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Tangled: Keen Company’s ‘When It’s You’

March 19th, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Ana Reeder in 'When It's You.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Ana Reeder in ‘When It’s You.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Courtney Baron’s When It’s You, the Keen Company’s latest offering, is a one-person play about a woman coming to terms with her grief. For 70 minutes, she stands on a bare stage and relates a rambling, sometimes disconnected, but occasionally moving tale about two people she’s recently lost; the play offers her the opportunity to react to these losses and reexamine her life. Why she’s speaking to us is never explained but, by the time the piece concludes, we can be forgiven for feeling like we’ve been part of a grief counseling session listening patiently to a member’s lengthy account of her trauma and what she’s learned from it.

The locale is Dallas, Texas, where Ginnifer (Ana Reeder), still single at 37, has grown up and to which she’s returned after living and working in St. Louis for 17 years. A “dutiful” daughter, she came back when her mother was dying of cancer and moved into hospice care. After her mother died Ginnifer took over the family house, where her mom’s stuff became hers.

Ana Reeder in 'When It's You.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Ana Reeder in ‘When It’s You.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The practically bare setting, designed by Steven Kemp, offers a minimalist platform, being little more than walls and pillars painted a tasteful shade of pale gray. A wooden chair with a carton on it stands at center. Atmospheric variations are supplied by Josh Bradford’s subtle lighting and Justin West’s unobtrusive projections.

Ginnifer’s family issues, explained by Reeder in a dead-on Texas accent (although she mispronounces “ogle”), are intermingled with her recitation of a far more traumatic recent event. This is a mass killing and suicide by her high school sweetheart, Jason Hanley, whom she dated for five or six months, but hadn’t seen in 20 years. No reason is given for the slaughter but the ease with which Jason was able to buy his weapon offers a brief, if peripheral, reflection on America’s gun culture.

As the former girlfriend of a mass murderer, Ginnifer naturally draws attention from those who think she might be able to offer some clues to explain an atrocity that took everyone by surprise. Jason, after all, came from a decent Christian family and showed no warning signs, unlike the local tornadoes that give you notice that they’re coming. As would anyone, she’s stumped by the dilemma of how much any of us ever know about other people. Or how much we even know about ourselves, as suggested by the Cabbage Patch doll in the carton, a memento her mother left for her that reminds her of herself at ten.

Ginnifer’s tangled narrative, which moves around in time, requires patience as it slowly comes into focus. She herself refers to it this way:

There is a ball of yarn. You think you are a ball of yarn, so you think that everything from every time of your life is close together, but you have to untangle it. You have to untangle the yarn. And I think you will find. You will find that in order for the yarn or string to make a ball, it must be a long string.

As Ginnifer untangles her “ball of yarn,” we become enmeshed in her “unbearable loneliness,” her wondering if she actually loved Jason, and her concern over whether she can bring herself to forgive him. But the narrative surrounding these themes isn’t especially novel or interesting. Boiled down to its core, When It’s You is little more than a character study of a lonely woman whose mother died of cancer, and whose high-school boyfriend, with whom she’s been out of touch for decades, turned out many years later to be a mass murderer.

While not much of a play, the vaguely titled When It’s You offers Ana Reeder an extended acting exercise in which she offers a lovingly constructed performance, one that fully captures the emotional toll of Ginnifer’s experiences. As smartly directed by Jonathan Silverstein, she renders the woman’s ordinariness with telling honesty, showing us a simple, friendly (on and off Facebook), unassuming human being expressing her bewilderment at how her life has transpired, and what she sees when she looks in the mirror or clings to a childhood doll when seeking the answer to who she is.

When It’s You
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 8

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then and Now: ‘The View UpStairs’

March 15th, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

The cast of 'The View UpStairs.' (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘The View UpStairs.’ (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

Thank goodness for Max Vernon, the 28-year-old wunderkind who continues to carry the torch of gay history to a new generation. Vernon, an NYU graduate, is the author, composer, and lyricist for the thoroughly thoughtful and entertaining Off-Broadway musical, The View UpStairs.

Loosely based on an actual event, this disco-spiked show begins with Wes (Jeremy Pope), a know-it-all millennial fashionista who returns to his native town of New Orleans in 2017 to renovate what was once a very popular gay bar known as the UpStairs Lounge.

Much to his surprise and dismay, the realtor (Nancy Ticotin) failed to inform Pope that the lounge had serious fire damage. Just as Wes is ready to throw in the towel, the locals who used to frequent the establishment visit him in a hallucinogenic Dickensian style) by. Suddenly, he is transported back to 1973.

Frenchie Davis in 'The View UpStairs.' (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

Frenchie Davis in ‘The View UpStairs.’ (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

The bar’s regulars include Henri (Frenchie Davis), the butch lesbian matron of the joint, Richard (Benjamin Howes), a pastor who conducts weekly church services here, Freddy (Michael Longoria), a spritely Puerto-Rican drag queen whose mother (played in a dual role by Ticton) not only supports her son’s lifestyle but also offers assistance with everything from make-up to tucking (he politely refuses the latter.) The watering hole also attracts some less desirable characters including Dale (Ben Mayne) whose only crime appears to be poverty and wanting to be noticed. Buddy (Randy Redd) serves as the glue to this gay “Cheers,” and Patrick (Taylor Frey) provides the romantic plotline, along with Wes, who is somewhat wary of this blast from the past pretty boy.

Of everyone in this cornucopia of carefree spirits, it is Willie (Nathan Lee Graham) who commands the most attention. Graham, whose antics never tire, could read a business card and turn it into a carefully executed work of dramatic art. Here, he is the “old queen” who is quick with a quip and an arched eyebrow with the tacit implication:  “I will cut you and keep on walking.” Graham is a stunning performer who knows precisely when and how to respond to his fellow castmates but is also careful not to pull focus from the main scene. His work in this piece is a master class in the art of acting.

Vernon is mostly wise to utilize the vocal talents of his cast. Willie’s “Theme Song,” which evokes memories of the good ‘ole days, is something to cherish.  A touching moment occurs when Dale, an outcast, sings “Better Than Silence,” a plea for wanting to fit in better with this tightly knit clan. The show’s main song, “Some Kind of Paradise,” is an upbeat anthem that exalts both the lounge and its inhabitants.

The score is terrific, but I wish that Vernon had showcased Davis a bit more. From American Idol fame to Broadway’s Rent, Davis has wowed audiences with her remarkably soulful voice. Unfortunately, she has little opportunity to share it.

(l to r) Randy Redd, Benjamin Howes, Michael Longoria, and Jeremy Pope in 'The View UpStairs.' (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Randy Redd, Benjamin Howes, Michael Longoria, and Jeremy Pope in ‘The View UpStairs.’ (Photo: Kurt Sneddon via The Broadway Blog.)

With kitsch knick-knacks and Christmas lights adorning Jason Sherwood’s detailed set, one might think that this is a dive bar—maybe it is. But to the customers, it is a haven of friendship and community that nurtures face-to-face human connection, something that is sorely lacking for Wes, whose only concern is erasing valuable history and collecting followers on social media.

Vernon’s commentary is astute and on target. In April last year, Michael Musto wrote a piece in the New York Times regarding the death of gay clubs, thanks to a combination of mobile apps, high cover charges, and increased real estate costs. Connection has become transactional.

The View UpStairs also covers eerily prophetic territory as Patrick describes what will happen to the gay community before 2017. It is a vital reminder to young generations of what those who have gone before us have suffered, sacrificed, and endured.

It should be noted that, while the characters in Vernon’s piece are fictitious, the event that inspired it was tragically factual. The UpStairs Lounge was located in the French Quarters of New Orleans and on June 24, 1973, it was the victim of an arson attack that left 32 people dead. It remains to this day an unconvicted crime and—until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando—the worst attack on a gay establishment in U.S. history.

The View UpStairs, smartly directed by Scott Ebersold, is an important retrospective of the gay community: where we’ve been, where we are, and who we could—and should—be.

The View UpStairs 
Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project
45 Bleecker Street, NYC
Through May 21

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

The Beat, Beat, Beat of the Tom-Tom: ‘The Emperor Jones’

March 14th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Obi Abili in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Obi Abili in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Irish Repertory Theatre has a rather liberal interpretation of its titular mission, which can be seen by its occasional production of plays by Irish Americans, like Eugene O’Neill, whose explosive 1920 play The Emperor Jones, is now receiving its second revival. (The first was in 2009 starring John Douglas Thompson and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, who staged this replication of his earlier production.)

O’Neill’s semi-expressionistic one-act was considered an artistic pathbreaker in its day. Partly this is because it was one of the first important plays by a white playwright centered on a black character (played by Charles Gilpin in the original and Paul Robeson in the 1933 movie), and partly because it broke away so radically from then conventional realism in favor of imaginative, nonrealistic, theatrical staging for its final scenes. Over the years, the play has had to overcome charges of racism, but, fortunately, it continues to receive notable productions.

Andy Murray in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Andy Murray in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Its present incarnation, running a swift 65 minutes, enjoys the commanding presence of British actor Obi Abili. This impressive-looking thespian fully embodies the boastful, crafty, ruthless, crap-shooting Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter and murderer who escaped from a U.S. prison to a West Indian island where he manipulated the locals to become their emperor. Forget about skin color and listen to some of his words for reflections on our current political leadership.

O’Neill, using a story he’d heard about an actual Haitian leader, attributes Jones’s sway to his exploitation of the natives’ superstitious fears by claiming only a silver bullet can kill him. Aiding him is a greedy, craven Cockney trader named Smithers (Andy Murray).

When his corrupt dictatorship, under which he makes the laws and embezzles the money, turns his victimized people against him, the haughty Jones flees through the jungle, with the money he’s stolen, toward a waiting boat. In a half dozen brief scenes, during which he’s the only speaker, the jungle comes alive in his increasingly fevered imagination with “the Little Formless Fears,” seen as terrifying spirits, frightening rituals, and chilling sounds (created by the top-notch Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab), including the heartbeat-like throbbing of drums. Jones’s past misdeeds and racial memories, such as a slave auction, burst into vivid life before he fires his silver bullet at a huge crocodile before he himself dies by such a bullet crafted by the natives.

Charlie Corcoran’s set of loose hangings, dominated at first by Jones’s raised throne, becomes, in the scenes of jungle madness, a kaleidoscopic playground for lighting designer Brian Nason’s nightmarish effects. Costume designers Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher contrive a variety of eerie costumes for the spirits, many of them seeming to be offshoots of the surrounding trees, while puppets and fearsome masks (the work of Bob Flanagan) further heighten the hair-raising atmosphere. Every move is excitingly choreographed by Barry McNabb, most memorably a dance featuring a colorful witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell).

Obi Abili in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Obi Abili in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Abili fills the stage with ample physical and vocal force although his words, written in heavy “Negro” dialect, are sometimes muffled. At one point he whips his throne platform with one muscular blow after another, such that you shudder at the thought of what the effect would be on a human back. The ensemble, including Carl Hendrick Louis as the native called Lem, are all up to the task.

I missed Thompson’s 2009 performance so I can’t compare him to Abili but, for now, Abili has set the high standard I’ll remember the next time someone tackles The Emperor Jones.

The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd Street, NYC
Through April 23

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

Laughing through Tears: ‘Cry Baby: My (reluctant) Journey into Motherhood’

March 10th, 2017 Comments off

by April Stamm

Cry Baby Jamie AderskiMotherhood is no f-ing joke. And comic Jamie Aderski will be the first to agree with me on that. Terrible stuff happens when you carry, birth, and try to raise a baby; vividly gross, heart-breaking, explosively painful, and exhausting stuff. In her one-woman show, Cry Baby: My (reluctant) Journey into Motherhood, Jamie Aderski takes us through all of it, in minute detail.

In her self-written solo show about her own pregnancy, birth, and first 11 months of motherhood, Aderski breaks it down pretty clearly into three parts. Part I (aptly titled “You’re F*cked”) includes visual aids by way of a large notebook on an easel and some audience shout out participation as she takes us the through the horrors that befall a woman’s body during pregnancy, birth, and post-partum. Of course, she goes over the common knowledge catastrophes most likely familiar even to the layman, that pregnancy makes you blow up like a balloon, birthing a five- to nine-pound human being out of a tiny hole can hurt just a little bit, and that babies cry a lot. Then she delves into the lesser-known (unless you’ve done it) disasters like that your hair, once made uber thick and shiny by pregnancy, falls out in literal clumps after birth. Part I concludes as Aderski takes us through the actual process of birth in all of its frightening and rippingly painful glory framed in a film noir motif.

Jamie Aderski (Photo: Mindy Tucker via The Broadway Blog.)

Jamie Aderski (Photo: Mindy Tucker via The Broadway Blog.)

On to Part Two: “This is Not a Game.” Through this portion of the evening, we actually do play a game, an audience member is called up, a baby doll is handed out, a basket of soothers given including your standard pacifier, bottle, and some more bewildering (to the non-stroller wielding set) items like a Nose Frida (parent favorite used to literally suck babies boogers out with a tube you put in your own actual mouth) and the ever popular fart whistle… then a timer is put on and said audience member gets to “sooth” the baby.

Part III, “Aftermath,” starts with a slightly awkward, but truthful and connectable story about Aderski’s relationship with her own mother and her scarred view of what she would be like as a mother. The section ends with a somewhat random yet heartfelt collection of thoughts, small stories, shout out’s to “mom’s groups,” claims that moms can and do remain “themselves” post motherhood, all to the tune of marathon wine drinking.

Jamie Aderski (Photo: Mindy Tucker via The Broadway Blog.)

Jamie Aderski (Photo: Mindy Tucker via The Broadway Blog.)

It all it works… for a subset of the population. Cry Baby feels a bit like it’s preaching to the choir. If you happen to be a mom (and to some degree a dad) and are in on nature’s sickest joke and most beautiful miracle, there are lots of moments to connect with in Aderski’s cautionary tale of copious bodily fluids, unending physical pain, love, and disillusionment all wrapped up in an adorable screaming little package. Some moments feel self-indulgent and even sad on a plane beyond the comic parameters of harsh reality for the sake of funny. Other moments tend towards forced (the film noir bit in Part I could be smoother with less physical movement and a little editing).

At its best, though, Aderski’s piece is personal and honest, which does strike a humorous chord, as so many of the hardest things in life can be if you just take a step back and see the funny through the pain.

Cry Baby: My (reluctant) Journey into Motherhood
Written and Performed by Jamie Aderski
The People’s Improv Theater
123 E. 24th Street, NYC
March 10, 7 p.m.
March 31, 7 p.m.

April Stamm is a freelance theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to Edge Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center.

The Family Ties That Bind: ‘The Glass Menagerie’

March 10th, 2017 Comments off
Sally Field and Joe Mantello in 'The Glass Menagerie' (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Sally Field and Joe Mantello in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

I have no doubt that Sam Gold’s stark, contemporary interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ masterwork, The Glass Menagerie, will polarize audiences and critics alike. The current Broadway revival, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre, is a muscular, often anachronistic work. “The play is memory,” says the son, Tom (Joe Mantello), “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” If you believe those words at face value, as I did, you will discover a production that bristles with familial uncomfortability. That pushes your boundaries beyond the suspension of disbelief. And that, ultimately, breaks your heart as the ties that bind unravel before your eyes.

Set in an alley in St. Louis, “Now and in the Past,” The Glass Menagerie reveals the layered dysfunction in the Wingfield household, helmed by matriarch Amanda (Sally Field) and her two children, Tom (Joe Mantello) and Laura (Madison Ferris). A gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor (Finn Wittrock) later appears, but it is the unseen fifth character of the father, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances,” who looms over the proceedings like an emotional grim reaper.

Madison Ferris, Sally Field, and Joe Mantello in 'The Glass Menagerie.' (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Madison Ferris, Sally Field, and Joe Mantello in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Williams’ construct is quite simple, really. During the day, Tom is trapped in a warehouse job at Continental Shoemakers while his wanderlust slowly simmers away. At home, his recluse sister plays with her glass menagerie as his mother tries to pine and manipulate her way toward an idealistic vision for a charmed life for herself and her two wayward adult children. When Tom invites his colleague, Jim, home for dinner, Amanda sets a social entrapment in the hopes that the young man will find Laura suitable for the taking. Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans…

As narrator and son, Mantello is wiry, perhaps more middle-aged neurotic New Yorker than down-on-his-luck warehouse worker. Putting “type” aside, it makes no difference. Mantello bites into Williams’ language with a ferocity that some might remember from his Tony award-nominated performance in Angels in America. Mantello has no fear of unhinging Tom’s squelched life. And it helps that he has a terrific sparring partner in Sally Field.

Last seen on Broadway in Edward Albee’s 2002 The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, most of Field’s body of the work has been on the screen, both big and small. The two-time Academy Award winner and three-time Emmy Award winning actress as spanned half a century. Once again, the actress delivers a watershed moment, the culmination of more of a decade of yearning to return to the role, which she played at a Tennessee Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center in 2004. Gold guides her through a fluid vacillation between aging southern belle and contemporary matriarch.

Finn Wittrock and Madison Ferris in 'The Glass Menagerie.' (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Finn Wittrock and Madison Ferris in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes via The Broadway Blog.)

Making her Broadway debut, Ferris is tasked with perhaps the play’s most challenging role. Laura, often portrayed as waif-like with a non-discriminant limp or another physical challenge, is lost in the world of her menagerie. Drifting in and out of life’s social demands, it is easy to shroud her as a victim. But Ferris, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her teens but hasn’t let that stop her from pursuing a theater degree from Muhlenberg College and moving to New York City, often as difficult to navigate as Williams’ masterwork. This conflict of strength and vulnerability sheds new light on Laura, who seems almost flippant at her mother’s eccentric pursuit of a gentleman caller. But Ferris tends to, at times, vacantly drift, nearly consumed by Mantello and Field’s master class.

But when Wittrock arrives as her gentleman caller, Ferris lights up. And who wouldn’t? He embodies an easy, All-American façade, but don’t be fooled by his good looks. Wittrock mines Jim for all he’s worth, clutching to a gem given by the playwright, who pegs Jim as a man in pursuit of upward mobility. Jim is taking a night course in public speaking, and Wittrock joyfully nudges this character detail to the forefront with a bellowing voice.

Stripped down to its bare walls, scenic designer Andrew Lieberman and lighting designer Adam Silverman create a barren theatrical landscape at the Belasco. But there is plenty to feast on in this eighth Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street, NYC
Through July 2

The View From Above: ‘The Outer Space’

March 9th, 2017 Comments off
Ethan Lipton in 'The Outer Space.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Ethan Lipton in ‘The Outer Space.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

What happens when life on earth just becomes too much? It’s a not-so-existential question asked by Ethan Lipton in his latest quirky musical story adventure, The Outer Space, which opened March 8 at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. For more than a decade, Ethan Lipton + His Orchestra (Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle) have been delivering jazz-inflected story songs to hipster New Yorkers. Lipton has simultaneously established his own career as a playwright. He is an alum of The Public’s Emerging Writers Group, a Clubbed Thumb associate artist, and a Playwrights Realm Page One fellow. His Obie award-winning musical, No Place to Go, was produced by The Public and has toured nationally. So all things considered, life on earth for Lipton isn’t half bad. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be better in outer space.

Constructed as a series of story songs, narrative, one-off jokes and musical interludes, The Outer Space follows the emotional trappings of a couple who vacate earth for new life high in the sky — orbiting Mercury, specifically. They’ve bought “a charming Victorian craft” in the hopes of rediscovering themselves, their relationship, and perhaps, the meaning of happiness. The wife is happy with their decision, while the husband suffers from space sadness, defined as “a combination of despair, mono, and a shitty attitude.” These nuanced, urban riffs ripple throughout Lipton’s work, set against whimsical scenic and costume designs by David Zinn that set a tone of ‘let’s not take ourselves too seriously.’

And while the subtle jabs and life’s inadequacies ripple freely off of Lipton’s tongue, he questions early on just what sort of potential we have for change:

Have you ever known someone
who said they wanted to do something very different with their life, because they thought it would make them a happier person?
 And have you ever said to that someone,
“Yes! You should totally do that thing!”
all while thinking, I’m not sure it’s going to make you a happier person. Well, you were right. 
It doesn’t work that way.
You don’t just transform your circumstance and get happier.
 Except when you do.

Vito Dieterle, Ian M. Riggs, Ethan Lipton, and Eben Levy in 'The Outer Space.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Vito Dieterle, Ian M. Riggs, Ethan Lipton, and Eben Levy in ‘The Outer Space.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Lipton is sharp-witted when it comes to painting the picture of spacecraft life, which basically equates to small town living amid a colony of 3,100 people in 450 vessels (“with quite a few others in the outskirts”) and equally adept at lyrics in such ditties as “A to Z,” an alphabetical tongue twister about all of the things the couple enjoys together, or “Yoga/Not Yoga,” which mildly pokes fun at our struggles to find internal peace.

Lipton charismatically carries us along this journey in a soft-spoken, NPR kind of way. His baritone vocals won’t blow the roof off of Joe’s Pub, but it’s a soothing, unique delivery that complements his band’s terrific musicality. It is this sum of the parts that has made Ethan Lipton + His Orchestra so unique.

Lipton is at ease under the direction of Leigh Silverman (Violet, Sweet Charity, Kung Fu), who gently guides this mission to outer space and inner exploration. At the end of The Outer Space’s 90 minutes, I’m not sure I was any closer to discovering “the dream of letting go” or “the other dream being just a human being.” But it was still worth the ride.

The Outer Space
Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through April 9

Cupid’s Fleeting Arrow: ‘Significant Other’

March 3rd, 2017 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Gideon Glick, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sas Goldberg and Lindsay Mendez in 'Significant Other.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Gideon Glick, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sas Goldberg and Lindsay Mendez in ‘Significant Other.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

You might, as Rihanna sings, “find love in a hopeless place,” but you won’t find anything particularly worth the hefty price of an orchestra seat at the Booth Theatre, where playwright Joshua Harmon’s moderately appealing comedy, Significant Other, currently resides. Harmon’s play has made the leap from a successful run Off-Broadway at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre to Broadway, leaving seasoned theatergoers to ask themselves, “Is this really necessary?”

Harmon’s play begins in the present day, where Jordan Berman (Gideon Glick) is at a night club, dancing to the aforementioned song with reckless abandon alongside his closest lady friends Kiki (Sas Goldberg), Vanessa (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Laura (Lindsay Mendez). Berman, a 20-something, gay, pie-eyed optimist is lucky to have such great friends around him, but is missing one key element: love. One by one, he watches as his closest confidantes find the men of their dreams.

Gideon Glick in 'Significant Other.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Gideon Glick in ‘Significant Other.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Berman is stuck. Though he’s cute and charming, he can never quite seem to land a date, much less a committed relationship. His feeble attempt at wooing an elusive co-worker ends in disaster. Berman spends a great deal of time thinking about Will (John Behlemann), a colleague who Berman pines for but whose sexual preference and reciprocated romantic interest is opaque. The pair goes on an awkward “date” to watch a film documentary on the Franco-Prussian war. Berman becomes obsessed with his post-movie follow-up and, in one of the few laugh out loud moments in the show, vacillates on whether he should send Will the email he’s drafted.

Stage and screen star Barbara Barrie rounds out the cast as Berman’s grandmother, a somewhat solemn widow whose friends have all died. She’s reached a point in her life when she feels useless, but still manages to muster sage advice to her lovelorn grandson. “You’re just going through a rough chapter,” she says, “but it’s a very long book.”

Glick is excellent and extremely likable, causing the audience to root for him. We want him to get the boy. However, there is also a strong sentiment of annoyance at his lack of trying. Anyone who is—or has ever been—single in New York knows that the attempt at finding true love can be more difficult than hosting a legitimate news outlet at a White House press conference.  We complain about the apps, social media, and online dating but most of us know that they are necessary evils. Cupid can’t shoot his arrow if we’re not even picking up the bow.

Barbara Barrie in 'Significant Other.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Barbara Barrie in ‘Significant Other.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Perhaps it is out of fear and deep insecurity that causes Berman to lounge on the sidelines of love. Harmon delves into this psychology and also paints the typical relationships that gay men have with their closest female friends. It is  a tough reality that many face when, as Ira Gershwin famously wrote, “They’re playing songs of love, but not for me.” Still, the only new aspect of this often told plot line is that it is viewed through the lens of a gay man. Ultimately, it’s just not enough.

Director Trip Cullman, who makes his Broadway directorial debut, directs the work with an able hand. He also directed the Off-Broadway incarnation and is able to pull great performances from his cast. Significant Other is the type of the show that would be perfectly fine in the confines of an Off-Broadway theatre, but it just seems ill fitted in a cavernous Broadway house.

Mark Wendland’s set looks sharp and offers great flexibility as a club, office, and apartment. Significant Other translates simply to a good date: It’s attractive, it has some wit and a decent personality, but there’s just not enough substance for a full-fledged commitment of time or money.

Significant Other
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street, NYC
Through July 2

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

 

Jurassic Classic: ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’

March 2nd, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Mary Wiseman in Theatre for a New Audience's 'The Skin of Our Teeth.' (Photo: Gerry Goodstein via The Broadway Blog.)

Mary Wiseman in Theatre for a New Audience’s ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ (Photo: Gerry Goodstein via The Broadway Blog.)

Thornton Wilder’s 1942, Pulitzer Prize-winning “tragicomedy” The Skin of Our Teeth has received only two Broadway revivals (1955 and 1975) and a Central Park staging in 1998. Nevertheless, for all its dramaturgical, philosophical, and technical difficulties, it remains a favorite of high schools, community and regional theaters, and even low-budget professional companies.

Just two years ago, I sat through nearly simultaneous productions by the Heights Players (of Brooklyn) and the Articulate Theatre Company. For all their occasional values neither came close to convincing me that the play—as a play, not as a document of historical relevance—was worth the trouble.

Fred Epstein, David Rasche, and Eric Farber in 'The Skin of Our Teeth.' (Photo: Gerry Goodstein via The Broadway Blog.)

Fred Epstein, David Rasche, and Eric Farber in ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ (Photo: Gerry Goodstein via The Broadway Blog.)

Now comes director Arin Arbus’s extravagant, imaginative, and—apart from several contemporary references—faithful production by Theatre for a New Audience at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Wilder’s drama couldn’t ask for a better production. It may not make you like or understand Wilder’s determinedly anachronistic work any better but Arbus and her ample crew (including 35 actors! Count ‘em!) of artists and technicians definitely know theatrical CPR.

Wilder’s title signifies how we, the human race, have survived such catastrophic events as the Ice Age, the Deluge, and incessant war by “the skin of our teeth,” always improving humanity until the next disaster knocks us down again. It makes you think of where the play might have gone had it been written in the age of nuclear weapons and the Internet.

Sparked by the imminence of World War II, The Skin of Our Teeth is a fantastical, panoramic allegory that, under the influence of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Brecht, and expressionism, fearlessly smashes theatrical conventions. This includes the purposeful technical accidents and missed cues that keep reminding us we’re watching a play.

Mary Lou Rosato, Sam Morales, Austin Reed Alleman, Andrew R. Butler, Storm Thomas, Fred Epstein, and Eric Farber in 'The Skin of Our Teeth.' (Photo: Henry Grossman via The Broadway Blog.)

Mary Lou Rosato, Sam Morales, Austin Reed Alleman, Andrew R. Butler, Storm Thomas, Fred Epstein, and Eric Farber in ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ (Photo: Henry Grossman via The Broadway Blog.)

Then there are the many metatheatrical, deprecatingly self-referential comments delivered straight to us by the seductive, Lilith-like maid, Sabina (Mary Wiseman), who doesn’t hesitate to snipe in the actress’s own persona at the play’s incomprehensibility. With flaming red hair resembling the curly coiffures of both Lucille Ball and the original Sabina, Tallulah Bankhead, Wiseman perfectly embodies the saucily ditzy, comically incisive, self-confidently strutting temptress.

Sabina works for the Excelsior, NJ, Antrobus family, headed by Everyman stand-in George (David Rasche)—inventor of the wheel, the multiplication table, and the alphabet—and his feisty wife, Mrs. Antrobus (Kecia Lewis). Their kids are Gladys (Kimber Monroe) and the murderous Henry (Reynaldo Piniella), formerly known as Cain. Nor must we forget their Jurassic era pets, verging on extinction, a dinosaur (Fred Epstein) and mammoth (Eric Farber).

The three-act plot (running two and a half hours) begins during the Ice Age when it’s so cold “the dogs are sticking to the sidewalks.” Take that, climate change deniers! A swarm of freezing immigrants (including the bearded Moses [Robert Langdon Lloyd], hinting at the Jewish diaspora) seeks warmth at the Antrobus home. Take that, wall builders!

Act Two takes us to Atlantic City, where George’s political aspirations as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals are played out (many will search for Trumpian innuendoes) as he and the missus celebrate their 5,000th anniversary. Then the Deluge drowns the world, with the Antrobuses and the world’s fauna (lots of elaborate masks and animal costumes) riding it out aboard a large boat, like Noah and the ark.

In Act Three, seven years of population-decimating war end with the Antrobus males returning from the battlefield, only to battle one another, before George resolves that mankind will survive. The play moves toward its ambiguous ending as Sabina, now a wartime camp follower, returns to the household chores she was doing when the play began and wishes us goodnight.

Wilder’s play, sliding from philosophical profundity one moment to comic archness the next, gets a high-energy performance, with rousingly intelligent performances by each leading actor and most supporting ones. Rasche is completely at home as the paterfamilias, Lewis makes Mrs. Antrobus a refreshingly defiant defendant of women’s rights, and Piniella is thoroughly effective as the dangerous son.

A distinctively effective score by César Alvarez of the Lisps contributes mightily, some of it sung as solos and some as impressive choral music. The impressively flexible scenic designs of Riccardo Hernandez (much of the action occurs on the roof of the disassembled Antrobus home), the wildly eclectic costumes and puppets of Cait O’Connor, the flickering projections of Peter Nigrini, and the multifarious lighting of Marcus Doshi make this revival worth seeing, even if the play’s not one of your favorites.

Difficult and uneven as it is, The Skin of Our Teeth, in its ambitious aspirations, makes most current playwriting look puny. TFNA’s revival is a rare chance to see it as it deserves to be seen.

The Skin of Our Teeth
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through March 19

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

Empty Angst: The New Group’s ‘All the Fine Boys’

March 1st, 2017 Comments off

by April Stamm

Isabelle Fuhrman and Abigail Breslin in 'All the Fine Boys.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Isabelle Fuhrman and Abigail Breslin in ‘All the Fine Boys.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

What could be better fodder for a play than the oppressive wretchedness and frenetic glee of being a middle school girl in small town America in the 80s? You’ve got your disillusionment with family and peers who don’t understand you, awkwardness of living in a body that’s changing so rapidly it doesn’t even seem like your own, budding sexuality wrapped in anticipation and fear, all set to a perfect soundtrack from the likes of The Cure, The Go-Go’s, and The Smiths. Unfortunately, Erica Schmidt’s foray into this very world in her new play, All the Fine Boys, misses those juicy marks at almost every turn.

Set in suburban South Carolina, All the Fine Boys follows best friends Emily and Jenny as they navigate their middle school existence through their friendship with each other and their respective relationships with older beaus. Emily is head over heels for Adam, a senior, and a regular artsy, rebel, guitar-playing, self-involved, minor league bad boy. As for Jenny, she throws herself, perhaps not knowing exactly where she’ll land, at a man double her age from her church. The action of the play flips back and forth between the two couples as their interactions turn to ersatz relationships, and then fall apart in both predictable and pseudo-shocking ways.

As a script, All the Fine Boys does not give actors much to chew on. If we are to take in the play as a “slice of life” drama, the dialog and character development fall flat. Both girls are drawn with broad, uncomplicated strokes, and while there are contradictions, they play more as liberties taken to move the plot along as opposed to honest and interesting character crafting. However, if we should look at the play and its writing less literally and assume the four characters are symbols of the struggles of youth and complications of love and sex, then that would mean we should see love, sex, and youth as trite and banal because that’s what plays out in these 100 minutes.

Abigail Breslin and Joe Tippett in 'All the Fine Boys.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Abigail Breslin and Joe Tippett in ‘All the Fine Boys.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

As Emily, Isabelle Fuhrman pulls from the role what she can. Although she takes a scene or two to convince us, Fuhrman does eventually find tiny bits of truth in Emily, the smart, new girl in school who is desperate for warmth and attention. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin as Jenny never quite finds her groove. She is playacting, and cannot get herself off of the page. She seems uncomfortable on stage, noticeably agitated by her costumes and stilted in her delivery. If she could channel the awkwardness as an actor to the awkwardness of her character it could work, but Breslin can’t find her way.

The two men don’t fare much better. Alex Wolff’s young, cocky Adam comes off as the same guitar wielding, angst-ridden teen we’ve seen a million times with no nuance. As for Joe, Trippett’s portrayal of the conflicted, religious zealot and pedophilic Joseph, is blank and without passion, making his sometimes ridiculous and often impulsive decisions as a character completely nonsensical.

Isabelle Fuhrman and Alex Wolff in 'All the Fine Boys' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Isabelle Fuhrman and Alex Wolff in ‘All the Fine Boys’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Amy Rubin’s set and Erica Schmidt’s direction may have worked on paper. The stifled, dark mottled walls serve as a depressing living room, Jenny’s basement, Adam’s bedroom, and Joseph’s apartment. The scenes change as they run into each other, one beginning before the last is cleared away, which does keep things moving along. Both create a feeling of fast, yet strangely crowded loneliness that is probably meant to mirror the characters’ strife. However, with so little in the play to connect with, it just comes off as an ugly room and a forced pace.

Being a girl in her early teens is painfully awkward and anyone who ever was one knows that. However, instead of delving into that world and helping us to feel something about it, All the Fine Boys simply sits with not much to say.

All the Fine Boys
The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 26

April Stamm is a freelance theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to EDGE Media Network.

Lost at Sea: ‘Kid Victory’ at the Vineyard Theatre

February 27th, 2017 Comments off

 

The cast of 'Kid Victory.' (Photo Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Kid Victory.’ (Photo Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Kid Victory, the new musical that opened last week by Greg Pierce (book and lyrics) and John Kander (music) at the Vineyard Theatre, is not easy to watch. That’s not always a bad thing, but it makes for an uneven exploration of difficult subject matter that hits more dissonant chords than likely intended.

Luke (Brandon Flynn) has just returned home after a harrowing year during which Michael (Jeffrey Denman), a predator who lured the teen through the social networking component of an online game, held him captive. Now at home, Luke is trying to assimilate back to life in high school and at home with his religious and doting mother, Eileen (Karen Ziemba), and his patient but passive father, Joseph (Daniel Jenkins).

Brandon Flynn and Jeffry Denman in 'Kid Victory.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Brandon Flynn and Jeffry Denman in ‘Kid Victory.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Luke struggles with flashbacks and feelings complicated by his own sexuality. He finds solace in Emily (Dee Roscioli), the owner of a local shop, Wicker Witch of the West. Meanwhile, his mother engages Gail (Ann Arvia), a member of her Baptist fellowship, for some amateur therapy, which only pushes Luke into further introspection.

Other characters weave their way in and out of the storyline. Detective Marks (Joel Blum) makes a brief tap-dancing appearance where he question’s Luke’s compliance; Andrew (Blake Zolfo) arrives for another tap-dancing number as an online hook-up that Luke arranges to meet in an abandoned house; and Suze (Laura Darrell, sans tap shoes), Luke’s casual girlfriend who is desperate to reconnect since his return.

Flynn, a recent college graduate from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, is tasked with carrying the emotional weight of Kid Victory, a pseudonym that his character has created for his online persona. It’s a sweet and vulnerable performance, and oddly non-musical: Luke is the only character that doesn’t sing. Perhaps it is to symbolize some kind of emotional barrier, but it the very thing that makes the musical art form so unique and this omission strips the character of his evolution. Instead, Pierce ends the show with Luke’s description of a creaky shutter outside of his basement prison that dissolves into a solo for his father. And in a final bit of tragically misplaced writing, we’re left with an image of Luke pantomiming a confession to his dad, only to be upstaged by Michael’s demise from the previous scene.

Kander’s score has a few melodic highlights, including the opening “Lord, Carry Me Home” and “People Like Us,” in which eccentric Emily extols what makes each of us unique. It’s juxtaposed to Luke’s admission of his time with Michael and it’s as though she never hears him, ending the song with an invitation to grab a burger. Other bits of the score harken back to Kander’s previous work, with the aforementioned tap sequences (choreographed by Christopher Windom) acting as a kind of social commentary.

Directory Liesl Tommy does little to bring cohesion to Kid Victory, which suffers from an identity crisis that rivals its lead character. The realistic basement set design by Peter Hylenski is a disturbing reminder of Luke’s traumatic experience. Regardless of the scene, the looming dinginess and entrapment overwhelm the action. I assume this is to mimic his mental torment, but its literal interpretation is often at odds with the narrative.

Though Flynn and Denman deliver complex, frightened (and frightening) characters, the rest of Kid Victory’s cast suffers under the heavy-handed material. And as a whole, no one wins.

Kid Victory
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street, NYC
Through March 19