Sunday, November 24, 2019

Let 'Em Eat Cake

The narration for the MasterVoices production of the Gershwins' Let 'Em Eat Cake mentions that (1) it was the very first musical sequel (to Of Thee I Sing), and (2) it set the precedent for musical sequels flopping (see, e.g., Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, Bring Back Birdie, and Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge). It failed, however, to include point (3), which is that the sequels mostly aren't as good as the originals (exception: Falsettoland).

Bryce Pinkham, Mikaela Bennett
Photo: Erin Baiano

It's not that Let 'Me Eat Cake is bad. It just isn't . . . good. The plot is all over the place, even for a silly satire, and Ira Gershwin is in full twee mode. (Complicated rhymes that don't quite make sense get boring quickly.) But, and this is a huge but, the score by George Gershwin is gorgeous.

And any show sounds terrific when presented by the 150-person MasterVoices and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, directed and conducted by the fabulous Ted Sperling. It's always a treat to see them perform. In addition, they generally have amazing guest stars. This time, the cast included Bryce Pinkham, Mikaela Bennett (delightful), David Pittu (stealing the show), Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Fred Applegate, Chuck Cooper (wasted!), and Lewis J. Stadlen (mumbling through his one-liners).

It's a little odd to review MasterVoices shows, since they're always gone before the reviews come out. So let me predict that their entire season will be well worth seeing and leave you with a link to their website: MasterVoices.

Wendy Caster
(row R, press ticket)

Monday, November 18, 2019

Fires in the Mirror

Midway through Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith's moving and generous one-person show about the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Robert Sherman, the head of the City of New York's Increase the Peace initiative, talks about bias. "I think you know the Eskimos have 70 words for snow," he notes. "We probably have 70 different kinds of bias, prejudice, racism, and discrimination, but it's not in our mind-set to be clear about it. So I think that we have sort of a lousy language on the subject and that is a reflection of our unwillingness to deal with it honestly and to sort it out." In some ways, Sherman--one of many real people Smith interviewed and worked into Fires, which premiered at the Public in 1992--nails the landing: bias underscores the monologues of almost every person Smith has worked into the show. But then again, there's so much more to the piece, and to the people in it, than the ways bias shapes our thinking. And Fires in the Mirror would be a far weaker piece if Smith had allowed her own biases to influence the ways the many characters in the piece consciously or unconsciously air theirs.

A mild stir went up at the initial announcement that Smith would not be performing her celebrated play this time around, but then, Fires in the Mirror very much deserves to live on whether she's involved or not. Michael Benjamin Washington holds his own in the Signature production, moving easily between characters with the lighting of a cigarette, the donning of a headscarf or hat, or the careful preparation of a cup of tea. Like Smith in the original production, Washington disappears into each of the many people he portrays, all the while keeping his own opinions off the table. Some of the people portrayed are angrier and less tolerant than others, and a few have especially strong--and not especially kind--opinions about Blacks, or Jews, or the incidents that sparked violence and rioting. But in letting them all speak for themselves--whether about the role of hair in black culture, complications that can arise during Shabbat, which cultural group has been treated most cruelly through human history, or who specifically was to blame for the violence in Crown Heights in summer 1991--Smith has created a quiet, moving, kaleidoscopic reflection on race, culture, and personal identity. While the riots at the heart of the production certainly took me back to that strange, sad summer, I found Fires to be, for the most part, curiously uplifting and even hopeful. Bias might occasionally slop over into violence and hatred, but then again, as one character muses, no matter who they are, most people want the same things: to go freely about their days; to experience more joy than pain; to live in quiet, peaceful neighborhoods; to get along with one another more often than they don't.   

Saturday, November 09, 2019

The Hope Hypothesis

In the excellent Voyage Theater Company production of The Hope Hypothesis, running through November 15 at the Sheen Center, playwright-director Cat Miller deftly shows how easily innocence can be misread as guilt when the authorities involved neither understand the people involved nor care to.

Soraya Broukim, William Ragsdale
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
The plot is simple: When Amena, a long-time resident of the United States, goes to a governmental agency to complete some immigration paperwork, the clerk freaks out at the flag on her birth certificate. She is soon caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that also ensnares her boyfriend and an ACLU lawyer.  Unfortunately, reality these days is scary enough that Miller needed to write only the smallest twists on reality to drag Amena into an insane and frightening world from which she may never return.

In addition to being tense and suspenseful, The Hope Hypothesis is funny, warm, and pleasingly clever. Its 75 minutes fly by. Miller and her excellent cast imbue potentially stereotypical characters with humanity (only the character of a dumb CIA agent fails to take life), and the characters' interactions ring true in a way that brings further dimension to Amena's adventures in Kafka-land.

Connor Carew, Wesley Zurik, Charlie O'Rourke
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
The scenery, by Zoë Hurwitz, provides a coolly anonymous setting while also allowing quick and effective transitions into other locations. (I have a personal bugaboo about slow scene changes in multi-scene plays, but The Hope Hypothesis moves quickly due to Hurwitz's scene design and Miller's smooth direction.) The costumes, by Katja Andreiev, suit the characters, and the lighting, by Bailey L. Rosa, and sound design, by M. Florian Staab, nicely support the general sense of dread.

While we constantly hear about the insane prices of Broadway, it is important to remember that all over New York and the entire country, top-notch work can be seen for the price of a movie ticket, medium soda, and medium popcorn. The Hope Hypothesis deserves way more attention than it is likely to get in its short run Off-Off-Broadway, but you have a week to catch it before it goes.

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, press ticket)

With Soraya Broukhim,* Wesley Zurick,* Charlie O’Rourke,* William Ragsdale,* Greg Brostrom,* Connor Carew,* Mary Hodges*

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association

Scenic Designer: Zoë Hurwitz
Costume Designer: Katja Andreiev
Lighting Designer: Bailey L. Rosa
Sound Designer: M. Florian Staab
Production Stage Manager: Sarah Biery
Stage Managers: Erika Blais and Morgan Eisen
Assistant Director: Ann Kreitman
Technical Director: Eric Zoback
Press Representative: Glenna Freedman PR
Casting by: Stephanie Klapper

Graphic Design by: Youness El Hindami