Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cyclone And The Pig-Faced Lady

Initially, we don't know why this NYMF musical asks us to watch not only a comic book serial (about a mysterious super woman who protects the just-built Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island) but also the modern-day cartoonist creating it. The conceit does pay off, giving the show a surprisingly serious theme and some depth, but the emotional impact is lessened because the events in the modern day scenes haven't been suitably dramatized to echo into the scenes from the comic book. The (fixable) flaws in the material are especially frustrating because there are many strong elements (including an accomplished score with some hypnotic ensemble numbers) waiting to come together here for a unique musical. Nonetheless, as is it's still one of the most memorable entries at this year's festival. Paul Niebanck and David Garry are cast stand-outs.

Wig Out!

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Wig Out! looks fresh and sounds fresh, but it doesn't feel fresh. Tarell Alvin McCraney pieces his latest out of so many different styles (Motown, contemporary drag, "real nigga," Goth, glamour, &c., and that's just fashion, to say nothing of the pop-singing Greek chorus) that he ends up with a mess (only occasionally a hot mess). Good ideas and fabulous execution (from director Tina Landau, set designer James Schuette, and costumer Toni-Leslie James), but underdeveloped characters (hence confusing acting out of solid people like Erik King) and a too-glossy plot.

[Read on]

Wig Out

Reviewed for Theater News Online.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Saviana Stanescu's Aliens with Extraordinary Skills walks a thin tightrope between its lighthearted characters (two clowns from Moldavia, trying to find happiness) and its serious problem (INS agents want to deport them). Tea Alagic's acrobatic direction keeps the action lively, keeping the perspective in the blissful naivety of the circus of life, and the ensemble, often juggling three balls at once, never misses a beat. This form of narrative presents a shocking sweetness, captured best by Natalia Payne's wide-eyed innocence and Jessica Pimentel's jaded but open attitude, and, with a few balloon animals and their more cartoony counterparts on stage, the play succeeds in shifting our perspective on a familiar issue (immigration) at least for a a few happy and hopeful hours.

[Read on]

The Seagull

Imported from the Royal Court with most of its cast intact, this much-raved-about production of Chekhov's play (the third major Seagull in New York within a year) doesn't even aim for Chekhov's deceptively relaxed pace or for his wise humanity: the directorial concept seems to interpret the characters' unfulfilled, cross-purposed desires as evidence that no one has the slightest genuine connection. The result drains all of the life juices out of the play and cynically turns it into a gathering of sociopaths. Nonetheless there are two spellbinders in the (highly variable) cast: Kristin Scott Thomas gives that rare brand of performance that is technically precise and yet seemingly natural at every moment. And Carey Mulligan is stunning in the famously difficult part of Nina, captivating from radiant start to wounded finish.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

a message from all three of us

It's been a long time since we here at Show Showdown posted anything besides reviews of the shows we've seen. But all three of us:

1) love [title of show]
2) hate the closing notice, posted for October 12th.
3) want you to sign this petition to get the [tos] folks some attention over at Ellen, where a spot on that show could do lots of good.

Sign here

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Photo/Asle Nielsen

Verdensteatret's louder wades into the torrent of the Mekong River, but when it tries to recreate that environment in an eccentrically orchestrated soundscape, all sense of meaning ends up washed away. There's nothing wrong with performance art, but this masochistically loud bit of theater is divorced of meaning; stripped down to cold wires, absent puppets, and mechanized spider legs, it has the numbing effect of watching Foley artists at play in a field of possessed megaphones. This is to take nothing away from the pure experimentation, or the unique effect and visuals: the sight of two men sawing at high-tension, near-invisible wires makes it look as if they are playing air, a Zen-like anti-Blue Man effect. But illusion is all, and the uncomfortable sensation of lying on an airport tarmac in the midst of a hurricane fails to conjure up as much resonance for me as it does for the vibrating cables or the emotionless performers.

Jason & Ben

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays

Here's the difference between a blog and a review: here, I'm just going to tell you that I give this show a giant A+, on account of Clay MacLeod Chapman's Rugrats, the brilliant site-specific work, and the fact that there are two other excitingly different one-acts on the bill. If you click the link below, I'll tell you more about them, but as this show closes in three days, it's easier to just stress up front that you're never going to have a better reason to go back to school.

[Read on]

Monday, September 22, 2008


photo: Quinn Batson

This ridiculously enjoyable pop-rock sci-fi musical, in which an uptight lady exterminator's custom-made spray accidentally turns the city's bedbugs into giant rock singing man-eaters bent on world domination, is the kind of cheesy silliness that has so often been done badly in the past that it's a wonderful shock to see it done so well. The score (music by Paul Leschen, lyrics by bookwriter Fred Sauter) satirizes power-pop ballads and old school hair-band rock anthems while still delivering their pleasures - as performed by Chris Hall (every bit the rock icon as the king of the bugs), Celina Carvajal (a vocal powerhouse as the lady bug killer turned bug lover), and especially Brian Charles Rooney (in drag and brilliantly sending up a pop superstar named - one guess who this is based on - Salon Dionne) the songs are a goofy arena-rock blast. Top to bottom everyone in the ensemble is with the spirit of the material; I haven't had as much what-a-goof, laugh-out-loud fun at a campy musical since the first time I saw Rocky Horror.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Southern Promises

Photo/Ryan Jensen

Slavery is wrong, period, a simple truth that will surprise no-one in the educated crowd at PS122. What will surprise them--especially given the emphatic and broad strokes of Thomas Bradshaw's writing--is how strongly the acknowledgment of such a vast moral wrong can still impact them. Stereotypically evil slaveholders take care of the graphic rapes and abuses even as their satirically hypocritical lines give way to the darkest comedy, but what's important to focus on is the depth of the victims, married house slaves Benjamin (Erwin E. A. Thomas) and Charlotte (Sadrina Johnson), who we suffer vicariously through. Along with director Jose Zayas, these actors capture a subtle explicitness that make the deep sorrow reflected in their eyes more graphic than their own physical degradation. Save for one misstep in which Benjamin dreams of being the master (which tarnishes his suffering), Southern Promises is a fine work of evocative theater. That it is not harder to watch says something more about the audience than it does about the highly capable cast and crew, who have created a lingering mood that sends aftershocks long after the curtain call.

[Read on]

The Hatpin

photo: Danielle Lyonne

The plot of this Australian musical (performing at NYMF) may be based on true crime events, but it's Gothic soap opera: your tear ducts prepare for a workout as soon as the penniless unwed mom - circa 1892 - hands over her bastard infant to a respectable family near the top of the first act. It's entirely predictable and overheated but it undeniably gets its job done, partly thanks to the lean effectiveness of the book and the pleasures of the accomplished, often lilting score. The csst is uniformly excellent but Caroline O'Connor, playing a fruit merchant who befriends and shelters the vilified mom, is especially captivating.

Love, Jerry

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Underpants

Photo/Jen Maufrais Kelly

Compared to the fine wine of Steve Martin's last play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, this adaptation of Carl Sterheim's 1911 play, The Underpants, is a six-pack of cheap beer, hastily chugged to numb the unhappiness of home life. Directed on high spin by Seth Soloway, this production manages--with the help of manic comic actors like Nat Cassidy and the sublime subtlety of Catia Ojeda--to iron out the kinks of the original characters and get back to the wild and crazy puns of Martin's adaptation.

[Read on]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Refuge of Lies

I know I'm jaded, but I've never been so bored by a play dealing with the Holocaust before. In this case, it's the aftermath--some forty years later--when Simon (Drew Dix) comes knocking on Canada's door, demanding that Rudi (Richard Mawe) be extradited to Holland for trial. It's based on a true story (Jacob Luitjen's), but rather than confront the issue of fitting the punishment to the crime (especially as Rudi's a reformed Sunday school teacher), playwright Ron Reed fits the characters to a faux-Miller mold, exploring how the guilt destroys Rudi's mind in a series of increasingly erratic flashbacks. Steve Day's direction does little to help establish the shifts in character, and the actors play each role as if they're recording an audio book: it's lifelessly crisp. The play feels anti-Semitic, too: gentle Rudi is tormented by the menacing "Old Jew" his father warned him about, and Simon just seems angry and vengeful--in other words, evil. Simon dehumanizes Rudi by judging him solely on the past, but Reed dehumanizes all of his characters.

[Read on]

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Photo/Paula Court

Radiohole's latest piece, ANGER/NATION, literally goes balls out as it juxtaposes the life of the anti-drink anarchist, Carrie A. Nation, with the videos of occultist Kenneth Anger, the performance art of Eric Dyer, Scott Halvorsen Gillette, and Maggie Hoffman, and a sampled soundscape that vibrates through the free beer. Don't worry if you don't know any of those people: this show invents its own reality, so if you can let go, then go.

[Read on]

The Invitation

photo: Word Monger

I would have been more satisfied with this new black comedy (by Brian Parks) if it had ended shortly after the black out that divides it roughly in two: the first half of the play, in which dinner guests squirm in their seats over the ugly near-Fascist snobbery of their hostess, is as smart and as absorbing as the second half is overlong and contrived, although ripe with bold and welcome socio-political statement. John Clancy has wisely directed the play to move at a fast clip, but not all of the actors are up to the task of finding levels at the brisk pace. Nonetheless, the production is vivid and memorable despite the play’s indulgences.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Oh What War

Photo/Ryan Jensen

I won't pretend to understand all the nuances or layers to Jason Craig's 2008 reinvention of Joan Littlewood's 1963 Oh What a Lovely War, but I can say that it's an utterly fascinating war. Less confrontational than his punk send-up, The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, Craig's latest work quietly murmurs through a sense of Brechtian loss (and songs, pulled right from the WW1 era), clownish satire, and mysterious performances (the Dadist's Cabaret Voltaire is cited), provoking our fascination through the complexly beautiful language and the Peter Ksander's elegantly rustic set. Things get muddy toward the end, when the nonlinear snippets--reports from an underground (metaphoric or otherwise) of ragtag deserters and victims--not only coalesce, but try to put the focus on the audience, and away from the tremulous language and potent stories. We can't explain war, we can only look at interpretations of it.

[Read on]

What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Number

Caryl Churchill's A Number is dismissively vague about its plot, its language is built to circumlocate the small scraps of detail the characters are dying for, and it runs under an hour. And yet, every minute is brilliant . . . or at least, it should be. But Clockwork Theatre's revival of this play lacks the necessary nuance, focusing more on the literal science than the literary humanity, and their production comes across as digital rather than analog and certainly far from Swiss in its precision. These short, sharp pinpricks of lines no longer muse on identity ("If that's me over there, who am I?"); instead, they are heavyhanded runs of emotionally dry dialogue. Sean Marrinan practically blubbers onstage, rather than being the cold, distant failure of a father that he needs to be (Salter is a man who finds it easier to put his crying son in a cupboard than to actually comfort him), and this unbalances his partner, Jay Rohloff, who ends up overplaying and rushing through his three versions of Salter's son. Beverly Brumm's direction, like Larry Laslo's boring set design, takes everything literally, and flattens the play, focusing on the science (there are projections of cell division between scenes) rather than on the characters. There are moments when all the gears and cogs spin in alignment, but only a number of them.

[Read on]

King Of Shadows

photo: Carel DiGrappa

There are four characters in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's new drama, and I'd be hard pressed to tell you which one is the most irritating and fictional. One, the gay teen runaway ragamuffin who lives on his wits on the mean streets of San Francisco, is too precious to believe. Two, the do-gooder social worker whose liberal guilt blinds her to the dangers of giving the teen a place to sleep, is written to behave idiotically. Three, her teenage daughter who is over absolutely everything, spouts almost nothing but sarcasm and wisecracks as if she wandered into the play from a sitcom. Four, the social worker's boyfriend, whose only purpose is sounding board and plot device. (He's a cop; the nice word for this is "convenient").

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Invitation

The Invitation is so well-cooked that the roars of laughter threaten to drown out the subtler points Brian Parks is making with his hyperactive style. As a social satire of the rich, Parks strips his characters down to five very similar blanks and stuffs them full of the fattiest (in a foie gras way) text, then watches as John Clancy amps up the violence and the speed, a gore- and gorge-fest on one very sharp skewer. The very able cast, led by the indefatigable David Calvitto, make this an evening you'll want to RSVP to.

[Read on]

Sunday, September 07, 2008

King of Shadows

Photo/Carel DiGrappa

King of Shadows leaves us grasping at thin air when, after a promising opening, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa starts to lose himself in an overcooked and fantastical plot. The play has some fine moments (particularly from Sarah Lords, who plays an unhappy teen) all the way through, but by keeping the evil offstage, his magical realism lacks any bite. Despite the aesthetic direction being nailed by Connie Grappo, this particular story seems better suited for the world of comic books, where such presentational and sharply polished dialogue and narrative asides wouldn't seem so out of place beside all those colorful panels.

[Read on]


Michael Weller knows that war can't be understood from afar, but he doesn't even try: he just distills a secondhand vision into comedic form. He ends up beating a corpse to death, in this case, the otherwise fresh concept that has a GI (Corey Stoll) rise from the dead to travel America with his buddy Jimmy (Logan Marshall-Green), exposing corruption, decay, religion, and capitalism in America. The aesthetics are always top-notch at New York Theater Workshop, but the cold use of video clips and flag-painted boxes to show a once-removed America ends up as just a glib surface. Despite great performances from Stoll and Marshall-Green, not to mention double-cast ensemble members like Lisa Joyce and Dan Butler, the play is too elastic to ever snap back at us.

[Read on]

Saturday, September 06, 2008


I saw Rattlestick's production of Craig Wright's new one-act Lady last night and have three questions. 1) Is Paul Sparks the most exciting New York Stage actor of his generation? Not to take a thing away from Michael Shannon (excellent, as a depressed pothead) or David Wilson Barnes (pitch-perfect as a politician whose values have moved to the right over the years) but Paul Sparks has been so consistently dead-on in role after role, with markedly different characterization in each, that he's become compelling reason enough to see anything he's in. 2) Is Lady the best new play I've seen so far this year? I certainly know it's one of the most stimulating and absorbing I've seen yet to draw on our feelings about 'the war'; the playwright's respect for all three characters makes it clear he is after something more resonant than landing easy shots from the left. 3) What can I do to get you to see it? There's a discount code out somewhere and I am going to post it in the sidebar at my blog as soon as I track it down.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


Photo/Ryan Jensen

This crude, shallowly imagined, frantically leaping, childishly portrayed new play of Edith Freni's is, without a doubt, Kidstuff. There's the rare sense of depth, buried deep down in Sarah Nina Hayon's quick retorts and self-denigrating attitude, but for the most part the play is too flat to even pretend that it's good. Partial Comfort Productions often tend to be exaggerated, but they're usually tethered to a sympathetic character who is suffering through an unjust world: here, it's hard to feel bad for a whiny girl who can't get past her first love's betrayal, especially when she surrounds herself with such idiots, all of whom are so cartoonishly portrayed that they end up making her seem far more stable than we're meant to believe.

[Read on]


photo: Monique Carboni

More narrated Afro-beat concert than traditional musical, this celebration of Nigerian musical genius and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti features vibrant, spirit-lifting dance, sensationally performed world music, and a charismatic lead performance by Sahr Ngaujah. (It also features an extended ensemble dance sequence in the first act that is among the most electrifying I've ever seen in a theatre; it's the kind of dancing that makes bodies look as if they've been freed from the limits of their spines.) Unfortunately, the show's high level of artistry doesn't extend to the underdeveloped book; the show's primitive overuse of narration and over-reliance on visually projected information is as deadly as the music and dancing are thrilling. The show, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is organized around the conceit that we're in Fela's "shrine" in 1977 watching him perform. Too often, we feel instead we're in history class.