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Leslie Uggams Returns to New York Stage

November 10th, 2015 Comments off
Leslie Uggams (photo provided by Sam Rudy Media Relations).

Leslie Uggams (photo provided by Sam Rudy Media Relations).

Leslie Uggams—the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress who has been opening doors for African-American actors for five decades—will perform the title role in the NY debut of Colman Domingo’s newest play, Dot, at Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15 St.) beginning February 4, 2016 and opening February 23, it has been announced by The Vineyard’s Artistic Directors Douglas Aibel and Sarah Stern. A standout at the Humana Festival of Plays earlier this year at the Actors Theater of Louisville, The Vineyard’s production of Dot will be helmed by the Tony Award-winning director Susan Stroman (The Producers). Ms. Stroman previously directed Mr. Domingo as an actor in The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway, Off-Broadway (at Vineyard Theatre), and in London.

In Dot, Ms. Uggams portrays family matriarch Dotty, whose three adult children gather for the holidays with more than exchanging presents on their minds. As Dotty struggles to navigate life with dementia, her children fight to balance care for their mother and care for themselves. This hilarious and moving new play grapples unforgettably with aging parents, midlife crises, and the heart of an inner city neighborhood.

Leslie Uggams – who won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Hallelujuah Baby!  in 1968 and an Emmy Award for “Fantasy” – had been a child actress on television before she was launched into stardom in the 60’s on the popular TV series “Sing Along With Mitch,” eventually becoming the first African-American woman to headline her own variety TV show, “The Leslie Uggams Show.” She is best-known for her Emmy-nominated performance in Alex Haley’s “Roots” and the miniseries “Backstairs at the White House.” On Broadway her credits include On Golden Pond opposite James Earl Jones, Blues in the Night, August Wilson’s King Headly II and Anything Goesat Lincoln Center. A prolific recording artist, Leslie Uggams has recorded ten albums.

Review: ‘King Charles III’

November 6th, 2015 Comments off

 

by Samuel L. Leiter

King Charles IIIIt wasn’t that long ago that a play like Mike Bartlett’s compelling King Charles III, now visiting Broadway after its Olivier Award-winning London run, would never have been permitted on the British commercial stage. Censorship restrictions against theatrical representations of current or recent members of the British monarchy only began to loosen in 1937, when the official censor allowed Laurence Housman’s biodrama, Victoria Regina (a Broadway hit in 1935), to be staged as part of the centennial celebration of Queen Victoria’s coronation; even then the censor was watchful for anything disparaging to the royal family if it happened within 100 years of a monarch’s coronation. Nowadays, however, British playwrights are free to say whatever they please, even when—as in Bartlett’s play—some might consider questionable the treatment of people very much alive.

In a sense, King Charles III, subtitled “A Future History Play,” picks up where another British monarchical drama, last season’s The Audience, about the weekly meetings of Queen Elizabeth with her serial prime ministers, left off. Queen Elizabeth has just died and Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith), the Prince of Wales, has become king, although his coronation is three months away. Still unsure of his capacity to rule (“potential” being safer than “failure”), he nonetheless dives right in, holding his first audience with the PM, Mr. Evans (Adam James) of the Labour Party. He even challenges tradition by inviting the opposition leader, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf), for his own weekly session. But trouble erupts at once when Charles declares that he’s so uncomfortable with a new bill favored by Evans restricting freedom of the press that he refuses to sign it, a decision supported by his wife, Duchess Camilla (Margot Leicester).

Margot Leicester and Tim Pigott-Smith in 'King Charles III' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Margot Leicester and Tim Pigott-Smith in ‘King Charles III’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The tradition maintained at such meetings by his late mother is that the monarch remain neutral about such things, signing them pro forma regardless of personal feelings. Technically, it appears, the monarch can withhold his signature and thereby prevent a bill’s passage. The crisis that ensues not only encourages the antimonarchical factions but, when Charles dissolves Parliament, also threatens the national polity, leading to a possible civil war and the end of the monarchy.

Meanwhile, the royal family’s internal issues are revealed through 1) the romance of Harry (Richard Goulding), the ginger-haired, insecure, party-boy prince, with Jess (Tafline Steen), a politically radical art student who wants Harry to become a commoner but has a tabloid-ready past, and 2) the ambitions of Kate (Lydia Wilson), the exquisite, scheming, ultra-feminist, she-who-would-be-queen wife of Prince William (Oliver Chris), who refuses to let the monarchy (and his future as king) crumble. Attempting to keep a lid on things is the royal family’s supercilious press representative, James Reiss (Miles Richardson).

Bartlett (whose plays Cock and Bull recently played locally) has created a Shakespeare for our times, writing in a fluid iambic pentameter that mingles formal locutions with contemporary colloquialisms and scene-ending rhymed couplets. Using striking soliloquies and a healthy splash of humor, he weaves the political, personal, and familial conflicts together in a marvelously integrated dramatic narrative that subtly, and with a smidgen of satirical intent, incorporates echoes of King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, and Henry IV. There’s even a ghost wandering through Tom Scutt’s setting, a semicircular, brickwork surround suggesting the ancient bowels of Buckingham Palace, with a band of vaguely painted faces running across it to represent the British public. The ghost is Princess Diana’s, intoning, “You will be the greatest king ever,” fateful words that assume several meanings as the play proceeds.

The cast of 'King Charles III' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘King Charles III’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

All is brilliantly staged by Rupert Goold, with appropriate pomp and circumstance, under Jon Clark’s magnificent lighting, aided by a splendid company, including three actors (Tom Robertson, Nyasha Hatendi, and Sally Scott) playing three roles each. Jocelyn Pook’s ceremonial music, some of it sung in choral passages, contributes immeasurably, as do Mr. Scutt’s character-perfect costumes.

Each role is expertly cast, with several actors closely resembling their real-life counterparts. Mr. Pigott-Smith doesn’t so much look like Charles, however, as capture his regal dignity, making him both firm and vulnerable, until he becomes a tragic figure struggling to maintain his idealism in a world of realpolitik that has no use for him. His is a commanding performance with shining glints of the several Shakespearean figures that compose his role. But it is only one of many factors helping make King Charles III an event that serious theatregoers will miss at their own peril.

King Charles III
The Music Box
239 West 45th Street, NYC
Through January 31, 2016

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: ‘The Honeycomb Trilogy’

October 24th, 2015 Comments off

by Alex Robinson

The Honeycomb Trilogy, Part 1: Advance Man (photo: Deborah Alexander via The Broadway Blog.)

The Honeycomb Trilogy, Part 1: Advance Man (photo: Deborah Alexander via The Broadway Blog.)

Given all the media in which to tackle science fiction, a stage production is surely the most challenging. Unlike a novel, which is limited only by the author (and reader’s) imagination, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster crammed full of CGI wizardry, theater demands that any special effects be practical (reproducible night after night) and also stand up to close scrutiny. How do you present an epic science fiction trilogy in the intimate setting of a small theatre? Gideon Productions’ staging of The Honeycomb Trilogy by Mac Rogers and playing in repertory at The Gym at Judson, sets out to do exactly that. The result is a both epic and personal.

The Honeycomb Trilogy
consists of three plays, each running about two hours. The first, Advance Man, takes place two years after the first manned mission to Mars and, in an unexpected twist for a science fiction trilogy, takes place entirely in the living room of a suburban home in Coral Gables, Florida. At its onset, the play feels more domestic drama than sci-fi: Housewife Amelia (Kristen Vaughn) suspects her husband Bill is having an affair and hires a private eye (Ana Maria Jomocla) to get to the bottom of things. Only the presence of mentally challenged former-astronaut Conor (stand out Jason Howard) hints at the ominous things to come.

It turns out Bill does have a secret but it has less to do with another woman and more about another race—the aliens he and his fellow astronauts encountered on their last trip to space.

The Honeycomb Trilogy, Part II: Blast Radius (photo: Deborah Alexander via The Broadway Blog)

The Honeycomb Trilogy, Part II: Blast Radius (photo: Deborah Alexander via The Broadway Blog)

Writing (and performing) science fiction dialogue is tricky since it usually involves having to include exposition that, in the wrong hands, can come across as silly or technobabble. Playwright Rogers, however, does a good job balancing on the tightrope and cannily doles out just enough information to keep you intrigued and guessing until the pieces come together. By then you’re fully invested in the world he’s created.

The actors treat the material with gravitas. Sean Williams is coldly confident as plotting husband Bill and Becky Byers does an excellent job as his daughter Ronnie—particularly in the second play, Blast Radius, (which takes place 12 years after Advance Man) where we see her changed from a cynical, funny teenager to a jaded young adult. Ronnie’s transformation continues into Sovereign, where she’s played by Hanna Cheek.

The Honeycomb Trilogy, Part III: Sovereign, featuring Steven Heskett (photo: Deborah Alexander via The Broadway Blog.)

The Honeycomb Trilogy, Part III: Sovereign, featuring Steven Heskett (photo: Deborah Alexander via The Broadway Blog.)

With each play we see the living room set (designed by Sandy Yaklin) transformed to reflect the drama going on around it—the cozy, familiar setting becomes a ramshackle refuge in Blast Radius and a post-apocalyptic kangaroo court in Sovereign. It’s an appropriate setting since at its core, like another science fiction trilogy making the news, The Honeycomb Trilogy is about family. Earthy Ronnie and her more idealistic brother (played by David Rosenblatt in the first play and Stephen Heskett in Sovereign) are the centerpieces of a story about humanity’s future.

Interested parties can see The Honeycomb Trilogy in two ways: catch performances of the individual plays on weekday evenings, but if you have the time—and stamina—I encourage seeing their weekend “binge watch” productions in which all three are staged back to back. Sharing the experience with the actors and watching their characters evolve, grow and in some cases die as the world around them is turned upside down makes for an immensely satisfying day (and night) of theater.

The Honeycomb Trilogy
The Gym at Judson
55 Washington Square South
Through November 14

Alex Robinson’s books include Box Office Poison, Tricked, Too Cool to Be Forgotten, and the forthcoming Our Expanding Universe, all of which are available from Top Shelf Productions. He is also co-host of the podcast Star Wars Minute.

Review: ‘Clever Little Lies’

October 13th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

The cast of 'Clever Little Lies' (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Clever Little Lies’ (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Tony winner Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, which premiered two years ago at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse and was shown last summer in the Hamptons, is a clever little domestic comedy of the crisply-paced, well-made, sit-com variety that used to appear in New York almost every year. It’s about a well-off, close-knit family (mom, dad, son, and daughter-in-law with three-month-old infant in tow), takes place largely in a beautifully appointed Westchester living room, and deals with the familiar dynamics of adultery, marital secrets, and parental interference (it could easily be called Mother Knows Best, or Does She?).

It’s lovingly directed, elegantly designed, nicely cast, includes a popular star (the redoubtable Marlo Thomas), comes well stocked with zingers, makes room—perhaps a tad too much room—for pathos, and offers the kind of amusing postprandial entertainment, with a touch of seriousness, tired businessmen and their wives (or mistresses) always used to flock to. The principal difference between Clever Little Lies and what used to pack them in on Broadway is that it’s Off-Broadway, runs an intermissionless 90 minutes, and allows a shadow to fall over an otherwise happy ending. Enjoying it as I did was my guilty theatre pleasure of the week.

Marlo Thomas in 'Clever Little Lies' (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Marlo Thomas in ‘Clever Little Lies’ (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

After Bill, Sr. (Greg Mullavey) whips his lawyer son, Bill (George Merrick, the only new cast member), at tennis, Bill is unable to repress the news that he’s having an intense affair with a hot trainer at his gym, where he’s been going obsessively to work out. Bill, Sr., promises not to tell Bill’s mother, Alice (Thomas), but knows that her nose for trouble will eventually sniff out the secret. Alice is a bookstore owner who gets off some good cracks at the expense of the Fifty Shades of Gray books and the kind of literary trivia (coffee cups and t-shirts) she has to sell.

Greg Mullavey and Marlo Thomas in ' Clever Little Lies' (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Greg Mullavey and Marlo Thomas in ‘ Clever Little Lies’ (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

When her antennae pick up signals of Bill’s dilemma, she slyly squeezes the truth from her husband who reveals it—hilariously—with nary a word, and then persuades her reluctant son and his wife, Jane (Kate Wetherhead), to come over for cheesecake and espresso. Bill and Alice then do all they can to prevent Jane from learning what’s up, but, just when it seems there’s no way out, Alice comes up with a tale that takes everyone by surprise, leading to other revelations about her own clever little lies and, eventually, to that shadow pervading the final moments, during which the play moves onto another emotional level. That shift to a somber tone is a bit disturbing, and it’s hard not to expect some comic twist that will return us to the earlier mood; DiPietro, however, sticks to his guns, resisting the old adage to always leave them laughing.

Thomas, charmingly youthful at 77, and looking much younger in the stylish clothing Esther Arroyo has designed for her, brings her personal warmth, perfect timing, comic smarts, and rich, female baritone to the meddling but incisive Alice. There’s a reason she’s a star. Mullavey is a comedic gem, piling up laugh after laugh with his facial and physical reactions, yet always being truthful. Merrick tends to push too much at first but gradually settles in as Bill’s rat-in-a-trap frustration takes over, and Kate Wetherhead, so delicious in The Other Josh Cohen a couple of years ago, makes Jane, who can’t stop quoting all the studies she’s read, both real and funny.

David Saint’s direction beautifully expresses the play’s comedy as well as its more sentimental moments. Yoshi Tanokura’s first-rate sets, which include a locker room as well as a cut-away car for a highway driving scene, are truly classy, using a sliding stage and sliding panels on which video projections make a strong impression, while Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting captures all the play’s shifting moods, especially at the end.

Need your own guilty theatre pleasure? You might try Clever Little Lies.

Clever Little Lies
Westside Theatre/Upstairs
407 West 43rd Street, NYC
Through January 3

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: ‘Fulfillment’ at The Flea Theater

September 26th, 2015 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Fulfillment Flea TheaterIt’s everyone for themselves in Thomas Bradshaw’s unfulfilling Fulfillment, now at the Flea in a production whose crisply effective staging by Ethan McSweeny isn’t enough to overcome the characters’ inconsistencies, the episodic plot’s implausibilities, and the sense that its scenes of sex and violence are there merely because that’s what one expects in a Bradshaw play. While no one goes so far as to use prosthetic penises squirting white liquid, as in his distressingly uncomfortable Intimacy (2014), what remains is a similarly non-arousing, pseudo-pornographic world of profane, crass, self-serving people. As for the sex scenes, it’s a mystery why “sex choreographer” Yehuda Duenyas was employed, unless McSweeny himself was embarrassed to handle these not especially original (or erotic) scenes himself.

Michael (Ghenga Akinnagbe) is a 40-year-old associate at a high-powered law firm headed by the oily Mark (Peter McCabe), where he’s the only black lawyer on the staff. He’s doing well enough to purchase a newly renovated $1.4 million apartment—albeit only 752 square feet—in SoHo. He has a best friend, Simon (Christian Conn), a married man, to whom he shares (in coarsely intimate detail) a kinky sexual experience with another lawyer at the firm, Sarah (Susannah Flood). Sarah riles up his ambition, telling him he’d be a partner by now if the firm weren’t racist. She convinces him to join her yoga meditation group, where the leader insists that anxieties can be eliminated by giving up masturbation, food gorging, and porn.

'Fulfillment' (Photo: Hunter Canning via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Fulfillment’ (Photo: Hunter Canning via The Broadway Blog.)

Michael demands a partnership from Mark, insisting that racism is behind his lack of a promotion, but Mark says it’s because Michael’s an alcoholic and must first get on the wagon. The now servile Michael declares he’ll join AA. When Sarah, whose father was a drunk, discovers Michael’s drinking problem, she transforms into a caring advisor, and the play drifts into lessons about yogic chanting and AA’s spiritual values.

We’re now one-third into a play about an up-and-coming black lawyer confronting the obstacles of alcoholism and potential racism, while learning to handle his sexually adventurous girlfriend. The gears shift sharply, however, and the plot turns into a melodramatic conflict with a deranged neighbor named Ted (Jeff Biehl) in the overhead apartment who, for unexplained reasons, seeks to drive Michael nuts by making as much noise as he can, although Michael thinks Ted’s little girl is responsible.

'Fulfillment' (Photo: Hunter Canning via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Fulfillment’ (Photo: Hunter Canning via The Broadway Blog.)

In the final hour, we watch Michael’s unlawerly confrontations with Ted; Sarah’s infidelity and Michael’s jealousy; Michael’s arrogance toward a classy restaurant’s waitress (Denny Dillon); his own mistreatment by his building’s lesbian president, Bob (Denny Dillon), a friend of Ted’s, who calls him a pedophile; Michael’s attempt to sign a superstar basketball player (Otoja Abit) as a client; Sarah’s shark-like response to Michael’s failure; a catastrophic accident that leads to a horrific act of revenge; and empty generalizations lacking follow-through on the meaning of happiness, people’s lack of respect for their work in an age where everyone seeks celebrity, the meaning of karma, and the ubiquity of suffering.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s spare set uses one long wall of the space, with the audience facing it in low-rise bleachers: we see a hardwood floor, a partial ceiling, a select few pieces of furniture shifted by the well-drilled actors, bookshelves at stage right, an overhead platform at left where Ted’s noisemaking can be observed, and a movable door on casters. A percussive score by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, aided by Miles Polaski, aids greatly in creating a feeling of intensity, but it’s pretty much wasted on a vacuous play for which a generally capable ensemble can’t provide fulfillment.

Fulfillment
The Flea Theater
41 White Street, NYC
Through October 19

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

Nightmare: Horror Show – NYC’s Most Terrifying Theater Festival

September 25th, 2015 Comments off

Nightmare Horror Show

Psycho Clan, the artistic team behind New York’s well known Nightmare Haunted House, has announced that it will shift it’s unique brand of terror from theatrical haunted house to a series of terrifying plays in it’s 12th season, presenting the inaugural Nightmare: Horror Show – NYC’s Most Terrifying Theater Festival, which will run October 7-31.

During four weeks in October, eight new mini-horror productions will be staged by Psycho Clan and various other theater companies. There are four programs, each premiering two new horror works that will thrill even the most jaded theatergoer. Each evening will feature either two or three programs (late nights on the weekends and closer to Halloween).  In addition to the five productions accepted into the festival, Psycho Clan will be premiering three original works from members of the Nightmare creative team including Eddie by Nightmare production designer Paul Smithyman, Me_Irl by Nightmare specialty props and puppet maker Aaron Haskell and the World premiere of Nightmare creator and director Timothy Haskell’s Smile. The other hand-selected shows include Necromancer by Johnathan Frost, Bane from APT Theater, Night of the Touching Zombies from Figment and Anthony Girorgio’s Broken.

“When I started the haunted house 12 years ago we were the only one in town.  Part of the reason I started Nightmare was because I loved haunted houses so I built one to share that experience with New Yorkers. Now that they are somewhat ubiquitous, I am returning to my roots as a theater director in an attempt to create actual, honest-to-goodness scary theater.  Something that has proven to be very difficult since the Grand Guignol, and what I believe can be the most terrifying live experience.  Better than the most spine-chilling scary movie.”

All performances take place at the same venue where the haunted house ran, the Flamboyan theater at The Clemente, located at 107 Suffolk Street between Rivington and Delancey on Manhattan’s lower east side.  All tickets are $25. For complete schedule of events, more information and to buy tickets visit www.NightmareNewYork.com.

Nightmare: New York 2014 (Facebook)

Nightmare: New York 2014 (Facebook)

Three to See: September

September 2nd, 2015 Comments off

“Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh
so mellow.” – The Fantasticks

New York’s theater scene is anything but slow and mellow this fall, as the season gears up with some innovative new productions that have us on the edge of our seats. Here are the Broadway Blog’s top picks for the month.

 

THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE

(l to r) Keith_Nobbs, Matt McGrath, and Wayne Duvall in 'The Legend of Georgia McBride.' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Keith Nobbs, Matt McGrath, and Wayne Duvall in ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride.’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

What happens when an Elvis impersonator becomes a winning drag queen in the Florida Panhandle? Playwright Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man) dishes up a southern comedy starring Matt McGrath (Boys Don’t Cry) and directed by Mike Donahue.

MCC Theater and the Lucille Lortel
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Opening night: September 9

 

SPRING AWAKENING


Duncan Sheik’s stirring, coming-of-age musical won eight Tony awards when it opened in 2006. The newly reimagined Deaf West Theatre production revisits the work, starring Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and choreographed by Emmy award-nominated So You Think You Dance choreographer Spencer Liff.

Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street, NYC
Opening night: September 27

 

CINDERELLA

Davon Rainey in Company XIV's 'Cinderella' (photo: Steven Trumon Gray via The Broadway Blog.)

Davon Rainey in Company XIV’s ‘Cinderella’ (photo: Steven Trumon Gray via The Broadway Blog.)


Move over, Disney. Austin McCormick’s Company XIV returns with an adults-only tale of the girl with the glass slipper. Expect a baroque-burlesque confection of theater, dance, music, circus, opera and sumptuous design.

Company XIV at the Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Opening night: September 30

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @roodeloo.

Review: ‘An Act of God’ Featuring Jim Parsons

June 5th, 2015 Comments off

Review by Samuel L. Leiter

AAOG Logo ArtworkEven if, like me, you’re not a particular fan of Jim Parsons, the TV star with the quirky voice, boyish face, and looming forehead, you’re likely to have a divine revelation when you see him on Broadway playing the titular hero in David Javerbaum’s play, An Act of God, based on the book written by the Lord and transcribed by the multi-Emmy-winning Javerbaum. An Act of God may not be as outrageously hilarious as some of the early reviews suggested, but it’s funny enough for most of its 90 intermissionless minutes to give your rictus muscles a thorough workout.

Although largely a one-man performance, it’s superbly augmented by the adorable presence of the white-suited, white-winged Christopher Fitzgerald as the Archangel Michael and Tim Kazurinsky as the Archangel Gabriel (“on Bible”), both perfectly cast as God’s “wingmen.” Parsons sits at center in front of designer Scott Pask’s elegantly simple background of concentric rings with a large circular opening (gorgeously lit by Huge Vanstone), telling us everything we wanted to know about God but were afraid to ask.

Tim Kazurinsky, Jim Parsons, and Christopher Fitzgerald in 'Act of God' (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Tim Kazurinsky, Jim Parsons, and Christopher Fitzgerald in ‘Act of God’ (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Dressed in a flowing white robe over a plaid shirt, black jeans, and red sneakers (the costumes are by David Zinn), God debunks all the familiar preconceptions people hold about him and the Bible. Going meta he informs us he’s being played by “beloved television star Jim Parsons” the irony of whose starring on TV’s The Big Bang Theory he couldn’t resist; chastises latecomers (“You’re lucky I’m God and not Patti LuPone”) and someone whose cellphone goes off; tosses off zingers accompanied by angelic rimshots; gives you the inside story on biblical topics, like the Creation, Noah’s ark, Abraham and Isaac, and Job (“the funniest book in the Bible”); has Michael gather questions from “the expensive part of the audience”; and even takes a selfie with his angel buddies.

Michael himself so pesters his master with probing questions that he gets a shot of divine wrath (God later acknowledges his “wrath management issues”). But, sometimes, when God contemplates some of the horrific things he’s done, he explains himself in a way that, while bringing down the house, shows how imperfect he really is.

Jim Parsons in 'An Act of God' (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Jim Parsons in ‘An Act of God’ (photo: Jeremy Daniel Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Using a replica of the Ten Commandments (God says it was taken from a courthouse in Tulsa after being declared unconstitutional), he replaces them with a set of new ones; he’s grown weary of the old ones, “the same way Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie.’” After adding, “Today, the Mosaic dies,” he declares that he’s decided to give his “new commandments directly to the Jewish people. That’s why I’m here on Broadway.” The script consistently keeps up this kind of schmoozing, some of it groan-worthy but nonetheless risible, and the audience eats it up.

Sensitive issues creep in but are handled holy tongue in holy cheek. God, noting that Gabriel dictated the Quran to Muhammed, declares that was “the beginning of Islam, and at the request of the producers, that is the last you’ll be hearing of Islam tonight.” Sex, of course, straight and gay, is fodder for big laughs. Did you know that before God created Eve, he created Steve as Adam’s helpmeet (because Adam “masturbated incessantly”)? If you believe in evolution, you may be surprised to learn how the fossils and dinosaurs got there. When God insists that people stop killing in his name because “I can kill all by myself,” he begins ticking off the deaths occurring at that moment, reassuring the audience that it’s safe, “at least until 3:36 this morning.”

Very little is sacred in this show—certainly not Caitlyn Jenner, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, or Donald Trump—with its references to incest, the separation of God and state, abortion, guns, God’s blessing of America, God’s relationship to victories and losses in sports and elsewhere, taking the Lord’s name in vain, prayer, Jesus (“a cannibal vampire”), and even, God help us, the Holocaust. In a scene Mel Brooks might have conceived, God recounts the time he debated for two weeks whether the Jews should practice circumcision or breast augmentation for 18-year-old girls.

An Act of God, well directed by Joe Mantello, has a simple enough concept, but, this being Broadway, it includes some very high-tech special effects, and even an original soft-rock number (by Adam Schlesinger) to close the show. God does a lot of smiting in this show; I was smitten.

An Act of God
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
Through August 2

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: The Way We Get By

May 29th, 2015 Comments off

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by Samuel L. Leiter

Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried in 'How We Get By' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried in ‘How We Get By’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

There are two popular, talented, and attractive actors in The Way We Get By, Neil LaBute’s patchy new play at the Second Stage Theatre; under Leigh Silverman’s spirited direction, they’re appealing enough to hold you in their thrall for its 85 intermissionless minutes. However, for all its adroit, authentic-sounding dialogue, and its naturalistic ambience, the play too often seems an extended acting exercise that huffs and puffs to fill out the requirements of an evening at the theater.

Set within a generic New York apartment, designed by Neil Patel, the play begins with a guy named Doug (Thomas Sadoski, Newsroom, The Slap) tiptoeing around clumsily in the dark in his boxer shorts and open sweatshirt, his chest and six-pack exposed to the elements. Doug is unfamiliar with his surroundings, which belong to a pretty blonde named Beth (Amanda Seyfried, Les MisérablesBig Love), and her roommate Kim. When Doug wakes her by turning the TV on at full volume, Beth enters wearing his vintage Star Wars T-shirt, making him terribly uncomfortable, since he’s a rabid Star Wars geek with an obsession about this shirt, signed by the actor who played R2-D2.

Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried in 'The Way We Get By' (photo: Robert Ascroft via The Broadway Blog.)

Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried in ‘The Way We Get By’ (photo: Robert Ascroft via The Broadway Blog.)

What follows is a meandering conversation that jumps from topic to topic while gradually hinting that—unlike the initial impression that they first met at a party the night before—Doug and Beth actually have known each other for some time, although never in the sack. They talk about the shirt, naturally; Kim (unseen) and her territorial possessiveness; Doug’s talkativeness; what Beth drank the night before; Doug’s stay or go ambivalence; their mutual discomfort with the night’s events; Chelsea Handler, and various other mainly trivial matters. Beth also attempts to have oral sex with Doug, who makes her stop, suggesting—although, in LaBute’s inarticulately articulate dialogue, it takes him forever to spit it out—that he’s worried about a “pattern” forming in their relationship.

All of this turns out to be playwriting byplay setting the stage for LaBute’s big reveal, which comes about halfway through, and which the rules of spoilership preclude describing. Whether or not you saw it coming, it’s hard in retrospect not to view everything that’s happened up to now as a trick, and, regardless of the author’s deftness, to question its plausibility. And, while LaBute uses the second half to watch his people try to come to terms with their situation, his approach avoids the kind of interesting discussion the implications might have inspired.

Despite lots of nervous and frequently funny chatter, we don’t learn anything significant about Doug and Beth, not even their ages or what they do for a living, so the director and actors must have cooked up plenty of backstory to add acting meat to LaBute’s dramaturgic bones. The boyishly handsome, 38-year-old Sadoski portrays Doug as a kind of charming goofball with a host of vocal and physical characteristics but there’s an often awkward contrast between the actor’s obvious maturity and intelligence and Doug’s arrested development and insecurities. Seyfried, 29, making her theatrical debut, is a bit more believable at embodying her character’s adolescent verbal and behavioral tics.

The Way We Get By takes its flavorless title from one of Doug’s lines, spoken when he challenges Beth to make a bold decision about their future, and not settle for what’s safe, which is “the way we get by.” The play itself, while avoiding the misanthropy and misogyny often attributed to LaBute, and even ending on an upbeat note, might have benefited from taking the same advice.

The Way We Get By
Second Stage Theatre/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 West 43rd Street, NYC
Through June 21

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: ‘The Flick’ at Barrow Street Theatre

May 19th, 2015 Comments off
Aaron Clifton Moten, Louisa Krause, and Matthew Maher in "The Flick" (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Aaron Clifton Moten, Louisa Krause, and Matthew Maher in “The Flick” (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

There is a powerful character that you won’t see in The Flick—the script. Set in Worcester, Massachusetts, Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, three-person play (with a few brief appearances from a fourth) follows a motley group of movie theater employees as they interact on the job. Her 124-page exercise in hyperrealism reads like a movie script, with extensive stage directions, pauses, sentence interruptions, and so on. Of course, as a reviewer, I had the privilege of asking for it to try to make sense of Baker’s subtle exercise in humanity, but the average audience member must simply settle in for the three-plus hours and trust that he or she will be carried on an emotional journey worth the investment. Most will feel the pay-off from Sam Gold’s delicate direction and supreme performances by the cast—all of who return to the production after its original run last year at Playwrights Horizons.

Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), a 20-year-old African American, arrives at the run-down film house for his first day on the job. He’s trained by Sam (Matthew Maher), a beleaguered 35-year-old stuck in a dead-end job with minor ambitions to hopefully run the projector, currently overseen by Rose (Louisa Krause)—a sexually magnetic 20-something who dresses in black and dyes the tips of her hair green. Sam and Rose are Caucasian, and that racial divide will come into play as a well-placed plot point later in the action. But this isn’t an obvious morality play as much as three exceptionally well honed character studies.

Avery is an avid movie buff with a keen ability to connect any combination of actors via six degrees (or less) of separation. It sparks an interesting comparison to those familiar with John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, the 1990 play that also examined race, class, and relationships. Sam repeatedly challenges Avery’s film knowledge as the two become friends over time… or are they just work buddies? It’s hard to tell and anyone who has had a survival job can attest to the fleeting relationships one forms simply to stay connected to the outside world while muddling through mundane tasks that pay the bills.

Louisa Krause and Matthew Maher in "The Flick" (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Louisa Krause and Matthew Maher in “The Flick” (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

It is Rose’s wavering moral compass that stirs the pot, first to set a precedent for deception, then to point fingers at those who suffer the consequences. She is the subject of Sam’s unrequited affection, and the instigator of something a bit tawdrier with Avery. So the trio goes about their business for months on end, and though the script may skip calendar chunks, the onstage action unfolds in real time with such detailed specificity that I occasionally wanted to scream, “Can you just sweep that popcorn a bit faster?” The answer, of course, is yes, but the revelation is that these three are lost souls, caught in life’s repetitive rotation without much of a clue as to how to set a different course.

Spouting a speech impediment and referencing a worsening rash as the play wears on, Mr. Maher as Sam is an unconventional leading man. Yet the character’s lovability quotient holds steady despite unlovable actions (or inactions), and it is this unbecoming but recognizable mediocrity that makes him that much more believable. Mr. Moten captures Avery’s lost boy soul with haunting accuracy, and if you’ve ever been around someone overmedicated for depression you might see some frighteningly truthful resemblances. Ms. Krause delivers perhaps the most dynamic shifts as a young woman discovering the power and potential abuse of her own sexuality. At times androgynous and at others wildly feminine, she casts a palpable, flippant energy that can shift on a dime.

Director Sam Gold keeps things grounded with the help of an appropriately dingy set by David Zinn and sensorial elements by Jane Cox (lighting design) and Bray Poor (sound design.) But this is Annie Baker’s story to tell. And that she does, one deliberate word and stage direction at a time.

The Flick
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
Through August 30

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at roodeloo