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8 Characters in Search of a Play: ‘The Whirlgig’

May 28th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Whirligig.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Whirligig.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

At the opening of The Whirligig, Hamish Linklater’s rambling but often richly listenable new play presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Julie (Grace Van Patten), a 23-year-old drug addict dying from Hep C and stage 5 non-Hodgkin’s, is in a hospital in the Berkshires, where her family lives. Seeking to comfort her are her doleful, divorced parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells), who soon bring her home for hospice care.

The hospital bed and its appurtenances are set on a turntable whose movement reflects the play’s title; one scene after the other slides into place as the episodic plot, a bit confusingly at times, mingles flashbacks from as long ago as 15 years with scenes in present time. By the end of Act One we’ve met all eight of the play’s characters, each miserable for one reason or the other, most with or fighting their own addictions, and each with some connection to the dying Julie.

Michael, a wisecracking drama teacher and director, struggles with the bottle; Kristina, a writer and professor on antidepressants, berates herself for failing her daughter. The other characters are Julie’s childhood friend Trish (Zosia Mamet), who turned Julie on to drugs when they were 17, making an enemy of Kristina; Derrick (Jonny Orsini), Julie’s first drug dealer, later imprisoned for possession with intent to sell; Patrick (Noah Bean), Derrick’s brother and, later, Julie’s doctor, with a guilty secret of his own; Greg (Alex Hurt), a reformed alcoholic who not only married Trish but tends the bar where many of the others gather; and, finally, Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), a local high school teacher who adds little more to the plot than booze-inspired, comic bloviating.

'The Whirligig.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Whirligig.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Much of Act One is occupied with peripheral color—the Red Sox, Russian literature, character exposition, blah, blah—it takes a long time to get an inkling of where the play is going, what the stakes are, or why we should be concerned enough to return for Act Two. Before the act ends, though, Linklater establishes his concern with the issue of pointing fingers, assigning blame, for Julie’s condition, something several guilt-burdened characters seem quite ready to accept.

Gradually, in Act Two, the numerous character interconnections slowly come together to reach a tidy conclusion reminiscent of a Shakespearean romantic comedy. Much as the play may wish the audience to be deeply moved, the artificiality and contrivance of this ending—with the cast lined up too obviously across the stage—stand in the way.

Under Scott Elliott’s direction, the action tends to plod, progressing in tiny increments. However, the dialogue often has a nimble, smartass flavor that, while sometimes registering more as clever stage talk than believable conversation, nevertheless helps sustain interest and spark laughter. There’s also some mildly whimsical if thoroughly implausible business involving Trish and Derrick climbing onto a tree branch to chat while getting stoned, a position they’re forced to remain in for long stretches when other scenes are being performed.

The Whirligig offers considerable meat for its actors to chew on. Noteworthy are Van Patten’s vulnerable yet determined Julie, and Orsini’s appealingly clueless (if inconsistently so) Derrick. Mamet’s Trish is like a slightly slowed-down, smarter version of her Shoshana on Girls. Reliable veterans Butz and DeVries could do with a tad less overdoing.

The Whirligig is given an attractive production, beginning with Derek McLane’s simplified set, with a house’s façade at the back and a hanging bower overhead. Jeff Croiter offers beautiful lighting, there are well-chosen costumes by Clint Ramos, and Duncan Sheik’s original music is nicely attuned to the play’s emotional needs.

Hamish Linklater, best known as an actor, hasn’t struck playwriting gold here but dedicated playgoers may find enough nuggets in its two and a half hours to give The Whirligig a whirl.

The Whirligig
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 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).

 

To Read or Not to Read: ‘Can You Forgive Her?’

May 23rd, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Darren Pettie, Ella Dershowitz and Amber Tamblyn in 'Can You Forgive Her?' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Darren Pettie, Ella Dershowitz and Amber Tamblyn in ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Gina Gionfriddo’s dark comedy, Can You Forgive Her?, now at the Vineyard Theatre after premiering last year at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, takes its title from a 19th-century novel by Anthony Trollope. Directed in both productions by Peter Dubois, this slow-to-get-started piece, despite socially relevant thoughts couched in passably entertaining gambits, is structurally shaky and fraught with character and plot implausibilities; its most provocative feature is its title.

Graham (Darren Pettie), a feckless, heavy-drinking, twice-divorced 40-year-old, stopped working six months ago. That’s when his sad, long-divorced mother, with whom he had a strained relationship, died. A wannabe but unpublished writer, she left him not only her shabby home, valuable because of its proximity to the Jersey shore, but boxes and boxes of manuscripts—literary and autobiographical—which dominate a portion of the set. Graham has read enough to trash it (an opinion no one ever confirms). Yet the ho-hum question persists: to read or not to read.

Can You Forgive Her Vineyard TheatreGraham’s girlfriend, Tanya (Elsa Dershowitz), a single mom inspired by a self-help book she’s always touting, is far more determined to do something, both about her future (she’s a bartender hoping to become an accountant) and his (either renovate the house and rent it or return to his old job). Tanya won’t commit to marriage until he snaps out of his funk and takes positive action.

Set on Halloween, the fairly brief first scene suggests a conventional light romantic comedy with family implications. In scene two, which occupies the rest of this hour and 35-minute play, we move into quirkier territory when we find Graham alone at 1 a.m. with 28-year-old hottie Miranda (TV/film actress Amber Tamblyn in her stage debut), dressed for the holiday as a sexy witch. Looks prove deceiving; she’s actually a self-hating neurotic, a former teacher who nearly got her Ph.D. in poetry (yeah, right); she strongly defends using her sexual allure to survive while rejecting the label of prostitute. It’s just one stretch among many.

Graham, at Tanya’s suggestion, has brought Miranda home after an altercation at Tanya’s bar between Miranda and her date, Sateesh (Eshan Bay), a young Indian immigrant she’s been dating but not sleeping with, who drove her from New York to the local festival. The well-educated but racially narrow-minded Miranda, who calls Sateesh “the Indian,” needs to hide; she’s somehow convinced Sateesh is a potential murderer. The dubious background for all this is recounted in a shaggy-dog exposition.

Meanwhile, we learn of Miranda’s relationship with David (Frank Wood), a sugar daddy she met online, who’s also nearby (which is what got Sateesh riled up). When David, a wealthy, married, plastic surgeon, eventually arrives, comedy blends with farce as the characters grapple with financial and personal issues.

The action basically stops as Gionfriddo moves into discussion mode regarding women’s choices, responsibility, and agency within the construct of the American dream. The essential contrast is between Miranda’s irresponsible decisions (like choosing a “ritzy” private college), which forced her into so much debt she needed to become a rich man’s mistress, and the more practical thinking of the micromanaging Tanya, who overcame bad choices to become debt-free.

We also have to wade through the emotional morass of Miranda and David’s unique relationship—he accepts her abuse because she’s the only one who can make him feel anything—and wonder whether the desperate Miranda will, instead, turn for love to Graham. Finally, we return to the burning question of the damned boxes: throw them out or read what’s in them? As if we still care.

Frank Wood and Amber Tamblyn in 'Can You Forgive Her?' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Frank Wood and Amber Tamblyn in ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Can You Forgive Her? too often bogs down in exposition, has a ludicrous premise for why Miranda opens up to Graham, makes Miranda both insightful and clueless, and, among other things, takes forever for us to care about the stakes, if we ever do.

Allen Moyer’s living room set, nicely lit (including several surreal effects) by Russell H. Champa, suggests that Graham’s mother’s decorating tastes were as poor as her writing. Jessica Pabst’s costumes help characterize the people who wear them; Miranda’s little black outfit is a knockout.

Amber Tamblyn ensures that the flamboyant Miranda catches our eye, with her constant hair tossing and glam poses, while Ella Dershowitz (Alan’s daughter, in case you’re wondering) is believably persistent in making her points. Although his presence is nicely grounded, nothing about Darren Pettie’s Graham suggests a man afraid of dealing with life, but veteran Frank Wood brings an amusing comic edge to David.

Why David comes all the way downstage to deliver some of his lines as if talking to—not through—the fourth wall, while blocking those behind him, is puzzling. When Sateesh does the same thing, we know it’s director Peter Dubois who’s to blame. And, like several other things on view, it’s not easy to forgive.

Can You Forgive Her?
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through June 11 

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).

 

 

 

 

 

Last Chance: ‘The Fantasticks’

April 28th, 2017 Comments off
Madison Claire Parks as The Girl and Andrew Polec as The Boy in 'The Fantasticks.'

Madison Claire Parks as The Girl and Andrew Polec as The Boy in ‘The Fantasticks.’

Try to remember… when The Fantasticks wasn’t playing Off-Broadway. The production opened in 1960 and has been a fixture for nearly 60 years. But catch it while you can. Producers announced that the long running musical will close on June 4, 2017. At the time of its closing the production will have played a total of 21,552 performances in New York City: 17,162 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and 4390 performances at Jerry Orbach Theater 1627 Broadway.

A modern twist on Romeo and JulietThe Fantasticks (music by Harvey Schmidt, book, lyrics, and direction by Tom Jones) is the quintessential story of a boy and girl who fall in love and then quickly grow apart when they realize they want to experience the world.  What follows is a hilarious and heartwarming story appropriate for all ages. The score, which includes the hit songs “Try To Remember”, “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You”, is as timeless as the story itself.

During its original run at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, The Fantasticks logged a record-breaking 17,162 performances. When the original production closed in 2002, news of the closing made the front page of The New York Times. In 2006, the revival opened at The Theater Center, directed by Tom Jones (author and lyricist). Variety calls the revival, “A close re-creation that happily replicates the original’s charms.” The Fantasticks continues to run at The Theater Center, making record-breaking history with each performance.

The play has become a true New York institution. For many people, seeing The Fantasticks when visiting New York is as important as seeing The Statue of Liberty or The Empire State Building. Mayor Michael Bloomberg attended the New Year’s Eve performance of the show before ringing in 2008 in Times Square. In 1992 The Fantasticks won The Tony Award for Excellence and remains the only Off-Broadway show ever to have won a Tony.

The cast of The Fantasticks features Bradley Dean as El Gallo (The Narrator), Emily Behny as Luisa (The Girl), Nathan Goodrich as The Boy (Matt), Dan Sharkey as The Boy’s Father (Hucklebee), Dale Hensley as The Girl’s Father (Bellomy), MacIntyre Dixon as The Old Actor (Henry), Michael Nostrand as The Man Who Dies (Mortimer) and Aaron Wright as The Mute. The production also features Scott Willis, John Thomas Waite, and Samantha Bruce.

The Fantasticks
The Jerry Orbach Theatre in the Snapple Theater Center
210 West 50th Street
Through June 4

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).