Monday, February 29, 2016


It's easy to assume--especially in diverse, concentrated and comparatively liberal areas--that at this point in our country's history, coming out of the closet is just no longer a very big deal. But of course it is: even with all the freedoms in the world, being honest with yourself and your loved ones about who you truly are can be pretty tough stuff. That's the premise of Straight, a compelling, affecting new play by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola that is currently running at the Acorn.

 The plot: Ben (Jake Epstein) is an investment banker in his mid-twenties who went to Penn and is now living in Boston. He is quiet, brooding and something of a bro: his apartment is all college banners, sports posters and takeout menus; he often forgets to eat, but his fridge is full of beer, and he has a makeshift liquor cabinet with a bottle of Jaeger in it. He also has a girlfriend, Emily (Jenna Gavigan), with whom he's been involved since college. She lives across the Charles River from him as she finishes her doctorate in biogenetics. Since they both work long, weird hours, and since they don't live together, they see one another only a few times a week. This arrangement--which, it is clear, is entirely Ben's call, and not even a teeny bit Emily's--allows him to pursue furtive trysts with men, but also to convince himself that doing so is just no big deal. It's not like it has anything to do with his relationship with his girlfriend, and he can totally break the habit easily, whenever he wants to, if he wanted to.

But when he hooks up with Chris (Thomas Sullivan), an undergraduate whose slacker affect belies surprising depth, intelligence, and insight, Ben starts having a rougher time convincing himself that he can remain safely in the closet for the rest of his life. It's not just that the sex is so much better and more frequent with Chris than it is with Emily. It's also that Ben is kind, funny, relaxed, smart, and interested in all the stuff Ben is into--and thus not just someone to screw, but instead to fall head over heels in love with. As Ben and Chris connect with and confide in one another, Ben's iron-clad grip on the life he has decided is best for him begins to loosen.

Straight is a little clunky in passages--there's a lot of exposition at the beginning that is not entirely well-masked. The acting is a little tentative in parts, which certainly works when Ben and Emily are interacting but not quite as well when Ben and Chris are. And while it ends up serving the purpose of the play, Emily is a little underwritten in comparison with the men, whose emotional depths are more carefully plumbed. Still, Emily's hurt and confusion at Ben's insistence on constantly keeping her at just a little too far a distance is palpable and real and sad. Straight is an important play: it reminds us that while contemporary sexuality is far less culturally rigid--or dangerous--than it was even a decade ago, coming to terms with oneself is not automatically easier or less terrifying as a result. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Women Without Men

Playwright Hazel Ellis seems to have had a low opinion of women, with an even lower opinion of powerless women stuck together in lives harshly circumscribed by need. Premiering in Ireland in 1938, Ellis's Women Without Men takes place in the teacher's sitting room of Malyn Park, a private girls' school where teachers get one afternoon off each week and coal is in short supply even in the frigid depths of winter. The women are a varied bunch: the silly Miss Ridgeway, the stern Miss Connor, the colorful Mademoiselle Vernier, the bitter Miss Willoughby, and the closed-off Miss Strong. But they have one important thing in common: they need these jobs desperately. (It is interesting that Ellis chose the title Women Without Men when Women Without Money might have been more apropos.)

Emily Walton, Dee Pelletier, Aedin Maloney, and Kate Middleton
Photo: Richard Termine
So, the teachers bicker and plot and complain. After years together, their nerves are shot, and they are all easily annoyed by one another. They fight like the trapped people they are, jostling for space and quiet and even hot water.

Monday, February 22, 2016


Familiar, by the in-demand playwright and actress Danai Gurira (Eclipsed, The Walking Dead), is a kitchen sink comedy-drama with an African twist. It focuses on the Chinyamwira family, a Zimbabwean brood who left their homeland decades ago, solidly sewing themselves into the fabric of the United States. Donald and Marvelous (Harold Surratt and Tamara Tunie) are pillars of their suburban Minneapolis community; he is a successful lawyer, she is a biochemist. They wear assimilation like a badge of honor: their well-appointed home betrays no trace of their Rhodesian roots; their flat-screen television blares Penn State football games and Rachel Maddow; they worship at the local Lutheran church. They raised their two daughters, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff) and Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), to follow American custom; neither girl could speak a word of Shona.

Despite their American upbringing, both daughters are fascinated by their culture, which sets much of the play's action in motion. Nyasha has just returned from Zim (as everyone in the family calls it), emboldened to embrace her roots. Meanwhile, the engaged Tendi and her white fiance Chris (sensitivity played by Joby Earle) insist on performing roora, a traditional marriage rite involving bride prices and a counsel of elders. The parents are not happy -- especially when Auntie Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor), Marvelous' proud and brash older sister, arrives to perform the roora ceremony.

The first act of Gurira's play is full of solid exposition and clever writing. The game cast do well to make the audience feel like they're watching a family. Unfortunately, the action goes off the rails once the roora ceremony begins in earnest, and neither the playwright nor her fine company (under the generally steady direction of Rebecca Taichman) are able to right the ship.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Little Night Music

If you (1) love Stephen Sondheim; (2) adore A Little Night Music; (3) treasure gorgeous singing; and/or (4) value a bargain, get thee to Theatre 2020 in Brooklyn Heights. Running through March 6, this lovely, unmiked production features superb voices, solid acting, and a level of intimacy that is truly a gift. In short, director Judith Jarosz and her game cast give us the heart and soul of Night Music, with $18 tickets!!!

Nearly all of this production's weaknesses are related to budget. It would be nice to have more scenery, better costumes, and certainly a larger orchestra (though music director/pianist Kevin A. Smith does an extraordinary solo job expressing the ambiance, emotions, and beauty of the music). And, okay, some performances are not quite at the level of the others. But these complaints are slight compared with the sheer pleasure of basking in the superb voices and swirling melodies in the cozy McKinney Chapel.

She Loves Me

She Loves Me is my favorite musical, hands down. The book is funny and drum-tight; the score is comprised of one sparkling number after another. It has no fewer than eight knockout roles. Savvy theatergoers can perhaps understand why I was filled with a fair amount of trepidation when it was announced that Roundabout Theatre Company would be producing a new revival of the musical. Although they gave us the acclaimed 1993 Broadway revival -- which ran for a year and netted Boyd Gaines his second of four Tonys -- their track record with musical revivals has been dubious (remember Bye Bye Birdie?).

I needn't have worried. Seen at the third preview on Saturday night, this production is firing on nearly all cylinders.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Buried Child

Sam Shepard's Buried Child presents the American nightmare. Family is poisonous; religion is useless; ambition is pointless; nothing has been planted in over 30 years. A bizarre, rotted Norman Rockwell painting, Buried Child knows that the American Dream is an unreachable tease to most people.

Ed Harris, Paul Sparks
Photo: Monique Carboni
Shepard's play melds naturalism and symbolism, with each character's flaws--and they have many--representing something larger and deeper. Dodge, the father/grandfather, is a sick alcoholic full of anger and shame; his son, the one-legged Bradley, is an emotionally ugly man swimming against a tide of fury; his other son, the soft-headed Tilden, is almost silent, perhaps obsessing mentally about the many horrors in his past. Halie, the mother/grandmother, seems healthier than the men, even "normal," but she is a religious hypocrite, sleeping with a minister and constantly rewriting the past.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Cabin in the Sky

The Encores! presentation of Cabin in the Sky is over, so I'm going to limit this post to three comments:

1. I am so glad that musicals have evolved over the years. Cabin in the Sky, while often delightful, is truly weird in the randomness of its songs--"In My Old Virginia Home (On the River Nile)," anybody?--and the book is beyond silly.

2. The singing and dancing in this Encores! version was so extraordinarily good that I was thrilled almost continuously for over two hours. It was a wow, wow, wow! evening. I am now officially a huge fan of choreographer Camille A. Brown. And the cast just blew me away: Harvy Blanks, Chuck Cooper, Marva Hicks, Carly Hughes, Jonathan Kirkland, LaChanze, Norm Lewis, Forrest McClendon, Michael Potts and J.D. Webster. With Denisha Ballew, Darius Barnes, Chloe Davis, Timothy L. Edwards, Doug Eskew, Carmen Ruby Floyd, AndrĂ© Garner, Nkrumah Gatling, Rebecca L. Hargrove, Bahiyah Hibah, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Jared Joseph, Kristolyn Lloyd, Tiffany Mann, Sydney Morton, Mayte Natalio, Wayne Pretlow, Malaiyka Reid, Devin L. Roberts, Willie Smith III, Jay Staten, Dennis Stowe, Nicholas Ward, and Hollie E. Wright.

3. It's always a treat to see J.D. Webster in a nice role. After his many Encores! appearances, he feels like an old friend.

Wendy Caster
(second row; was given the ticket!!)


Disaster! totally isn't one. Sure, it could maybe be shorter by about fifteen minutes, and maybe a little sharper in spots, but I saw the third preview and it was already pretty damned funny. How could it not be, really? Look at the cast list to the right. Just look at it. The show is chock full of Broadway people who aren't just famous at this point but the creators of their very own goddamned personae. How could a show with a cast this awesome possibly suck? HOW COULD IT?

I suppose it could if it took itself too seriously, but believe me, it isn't a dumbass, so it knows way better than to do anything that boneheaded. Disaster! has its own long history at this point: it was first performed at a benefit in 2011, and has popped up Off Broadway a whole bunch of times since then, with rotating cast members including greats like Mary Testa, Mary Birdsong, Judy Gold, and Annie Golden. The cast has been a little more Broadway-fied now that Disaster! has landed at the Nederlander, but there are a few holdovers from its Off Broadway days, including Seth Rudetsky, the co-creator (along with Jack Plotnick, who directs, here), who has appeared in every production as noted disaster expert Professor Ted Scheider. Also, Jennifer Simard, who I want to own stock in, reprises her role--more on her and the rest of the cast in a second.

Monday, February 08, 2016


Chris (an unusually subdued James Kautz) wants Amber (the superb Vanessa Vache) to take him back. They've been together on and off since they were teens, and Chris admits that he's messed up again and again: laziness, affairs, drugs. But now he claims he's changed. Amber is tired: tired of his bullshit, tired of trying to scrape together enough money to get by, tired of being tired. She succumbs to Chris, but not optimistically:

Alex Grubbs, Vanessa Vache
Photo: Russ Rowland
Chris: It's gonna be good this time. 
Amber: You don’t know that. 
Chris: I do know that. I’m telling you that cause I know that to be a fact. 
Amber: You don’t know that, Chris. 
He wraps his arms around her, and she lets him. 
Chris: I do know that. I know it. I swear.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


Dr. Seuss, renowned children's author, managed to tuck away some pretty radical thoughts in his accessible, funny, tightly rhymed, and sweetly illustrated books. Seussical, the musical based on a number of his stories, goes even a little further. Individual thought is cherished, even if it annoys the people around you ("oh, the thinks you can think"). War is stupid (does it really matter which side the bread is buttered on?). All people are important ("a person's a person, no matter how small"). You have much to offer just the way you are (as Gertrude learns when she goes to extreme measures to impress Horton). And love is triumphant, even across species. (Horton the elephant and Gertrude the bird decide to help their elephant-bird deal with, uh, cultural challenges by having Horton teach it about earth and Gertrude teach it about sky.)

Seussical doesn't particularly push these messages. Instead, in the strong production currently at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn, it presents an energetic party, with much singing, 17 actors playing over 70 characters, a stage full of inviting props (and many hats), and tons and tons of energy. Seussical is the sort of show where you frequently notice that you're grinning.