Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The New Century

photo: T. Charles Erickson

How can you tell that the man sitting near you at the theatre is gay? A) he's saving the Playbill and B) he's awake. So go the quips from the title character in Mr. Charles, a one-act previously seen downtown a few seasons ago and now flanked by two new monologues - one starring Linda Lavin and the other Jane Houdyshell - to form a Paul Rudnick evening. (There's also a fourth piece, which brings all of the characters from the three preceding plays together, but it's generally banal and the less said about it the better). The Mr. Charles play, in which Peter Bartlett reprises the limp-wristed title role with delicious panache, is the only one that has something interesting to say - namely, that the social acceptance of gays has erased a once-prevalent brand of eccentric cultured pansy - but the Lavin and Houdyshell monologues make up in snappy comedy what they lack in substance. Lavin is marvelous and has perhaps never been funnier as a Jewish matron from Massapequa whose tolerance is pushed to its beleaguered limit by her childrens' "alternative lifestyles": the fun comes from watching the character try to stick with the program of unconditional love and acceptance no matter what the kids throw at her. The monologue performed (to astonishing perfection) by Houdyshell gets off to what seems like a rocky start when it appears that Rudnick is patronizing the character (we're asked to laugh at the macaroni-and-glue crafts that she makes, for example) but soon the playwright neatly inverts the message so that it pokes fun at supposedly sophisticated tastemakers. That slyness made it my eventual favorite of these one-acts.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Photo/John Castro

For better or worse, Hipgnosis Theatre Company has put the "fun" in Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. At times, that means a loss of specificity, and a sacrifice of strong opinion in favor of hammy polemic. At others, it means that straight actors like Rachel Tiemann and comic actors like John Kevin Jones come full circle in their arcs and drive home the vignettes that they, as central characters, link together. Ultimately, the narrow theater is a poor choice for theater-in-the-round, and yet Margo Newkirk's clever and uncluttered direction, Demetrios Bonaros's singing and arrangements, and of course, Brecht's neatly didactic writing, all rise to the occasion and turn out a neat little play that I only wish, like Azdak the judge, had tried neglecting order.

[Read on]

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sound and the Fury

Photo/Sara Krulwich

Whether or not you end up enjoying The Sound and the Fury really depends on whether or not you can see the beauty present in an actor speaking their dialogue in the same breath as their he and she saids. It depends on whether or not you are as willing as Benjy to lose yourself in the hypnotic glow of a flame, to invest yourself in this reinvention of the mundane. For me, I found the production to be triumphantly emphatic of all the flaws in Faulkner's work, the most all-encompassing work of love that I've seen in some time. It's ridiculous to say that, as much as it is to reflect on the absurd beauty of a cake-cutting ceremony, but for all the lumps and grumbles I jotted down during the play, it's only that beauty that I remember now.

[Read on]

Man Of La Mancha

photo: Jennifer Maufrais

A no-nonsense, thematically clear production of a musical that is very easy to muddle and ruin, the current rendering of Man Of La Mancha (at Gallery Players, in Brooklyn) is modest but effective and, on occasion, stirring. The directorial focus is squarely on telling the story with clarity and a minimum of fuss, as evidenced by choices that demonstrate unwavering trust in the strength and weight of the material. The production is fortunate to have a strong Aldonza in Jennifer McCabe, whose wrenching performance as the whore barmaid is sometimes like a stunning fit of controlled rage, and an enderaing Pancho in Robert Anthony Jones, whose "I Like Him" is one of the production's crowd-pleasing highlights. Although vocal stress kept Jan-Peter Pedross from making an ideal Cervantes at the performance I saw, his performance was otherwise well-judged and quietly touching.

The Accidental Patriot

Photo/Carrie Leonard

Having so enjoyed Kinderspiel and Commedia dell'Artemisia, the last two plays by Stolen Chair Theatre Company, it pains me to write this less than positive summation of Kiran Rikhye's The Accidental Patriot. As part of the company's CineTheatre Tetrology, the play mimics the swashbuckling genre of film, and while it gets the raucous energy of the large-scale swordfighting down, it loses something in emphasizing the melodramatic dialogue, and throws momentum to the overboard with a few sea shanties too many. The point where I draw my cutlass is that director Jon Stancato, in his efforts to remain faithful to the movies, replicates close-ups by pausing the action, bringing the actor into a center-stage spotlight, and having him continue from there as the rest of the cast carries on as if nothing's changed. The effect is artificial -- more alienating than Brecht -- and it bleeds over into the rest of the show, from the forced emoting to the by-the-numbers blocking. I get the intention, but I don't appreciate the result, and I spent most of the show hoping for an accident to force the actors to actually play off one another. I thought I'd have my opportunity when Liza Wade White, the ingenue, tripped over a sword while rushing to kiss the patriotic pirate (Cameron J. Oro) who had just revenged himself against her father (David Berent). Unfortunately, she didn't miss a beat. I go to plays to get away from such stoic theatrics, the unflinching resolve that celluloid captures so well; I was disappointed to find that The Accidental Patriot aspired to so little.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


"Oh oh. Oh no. Here he comes!" says John Calvin Kelly, the electrifying actor taking on the role of Victor in Daniel MacIvor's one-man show, House. "He's ruining everything! I thought this was a PLAY! Stop! Stop!" Standing in the narrow aisle of the Red Room, surveying the audience and acknowledging the theater itself, John is stripping away the artifice of the show, and with that, he succeeds in removing the artifice of character, thrilling us with a performance that never seems forced, even at its most abstract. (Metaphors are literal to our "fucked up" narrator: his mother is possessed by the devil, with "eyes the size of turnips"; his father runs a circus act in which he's "the saddest man in the world.") As John speaks, he pulses with all the barely repressed rage at the idiocy in Victor's life, building up the walls of his house (HOUSE!) before hitting the next part: "My calming action," he says, ". . . used to be counting to fifty but it took TOO GODDAMN LONG!" Fritz Brekeller is a confident director, which means he lets John go out on a limb, but never so far that it snaps. It also means the focus stays on Victor's quest to find a place of his own: ignored at work, despised by his wife, and ridiculed at group, his life is unremarkable, to the point where "See ya tomorrow," "Call ya Friday," and "Wanna go for breakfast" seem poetic, for it "might not sound like poetry but it does if you never heard it and I never did." In the finest moment, Victor describes the only award he's ever won: first as a fantasy, then as it actually was, settling for each flaw with an increasingly bitter "Fine." Septic salesman or not, that's a lot of shit for one man to suck up, and kudos to John for keeping it all in with a slowly cracking grin.

Babylon, Babylon

Photo/Ken Stein

For a while, Jeff Lewonczyk's ambitious illusion, the thirty-man Babylon, Babylon, holds up. But the writer/actor/director stacks the deck against himself, putting the audience so close to the action (lined up against opposite walls) that the lack of drama becomes all too apparent. Nothing sustains the momentum of the overall piece; it's just that there's so many characters on stage that it seems like things are developing, when in fact we're just watching lots of under-developed pieces. It is any surprise, then, that when they all collide in a forced climax that the whole thing seems more than a little ridiculous?

[Read on]

Alice: End Of Daze

photo: Carol Rosegg

There's one long section in this experimental, surreal variation on Alice In Wonderland (currently at La Mama) that holds our strrict attention: we watch the performers enacting a kind of torture ritual with highly stylized, somewhat slow-motion movements in front of a wall of projections of Inquisition scenes, set to a modest but sonically strange and dramatically haunting soundscape performed by Edward Herbst. This is the show's most effective stretch because it gives the audience something specific (that is, torture in the name of religious purification) to use to decode what's happening on stage. Besides this sequence, too much of the show is otherwise thematically obscure: the intended exploration of "the nature of time, visual perception and consciousness" (according to press notes) doesn't prove to be much of a driving force to organize the material. Instead we watch nine year old Alice (played by Mari Andrejco, an actress in her sixties) wander from one moment to another and we're often as lost as she is.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Is the imagination of evil what enables it? This is the moral dilemma at the heart of Daniel MacIvor's monologue, Monster, and the scene connecting its characters is one of the most gruesome tortures I've ever heard (from 1998, predating Saw). However, the play struggles with itself to display this conceit, and Avery Pearson -- while believable and frightening as Adam, the angry voice from the darkness who would "rather be a blackout than a burst of light" -- is forced to undermine his menace every time he plays Janine, an all-too-innocent bystander, or emulates Denise, a clucking movie assistant with a long neck and tiny bladder. Pearson is far stronger when playing men like Al, the quietly angry boyfriend to Janine, and Joe, an addict who, in a burst of clarity, sees a new life for himself. We lose the nuance of the play, for a young boy obsessed with "the Boyle torture" only comes across as a shrill and excitable Pearson. We lose the subtlety of character, too, when they're reduced to tics or share the same vocal tricks, an actor-generated weakness. This is where the director, Steve Cook, should have stepped in. But like the staging itself, which keeps the actor far from the audience, the show is hands off, and as such is more about an actor showing off than an ominous display of the darkness within us all.

Alice: End Of Daze


As I have stated before, I am often the king of not getting it. I was completely lost in this post-apocalyptic, experimental take on Alice In Wonderland (maybe I was supposed to be). There were a lot of interesting things happening onstage and it seems there was a boat to get on but I missed it. Is this a brilliant piece of theater? Or is the emperor wearing no clothes? Thank GOD Patrick was there with me. He's smart. I look forward to his review. He'll tell us what to think.

Hostage Song

photo: Samantha Marble

In this risk-taking, altogether unique and strikingly unsentimental indie-rock musical, Jim (a Pentagon contractor) and Jennifer (a news reporter) are blindfolded and held hostage in a dingy cell somewhere in an unnamed foreign country. There isn't any rising action, by design - the show is a series of riffs on the prisoners' situation rather than a conventional narrative, with hard-driving, grunge-tinged songs punctuating the wholly convincing book scenes (which are remarkable for their skillful blend of cold-eyed dread and gallows humor). The result is certainly vivid and it's easy to see why discerning freshness-seekers have turned this little downtown musical into a tough ticket: the show defies music theatre conventions both in subject matter and form. Yet in the end the terrific songs (by Kyle Jarrow) and the accomplished, haunting book (by Clay McLeod Chapman) add up to less than the sum of their parts: a little more plotting would change that and make the show more unified and satisfying. As the hostages, Hanna Cheek and Paul Thureen are especially remarkable for conveying a range of emotions while blindfolded and unable to show the audience their eyes. Abe Goldfarb scores with his perfectly judged delivery of an especially haunting monologue that is, for me, the show's most powerful scene.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Yellow Moon

I didn't really go for the style of Yellow Moon, in which four plainly dressed actors basically narrate their way through each other's stories, as I found the plot to be a derivative adventure story. I did, however, like the language David Grieg showed himself to be so in command of, and I found myself drawn to the physicality of each actor, doing their best to conjure up some external imagery for all the internal talk coursing between them. The play is one of forced (poetic) perspective, and is less like a ballad than an elaborate ballet, one in which each dancer narrates the other's every step. It's observational, yet, because it's narrated by the actors, quite revealing, too, especially when it stumbles upon the awkwardness of youth -- the "sex" scene between Lee and Leila is spellbinding.

[Read on]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

When Is a Clock

Matthew Freeman's new play When Is a Clock is begging to be reset. At its heart, there's an ornate metaphysical mystery (something of a cross between Paul Auster and Jorge Luis Borges), with the sort of creepy poetry that allows dandruff to be described as "shavings . . . like someone put a little cheese grater to his milky skull" and a woman's transformation into a clock as "Her legs curled up inside her, her arms wrapped backwards, her head lowered into her widening neck. All of this sounds so . . . thundering and bizarre. But it was graceful. Like origami." But around this well-fashioned analog core, there's a slick, winking digital comedy that seems like effluvium from Mr. Freeman's recent, pointed one-acts (Trayf and The White Swallow). A clock can track both night and day, but When Is a Clock would keep better time if it excised the shallow office scenes, toned down the exaggerated cop, and focused on the family drama. (I make these criticisms because the plot is a blast of originality, and the playwright has a strong, richly descriptive voice that I'd just like to see used for more than pure entertainment.)

[Read on]

Monday, April 21, 2008

Little Flower Of East Orange

photo: Monique Carboni

As Therese, an ailing, wheelchair-confined widow whose determination to not be a burden on her grown children is either saintly selflessness or passive-aggressive martyrdom, Ellen Burstyn is unfussy and direct: she achieves her effects so simply that you don't see any "acting". This is an extraordinary performance that should be getting more attention than it is. It's at the center of Stephen Adly Guirgis' engrossing but somewhat messy new play which has much in it that is raw and intimate: I don't know anything about the playwright's personal history but the scenes he's written between Therese and her son (an intense, compelling Michael Shannon) have a seering honesty that seems to have come from anguished searching. The authenticity of these scenes is more than enough to recommend the play, despite its unruly, humor-spiked first act. Also excellent: Elizabeth Canavan, playing Therese's daughter whose "could fall to pieces at any moment" exterior disguises a solid inner strength.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Four Of Us

**** (...out of five stars)

Like From Up Here, this other current MTC offering is also pretty damn great. Centering on the rocky friendship between two young writers, this Itamar Moses play's brilliance lied in the depth of its two characters and the fascinating structure that had our story bouncing backward and forward all over the timeline of their relationship. Michael Esper, who recently kicked some ass in Crazy Mary and Me, Myself & I is on a roll here giving another youthful, intelligent and very honest performance as a jealous struggling playwright. The handsome , sensitive Gideon Banner was also dead on for his role as a shy boyish novelist.
I went to two great plays in one weekend. Thanks MTC! Can't wait for Top Girls!

The Four Of Us

photo: Joan Marcus

A plot synopsis will tell you that Itamar Moses' new comic drama concerns two buddies who are both aspiring writers and that one becomes wildly successful while the other does not. But that's only what's on the surface: the highly enjoyable two-hander mines a lot more than the envy you expect from their dynamic. Although the flashbacks and flashforwards are once or twice a tad disorienting, and a couple of scenes may go on just a bit too long, the play has a pleasurably relaxed ryhthm that allows us to savor the often funny and easily identifiable ways that the characters reveal themselves. The play is wise, amusing and quietly touching in its depiction of a friendship between two well-meaning, likeable people that can not hold as is against life's changes: you don't have to be a writer to relate to that. The snappy production (at MTC's smaller space) also boasts two excellent performances from Michael Esper and Gideon Banner, who have believable good-friends chemistry together and who both perfectly nail the style of the piece. Highly recommended.

From Up Here

Photo/Joan Marcus

I took the weekend off from criticism so that I could just revisit some plays I very much enjoyed (Hostage Song and Too Much Light Make the Baby Go Blind), but a few things worth mentioning regarding From Up Here. First: it's exceptionally well cast, and it plays to the strengths of emotionally introspective Tobias Segal (Kenny), awkwardly outgoing Will Rogers (Charlie), serious yet friendly Brian Hutchinson (Daniel), and excitably charming Julie White (Grace). (The rest of the cast is great, too, I just haven't seen them in anything before.) Second: the only thing holding Leigh Silverman back from perfection is her own perfection -- that is, she just makes her plays too aesthetically pleasing. That honey-colored sweetness worked for Well, but it sanded off the pulp from Beebo Brinker, defaced Yellow Face, and kept From Up Here far from any real danger. I love her work, I just want to see her dig into it. And finally, Liz Flahive's script is pretty dead on, from the angst of an ignored sister (Aya Cash) to the conflict of a favored aunt (Arija Bareikis): those people who leave Stage I thinking the play is just about Kenny's emotional bottleneck are missing the whole point: we're all up there. Some of us just fall better than others.

[Also blogged by: Patrick]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

I didn't get to see new TMLMTBGBer Alicia Harding do very much in my latest (but first of the year, and thus eligible!) trip to The Kraine, but I did get graham crackers, a bag of Tate's Chocolate Chip Cookies (Christopher Borg, if you've googled yourself, yes -- they are that good), and a little too much exposure to Joey Rizzolo's adolescent dreamscape. Highlights include "The Council For Food" -- did you know food was good for you? -- the sweet, shared encounter of "The day I showed my hand," and the hysterically self-referential "MELTDOWN! DON'T CALL THIS PLAY, IT'S FULL OF LIES!" Oh, and they finished the show, it was still a deliriously fun evening, and they've got a new website. Pin pin, anyone? Pin?


What do The Pillowman's insane fiction, the gushing angst of From Up Here, and the sublime grace of 100 Saints You Should Know all have in common? Nothing. But the best of all three plays is present in Catherine Treischmann's superb new play, crooked, which, for all the twists in plot, never has the characters do anything but go straight for the heart. As Maribel, Carmen M. Herlihy excels as a fragile, isolated girl whose holds onto religion as a necessity: invisible stigmata make her important (and keep her from self-cutting), and Hell is the place where people like Deedee Cummings will rot for being so mean. It's a view of religion that can't be easily dismissed, and a character that can't be summed up with a one-dimensional adjective. She is joined also by the masterful Cristin Milioti, who plays Laney with such a desperate need for approval that even she is startled by her rebirth as a "Holiness Lesbian," and by Betsy Aidem, who makes Elise, Laney's mom, so solidly pragmatic that she's hardly recognizable a few glasses of wine later. Director Liz Diamond finds ways to enhance the magical world we live in, but she never strays from the electric realism of the play. What are you waiting for? Get bent!

[Read on]

From Up Here

****1/2 (...out of five stars)

Of the three of us Showdowners, I liked this play the most. Loved, in fact. This story about fractured family trying to rebound from a very serious incident that went down at the high school was very modern, sensitive and wholly engaging. Loaded with colorful, stressed-out characters crashing up against each other yet also desperate to reach out and hold each other, From Up Here was pushing the same buttons in me that last year's 100 Saints You Should Know did- another play that I flerging loved. Everyone in this cast is delivering some great performances with Julie White leading the pack. The desperate mommy angst emanating from her aura was heartbreaking and I wanted to climb onstage and give her a big fat gay hug.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Country Girl

Stage chops: you can file them under Use 'Em Or Lose 'Em. I've long considered Morgan Freeman to be among the best actors of our time but his return to the stage (in this Mike Nichols-directed revival of the Odets classic) could be generously described as underwhelming. Three weeks into previews, his performance is so tentative he practically vanishes on stage. I left at intermission. Almost nothing in the first act landed as it was supposed to - Freeman, Peter Gallagher, and Frances McDormand, a mismatched trio of actors if ever there was one, seemed to each be working in a different performance style which made for a numbing non-starter. Nichols was at the back of the house dictating notes, but it's a cinch that "replace the stars" was not one of them.

Barcinda Forest

To be honest, Barcinda Forest isn't ready for review or for viewing, but they've asked for both, so I'll oblige on behalf of those who come after me. The "environmental" story by Janeen Stevens is one-dimensional and hokey (think Fern Gully, only without the animation), and Barry Gomolka's staging for Original Intent Theater -- which aims to fit the problem of producing plays on a "small, relatively inexpensive scale" -- actually causes problems. Hoyt Charles uses classical periaktoi to change scenes (a nod to their mission statement to "revisit theatrical conventions"), but the actors are the ones who have to spin them around, and the crude illustrations on them -- like fourth-grade art class -- are more distracting than revealing. And although Georgien's costuming for the blue jay, deer, wolves, and spirits of the forest is color-coded, only one of the actors actually attempts at the physicality of that animal (Johnny Ferro): the rest just look like humans standing around in clothes with leaves or boas stitched on them. Finally, the choice to have the animals speak in blank verse and the two men -- land-developing Cash Cutter and his innocent, journalist son, Paul -- in prose is a good one, but one that requires precision and smoothness from the actors. Here, the two worlds -- animal and human -- don't clash so much as they bleed together, and that's why Barcinda Forest is rough.

Young Frankenstein

**1/2 (...out of 5 stars)

I finally lost faith in the Tony Awards after Jay Johnson's ventriloquist act won Best Special Theatrical Event over Kiki and Herb (straw. camel. back.). And so I am emotionally prepared to deal with the scary notion that Young Frankenstein may snag a Best Musical nomination away from the brilliance that is Xanadu. Never mind that YFrank is the same spoofy Broadway joke delivered much better in The Producers, or that all the songs sound the same and are generally forgettable, or that the only genuine laughs come from the hard working actors and not from the book or score, it looks good on paper, it employs a lot of people and it will tour well. I smell the stench of nomination.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fire Island

Photo/Diego Bresani

At heart, Fire Island is a love story, but the scenes keep branching into what Mee labels "riffs" (which is at least an honest assessment of his collaging). Bob -- a punk-clad critic -- justifies this by saying that all Greek plays are love stories: despite the tragedy, everything always happens for love. Again, while the text may support these wild claims, the rhythm of the piece doesn't: the clown's molestations are tame, Susan has a knife that she never uses, and Catherine wins Hiroko back with nothing more than pity. What's missing is anything more than the love story -- that is, the impetus for us to continue watching. Fire Island is a place, not an excuse for piecing together rambling, unremarkable characters, and technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nothing compels Fire Island to be a play rather than a novel, and placing the audience in the midst of the action only works when there is action, which Kevin Cunningham frequently keeps just out of reach, projected in three dimensions, but still remarkably flat.

[Read on] [Also reviewed by: Patrick]

God's Ear

photo: Jim Baldassare

Last year, after seeing this play at 13th Street Rep, I wrote this:

"At first the use of language in Jenny Schwartz's play is exciting and bold: the people talk in nearly non-stop cliches and elliptical phrases, and sometimes repeat a sentence or an exchange with minor but meaningful variation. Initially, as we watch a married couple struggling with each other over the death of their child, it makes for thrilling theatre: the highly-stylized fractured speech is like the music of profound anguish constructed from the superficial sound bytes of everyday talk. But then other whimsical characters begin to figure into the play - a transvestite airline stewardess and The Tooth Fairy, to name two - and the expressionistic language doesn't have the same impact coming from their mouths."

While I still have those same complaints about the whole of God's Ear, now enjoying a transfer to the Vineyard Theatre with most of its team and cast intact, I must also say this: I've seen over two hundred shows since, and few have lingered in the memory as this one did. Hearing the play a second time, I was reminded how uncommon it is to encounter a new playwright whose work speaks in an exciting, truly theatrical and genuinely unique voice. Schwartz is certainly worth getting excited about and this play, although ultimately problematic, is a must-see for playgoers who are interested in bold new work.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

God's Ear

Photo/Carol Rosegg

I'm having trouble writing a capsule review of God's Ear: there really isn't a single moment that I can easily omit. That's to be expected from a playwright like Jenny Schwartz, who rewrites each draft from scratch, so that the rhythms not only continue to build, but are perfect in the process. Anne Kauffman, who takes the script seriously -- and literally -- creates a heartbreaking world, and the cast, carried over from last year's production (with the exception of Rebecca Wisocky, who now steals the show), have made even characters like the Tooth Fairy seem plausible. We imagine things because we are sometimes too full of reality to face it. Face it; God's Ear is unmissable.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]

Sunday, April 13, 2008

From Up Here

photo: Joan Marcus

Twenty-eight year old Liz Flahive's play is a reasonably diverting but superficial comedy-drama that centers on a troubled teenaged boy who has just returned to his high school classes; we quickly learn that he was suspended after an incident with a gun, and that he's expected to publicly apologize at the next school assembly. The play's events are meant to lead up to that event, but we never find out very much about the boy or his motivations in the interim - the gun incident is little more than a plot device that paves the way for some tearful family scenes after a whole lot of quirky-adorable ones. And by a whole lot I mean an endless assault of them: Mom is high string quirky, Sis is sarcastic quirky, her boyfriend is awkward quirky. It all plays like a very special episode of Roseanne except that I didn't, despite the efforts of the playwright and the hard-working cast, warm to or believe any of these characters.

I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document Give To Me By A Young Lady From Rwanda

Photo/Gerry Goodstein

For a week, I've been unable to write this review, wanting desperately to do this play justice. I struggled to describe I Have Before Me . . ., for at a surface glance, it is a tacky: Sonja Linden has created a pretentious yet talented poet to stand in for the playwright, and this poet then instructs (and is instructed by) a fiercely intelligent yet emotionally fragile Rwandan refugee. But it's clear from the writing that Mrs. Linden was shaken to the core by her experiences: knife-sharp slivers of detail in this play cut holes in the facile frame, allowing for a fuller picture. More so, despite some missteps by director Elise Stone (none that are serious), Susan Heyward delivers a performance so textured that the show achieves its self-proclaimed goal: "Good writing makes you see what the writer wants you to see--and feel."

[Read on]

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)

Photo/Justin Bernhaut

If Miranda July made plays instead of movies, they'd look and sound like Jay Scheib's frenzied yet passionless, meticulous yet sloppy, artificial yet somehow realistic new play Untitled Mars (This Title May Change). As with his last work, This Place is a Desert, Jay relies on hyperphysical action to compensate for dry yet hammy dialogue (spam?), and uses multiple camera feeds and projections to create a visual mash-up of landscapes and emotions that's cool. But this coolness comes at a price, an arctic absolute zero that freezes out plot and gets lost in the fiction. All that humanity on Mars serves as a parable for human behavior -- we won't just terraform Mars, we'll psychoform it, too -- but it's only occasionally expressed well, as when Norbert (Balazs Vajna) rips a hole in his suit, literally dying of depression. Ultimately, it's hard to be taken seriously in anti-gravity, and Jay Scheib -- even with his abundance of creativity, fierce charm, and surprise -- never quite manages to do the trick.

[Read on]

Fire Island

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

thirty-seven stones (or the man who was a quarry)

Granted, there should be some level of discomfort in a play about a emotionally (and henceforth physically) traumatized man-child who goes around passing stones. But what unnerved me about Mark J. Charney's production was how rough the acting was, and how strained that made the text. I've liked past productions from Working Man's Clothes, but this play lacks the intense commitment of Penetrator or the comic charm of I Used to Write on Walls; instead, it uses a very obvious device (the medical condition) to parallel the many ways in which Edna (Mary Round) has ruled and ruined her son Nathan's (Steven Strobel's) life. After a while, the scenes are just the same old, same old, and director Will Neuman gets left holding the plausibility bill as he tries to pull laughs from a recalcitrant cast. If you crave the uncomfortably immature, look no further, but this is far from a working show.

[Read on]


photo: Jordan Craven

He has no right to sit on our park benches nor to foul up our air with his stink. He's a piece of shit who shouldn't even be looked in the eye. So go the disturbing, self-loathing confessions of an Iraqi immigrant flower peddler named Sad in this striking, provocative monologue (seen previously at the Fringe Festival and now at Under St. Marks). The play ultimately resonates well beyond the scope of one person's pathology and becomes a sometimes harrowing, often sorrowful statement about the damaging cycle of racism. How could it not, as we watch the hated hate himself and speak it back at us in a calm, even charming, manner? Although the play is a tad too long and once in a while feels dated (it was written pre-9/11, and doesn't address the fresh fear-based prejudices against Iraqis) its specifics are less important than its ultimate message, which is timeless and powerful. Christopher Dornig embodies Sad so fully and mines his monologue so deeply that I had to double-check the credits to be sure he wasn't also the playwright (he's not; the play is by Robert Schneider).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Photo/Jordan Craven

Watching Dirt gave me theatrical blue balls. The script's repetition is fine -- necessary, even, so that Robert Schneider can impress upon us the way in which a culture thrusts a mentality of unworthiness upon immigrants (especially illegals). And the dim lighting, which makes it difficult to establish an emotional connection to the script, is at least qualified by protagonist Sad's electrical problems. I'm even willing to forgive Paul Dvorak's broken transposition of setting, from Germany to America, because even with ideological discrepancies, there's enough meat to Sad's struggle to light a fire under our asses. But all that this production manages to do is tease us -- the play promises to give us a release, but Christopher John Domig only snarls for a moment before taking it all back and reversing his position, settling -- always settling -- right back to where he began. That's frustrating enough, but when coupled with David Robinson's shaky direction -- he refuses to let Sad just exist, and needs to keep qualifying the long monologue with improbable changes in lighting -- it starts to get annoying. And above all else, Dirt fails the most important goal of a monologue: it speaks to no-one in the audience. We sure are talked at a lot, but there's never any sense that we're a necessary part of the play. Were we not there, I'm sure Domig would act exactly the same, and without that desperate desire to actually communicate something -- a problem compounded by the protagonist's tendency to lie about everything -- it's just a lecture, performed in darkness, with a slant that doesn't accurately mesh with America.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


Photo/Worldwide B

There's really not a lot of ballet in B-Alive, a story (told in dance) of the love between a hip-hop youth and a prim and proper lass. But you won't hear anybody in the audience complaining: they're too busy vibrating in their seats as the b-boy Gorilla Crew breaks down the house. The plot is a little ridiculous, but then again, so are the moves, and B-Alive b-eats out shows like Jump! because it is willing to take itself seriously, backing up the tricks with actual emotion (as shown by the fifteen-minute free-style curtain-call/encore).

Not that the show isn't willing to fool around: the thuggish dancers, who have a more vibratory and harsher stomp to their rhythms (but still a fluidity all their own), are great comic relief, even as bad guys to the heroic dancers who just like to freestyle. And Ahn Byungkoo's direction gets pretty inspired at times, with a black-light battle in which our hero confronts comes into our distressed damsel's dream and fends off an army of glowing, sinuous, spider-like dancers. There are plenty of moments of simple cheese, too -- as with the pompous self-seriousness of the local record shop owner or the playful sternness of the whip-like ballet teacher. The choreography (from Han Sangmin, Kim Woosung, and Shin Ilho) always evens things out, and while there are a few numbers that could be pared down in the interests of specificity, the show only lasts about seventy minutes -- I say, if you've got it, flaunt it.

Our Dad Is In Atlantis

photo: Carel DiGrappa

The two pre-teen Mexican brothers who are this play's only characters are essentially abandoned by their father (whose poverty compels him to head into the States to find work) and left in the care of their strict grandmother. When she dies, they're sent off to an uncle who regards them as cheap labor and treats them even more shabbily. Finally, after reading their dad's letter postmarked from Atlanta (which the younger boy misreads, hence the play's title) the two summon the courage to run away and sneak across the border themselves. The play (by Javier Malpica) has obvious social relevance but isn't preachy: its distinction is that it maintains its focus, over the course of its ten vignettes that total less than ninety minutes, solely on the boys' conversations. There's a gentle poignancy in the boys' dynamic, as the younger brother's unrealistic expectations of America are at odds with what the older, wiser brother knows. The two young actors (Steven D. Garcia and Sergio Ferreira) are natural and have a credible fraternal chemistry together, but their job of carrying the entire play is made more difficult by uninteresting staging and a fundamental sameness to the play's vignettes: the characters go through a hell of a lot of change, but the characters are written to repeatedly respond to it in much the same ways.

Our Dad is in Atlantis

Photo/Carel DiGrappa

While I admire Working Theater's goal to shed some light on the consequences of immigration in the working class -- Javier Malpica's Our Dad is in Atlantis focuses on two brothers left behind in Mexico -- this play sinks faster than Atlantis itself. The presentation is unimaginative, the translation is flat and repetitious, and the direction is so restrained that it stifles any life the young actors (10 and 12) might have. Come to think of it, the play itself isn't that good: Malpica doesn't follow through on the struggle of these two brothers; instead, he just strings together a series of vignettes about "stuff" and leaves all the real drama -- their abandonment, the death of their grandmother, their violent interactions with so-called friends -- on the side. The first scene establishes the likeable relation between the whiny younger brother and the steely attempts of the older brother to be a man, but each successive scene is just more of the same. Having an adult character would've helped to give some perspective -- additionally, having a more plausible ending would've helped to give the show some closure; as is, the play is just a lot of empty talk.

[Read on]

A Little Night Music

photo: Richard Anderson

Baltimore CenterStage's production of the Sondheim classic (which happens to be one of my all-time favorite musicals) isn't exactly elegant: the interludes from the singing chorus have been tricked up with some cheapening, overly sexual business of the switching partners around a divan variety, and most of the cast's performances haven't been directed to evoke the manners and social codes of the turn of the century. There's also the problem that Barbara Walsh, who'd probably make a wonderful Charlotte, is not ideally cast as Desiree, and that Maxwell Caulfield, playing Karl Magnus with amusing bluster, is not up to the vocal demands of his role. And yet the show still makes for an enjoyable evening thanks to fluid staging, several vibrant performances and - of course - the strength of the material. (When will we ever get to see a Broadway revival?) Particularly good are Sarah Uriarte Berry as Petra and Josh Young as Henrik.

The Happy Time

photo: Stan Barouh

This infrequently revived 1966 Kander & Ebb musical (now at Signature's small black box Ark theatre, in Virginia) has been given a warm and intimate production that renders the earnest, tuneful score with just three musicians. The low-key, chamber-musical approach allows the charms of the simple intergenerational story to play out gently, without much fuss: it emphasizes the bittersweet, quiet nostalgia of the material. That goes a long way toward disguising that the book (newly restored to include cuts made before and after the original Broadway production) is amiable and pleasant but more than a little pat. Also, it too heavily favors the world-weary photographer who returns home to his quaint French-Canadian village rather than the impressionable nephew he dazzles and leads astray: the story would have more emotional resonance if we saw more of it through the adolescent's eyes. Nonetheless the show - besides boasting an often lovely lesser-known score - is enjoyable and well-performed: although Michael Minirik (as the photographer) could stand to put more zip in his early scenes when we're meant to see that his character's worldliness excites the nephew, his performance is otherwise strong and natural; Carrie A. Johnson is sweet in her "girl left behind" role without being sticky; as the nephew, Jace Casey is charming and free of child-actor preciousness. Best of all is David Margulies, whose seasoned know-how as the boy's grandfather is at all times a joy to behold.

Hostage Song

Horse Trade Theater Group

Billed as "the new indie rock musical" this scary, odd bird of a musical was bold and fascinating. Two blind-folded American political prisoners held captive in an unspecified location find comfort in each other through silly games, role-playing, and of course, song. Paul Thureen and Hanna Cheek's chemistry runs deep. Neither of them are truly great singers but the simple rock melodies written by Clay McLeod Chapman, Kyle Jarrow and Oliver Butler, prefer great expressive people who can act the hell out of them, which Paul and Hanna did expertly. I've never seen a musical quite like this one- which means GO!

This performance was at the Kraine so my buddy and I used this as the perfect opportunity to hang out until 10:30 and check in on Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind- the 30 plays in 60 minutes dash. We had a blast. XO

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Kiss Of The Spider Woman

photo: Joan Marcus

This top-notch revival of the Kander & Ebb musical (at Signature, in Virginia) deviates from productions I've seen before by always keeping Molina, the fey window dresser serving time in a brutal South American prison, front and center. Molina's fabulous musical-number fantasies of screen goddess Aurora are generally not allowed to completely take over the stage: we never forget that they are products of his imagination and his means of momentary escape. This focus makes solid dramatic sense and strengthens the story's thematic throughline: as Molina develops feelings for his cellmate Valentin (a political prisoner who is initially disgusted by him) it's more clear than I've ever seen it before that the musical, which both celebrates and cautions against escapism, is essentially organized to follow Molina's maturation from his adoring fan-love of Aurora to his real-life love of Valentin. Seemingly in the interest of containing the fantasy numbers within the reality of the prison, Aurora is always dressed in black: I think that's overdoing it, as the production is so strong that it could afford to give us a flash of Molina's "technicolor dreams" and still make its point. I'd have a hard time coming up with anything else to quibble about. It's no surprise that Natascia Diaz is a knockout as Aurora - whether she's the sensational center of a dynamic dance number or she's haunting the peripheries of the stage with foreboding mystery, Diaz projects the tantalizing allure of a movie star: we instantly believe that her Aurora is an obsession-worthy, authentic screen icon. (It's often said that it takes a star to play a star: you do the math) What is surprising is that Will Chase and Hunter Foster, actors who wouldn't immediately spring to mind to respectively play Valentin and Molina, are both riveting. Chase delivers a heartfelt "Marta" and a stirring "The Day After That" but, more to the point, his performance is distinguished by its avoidance of seeking audience sympathy: he's deep into playing the role and gives no impression of trying to manage what we eventually think of the character. It's at first a shock to see Foster going femme-gay as Molina but the strength of his acting gets us to quickly recover and believe it: half-measures wouldn't do here and Foster fearlessly goes full force into the swish zone. His resounding success with the role is he makes the affectations seem to organically come from the character's insecurities and timidities: his limp wrists are expressing character from the inside out, not defining it from the outside in.

Hostage Song

Photo/Samantha Marble

If the creative dreamteam of director Oliver Butler (The Debate Society), playwright Clay McLeod Chapman (The Pumpkin Pie Show), and songwriter Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant) isn't enough to convince you to buy a ticket for Hostage Song, then you just don't like downtown theater. This is the rare show that works on all levels, from Chapman's arresting metaphors to Butler's relentless direction, Jarrow's serrated anthems, and the cast's raw honesty. Speaking directly and tragically to the unreality of being held hostage, Chapman's text puts precious, awkward situations out of context as soon-to-die Jim and Jennifer (Paul Thureen and Hanna Cheek) try to find some light behind their blindfolds. It's beautiful and genuine, and works a sublimely sorrowful magical realism (only without the hope of magic itself) that the energetic songs and minimalistic direction only help to enforce. I'll be going back to this one before it closes.

[Read on] [Also blogged by: David]

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Democracy in America

At times, Democracy in America is hysterical; that, coupled with Annie Dorsen's direction (of Passing Strange fame), is perhaps reason enough to see it. and perhaps that's enough of a reason, coupled with Annie Dorsen's direction, to see this excitingly unpredictable work of theater. (More performance art than theater, but that's subjective and beside the point.) The problem with Democracy in America is that it too accurately depicts America: it's slick, clever, and commercial, and nothing else. It's ADD as entertainment, and for all the fiercely directed moments, such as a high-stakes game of Russian roulette (pantomimed with a single, ominous bullet), there are plenty of moments -- "One performer on top of the others, with the text 'Ilan Bachrach is a sex god'" that have no room to maneuver, whether they're done with puppets or not. The best moment involves Okwui Okpokwasili giving a rim job to a dinosaur (yes, you'd literally have to be there); let that guide your moral and monetary compass.

[Read on]

The Homecoming

The Cort

Wow. I loved this play. Going to a gorgeously produced revival of a play or musical that I have never read or seen is right up there with a medium rare rib eye or an expensive bottle of wine. With its expertly designed dialogue and its controversial subject matter centered around a family, Pinter's The Homecoming reminded me a little of Albee's The Goat (another play I went apeshit over). The cast is near perfect with Raul Esparza turning in yet another intense, multi-layered, intelligent performance as a horny son who hates his family (I love you, Raul xo). And Eve Best- amazing. As the only girl in this cast of five boys her feminine presence is amplified up to 11 and as she moved in slow motion through this play I couldn't take my eyes off her. Thumbs up old school.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The American Dream
The Sandbox

photo: Gabe Evans

The American Dream, the first half of this double bill of early Edward Albee one-act gems, is widely regarded as a landmark masterwork of American absurdism although it can't, despite the whiff of Ionesco that it puts in the air, be fully categorized so simply. The targets of its dark, indelibly disturbing satire are specific: as Albee once said, the play is "an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society". Seeing it now, directed by the playwright nearly fifty years after it was first performed, is to again recognize not only Albee's influence on American drama but also the force of this play's bite: has any other playwright sunk teeth as hard into American complacency and commonplace cruelty? This production boasts two flawless performances by Judith Ivey and George Bartenieff - both understand the heightened style and confidently deliver Albee's dialogue. The production is less effective when Lois Markle joins them but that probably won't be the case by the time you see the show: the actress was an eleventh hour replacement and was clearly still working through the role at the performance I saw. As Markle is central to the evening's second play (The Sandbox, which clocks in at about fifteen minutes) it understandably was not yet where it needs to and will soon be. But never mind: there isn't any good reason to miss these Albee-directed Albee plays.