymor’s Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and John Patrick Shanley’s self-directed new play The Portuguese Kid. Butterfly addresses gender fluidity while Kid is one of Shanley’s screaming matches with lovers driven wild by their libidos. Both offer moments of entertaining and fast-paced staging, but lack depth in their dispatches from the front.
   Butterfly chronicles the truth-based case of French diplomat René Gallimard, imprisoned for espionage committed with his Chinese mistress whom he did not know was a man. John Dexter’s Kabuki-and-Noh-influenced original 1988 Broadway production was a smash hit, running 777 performances, a rare feat for a nonmusical show. The news that Julie Taymor, one of the most imaginative directors of the modern theater, would be working her magic on a new version was a thrilling prospect. The result is occasionally striking but ultimately disappointing from the director of The Lion King and a dazzling Midsummer Night’s Dream. As she did with her Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark disaster, Taymor focuses on visuals and neglects the human connections.
   The opening is gripping. Clive Owen as Gallimard is crouching in a prison cell made of two panels, with a single light bulb dangling over head. (Donald Holder’s stark lighting creates an appropriately bleak picture.) The same basic image is repeated with Owen in various poses of despair. Finally, a tiny white butterfly puppet symbolizing his vanished love flutters just out of his reach. This vividly conveys the basic story in economic and poetic terms. But the subsequent staging consist mostly of actors running on and off, rearranging set designer Paul Steinberg’s bland screens. There is brief excitement during the Chinese opera segments (Ma Chong provided the intricate choreography) and when Owen’s Gallimard demands Jin Ha as Song Liling strip for him.
   Owen strikes out at the highly artificial set pieces, screaming he is tired of exaggerated theatricality (I felt the same way by this time late in the first act). Too bad there is little spark between Owen, who is miscast as the fumbling diplomat, and Ha, who is intriguingly feminine in his gender-bending role. The ruggedly handsome Owen is just not right for the inept, self-conscious Gallimard. The character is supposed to be hopeless with women until he meets the idealized Song who is not even a “real” female. In the original, John Lithgow exquisitely conveyed the Frenchman’s foolish fascination with an illusion. Owen doesn’t fully commit to Gallimard’s obsession. He doesn't even don a wig in the final moment of ironically transforming into a geisha.
   Further muddying the waters, Hwang has updated his script with graphic descriptions of Song’s sexual deception and details about his/her gender identity based on revelations about the real figures involved. With today’s higher awareness of transgender issues, you would think these alterations would make the play more relevant, but they serve only to make it confusing. The first version was infused with mystery and sexual longing, but playwright and director have clipped the play’s wings, leaving us with an earthbound Butterfly.

Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid doesn’t soar either, but the playwright’s trademark wit and a crackerjack cast at least get it off the ground. Jason Alexander provides a variation on his schlubby George Constanza character from Seinfeld with Barry Dragonetti, a scrambling Rhode Island lawyer caught in a love-hate tug-of-war with Sherie Rene Scott’s ferocious Atalanta Lagana, a man-eating two-time widow. As he did in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck and such plays as Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Italian-American Reconciliation, Shanley charts the explosive elemental conflict between man and woman. The strange title refers to a teenage hood who attempted to rob a panicked Barry. Atalanta thwarted the crook, and Barry has never been able to forgive her for emasculating him.
   There are uproarious laughs and sharp characterizations, briskly directed by Shanley, but the predictable plot runs out of steam before the 90-minute running time. A bit too neatly, Barry and Atalanta have taken up with much younger partners who have been previously involved with each other. I’ll give you three guesses as to who ends up with who. Despite the familiarity of the premise, Kid is an enjoyable if forgettable comedy. Alexander and Scott clash with relish, and Aimee Carrero and Pico Alexander provide spunk and spark as their new flames. But the show is nearly stolen by Mary Testa as Barry’s harridan of a mother. This Broadway veteran is a force of maternal nature, dominating the action in her few scenes.

More successful than either of these mismatched love fights is Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, which portrays a different kind of rivalry but one that is just as binding. Two tennis champs—Tim, an American legend considering retirement, and Sergei, a Russian-born hotshot on the rise—face off in the climactic final of the US Open. Theatrically depicting the thrill of athleticism can be difficult. Lucas Hnath scored with the fascinating Red Speedo, which featured a real swimming pool onstage. However, Eric Simonson’s odes to baseball (Bronx Bombers), basketball (Magic/Bird), and football (Lombardi) failed to rack up many winning points, not conveying the intense physical exuberance of their respective games. Ziegler employs an expected choice of depicting the protagonists’ highly touted courtside encounter onstage (Tim Mackabee created the effective stadium set) and intercutting it with flashbacks featuring the players’ love interests. Ziegler’s incisive, spare dialogue and Gaye Taylor Unchurch’s inventive staging manage to give a sense of the ecstatic blood-rush of competition and how it drives these two men.
   Wilson Bethel captures Tim’s charismatic confidence without being arrogant, and Alex Mickiewicz takes full advantage of the juicier challenge of combining Sergei’s Slavic temper with his devastating insecurity. Zoe Winters manages to give a shine to Mallory, Tim’s wife, who could have fallen into a melancholy trap since she is called upon to fall apart often. Natalia Payne is zesty, nasty, and delightfully resilient as Galina, Sergei’s brutally pragmatic girlfriend. Mackabee’s set includes two gigantic scoreboards on either side of the stage, and we follow the points just as eagerly as if we were at the real match.
   For these three productions, love in tennis beats love off the courts.

October 28, 2017
Mary Jane
New York Theater Workshop

As You Like It
Classic Stage Company is association with Bay Street Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The single mother unfolds her sofa bed, gets undressed, and settles in to check over a huge binder containing medication levels for her seriously ill child. This simple scene is performed in a seemingly offhand manner by the magnificently subtle Carrie Coon as the title character in Amy Herzog’s shattering play Mary Jane, yet it speaks volumes of a heartbreaking situation without tears or bathos. The fact that Mary Jane has to sleep alone in her living room tells us that Alex, her 2-year-old son, is in need of such constant and extensive medical support that the equipment required to keep him breathing takes up the master bedroom (which is offstage in Laura Jellinek’s masterfully functional and evocative set design). And, it incidentally emphasizes the not-insignificant detail that Alex’s father is nowhere in her life. It’s a beautiful demonstration of the playwright showing rather than telling the trials Mary Jane must go through.
   By indirect means, Herzog, Coon, and director Anne Kauffman, who recently staged the similarly themed Marvin’s Room on Broadway for Roundabout Theater Company, reveal the overwhelming details of Mary Jane’s stoic existence. Her son is the center of her universe. His challenges include cerebral palsy and lung damage. The mom’s work, marriage, and personal life have been put on indefinite hold as she juggles the multiple responsibilities necessary to get him adequate care. The play unfolds with compassion, yet at the same time it’s unsparing in its matter-of-factness. It opens literally in the kitchen sink as the female building super is unclogging the drain. Similar mundane vignettes are juxtaposed with the backbreaking routine of maintaining Alex’s health. One minute Mary Jane is chatting with one of the many at-home nurses she employs about the latter’s garden, then they seamlessly segue into debating whether Alex had a seizure the night before.
   Coon delivers the most heartbreaking yet un-theatrical performance in recent memory. The almost casual manner with which she rattles off the merits of specially equipped strollers belies the heartache inside. The pain comes through only occasionally, but when it does it’s devastating. Watch her face crumble as a doctor explains a difficult, decades-long diagnosis for Alex. Or witness her slowly building fury over the bureaucratic red tape she must unravel just to schedule a visit from the music therapist. Four exemplary actors play two roles each with equal conviction. Liza Colón-Zayes effortlessly switches from a warm nurse to an all-business doctor. Susan Pourfar provides welcome comic relief as two different mothers in situations similar to the heroine’s. Brenda Wehle gives quiet depth to the compassionate super and a Buddhist nun. Danaya Esperanza injects empathy into a visiting relative of Mary Jane’s nurse and the music therapist. Kauffman’s straightforward, smooth staging is the perfect means to reveal this shattering portrait of how illness can complicate lives.

While Mary Jane takes a hyperrealistic, no-nonsense view of a tragic situation, director-designer John Doyle gives us a hyperwhimsical slant on Shakespeare’s already frothy As You Like It, now at CSC after a staging at the Bay Street Theater. The trouble is it’s too whimsical, if such a thing is possible. Plucky heroine Rosalind’s charade in trousers to win the heart of the displaced Orlando is joyous and fun, but it exists against the backdrop of a dictatorial Duke exiling his just brother (Rosalind’s dad) to the Forest of Arden. Doyle remembers the goofiness, but the stakes in the romance of the leads and the redemption of the refugees are not very high. Employing a pared-down, 100-minute, intermissionless script, a bare-bones set, and a lighter-than-air performance style, this Like zips along but doesn’t stick.
   There are moments of delight, chiefly during the musical interludes. This being a Doyle production, most of the cast members play their own instruments, and Broadway’s Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, etc.) has supplied Rodgers-and-Hart-like music to accompany the Bard’s lyrics.
   The leads fail to offer much weight. Hannah Cabell’s starchy Rosalind doesn't make much of a connection with Kyle Scatliffe’s earnest Orlando. As a result, Quincy Tyler Berstine’s wry Celia steals most of her scenes with her deadpan reactions to the implausible goings-on. Ellen Burstyn dryly delivers the world-weary witticisms of Jacques, normally played by a male actor. André De Shields is a subdued jester, and Bob Stillman attempts to create two distinct characters as the nasty Duke and his virtuous sibling, but the action is so short and fast, not much registers in this soap-bubble Shakespeare.

October 3, 2017
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Playwrights Horizons

Small World
Penguin Rep Theatre at 59E59 Theaters

Reviewed by David Sheward

The interplay of childhood fantasy and harsh adult reality is the subject of two current Off-Broadway plays. Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday at Playwrights Horizons is a melancholy meditation on death, age, and the constant cycle of life, while Frederick Stroppel’s Small World at 59E59 Theaters is a shallow sketch attempting to address big themes but producing only occasional chuckles and mild nods of recognition.
   Both works have flaws, but Ruhl’s is a vivid tapestry of a family undergoing universal changes. This weird play centers on Ann and her four late-middle-aged siblings as they deal with their father’s death. Like Ruhl’s own mother, Ann played the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in a community theater production in 1950s Davenport, Iowa, and she fondly recalls her theatrical flights to Never Land as she contemplates mortality. The structure is unconventional to say the least. We open with Ann addressing the audience, reminiscing. Kathleen Chalfant is delightfully endearing here, reliving Ann’s teenage triumph as Peter and getting to meet Mary Martin, the actress forever identified with the role. Ann hints about trouble in her life, and then the curtain parts to reveal David Zinn’s charming set combining a hospital room and the family home. The unnamed father is tied to a jungle of tubes and wires, and the five almost-elderly children are seated in a row. In a long, protracted sequence full of naturalistic pauses and small talk, Ann, her sister Wendy, and brothers John, Jim, and Michael discuss family history, politics, and their joys and regrets.
   Then Ruhl takes a wild left turn from this painfully naturalistic milieu, and we head off for Never Land with Ann donning her green tights, the arch-conservative Jim camping it up as Captain Hook, and the remaining sibs cavorting in pajamas as the Darling kiddies. The symbolism is pretty heavy (“Captain Hook is Death! Kill Death,” cries Ann-as-Peter during a pretend battle), and the Never Land segment runs out of steam before it finishes, but Ruhl still paints a heartbreaking and insightful portrait of adult passages. Les Waters, who also staged the play at the Actors Theater of Louisville’s Humana Festival, skillfully balances the disparate styles. A compassionate cast led by the exquisite Chalfant as Ann and Lisa Emery as Wendy establishes Ruhl’s duality of detailed naturalism and metaphor-laden dreamscape. The pain of enduring change and facing maturity’s burdens are feelingly rendered. Chalfant’s brief monologue describing the death of the family dog is so real, I was almost in tears when the canine (played by the marvelous Macy) actually appears as a ghost-memory.

Peter Pan was one of many iconic childhood characters brought to animated life by Walt Disney, and Frederick Stroppel takes us behind the scenes at the great cartoonist’s dream factory in the slight two-hander Small World. The premise is intriguing: Disney is meeting with legendary Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to discuss adapting the latter’s masterwork The Rite of Spring for the groundbreaking feature Fantasia (1940). The expected high-art-versus-pop-culture arguments erupt as Stravinsky rails at Disney for rearranging his score and employing battling dinosaurs rather than his original plot of Slavic tribes sacrificing a maiden. In the second scene, the roles are reversed and the Russian composer has gone completely Hollywood and attempts to persuade the financially strapped studio head to film his opera based on the Faust legend (it later becomes his stage work The Rake’s Progress). The final meeting in this 80-minute work takes place in heaven where the two meet for a final collaboration. Stephen D’Ambrose as Stravinsky and Mark Shannan as Disney give competent impersonations of the great figures, and Joe Brancato delivers a neat staging, but there’s nothing new here. Deep art doesn’t sell as well as pleasant cartoons. Geniuses can be temperamental bastards. Quel surprise!
   Ruhl’s Peter Pan isn’t bursting with startling new insights either (“growing old sucks” is not a news flash). But it’s presented with commitment and compassion, and it soars above the pedestrian Small World.

September 26, 2017
On the Shore of the Wide World
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

British playwright Simon Stephens is best known on these shores for his Tony-winning adaptation of the novel The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But he has had many original works as well, including Heisenberg and Bluebird—both short and minimalist pieces, but loaded with intense emotions and truthful insight about human relationships. In On the Shore of the Wide World, his latest play to be imported to America, now at the Atlantic Theater Company, Stephens has gone in the opposite direction. The title is from a Keats poem but the play is less than poetic. While this dysfunctional family drama has some arresting moments, it drags on too long and becomes predictable and cliché-ridden.
   The play starts in an intriguing and unconventional tone, though the theme of repressed feelings leading to damaged psyches is a familiar one. Stephens begins with an almost Pinter-esque atmosphere of unspoken menace as we meet Alex and Sarah, an amorous young couple looking for fun on a Saturday night in a suburb of Manchester. There’s an undercurrent of anxiety in their libidinous byplay, echoed in scenes with Alex’s parents, Peter and Alice, and his grandparents, Charlie and Ellen. Fissures of tension crop up as Christopher, Alex’s jittery 15-year-old brother, falls hopelessly in love with Sarah, who in turn creepily flirts with the macho Peter. To add to the mix of suppressed passions, the seemingly charming but outrageously alcoholic Charlie assaults Ellen when she begins to show signs of independence. Simon has laid the groundwork for a scary look at an uncommunicative clan.

But then an unexpected tragedy rips the family apart and sends the play into a melodramatic tailspin. I won’t reveal the surprise trauma, which arrives near the end of Act One, but, after it’s uncorked, Stephens’s quirky observations and plotlines turn into soap opera fodder. Peter and Alice drift apart and find varying degrees of solace with attractive new acquaintances. Charlie has a cancer scare, which forces him to re-evaluate his inadequate performance as husband and father. Alex and Sarah move to London to escape the suffocation of their small town. (How many times have we seen these tropes in TV movies, novels, etc.?) In the final scenes, after several sequences tying up all the loose ends a bit too neatly, all are reconciled around a family dinner table.
   Fortunately, Neil Pepe provides a strong staging and the cast delivers heartfelt performances, depicting the pain of buried longings. C.J. Wilson makes Peter’s stone-faced silence speak volumes, as does Ben Rosenfeld as the tortured Alex and Peter Maloney as the gruff Charlie. This veteran actor actually manages to make us sympathize with this hard-drinking narcissist, which is no mean trick. Mary McCann has the somewhat less challenging assignment of pouring Alice’s heart out since the character is more in touch with her sorrow. Similarly, Wesley Zurich exuberantly conveys Christopher’s unbridled adolescent urges. Unfortunately, Tedra Millan and Blair Brown are unable to completely humanize the bizarre Sarah and the thinly drawn Ellen. The actors and director deliver a professional product, but it’s nothing new or exciting.

September 12, 2017
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Free Shakespeare in the Park/Public Theater

Singing Beach
Theatre 167 at HERE Arts Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

An elderly woman in a nightgown slowly walks across the back of the stage like a ghost in a vision or a lonely soul wandering the halls of a nursing home. This is the haunting final image of Lear deBessonet’s unexpectedly fresh production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. Shakespeare’s comedy of mismatched lovers, fairies, and a donkey-headed weaver is such a popular choice that it’s hard to imagine a new approach. (In addition to acting in it as a rude mechanical and a sprite, I’ve seen at least seven stage productions). But deBessonet has managed to find an original concept: She makes the tale one of the aged wisdom informing rash, impetuous youth in the ways of love and art.
   In most stagings, the ethereal minions of Oberon and Titania, the rulers of fairyland who treat mortal like marionettes, are played by athletic youngsters or even children. Here, the inventive director has cast mature performers as the otherworldly spirits. That one at the end is played by Vinie Burrows, a veteran performer whose Broadway credits stretch back to The Wisteria Trees with Helen Hayes in 1950. The magical monarchs are given majestic life by the mature and dignified Richard Poe and Phylicia Rashad, while Puck, the principal impish practical joker, is enlivened by the magnificent character actor Kristin Nielsen. All the fairies are attired by costume designer Clint Ramos in variations of white pajamas, as if they were attending a senior slumber party.
   Thus the inhabitants of the spirit world influencing the human one become the elders and holders of experience. The bedeviled four lovers spin their wheels but finally wind up in the right pairs of arms thanks to the ministrations of these mature pixies. Shalita Grant as Hermia, Kyle Beltran as Lysander, Alex Hernandez as Demetrius, and a brilliantly daffy Annaleigh Ashford as the hapless Helena are a fearsome foursome of lovestruck lunatics. Likewise, the fumbling but good-hearted amateur Athenians staging Pyramus and Thisby, led by Danny Burstein’s delightfully braggartly Bottom and Jeff Hiller’s hilarious Flute (a hoot in drag as Thisby), learn and benefit from the otherworldly elders.
   In addition to this novel interpretation, deBessonet provides dazzlingly funny direction as the multiple plots play out on David Rockwell’s revolving pastoral set, perfectly suited to the park’s natural milieu. Add some spicy battle-of-the-sexes chemistry between Bhavesh Patel’s pompous Theseus and De’Adre Aziza’s sexy Hippolyta, and you have the perfect Dream for a midsummer night.

Fantasy and elder issues also figure in Singing Beach, the first new stage work by prizewinning author Tina Howe in eight years, now playing at the HERE Arts Center. While the seniors in the Central Park Midsummer are invisible spirits playing pranks, Howe’s elderly figure is facing an all-too-serious dilemma. Just like the father in her Painting Churches, Beach’s Ashton Sleeper is a renowned poet succumbing to senility. As his daughter Merrie resists her second husband Sebastian’s efforts to place Ashton in a nursing home, a Category 4 hurricane is bearing down on their seashore summer home. The main action is granddaughter Piper’s fantasy-tinged voyage to save her grandfather from a miserable future. Bullied by her elder brother Tyler, and ignored by her mom, stepdad, and father Owen (now in London with his male spouse), Piper retreats into a fantasy world where oceans freeze and she and Ashton are valued and praised.
   Howe has not lost her knack for the fascinating detail, poetic yet realistic dialogue, and captivating, eloquent characters she displayed in such plays as Coastal Disturbances, Pride’s Crossing, and Chasing Manet. Everyone in the play has an interesting résumé. Merrie is a novelist, Owen an artist, Sebastian a lecturer in Ovid, etc. Even Piper’s dream characters, who include her science teacher and the star of her favorite TV show, would make stimulating dinner companions. But at a scant 75 minutes, the play feels underdeveloped. The theme of catastrophic climate change mirroring the family’s inner turmoil is touched upon but not fully explored. In addition, Ari Laura Kreith’s staging feels as limp and slow as the unfortunately named Sleeper. The actors—all except those playing Ashton and Piper double as the real and fantasy figures—are tentative and hesitant in their characterizations. This Beach could benefit from some further shaping by the playwright, one of our best and most imaginative.

July 31, 2017
Cost of Living
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I

Napoli, Brooklyn
Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre/ Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two new Off-Broadway plays exemplify trends in dramas about family and social relations over the past 57 years. Meghan Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn, at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels space, echoes theater of the era of its setting—1960—when the stage was dominated by autobiographical memory pieces depicting creative, free-spirited offspring longing to escape dysfunctional parents. Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living reflects 21st century attitudes featuring rootless, lonely protagonists, craving to create family units of their own. Both have credulity-stretching flaws as well as moments of tenderness and honesty, but Majok’s Cost rings the truer of the two.
   Cost’s title refers to the price we pay for human connection. The four characters are two seemingly unrelated pairs whose only link is that both are composed of a caregiver and a disabled person. Eddie pleads to aid his former wife Ani, still recovering from a devastating accident that shattered her spinal cord and cut off the lower portion of both legs. Jess, a seemingly capable young woman, takes on the difficult task of bathing and grooming John, a graduate student with cerebral palsy. As the two connections are formed, we discover that the able-bodied Eddie and Jess are just as needy as, if not more so, than their charges.
   The fiery-tempered Ani vehemently rejects her separated spouse’s advances to care for her, but Eddie reveals his aching fear of being alone. At first, it appears John is the dependent party while Jess is the flinty survivor, but a romantic misunderstanding shows she is the desperate one. Majok subtly depicts this delicate push-pull quartet with only an occasional slip into melodrama. Her realistic dialogue includes razor-sharp, self-deprecating barbs for Ani and John, played with flair and snap by real-life disabled actors Katy Sullivan and Gregg Mozgala. Victor Williams reins in Eddie’s painful feelings of isolation just as Jolly Abraham keeps Jess’s sorrow at bay, hiding it with a bluster of self-reliance. Only in the touching final moments do we see how broken these two are. Director Jo Bonney achieves a perfect balance of pain and laughs, wisely underplaying both elements. The most affecting scenes are the simplest, involving baths and showers as Sullivan and Mozgala unflinchingly reveal themselves and their characters at their most vulnerable.

The family in Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn is equally vulnerable, but the play containing them feels a bit too familiar. The Italian-American Muscolino clan could be right out of central casting from a midcentury, kitchen-sink drama, with its brutal, abusive father Nic; long-suffering mother Luda; and three daughters itching to escape their Park Slope flat. Tina quit school to go to work in a tile factory to help support the household. Vita is at least out of the house but imprisoned with nuns after physically defying Nic. The youngest, 16-year-old Francesca, is discovering her lesbian identity and plans to run away with girlfriend Connie to bohemian France. Kennedy paints her people and the friends surrounding them in blacks and whites. Luda is too understanding and Nic is too monstrous to be believed, while the young women are all a clichéd hue of earnestness; there are not enough shades of ambiguity.
   The first act sets up the various conflicts of the family as—well as those of Connie’s father, an Irish butcher with an unspoken attraction for Luda, and Celia, Tina’s African-American co-worker. Then a deus ex machina literally falls out of a sky—there was an actual airplane crash in the neighborhood in 1960—which transforms everything, but not really. In the second act, there is the traditional big dinner scene where almost all the characters are rather unbelievably brought together and their hidden tensions come boiling to the surface without much provocation. In the final scene, Luda delivers a big, wisdom-packed monologue as all the struggles are resolved way too tidily and all loose ends are tied up.
   Despite the script’s flaws, director Gordon Edelstein delivers a flavorful staging with the feel of a close-knit neighborhood (Eugene Lee’s homey set creates the right lived-in atmosphere, and Ben Stanton’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound effectively convey the shocking crash). Alyssa Bresnahan tones down Luca’s saintly benevolence and adds a dash of astringent wit. Michael Rispoli, largely trapped by Nic’s nasty excesses, plays him mostly as an ogre, but the actor occasionally shows the man’s divided heart. Lilli Kay as Tina, Elsie Kibler as Vita, and Jordyn DiNatale as Francesca capture the daughters’ devotion and dignity. Fine cooks, but a too-routine recipe.

July 8, 2017
Angels in America
New York City Opera at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

New York City Opera closes its 2016–17 season with the bold choice of Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos’s adaptation of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s two-part epic on the impact of AIDS. Librettist Mari Mezei compresses the seven-hour original into a brisk two-and-a-half hour, single-evening event. Much of Kushner’s complex musings on myriad topics from the fall of international communism to Ronald Reagan’s soulless conservatism to the Mormon faith are jettisoned to focus on the interrelationships of the characters, each devastated by the disease and homophobia.
   This is the NYC debut of this opera, which premiered in Paris in 2004. Since the Broadway productions of Kushner’s original two-parter (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) in 1993, the massive work has been transformed into an HBO mini-series and received an Off-Broadway revival. This musical version is not as complex nor moving as its source material. Eotvos’s atonal score is an acquired taste. There are no traditional romantic soothing melodies. The music is disturbing and unsettling, capturing the sense of displacement experienced by the characters as the calm surface of their daily lives is ripped open by the spread of AIDS and their turbulent inner conflicts are exposed. A diverse musical vocabulary—including Mormon hymns, Jewish cantorial intonations, pop tunes, and jazz harmony—creates a cacophonic tapestry of late-20th-century sound. Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti achieves a full and rich orchestral performance, supplemented by a vocal trio in the pit.

Gay law clerk Louis Ironson cannot cope with the AIDS diagnosis of his boyfriend Prior Walter and shatters their relationship as Prior receives visitations from a mysterious angel. Attorney Joe Pitt represses his homosexuality as his wife, Harper, indulges in pill-induced hallucinations. Powerbroker Roy Cohn, based on the actual right-wing, secretly gay attorney and political operative, hovers over the action like an evil winged dragon. In Kushner’s plays, Cohn is the dark center of Part One, and Prior emerges as the hero of Part Two as he challenges the Angel and God for wreaking havoc on mankind. That struggle and dynamic is diminished in Mezei’s condensation, but stage director Sam Helfrich and a strong cast create believable tension.
   Andrew Garland is a passionate Prior, Aaron Blake captures Louis’s ambivalence, and Michael Weylandt conveys Joe’s inner struggle. As Cohn, Wayne Tigges skillfully alternates between a dark baritone vocal and nasal spoken sneer. Countertenor Matthew Reese is amusingly sassy as the nurse Belize, an imaginary travel agent, and a homeless woman. Sarah Castle is wry and inventive as a Jewish rabbi, impressively vocalizing cantor-ish scales. She is equally memorable as Cohn’s no-nonsense male doctor and Joe’s doting, denying mother. Sarah Beckham-Turner delivers a multilayered Harper as well as a tart Ethel Rosenberg, the ghost who haunts Cohn. Kirsten Chambers takes full advantage of the octave-tripping trills and leaps Eotvos wrote for the Angel and endows her with an acerbic wit.

The production ran only four performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The brief run did not achieve the earth-shattering impact of Kushner’s original but offered only a reminder of the play’s power while employing interesting but not gripping musical terms.

June 18, 2017
Julius Caesar
Free Shakespeare in the Park/Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Gregg Henry and fellow cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Last summer, the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park Series unsuccessfully imposed a modern feminist slant on Taming of the Shrew by employing an all-woman cast. This year, the Public launched the 2017 season with another contemporary take on one of the Bard’s classics with transgender casting, but this time the updating and non traditional acting assignments largely work out.
   It was only a matter of time before the outsize personality of Donald Trump found its way into a Shakespearean production, and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis has chosen the most appropriate vehicle for our current president’s debut in verse drama: Julius Caesar. In a strikingly fluid and arresting production that spills into the aisles of the Delacorte Theatre—re-created by set designer David Rockwell as a cross between modern NYC and D.C.—Trump becomes the title character, a warrior returning to Rome after military victories, eager to lead and perhaps become deified by a grateful, if easily pliable, populace. Marc Antony is now a woman, played by the reliable Elizabeth Marvel as Texas party operative. A huge ensemble (there must have been about 50 actors) becomes the ever-changing Roman mob, switching sides and wreaking havoc.
   The first third of the play is full of easy laughs as parallels between 2017 and 44 B.C. are drawn. Messages are “posted” by I-phones. The gross publicans are recast as street protestors wearing either red “Make America Great” baseball caps or black Resist T-shirts. Caesar’s asides to his entourage become startlingly topical as he bids individuals to dine with him alone, just like Trump with ex-FBI director James Comey. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia is now a Melania knock-off complete with Slavic accent and expensive tastes (Paul Tazewell created the tasteful costumes). Caesar-Trump’s bellicose proclamations of self-love sound especially familiar.
   The SNL guffaws cease when the would-be dictator is assassinated, and Marc Anthony rouses the citizenry into authoritarian chaos. The forces of rebels Brutus and Cassius become underground lefties clashing with riot police. My only quarrel with this black-and-white concept is it robs the play of Shakespeare’s rich, grey-hued ambiguities. Here Caesar is an unalloyed monster and his killers are justified in their actions. Anthony is a sly manipulator rather than a loyal friend winking at Caesar’s flaws. In a more traditional reading, there are no heroes or villains, but each figure contains a bit of both.

Despite this shortcoming, Eustis has created a stirring and gripping Caesar that barrels along in a rapid two hours with no intermission. Gregg Henry is a bombastic Donald, I mean Caesar. Corey Stoll captures the earnest integrity of Brutus, while John Douglas Thompson incorporates Cassius’s short-tempered pettiness as well as his passionate pride. Marvel is a cold-blooded Antony, not above stooping to use Caesar’s mangled corpse for her own ends. Tina Benko’s Calpurnia and Nikki M. James’s Portia, the wives of Caesar and Brutus usually shunted aside, are fully fleshed creations. Edward James Hyland, Teagle F. Bougere, Yusef Bulos, and Tyler la Marr also make valuable contributions in the huge cast.
   This is probably the most political transposition of JC from ancient Rome to a contemporary setting to play on or Off-Broadway. The only other staging in my mind that might come close is Orson Welles’s 1937 Mercury Theatre edition, which placed the action in a fascist-leaning Europe. (No I didn’t see it. This was way before I was born.) A 2012 Guthrie Theatre production featured an Obama-like Caesar with conspirators resembling Republican leaders such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
   It’s a sad comment that we find ourselves teetering on the brink of a possible similar catastrophe and that this alarmingly relevant production has only a few performances left. In another sad commentary, two major corporate sponsors have pulled their funding over the depiction of a Trump-like figure being assassinated. Delta Airlines has withdrawn for all Public Theater productions, and Bank of America pulled out only from Julius Caesar.)

June 12, 2017
A Doll’s House, Part 2
John Golden Theatre

Six Degrees of Separation
Barrymore Theatre

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The 2016-17 Broadway season ends with two bangs and a sort of whimper mixed with a chuckle. A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Six Degrees of Separation examine difficult questions of identity in powerhouse productions, while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stumbles and trips but is kinda funny in a goofy way. Though written almost 30 years apart and set in different centuries not our own, the first two plays offer vital snapshots of how we live now. Their themes are timeless and so can be applied in 1890, 1990, or 2017. The silly kid’s musical is good for a couple of guffaws.
   The idea of a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic of feminist rebellion has been tried before without success. The musical A Doll’s Life ran for less than a week in 1982 and played a slightly longer limited run in an Off-Broadway revival at the York Theater Company. So playwright Lucas Hnath took on a potentially dangerous assignment. He wisely builds on Ibsen’s premise but is not enslaved by it. As he did in his previous taut Off-Broadway works The Christians and Red Speedo, in A Doll’s House, Part 2 Hnath transforms the stage into an arena where each character is fighting for his or her spiritual or emotional life and needs something vital from everyone else in the play.

It’s 15 years after Nora Helmer slammed the door on her repressive union with the unimaginative Torvald. In the interim she has transformed from a fluttery squirrel to a successful author advocating the abolition of matrimony, but it turns out her husband has never officially divorced her. She needs this official decree to avoid a scandal, but he refuses, and that’s the crux of the drama. The servant Anne Marie and the Helmers’ daughter Emmy also have stakes in the outcome of the conflict. Hnath has these four speak in contemporary dialogue, which somehow is not a distraction, and brilliantly depicts the messy aftermath of a dramatic gesture like Nora’s escape. This is so much more than a sequel; it’s a gripping examination of the ways people try to live together under a restrictive society and what happens when they fail. Each character in the battling quartet is treated like a full human being with noble and petty motives rather than as spokespeople for a stance.
   Sam Gold’s measured direction injects just the right amount of humor to leaven this living-room war (Miriam Buether’s set resembles a lecture hall, and David Zinn created the handsome period costumes). Laurie Metcalf is a strikingly complex Nora, at once the brave heroine forging her own future and a narcissist bent on achieving her own ends. The actor boldly gives equal weight to both sides of Nora’s personality and is unafraid to expose her less-than-pure objectives. Her timing is amazing, earning laughs and gasps with the merest look and gesture. Chris Cooper has a bigger challenge as the buttoned-up Torvald, who is as tightly bound as his massive overcoat. He skillfully reveals the broiling interior beneath this seemingly placid banker’s exterior. Jayne Houdyshell as Anne Marie and Condola Rashad as Emmy create in-depth portraits of two characters who are largely incidental in Ibsen’s original. Similarly, Hnath expands on a classic and provides his own insights into the issues it raised more than 100 years ago.

Just as both parts of A Doll’s House speak to us today, John Guare’s 1990 Six Degrees of Separation is startlingly relevant though certain technological aspects of its plot are outdated. A young African-American con man claiming to be the son of Sydney Poitier would now be found out with a quick Google search. But the longing for identity and a home is just a strong a motivation despite the supposed extended community of the Internet. Based on a real-life hustler, Paul deceives several wealthy Manhattanites by posing as the movie star’s offspring and the chum of their bratty college kids. Chief among those duped are Ouisa and Flan Kittredge whose liberal guilt and alienation from their own children draws them to the charismatic young man. When the schemes are revealed and Paul further complicates the couple’s lives, Flan is outraged, but Ouisa will not dismiss the experience and attempts to make a lasting connection, to reach through the six degrees that separate everyone on the planet.
   Guare’s merciless observations of our media-driven, shallow society still hold. But the play was overlooked for the Pulitzer and the Tony in its original production in favor of the sentimental Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon, who dismissed Six Degrees as slick. Trip Cullman’s sharp revival veers close to the edge of such slickness in its satiric broad strokes, but never takes the fatal leap. Just as Chris Cooper sheds Torvald’s protective covering, Allison Janney slowly peels back Ouisa’s shell of sophistication to expose the vulnerable, confused woman beneath. Corey Hawkins captures Paul’s quicksilver intelligence as well as his pathetic desperation. John Benjamin Hickey conveys Flan’s basically superficial nature. (Ouisa and Flan’s marriage somewhat resembles that of Nora and Torvald with the wife wanting to explore new territory and the husband holding back.) In a uniformly vibrant and large company, Michael Countryman, Lisa Emery, Colby Minifie, Chris Perfetti, and Ned Eisenberg have moments to shine. Mark Wendland creates a rich, suggestive set, perfectly lit by Ben Stanton. Clint Ramos’s costumes suggest the luxurious and aspiring-to-be-luxurious lifestyles of a cross-section of America in this still-relevant and entertaining play.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is neither relevant nor even consistently entertaining, but it does provide the occasional guilty-pleasure shot of sweetness, like one of Willy Wonka’s candies on conspicuous sale in the Lunt-Fontanne lobby. Unfortunately these shots are few and far between. Derived from Roald Dahl’s beloved novel and the 1971 and 2005 film versions, this uneven kiddie show takes us on a roller coaster ride with too many flat stretches. The score incorporates four songs from the ’71 movie by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, as well as new numbers by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (some were also in the London stage version which has been reworked for this Broadway production). The old tunes such as “Candy Man” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” remain sources of delight, as do a handful of the newer ones.
   But David Greig’s book misses the strong narrative drive of the original and the cinema versions. The entire first act is a stretched-out tease leading up to a wacky tour of Wonka’s Dr. Seuss–like confectionary in Act Two. The big secret is revealed at the very opening—no spoilers here—so that Christian Borle as Wonka can have more stage time. Plus a vital character—the mysterious stranger apparently working against Wonka and attempting to influence his five kiddies guests to betray him—has been cut, eliminating any dramatic tension.
   Borle’s chocolatier lacks the charm Gene Wilder displayed in the 1971 film and instead gives us a mean-spirited zany who can do comic voices and accents. On the plus side are a vicious Nutcracker ballet spoof and several of the comic numbers introducing the awful factory tour–winning kids. These roles are played by adults, except the lead part of Charlie, enchantingly played by Jake Ryan Flynn, one of three alternating child actors, at the performance attended. I was less than enchanted with puppet designer Basil Twist’s Oompa Loompa creations and the usually precise Jack O’Brien’s splatter-shot direction. There are occasional zingers that land, mostly delivered by Jackie Hoffman as Mrs. Teevee, the mother of the most obnoxious of the nasty kids. Too bad they haven’t written a new Broadway musical for her caustic talents. Maybe in 2017–18.

May 6, 2017
The Antipodes
Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Annie Baker continues to explore the complex web of human communities in her strange and unexpectedly affecting new play, The Antipodes, from Signature Theatre. Previously she has detailed the connections made in an amateur acting class (Circle Mirror Transformation), a summer snack stand (The Aliens), a crumbling neighborhood movie theater (The Flick), and a possibly haunted bed and breakfast (John). Here, the specimens under her microscope are a group of Hollywood writers developing a major project—either a blockbuster movie or a TV series involving a monster of some kind. As they tell one another stories in search of inspiration for their mass-media project, they form a circle of trust and companionship amid a disintegrating world. The unpredictable auteur disappears, apocalyptic weather erupts, and the line between reality and fantasy blurs.
   The action is deceptively simple, as is Lila Neugebauer’s invisible direction and the naturalistic acting of the brilliant nine-member company. As audience members enter the theater, they encounter Brian (deceptively nerdy Brian Miskell), an assistant tapping away at his laptop in Laura Jellinek’s sterile set. After the staff of scribes enters, Sandy, the quixotic director-creator (hilariously laid-back Will Patton) encourages them to recount their first sexual encounter, and they gradually spin stories of identity, loss and trauma. The receptionist Sarah (wonderfully daffy Nicole Rodenburg, costumed by Kaye Voyce in a series of spot-on trendy frocks delineating her character) takes lunch orders and is eventually drawn into the circle of storytellers with a fantastic fairy tale of her own. Hers is an amazing piece of writing from Baker in a series of shaggy-dog anecdotes, related initially to create the script. But as the world of the writers falls apart—the studio abandons them, they can’t leave because of disastrous weather—they continue creating fiction to survive and they form a kind of Lord of the Flies mini-fiefdom with strange rituals.

The cryptic title derives from a 17th-century British comedy by Richard Brome featuring a London dandy who is deceived into believing he has traveled to the Antipodes, an imaginary parallel England where everything is the mirror image of the real thing. Baker’s trapped fabricators theorize a similar reverse-world for their project. But it’s really the playwright examining our need to create make-believe versions of ourselves to better understand our actual lives.
   The play ends on a bittersweet note as Eleanor (a touchingly understated Emily Cass McDonnell), the only female writer, reads the childish crayon scrawl-stories she composed as a 4-year-old. It’s a tender moment of nostalgia and innocence after an insightful journey tracking the creative process. In addition to those mentioned, Philip James Brannon expertly delivers a seemingly endless, weird creation-myth monologue, Danny Mastrogiorgio and Josh Charles evoke macho to perfection, Danny McCarthy gives appropriately ambivalent voice to the only writer who doubts the process, and Josh Hamilton vacillates convincingly as the new guy whose paycheck never arrives. Their voyage is a fascinating gripping one.

May 17, 2017
Groundhog Day
August Wilson Theatre

Hello, Dolly!
Shubert Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The future and past of musical theater are being triumphantly celebrated this week on Broadway with two exhilarating new productions. Groundhog Day, based on the 1993 film comedy starring Bill Murray, combines an innovative premise with a fresh, eclectic score influenced by many genres, while Hello, Dolly! is a sterling example of the Golden Age of Tuners, employing a familiar template and tropes so well that it seems brand new.
   At the center of each are outsize lead performances. One is a surprising turn by a steadily working pro breaking out of the ranks of the reliable into stardom, and the other is a highly anticipated outing by an established megastar that confirms her status as a world-class entertainer. Andy Karl rockets into the stratosphere in Groundhog Day, and Bette Midler soars even higher in Hello, Dolly!. Ironically, both have had trouble during preview performances. Karl suffered a knee injury that put him out of a few showings, and Midler had a coughing fit, briefly delaying her big Act One finishing number during an evening show. As of this writing, Karl has returned to the show and Midler has had no further reported interruptions.

The devastatingly handsome Karl has played supporting roles in such shows as Legally Blonde, 9 to 5, The Mystery of Edwin Drood , and On the Twentieth Century. He played the title role in the relatively short-lived Rocky, but his work as Phil Connors, a smug weatherman with a déjà vu problem has earned him an Olivier Award for the London production and will grab a basketful of nominations and prizes for the American premiere. The plot conceit of book-writer Danny Rubin, who also penned the original screenplay, is devastatingly simple. Connors is stuck in a time-loop, endlessly reliving the same excruciatingly dull 24 hours when he must cover Groundhog Day festivities in a tiny Pennsylvania hamlet. Without imitating Murray, Karl captures Phil’s gigantic egotism, his dizzying descent into despair and madness, and incremental attempts to become a better person as he adjusts to this hellish repetitive cycle. He flavors Phil’s narcissism with just the right hint of charm so we don’t find him a beast, and his gradual transformation to decency is believable. He’s equally credible and fun as a snide lout, a drunken lech, or a budding humanitarian, plus his vocals and physical movement skills are top notch.
   The surrounding production, inventively staged by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell, is a feast of the imagination. Variations on the same segments of time are played out from different angles and perspectives, achieving an almost cinematic quality (Hugh Vanstone’s lighting aides immeasurably). Set pieces fly apart, revolve, and reassemble like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Tim Minchin’s multilevel score and witty lyrics push the story along and provide character insight. As noted, the musical vocabulary extends beyond Broadway to rock and country.
   Barrett Doss makes an appealing leading lady as Rita, Phil’s news producer and object of affection, matching Karl’s snark with spunk. Rebecca Faulkenberry, John Sanders, Andrew Call, and Raymond J. Lee have individual moments to shine in smaller roles. So this is not a one-man show, but Andy Karl is the brightest spot in Groundhog Day.

While Karl is getting his first taste of unqualified, above-the-title stardom in a major hit (no counting Rocky ), Bette Midler is reasserting her claim as a combination supernova and goddess in the ultimate “big-lady” musical, Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! . Incredibly, this is the Divine Miss M’s Broadway acting debut in a leading musical role. She did play one of Tevye’s daughters in a replacement company of the original Fiddler on the Roof, headlined two concert productions, and played legendary agent Sue Mengers in the solo show I’ll Eat You Last. She brings all of her considerable talents to bear in this scintillating revival. You would think after Carol Channing’s numerous returns in the show, there would be nothing new to be found in this war horse. But director Jerry Zaks, Midler, and a superb company breathe new life into the old gal.
   Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle give the show speed and youthful energy, and Santo Loquasto has created Easter egg–bright sets and costumes. Midler injects her own style of raucous comedy into the role, plus she unabashedly plays to her adoring fans—just about everyone in the civilized world—and establishes a personal connection. Though her voice is limited, she brings reams of subtext to each number, even playing off her supposed exhaustion by leaning against the proscenium arch (but she wisely keeps such shtick to a minimum). From the first moment when she peeks out from behind a newspaper with impish eyes aglow to her grand entrance in Loquasto’s stunning red gown down that stairway for the big title number, Midler takes command of the stage, implicitly saying to the audience, “Look, I know this show is kinda corny, but let’s have some fun with it, kids.” Even a coughing attack just as she began “Before the Parade Passes By” at the performance attended did not stop her from wrapping the entire Shubert Theater around her little finger. She made a joke of her hacking, plowed right on after co-star Gavin Creel brought her a cup of water, and deservedly received the first of three standing ovations.
   David Hyde-Pierce’s ultra-stuffy Horace Vandergelder is the perfect foil for Midler’s life-embracing Dolly. Creel and Kate Baldwin are a gorgeous couple as Cornelius and Irene, while Beanie Feldstein and Jennifer Simard steal their scenes as Minnie Fay and Ernestina. This joyous Hello, Dolly! is a loving salute to a past tradition, while Groundhog Day shows us its dazzling future.

April 20, 2017
The Hairy Ape
Park Avenue Armory

Studio 54

The Play That Goes Wrong
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

There’s more than a tinge of irony in the fact that two current NYC productions depict the travails of the American working class and probably none of the characters could afford the price of a ticket. Aside from this economic consideration, The Hairy Ape and Sweat offer insightful looks at their struggling subjects. Though written nearly a century apart and from different dramatic perspectives, both shows portray their protagonists at the mercy of gigantic forces beyond their control.
   Yank, the bull-headed coal stoker at the center of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist drama The Hairy Ape, starts out as the king of the lower decks, proclaiming he is the engine that drives the mighty ocean liner where he works. Likewise, the habitués of a Reading, Penn., bar in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Sweat, now at Studio 54 after a hit run Off-Broadway at the Public earlier this season, imagine their jobs in a tubing factory are secure because of their generation-old seniority. (There is another layer of irony in this tale of proletariat woe taking place in the former headquarters of elitist disco revelry.) Both O’Neill and Nottage’s regular Joes are in for a rude awakening.
   Another similarity is the high-caliber direction, design, and acting each play receives. Richard Jones’s brilliantly bizarre production of the O’Neill takes full advantage of the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space. Designer Stewart Laing places set pieces on a circular conveyor belt; they glide into place before the audience like the stations on an assembly line or cages in an exhibition. Yank and his fellow toilers are tiny figures in a huge, nearly empty warehouse, lit like a jungle nightmare by Mimi Jordan Sherin and supplied with a frightening soundscape by Sarah Angliss. Yank (a magnificently robust Bobby Cannavale) is the alpha male swinging from the roof of his enclosure, flaunting his muscles and dominating the rest of the crew. But when a millionaire’s spoiled daughter (an appropriately bratty Catherine Combs) calls him a “filthy beast,” he loses his sense of belonging and vainly attempt to regain it in various locations symbolic of the rich (Fifth Avenue), labor (a radical union hall), and his animal instincts (the Central Park Zoo). Jones turns Yank’s journey into a road trip to hell, creating one amazing encounter after another. A noir-ish Jazz Age dance number (Aletta Collins provided the frantic choreography) is followed by a riot in a cellblock, then we get a Metropolis-like vision of faceless wage slaves trudging in rhythm as a heedless rich couple drunkenly falls over themselves and a huge balloon with the face of the shipping line CEO floats above it all.

While Hairy Ape is a daring example of unconventional theatrical forms, Sweat is a relatively safe specimen of the kitchen-sink genre (in another ironic instance, the older play is the more adventurous). Nevertheless, Nottage’s slice-of-lifer is moving and impactful even if the plot is somewhat melodramatic, thanks to Kate Whoriskey’s detailed direction and the cast’s compassionate performances.
   The play opens in 2008 with parallel scenes of a parole officer interviewing Jason and Chris, two recent ex-cons, on their difficult readjustment to life on the outside. Then we switch back to 2000 when Jason and Chris, along with their respective mothers, are working for the local factory. Prospects for the future seem rosy with their wages secure and the union strong, but trouble begins to brew as management downsizes and workers clash along ethnic and racial lines. Based on interviews with real Rust-Belters, Nottage’s script feelingly captures the plight of the working class, frozen out by internationalism and technological advances. Monologues by Tracey, Jason’s mom, recalling the beauty of her grandfather’s carpentry skills, and co-worker Jessie on her regretted life choices, are particularly moving.
   Yet too much of the action feels like a checklist as topics such as opiate addiction, immigration, and automation are crossed off. The story culminates in a soap-operatic, tragic act of violence connecting the two timelines with lives shattered by the uncaring actions of the unseen factory owners. (The play probably would have been more powerful and true-to-life if Nottage had not created such an obviously theatrical, tear-jerking finish.) Kudos to Johanna Day’s flinty Tracey, Alison Wright’s wistful Jessie, John Earl Jelks’s conflicted Brucie (Chris’s drug-addicted dad), Michelle Wilson’s fiery Cynthia (Chris’s determined mom), and Will Pullen and Khris Davis who convincingly portray Jason and Chris at different stages of their lives. John Lee Beatty’s set captures the gritty atmosphere and Jeff Sugg’s video projections provide the political and social context.

For bracing comic relief from all this gloom, the Mischief Theatre Company, a troupe of British loonies, have brought two hours of hilarity to the Lyceum Theater with The Play That Goes Wrong. A college theater troupe mounts a cliché-ridden murder mystery, and everything goes south. Cues are missed, props go missing, the set falls apart (Nigel Hook designed the “deathtrap” of an old mansion). A fellow theatergoer best described it as “Noises Off on steroids.” You would think this one-joke premise would run out of steam after an hour, but Mark Bell’s breakneck staging keep the guffaws building as the play-within-a-play keeps deteriorating. The English company is an inspired lot of buffoons, with playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Chris Bean pulling double duty as a prime suspect, frazzled butler, and nincompoop police inspector. I particularly enjoyed Dave Hearn as an upper-class twit and the brainless actor playing him. He smiles goofily at every flub and basks in audience laughter as if it were approval rather than mockery. The Play That Goes Wrong is marvelously right, with English visitors giving us Americans a welcome break from the Trumpian onslaught predicted by Sweat and The Hairy Ape.

April 11, 2017
The Price
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Joan of Arc: Into the Fire
Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

“You can do anything as long as you win.” That’s not a quote from the playbook of Donald Trump but a line from Arthur Miller’s drama The Price, now in a Roundabout Theatre Company revival at the American Airlines Theatre. When the play first opened on Broadway in 1968, Miller was critiquing what was then called the “rat race”—the gigantic hamster wheel most Americans were running on in order to pile up money and material goods to impress the neighbors and inflate their self-worth. In a furniture-stuffed attic (Derek McLane designed the evocative set), two brothers at opposite ends of the economic spectrum clash over their family’s Depression-era ruin and its aftermath, as their boyhood home is about to be torn down and its contents sold. The title refers not only to the price of the clan’s furniture but also to the human cost of sacrifice and success. Judged as too heady and talky by audiences and critics, the original run was seen as a disappointment from the author of the classic Death of a Salesman.
   Since then, the play has seen numerous productions (this is the fourth Main Stem version). While it is still not as well-regarded as Salesman, Price’s market value has risen. It’s seen as startlingly relevant for its prescient vision of a nation driven by materialism and the “making-a-deal-at-all-costs” mentality. There are still problems with the script. The first act can very easily be taken over by the flashy Gregory Solomon, a wily, octogenarian Russian-Jewish appraiser, full of jokes and observations. Solomon is absent for much of the second act when the action mostly consists of retelling past events rather than showing current conflict. Director Terry Kinney and a stellar quartet of actors have not quite overcome these deficiencies—that second act feels particularly long—but they infuse the proceedings with humor and humanity.
   Danny DeVito of Taxi fame makes a glorious Broadway debut as the elderly sparkplug Solomon, dispensing wisdom and wisecracks as he munches on hard-boiled eggs and Hershey bars. His comic timing is impeccable as is his insight into this canny survivor. I suspect Mark Ruffalo was battling a cold at the performance attended since he sounded congested, but he managed to work it into his character, the beleaguered brother Victor who gave up a promising scientific career in order to support his crushed father. Ruffalo’s world-weary cop seems to carry the weight of 30 years on his shoulders with every anguished move, and the actor’s ailments added to their weight. He also captures Victor’s need for redemption and honor, even in the battle over the furniture.
   Tony Shalhoub conveys the guilt and grandiosity of Walter, Victor’s more successful surgeon brother. But he pushes Walter’s narcissism too much, turning him into a monster of selfishness rather than Miller’s more shaded individual. The luminous Jessica Hecht is largely confined to the sidelines as Victor’s long-suffering wife Esther, but she makes watching and supporting an active action. Despite a talk-heavy second act, this is a Price worth paying.

While The Price is an old stock with much value, the prospectus for the new rock musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, which opened in the same week at the Public, was more promising than the final product. The creative personnel are impressive. The Talking Heads’s David Bryne and Tony-nominated director Alex Timbers had collaborated on the ingenious and immersive Here Lies Love, also at the Public. But their take on the Maid of Orleans lacks—you’ll pardon the expression—fire. There are some innovative and relevant touches. The preshow curtain contains Senator Mitch McConnell’s admonishment to Elizabeth Warren: “Nevertheless she persisted,” and the cross-dressing Joan is often referred to as transgender. Timbers has several clever pieces of staging such as having his all-male chorus dressed in Clint Ramos’s rough cloaks with British and French flags on either side so they can play both factions in a stirring battle scene. But the score feels derivative of many other rock operas, especially Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar—there’s even a similar inquisition scene with a campy authority figure mocking the martyred and dirtied protagonist. The show aspires to be Hamilton-like, transforming Joan into an outsider rock star, but the parallels don’t quite work. Making the French rebels into a boy band with mike stands as their weapons lacks the heft of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop energy.
   Jo Lampert as a punk-goth Joan works very hard and displays stirring rock vocals, but she fails to incite much passion. Ironically, the only moments that evoke real emotion are provided by Mare Winningham, who appears as Joan’s mother for a few minutes at the musical’s end. Her heartfelt pleas to erase the stain of sin from her daughter’s soul to a council of clerics are genuinely touching in an otherwise synthetic evening.

March 28, 2017
Sunday in the Park With George
Hudson Theater

Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I  

Reviewed by David Sheward

“Stop worrying if your vision/Is new/Let others make that decision/They usually do/You just keep moving on.” When Stephen Sondheim wrote these lyrics for Sunday in the Park With George (1984), he was faced with a creative crisis similar to that of his lead character, the revolutionary impressionist painter Georges Seurat. The legendary composer-lyricist had just broken with his longtime collaborator Harold Prince after their short-lived production Merrily We Roll Along. The songwriter was starting a new partnership with director-playwright James Lapine and moving in a new direction. Sunday, their first work together, was unlike any other American musical before it.
   Lapine’s book and Sondheim’s songs resembled Seurat’s pointillist canvases with bits of story, words, and tunes assembled to create an unconventional examination of the creative process and a meditation on art itself and how it affects the artist and those around him. The love story between George (in the musical the final “s” is removed from his name) and his model Dot ends unhappily in the first act, and the second act takes up new characters 100 years later as George’s descendent unveils a kinetic light show in a modern museum. Hardly material for the “tired-businessman” crowd.
   Sunday achieved a run of 604 performances on Broadway after an Off-Broadway workshop at Playwrights Horizons, and it won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize. But, by and large, the public and critics didn’t quite know what to make of it. Sondheim was accused of coldness just as George is in the song “No Life” as a disdainful fellow artist and his wife pick apart Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnières.” The show lost the Best Musical Tony to Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s more comfortable La Cage Aux Folles. There was a successful 2008 Sunday revival from the Menier Chocolate Factory in London and New York. This presented a warmer and more scaled-down vision than the high-tech original with its pop-up set pieces and elaborate projections.

Now, more than three decades after the original, Sunday is back, and the new production by Sarna Lapine (James’s niece) is even more intimate and touching than the 2008 version. This is an expansion of Lapine’s Encores! concert staging. The projections of Seurat’s massive work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” are now on a scrim lowered just in front of the onstage orchestra, and the production is simple and direct. Stripped to its barest essence, the musical becomes an emotional feast as well as an intellectual one.
   As George, Jake Gyllenhaal proves you can be a major movie star as well as a musical talent. (Maybe he should have been cast in La La Land.) After performances in straight stage works such as If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and Constellations, Gyllenhaal widens his range with a dazzlingly intense vocal and dramatic rendition of George’s conflict between his art and his personal life. Annaleigh Ashford displays exquisite pipes, timing, and presence as his determined muse Dot and, a century later, her granddaughter Marie, here given a sassy Southern accent.
   The large company also includes stand-out work from Brooks Ashmanskas, Liz McCartney, Penny Fuller, and Philip Boykin. Ironically, the show’s producers have withdrawn it from Tony Award consideration because of the shortness of the run. That’s too bad because the two leads probably stood an excellence chance of winning, and this Sunday could have taken the Musical Revival award to avenge the original’s Best Musical loss.

Meanwhile, Off-Broadway, Manhattan Theatre Club takes on women’s changing roles in a flinty, daring new work from England called Linda. Janie Dee, who hasn’t appeared in New York since Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential in 2000 on the very same stage, makes a dynamic return as the titular business executive whose personal and professional worlds disintegrate simultaneously. Penelope Skinner’s sharp script tends to wander a bit in the second act, but otherwise, it’s a spot-on dissection of the sexist trap ensnaring its heroine.
   The play opens with Linda pitching a new campaign for her cosmetic company’s anti-aging cream aimed at women over 50, like her. It seems Linda has it all—a fabulous career, a loving husband, and two wonderful daughters. But cracks in the perfect facade are slowly revealed as a younger rival sets her sights on Linda’s corner office and traumatic events from the past begin to surface. Linda soon finds herself becoming one of the “invisible women” her campaign is targeting, but she refuses to be ignored. The devastating mess that results indicates Skinner’s pessimistic view of women’s progress, but it’s frighteningly real.
   Dee deftly displays Linda’s charismatic energy as well as the shaking insecurity she keeps so well hidden. Kudos also to Jennifer Ikeda and Molly Ranson as Linda’s damaged daughters, Donald Sage Mackay as her waffling husband, and Molly Griggs as Amy, her shark-like competitor who wields cyber technology like a weapon. MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow delivers a tightly-paced production with immeasurable aide from set designer Walt Spangler’s versatile, revolving set.

February 28, 2017
Evening at the Talk House
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

As you enter the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center for Wallace Shawn’s new play Evening at the Talk House, you’re greeted by a familiar-looking lady dressed in the traditional white shirt and black pants of a waitron. “Would you like a sweet or some sparkling water?” she asks. It takes a minute to realize this is Jill Eikenberry, best known for L.A. Law. Wait, isn’t that the still-boyish Matthew Broderick wandering around Derek McLane’s cozy clubhouse set? And the squeaking voice of the Yoda-like playwright himself, also a cast member, can be heard chatting with the audience. From this relaxed and inviting opening, you might think you’ll be experiencing a nice, warm night with familiar faces from stage and screen delivering cute career anecdotes. But, you’re in for a surprise.
   As in his previous works The Fever, The Designated Mourner, and Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn has chosen an easy, comfortable milieu in which to examine the banality of evil. At first the bonhomie of the preshow carries into the opening moments of the play in Scott Elliott’s deceptively laid-back staging. Broderick, in his character of Robert, a successful playwright, delivers a long monologue explaining that he and several friends are at the Talk House, a run-down theater club, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the production of his best play. There is much praise of the club’s snacks and cocktails and friendly chit-chat with actor Tom (jovial Larry Pine), producer Bill (avuncular Michael Tucker, Eikenberry’s husband and L.A. Law co-star), wardrobe mistress Annette (caustic Claudia Shear), composer Ted (waspy John Epperson, aka drag creation extraordinaire Lypsinka), and Nellie (Eikenberry) who runs the club along with her sole employee Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a sometime actor.

But it’s gradually revealed we’re in a dystopian future where theater is dead, soulless TV sitcoms are the dominant cultural offerings, and murder has become a government policy. In fact, several of the group have become part-time assassins to make ends meet since there are so few jobs in the arts. A charming but ruthless figure named Ackerley has risen to power, and his dictatorial whims are dismissed as necessary measures to keep the population safe. Shawn plays Dick, an unemployed actor and the lone voice of dissent. He is a pitiful figure in pajamas, frequently beaten by his “friends” for speaking out against Ackerley’s repressive regime.
   This is an intriguing concept. But the air of casual acceptance of these horrors is so pervasive, it deadens the impact. Yes, that’s Shawn’s point—fascism creeps in on little cat feet. But the acting and direction is so mild, the effect is soporific. Excerpts from Robert’s supposedly great play are as dry as the rest of the dialogue, so there is no contrast between the golden past the characters long for and their gloomy present. The all-star company has been directed to underplay every word and action, except for Shawn and Sriram. Shawn delivers a moving performance as the pathetic Dick, raging against the dying of the light of art. Sriram is saddled with the difficult task of making Jane, who matter-of-factly discusses poisoning old people and whines about her lack of acting work, sympathetic, but she manages to pull it off. Apart from these two bright spots and Shawn’s valid themes of the slow creeping effect of political oppression, it’s a pretty dull Evening with all talk and little action.

February 16, 2017
The Liar
Classic Stage Company

MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Imperial Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Could there be a more appropriate historical moment at which to mount a new adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s comedy The Liar? As our newly elected president and his spokespeople substitute “alternative facts” for truth, Classic Stage Company presents David Ives’s intricate semi-updating of the hilarious tale of Dorante, an epic braggart exaggerating and fabricating his way through romantic entanglements in 17th-century Paris. He’s accurately described as “a lying genius, if a moral zero.” Sound familiar? This is Ives’s third foray into refashioning French theatrical meringues. He previously adapted Molière’s The Misanthrope (as The School for Lies) and Jean-François Regnard’s The Heir Apparent, both of which have played CSC.
   This latest fluffy dessert is delicious and full of lighter-than-air rhymes. The script is all in verse. The catchier lines rhyme “experience” with “Presbyeterians,” “moister” with “oyster,” and “bivalve” with “my valve.” There are sprinklings of anachronisms but they do not distract. Director Michael Kahn, who commissioned the new version for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where he is artistic director, maintains a light-footed pacing throughout.
   Though Dorante is the title character and Christian Conn makes him a dashing rogue, the real star of the evening is Carson Elrod as Dorante’s sad-sack servant Cliton. While his master cannot tell the truth, Cliton suffers from the opposite malady—he finds it impossible to lie. (Add an “n” to his name and you get another victim of a huge prevaricator, adding a layer to the relevant political subtext.) Elrod is a masterful clown, expertly prattling and mugging, but never going over the top. The highlight of the show is a lesson in falsifying, taught by Dorante to his honest-to-a-fault valet. As Conn elegantly demonstrates the necessary gestures and looks to lend verisimilitude to whoppers, Elrod gives Cliton’s awkward attempts to be appear smooth a riotous reality. Then the servant tries out his new fibbing skills on Isabelle (Kelly Hutchinson), the pretty maid he’s been after, and receives a slap for his pains.
   Hutchinson comes in a close second behind Elrod in the comic sweepstakes. She has a slight advantage over her fellow players because she plays not only the flirtatious Isabelle but also her twin sister, the scolding sadomasochist Sabine. Also worthy of mention are Adam Lefevre as Dorante’s befuddled father and Ismenia Mendes and Amelia Pedlow as the two young ladies caught in the hero’s lies.

At the other end of the theatrical spectrum, British playwright Anna Jordan’s Yen offers a searing, sordid portrait of alienated youth, under the ripping direction of Trip Cullman from the MCC Theatre. At first glance, this piercing drama seems like a great many other works about lost boys behaving badly—such as Orphans, This Is Our Youth, and Saved. In Mark Wendland’s spare box set with peeling wallpaper and drab lighting (designed with appropriate moodiness by Ben Stanton), we find teenage half-brothers Hench and Bobbie watching porn and playing video games while their alcoholic, diabetic mother, Maggie, drops in occasionally for cigarettes, money, and food. The kids’ only regular companion is their German shepherd Taliban (so called because “He’s vicious and he’s brown,” Bobbie explains). Into this dysfunctional mélange comes neighbor Jennifer. At first she wants only to care for the neglected canine, but gradually she takes on the role of girlfriend for Hench and mother to Bobbie. Predictably, a misunderstanding leads to tragedy, but the writing is so realistic and the acting and direction so sharp, this familiar story still has a walloping impact.
   Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Stefania LaVie Owen (The Carrie Diaries) feelingly convey Hench and Jenny’s tentative attractions and damaged psyches. Ari Graynor is brilliantly brittle as the out-of-control Maggie. Justice Smith gives a standout performance as the feral Bobbie: Violently leaping around the stage one moment, barking like a dog the next, Smith captures Bobbie’s almost animal-like need for attention and his hair-trigger code switching from lonely child to violent aggressor.

In other stage adventures, I managed to catch up with the Broadway edition of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. I was scheduled to see Dave Malloy’s techno-pop-rock musical version of a slice of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace when it opened in November, but star Josh Groban was out that night and the next available performance was not until recently. There have been three previous Off-Broadway incarnations, in 2012 and 2013. When I attended the second of these at a site-specific tent called Kazino in the meatpacking district, director Rachel Chaikin’s immersive experience was so involving, I felt as if I were in the room with the characters. In the transfer to the much larger Imperial Theater, set designer Mimi Lien has done her best to re-create the atmosphere of a Russian dinner club, but the experience is much less intimate. Maybe those seated on the stage feel close to the Rostovs, Bolkonskys, Kuragins, and Bezukhovs as they wrestle with passions and loyalties, but from the orchestra seats, I felt removed from their machinations. The musical’s delicate closing moments brought me to tears Off-Broadway, but here I just admired the stagecraft.
   As Pierre, Groban exhibits a magnificent voice but lacks the depth to fully inhabit the role. Denée Benton’s Natasha is charming and bubbly, yet when her liaison with Anatole is shattered, she fails to move us. Original cast members Lucas Steele as the caddish Anatole, Amber Gray as his licentious sister Helene, and Grace McLean as the overbearing aunt Marya have blown up their parts to fill to larger space. Only Brittan Ashford as Natasha’s cousin and confidante Sonya maintains the heartbreaking pathos she achieved Off-Broadway, particularly in her shattering solo. In this roundup, Off-Broadway scores the higher points while Broadway only has higher prices.

January 31, 2017

In Transit
Circle in the Square

The Babylon Line
Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre

L’Amour de Loin
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Transportation plays a part in two new stage productions in NYC, and while they have a few pleasant stops along the way, the ride is over familiar territory. In Transit has taken the long route to Broadway. After Off-Off-Broadway iterations in 2004 and 2008 and a Drama Desk Award–winning Off-Broadway run in 2010, this mildly entertaining but clichéd musical has pulled into the Circle in the Square. The chief attraction here is a novelty gimmick of being Broadway’s first a cappella tuner. This has caused some theater pundits to wonder if consumers will be willing to play Main Stem prices for a show with no orchestra. But Deke Sharon’s arrangements and the scintillating vocalizing of the 11-member cast create a dazzling illusion of one.
   The problem is the book, credited to Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen), James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth who also wrote the score. (Side note: When you have four people—with another two, Karla Lant and Gregory T. Christopher—collaborating on a musical, it’s bound to be uneven.) The story follows a group of interconnected New Yorkers (fired Wall Street-er, aspiring actress, gay couple coping with the closet, transplanted West Coast young woman getting over a breakup) as they attempt move on romantically and career-wise while negotiating the city’s subway system. A beat-box artist (played at alternate performances by Chesney Snow and Steven “Heaven” Cantor) provides commentary and sound effects. At the performance attended, Snow offered startlingly whimsical beeps, clicks, and buzzes. While Snow and the tunes are upbeat and inventive, we’ve heard these people’s stories and the humor before. The jokes reference subway inconveniences (indecipherable announcements, delays, broken turnstiles and fare machines) and ads (the dermatologist Dr. Zizmor, lessons in Chinese) we’ve been putting up with for decades.
   From what I recall of the 2010 production at the 59E59 Theater, Kathleen Marshall’s new staging is tighter and cleaner—Donyale Werle’s flexible set with a moving walkway helps keep the transitions swift and smooth—plus the book has been streamlined. The hardworking cast is enjoyable, particularly Erin Mackey as the dejected love refugee desperately and hilariously trying not to stalk her ex on social media, and strong-voiced Moya Angela in a variety of roles including the personification of the underground train system (kudos to costumer Clint Ramos for the fabulous frock made of Metrocards she wears.) But In Transit remains a forgettable trip as soon as you step off. Watch the closing doors.

Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line, at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, also uses a train system as a central metaphor and has familiar situations and characters, but they’re not as shopworn and shallow as those in Transit. The main conceit has struggling Greenwich Village–based author Aaron Port (a solid Josh Radnor) taking the titular reverse commute to 1967 Levittown, Long Island to teach a creative writing course to bored housewives (funny and moving Randy Graff, Julie Halston, and Maddie Corman) and assorted misfits (intriguing Frank Wood and Michael Oberholtzer). Of course there is a stunningly talented student (valiant Elizabeth Reaser) who just happens to be pretty and sports a Southern accent and eccentric past right out of a Flannery O’Connor short story. The teacher and pupil’s electric connection is the juice of the play, along with Greenberg’s pointed observations on nonconformism and literature. In his previous works such as Take Me Out, The Violet Hour, and Three Days of Rain, the playwright can get too wordy with the characters just sounding like they swallowed dictionaries. Even though the theme is literary aspiration, Greenberg wisely avoids verbosity and celebrates the power of stories to transform and inform. Terry Kinney’s subtle staging, with the aide of David Weiner’s versatile lighting and Richard Hoover’s pliable set, keeps this train moving with few bumps.

The voyage of Kaija Saariaho’s modern opera L’Amour de Loin was not as smooth at the performance attended at the Metropolitan. As he did with his famous Ring Cycle, director Robert LePage has installed a gigantic machine at the center of his staging. This time it’s a sort of moving staircase that looks like an oil derrick. At the performance reviewed, this monster malfunctioned and caused a delay between scenes (similar mishaps with machinery occurred during the Ring). Despite the slight technical snafu, LePage’s gorgeous production of this shimmeringly beautiful meditation on love from afar (a translation of the title) hypnotizes. Michael Currey’s glittery seascape of a set becomes a living, breathing entity thanks to “lightscape image designer” (that’s a new credit) Lionel Arnould.
   Saariaho’s 2000 work has been criticized for its lack of action. All that happens is a troubadour falls in love with a distant noblewoman, travels across the sea to meet her, and promptly dies when he arrives. Yet the magnificently rich vocals of Eric Owens as the pining musician, Susanna Phillips as the object of his affection, and Tamara Mumford as the seafaring pilgrim who brings them together make this an operatic journey worth savoring.

December 16, 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
Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Oh, Hello on Broadway
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

There is such a thing as being too nice. That’s the problem with the stage version of Holiday Inn, the classic 1942 movie musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. This new edition is pleasant enough, featuring a treasure trove of Irving Berlin tunes both from the original film (including the evergreen “White Christmas,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” and the title song) and other sources (such as “It’s a Lovely Day Today” from Call Me Madam, “Heat Wave” from As Thousands Cheer, “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” from Miss Liberty, and “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat). All are delivered with charm by a smiling ensemble and directed with precision by Gordon Greenberg. But everyone is such a darned nice gal or fella, there’s no tension or sizzle. It’s like attending a long office Christmas party with an absence of gossip or backbiting.
   The book, by Greenberg and Chad Hodge, retains the basic plotline of the movie. Song-and-dance pals Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) split over the female third of their act, Lila Dixon. Jim longs to retire from the showbiz rat race and settle down on a Connecticut farm with Lila. Ted wants to keep chasing the big dream of Hollywood stardom and takes Lila with him. Unable to make a go of it financially, Jim converts his farmhouse into a nightclub open only on the holidays, and Ted, ditched by Lila, makes the moves on Jim’s new romantic interest, Linda. The screenplay was basically an excuse for Crosby to croon and Astaire to hoof, but there was a friction between the two leads giving the slender story a snappy edge. Astaire’s Ted and Virginia Dale’s Lila were career-driven schemers pitted against Crosby’s softhearted Jim and Marjorie Reynolds’s ingénue Linda.
   In the new version, all four leads are too goody-goody to be believed. Don’t get me wrong. Bryce Pinkham (Jim), Corbin Bleu (Ted), Lora Lee Gayer (Linda), and Megan Sikora (Lila) are fabulous musical performers, and Bleu is a particularly exciting dancer. But they have been directed and written with no darkness to contrast the constant cheerful light. In addition, Greenberg and Hodge have thrown in a trio of cloyingly cute supporting characters—Megan Lawrence’s syrupy handywoman-housekeeper, Lee Wilkof’s lovable manager, and Morgan Gao’s smart-alecky messenger boy.
   There are mildly enjoyable musical consolations, but the numbers don’t take off until late in the first act with choreographer Denis Jones’s dazzlingly clever “Shaking the Blues Away” wherein the chorus goes crazy jumping rope with Christmas garlands. I also got a kick out of Alejo Vietti’s campy costumes. This tame Holiday eggnog could use a lot more spiking like that.

While the cheerful revelers of Holiday Inn are too nice, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland of Oh Hello on Broadway are refreshingly crotchety. For those unfamiliar with these cantankerous oldsters—and I was among this number before seeing the show—Gil and George are bizarre creations of 30-something comics Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. Seen on Kroll’s Comedy Central series, in comedy clubs, and Off-Broadway last season, the pair of kvetching bachelors here holds forth on a variety of topics from theatrical clichés to dating raccoons to their blighted careers on the fringes of showbiz. Gil is a “Tony Award viewing actor” and George is an unpublished writer whose magnum opus is a massive novel called Next Stop, Ronkonkoma(“a train ride told from 1,000 difference perspectives”).
   The structure of their two-man show is loosey-goosey. After some hilarious banter satirizing Broadway conventions, the duo performs a play-within-a-play about being evicted from their shared, rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment and reaching the heights of cable-access fame with their talk show Too Much Tuna. Guests are asked a series of non-sequitur questions, confronted with a towering fish sandwich, and requested to utter the titular catch phrase. The latter device allows for a different nightly visit from a celebrity. At the performance attended, the guest was Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation who gamely went along with the stars’ improvisational madness.
   Director Alex Timbers keeps the daffy duo on a relaxed leash, allowing them to romp and jump but not run out of control. Scott Pask’s set design is a riotous mashup of leftover scenic elements. Like the show itself, it’s a weird, witty collage of cultural references and skewed observations.
   Anyone with a tasty for tangy humor should say Oh Hello. But if you don’t mind too much sugar, check into Holiday Inn.

October 12, 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
Lyric Theatre

Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Athleticism of the body and brain are on display in a pair of new productions on and Off-Broadway. With Paramour, the ubiquitous international circus troupe Cirque du Soleil makes its first attempt at a plot-driven musical with traditional songs and book; while Manhattan Theater Club presents Incognito, Nick Payne’s multilayered exploration of neurological phenomena. The casts of both perform admirable feats—the Cirque troupe flips, bounces, tumbles, and soars all over the stage and into the house of the Lyric Theatre—while the four actors in Incognito juggle multiple roles with dexterity. The former show is a brainless entertainment while the latter is all about the brain. Each achieves its goals and offer theatrical pleasure, but of very different kinds.
   Cirque’s Paramour is nothing more than a tissue-thin excuse to trot out the various acrobatic routines for which the Canadian troupe is famous. If you go looking for clever dialogue or memorable songs, you won’t find them. However, if you come in expecting spectacular circus-themed joy, it’s here in abundance. The ridiculous story takes place in the Golden Age of Hollywood, with maniacal director AJ pulling the Svengali routine on singer Indigo who is in love with struggling composer Joey. That’s it for the plot.
   It’s telling that among the numerous creative credits on the title page of the jumbo-size program—everything about Cirque du Soleil is big—no one is listed as writing the execrable book. (The songs, by no fewer than five authors, are generic at best.) Only West Hyler gets a nod for “story” along with being “associate creative director and scene director.” Hyler is joined by Philippe Decouple as “Director and Conceiver” and Shana Carroll as “associate creative director, acrobatic designer, and choreographer.” With so many stagers involved, it’s no wonder the production is confusing. There’s no single clear vision at work, and too much goes on at once.
   A restaurant scene in which AJ discovers Indigo singing becomes an overcrowded mash-up of dancing, juggling, and clowning. You don’t know where to look in order to follow the action. Fortunately enough high-flying pizzazz takes center stage to make the overall show worth enough “oohs” and “ahs” to justify your time. The fictitious film AJ creates for his new star serves as a platform for a succession of elaborate set pieces—which are diverting and fun, if totally unrelated. (If this movie were ever edited together, it would be even more of a mess than Paramour itself.) The most thrilling of the sequences belongs to gorgeous twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton, who soar above the stage and the pitiable story in a breathtaking, more-than-slightly homoerotic aerial strap act. The climactic chase scene with the lovers fleeing AJ’s thugs is deliriously goofy, resembling one of those weekly fisticuff fests on the 1960s Batman series with performers bouncing off unseen trampolines.
   There is also an intricate pas de trois avec trapeze with dancer-aerialists Martin Charrat, Myriam Deraiche, and Samuel William Charlton beautifully expressing the otherwise banal love triangle among the leads played by Jeremy Kushnier, Ruby Lewis and Ryan Vona, all of whom possess impressive legit-musical chops but are hopelessly upstaged by the Cirque shenanigans.

The four-person cast of Nick Payne’s Incognito gets a more balanced workout in Doug Hughes’s fascinating and challenging production presented by Manhattan Theatre Club. Each plays a variety of roles in three separate storylines concerning the effect of the brain on personality and memory. At first, they seem unconnected, but by the end of 90 intriguing minutes they are bound inextricably together like strands of DNA. A pathologist steals Albert Einstein’s brain to find a physiological cause for genius. A neurologist’s personal and professional lives collide when she embarks on her first lesbian affair. A man’s memory deteriorates over several decades but he still recalls his love for his wife. Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector achieve the dramatic equivalent of the Cirque company’s acrobatic feats with their limber and lifelike limning. Kudos also to Ben Stanton’s lighting for creating a variety of environments on Scott Pask’s spare, disklike space.

June 6, 2016
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
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
Vineyard Theatre

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
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