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Guns, God and Government: ‘Church & State’

March 31st, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Rob Nagle in 'Church & State.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Rob Nagle in ‘Church & State.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Despite its title, Church & State, a thoughtful but patchy political dramedy by Jason Odell Williams, has very little to do with the separation of powers as mentioned in the Constitution’s first amendment. That’s the one that says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” More germane here is the second amendment.

Not that religion doesn’t play an important part in the play’s treatment of Senator Charles Whitmore (Rob Nagle), a North Carolina “compassionate conservative” seeking reelection. The good Republican’s dilemma occurs when, after witnessing the results of a mass murder at his children’s primary school, he makes a grief-stricken admission to a blogger doubting both God’s existence and the efficacy of prayer. Click! It goes viral on Twitter.

Them’s fighting words. When the pol’s bibulous, Bible-quoting wife, Sara (Nadia Bowers), and dogged campaign manager, Alex Klein (Christa Scott-Reed), learn not only of his potentially damaging gaffe but that he means to defend it by going off script in his last pre-election speech, he seems well on his way to voter perdition.

(l to r) Nadia Bowers and Christa Scott-Reed in 'Church & State.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Nadia Bowers and Christa Scott-Reed in ‘Church & State.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

In dramaturgic terms, however, Charlie’s crisis of faith is secondary to the playwright’s real target, the need for saner gun control. To NC conservatives, that’s as sinful as denying the Lord’s existence.

For many of its 75 uninterrupted minutes, snappily directed by Markus Potter, Church & State uses this promisingly provocative material for behind-the-politics domestic comedy. The good senator fights to overcome the shock to Sara’s religious system (she created his campaign slogan, “Jesus Is My Running Mate!”) and to her fondness for her Baby Glock. Meanwhile, Alex does damage control to prevent a debacle at the polls.

Set in a greenroom backstage at a bunting and campaign poster-adorned Raleigh theatre (set by David Goldstein; lighting by Burke Brown) where Whitmore is scheduled to speak, the play teeters uncomfortably between broad comedy and grave issues, seeking every opportunity to garner laughs and argue politics and religion.

Ultimately, after yet another tragic event, it devolves into a gun control admonition, which liberals will relish (the play originated in Los Angeles). It should be interesting to learn of its eventual reception down South, where, reportedly, productions are planned.

Jonathan Luis Dent in 'Church & State.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Jonathan Luis Dent in ‘Church & State.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

For all the potential interest in Church & State’s polemics, everything is abridged for immediate gratification, with too many cheap jokes that create an air of superficiality and implausibility. Williams is an Emmy-nominated writer but he’s no Aaron Sorkin.

It’s hard to believe that, even if the senator’s Chapel Hill-educated wife is written as a stereotypically ditzy, blonde, y’all-drawling, good ol’ gal, she’d be clueless enough to call ticker tape “sticker tape,” refer to a blogger as a “blobber,” confuse “petard” with “retard,” or cite Twitter as “the Twitter.” (That last is a running gag even harder to swallow when, in the age of Trump, it comes from the senator’s mouth.)

Would she really call Alex, with whom she has a flinty relationship, a lesbian, and then counter the denial with, “You’re a Democrat from New York—it’s the same thing”? At any rate, the silly belle we see early on is far from the sober one we encounter toward the end, suggesting a character disconnect.

There are too many similar flat notes. It’s doubtful, for example, that the liberal, skeptical Alex would manage a Republican’s campaign. Or that, as a holidays-only Jew, she could she so readily cite an Old Testament reference by chapter and verse, just to set up a joke. And when the play’s most perceptive religious commentary suddenly springs from the innocuous campaign assistant, Tom (Jonathan Louis Dent), you can be forgiven for squirming.

Fortunately, Nagle gives the play ballast by making Whitmore believably sincere and emotionally vulnerable; his big, emotional speech about guns is especially well handled. Bowers’s Sara is colorfully brassy but can’t avoid cartoonish overkill, while Scott-Reed’s Alex is sharply determined, and Jonathan Louis Dent’s four small roles are nicely differentiated. Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes help make everyone look their parts.

Judging by Church & State, when it comes to political issues, North Carolinians have little but God and guns on their minds. Even, one supposes, when they go to the bathroom.

Church & State
New World Stages
340 W. 50th Street, NYC
Through July 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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then and Now: ‘The View UpStairs’

March 15th, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t Miss: ‘Page to Stage’ Seminar with Off Broadway Alliance

February 2nd, 2017 Comments off

Off Broadway AllianceDo you think you may be the next David Merrick? The Off Broadway Alliance, the organization of Off Broadway producers, theaters, general managers, press agents, and marketing firms, will hold the next event in its Seminars series, focused on the Off Broadway Producing Process on Saturday, February 4, 2017. The seminar will discuss various pathways of developing shows from conception towards a production in the Off Broadway arena.

The seminar, “Page to Stage, or How to Get Your Show to Off Broadway,” will feature producer Charlotte Cohn (Church and State, Handle with Care), playwright Matt Cox (Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic), co-author, co-producer and star of Cagney Robert Creightonand literary agent Mark Subias who represents clients that span across film, television and theater. Hugh Hysell (producer of Six Degrees of SeparationVanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) will moderate the discussion curated from questions submitted by attendees.

The cast of 'Cagney.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Cagney.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

“Page to Stage, or How to Get Your Show to Off Broadway” will be held on the 3rd floor of The Theater Center (210 West 50th Street). Doors will open at 10:30 a.m. for complimentary coffee and bagels. The panel discussion will take place from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with additional time allotted afterward for conversation with fellow attendees.

Admission for the seminar is $5 and pre-registration is required. Attendees are encouraged to pre-submit questions for the panelists when they submit their reservations. Questions will be asked live at the seminar.

Register at www.PageToStageSeminar.eventbrite.com

 

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Technicolor Fabulous: ‘Bright Colors and Bold Patterns’

December 23rd, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Drew Droege in 'Bright Colors and Bold Patterns.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Drew Droege in ‘Bright Colors and Bold Patterns.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

For years, entertainment has often portrayed homosexuals as effeminate, self-loathing individuals who are well versed in pop culture, quick-witted, and way over the top. Some might argue that this same stereotype is being perpetuated in the solo play Bright Colors and Bold PatternsOn the surface, they may be right. But stick with this 80-minute monologue and by the end, you may discover some surprising truths about yourself and your world views, thanks to Drew Droege’s beautifully crafted script and Michael Urie’s wise direction.

Droege, who also stars in the comedy, is best known for his hugely popular impersonations of actor Chloe Sevigny. After watching an interview in which Sevigny nonchalantly name checked and spouted obscure references, Droege’s fascination led to a series of online videos.

His riff on Sevigny might well have been a precursor to the character he plays here. Gerry (Droege), a thirty-something brash and boozy pop-culture authority has just arrived to a decked out Palm Springs home (tastefully designed by Dara Wishingrad) from Los Angeles. He’s there for the wedding of his close friend Josh and Josh’s fiancé, Brennan, who Gerry dismisses as a dull figure and refers to as “mayonnaise on a captain’s wafer.”

Drew Droege (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Drew Droege (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Gerry is one of the first guests to arrive at the posh palace and is met by his ex-boyfriend Dwayne, and Dwayne’s significantly younger boyfriend, Mac. Neither is seen, but Droege’s masterful conversations with them bring the pair vividly to life. It’s not long before Gerry pours himself a frozen margarita and starts to dish on nearly everything and everyone that pops into his head.

Gerry has absolutely no filter and speaks at lightning speed mostly due to his abundant consumption of alcohol and cocaine. He’s particularly irritated by his friends’ wedding invitation discouraging guests from wearing “bright colors and bold patterns,” which he perceives as an affront to gayness. Gerry’s life mantra seems to be “go big or go home” and he has little patience for anyone who doesn’t interact in the world and live loud.

He continues to ramble on, citing references from Steel MagnoliasDesigning Women, obscure Lifetime television movies, and fashion designers. At times he meanders off topic but that is when the show is at his funniest. Gerry’s quips are razor sharp and Droege’s mannerisms and expressions are single-handedly worth the price of a ticket.

I’ve always believed that the term “tour de force” to describe a performance is pretentious and perhaps, it is. Yet there seems to be no better phrase to define Droege’s capacity to captivate and keep his audience fully engaged from beginning to end.

Gay marriage is the essence and thread of Gerry’s diatribe and he wonders whether the newly acquired right will force the gay community into a state of normalcy. It’s been hard for him to sustain a long-term relationship in spite of the proclamation to his fellow guests that he and his boyfriend, Greg, have been fighting. The problem is that Greg isn’t really his boyfriend; he’s a restaurant employee at the Veggie Grille in Los Angeles and Gerry is pining for his affection

It would be easy to dismiss Gerry as a caustic, bitter queen with a substance abuse issue and deep disdain for humanity. At times, I did feel uneasy about his blatant cocaine use and initially found him grating. Yet Droege is careful not to make his character a one-dimensional, shallow soul. In the show’s quieter moments, he’s able to poke a hole through Gerry’s false confidence, revealing a vulnerable, thoughtful guy who is trying to make sense of it all while he lives his life with wild abandon. Droege’s message: We’re not always fabulous, nor are we permanently flawed. We’re an alchemy of it all because we’re wonderfully human.

Here’s what other critics had to say:

“Plays do not get much gayer than ‘Bright Colors,’ a spiffy production directed by Michael Urie.” — Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

“At an easy, breezy 70 minutes, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns doesn’t ask too much of our time while offering a surefire laugh.” — Zachary Stewart, Theatermania

“Gerry guards old wounds of exclusion and heartbreak, dating back decades, that have made him the spiny puffer he is today, inflated with prickly defenses. That’s what gives Droege’s show a poignancy beyond its hilarity. Gerry’s hard-won pride now rains on his parade.” — Adam Feldman, Time Out NY 

Bright Colors and Bold Patterns 
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Through December 30

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.

Don’t Go Through… ‘The Portal’

December 5th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Billy Lewis Jr. in 'The Portal.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Billy Lewis Jr. in ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

For more than twenty years, I have seen the best—and in some cases—the worst that the New York theater scene has to offer. In 2005, I had the misfortune of sitting through Suzanne Somers’ one-woman show, The Blonde in the Thunderbird. Since then, no other theatrical event has compared to its tragic level of badness and it has long been perched on my mantel, earning its place as the worst show I’ve ever seen on a New York stage. Congratulations, Ms. Somers. After 11 years a shaman will relieve you from your post.

The Portal, marketed as “part rock concert, part movie, and part performance” and inspired by “Burning Man, Pink Floyd, EDM, and World mythology” is completely unbearable. Within the first 20 minutes, the Front man (Billy Lewis, Jr.) sings the following lyric:

“What Am I Doing Here?”

Funny he should inquire, as I very quickly was asking myself the exact question.

The cast of 'The Portal.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

The disjointed show opens with two musicians, percussionist Gilly Gonzalez and guitarist Paul Casanova, whose music—at least for the first few minutes—evokes Peter Gabriel’s masterful score for the film, The Last Temptation of Christ.

With tribal, Arabic rhythms, they are soon joined on stage by three dancers (Marija Juliette Abney, Jessica Aronoff, and Nicole Spencer) and the Frontman who is dressed in meditation yoga clothes. He begins nearly every number with a primal moan, palms facing out at the hip and raising them above his head as though he were one of the “Ys” in the Village People classic, “Y-M-C-A.”

Marija Juliette Abney (foreground), Jessica Aronoff (background) in 'The Portal.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Marija Juliette Abney (foreground), Jessica Aronoff (background) in ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

The lyrics are barely intelligible and, glancing at the musical numbers in the program doesn’t clarify anything. Songs listed include, “Eclipse,” “Greeting,” “Holy Fractal,” “Space Child Fractal,” and “Reaper Fractal.” Composer/lyricists Tierro Lee, Lisa Gerrard, and Daniel Katsuk’s music offers no variety or clarity into what this any of this is all about, but one thing is certain: They really love their fractals!

The show is an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno and much of the action is meant to take place in the mind as stream of consciousness. During many of the songs, projections of Dante and Beatrice are displayed on a huge LED screen, performed respectively by Christopher Soren Kelly and Zarah Mahler.

The Frontman is apparently the spiritual advisor who is guiding their journey from the stress and demands of every day life. Every so often, Beatrice will deliver, breathy, meditative lines about surrender and letting go. One of my personal favorites, “Life is the same as death as the river is to the sea,” may be referencing the circle of life, but my unenlightened mind was still in the dark.

Other random moments include a man in a business suit who enters from upstage, walks among the cast, down the steps to the house, and flashes his illuminated cell phone to one row of the audience. Was he sharing a text message, a tweet, a gif?  I have no idea. Later, he returns from the back of the house and strolls down the aisle in a grim reaper costume.

It’s hard not believe that this is simply a vanity project funded by a group of investors who are flush with cash. Peter T. Feuchtwanger and David Goldstein’s set and scenic design—while confusing as hell—are vivid, interesting, and undoubtedly costly, but they still don’t compensate for the weak material. Jessica Chen’s choreography offers very little for the imagination but I can’t blame her. She doesn’t have much inspiration. Nor can I address Luke Comer’s direction because the word doesn’t suit the outcome. I am curious to learn, however, what drew him to this project.

Never did I think I’d yearn for Suzanne Somers’ return to the stage.

Until I went through The Portal.

The Portal
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through December 31

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.

 

Buckle In: MCC Theater’s ‘Ride the Cyclone’

November 30th, 2016 Comments off
Ride the Cyclone (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Ride the Cyclone (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

If you’re willing to get on the ride, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s new musical, Ride the Cyclone, will take you to unexpected places. Chicago Shakespeare presented the U.S. premiere of the work last year, and prior to that Canada’s Atomic Vaudeville first produced the production. MCC Theater brings it to Manhattan under the deft direction/choreography of Rachel Rockwell.

Emily Rohm and the cast of 'Ride the Cyclone.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Emily Rohm and the cast of ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The 90-minute show recounts what happens after a group of Catholic school teenagers die in a rollercoaster accident. They’ve arrived in a sort of American Idiot meets The 25th Annual Spelling Bee purgatory, and under the direction of The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), must decide which of them can return to his or her mortal life.

Leading the pack out of the gate is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), the group’s bratty, bossy ringleader who will say and do just about anything to secure her slot, including throwing her bestie, the apologetic Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), under the bus. The other living dead include the emotionally volatile and soap opera-gorgeous Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper), the formally handicapped but now virile Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), the effeminate dark horse Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), and Jane Doe (Emily Rohm), an unidentified student who perished in the accident and hopes to claim her life and identity back.

Gus Halper and the cast of 'Ride the Cyclone.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Gus Halper and the cast of ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

In a somewhat formulaic structure, the kids each have an opportunity to make their cases, but Karnak continues to switch up the rules up until the very last chords are played. What makes Ride the Cyclone so wildly entertaining is what happens within each of those moments. Highlights include Mischa’s epic auto-tuned hip-hop number that eventually evolves into a Ukrainian folklore dance (with captivating projections designed by Mike Tutaj)—trust me, it makes sense when you see it. Noel pulls off a Chicago­-style number in a pageboy wig, while Ricky rocks out his alter ego as an 80s space age bachelor man.

Constance is given the 11 o’clock number, which lights up the theatre with a pop ballad that leaves her on a sugar cloud, spouting lyrics like “I could puke a rainbow.” In the end, one teen enters the light, and with deep reverence we’re treated to a montage of a life not yet fully lived.

Ride the Cyclone (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Ride the Cyclone (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Rachel Rockwell, who’s made a name for herself in the Chicago theater scene with a list of critically acclaimed productions including Brigadoon (Goodman Theatre) and Les Misérables (Drury Lane), will now hopefully be on the radar of commercial producers. Her work here is thoughtful and nuanced as she is somehow able to unpack a treasure chest of quirkiness delivered by the authors.

Buckle in. Who knows where Ride the Cyclone may land next.

Ride the Cyclone
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortelle Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through December 29.

‘Til Death Do Us Part: ‘This Day Forward’ at Vineyard Theatre

November 21st, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

"This Day Forward" (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

“This Day Forward” (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Nicky Silver (Pterodactyls, The Lyons), comic dramatist of family angst, is at it again with Vineyard Theatre’s This Day Forward, a schizophrenic dramedy that has an idea about the vagaries of love—romantic, marital, familial, straight and gay—and doesn’t know what to do with it. Its first act, set in a fancy hotel room and dealing with a newlyweds’ catastrophe, could almost be a fourth act in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite; Act Two, however, taking place nearly half a century later, could be any play set in an apartment and dealing with an all-too-common family crisis.

Act One, introduced in a prologue by well-to-do, Jewish, New Yorker Martin Resnick (Michael Crane), takes place in 1958 in a room at New York’s St. Regis Hotel, to which he and his bride, Irene (Holley Fain), have repaired. Martin’s still in his tux, Irene in her white bridal gown (Kaye Voyce did the fine costumes), and he’s eager to make whoopee with what he assumes is his virginal spouse. The mildly ditzy Irene isn’t interested, though; instead, she confesses to the startled groom that she not only doesn’t love him but that the big lug she does love, an Albanian, Greek Orthodox grease jockey named Emil (Joe Tippett), is on his way so the couple can run off to Acapulco, the newlyweds’ honeymoon destination.

This absurd situation leads to farcically strained situations as Martin, who insists on his love and believes he can make Irene love him back, fights desperately to save his marriage in the face of Irene’s loutish but friendly lover, who arrives decked out in his sweaty garage gear. Things grow more bizarre with the involvement of Melka (June Gable), an old, heavily accented, Polish chambermaid, and her pilfering son, the uniformed room-service waiter, Donald (Andrew Burnap), who advise Irene on which man to choose. The already uneven tone shifts radically from shaky farce to dark despair.

Silver’s theme of love’s idiosyncrasies, which fly in the face of reason, continues in Act Two, set in 2004, and located in the upscale loft of successful stage director Noah Resnick, Martin and Irene’s gay son. The same actors from act one appear but—except for a fantasy sequence involving the young Irene and Emil—in different roles; Michael Crane thus plays Martin’s son.

We learn that, during the intervening years Irene and the recently deceased Martin remained entwined in a love/hate marriage/war. We’re now in a situation where Noah and his actor boyfriend Leo (Burnap) quarrel over Noah’s plans to move to LA to direct TV shows. Silver then shifts to an unnecessary flashback scene showing Noah’s first date with Leo.

Francesca Faridany and Michael Crane in "This Day Forward." (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Francesca Faridany and Michael Crane in “This Day Forward.” (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Back in the future of 2004, the plot is complicated by a dispute between Noah and his sister, Sheila (Francesca Faridany), over who should assume responsibility for the dementia-afflicted Irene. Sheila’s been taking care of her but Irene’s behavior has gotten out of hand.

The disheveled Irene herself (now played by June Gable, much shorter than the actress sharing the role), who’s been picked up by the police after running off in her pajamas to JFK, enters, garnering laughs by her profanity and eccentric remarks. Finally, this discombobulated work ends with a sentimental tableau that explains what happened that fateful night so long ago.

Veteran June Gable’s Melka is too caricaturish but her Irene, which has nothing in common with how her younger self is portrayed, offers fine comic pathos; she gets a big laugh when she tells Noah she made him gay to get back at his father. Crane and Fain give their all in the first act, but neither is right for their cartoonish Jewish couple (which may draw your attention to the second act’s lines about casting); Crane, though, whose Noah could very well be Martin, is much truer as the former. Faridany’s Sheila is too continually overwrought, while Burnap and, especially, Tippett, are excellent.

The play (Act One, at any rate) reads funnier than it plays under Mark Brokaw’s direction, which inspires only scattered and mild laughter. There is, though, a memorable moment of physical humor when the angry Martin leaps off the bed to be stopped in midair by Donald’s outstretched hand. The best thing in the show, in fact, are its visuals, particularly Allen Moyer’s substantial sets, carefully lit by David Lander. But in this case, the scenery doesn’t equal substance.

This Day Forward
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through December 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).

 

 

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.

 

 

 

To Be or Not to Be: ‘The Real Actors of NYC’

October 16th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

klea-blackhurst-lorinda-lisitza

The Real Actors of NYC is proof that lavish costumes, gigantic sets, lush orchestras, and full-scale dance numbers are not a prerequisite for a great musical. Quite the opposite rings true for Karlan Judd’s (book, music and lyrics) shrewd and observant show.

Jake (Noah Zachary), Jen (Jennifer Jean Anderson), Nick (Nicholas Barnes) are all aspiring musical theater performers who will literally stop at nothing to make it on Broadway. They are joined by the incredibly narcissistic Stewart (RJ Vaillancourt). The quartet is inseparable and share their woes and worries at a local diner. Mumz (Klea Blackhurst) works double duty as their server and agent. She also has history with Marge (Lorinda Lisitza), a conniving Broadway producer who is backing a new musical that has the Broadway world buzzing: “Millennials Are Everything.”

The title is ridiculously silly, but it’s that type of campy humor generously sprinkled throughout the piece that makes the otherwise nerve-wracking entertainment industry seem tolerable. Years ago, Mumz starred as a performer—or at least she tells herself and her young clients that she did. In reality, she was an aspiring actor whose star never rose. After auditioning for Marge, then a young casting director, Mumz is certain that she has landed the part until she learns that her role was given to Marge’s friend. Now she’s in for blood!

Danny (Jacob McKenna) rounds out this cast in a narrator/cameo role and offers some snappy one-liners. At first glance, McKenna could pass for comedian Zach Galifianakis, but he imprints his own brand of humor, which is a fun treat to watch. Even more amusing is his program biography, which states that after this show he’ll be “embarking on the South East Asian tour of Miss Saigon playing the helicopter.”

Judd’s characters are caricatures of actual New York performers, but only slightly. With inside jokes, he makes them completely relatable and recognizable to anyone who has waited outside of an audition room. Through the aspiring, optimistic and hopeful (Jake), the neurotic and anxious Broadway-bound baby (Jen), the typecast “heavy set” guy (Nick), and God’s gift to the stage (Stewart), Judd perfectly captures the cutthroat world of theater.

Klea Blackhurst & Lorinda Lisitza in 'The Real Actors of NYC.' (Photo: Jessica Bal via The Broadway Blog.)

Klea Blackhurst & Lorinda Lisitza in ‘The Real Actors of NYC.’ (Photo: Jessica Bal via The Broadway Blog.)

What makes his piece so refreshing is that Judd’s humor is sharp and witty without being cynical. He obviously knows show business and the headaches that it brings, but he frames the piece more as a charming love letter rather than making it a vehicle for snark and attack. He also tips his hat to another homage to Broadway, television’s Smash. Audiences may have to do a double take upon Marge’s first entrance to be sure they aren’t seeing Angelica Huston’s character, Eileen Rand.

Judd’s score will likely not be preserved in the canon of musical theater, but it serves the show appropriately and, for the most part, the cast navigates it well. There are occasional moments involving tight harmonies that could use improvement but, under music director Luke McGinnis, it’s likely that they will find their groove during the run. There were also a few mishaps with lines during a recent preview performance, but they should also be cured as the show continues.

The theater shares a set with Perfect Crime and James Morgan and Alberto Ruiz have assembled a sparse but comfortable set for a show that is primarily character driven.

The Real Actors of NYC will resonate with industry folks, but it’s not such an insider piece that non-entertainment folks can’t enjoy it as well. At $60-plus per ticket, it might be a bit steep, but it’s a rather safe assumption that online discounts and promotions will make it more appealing for ticket buyers.

The Real Actors of NYC
Anne L. Bernstein Theater
210 W 50th St, New York City

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

War President: ‘The Trial of an American President: What If?’

September 29th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Tony Carlin in 'The Trial of an American President: What If?' (Photo: Ken Nahoum via The Broadway Blog.)

Tony Carlin in ‘The Trial of an American President: What If?’ (Photo: Ken Nahoum via The Broadway Blog.)

He never uses the words “the fog of war,” now so memorably attached to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s handling of Vietnam; still, the same idea is behind much of former President George W. Bush’s defense of what happened after his 2003 invasion of Iraq. At least, that’s what he says in The Trial of an American President: What If? by Dick Tarlow (with Bill Smith), now at the Lion.

Early on, the Narrator (Mahira Kakkar), speaking on behalf of the U.N.’s International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague, asks (original punctuation retained):

WHAT IF the world spoke up, roared their anger, that President George W. Bush had to finally be held responsible for his decision in 2003 to attack Iraq? WHAT IF, the pressure grew so strong from so many countries, so many leaders, that the United Nations could not turn a deaf ear any longer. WHAT IF, the United National Security Council asked the International Criminal Court to bring President Bush to trial?

Then comes an even bigger question: “what if” Bush, legally entitled to decline, not only agreed to stand trial, with the threat of punishment if found to be a war criminal, but to do so without benefit of legal counsel, choosing instead to defend himself?

(l to r) Mahira Kakkar, Michael Rogers, and Tony Carlin. (Photo: Ken Nahoum via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Mahira Kakkar, Michael Rogers, and Tony Carlin. (Photo: Ken Nahoum via The Broadway Blog.)

Thus commences this fantasy docudrama: “fantasy,” as the subtitle suggests, because the premise is imaginary, and “docudrama” because its fact-based information is offered in the fashion of a documentary courtroom drama, albeit one conducted in a reductionist theatrical manner.

For the many who believe that Bush, self-described as a “war president,” not only began an unjustified war in the wake of 9/11 but incited problems that have become exponentially worse with the rise of ISIS, among other cancers, seeing him as an ICC dartboard target will likely be a mild cathartic, no matter how rigged against him the playwriting may be.

Sitting in a leather chair on Ann Beyersdorfer’s spare set, and rising only occasionally, Bush (Tony Carlin) listens as a Prosecutor (Michael Rogers), notepad in hand and dressed in a blue judicial robe, drills the ex-president over three days. All the familiar names are invoked—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Kerry, Bin-Laden, Blair, and others—as the accusations fly regarding the overthrow of Saddam, weapons of mass destruction, Fallujah, Blackwater, torture/waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, indiscriminate killing of civilians, and so on. Meanwhile, nine spectators in the front rows, having been given ballots, sit in judgment.

Extensive video and still projections (produced and edited by Philip Coccioletti and Sugarcamp Productions; designed by Kevan Loney), including printed information and talking-head commentary from victims (played by actors), amplify and support the arguments (mainly the prosecution’s). If you weren’t paying attention back then, consider this play a valuable history lesson. If you were, you won’t hear anything you didn’t already know.

(l to r) Michael Rogers, Tony Carlin. (Photo: Ken Nahoum via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Michael Rogers, Tony Carlin. (Photo: Ken Nahoum via The Broadway Blog.)

Through it all, Bush cites his faith in God and the Bible, his noble intentions on behalf of democracy, his denial of conspiratorial theories, and his excusing the U.S. military’s questionable and excessive responses as innocent mistakes and/or the nature of war. Carlin does his best to make the man sympathetic; the very fact that Bush has put his neck on the line by appearing signals his feelings of righteousness, even, perhaps, implying a sense of martyrdom.

Stephen Eich’s direction sustains the give and take between the Prosecutor and Bush. Carlin, speaking with a Texas twang in a subdued tone, makes a reasonably believable Bush, although he should modify the pecking head movements, while Rogers, in a conventional role with no backstory, uses a vaguely foreign accent, and is suitably probing. Kakkar’s Narrator, a South Asian woman representing the Hague, speaks with crisp authority.

The Trial of an American President ends with the Narrator reading the vote of that performance’s jury. Given the mountain of condemnatory evidence and the lack of anything but a personalized response, I’d be surprised if the verdict weren’t always more or less the same.

The Trial of an American President: What If?
Lion Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 15

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).