Thursday, March 30, 2023


The York Theatre Company's production of Vanities, running through April 22, has many strong points. The main strength is the cast.

The story of three friends from roughly age 18 (in 1963) to roughly age 45 (in 1990), Vanities features terrific performances by Jade Jones, Amy Keum, and Hayley Podschun. They have good chemistry and provide full, textured characters. Most importantly, they all have truly beautiful voices.

Jade Jones
Photo: Carol Rosegg

The direction by Will Pomerantz, music direction by Deborah Abramson, and choreography by Shannon Lewis are also effective. The scenic design by James Morgan is elegant in its simplicity. The costume design by Barbara Erin Delo succeeds for two of the performers (but does no favors for the third). The band is small in number but not in sound: Deborah Abramson, conductor and keyboards; Jessie Linden, drums/percussion; Jim Donica, electric and acoustic bass; Matt SanGiovanni, electric and acoustic guitar and banjo; and Greg Thymius, flute, clarinet, and soprano, alto, and tenor sax.

Amy Keum 
Photo: Carol Rosegg

I was unimpressed by the show itself, unfortunately. First, I must specify that I believe that anyone should be allowed to write about anyone, across gender, race, and age. For example, Ibsen, John Sayles, and James Baldwin have all written believable compelling women characters. 

Hayley Podschun
Photo: Carol Rosegg

However, Vanities clearly was written by people who have never been--and don't understand--women. Throughout the show, the writers (book, Jack Heifner; music and lyrics, David Kirshenbaum) make mistake after mistake.

First, while the writers clearly want to depict real women in Vanities, they seem to believe that shallow depictions of cheerleaders from the past reflected actual human cheerleaders. As a result, the characters are thinly written, and their discussions are too often cutesy. When, for example, the women talk in 1963 about whether or not to have sex, the topics of birth control (not legal for single women in 1963) and abortion (not legal for anyone) are not mentioned. Potential pregnancy was not a joke in the early 1960s, and only cartoon cheerleaders wouldn't be concerned.

Throughout the show, there is way too much dialogue that relies on cheap, non-character-driven humor and makes the women look like idiots. For example, 

INTERCOM: Students, I am sad to announce the President has been shot.

JOANNE: The president of the student council has been shot?

KATHY And MARY: Oh my God.

INTERCOM: The President was gunned down in Dallas.

JOANNE: Dallas? I just saw him in algebra.

INTERCOM: If this report is true, classes will be dismissed for the rest of the day.

KATHY: What about the pep rally?

INTERCOM: In any case, the football game will take place as planned this evening.


For old-fashioned musical comedy characters, I guess this is okay. But for real women, which, again, seems to be the show's goal, it's unrealistic and insulting. 

In another example, one of the characters says, "When I found out that George Eliot was a woman, I got all confused." Really?

Also, the show focuses way too much on men. Yes, many women are very concerned, even obsessed, about men, particularly in their late teens and 20s. But that's not all they're concerned about.

[Spoiler] The show is ostensibly about the women's friendships, but only on the most surface level. In fact, the biggest plot point is when one woman sleeps with the other's husband. Why? Because the writers couldn't imagine anything else for female friends to fight about! Also, it's highly unlikely that the cheated-on woman would ever forgive her friend, but it's particularly unlikely that she would forgive her so easily. [End of spoiler]

Many writing books and teachers say, "Write what you know." That's limited advice that would nip the genres of sci fi and historical fiction in the bud. But it might have been a good idea for Heifner and Kirshenbaum. 

One last point: I am a big fan of inclusive casting, but when much of the show is about appearances, it can be awkward. Particularly when they are young, the characters in Vanities judge other people, harshly, by their looks. The show is called Vanities, after all. Having one of these characters be a large Black woman denies the reality (such as it is) of the show. If the other two women were capable of being best friends with a large Black woman--in 1963 in Texas!--they wouldn't be who the show claims they are. 

On the other hand, Jade Jones is a wonderful performer, and I imagine it's not a coincidence that there were many more people of color in the audience than usual, which is great. And I'm certainly glad to have seen Jones. I can't wait until there are enough good juicy roles to go around for people of every type and background.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Arden of Faversham

Red Bull's fabulously entertaining production of Arden of Faversham, directed with a wry hand by Artistic Director Jesse Berger, tells the story of Alice (the terrific Cara Ricketts), a young wife who wants to trade in her boring husband for a hunky steward. Being as it's the late-16th century, divorce is not an option. But Alice has a plan!

Cara Ricketts, Thomas Jay Ryan
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat have done a smooth job of adapting this Elizabethan farce, believed to be one of the earliest "ripped from the headlines" plays and possibly coauthored by Shakespeare. Hatcher and Walat compare Arden of Haverham, with its gruesome version of farce, to Coen Brothers movies. In their adaptation, they have leaned on the noir and expanded the women's roles. 

Tony Roach, Joshua David Robinson, Cara Ricketts
Photo: Carol Rosegg

In the Red Bull production, the farce wins out over the noir, as the characters aren't real enough to care about their lives or deaths. But that's not a problem--Arden of Faversham is completely satisfying as farce. The show is great fun from start to finish. The performances are calibrated in that wonderful realm of overacting-just-enough, and each character is beautifully delineated with quirks and particularities. Outstanding in addition to Ricketts are David Ryan Smith and Haynes Thigpen as two breathtakingly useless miscreants; Zachary Fine, as a goofy lovelorn suitor; and Joshua David Robinson, fabulously funny in three different roles. But the whole cast delivers. (Though a little better enunciation from the Widow Greene would have been appreciated.)

The set is by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader; the costumes by Mika Eubanks; the lighting by Reza Behjat; the music and sound by Greg Pliska; and the props by Samantha Shoffner. All are excellent.

[spoiler] As for the play possibly being cowritten by Shakespeare: (1) I am no expert; and (2) Red Bull's production is an adaptation, so it would be difficult to ferret out Shakespeare's voice. However, the only facet of the play that struck me as Shakespearean was the body count.

Wendy Caster

Friday, March 10, 2023

Dark Disabled Stories

I reviewed this show for Talkin' Broadway. The review can be accessed here.

I have very mixed feelings about this review, just as I had mixed feelings about the show. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Crumbs from the Table of Joy

In 1995, Lynn Nottage had her first professional production: Crumbs from the Table of Joy, at Second Stage in New York. The Keen Company is now presenting Crumbs' first New York revival, well-directed by Colette Robert, in a solid production of this solid play. The writing is assured, insightful, wry, and open-hearted. (Nottage was only new to being produced; she had completed a full-length play by the time she finished high school and later went to the Yale School of Drama.)

Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

In Crumbs, 17-year-old Ernestine Crump's mother has died, and her father, Godfrey, responded to the loss by dragging his two daughters to Brooklyn from Florida. He chose Brooklyn because he mistakenly believed he was moving closer to his spiritual leader, Father Divine, who turns out to actually live in Philadelphia. Ernestine and her sister Ermina face major culture shock (a more challenging school; kids making fun of their home-made clothing), and racism is never far away. And deep grief is with the family always.

Then Ernestine's mother's sister Lily shows up, with all she owns, and moves in with them. Ernestine's father, although he can be difficult, bad-tempered, and controlling, is in many ways a good man, and he takes Lily in even knowing that she will rock his barely maintained equilibrium. And she does. Lily is a radical, a communist, and a drinker. She is full of herself, frightened, and angry. And she is attracted to Godfrey, which she expresses with a marked lack of subtlety.

Sharina Martin
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Godfrey insists that his daughters live by the terribly restrictive rules of Father Devine: basically, don't have fun, don't have sex. For Godfrey, who wasn't remotely religious before his wife's death, Father Devine and his rules are the life savers he needs to get from day to day. For the daughters, they are a prison. Godfrey neither listens to his girls nor allows them any freedom; he has no sense of who they are.

Nottage's usual wit and compassion are on full display here, although the play bites off a bit more than it can chew, delving into growing up, grief, politics, racism, sex, intermarriage, and religion. (To avoid spoilers, I won't go into detail.) But that's just about the best fault a good play can have, and Nottage's brilliance pops out again and again. Also, while the play is predominantly Ernestine's coming-of-age story, with the help of director Robert and the fabulous cast it provides full inner and outer lives for all of the other characters (save Ermina, who is only partially developed). 

The terrific cast includes Shanel Bailey, Jason Bowen, Sharina Martin, Natalia Payne, and Malika Samuel. And the show is well-supported by Brendan Gonzales Boston's scenic design, Johanna Pan's costume design, and Anshuman Bhatia's lighting design.

Seeing a new play by Lynn Nottage is always an excellent way to spend time, even if it's an old new play. She's simply one of the best playwrights writing today, or ever.

Wendy Caster

Friday, March 03, 2023

The Trees

An odd and lovely play is opening at Playwrights Horizons on March 5th and running through March 19th. Written by Agnes Borinsky and directed by Tina Satter, The Trees is the story of a brother and sister whose feet become rooted into the ground in a small park near their childhood home. Little by little a community develops around them, while developers want to turn the area into a mall. Within this premise, Borinsky explores relationships, the meaning of life, value systems, the importance of change, and what it means to grow up.

Crystal A. Dickinson, Danusia Trevino, Jess Barbagallo,
Photo: Chelcie Parry

The Trees is

  • Written with compassion, insight, and humor by Borinsky
  • Directed smoothly and smartly by Satter
  • Remarkably well-acted by the entire cast: Jess Barbagallo, Marcia DeBonis, Crystal Dickinson, Sean Donovan, Xander Fenyes, Nile Harris, Max Gordon Moore, Pauli Pontrelli, Ray Anthony Thomas, Danusia Trevino, Sam Breslin Wright, and Becky Yamamoto
  • Beautifully designed by Enver Chakartash, whose costume design is whimsical and witty, and Parker Lutz, whose scenic design, while completely non-park-like, manages to be just right, and beautiful.
  • Though-provoking
  • Great fun
Wendy Caster