Saturday, January 31, 2009


Photo: Joan Marcus

[I too would like to take a moment to introduce myself. I'm Wendy Caster and I'm a writer-of-all-trades. I've had plays produced at the Manhattan Theatre Source's Estrogenius Festival, my short movie You Look Just Like Him is being edited, I have short stories in various anthologies, and I also work as a business, medical, and/or tech writer, depending on the assignment. I saw my first show when I was 14--The King and I, with Constance Towers and Michael Kermoyan--and knew that I had found heaven. I'm delighted to be part of Show Showdown.]

There are shows that resist being reviewed. Ruined is one of them. Its topic--the endless, vicious, war-time sexual violence against women--is so devastating and important that to start discussing dialogue, lighting, or scenery seems trivial and churlish. I was so involved, so moved, that I spent the second act hugging my fleece jacket like a security blanket.

On the other hand, it seems equally churlish to ignore the imagination, intelligence, talent, bravery, and hard work that goes into creating a piece of theatre like Ruined. Lynn Notage's hard-hitting script turns the news coverage of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (of which there is not enough) into the human particulars that make other people's lives--and suffering--real to an audience. The uniformly excellent actors, particularly the women, show us both the profound suffering and the quotidian life-goes-on-ness of people under seige. Director Kate Whoriskey calibrates the emotional arc of the story perfectly, so that each shock is individually earned. Ruined has already had an extremely successful run at the Goodman in Chicago and opens officially on February 10th.

Raised in Captivity


[Greetings! As this is my first post at Show Showdown, here's a quick introduction: I'm Jon Sobel, a New York theater critic. (I'm also a music writer and a musician.) I'm the Theater Editor of Blogcritics Magazine, where our theater series is called Stage Mage, and I also post at my own blog, The Bagel and the Rat, where you can usually find my theater and music criticism as well as the occasional book review, political ramble, or reflective grumble about life in New York City.]

A parent gets sick or dies; damaged or estranged family members gather. This is the ur-text of present-day American theater. We can't avoid this fundamental plot machine. But we can appreciate what different playwrights do with it. Dark drama, comedy, absurdity - all are valid approaches. But the talented playwright Nicky Silver tries all three in Raised in Captivity, and perhaps inevitably, though he nails various targets over the course of the longish two-acter, he ultimately gets spun around one too many times and pins the tail on the Led Zeppelin poster.

[Read on]

Photo by Nathan Johnson.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Terre Haute

Peter Eyre does a flawless Gore Vidal and Nick Westrate a short-fused, intense Timothy McVeigh in this 80-minute drama (by Edmund White) that imagines the famous author interviewing the infamous Oklahoma City bomber. The two, given fictional names here, never met face to face: the play is an imagining of what they might have discussed if they had. For a long while, as the men suss out first the commonality and then the differences in their belief systems, the play has an electricity thanks to the excellent performances and the gravity of the men's topics. But the play backs away from true political complexity, and ultimately winds up more concerned with the well-worn subtext of the relationship between the men rather than with their ideas. Although the play held my strict attention for an hour, I found the final scene so disappointing and irrelevant that it ultimately cheapened and ruined the play for me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cornbury: The Queen's Governor

photo: Gustavo Monroy

Historical lore has long held, perhaps erroneously, that Edward Hyde (aka Lord Cornbury), New York's governor in the early 1700's until he was forcibly ousted from office, was an outrageous cross-dresser and rumored sodomite. This campy farcical comedy (by Anthony Holland and William M. Hoffman) depicts him as a silly lavender-scented fop whose lavish wardrobe bills nearly bankrupt the city. He's meant to be someone we cheer for, as the small minded Dutch citizens all but light torches to storm the Governor's mansion, but the play's sensibilities are decades out of date and lack any naughty kick: we're past cheering cross dressing for its own sake, especially when it's as cutified as it is here and divorced of sexuality. Before the play becomes hopelessly monotonous, David Greenspan's performance has some appeal - he can twist a line reading for maximum effect - but he would be a lot more enjoyable if he was the only one chewing the scenery. Instead, nearly every one in the cast is pitched for hysteria as if they're in a bad Mel Brooks movie. (One notable exception: Christian Pedersen) Paul Rudnick might have done something both funny and thematically interesting around the Cornbury myth but these playwrights simply use the character as an 18th century poster boy for diversity, with his Native American friend, African-American handmaiden, lesbian barkeeps, and Jewish accountant meant to lend him rainbow coalition cred (even as the play tries to score un-PC yuks off each).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Judgment of Paris

Photo/Steven Schreiber

Austin McCormick's The Judgment of Paris could not have found a better place than the Duo Theater, the sort of decayed Moulin Rouge-type place, gilded proscenium and all, that signifies the cost of maintaining beauty. The free Ferrero Rocher on every chair (an expensive type of cheap chocolate) and Olivera Gajic's slightly frayed can-can costumes are further extensions of that thought; Marchese's interpretation of Aphrodite as the Russian mistress of a brothel solidifies it. While these consistencies hold things together, McCormick (and his Company XIV ensemble) are free to giddily romp through their spin on Paris's story. And though they pull from several sources (including, rather appropriately, Chuck Mee's Agamemmnon 2.0), it's their own text, which creates the sort of coherent throughline that experimental works benefit from. McCormick has labeled The Judgment of Paris as "a dramatic entertainment." Thankfully, he has not tarnished the beauty of either one.

[Read on]


Reviewed for Theatermania.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sixty Miles to Silver Lake

Photo/Monique Carboni

Every moment between a father and son adds up, creating and sustaining the dynamic that they will share for the rest of their lives. Dan LeFranc's brilliant Sixty Miles to Silver Lake packs seven years of development into one cramped car, the outstanding Joseph Adams and Dane DeHaan neatly unpack it, and director Anne Kauffman, as always, keeps the whole thing moving with a realism that encompasses even the dreamier bits at the end. By setting the whole thing inside a car, even casual exchanges take on a deeper level of intimacy, and by skipping (without missing a beat) through time, LeFranc is able to show how that intimacy develops (or not). It's the mark of a talented writer that he is able to reveal such recognizable characters without resorting to cliche, and the mark of an outstanding team that it never slows down.

[Read on]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Krapp, 39

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

Though he worries about it on stage, losing Samuel Beckett's character, Krapp, was the best thing to ever happen to Michael Laurence. Without that fallback, the actor is left with only bits of himself to show, and that allows this "autobiographical 'documentary' theater piece" to--if not transcend Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape--then at least to complement it. The whole conceit is pretty terrific, for in his efforts to prepare the way for a performance thirty years off, he delves all the way back to his childhood, musing not just on mortality but on the theatricality of life.

[Read on]

Leaves Of Glass

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Theater Is Dead And So Are You

Photo/Carrie Leonard

Like a cross between Weekend at Bernie's and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stolen Chair Ensemble's latest production is a slapstick think-piece, set in the vaudeville tradition. Some of the bits may come across a bit cold, but the ensemble's creativity and heart are alive and kicking. According to the playwright Kiran Rikhye, it's "the best and only live dead theatre that twelve to eighteen dollars can buy," which is true, especially when she's on--as with delightfully upbeat songs like "He Was Dead" and a corpse's performance of Romeo and Juliet. And when her meditations threaten to get weighted down by the convention, director Jon Stancato is there to save the day.

[Read on]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Cherry Orchard

photo: Joan Marcus

Sam Mendes' production of this Chekhov classic, which uses a new adaptation by Tom Stoppard, is a disappointment which fails to sound the needed notes of melancholy. The moments that ring true are few and far between: the talented cast, comprised of both British and American performers, doesn't register as a cohesive team, a problem that is compounded by staging that rarely creates the illusion that it's organic. Audiences coming fresh, without having seen another version before, might well question the play's reputation: the characters are reduced to stick figures.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Little Night Music

A starry, likely once-in-a-lifetime cast assembled for what turned out to be a thrilling, unforgettable benefit reading of this Sondheim masterpiece, yet to be revived on Broadway. Some were revisiting roles played elsewhere before (Victor Garber, Marc Kudisch), but most were coming fresh: all showed up, despite the limited rehearsal time, with fully realized performances. Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, the benefit's greatest casting coup, would have been more than enough on their own to make the evening special - Richardson's beguiling performance as Desiree capped with her nakedly emotional rendition of "Send In The Clowns", Redgrave's expert line readings bringing comic zing and fresh vitality to Madame Armfeldt - but all the casting was inspired. With her rare talent for barbing a one-liner, Christine Baranski has long seemed like she'd be a sensational Charlotte, and she was: the comic chemsitry between her and Kudisch, an absolutely ideal Carl-Magnus, was musical theatre heaven. I wasn't surprised that Stephen Pasquale aced young idealistic Henrik, but I was stunned that Jill Paice, an eleventh hour replacement for Laura Benanti, proved to be a revelation as child-bride Anne. Many have stumbled in the role, condascending to it rather than playing the girlishness with conviction, but Paice got it exactly right. As Petra, otherwise known as the servant who gets to sing "The Miller's Son" in the second act, Kendra Kassebaum was in the same league as Natascia Diaz, who brought down the house a few years back in the role at the Kennedy Center: high praise indeed. Because the full orchestra was center stage, and the actors seated to the sides except when needed at the row of stools at music stands, I sometimes found myself looking over at Vanessa Redgrave as she watched her fellow actors. Emotionally engaged, curious, highly attentive and ready with applause: she's not only the greatest living actress, she's probably the world's greatest audience member.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Psychos Never Dream

An unstaged reading of a new four-character play by Denis Johnson, clearly not meant for review. Still, I can't help mentioning that Deidre O'Connell was spot-on (isn't she always?) in the supporting role of a deputy sheriff.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Shipment

Young Jean Lee's latest play, The Shipment, asks a lot of questions about racial identity and identification, but while she writes as directly as Thomas Bradshaw, her work here challenges the audience by imitating--perfectly--the very forms it comments on, be that urban dance, stand-up comedy, or song. There's a satirical send-up of one man's rise to rap stardom, hammy and full of stereotypes, but also a subtler one-act that deals with a dinner party gone wrong. By not hitting us in the head with the hammer, however, Lee leaves us waiting for the punch long after the show ends.

[Read on]


Photo/Martin Kaufhold

Location, location, location is true, even with theater, for by setting his latest play, England, in an art gallery, Tim Crouch has managed to feed his neutral, restrained monologue by surrounding it with passion of another sort. In the echoes of the large gallery space, the text overlaps and starts to resemble a heartbeat. A brilliant ambient sound design by Dan Jones helps to add a throbbing intensity to the show, one heightened by the effect of standing up for the first half of the show. Just as photographs cannot capture the layers on a canvas, neither can a description of the pointedly flat script evoke the three-dimensional effect.

[Read on]


photo: Eamonn McGoldrick

It begins casually, house lights still up: we're the audience in a New Orleans bar while a singer and a guitarist perform a low-key set. Soon, however, the deceptively loose beginning gives way to a dynamic, thematically stimulating piece which throws a current-day Yankee real estate developer (who's come to demolish the bar) into conflict with the ways of the Old South. "It's like they're still fighting the Civil War down here" she says in a phone call home, as the people around her morph into the author of, and characters from, Gone With The Wind. The narrative structure of the piece (part of the Under The Radar Festival at The Public) is adventurous but purposeful - before long we're also watching a current-day Hollywood producer enlist an African-American film director (played by a white actor) to helm and star in an unfaithful, politically correct remake of the movie. Although overlong, and not always smoothly staged, Architecting is captivating mostly because it's uncomfortable - its high-minded ruminations on how we construct history don't go down easy when they play out in scenes such as the one (adapted from the novel) where Scarlett O'Hara defends a slave from the verbal abuse of a Yankee woman. If such scenes aim to show us nuance and contradiction, or the "truth of the times", they backfired for me. To use Gone With The Wind for its place in the American consciousness is one thing, but to invest in it as truth is another.

Friday, January 09, 2009


Photo/Eamonn McGoldrick

The four distinct sections of Architecting, the TEAM's latest look at America, never satisfyingly cohere--at least, not as elegantly as in their metaphoric Chartres Cathedral--but at least they've got a term for it: thermodynamic history. This free-associative interpretation of events allows them to convert, conflate, and merge Americana, throwing it together in the hopes of creating something altogether new. The energy is there, but the frame of Architecting is so much larger than that of their last, the more centralized Particularly in the Heartland, that a lot of that hard work goes up in a puff of confusedly entertained smoke.

[Read on]


photo: Joan Marcus

I wanted to see the Broadway musical of Shrek with a non-industry, paying audience before writing about it, and now that I have, I can say with confidence that it's an audience pleaser. (At least it is with this original cast - all bets are off next Fall if/when some of these principals are replaced.) Though the sets and costumes look no-expense-spared and the orchestra is sufficiently staffed so that it actually sounds like one, the show's real bang for the buck is delivered by the abundance of personality and winning appeal of the performers. Even an audience who's never heard of Sutton Foster quickly knows they are watching a genuine modern-day musical comedy star - the girlish-goofy physicality in her performance as Princess Fiona warms the house and puts everyone at ease. Brian D'Arcy James, unrecognizably skull-capped, ogre-eared and tinted green, brings the right amount of heart as Shrek and keeps the character from being, well, just a cartoon. Daniel Breaker, as his sidekick Donkey, avoids the road marked "Created By Eddie Murphy" and spins his every bit into a solid laugh, whether funny on the page or not. And Christopher Sieber, amusingly on his knees nearly all night to create the illusion that he's dwarfed, hams it up deliciously as the story's villain Prince. Supporting cast are all terrific top to bottom, especially in the energetic, sometimes witty dance numbers. The book is fine for what it is - it has the same jokey spirit as the Shrek movies, and although some have faulted its lapses into bathroom humor, I don't see any reason why a family-friendly comedy like this one shouldn't make some concessions to the pre-teen boys in the audience. The big downside of the show is that its score continually lets it down - unlike Billy Elliot, which triumphs despite a merely serviceable score, the substandard and rarely funny songs in Shrek put a drag on the show and prevent it from adding up to more than the sum of its parts.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Die Roten Punkte: Super Musikant

photo: Christine Fiedler

The brainchild of performer-musicians Daniel Tobias and Clare Bartholomew, Die Roten Punkte are a brother-sister pop punk band whose often very funny show is finally in New York this weekend, following much-awarded engagements at Fringe Festivals in Canada. It's easy to see why this show won Best Comedy at last year's Victoria Fringe - the duo have a gift for comic delivery and for improvisation within the "concert" format of the show, and their mock-serious solidly-crafted send-ups of new wave music are often hilarious. (The funniest has the two dancing the robot to a Krafterwerk-like beat made only of cowbell, three repeating synth notes and a drum machine.) The show's narrative, which exists mostly in the banter between the duo's songs, may be slight - Astrid, just out of rehab, eventually gets a talking-to from her "straight edge" brother Otto because she's been spiking her Vitamin Water with booze all night - but the slightness doesn't matter: the show's disarming humor comes not from the narrative but from character, and Tobias and Bartholomew have honed Otto and Astrid to perfection. The audience didn't seem to initially know what to make of the show - it took a couple of songs before there was clear permission to laugh - but after that it was practically a party. I doubt there was anyone there who hadn't been made a fan.


We draw our own conclusions about the eight young men and women of Eight before they even say a word. That's partially why the writer and director, Ella Hickson, has them stand in a silent line as the audience files in. They don't remain blanks for long: each has a monologue—the theatrical form of the short story—and over the course of the next few hours, they'll share them. While the characters may not have found a place for themselves, Hickson certainly has: she's a darkly comic playwright, social critic, and youthful voice, all balled up into one. Considering how rushed-to-Fringe this was, it's remarkable that only two of the monologues seem forced (and only comparatively so); as for her language, it's near miraculous.

[Read on]

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Photo/Noah Kalina

Reggie Watts is a bullshit artist, but a serious one. His deadpan act deconstructs both sound and comedy: imagine a hip-hop Andy Kaufman and you'll still be confused. Just know that Watts's entertainment comes first; the incidental laughs spray like shrapnel. Also, know that Watts gets away with it. The solipsism fades in front of an audience, especially a downtown crowd, and if his performance sometimes seems the equivalent of a precocious child taping a private radio program in front of a mirror, he at least has the voice of a DJ and the technical skills of a sound engineer. However, while the title implies that Reggie Watts is going somewhere, he isn't there yet.

[Read on]

Monday, January 05, 2009


There are no seatbelts on the mock airplane set of Jenny Rogers’s adaptation of Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu & Her Friends. None are needed: Wickets is engaging and smooth, but it’s hardly dramatically turbulent. Nor should it be: by sticking to the surfaces, co-directors Rogers and Clove Galilee are being true to the eight stewardesses on Wicket Air Flight #1971. (The feminist content has been updated from 1935 to 1970.) The deeper truths come out in loose yet cryptic monologues, and through an interpretation of Fornes’s experimental style that collages text and breaks out into song and dance.

[Read on]

Hello 2009!

Another year, another blog butt-kicking by Aaron, who handily won our race (again) and probably saw more shows than David and I did. Combined. Stamina, thy name is Aaron Riccio.

You've no doubt noticed that David has been posting only sporadically for the last six months. I don't want to speak for him, but I don't think he'd mind my saying that his focus began to change after he had his own show up last Winter. Come back to the five and dime David Bell, David Bell.

I can't wrap my mind around Show Showdown without David having some part in it, so the door will always remain open for him to post here whenever he is inspired to. Nonetheless, with David engaged only irregularly, it's impossible for me to imagine doing another blog race this year.

That said, Aaron and I both want to keep on posting on here, mostly because we see the value in a theatre review team blog that can concisely cover a wide range of theatre, many times with more than one take on the same show.

We're going to be joined this year by my friend Cameron Kelsall, who used to maintain a blog I thoroughly enjoyed and who has written for New Theater Corps. Look for his posts very soon.

In addition to Cameron, we'd all love to find yet another articulate theatre junkie to join us in '09. Email me if you're interested.

And now, here comes all the theatre we can manage to see in 2009. Thank you all for reading and for loving theatre.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Emmet Otter's Jug-band Christmas

photo: Diane Sobolewski

Jim Henson Productions and Goodspeed Musicals have joined up to stage Henson's much-loved 1977 tv musical, and the charming result ought to be a perennial hit. Essentially a woodland creatured revision of The Gift of The Magi in which puppets and actors co-mingle as animal characters, the musical is agreeably low-key rather than brash and enjoyably cute rather than precious. Although Paul Williams' score is only serviceable, and the show's pace at times a tad sluggish, the production aces one of theatre's toughest tests and holds tykes in rapt attention thanks not only to Henson's delightful, by now familiar puppets but also to the expert cast whose performances have been well-scaled to the material. Most obviously terrific are Cass Morgan as Ma Otter and Daniel Reichard as her son Emmet, both highly accomplished music theatre performers who bring warmth and a gentle touch to their characterizations. But there's also plenty of skill on display elsewhere from performers in supporting roles, from the unseen puppeteers who play a pack of red squirrels in a running bit that gets the show's biggest laughs, to Alan Campbell and Kate Wetherhead, who bring just the right tone and amount of personality as a father and daughter whose Christmas Eve heart-to-heart is the stage musical's added framing device. Even the three minor characters who fill out Emmet's band are given amusing, memorable characterizations from Robb Sapp, Daniel Torres, and the always hilarious Jeff Hiller.