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Posts Tagged ‘playwrights horizons’

Two Houses, Both Not Alike in Dignity: ‘The Profane’

April 10th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Given today’s preoccupations with Islam, Zayd Dohrn couldn’t have hit upon a more succulent subject for a domestic dramedy than the one he uses in The Profane, his potentially button-pushing but ultimately unsatisfactory new play at Playwrights Horizons.

Taking his cue from works in which social, ethnic, or religious differences create conflict between the parents of conventionally mismatched lovers—think Romeo and JulietAbie’s Irish Rose, and Meet the Fockers—Dohrn focuses on a narrow demographic, Muslim immigrants. His goal is to show what might happen if a girl from a totally assimilated, liberal Muslim family were to become engaged to a boy from a conservative one.

It would be easy to imagine this situation happening within any religion whose adherents range from ultraliberal to fundamentalist. However, with today’s audiences interested in learning more about their Islamic neighbors, what could be riper for an examination of sectarian religious differences than a play about lovers from opposite sides of the Muslim spectrum?

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sorry to say, Dohrn’s play, which has some excellent scenes, sprightly humor, and lively dialogue, is superficial, formulaic, and burdened by a plot contrivance that will spin heads faster than Linda Blair’s.

In Act One we meet the Almedins at their book-lined, New York City home. Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian) is an internationally known writer, whose novels, about the immigrant experience, are widely read in many colleges. Naja (Heather Raffo), an attractive blond in tight jeans, is a former dancer who once performed at Lincoln Center.

Raif, proud of belonging to the liberal, intellectual elite, is bitter, possibly because he’s suffering from writer’s block. Not only has he abandoned his faith, he despises those who follow its dictates as people who stone their daughters to death or behead people for their beliefs.

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The Almedin daughters, in their early 20s, are Aisa (Francis Benhamou, offbeat and funny), a lesbian and former dancer who tends bar, and Emina (Tala Ashe, pretty and sensitive), a college student. Emina has fallen in love with another student, Sam (Babak Tafti, good-looking and sincere), short for Basam, son of the Osman family; their intended nuptials precipitate the central crisis, apparent the minute Emina brings Sam home and introduces him to Raif, who ignores his proffered handshake.

Everything about the Almedins, including their clothing, drinking, snarky humor, colloquial expressions, and profanity, is pure sit-com American; despite Raif and Naja having immigrated when they were young adults and Raif boasting that he taught himself English, their accents are questionably red, white, and blue.

In Act Two, we meet the Osmans: Peter (Ramsey Faragallah) and Carmen (Lanna Joffey). The meeting between the families is at the Osmans new, White Plains home, a modestly attractive one that Raif, in a cheap joke at odds with what we see, snidely designates as the work of Vito Corleone’s decorator.

Peter Osman, who sells restaurant equipment, is a bearded, bearish man, gregarious to a fault in his attempt to please the Almedins; following Sam’s advice, he strives to avoid even the most innocuous religious references. Carmen, his reserved and cautious wife, dresses like a well-off suburban housewife but wears a hajib. The Osmans speak with (stagey) accents.

The contrast between the jovial, nonjudgmental Peter and the persistently edgy Raif couldn’t be sharper, reversing our expected reactions to who would be the more recalcitrant figure in the delicate dance between devotee and apostate. But Dohrn has so loaded the dice on Peter’s behalf that our discomfort with Raif’s behavior is practically forced upon us.

Peter is so reasonable it’s hard to believe he’s as pious as Raif suspects, while the liberal Raif rudely behaves like the actual fanatic. Despite his opportunities, Dohrn only rarely—as in some talk about arranged versus love marriages—suggests the kind of debate we’d really like to hear.

Worse, he concocts a melodramatically outlandish secret that’s exposed by having Naja notice a strange, hajib-wearing woman (Benhamou, in a distracting bit of doubling) in the house. This leads Raif to commit such an unforgivable act that the play loses whatever credibility it may have accumulated, while any lingering sympathy for the guy vanishes.

There are things to appreciate in The Profane, including Takeshi Kata’s substantial, well-appointed sets; Jessica Pabst’s character-defining costumes; and Matt Frey’s lighting, especially his bookcase effects. Kip Fagan’s direction is briskly paced but, with some performances merely skimming the sitcom surface and others (Faragallah, in particular) being so broad, he doesn’t resolve the uneasy tension between domestic comedy and idea-related drama.

“Disappointing” is an overused word in reviewing but when a play with such a potentially interesting subject comes up short it’s the handiest one to reach for.

The Profane
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NY
Through April 30

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).

 

 

 

 

 

Is That All There Is?: ‘A Life’

November 1st, 2016 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

David Hyde Pierce in 'A Life' at Playwrights Horizons. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

David Hyde Pierce in ‘A Life’ at Playwrights Horizons. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Anne Kauffman’s staging of Adam Bock’s A Life at Playwrights Horizons is far more elaborate than one might expect for such an otherwise slight play. Most noteworthy is Laura Jellinek’s set of a New York apartment that, after the plot’s big surprise, slowly rotates backward so that its high-hat-lit ceiling becomes the back wall of a new locale. (Japan’s kabuki theatre has a similar technique.)

The “life” of the title belongs to Nate Martin, a 54-year-old proofreader—gay, lonely, and depressed—played with naturalistic honesty by the always engaging, perfectly cast David Hyde Pierce. In the gently humorous, half-hour monologue that begins the play, Nate rambles on to us about things he needs to get off his chest, as if we’re an extension of a group therapy session.

Brad Heberlee & David Hyde Pierce in 'A Life.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Brad Heberlee & David Hyde Pierce in ‘A Life.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

He tells of his loss of “faith in everything I’d ever learned” until that faith was reawakened with the discovery of the “science” of astrology; using a chart, he explains it in detail, but also expresses his doubts about its validity. He informs us of his history of broken romantic relationships, his fear of love and his difficulty finding it, the need to be truthful, and his problems with intimacy. In one of the best moments (probably a Kauffman touch) he adds something to his to-do list only after turning page after page in a notebook to find an empty spot.

Nate’s chief support is his gay friend (but not lover), Curtis (nicely played by a comforting Brad Heberlee). He first appears with Nate in Central Park (effected by washing the apartment in green light), where the pair converse while ogling the muscles on the cute guys running by. Nate confesses: “I liked going to the gym. I liked wearing workout clothes. I liked saying hi to the guys at the front desk. I liked looking at Randy…. I just didn’t like the whole ‘working out’ part.”

Brad Heberlee and Lynne McCullough in 'A Life." (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Brad Heberlee and Lynne McCullough in ‘A Life.” (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Back in his apartment, Nate experiences a totally unexpected game-changer I can’t reveal, followed by an unusual scene in which, for a daringly long time, there’s no movement at all as Matt Frey’s beautiful lighting shows time passing, and Mikhail Fikset creates a detailed soundscape of what’s happening in the world outside.

Soon after, the scenery has the first of its big moments, and the focus shifts to the effect of Nate’s life on others (well-played by Marinda Anderson, Nedra McClyde, and Lynne McCollough, each in more than one role). Pierce’s role, meanwhile, now requires of him a tour de force of physical control. From this point on, A Life, for all its satirical and emotional highlights, is anticlimactic. Since there’s still so much of it before the final curtain, the 85-minute play assumes a split personality.

Bock seems to be saying that Nate’s life, so ordinary, is just like any other in its search for love and happiness; regardless of its ups and downs, there’s no controlling what fate has in store, so if you’ve got things to do, you’d better do them; if there are things to change, change them. Otherwise, you’ll be asking, along with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”

A Life
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through November 27

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).

 

An Eggplant by Any Other Name: ‘Aubergine’

September 13th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Sue Jean Kim, Stephen Park & Joseph Steven Yang in 'Aubergine.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sue Jean Kim, Stephen Park & Joseph Steven Yang in ‘Aubergine.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

As with many tasty meals, what goes into a worthy play is often rather commonplace, depending for its effect on how the playwright seasons and prepares the familiar ingredients. In the monologue that opens Julia Cho’s flavorsome Aubergine—first seen at the Berkeley Rep and now onstage at Playwrights Horizons—Diane (Jessica Love), a fashionable young woman, tells us of her experience as an obsessive “foodie,” willing to go anywhere in search of exceptional delicacies. However, the dish she most fondly recalls is one her dad used to make, hot pastrami on Italian bread pan-fried in butter, which she describes with mouth-watering images. This signals Cho’s concern with the connection between food and memory, and even life and death.

Similarly, there’s nothing very unusual about what’s on the plate in Cho’s occasionally moving, sometimes funny dramedy: a young chef, Ray (Tim Kang), learns that his long-widowed father (Stephen Park) is dying of cirrhosis. Never able to satisfy his domineering father, who opposed his choice of profession and didn’t appreciate his abilities, he struggles with the conflict he feels between love and anger as his father lies comatose in the dining room turned hospice.

Stephen Park & Tim Kang in 'Aubergine.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Stephen Park & Tim Kang in ‘Aubergine.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Helping Ray to work out his issues are his girlfriend Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim), a grounded, no-nonsense beauty, still upset with Ray after their recent breakup; his father’s nurse, Lucien (Michael Potts), a deeply sensitive, philosophically wise man of indeterminate foreign origin who once lived in a refugee camp; and Ray’s uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), who, despite knowing no English, flies in from abroad to be with his dying brother.

The sauce that gives the touching, but only sporadically dramatic play its piquancy is that the central characters are Korean and, like the dramatist, Korean-American. Ray knows only a few words of Korean but Cornelia is fluent. Ray needs her to interpret, first when he has to inform the uncle, in Korea, by phone of the father’s illness, and then when the uncle, unexpectedly, turns up at Ray’s home. Large swaths are in Korean, either with Cornelia interpreting (adding her own spin when appropriate) or with subtitles. This isn’t a distraction, but rather serves as a savory relish, particularly when the uncle uses gestures to communicate.

Unfortunately, there’s not quite enough meat on Aubergine’s bones to fill out its over two hours’ traffic on the stage; toward the end, the conclusion seems ever more elusive. It proceeds from brief episode to brief episode but rarely comes to a boil, the most intense moment coming just before intermission as Ray repels the insistence of his uncle to prepare a special soup for the father, for which he’s actually brought a turtle. The lack of incident may lead some to wonder whatever happened to Diane, the pastrami lady. Whether or not you swallow the coincidence that brings her back for the final scene, when she bites into her food your memory of a famous movie moment may trigger an “I’ll have what she’s having” response.

Sue Jean Kim & Jessica Love in 'Aubergine.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sue Jean Kim & Jessica Love in ‘Aubergine.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Aubergine gets a terrific production at the directorial hands of Kate Whoriskey, who moves it along with great efficiency on a set by Derek McLane that embraces the principal scenes within a circular wall that splits into two parts, each of which slides upstage to show what’s inside; when the circle closes, its wall backs the downstage scenes. McLane’s scenery and Jennifer Moeller’s costumes look perfect under Peter Kaczorowski’s elegant lighting.

Kang nails Ray’s tight-as-a-spring temperament, captured in body language that often prevents him from looking others straight on, while Kim gives Cornelia a laser-like intelligence modified by just the right degree of warmth. Yang makes the kindly uncle humorously sincere; Park, required to look out of it most of the time, is perfectly fine in his spoken scenes, especially when he berates Ray for buying an expensive knife; Potts brings gentle compassion and honesty to the borderline cliché role of Lucien; and Love is lovely as Diane.

Aubergine is the uncommon word for a common vegetable, eggplant. In her play, Julia Cho also has made something uncommon out of the common.

Aubergine
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Marjorie Prime’ at Playwrights Horizons

December 21st, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

(l to r) Lisa Emery, Noah Bean, and Lois Smith in 'Marjorie Prime.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Lisa Emery, Noah Bean, and Lois Smith in ‘Marjorie Prime.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Here’s one of many questions raised by Marjorie Prime—Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer finalist play—about artificial intelligence. Assume it’s the year 2062, and technology has advanced so far that exact physical replicas of beloved dead folks can be created, allowing them to sooth the grieving hearts of those left behind. Moreover, while they can be brought back at any age one chooses, those who’ve obtained them need to provide all the memories required in order to maintain purposeful communication. Do you think you could tell such a creature everything it would need to know in order to convincingly replicate the person it represents? And could that being ever reciprocate with real feelings? But that’s one of many other questions.

In Marjorie Prime, Harrison confronts the emotional and psychological ramifications of what such intimate relationships between flesh and blood humans and technological humans might entail. The play introduces us to octogenarian Marjorie (played by octogenarian Lois Smith), born in 1977, a role she created for the play’s 2014 premiere at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Marjorie, suffering from dementia but more or less still in command of her faculties, engages in pleasantries with a handsome, polite, but ever-so-slightly odd, 30-year-old man who, we discover, is the “prime” (a clone-like robot) of her late husband, Walter (Noah Bean). He’s been provided for her comfort by her tense, middle-aged daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and Tess’s more grounded husband Jon (Stephen Root).

Lisa Emery and Stephen Root in 'Marjorie Prime.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Lisa Emery and Stephen Root in ‘Marjorie Prime.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Walter shares memories, some of them uncertain, designed to comfort Marjorie in her declining years and keep her brain exercised; he also absorbs the memories that Marjorie feeds him so he can become ever more companionable. Tess has doubts about his usefulness; Jon believes his presence has great value, at least at first. Eventually, a prime of Marjorie herself, as she was before she died, but without her ailments, will serve Tess’s needs, and, when Tess is gone, Jon will have a prime of her. What happens to the primes themselves forms the most interesting scene in the play.

Futurism is barely noticeable in the show’s subtle look. The 80-minute production unfolds in a mint green and white, sparsely decorated, antiseptic open plan apartment (facility?), designed by Laura Jellinek. A large kitchen is upstage, a lone Lazy-Boy recliner (later replaced by a more stylish chair) is downstage, and there’s a sitting area. Jessica Pabst’s costumes look like what people wear today. Daniel Kluger’s chilly sound design and Ben Stanton’s evocative lighting create a sinister mood, especially during transitions, when furnishings are shifted almost invisibly. (For some reason, though, headphone-wearing stagehands do the job toward the end, damaging the illusion.)

Since there’s a general coolness to director Anne Kaufmann’s production, and the backstories of the characters aren’t particularly engrossing, the difference between the humans and the primes might have worked better if the characters were more down-to-earth or unusual than the superficial ones in the play. The musically voiced Smith offers in Marjorie a precise picture of an intelligent woman watching herself descend into physical and mental frailty. When she reappears as a prime, her appearance is better and spirit livelier, but there’s the same subtle artificiality about her as we saw in Walter as she seeks the knowledge required to fulfill her mission. Bean, who resembles a young David Bowie, makes a perfect human simulacrum, and Root and Emery do what they can with characters who seem more like attitudes than people.

Harrison wisely remains opaque about the androids’ technical details, forcing you to fill in the dots. His premise is wide open for speculation and debate; if you go with someone you’ll surely be talking about it afterward, regardless of how much the play itself did or didn’t dramatically satisfy you.

Marjorie Prime
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through January 24

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).