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Staging the Ravages of War: ‘Shades’

November 19th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

"Shades" (Photo: PJ Norton via The Broadway Blog.)

“Shades” (Photo: PJ Norton via The Broadway Blog.)

For the compassionate theater critic—and yes, they do exist—Shades is a theatrical quandary. On one hand, it is unfair to dismiss it as a piece of theater that isn’t worth the time and investment. Certainly there are those for whom this piece will resonate. In fact, the last 15 minutes of the show is rather heartbreaking and poignant. On the other hand, this story of a family reeling from the traumas of war is a sluggish exercise of enduring poor playwriting and for the seasoned theatergoer, it is primarily a forced melodrama in need of some serious surgery.

Paula J. Caplan’s play occurs in 1997 in the home of a Don (Carson Lee), a Vietnam veteran who denies that Agent Orange is the cause of his chronic lung illness. Even in the face of doctors finding E.coli in his lungs, he is insistent that the U.S. government has not lied about the dangers of the popular defoliant used in the war. His sister, Val (Ashley Wren Collins), a home nurse aide, is strongly suspicious about his illness and uses the name of this bacterial strain in her dialogue so often, Caplan must think that her audience either fell asleep or couldn’t hear the first several references.

Val and Don’s father, Jerry (Hal Robinson), is a kindly World War II veteran who is hesitant to speak about the war because he doesn’t believe he has anything noteworthy to say. Now a widower, he mostly reminisces about his late wife:

“Oh, hey kids, you know what a go-getter your Mom was? Just before her trip, she called the city archivist and told her World War II vets would all be dead soon, and I’d have free time while she was traveling, so the archivist should interview me!” 

This is only a sampling of the forced, unrealistic dialogue that runs rampant over the course of two hours.

"Shades" (Photo: PJ Norton via The Broadway Blog.)

“Shades” (Photo: PJ Norton via The Broadway Blog.)

Jerry presses on and there are numerous sequences when he spends lengthy monologues speaking into a camera, recalling his early days as a soldier. While honoring veterans and their stories is noble and respectful, his stories tend to drone on more than they captivate. Caplan may have been wise to take a page from Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a series of memoirs collected by a group of men and women who Brokaw considers “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” Jerry speaks objectively about his service but is pressed by Val and the archivist to describe his feelings. Most people know and respect the unwritten rule that one never questions veterans about their war experiences. Apparently not the team behind this play.

Meanwhile, Val is caring for June. (Holly Walker), an African-American paraplegic who is also a Vietnam War veteran. The two have a seemingly homoerotic relationship with one another, which builds to an odd climax. Val invites June to dinner with the hope that she will find common ground with her fellow Vietnam Vet, Don.

"Shades" (Photo: PJ Norton via The Broadway Blog.)

“Shades” (Photo: PJ Norton via The Broadway Blog.)

The major problems with Shades is the lack of nuance and subtly. The characters are clichéd and rarely believable. With an inevitable death looming, Don suggests—at least twice—that, “Life is a gift.”  I could not agree more, but pithy writing like this seems inspired more by quotes on embroidered pillows than by human conversation. In addition, nearly every family outburst and tense argument is smoothed over by an awkward suggestion for a glass of water or food.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an unfortunate affliction suffered by too many brave men and women who sacrificed all they had for their country. However, the list is long of titles that have tackled this in an effective and powerful way. On stage, Donald Margulies’ searing portrait of a war photojournalist in Time Stands Still immediately comes to mind. Two recent movies about soldiers re-acclimating to real life, The Hurt Locker and American Sniper bring raw emotions front and center in a manner that neither sugar coats nor falsifies the experience. Basetrack Live, which is currently touring nationally, approaches the subject matter using multimedia and 21st century theatricality.

Caplan is a noted clinical and research psychologist who obviously has a great deal of empathy for the topic and her subjects. I admire her attempt to capture this on stage and do not wish the minimize the healing effect that this work might have for veterans and their families. For seasoned consumers of entertainment, however, it will be a slight slice of life.

Shades
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through December 17

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.

 

 

 

Sing Hallelujah! ‘Marie and Rosetta’

September 20th, 2016 Comments off

 

by Samuel L. Leiter

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones in "Marie and Rosetta. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones in “Marie and Rosetta. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Yes, we all know about the horrible explosion in Chelsea the other day, but let me remind you that there’s a far more benign blast of energy bursting only a few blocks away through the Atlantic Theatre’s Linda Gross Theatre on W. 20th Street. The sensational artists detonating it are Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis incarnating the sounds and souls of two great gospel singers, Marie Knight (1925-2009) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73), in George Brant’s hallelujah of a bio-musical, Marie and Rosetta.

Brant, taking a bunch of dramatic liberties, tells the story of how Tharpe, a legend in the African-American gospel music community, is returning in 1946 to her gospel roots after a commercially successful excursion into more secular sounding—and thus notorious—music. While touring, she comes across Marie, a pretty girl, ten years younger and in awe of her; as Tharpe prepares for a show, she invites Marie to become her singing partner.

Their encounter takes place in a Mississippi funeral parlor where Rosetta will be rehearsing; this is the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, when black performers were prevented from using ordinary venues for their art; toward the end, it turns out that Brant has another interesting reason for choosing this unusual locale. Ten caskets, with an upright piano, form the background of Riccardo Hernández’s set (nicely lit by Christopher Akerlind), and Marie is suitably shocked when Rosetta says she’ll have to sleep in one that night for want of a more conventional resting place.

Tharpe is a full-figured, imperious, queenly woman, with a ton of sass, wearing a full-length, pale aqua, beaded dress (thanks to costumer Dede M. Ayite), and speaking and singing in a voice so commanding it could put the hearing aid industry out of business. She turns out, however, to be vastly warm, maternal, and eternally forgiving, her prickliness a mask for her insecurities (she’s a tad jealous of the great singer, Mahalia Jackson).

Marie, on the other hand, is modest, withdrawn, and pious, uncomfortable playing Rosetta’s raucous style of music, which gives such worldly sensuality to familiar church music that she was later recognized as a major precursor of rock ‘n roll. Drawing the women together is not only their music, but also the stories they share, like those about their mothers or their troubles with the “squirrelly” men in their lives.

Gradually, as the pair sing a series of (mostly) rafter-shaking gospel tunes, Marie, not quite what she first seems to be, warms to the task and learns to appreciate and perform the kind of up-tempo, rocking, hip-swaying gospel music Rosetta exemplifies but that makes “high church” folk like her uncomfortable. Quieter spirituals include Marie’s “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and “Peace in the Valley,” but the keyboard gets plenty of loud pounding by both, solo and in tandem.

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis in 'Marie and Rosetta.' (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Rosetta also plays vigorously on both an acoustic and, most distinctively, an electric guitar, something that only made her more controversial. You’ll want to buckle your seat belts for when the pair join in on “Didn’t it Rain” and “Up above My Head.” (Much credit is due to the hidden musicians, Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott.)

As the play winds down, the situation takes a turn that gives us another perspective on the grim surroundings. Like the information rolling by at the end of a film based on actual events, we soon get a lot of post-1946 exposition, tying the piece together neatly but also underlining playwriting contrivances.

Nonetheless, Marie and Rosetta, vibrantly staged by Neil Pepe, isn’t the kind of play you criticize the way you do something by Edward Albee. It’s a well-crafted exercise that provides an excellent context in which to learn about and appreciate two exceptional performers who—especially Tharpe—made an indelible impact on popular music. Tharpe (buried in an unmarked grave first given a headstone in 2009) has been celebrated in recent years in print, a documentary, and even a U.S. postage stamp, but her partnership with Knight is less well known. Until now, that is.

Jones and Lewis couldn’t be bettered as the holy vessels bringing Marie and Rosetta back to life; they perfectly capture these women’s sharply different personalities, offering totally believable yet larger-than-life representations. Lewis especially, because of Tharpe’s grandiose personality, etches a portrait of unforgettable authority that will yank your tears out of their ducts. When they sing, either as solos or a duet, you’ll have to hold on to your armrests to keep from standing up and shouting “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”

Marie and Rosetta
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
326 W. 20th St., NYC
Through October 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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘A Better Place’: Too Many Apartment Complexes

May 16th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

'A Better Place' (Photo: Jenny Anderson via The Broadway Blog.)

If you ever need to answer the question “What has more holes than Swiss cheese?” you can say either “Two slices of Swiss cheese” or Australian playwright Wendy Beckett’s A Better Place, a sieve-like effort being given its world premiere at the Duke under Evan Bergman’s heavy-on-the-pedal helming. Before this underwhelming, overacted comedy begins you may be impressed by David L. Arsenault’s striking set, showing, on one side, a sleek Manhattan apartment with a view in a glass and steel high-rise, and, across a shiny black-tiled span, a just as high, but much smaller flat in an old brick building. Russell H. Champa’s lighting keeps busy following the transitions from one place to the other. Meanwhile, the audience sits in two segments, facing its counterpart on the span’s other side.

The older apartment houses two gay men, Les Covert (Rob Maitner), and his partner, Sel Trevoc (John FitzGibbon). Why they’re given forward and backward versions of each other’s names would be worth pondering only if the play were by a certain other Beckett. Then again, you shouldn’t expect much of a play where someone says of another, “He’s a geek,” and the serious response is, “What difference does it make what country he’s from?” Anyhow, Les loses his job as a waiter and Sel is a philosophy professor who believes their financial situation will improve when he gets tenure. Tenure, he should be reminded, doesn’t alter your income; it merely secures your position. And it sure wouldn’t make enough of a difference for them to give up their rent-controlled pad, small as we’re told it is (it’s hard to tell from the comfy, compact living room we’re shown).

Michael Satow and Jessica DiGiovanni in 'A Better Place.' (Photo: Jenny Anderson via The Broadway Blog)

Michael Satow and Jessica DiGiovanni in ‘A Better Place.’ (Photo: Jenny Anderson via The Broadway Blog)

Like James Stewart in Rear Window, albeit without binoculars, Les can’t help covertly (remember his last name?) studying the family (misinterpreting what he sees) living opposite him and wishing he could have their lives.

Helping him greatly are the family’s shadeless floor-to-ceiling windows (their motto must be “fear no more the heat o’ the sun”), and their total ignorance (except for a brief moment) of being visible to people living only a few feet away. The conceit might work if what they do could be comically misunderstood as idyllic; too little of it is, making Les’s perceptions more crazy than amusing.

The family consists of a loud, colorful, Brooklyn-accented, working-class couple in their sixties, John (Edward James Hyland) and Mary Roberts (Judith Hawking), and their self-centered, twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Carol (Jessica DiGiovanni). John plays the horses bigtime (a pick-six win paid the deposit on the apartment); Mary, a shopaholic bottle blonde (costumer Valerie Ramshur provides both women with stylish clothes), holds a blue collar job (her uniform looks like a waitress’s); and Carol refuses to work, convinced her parents are rich enough to support her.

John’s worried about the apartment’s value dropping because a building rising nearby will eventually block the view (as if prospective buyers wouldn’t realize it even at this stage); he keeps having the place assessed yet refuses to sell. Mary, though, wants to sell and retire to Florida. Carol’s apartment fixation, however, is largely sexual; a teeth-grindingly irritating running joke has her hooking up with a series of brokers (all played by Michael Satow) who can arouse her only by spouting sales pitches, like “Park Avenue: gigantic fireplaces, monumental carved doorways, full wrap around me terraces.”

A Better Place’s plot advances when John wins $96,000 on a single race at Belmont and, on his way home, loses his briefcase containing the payout; for those wondering about the size or form of the payout, the bet was placed with bookies, not the track. The money’s loss sets in motion a sequence of egregious coincidences and moral breast-beating you wouldn’t believe even if I told you.

You might also find implausible, once you learn what John does for a living when he’s not gambling, how he’s managed to pay for his $4 million-plus apartment; or how his own daughter has no idea what his actual profession is; or how Mary could be so careless about her OkCupid searches; or how the professorial Sel can cite Zeus’s Olympian spouse as the mortal Penelope instead of the goddess Hera . . .

Enough already. Even if you’re convinced A Better Place looks like Swiss cheese, you still may not be able to swallow it.

A Better Place
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through June 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).

 

‘Boy’: Nature Versus Nurture

March 11th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch, and Paul Niebanck in 'Boy' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch, and Paul Niebanck in ‘Boy’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The zeitgeist’s obsessive fascination with issues of sexual confusion and gender identity continues with Anna Ziegler’s Boy, an engrossing yet inconsistently satisfying new drama being offered by the Keen Company under Linsay Firman’s direction on Theatre Row. In it, New York stage stalwart Bobby Steggert plays Adam Turner, a character whose story was inspired by a famous case of sexual reassignment surgery performed in 1966 on an eight-month-old Canadian boy, David Reimer.

Reimer—the late subject of the “John/Joan” case—was the victim of a botched circumcision that led to the loss of his penis; his agitated parents sought the help of a noted psychologist, John Money, who advised them to have the boy’s testicles removed and raise him as a girl. Despite the efforts to nurture him as a female, David, after learning of his biological gender, rejected his imposed identity at fourteen and had genital reconstructive surgery; eventually, he even went public in an effort to help dissuade others from following the same path.

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert in 'Boy.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert in ‘Boy.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Boy hews fairly closely to Reimer’s situation, including his having been a twin; it imagines not only what it might have been like for him to grow up as a girl (hormone shots included) with a boy inside struggling to get out, but what such an individual might experience if he found himself in a romantic relationship with a woman. The play actually begins with the beginning of that relationship when, wearing a mask (presumably symbolizing his need to disguise his sexuality), Reimer’s avatar, Adam, meets Jenny Lafferty (Rebecca Rittenhouse) at a Halloween party in 1989, a date projected on the rear wall. Each scene, in fact, is introduced with a projection of the year in which it’s set, as well as Adam’s age, since the action jumps around in time, from 1968 to 1990.

Ziegler’s primary focus is on the classic nurture/nature debate—a lengthy program note provides helpful background—so we’re forced to ponder just how much of human behavior is based on how we’re raised as opposed to our genetic predispositions. When Adam’s parents, the warm but anxious Trudy (Heidi Armbruster) and the gruffly macho, working-class Doug (Ted Köch), of Davenport, Iowa, agree to the recommendation of celebrity psychologist Dr. Wendell Barnes (Paul Niebanck) that Samuel be raised as a girl, he’s renamed Samantha. Important scenes show the bookish, sensitive, and highly intelligent Samantha in her childhood sessions with Dr. Barnes in Boston.

A principal question concerns whether Barnes is more interested in Adam (who chooses that name when he decides to live as a man) as a person or as a case study he can use to benefit his career. The other main question is how Adam will resolve his love affair with Jenny, the single mother he falls in love with and who can’t understand what his sexual hesitancy is all about: “Well, are you gay, then?” she asks.

Despite its theatrical devices of moving back and forth through time and having Adam morph from one age or gender orientation to the other, without costume changes or radical behavioral alterations, the narrative and its issues—particularly the nature versus nurture argument—are clearly laid out. But just what’s going on sexually with Adam when he yearns for Jenny remains indefinite; he says “I have a dick that doesn’t really work. Not really.” You have to wonder what that means, and what he’s feeling or is sexually capable of when he kisses her, especially with his condition having been such an obstacle. More details, please!

Boy moves along efficiently on Sandra Goldmark’s simple setting of black backdrop fronted by two freestanding doorframes. Steggert, 35, is suitably boyish-looking and versatile for a role demanding so many shifts in age and tone, but Adam remains more a textbook case than a three-dimensional person. Armbruster and Köch are acceptable as his conventionally distressed parents while Niebanck’s psychologist is stiffly artificial in both writing and performance. Only Rittenhouse, as the confused girlfriend, approaches a fully realized performance.

At 90 minutes, Boy isn’t concerned with Adam and Jenny’s future. You may wish to Google “David Reimer” to find out what happened to Adam’s source, and to wonder whether the note of promise on which the play ends might be not only misleading but disingenuous.

Boy
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through April 9

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).

To Be (Gay) or Not to Be, That is the Question: ‘Straight’

February 29th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

I hope that Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola have thick skins. As authors of the new off Broadway play, Straight, they should brace themselves for a flood of comments, both exalting and excoriating their work. While I continue to dissect it in my own head, I’d like to straddle the fence and view it from two angles.

Straight takes place in Ben’s (Jake Epstein) current day Boston apartment (impressively designed by Charlie Corcoran). As a beer drinking, sports watching, investment banker with a girlfriend named Emily (Jenna Gavigan) , Ben lives the life of a stereotypical heterosexual man—except for the fact that he’s met Chris (Thomas E. Sullivan), an openly gay man who fulfills his physical desires. What begins as random hook-ups between the two quickly develops into a more emotional connection and Ben is faced with the dilemma to disclose the truth about his sexuality to Emily. He doesn’t want to label himself as a gay man. Emily encourages the two to move in together, but Ben is apprehensive.

There is no easy solution and Elmegreen and Fornarola intentionally don’t provide any clear answers. However, many questions are raised: Is it acceptable to receive emotional fulfillment from one partner and physical fulfillment from another? Is honesty truly the best policy if it means that we will hurt those closest to us? Most importantly, in 2016, why are we even questioning whether homosexuality is okay? To that end, enter the excoriation.

The underlying message here is that gay is not okay. In order to maintain order in our lives, we must lead lives of deception. This is a dangerous message to convey, especially to young audiences who are struggling with the coming out process. Another major loophole is Emily’s reaction to stumbling upon her half-dressed boyfriend and underwear-clad Chris. Ben uses the excuse that Chris “just crashed” because they were watching “the game.” Emily doesn’t even flinch. In fact, she cooks Chris breakfast while Ben rushes off to work.

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

As for the exaltation, we can look at this as a character study. Those of us who feel comfortable in our own skins will likely find the closeted and anguished life of an independent metropolitan next to impossible. Sadly, such individuals exist. We need not look much further than recent headlines to acknowledge the dual lives of politicians caught in same-sex scandals. It’s difficult to empathize with other’s internal struggles when we’ve long evolved from our own. For that reminder, I applaud the playwrights.

Epstein, Gavigan, and Sullivan handle the controversial material with ease, and although there is no offense meant here, it is sure to polarize. The provocative work would prove more effective without the dippy musical interludes that minimize it to the level of an after-school special. Still, it accomplishes important objectives of theater, which are to create dialogue and perceive other’s lives through a lens other than our own.

Straight

Acorn Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
Through May 8

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 New Normal? ‘Dot’ Delivers at Vineyard Theatre

February 29th, 2016 Comments off

Dot Vineyard Theatre

Colman Domingo’s new play, Dot, now playing at the Vineyard Theatre, has vestiges of a familiar kitchen sink drama. In fact, Allen Moyer’s realistic Act I set features functioning appliances—including an actual kitchen sink. While the water runs from the faucet and the stove sizzles scrambled eggs, matriarch Dotty Shealy (Marjorie Johnson) is starting to show signs of frayed wiring. She’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we see her in the early stages when she’s cognitive enough to realize that life, as she knows it, is starting to slip away.

The third play in Domingo’s trilogy set in West Philly, Dotty is surrounded by her three children; Shelly (Sharon Washington), Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), and Averie (Libya V. Pugh). Each has his or her own way of coping (or not) with Dotty’s diagnosis, and as the play unfolds the audience becomes privy to family dynamics that will seem familiar to anyone with siblings.

Sharon Washington, Marjorie Johnson, and Finnerty Steeves in 'Dot' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Sharon Washington, Marjorie Johnson, and Finnerty Steeves in ‘Dot’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

At the play’s epicenter, Johnson takes command of Domingo’s script, shifting between razor sharp banter with her children, as well as recently returned neighbor, Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), who at one point dated Donnie before he came out as gay. Add Donnie’s husband, Adam (Colin Hanlon) to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for high-decibel drama with plenty of wisecracks to keep things moving along.

Domingo’s script offers juicy bites for the talented ensemble as he weaves together an array of conflicts that function on both a personal as well as societal level. It’s not often that theatergoers are treated to a middle class, African American slice of life—and though references are made to the rough neighborhood beyond the Shealy household’s barred windows, it feels as if this particular family has risen a few rungs up the economic ladder.

It’s also refreshing to see a bi-racial gay relationship that is part of a bigger story—an angle that Domingo captures without smothering the play’s through line. Other themes that he touches upon include the obsession with reality television, pregnancy out of wedlock, and immigration in the form of Dotty’s informally trained caregiver, Fidel (Michael Rosen), a soft-spoken 20-something from Kazakhstan. It’s only in the second act when a game forces Donnie to step into the shoes of what it must feel like to have Alzheimer’s that the play feels a bit contrived.

Stephen Conrad Moore and Colin Hanlon in 'Dot.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Stephen Conrad Moore and Colin Hanlon in ‘Dot.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Dot delivers plenty on the page as well as the stage, Domingo’s visceral bite coming through at every turn, but director Susan Stroman occasionally  undermines the strength of the source material. The pair worked together on the critically acclaimed The Scottsboro Boys, in which Domingo performed and received a Tony award nomination. Stroman’s career—primarily in musical theater—spans nearly 25 years, but her work here feels heavy handed: instead of restraint, Stroman turns up the dial with little reprieve, ending Act I with a misplaced “musical theater button” that you’d expect to see at the end of The Producers and an over choreographed sequence in Act II.

In spite of these misgivings, Dot delivers an often heart-wrenching drama as one family, in its own imperfect way, tries to navigate the inevitable. Alzheimer’s is a cruel, ruthless disease. Domingo respects his enemy, crafting a play that will tug at your emotions and inspire you to clutch your loved ones just a little bit tighter. His approach to the human condition—both inside the walls of one’s home and how social forces impact us beyond our control—is worth keeping an eye on.

Dot
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street, NYC
Through March 20

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

A Family That Cusses Together: ‘A Room of My Own’

February 26th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

A Room of My Own

The f-bombs are so frequent in Charles Messina’s A Room of My Own, an often fabulously funny autobiographical family farce-drama, that even a 10-year-old kid gets to freely fling them around like Frisbees. Other profane f-words frequently fly through the air, like those for homosexuals and passing gas, but none comes close to the one that somehow finds a way to make myocardial infarction sound foul.

It’s Christmas time in 1979—cue the disco music—and we’re in the shabby, one-room, tenement apartment (convincingly designed by Brian Dudkiewicz) of a poor Italian-American family on Greenwich Village’s Thompson Street. Peter Morelli (Johnny Tammaro), shares a sofa-bed with his 10-year-old son, Carl (Nico Bustamante), while his wife, Dotty (Joli Tribuzio), shares a cot with their teenage daughter Jeannie (Kendra Jain). Upstairs lives Dotty’s gay-bashing gay brother, Jackie (Mario Cantone). Their working-class accents sound so lifelike you’re likely to hear echoes of Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty and Rocky’s Burt Young whenever they open their traps. (Young himself was present the night I went.)

A Room of My Own is a memory play that’s presumably being written by the Adult Carl (Ralph Macchio) as we watch it. (He’s obviously the avatar of playwright Messina, who also directed.) Carl, relying on the notebook he began writing when he was a kid, walks about with a laptop, speaking to the audience, chorus-like, about what he recalls and even sometimes admonishing the characters, although the only one he actually converses with is his childhood self. Oddly enough, this device actually works and provides us with Adult Carl’s perspective on what he’s bringing back to life, including his questioning of whether or not to incorporate this or that recollection. In fact, one of the themes, is just how much responsibility the writer has to the truthfulness of his memories.

The cast of 'A Room of My Own.' (Photo: Ben Strothmann via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘A Room of My Own.’ (Photo: Ben Strothmann via The Broadway Blog.)

Dotty, Peter, and Jackie are loud and vulgar stereotypes but Messina sculpts them with enough honesty and wit to make them lovably believable. Their need for money is the play’s driving motivation, even inspiring Little Carl’s ambition to have a room of his own. Peter, who’s unemployed, and Dotty, who works at a bakery but depends on petty larceny to supplement her income, must pay Carl’s overdue tuition at his Catholic parochial school. Your ears will turn red when you hear how she reviles the dungaree-wearing nun who runs the school for having abandoned her “vow of poverty.” The only money in the family belongs to Peter’s wealthy sister, Jean (Liza Vann), from whom he’s estranged because he’s convinced he got shafted when she inherited their father’s real estate.

While much depends on fast and furious repartee, with numerous outrageous wisecracks, there’s a healthy dollop of physical humor, including a hilariously raunchy scene when Peter finds himself alone with Dotty for the first time in ten years. However, like Dot, another recent Christmas-time comedy about a dysfunctional family, the laughs eventually subside so pathos can hold sway. Messina, however, overplays his hand; during a lengthy scene between Dotty and Jackie, a tear or two may dribble from your eyes, but, while it underlines Dot’s ferocity in fighting for her family, the sustained seriousness is a downer.

Nearly all the performances are terrific, beginning with the adorable Nico Bustamante’s potty-mouthed Little Carl. Mario Cantone’s outspokenly raucous but painfully lonely Jackie is funny and sad, while Johnny Tammaro’s gaseous Peter couldn’t be better. Joli Tribuzio excellently combines coarseness, determination, and sensitivity as Dotty, although she might want to lighten the tone a bit, while Ralph Macchio’s Carl, the least colorful of the crew, grounds the play as its only “normal” character. The one glaring weakness is Liza Vann’s noveau riche Jean, the play’s deus ex machina, who enters dressed in mink, blue sequins, and sunglasses, and neither looks nor sounds like anyone from the Morelli background, regardless of her wealth.

Wondering if you should make room for A Room of My Own? Fuhgeddaboudit!

A Room of My Own
Abingdon Theatre Company
312 West 36th Street, NYC
Through March 13

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).

Review: ‘2 Across’

December 9th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

2 AcrossNo need, it seems, for Internet dating, singles bars, or expensive cruises. If Jerry Mayer’s romantic comedy, 2 Across, is any indication, it’s still possible to meet and fall in love in an hour and a half in the most unlikely of places, like, for example, the 4:30 a.m. BART train from San Francisco International Airport on its way to Bay Point. That, at least, is the dreamy conceit of this fluffy two-hander, a play that’s already had multiple American and European productions; it’s the kind of thing you might expect to see at your local dinner theatre but that’s now playing three days a week at Off Broadway’s St. Luke’s Theatre.

The play sometimes goes too far in stretching credibility, but, as effortlessly performed by two appealingly attractive pros, one of them former child star Andrea McArdle (Broadway’s original Annie), 2 Across is the theatrical equivalent of an ice cream sundae, even providing a cherry of a treat at the end: not very nutritious, but no problem getting it down.

Mayer, a successful TV writer and producer (“M*A*S*H,” “All in the Family,” etc.) zings his way through this duologue set in a BART car (replicated by designer Scott Heineman) and showing an attractive, middle-aged woman, Janet (McArdle), returning home unhappily after seeing off her 18-year-old, high school-dropout son, who’s joined the Marines. She tries to bury her blues in a crossword puzzle, but the only other passenger, the middle-aged Josh (Kip Gilman), happens to be working on the same one; a friendly, garrulous type, he can’t help butting in. Janet resists (even showing her can of mace) but, soon enough, a tenuous relationship takes root between the wedding band-wearing pair.

Kip Gilman and Andrea McArdle in '2 Across' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Kip Gilman and Andrea McArdle in ‘2 Across’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Janet is a psychologist who’s so uptight about breaking rules that, despite her hunger, she refuses to eat a sandwich Josh proffers, because eating on the train is forbidden. Josh, a former actor and ad executive, is unemployed but the prospect looms of a good job at Banana Republic. She’s a Catholic, he’s a Jew—yes, here come those jokes.

As the stops along the way are announced, crossword talk helps explain each character’s dominant traits, chemistry bubbles into osculation, personal secrets are exposed, and eHarmony loses a couple of potential customers. Most of this is predictable stuff made amusing by the actors’ charm; even that, however, isn’t always enough to overcome strained plot devices, like the one involving Josh’s discovering that Janet’s carrying a library copy of Petrarch’s love sonnets. She hasn’t had a chance to read the book, and insists she must return it because it’s due and there’s a waiting list for it (!?!); wouldn’t you know it, but Josh just happens to be a Petrarch buff. He so moves her with his lesson on the Renaissance master and his reading of the poems that Janet decides to hold on to the tome for a bit. Note to Janet: used copies can be bought online for a song. And what of all those dictionaries and an atlas she lugs around? Never heard of a smart phone?

Andrea McArdle and Kip Gilman in '2 Across.' (Photo:  Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Andrea McArdle and Kip Gilman in ‘2 Across.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

2 Across isn’t It Happened One Night and McArdle and Gilman aren’t Colbert and Gable, but both are easy to watch and believably grounded. Under the direction of Evelyn Rudie, the acting favors simple honesty over overt histrionics, but one does wait for a few sparks to fly. McArdle, trim as a gym rat in a form-fitting black dress and tights, her abundant red hair perfectly coiffed, is a bit too glammed up, but she convincingly conveys Janet’s intelligence and motherly concerns. Gilman, a loose amalgam of Bill Pullman and a younger Robert De Niro, makes the most of his nice Jewish guy shtick, and Josh’s demonstrations of his acting chops click nicely.

When the play ends, the stars reappear to offer the show’s biggest takeaway, a duet of “It Had to Be You,” with McArdle demonstrating why, at St. Luke’s, this fabulous Broadway baby is so near yet so far from where she really belongs.

2 Across
St. Luke’s Theatre
308 West 46th Street, NYC
Through January 31

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).

Review: ‘Misery’ on Broadway

December 6th, 2015 Comments off

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Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in 'Misery.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in ‘Misery.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Misery loves company, or so the saying goes. Screenwriter/playwright William Goldman has adapted his 1990 film for the stage, which in turn, is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. The straightforward plot unfolds over the course of several months as screenwriter Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis) is taken under the care of his number one fan, Annie Walker (Laurie Metcalf) after barely surviving a car accident in a remote area just outside Silver Creek, Colorado.

Film buffs will remember Kathy Bates’ Academy Award-winning performance opposite James Caan. It was a psychologically thrilling film, driven by director Rob Reiner’s keen eye. The theatrical team has a lot to live up to, and for the most part, does justice to the faithful stage adaptation.

Bruce Willis in 'Misery.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Bruce Willis in ‘Misery.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Goldman’s script unfolds in a cinematic manner in short scenes punctuated by original music (Michael Friedman) and a realistic revolving set (David Korins) that offers a glimpse inside Annie’s unstable mind. Director Will Frears’ challenge is to make something palpable out of the familiar. Anyone who’s seen the film knows where the action is headed, so creating dramatic tension is difficult, in addition to the fact that there’s not a lot of action—Paul is bed-ridden or in a wheelchair for the majority of the performance.

Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Willis (along with brief appearances by Leon Addison Brown as Buster, the local police officer) are each compelling in their own way. Metcalf brings a lithe and quirky instability to the role—a culmination of her decades-long career on stage and screen. Perhaps offering more punch than Bates’ film performance, she is adept at flipping from caregiver to psychopath on a dime, and seems to relish each purposeful transition.

Willis returns to the New York stage after nearly 30 years and there have been multiple reports about his unease. The New York Times described him “aloof and evasive” in a feature published this September, perhaps the culmination of a difficult rehearsal process and grueling press commitments. But Willis is more than serviceable. While his career has primarily been built on action films, he manages to extract a weathered believability that only falters in the play’s final moments, where a thrust of revolt requires an energy level that he’s not quite able to muster. That element of surprise feels somewhat deflated after an 85-minute build-up, and the play meanders to its final denouement.

For Stephen King fans or celebrity chasers that get thrills by Hollywood’s Broadway invasion, Misery provides a pleasant enough evening at the theatre. But it’s Metcalf that reminds us that there’s nothing like live performance and witnessing a true actor immersed in her craft.

Here’s what the critics are saying:

“Misery” the play is saturated in what feels like an amused, nostalgic distance from its source material. It’s as if Mr. Willis and Ms. Metcalf had shown up at the behest of a “Misery” fan club to share memories of our enjoyment of the book and movie and to chuckle over how they once scared the wits out of us. Even the requisite dark-and-stormy atmospherics (with lighting by David Weiner, sound by Darron L West and creepy music by Michael Friedman) register as gentle, teasing reminders of guilty thrills past.” The New York Times

“The bed-bound Paul is a purely reactive role; still, helmer Will Frears lets Willis get away with murder by maintaining his sophisticated-author cool well beyond the point of believability. It takes the iconic scene in which a maddened Annie takes a sledgehammer to Paul’s healed legs to get the star to drop his sultry half-smile.

This leaves the field to Metcalf, a favorite stage thesp who maintains a strong theatrical presence despite a full dance card in film and television (“Getting On,” “The Big Bang Theory,” the “Toy Story” series). A grown-up waif in Ann Roth’s sad costumes of cardigan sweaters and one pathetically dated “good dress,” Annie is a pathological version of King’s rabid fans. Metcalf skillfully modulates her emotional transitions from adoring to obsessive to psychotic. Her eyelids flutter, her hand gestures quicken, and her vocal range reaches for the high notes.

It’s a stunning performance, even if, in this oddly fear-free production, she provokes more pity than terror.” Variety

The Hollywood Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

Misery
Broadhurst Theatre
Broadway & 44th Street
Through February 14

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

A Gay Ol’ Time: Off Broadway’s Latest Trend

December 1st, 2015 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler review Dada Woof Papa Hot and Steve.

(l to r) Alex Hurt, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett, and Parick Breen in 'Dada Woof Papa Hot.' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Alex Hurt, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett, and Parick Breen in ‘Dada Woof Papa Hot.’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Two gay-themed plays are on the boards this fall, so if you’re looking for baby daddies and aging chorus boys, there’s no better time to be going to the theatre. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for new works that transcend a certain demographic (in which this reviewer belongs), it might be a stretch to see beyond some of the one-note themes portrayed in these post-Stonewell tales of love and life.

(l to r) Patrick Breen and John Benjamin Hickey in 'Dada Woof Papa Hot.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog)

(l to r) Patrick Breen and John Benjamin Hickey in ‘Dada Woof Papa Hot.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog)

Dada Woof Papa Hot by Peter Parnell tackles gay parenting set in the bourgeois world of New York City’s upper middle class—though given John Lee Beatty’s ingenious set including a trendy restaurant, Fire Island share, and multi-room apartment on the Upper West Side—we should all be so lucky. Rob (Patrick Breen) and Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) are in the midst of raising a toddler and struggling with their own mid-life crises when they meet a younger gay couple, Jason (Alex Hurt) and Scott (Stephen Plunkett) at a gay parenting group. They become enamored with the fresh-faced duo and friendships begin, only to be derailed by an expected infidelity. But the gays aren’t the only ones bored playing house. Straight friends Serena (Kellie Overbey) and Michael (John Pankow) find themselves in a similar situation—struggling to keep the spark in their marriage while raising little ones. Michael’s wandering eye lands on Julia (Tammy Blanchard), a real Housewife of New York-type that also finds herself in a withering marriage.

And so the revelations begin amid contemporary quips full of gay vernacular and child rearing. Parnell’s script is filled with zippy one-liners:

“By the way, I still can’t get used to young gay guys using that word as a verb instead of a noun.”

“Which word?”

“Bottomed. ‘I bottomed for him,’ instead of ‘I’m a bottom.’”

The subscriber base at Lincoln Center and gay-heavy audience chuckle throughout, as the play jumps through the revelatory hoops of indiscretion and the looming question of “Is this it?”

Mr. Breen and Mr. Hickey breathe life into their characters as they suffer through revealed infidelities and the subsequent consequences. There are interesting riffs that explore what their life was versus what it has become: surviving the AIDS crisis, marriage equality, and parenthood. The younger pair doesn’t fare as well: Mr. Hurt as an artist with a monotonous cadence and penchant for extramarital activities, and Mr. Plunkett as his conservative, quasi-Republican counterpart. Gratuitous Fire Island nudity also feels contrived and begs the question, “Is this it?”

Dada Woof Papa Hot does offers smatterings that may remind of you of the works of Terrence McNally (Love! Valor! Compassion!) or A.R. Gurney (Children). But where those playwrights’ works tend to transcend circumstance and offer rich characterizations and broader social commentary, Dada Woof Papa Hot feels as though its relevance is as fleeting as its intermissionless running time.

(l to r) Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone and Matt McGrath in 'Steve.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog)

(l to r) Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone and Matt McGrath in ‘Steve.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog)

The New Group has its hands on another gay play, Steve, by Mark Gerrard—ironically also set in Manhattan as well as Fire Island (one wonders if us gays have been exiled to a self-proclaimed East Coast ghetto left only with a shortlist of Michelin star restaurants and Andrew Christian underwear). But whereas Dada Woof Papa Hot suffocates in its preciousness, Steve blows the top off in an Ethel Merman-style throwdown that only escalates as the play continues.

Stephen (Malcolm Gets) and Steven (Matt McGrath) gather at a restaurant for the latter’s birthday with besties Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson) and fellow gay couple Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon). Little does Stephen know, but his partner has been privy to texting indiscretions thanks to their toddler’s penchant for stealing electronic equipment. The table becomes smitten with their aspiring Argentinian dancer/waiter, Esteban (Francisco Prior Garat)—especially Steven, who through the course of the play dabbles in his own extramarital affairs.

(l to r) Matt McGrath, Ashlie Atkinson and Francisco Pryor Garat in 'Steve.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Matt McGrath, Ashlie Atkinson and Francisco Pryor Garat in ‘Steve.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Where Steve succeeds is in its innovative theatrical convention, which explores what we want to say versus what we really say in our lives. Much of the dialogue is wickedly and hilariously biting, peppered with more musical theater references than a late-night YouTube binge of all the various actresses who have played Elphaba in Wicked (also the name of Steven and Stephen’s cat).

Director Cynthia Nixon, who directed Rasheeda Speaking for The New Group last season, approaches the piece with a surgeon’s precision and demands such intent from the well-cast ensemble. Mr. McGrath steers the ship as the narcissistic Steven, failing to acknowledge that his best friend, Carrie, is dying of cancer. Ms. Atkinson is much more than a sidekick novelty, delivering one-liners as well as heartfelt gravitas with equal sincerity. The rest of the cast follows suit, including a tech-savvy monologue by Mr. Getz, who brilliantly navigates sexting while simultaneously having a phone conversation with his mother.

Steve is tender and brassy, and perhaps sometimes too shrill for its own good. The musical theater references can become exhausting and are reinforced by an unnecessary pre show consisting of a cast sing-a-long and a curtain call lifted from The Sound of Music. It casts a thin veneer over the play, which otherwise delivers plenty of heart and humanity.

Dada Woof Papa Hot
Lincoln Center Theater – Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Through January 3

Steve
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through January 3