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Hooked: ‘Fish Men’ at INTAR Theatre

February 22nd, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

Jose Joaquin Perez in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Jose Joaquin Perez in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Near the end of playwright Cándido Tirado’s well-crafted play Fish Men, one of his characters looks offstage, reflecting on the events that have just occurred. “People are stories,” says Ninety-Two. (Ed Setrakian) “You see them walking down the street, but you’d never know what events have affected their lives.” Indeed, every person in this rich character study is woven together by a painful tapestry of his or her individual pasts, but the results make for a thoughtful and compelling night of theater.

Fish Men, produced by the INTAR Theatre, takes place in New York’s Washington Square park where Cash (Shawn Randall), an over-confident chess hustler is working the cemented outdoor chess boards with John (Gardiner Comfort), his religious, but not terribly bright Russian sidekick. The pair hold court while Jerome (David Anzuelo), an outspoken Native American and passive chess player, and “Ninety-Two” (whose real name we later learn is Adam Kirchbaum) observe the pair and offer disapproving remarks on the way they take advantage of less experienced players.

Gardiner Comfort, Jose Joaquin Perez, Ed Setrakian, and Shawn Randall in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Gardiner Comfort, Jose Joaquin Perez, Ed Setrakian, and Shawn Randall in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Cash isn’t particularly fond of being labeled a hustler, preferring instead to don the moniker “Chess professor.” Cash claims “it’s easier to get a doctorate than it is to become a chess grandmaster” and only “plays for money to make things interesting.” He is certainly not wrong on that account. The events become interesting and at times, grave, when a seemingly nerdy player, Rey (Jose Joaquin Perez) walks into their path and plays the game. Once a hustler himself, Rey is there to exact revenge on the pair. A day earlier, Cash and John took his Uncle Bernie for a ride and Rey is hell-bent on getting even.

The burden of revenge is heavy and carried throughout the drama. As layers are peeled, we are made aware of vulnerabilities and resentments that lie under the surface of Tirado’s men.

Rey and Ninety-Two find common ground in being survivors of genocide. For Ninety-Two, it was the Holocaust. Rey, on the other hand, is a survivor of the “forgotten” Guatemalan civil war, which saw the murder of thousands of Mayan people at the hands of government officials. The survivor’s club, as Ninety-Two points out is “Not the best club to be a member of. No application process. Someone else must make you a member against your will.” Still, the elder gentleman has discovered coping mechanisms. The younger Rey is still blood red with anger. Jerome is also a survivor. As a Native American, he laments our country’s history of 18 million exterminations of his ancestors and the differences that divide us.

Shawn Randall and Ed Setrakian in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Shawn Randall and Ed Setrakian in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Tirado could easily have turned this into another drama that assuages the guilt of liberal America by teaching and preaching to the choir, but he wisely masks it with natural and often funny dialogue. There is also intensity, particularly in Act II, which moves the story forward like a slick cat and mouse game.

Director Lou Moreno has given his actors plenty of leeway to explore their characters, but still keeps the stakes high and the action laser focused. Raul Abrego’s set, an intimate park re-creation, works perfectly in the cozy theater, as does lighting designer Christopher Cancel-Pomales effective saturations.

At times, the delivery of dialogue could be tighter and occasionally, some lines are difficult to hear. It’s safe to assume however that this accomplished cast will settle into the play as the run progresses. And the title? I must confess that I recoiled when I first read it. Given the prevalent references throughout, however, it makes perfect sense. Tirado’s work, which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theater (in collaboration with Teatro Vista), makes a most welcome and moving splash Off-Broadway.

Fish Men
INTAR Theatre
500 W. 52nd Street, 4th floor
Through March 18

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.

 

 

 

 

But What Are They Saying? ‘Evening at the Talk House’

February 19th, 2017 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

The cast of 'Evening at The Talk House.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Evening at The Talk House.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Have you ever been caught at a cocktail party with someone who prattles on about people and events and in the middle you think to yourself, “Where are they going with this and what are they even talking about?” The chatty speaker continues the garrulous conversation and assumes that you know exactly who he/she is referencing, but in all honesty, you haven’t a clue. Eventually, you lock into a detached, hypnotic glaze of apathy. Then, your mind drifts to the hors d’oeuvres and as you glance down at your empty glass, you silently pray for the proper moment when you can politely excuse yourself for snacks and a refill.

This is primarily the same response I had at various points throughout playwright and actor Wallace Shawn’s play Evening at the Talk House, the starry Off Broadway offering from The New Group and director Scott Elliott.

Shawn’s blurry examination on the state of theater and morality takes place in what Robert (Matthew Broderick) describes as “the almost-legendary, wonderfully quiet and genteel club, known far and wide at one time for its delicious and generously-sized snacks, some of them pleasantly sautéed, some delightfully freezing cold, all rather charming and unexpected.” The inordinate description could economically be summarized as “an old hangout with good food.” This is just one example of Shawn’s excessive musings, spoken near the top of the show during Robert’s 9-page opening monologue.

Robert and his former colleagues have gathered at The Talk House for a reunion. Ten years prior, Robert wrote “the not-terribly-successful theatrical masterpiece Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars.” Now, they have all come back to their cherished haunt to discuss the show, their pasts, and their socio-political differences. Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) is the warm and caring manager at the now out of fashion club, while Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a once promising actress who starred in Robert’s play, waits tables there. Annette (Claudia Shear) served as the show’s wardrobe supervisor and is currently a freelance tailor. Bill (Michael Tucker) produced the play and has gone on to become a talent agent. Tom (Larry Pine) is Robert’s golden boy who starred in his play and is now a huge television star. The venue location was chosen by Ted (John Epperson), a man whose life led him to compose advertising music. Ted provided the music for Midnight and throughout Evening at the Talk House and lends his beautiful piano skills in a few reflective moments of song. Epperson, who was once the rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theater and created the popular female impersonation persona Lypsinka, creates an appropriately reflective and sweet, understated performance.

Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in 'Evening at The Talk House.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in ‘Evening at The Talk House.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

As patrons enter the theater for Evening at the Talk House, the talented cast is already onstage, mingling with one another and the audience. As we took our seats, my friend leaned over and asked, “Is Wallace Shawn wearing pajamas?” Indeed he was. Shortly thereafter, we learned why from Robert. Shawn’s character, Dick, was once a well-known actor, appearing in Midnight and the hit television series Carlos and Jenny but has become a washed-up, overweight, alcoholic whom people have discounted and/or disposed. Dick has taken up temporary residency in a room above the Talk House and stumbles into the soiree wearing a battered sport coat and loungewear. It becomes clear that the working relationship between Robert and Dick was always strained and neither is particularly thrilled to be in each other’s company.

As the night unfolds, comments are made regarding the lack of plays that are now being produced, the support that is waning for them and a general longing for the way things used to be. In Shawn’s typical writing style, he later drifts into absurdist territory as his characters pose philosophical questions on who should live and who should die. Annette reveals that she earns extra money “targeting,” a practice where lists are reviewed and she “selects the individuals who need to be killed.” Jane is also involved in the practice.

It’s no huge revelation that Shawn would offer commentary on the topic of human extermination. Given his participation in the controversial Jewish Voice for Peace and his pro-Palestinian support, he poses a crucial question about who should decide the value of human life. To that end, I tip my hat. All too often, liberal voices who espouse compassion and love, opt to silence opposition. I applaud his bold choice to portray both sides of the issue. Still, it’s not clear what he is trying to convey: Is Evening at the Talk House about the death of theater or debating the deaths of individuals? In order to make an impact, it should be one or the other and much of the extraneous chatter should be trimmed. As it stands, this is one evening that is still trying to talk its way toward an intellectual bullseye.

Evening at the Talk House
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 12

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre 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.

 

 

 

What You See May Not Be What You Get: ‘Girl X’

February 18th, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Sachiro Nomoto in 'Girl X.' (Photo: Ayumi Sakamoto via The Broadway Blog.)

Sachiro Nomoto in ‘Girl X.’ (Photo: Ayumi Sakamoto via The Broadway Blog.)

The advent of texting and e-mails as ways of instant communication has not only changed the nature of human interaction; it’s also become a significant factor in plays and films, where projected or inserted words become part of the performative discourse. Japanese avant-garde writer director Suguru Yamamoto and the theatre collective he founded, Hanchu-Yuei, take this idea to a new level in their offbeat work, Girl X (Yōjo X), presented this weekend at the Japan Society as part of its annual performing arts program. It was performed in English at the Japan Society last spring in a staged reading.

Two expressive young actors, Kazuki Ohashi and Sachiro Nomoto, perform Girl X, which runs an hour, on a bare stage. Upstage is a large screen; at the stage lip is a powerful projector. The two actors, designated 1 and 2 in the script, play several characters, named and unnamed, male and female, without any attempt to alter their voices or behavior as the words the characters speak and send by text are projected, in English and Japanese.

The text sometimes identifies the speaker, and sometimes not. Spoken lines are also projected and an English-speaking audience may be forgiven for occasionally wondering which lines are subtitles to help follow the action and which are there simply to replicate the spoken words, even for Japanese speakers. On several occasions, long passages ensue during which only text is shown and no one speaks. The opening sequence, for example, does this when a baby in the womb begs his mother to end his life before he’s born. Yamamoto has spoken of his fondness of writing not just words to hear, but “words for the eye.”

Kazuki Ohashi and Sachiro Nomoto in 'Girl X' (Photo: Ayumi Sakamoto via The Broadway Blog.)

Kazuki Ohashi and Sachiro Nomoto in ‘Girl X’ (Photo: Ayumi Sakamoto via The Broadway Blog.)

There’s no denying that the projections, often spread across brilliantly colored backgrounds, are artfully designed, using a variety of font styles and sizes; some are still (like numerous Chinese characters for “cry”) and some show movement, including a video of the sea. There also may be geometric forms suggesting a dining table or TV, or a diagram naming characters in a particular scene.

As ominous thrumming plays, the actors, their hair wildly coiffed, appear both singly and together, moving in carefully choreographed patterns that cast their huge, looming shadows on the screen, like grotesque images from an expressionistic nightmare. Actor 1’s movements are made even more threatening by the wooden hammer he wields. In a dining room scene, the actors lie on the floor, placing their feet on the screen on either side of a table image, as if they were being observed from overhead.

Because of the abstract techniques it’s often difficult to follow the narrative or to know who’s speaking at every point. Since there is definitely a narrative, Yamamoto’s methods, interesting as they are, become an end in themselves and do little to clarify the nature of his story. I had to read the script (in a slightly incomplete version) twice, once before the show and once after, to make sure I knew what it was about.

It also doesn’t help matters, even with diagrammatic projections, that Actor 2, in his guise as the younger brother of a married sister, refers throughout to his sister’s ex-boyfriend as the Bacterium, to his mother as the Blood Platelet, to his sister’s little girl as the Red Blood Cell, to himself as the White Blood Cell, and to his sister as the Cut in which those other hematological elements vie for control.

The play, first produced in 2013, is inspired by the unease created in Japan following the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami of 2011. The narrative, though, while filled with disquieting fears and anxieties, ignores that 2011 disaster to track the behavior of a “Man,” played by Actor 1, who was once the boyfriend of a woman named Akemi, now married to a surgeon, with whom she’s the mother of a little girl, Yo-chan. He carries a hammer, counts the “alienation points” he’s accumulating, and is on the lookout for “the enemy.”

Countering him is Ryota, Akemi’s younger brother, played by Actor 2, another lost soul who’s preoccupied with how frizzy his pillow makes his hair, and holds the Man responsible for causing Akemi to slash her wrists (thus his name for her, the Cut). Eventually we learn of a series of rape-murders of little girls, and of the relationship to them of the characters in the story.

Regardless of its dramatic potential, Girl X seems mainly interested in using its narrative to experiment with its unique combination of live action and projected images. While it may be fascinated by the nature of modern communication, that doesn’t prevent it from having communication problems of its own.

Girl X
Japan Society
333 E. 47th St., NYC
Through February 18

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).

 

 

Broadway’s Three to See

February 15th, 2017 Comments off

Broadway and beyond is delivering the goods this month, with star turns from Glenn Close and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as the latest musical from legendary composer John Kander. Here are our picks of what not to miss.

Glenn Close in 'Sunset Boulevard.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Glenn Close in ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sunset Boulevard
Glenn Close returns to Broadway in her Tony Award-winning role as the wide-eyed Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s epic Sunset Boulevard. John Napier’s towering sets for the original production have been stripped down to make room for the largest Broadway orchestra in 80 years.

In her mansion on Sunset Boulevard, faded, silent-screen goddess, Norma Desmond, lives in a fantasy world. Impoverished screenwriter, Joe Gillis, on the run from debt collectors, stumbles into her reclusive world. Persuaded to work on Norma’s ‘masterpiece’, a film script that she believes will put her back in front of the cameras, he is seduced by her and her luxurious life-style. Joe becomes entrapped in a claustrophobic world until his love for another woman leads him to try and break free with dramatic consequences.

Ben Brantley described Glenn Close’s Norma Desmond as “One of the great performances of this century.”

Sunset Boulevard
Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway
Through June 25

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
Kid Victory, a haunting new musical, is the latest collaboration from the creators of Vineyard Theatre’s The Landing, composer John Kander (Cabaret, Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys) and playwright Greg Pierce (Slowgirl, Her Requiem).

Seventeen-year-old Luke returns to his small Kansas town after a wrenching one-year absence. As his friendship grows with the town misfit, Emily, his parents realize that in order to truly find their son, they must confront some unnerving truths about his disappearance. Directed by Liesl Tommy (Broadway’s Eclipse, recipient of The Vineyard’s Susan Stroman Directing Award) and choreographed by Christopher Windom (Pippin, Drama League Fellow Assistant Director) in their Vineyard debuts.

Kid Victory
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Opening night: February 22

 

sunday in the park with george
Sunday in the Park with George

One of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s most celebrated musicals returns (again) for a limited run starring Jake Gyllenhaal making his Broadway debut, and Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots, Wicked). With a two-act structure that loosely follows the life of Impressionist painter George Seurat, Sunday in the Park with George has become a cult favorite since its original 1983 Off Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Past revivals have included the 2008 transfer of Menier Chocolate Factory’s production.

This production is based on the 2016 City Center concert and has a limited run through April 23.

Sunday in the Park with George
Hudson Theatre
139-141 West 44th Street
Opening night: February 23

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.

 

 

For Whom the Bell Drolls: ‘Ring Twice for Miranda’

February 14th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Katie Kleiger and Daniel Pearce in 'Ring Twice for Miranda.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Katie Kleiger and Daniel Pearce in ‘Ring Twice for Miranda.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Ring Twice for Miranda’s title suggests that audiences are in for a naughty Feydeau-style bedroom farce, perhaps like the one Noël Coward adapted as Look after Lulu. And, indeed, publisher and former lawyer Alan Hruska’s labored, dystopian “tragicomedy” (as its advertising calls it) includes a cute young thing named Miranda (Katie Kleiger) wearing an abbreviated French maid’s costume. There’s also a canopied set resembling a huge bed (under which an actual bed plays a part) and a white-bearded old gent named Sir (Graeme Malcolm) in a Hugh Hefner bathrobe who rings twice for Miranda via a hanging bell pull when in need of her services.

Ring Twice for Miranda has the musty air of one of those European, allegorical, politically tinged, absurdist satires of the 1950s and 1960s—think Ionesco, Sartre, Durrenmatt, Arrabal, or Frisch—but without their wit, cogency, depth, or flair. It’s set in some unnamed urban “district” governed by the calmly tyrannical Sir from the expansive bedroom of his huge, well-stocked mansion. How much of this desiccated civilization Sir controls remains undefined; we have no idea if there are other Sirs out there as well.

George Merrick and Ian Lassiter in 'Ring Twice for Miranda.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

George Merrick and Ian Lassiter in ‘Ring Twice for Miranda.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Something indefinite has caused civilization to crumble, food and other necessities to dry up, and the starving masses to seek survival in the warm south or cold north even though no gas or food is available. Those in Sir’s employ and living in his upstairs/downstairs mansion have their needs supplied but are at the mercy of his whims, carried out by his second in command, a smarmy, power-hungry bureaucrat named Gulliver (Daniel Pearce).

Miranda’s butler friend Elliot (George Merrick), summoned with one ring, is dismissed and the altruistic Miranda—hoping to change Sir’s mind—threatens to leave with him. Although this will deprive Sir of the highly mysterious service she performs for him, he lets her go.

Outside, stranded with too much luggage near an abandoned, graffiti-covered building, Miranda and Elliot encounter the horrible circumstances they’d only heard about. A bizarre couple pulls up in a car. He’s the brash, long-haired, Cockney-accented Chester (William Connell); she’s his vain, glammed-up Egyptian girlfriend Anouk (Talia Thiesfield). They offer to give Miranda and Elliot a lift in return for directions to a gas station.

Chester and Anouk are discovered by a wrench-wielding, so-called plumber named Felix (Ian Lassiter) who works for Sir and is something of a rival to Gulliver; he recruits the couple as replacements for Elliot and Miranda. That hapless pair returns, seeking to retake their former jobs from the incompetent usurpers. And thus we finally discover what it is that Miranda does for Sir that he finds so irreplaceable. Let’s just say it defines the meaning of anticlimax.

As in his equally problematic 2015 play Laugh It Up, Stare It Down, Hruska provides an indeterminate final curtain when, as Sir rings twice, Miranda and Elliot, trapped, ponder their next move.

As the two-act play trudges along, Sir’s image as a whimsically inscrutable God controlling people as if they were puppets becomes sharper, with Gulliver as his soon-to-fall Lucifer. Perhaps Miranda and Elliot are angels hoping to retain God’s grace. There’s also the possibility that Hruska is seeking to say something (don’t ask me) about the disempowerment of the 99 percent by showing the callousness of the one percent. It’s a stretch but Sir—despite the vagueness of his motives—might be a stand-in for Donald Trump.

Apart from scattered moments, there’s precious little to keep you invested for nearly two hours. Kreigel and Lassiter bring a modicum of charm and conviction to the maid and the plumber, Malcolm is haughty yet subtly mischievous as Sir, Pearce’s slimy Gulliver is dismissive in a Sean Spicer way, Merrick fails to make anything substantial of Elliot, and Connell and Thiesfield (especially the latter) provide an object lesson in overacting.

Rick Lombardo’s direction (far better in his recent Albatross), Haddon Kime’s original music, Jason Sherwood’s sets, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, and Matthew Richards’s lighting, while perfectly professional, never provide the inventive magic an offbeat play like this requires. That, however, may be like seeking gas or water in Hruska’s post-apocalyptic world.

Ring Twice for Miranda
City Center Stage II
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through April 16

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).

 

 

 

Fresh Kiss, Fresh Courage: ‘Yours Unfaithfully’

February 3rd, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

 Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in 'Yours Unfaithfully.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in ‘Yours Unfaithfully.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Miles Malleson (1888-1969), the British author of Yours Unfaithfully, the Mint Theater’s latest discovery of lost or forgotten plays deserving another look, was something of a Renaissance man. He made a distinctive mark as an actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright, while also being known for his then radical thinking on various social issues.

Although represented on this side of the pond as a director and actor on a small number of occasions (he staged the famous Old Vic production of The Critic starring Laurence Olivier in 1946), his plays seem never to have made it across. Yours Unfaithfully didn’t even make it to the London stage, and the Mint’s production is its well-deserved world premiere.

Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in 'Yours Unfaithfully.' (Photo: 'Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in ‘Yours Unfaithfully.’ (Photo: ‘Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Unfaithfully Yours, written in 1933, embodies certain autobiographical features of Malleson’s own unconventional life, marital and otherwise. It examines with intelligence and sensitivity, but few emotional fireworks, the ramifications of the once scandalous idea of open marriage, or, at least, the idea that married couples should, within reason and with mutual respect, be free to engage in extramarital canoodlings.

Two of its three acts are framed more or less in the style of a domestic high comedy, with fashionable, well-educated, highly articulate sophisticates of the cigarettes-and-cocktails class discussing serious issues much as in a discussion play by Shaw. But the laughs are few, the drinks are minimal, and the cigarettes non-existent.

Instead, the script’s appealing promise dissipates into talky artificiality, largely, I believe, because of its otherwise capable actors being out of their depth; instead of true Miles Malleson we get faux-Noël Coward. Malleson’s play should only receive another staging if it can find a cast (think anyone from Downton Abbey) that can carry off its English savoir faire and, most particularly, its accents. Here—despite one actor’s having studied at Oxford—they’re either strained, inconsistent, or invisible under director Jonathan Bank’s earnest but often uninspired direction.

Stephen (Max von Essen, too American) and Anne Meredith (Elisabeth Gray, elegant but forced) have been married for eight years; he’s a writer with controversial, advanced ideas, currently in a writing rut; the pair, who have two children (disturbingly unseen), have created a successful private school.

Stephen, with what appears to be the tacit approval of Anne, who once had her own fling and suggests the same might help spark his writing, begins an affair with Diane Streatfield (Mikaela Izquirdo, the sincerest performance); she’s a lonely widow whose husband died in a plane crash only a year earlier. A family friend, Dr. Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris, bland), is the raisonneur to whom Stephen explains his motivations: “Fresh kiss, fresh courage.”

The plot thickens when Anne not only feels the green-eyed monster’s presence, but begins an affair of her own, with Stephen getting hoist by his own petard. This inspires director Banks’s finest contribution, when, with the expert lighting assistance of Xavier Pierce, he shows us Stephen’s sleepless night in a montage of silent moments as he waits for Anne to return to their pied à terre.

For further elucidation of the play’s moral compass, we have Stephen’s father, the Rev. Canon Gordon Meredith (Stephen Schnetzer, a late replacement), against whose socially conservative views Stephen argues for his own progressive ones.

Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray in 'Yours Unfaithfully.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray in ‘Yours Unfaithfully.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The first two acts are set at the Merediths’ country home. Carolyn Mraz has designed a rather homely drawing room environment with clashing colors, ugly wallpaper, and ill-chosen paintings.

And Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes seem an uncomfortable blend of period and not-so period; Stephen, for example, first appears in a tailored brown shirt and broad tie, with high-waisted, pale pants held up by broad suspenders, more like a zoot suiter of the 1940s than a writer-teacher of the early thirties.

But when, in Act Three, as period music chosen by sound designer Jane Shaw plays, we see the sleek Anne, in a black, floor-length sheath, against the bare walls of the pied à terre, the design elements click and, for the first time, a true 1930s impression is conveyed.

Yours Unfaithfully runs two-hours and five minutes, with two intermissions, but the first two acts could easily be joined with only a momentary break. Doing so would go a long way toward easing the tedium that gradually sets in, at least in this production whose casting is unfaithful to the play’s dramatic needs.

Yours Unfaithfully
Mint Theater at the Beckett Theater
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 18

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). 

Yawn: MCC Theater’s ‘Yen’

February 1st, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

Lucas Hedges, Ari Graynor, and Justice Smith in 'Yen' at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Lucas Hedges, Ari Graynor, and Justice Smith in ‘Yen’ at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

“Love is Dangerous” headlines the poster for MCC’s production of playwright Anna Jordan’s Yen. There may be truth in that statement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that love will be interesting. Such is the case in this aimless coming of age tale, which opened last night at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre.

This British import makes its American premiere with a gifted cast, including this year’s Oscar nominated actor, Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea. In Yen, Hedges portrays Hench, a 16-year-old who shares a ramshackle apartment with his slightly younger brother, Bobbie (Justice Smith), an ADHD sufferer. The pair has little to do in their suburban town of Feltham, a suburb just outside of London.

As the play opens, they are watching hardcore pornography and discussing the physical characteristics of their neighbor, 16-year-old Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen).  For the most part, Hench and Bobbie are forced to survive on their own, no thanks to their mother Maggie (Ari Graynor). Given her involvement with a man dubbed “Minge Face Alan,” she rarely comes around and when she does, it is usually for emotional or physical support. Between neglect, full-blown alcoholism and diabetes, it’s safe to assume that Maggie won’t be winning any “Mother of the Year” awards anytime soon.

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges in 'Yen' at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges in ‘Yen’ at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

As the play unfolds, the boys’ neighbor, Jennifer (who ultimately becomes their object of affection), appears at their door and threatens police involvement if they do not take better care of their malnourished dog, Taliban. Not long after their encounter, a complicated love triangle unfolds.

Off Broadway favorite Trip Cullman directs the play to the best of his ability but it is Herculean task given the unenlightened material he’s been handed. From the beginning of civilization, most teenagers have had bouts of rage, angst, defiance, and sadness. Jordan explores all these emotions in her deeply flawed characters. In addition, most of them lack the capability to truly connect to one other—primarily due to the fact that they simply never learned how. It is a heartbreaking occurrence, but one that has been depicted on stage multiple times.

HairRentSpring AwakeningRunaways, and This is Our Youth all share a similar theme: disillusioned young people. Behind each of the characters in these pieces, however, there is a continuous buzz of addled energy and excitement. In spite of how draining their antics might be, we remain involved and invested in their broken lives until the curtain falls. In Yen, we feel as lost and bored as the characters on stage.

Justice Smith, Ari Graynor, and Lucas Hedges in 'Yen' at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Justice Smith, Ari Graynor, and Lucas Hedges in ‘Yen’ at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Mark Wendland’s appropriately dim and drab set of a squalid apartment does little to pull us into this world. Aside from some interesting visual projections by Lucy Mackinnon and engaging music/sound design by Fitz Patton, there isn’t much that drives the action.

Jordan also fails in her attempts to be shocking. There is a line between being provocative and trying to be provocative. Pornography and talk of explicit sexual acts might push the envelope way beyond what is shared in everyday conversation but here, it becomes more annoying and doesn’t add much to the character development. Nor does the frequent yelling and random tantrums that run rampant through Act One.

Yen was met with general critical approval when it played across the pond in 2015 and it may well be greeted in a similar vein here. At one point, Jennifer tells Bobbie and Hench that her father used to call her “Yen,” which means, “longing; to long for something.” By the end of this overly long two-hour drama, New York audiences might well be longing for something more, too. Perhaps some substance?

Yen
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St, NYC
Through February 19

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre 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.

Military Mayhem: Pan Asian Rep’s ‘Incident at Hidden Temple’

January 30th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy  via The Broadway Blog.)

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple, a world premiere at the Clurman, kicks off the 40th season of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, an accomplishment for which company founder and artistic producing director Tisa Chang deserves the warmest commendation. It’s too bad, however, that Pan Asian’s newest production couldn’t be a stronger one to honor her achievement. On the other hand, she has, through her politically involved father, a personal relationship to one of the play’s central figures, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

This is Chua’s second play for Pan Asian, and, like his 2015 Film Chinois, takes us to China in the 1940s, when competing ideologies created an atmosphere of danger and distrust. Film Chinois was set in 1947 Beijing, two years after World War II, while Incident at Hidden Temple occurs in China in 1943, during the war, with American forces supporting the Chinese.

Jonathan Miles & Dinh James Doan in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jonathan Miles & Dinh James Doan in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

There are actually two Chinas involved, however, one led by Chiang’s Nationalists, the other by Mao Zedong’s communist forces. The situation creates major strategic tensions for the Americans, led by Gen. Joseph Stilwell, not seen, whose positions are represented by his civilian aide, McAllister (Nick Jordan). The real-life feud that existed between Stilwell and Gen. Claire Chennault, head of the Flying Tigers fighter squadrons, is altered by replacing Chennault with the fictional Gen. Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), who, like Chennault, is friendly with the generalissimo (Dinh James Doan).

Chua, however, focuses only intermittently on the complex military-historical issues, the outcome of which established the foundation of U.S.-China relations into the 1970s. Instead, he diffuses his treatment by introducing various melodramatic mysteries. The Stilwell-Van Holt friction, concerning major decisions about building a base for attacks on Japan, becomes just another piece of the mosaic on which other elements are played out as the dramatist grapples with issues of truth.

Thus we get an investigation into the murder of an American soldier (Nick Jordan) ; the disappearance of a 16-year-old Chinese girl, Lucy Chao (Briana Sakamoto), while traveling by train with her older sister, Ava (Ying Ying Li), a journalism student; a Chinese-American pilot named Walter Hu (Tim Liu) who appears to be passing himself off as yet another pilot; the hint of a romance between the married Van Holt and Ava; a wise, old, blind man (Dinh James Doan), who prattles in mystical terms about a certain “Hidden Temple”; an unintended pregnancy; and, for good measure, a subplot involving sacred artifacts, Ernest Hemingway, and two people connected to him that Chua suggests were real but can’t be found anywhere on the Internet.

Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Chua fails to create a sufficiently believable world in which these multiple threads can be effectively woven together. And by having everyone speak in the same, mostly unaccented American English, even when they’re speaking Chinese (one character even speaks Chinese with a folksy American drawl), it remains unclear what language is being spoken when.

There are also any number of plot questions. Why, for instance, has Ava, who could have gone to America, remained in war-torn China to continue her journalism studies, when she could have studied abroad? Or why, if these studies are so important, hasn’t she decided what to do when she graduates? And why are Lucy and Ava given Western names?

An air of superficiality hovers not only over the writing but over the entire, stilted production, performed against Sheryl Liu’s set dominated by a homely wall built in false perspective and painted a dour, grayish-green. Hanhji Jang’s costumes are barely passable, and Pamela Kupper’s lighting only a bit better, although she creates a nice effect that makes the hidden temple visible.

Director Kaipo Schwab’s pacing for the two-hour play is uneven and his staging awkward, beginning with the thoroughly unconvincing stabbing that begins the play. A fight scene staged by Michael G. Chin has two men using traditional martial arts techniques, as if they were in a refereed match instead of a potentially life and death struggle. As for the acting, let’s just say better luck next time.

“Sometimes truth is just hidden in plain sight,” says the blind man, who, as per the convention, sees more clearly than anyone else. To which those who left at intermission might reply: “The truth shall set you free.”

Incident at Hidden Temple
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 12

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Meeting* You Won’t Want to Miss: Justin Sayre

January 28th, 2017 Comments off

by Jon L. Jensen

Justin Sayre (Photo: Ricardo Nelson via The Broadway Blog.)

Justin Sayre (Photo: Ricardo Nelson via The Broadway Blog.)

Justin Sayre’s The Meeting* of the International Order of Sodomites convened again on January 22 at Joe’s Pub. The performance marked the beginning of the final season of Sayre’s hit comedy/variety show, at a time when performances like it could not feel more essential.

Sayre is big in every sense of the word. His bearish looks are matched by a giant wit and intelligence. While many gay performers and icons prize cattiness and cynicism, Sayre is big-hearted, warm and generous. He took the stage at Joe’s Pub two days after the inauguration and a day after the International Women’s March.

“We’re coming in hot,” said Sayre, adjusting his giant amethyst ring, attired in a flowing sweater ensemble, red-sequined pumps and a pink “pussy” cap.

His show featured tributes to two deceased gay icons, George Michael and Debbie Reynolds, but Sayre spent much of the evening processing contemporary events—especially the Women’s March.

Sayre called on the members of his “International Order of Sodomites” to be active participants in a resistance that reaches far beyond the concerns of the LGBTQIA community. Inspired by his participation in the Women’s March, Sayre argued that gays should unite with women, men, people of color and children against America’s new nationalist/isolationist leadership. “We have to come together because it’s too important,” he said.

The Meeting* paid tribute to George Michael who passed away on Christmas Day. Nadia Quinn, channeling a Christian camp counselor circa 1983, sang “Faith.” Julian Fleischer crooned “Kissing a Fool.” And Drew Brody called on the audience to sing back-up for “Father Figure.”

George Michael (Slavko Sereda : Shutterstock, Inc.)

George Michael (Slavko Sereda : Shutterstock, Inc.)

Of all the musical performances, none was as rousing (or envelope-pushing) as Bridget Barkan. The singer came out in an Obama mask and began an electric rendition of Michael’s “Freedom 90.” Soon she stripped of the blackface mask, to reveal a bad comb-over wig and began to sing the song as the new orange-faced POTUS. For the final verse, she stripped off her tuxedo and released her own long, auburn hair—her breasts taped with black gaffer’s tape, the word FREEDOM emblazoned across her chest.

Although the evening would have benefited from more music, Sayre remained the star of the show. He talked warmly of Debbie Reynolds, clued the audience in on this YouTube gem, and sang Reynolds’ “Tammy.”

One of the most poignant moments of the evening, however, came as he teared up recounting his interaction with a small child and her mother at the March. The moment epitomized what makes Sayre such a treasure. Here is a comedian who is not afraid of appearing earnest and vulnerable. According to him, children cannot tear their eyes off of him. “I don’t know if they’re drawn to me out of fascination,” he said, “or an intense fear that they might become me.”

The Gay Agenda - Album Cover (1)I cannot speak for the children, but I share in their fascination with Sayre. This reviewer ended up kicking myself that I showed up to the Meeting* seven years too late.

If you are like me, a little behind the times, do not miss your chance to catch The Meeting*’s final performances at Joe’s Pub. The final shows will tribute:

Michael Bennett (February 19)
The Velvet Underground (March 19)
Patti LuPone (April 23)

The final celebration will be held with two performances on Sunday, May 14 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. You can also download Sayre’s comedy album, The Gay Agenda, on iTunes here , or subscribe to his podcast “Sparkle & Circulate” here.

Jon L. Jensen is a poet and educator. His forthcoming novel-in-verse attempts to give his native Wyoming an epic makeover.

 

 

 

Pants Smoking But Not on Fire: Classic Stage Company’s ‘The Liar’

January 26th, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

1. Tony Roach, Christian Conn, and Carson Elrod in 'The Liar' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

1. Tony Roach, Christian Conn, and Carson Elrod in ‘The Liar’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The gods of irony must have been smiling as I left the Women’s March in midtown to trek down to East 13th Street’s Classic Stage Company in time to catch the matinee of a play called, of all things, The Liar. This is David Ives’s spirited version of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy Le Menteur, set in its original time period but sprinkled with contemporary references. Ives’s verbal liberalism allows for the interpolation of at least one political zinger when the eternally fibbing hero, Dorante, says, toward the end, “I’ll emigrate and become a politician.” It gets the purest laugh of the show.

The Liar is the only comedy by Corneille, who, with Jean Racine, is one of France’s two greatest neoclassical tragic dramatists. Rarely done in English, it has experienced a spate of American productions since Ives prepared what he calls a “translaptation, i.e., a translation with a heavy dose of adaptation,” written in rhyming pentameter for Michael Kahn’s 2010 production at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Ismenia Mended and Amelia Pedlow in 'The Liar.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog)

Ismenia Mended and Amelia Pedlow in ‘The Liar.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog)

The chief enjoyment lies in Ives’s notable deftness at writing entertainingly clever rhymes, often with corny groaners accompanied by a self-deprecating tone showing just how much he’s aware of his own outrageousness. He also doesn’t hesitate to make the punny language thoroughly contemporary by using expressions like son of a bitch and schmuck.

The plot circles around Dorante (Christian Conn, of the 2010 production), newly come to Paris, who immediately falls for Clarisse (Ismenia Mendes) but confuses her name with that of her friend Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow). This leads to a series of conventional complications involving another suitor for Clarice’s hand, Alcippe (Tony Roach).

Meanwhile, a third young dandy, Philiste (Aubrey Deeker), finds himself involved, partly as a raisonneur and partly as a lover. The presence of Dorante’s anxious father, Geronte (Adam LeFevre), helps increase the tension until, in one of those classic examples of tying multiple plot strands together, the play concludes with smiles, hugs, and the imminent promise of wedding bells.

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod in 'The Liar.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod in ‘The Liar.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Like so many other commedia dell’arte-influenced plays of its time, The Liar is replete with romantic mix-ups, confused identities, twins (two pairs, in fact, including one of the long-lost variety), and a silly servant who is actually one step ahead of his master.

In addition to Clarice and Lucrece, the female characters (whose portrayals are all first-rate) include temperamentally opposite twin sisters played by the same actress, Kelly Hutchinson: Isabelle is sexually voracious while Sabine is puritanical. All, happily, are vividly outspoken. Clarice’s frankness, in fact, resembles that of Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. And speaking of the Bard, be it noted that Ives’s dialogue is rife with lines mirroring those from his plays and sonnets.

The Liar’s central conceit is that its title character, Dorante, is congenitally unable to tell the truth, thereby inspiring reams of imaginative dissembling that give the actor playing him delicious opportunities for displays of verbal and physical dexterity. Dorante’s manservant, Cliton (Carson Elrod), on the other hand, is incapable of mendacity; he, too, gets juicy chances to humorously express his defining trait.

Michael Kahn, again at the helm, makes attractive use of Alexander Dodge’s three-quarters-round set of a pale blue parquet floor backed by an elegant wall painted with pixel-like dots and enhanced by flown-in chandeliers and romantic portraits. Kahn’s staging is full of bright ideas, a memorable example being a sword-less duel between the rival lovers.

Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting helps bring out all the charm in the pretty period costumes of Murell Horton, most of the men in dashing, plumed-hat, high-booted, musketeer-like fashions, the women in silks, lace, jewels, and décolletage. (Both Dodge and Horton also designed Kahn’s 2010 version.)

Kahn’s sprightly troupers, attacking the play as high farce, race along with energy and flair, getting the fun from every pun, and making the two hours pass agreeably enough. Truth be told, though, for all the skill and effort expended, The Liar remains on the pleasantly amusing side of the comedy scale, rarely tipping toward hilarity.

The Liar
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through February 26

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).