Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blog Discount offer: Doris to Darlene

I will be seeing Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine, a new work written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Les Waters (Eurydice), tonight at Playwrights Horizons and reviewing it shortly thereafter. In the meantime, the good folks over at PH would like to extend a discount offer to the readers of this blog. Here's everything you need to know if you are interested in ordering tickets:

Special Discount offer for Bloggers Posts
$35 (REG. $65) for performances November 16 – 26
$45 (REG. $65) for performances November 27 – December 23.
Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

How to order (purchase by December 11 and mention code ‘DDBL’ to receive discount):

Online: Ticket Central and use code DDBL
Phone: Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily) and mention code DDBL.
In person: Ticket Central, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

As always, students holding a valid school ID can purchase rush tickets at the low, low price of $15 beginning one hour prior to curtain, subject to availability. There is a limit of one ticket per ID, so if you want to attempt rushing the show with a friend or two, make sure that you all go to the box office together.

The plot sounds pretty interesting, especially if, like me, you're as passionate about opera as you are about theatre. From the website:

"In the candy-colored 1960s, a biracial schoolgirl named Doris is molded into pop star Darlene by a whiz-kid record producer who culls a top-ten hit out of Richard Wagner’s Liebestod. Rewind to the candy-colored 1860s, where Wagner is writing the melody that will become Darlene’s hit song. Fast-forward to the not-so-candy-colored present, where a teenager obsesses over Darlene’s music — and his music teacher. Three dissonant decades merge into an unlikely harmony in this time-jumping pop fairy tale about the dreams and disasters behind one transcendent song."

I'll be back soon with my review.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Die Mommie Die! - November 1, 2007

Normally I am no fan of movies being turned into stage productions. The spark of originality in a live show is part of the excitement of live theater. The incestuous back and forth that has gone on from screen to stage and vice versa is a bit tiresome. However, when I saw that Charles Busch was bringing Die Mommie Die to the stage there was no way I could stay away.

Busch is nothing if not innovative and God knows, witty - not to mention a knockout in a red wig. So my hopes were high and I'm happy to say I was not disappointed.

From beginning to end this show has a clear vision of what it is and where it's going and that in itself is a more than many shows Off-Broadway, or on, can provide lately.

The original music by Lewis Flinn is a perfect homage to films and singers of the 1950s-60s era. The collective sigh that went through the audience was clear indication that I was not the only one blown away by the absolutely stunning set design by Michael Anania. Jessica Jahn's costumes are sheer knock-0uts one and all, and Mr. Busch's costumes by Michael Bottari & Ronald Case are so stunning and vintage film perfect (the black and white mourning dress is just insanely cool) they look like they just came out of a time machine from Elizabeth Taylor's and Lucille Ball's closets. If I could get Katherine Carr to design a wig for me I'd wear it every day.
photo credits: Carol Rosegg

This sort of tongue in cheek comedy is not easy to pull off - there is a risk with over the top comedy to go a little too far over the top and be lost. But the cast of Die Mommie Die hits just the right level of camp and fun and never pushes too far beyond - and let's face it, when a suppository becomes an instrument of murder it would be easy to push too far. No pun intended.

Given what a wonderfully fun and polished evening of theater this is, it would be difficult to point to any one person as the standout - except of course that Charles Busch is on stage. This is a performer who is so present at every moment and so in touch with his audience at all times that it is difficult to watch anyone else, yet he is also very clearly a part of an ensemble and never steals focus from any fellow actor. Watching a performer who is so warm and giving, and let's face it honey, looks FAN-tastic in a short skirt is a rare treat.

The rest of the cast deserves mention as well and I would be remiss not to point out that once again Kristine Nielsen (the Nixon-loving maid, Bootsie) kicks ass in every way - as she always does. Chris Hoch (Tony Parker) makes a delightful gigolo. Newcomer to New York, Ashley Morris (Edith Sussman) has great comic timing. Van Hansis (Lance) is "NOT CRAZY" but plays it well, and Bob Ari (Sol Sussman) turns from doting daddy to psycho husband on a dime.

Director Carl Andress has done a wonderful job with Mr. Busch's script and the action moves smoothly and surely towards its 'tragic' conclusion. This production runs only through February so make sure you get tickets, otherwise you will have to be content with the movie version. I suggest you see both.

Die Mommie Die
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Turn of the Screw - October 31, 2007

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has always been an intriguing source material for films and plays. The Twenty Feet Productions presentation of Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation is a little different than the others in that it is performed by only two people, Erin Cunningham, as the governess, and Tim Scott as all the other characters.

Using only two actors for this play absolutely works, especially when Cunningham's 'is she nutty or is she not' governess bounces off Scott's multiple characters from housekeeper to seductive employer. The question however is are these other characters figments of the governess's own mind or are they real. Using only two actors makes it very easy to believe the voices are all in her head. This is further enhanced by the fact that the entire performance is lit only with two hand-held candles. Each performer carries their candle and for the most part their faces are the only things illuminated in the slightly cavernous and fully black Bleecker Street Theater. While extremely effective I must admit that the lighting eventually became a bit uncomfortable, but because the storytellers on stage were so engaging I think this can easily be excused. Sound effects are also provided solely by the actors and Scott is to be commended for not overdoing his ghostly moaning but hitting the appropriate mark that makes us wonder, is it in fact just the house settling or is it the tortured spirits of Bly House that we hear?

The production values of the piece are low budget yet never cheap. The set consists of one table and one chair. Simplicity is the key to a good ghost story. Though the sound effects during the show are provided by the actors, pre-show there is a chill inducing prerecorded harpsichord playing and from time to time the electricity 'goes out' resulting in a slow winding down of the record which then swings back on as though nothing had happened. This seems a good-natured wink and nod to the audience that yes, we're going to try to scare you here so come along for the ride.

The Turn of the Screw is a difficult piece in that it is always ambiguous - there is no clear and precise wrap-up. As with all good ghost stories we are left wondering and must make our own decisions as to what really happened in the seven day span of the story. Twenty Feet Productions embraces that ambiguity and does not try to answer our questions but rather lets us decide for ourselves. This was a perfect Halloween season show, and perfect for anyone who enjoys a good ghost story.

The Turn of the Screw
Bleecker Street Theatre
45 Bleecker Street (just East of Lafayette Street)
Through November 3
Running Time:
75 minutes (no intermission - NO late seating)
Note: Appropriate 14+
Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.


Friday, October 5, 2007

When the Messenger is Hot - October 4, 2007

When the Messenger is Hot was developed in Chicago and is presented at 59E59 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It is a perfect choice to transfer to New York as the protagonist or rather protagonists, there are three 'versions' of Josie's character, (played simultaneously by Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz and Amy Warren) was born in New York and moves to Chicago where she eventually 'develops'. All three actresses have a turn at being the 'present' Josie, and all are wonderful, but my special favorite was Amy Warren who seems to truly capture Josie's awareness of her self-esteem issues while fighting against them.

photo credit: Jay Geneske

The three in one presentation of Josie is clever and often funny, ringing true to the inner voices we hear in our heads. That's something we can all identify with, as are the other points addressed in this funny, moving and sometimes tear-jerking play adapted by playwright Laura Eason from the book by Elizabeth Crane. The use of the 'three in one' is also a subtle nod to Josie's loss of faith in a god who would take her mother from her, "when she needed her mother most."

Josie's Mom (Molly Regan) is 'not like other mothers'. She is an opera singer, Regan pulls off all aspects of her character flawlessly and her voice is beautiful and a fabulous counterpoint to her hilarious cursing. Josie's explains that her only childhood rebellion was not to use profanity as it was the only thing she could do to distinguish herself from her parents.

It gives nothing away to say that Josie's mother dies so I will address here a beautiful piece of directing by Jessica Thebus. The funeral for Mom is handled in such a simple way that I found tears running down my cheeks. Sometimes the most moving moments are the simplest ones.

To discuss the plot here would detract from the beauty of watching it unfold so I will say nothing more about the story. I will say go see it. Oh, and if you like Piña Coladas, and getting caught in the rain... you'll love it. Really.

Despite the surface charm and wit there are serious human issues addressed here, and Ms. Eason is to be commended for her subtle touch with delicate matters and a wonderfully natural ear for dialogue.

When the Messenger is Hot
59E59 Theaters (B)
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 1 hour 15 (no intermission)

October 3 - October 28, 2007

Monday, October 1, 2007

Jump - September 30, 2007

I went to Jump knowing only that there would be a display of martial arts. There was. But there was also much, much more.

The show begins before the lights go down. An 'old man' played with absolute tongue in cheek charm by Woon-Yong Lee infiltrates the audience, asks for piggy back rides (and gets them!) and generally disrupts entire rows of people who are already seated. It's the old Bugs Bunny 'scuse me, pardon me' routine and it works. The combination of techno-video game pre-set music and the old man's shenanigans prepare the audience for the show to come.

Jump is set in a traditional Korean home consisting of an extended family - grandfather, father, mother, the drunken uncle, the daughter and her apparently shy suitor. But this family is not typical in any way. Each member is a skilled martial arts expert and every member of this cast exudes so much charm and humor that when they pull members of the audience onstage to assist in their family 'training' people were hoping to be called upon.

There is little dialogue in Jump, but little is required. The comedy is universal, familial relationships that everyone will recognize, shy young lovers getting to know each other and then of course there are the burglars. Yes, this family of kick-ass fighters has their home broken into by an Abbott and Costello like duo who bring the silliness to a new level and their arrival allows the family to stop 'training' and really let the fireworks begin.

I would love to point out specific members of the cast, but as Jump is performed in rotation by two distinct casts (except for the Old Man) I cannot be sure who was playing the parts the night I saw it. Given the level of excellence in the performances I saw I can't imagine that the other cast is any less brilliant. The jumps and leaps are performed with breath-taking grace, in fact there were times it seemed the people onstage would actually take flight. The humor is so inclusive, so warm and heartfelt that you will not be able to resist an ear-to-ear smile.

Jump is a wonderful blend of martial arts movie, silent movie and cartoon. There's even a little Superman thrown in. Keep an eye on the Clark Kent-like suitor. I guarantee you will love his alter-ego.

Go see Jump. You WILL believe a man can fly.

And you'll laugh - a lot.

Now in Previews
Opens October 7
Union Square Theatre
100 East 17th Street

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mauritius - September 27, 2007

If you are not a stamp collector then the title of the Manhattan Theatre Company's current Broadway gem might be a mystery to you, it was to me. Do not let that scare you off. This is a show to see.

A play about two sisters fighting over an inherited stamp collection (Mauritius [pronounced More-ish-ous] is the name of the prize stamps of the collection) might not seem fodder for hilarity, but in the skillful hands of Broadway first-timer, Theresa Rebeck this story sings. Her writing is lean and witty and Broadway would do well to encourage more writers of her talent. The last Broadway show that made me laugh this much was The Lieutenant of Innishmore and while the subject matter and style of the two shows is vastly different, the level of quality and sheer sense of style are comparable.

Paul Gallo's lighting design is unobtrusive and aids in the near noirish feel of John Lee Beatty sets. The perfect backdrop for this story of familial discord and back-room, high stakes commerce. Smoothly shifting from vaguely rundown philatelists' shop to seedy bar, to lower middle class home each set piece is subtle and fittingly dreary. Just one step below what might have once been 'nice', just as the characters are. Each of them is teetering on the edge of their own precipe, and each of them sees the Mauritius stamps as salvation.

But while the set, lights, sound and costumes are all wonderful, the beauty of this show lies in the exceptional comic timing of a cast that clicks on every level and hits every note. Every laugh hits and the moments of drama are deep enough to make you wonder if there could possibly be another laugh in the offing. There is. And another, and another. Though many shows can make an audience smile silently, there are few things in the theater better than a show that actually makes you laugh aloud like Mauritius.

Alison Pill (Jackie) and Katie Finneran (Mary) are the sisters. Their sibling chemistry is spot on and their exchanges are a blend of heartache and hilarious that rings true to anyone who has every had a family fight. Alison Pill's work gets stronger and stronger in every show I've seen her in and here she gets to show us that she can move from nervous breakdown to cool sarcasm in a single beat. Katie Finneran, who was perfect as the put-upon older sister in the short-lived, but excellent, television series Wonderfalls gets an opportunity to take that character, switch her up and turn her on her ear. If I had to choose one actor from this piece with the sharpest comic timing, (and that would be a VERY difficult choice) it would have to be her. Bobby Canavale is (Dennis) as the would be facilitator of the sale of the Mauritius stamps has an 'aw shucks' charm combined with a sense of shady street smarts and a hint of hidden depth. When he tells the distraught Jackie that it is "the errors that make stamps valuable" and later explains that he feels the same holds true for people, you know that there is more to him than meets the eye. Dylan Baker (Philip) the philatel expert who has seen too many worthless stamp collections to care any more is the epitome of nerdish know it all; but below that shell there is clearly a man who has endured heartbreak. And F. Murray Abraham (Sterling) as the wealthy stamp collector and "murky" businessman who lusts for the Mauritius stamps is simply priceless. His passion for his collectible of choice is at once hilarious and compelling and this performance proves that his comedic skills are more than equal to his dramatic chops. The guy's funny. 'Nuff said. You don't want to miss this performance.

Doug Hughes does a fine job directing an amazing cast through a fabulous play. There are layers upon layers here and while we are left with some mysteries, this show satisfies on all levels.

Mauritius is smart, tight, funny and engaging. The 'post office' Mauritius stamp may be a stamp collector's unachievable Holy Grail, but Mauritius, the play, delivers.

Manhattan Theatre Club at
The Biltmore Theatre
261 West 47th Street
running time: 2 hours (includes one 15 minute intermission)

In Previews
Opens September 13, 2007 - November 25, 2007
photo credit: Joan Marcus

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Double Vision

Double Vision is Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich's latest contribution to the New York Fringe Festival. Her style is lyric but modern and her voice is stronger here than in last year's Absolute Flight. It's exciting to watch a playwright grow and go deeper into the human condition.

Boiled down to the basics, Double Vision explores the most intimate aspect of the human condition: love - and our fear of our emotions. We meet six very different characters all of whom are experiencing the many fears we all face when confronted with love: fear of vulnerability, fear of commitment, fear of failure, fear of making the same mistakes that led to past heartbreaks, and the fear of losing ones own identity to another. The charm here is that it is done with humor. While Double Vision never quite crosses the line to farce, there is a definite tip of the hat to bedroom farce - with its unlikely pairings and caught-in-the-act upsets. While the cast does not land every line, the humor is evident in the writing and Ms. Blumenthal-Ehrlich should be commended for a light touch on a touchy subject.

The couple whose issues are the main focus of the piece are Dave (Shane Jacobsen) and Mary (Rebecca Henderson). Mary has to decide whether to take a job across the country. She wants Dave's input but dreads it - her fear of his opinion, and his fear of giving it and the responsibility of choosing for her, lead them both to emotional deteriorations far in excess of the simple decision to take the job and move or not. Their mutual fear of admitting their feelings for each other is shown with a sweetly clever device involving an armchair, each referring to the other indirectly as they comment on how much they love a particular chair in Dave's apartment. This masking of their vulnerabilities is later stripped away, quite literally, (Jacobsen spends a large portion of the last act nude) as Dave's mental state of confusion and stress over his relationship with Mary causes him hallucinations and a revelation that we are all just ''bone, skin and hair''.

Rebecca Henderson hits just the right notes as Mary, the high-powered, corporate money-maker who is so frightened of her love for Dave that she can't even decide what shoes are appropriate. Her delivery is in turns sad and funny. Jacobsen's Dave takes a little while to gear up but is very convincing as a man who has lost too many "relationship years" (the years in a relationship combined with the proportionate number of years it takes to recover) and is so afraid of letting Mary in that he is perpetually getting into traffic accidents involving a mysterious blonde and begins to lose touch with reality.

Another stand-out is Sarah Silk as Michelle, the 21 year old French lover of 50 year old Ben (Christopher McCann). Though she is not long on stage, her final diatribe at Ben is a gem. When she discovers Ben's indiscretion with a neighbor, Celia (Linda Jones) a woman more in love with her car than her live-in boyfriend, and Ben's take that their 'great love' is only great if they are not together, Michelle's "woman-scorned" kicks in and their formerly "unimportant" age difference becomes a barbed weapon hurled with a French accent.

Any Festival series will, by its very nature, have some hits and some misses. While the love-lives of the characters here are fraught with 'misses', Double Vision is definitely a hit.

Double Vision
The Bleecker St. Theatre
45 Bleecker Street
(between Lafayette & Mott St)

Saturday 9/8 @ 2:30pm
Sunday 9/9 @ 9:15pm
Wednesday 9/12 @ 9:30pm
Thursday 9/13 @ 7:00pm
Saturday 9/15 @ 5:00pm
Sunday 9/16 @ 7:30pm

Tickets are $18 and are available at:
by calling 212-691-1555, or at the theater box office.

Photos: Jim Baldassare

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Tom Crean - August 4, 2007

Stories of exploration and outdoorsy adventure have never had much draw for me. Yet I went to see Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer because it had two things going for it that drew me in: 1) I am very partial to solo shows, 2) The Irish Repertory Theatre's track record of good, solid material. I was not disappointed.

Aidan Dooley wrote and performs this charming, exciting, informative, and very funny piece with all the warmth and intimacy that is the legacy of Irish story-tellers.

Tom Crean (1877-1938) made three ill-fated trips to the Antarctic and yet is unknown. Scott, "only two trips" is world-famous. The reason is simple according to Crean - Scott kept a diary. "Diary - you're remembered; no diary - pffft". But happily Tom Crean is mentioned enough in the diaries of Scott and Shackleton (Crean served on Discovery and Terra Nova with Scott and on Endurance with Shackleton) and other source material that Dooley was able to weave together the character of the man and bring him to life on stage.

And Dooley does, truly, bring him to life. He is at once modern and natural without losing the flavor of the boy who, at 15, joined the Royal Navy to run away from his small town to see the world at the turn of the 20th century. (Apparently there was an issue with his father, a cow and a field of 'spuds' - I'll divulge no more). He is human, one of us - yet something apart because he did what so few of us do: endured unbearable hardship to follow his dream. He survived the savage cold and desolation of the Antarctic, in large part by following his mother's advice to "just get on with it" and by maintaining an indomitable sense of humor. I feel privileged to have met Crean through Dooley and have to admit that I'm intrigued enough now to go read Scott and Shackleton - and I have a feeling Crean will be there with me, reading over my shoulder and chuckling.

Not one to automatically jump to my feet, I have to truly be moved, I happily popped up along with the rest of the audience to give this wonderful performer a well-deserved standing ovation.

NOTE: I would like to take a moment to praise the house staff, from box office to ushers, at the Irish Rep for their wonderfully sunny attitudes, helpfulness and utter lack of pretension. I have run into surliness and boredom at some other theaters and feel compelled to comment on what a difference in the entire evening's experience a pleasant house staff can make. Thank you!

Tom Crean
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
(between 6th & 7th Avenues)
Tickets: 212-727-2737
Closes: September 9th
Running time: a touch under 2 hours (includes 15 min intermission)

Monday, July 2, 2007

Guilty - July 2, 2007

Guilty was in previews the night I saw it and I went in absolutely cold. No idea what it was about, or whether it was a comedy or a drama.

I can safely say that I left the theater after a very long, intermission-less show in exactly the same state.

It is often said that live theater is about the words, the voice of the actor being the focal point and that film is about a story told without words, but that is a huge generalization and it does not mean that a play should be without action. Yet Nancy Manocherian's play is so lacking in action and so top heavy with words that one might believe that the theater is supposed to be a talk-fest. Even when nothing is being said. There is an axiom regarding drama, whether it be film or theater, that you should show rather than tell. Guilty tells rather than shows for nearly two full hours.

The first 55 minutes of this play take place in a living room, then a bedroom, and finally outdoors (there's some grass, so that's the hint that we're outside somewhere) before there is a single moment of actual action. In fact the entire time up until that very brief moment of 'action' (which takes place offstage) we hear six characters who have clearly known each other a long time, talk about another character (Richard) who we never meet. But sadly this is no Waiting For Godot. We are never told how these people know each other, and given the disparate types presented it might indeed be interesting to find out how they came to be friends.

Of course 'talky' plays are not uncommon, and some are quite wonderful, but usually there is something going on. In Guilty we are treated to characters sitting around talking. And I mean sitting around. At one point, while discussing psycho-therapy, Jake (Ned Massey) calls therapy "the opiate of the masses". Sadly watching this pseudo-group therapy is not the opiate of an audience - unless the goal is to lull the audience to sleep.

Director Kira Simring's staging is stagnant, as characters sit and sit and sit. There are nice moments during scene changes that hint at the potential for more dynamic direction but as scenes begin characters go right back to sitting around talking.

There is one very out of place, semi-surrealistic scene wherein Dori (Glory Gallo) debates with herself whether or not she can indulge her desire for an affair with her first love. He offers her an opportunity to show her photography in his gallery and this chance to be creative and explore a new sexuality as she verges on a mid-life crises tempts her. This scene actually has some of the most entertaining and lively moments in the entire play and Gallo is to be commended for pulling it off with aplomb and a delightful lack of self-consciousness. Unfortunately it is completely out of place in this show, particularly because the language verges on poetic while the rest of the play is straight-forward realism. And here I have to say that while it strives for realism, the dialogue throughout feels forced, as each character attempts to sound wittier than the next and fails miserably.

The set (Tim McMath) is simple and clean and serves multiple scenes very well. The sound design (Ken Hypes) is commendable, particularly during one of the rare 'action' scenes where the characters play pool.

There is a warning that there is brief nudity in this piece. I can only imagine this 'warning' is an attempt to pull in some audience, as the actual 'nudity' involves nothing more than a woman's back. If that's considered 'nudity' we should be careful at the beach.

Watching this play I felt I was watching dailies of some as yet unedited 'reality' tv show. As is typical with these omnipresent reality shows there is always a character that you like, that is fun to watch and just seems normal. In this show it is Adam (Darnell Williams). Williams is at ease and fully inhabits his character, but even though he corrects another character's misspelling of "enui" he cannot salvage this show from the "E.N.N.U.I." it projects.

Acorn Theater
410 West 42nd St.
New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (no intermission)
Opens on July 5, 2007
Now in Previews
Closes on July 29, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sessions - June 17, 2007

Anyone who has ever been in therapy, group or otherwise, will recognize the characters of Sessions. While the characters' issues are standard dramatic fare - nothing new here - the actors provide enough depth to make stereotypical neurosis truthful. Even their therapist, Dr. Peterson (Matthew Shepard) is written as something of a cliché, but Shepard's warmth, charm and humanity make him anyone's dream shrink. Picture a modern-day Paul Henreid from Now Voyager. Of course he is a married man fighting the temptation to cross the line with one of his patients.

Book, Lyrics and Music are by Albert Tapper, and this is problematic. The book is fairly strong, the tunes, while not entirely memorable, are certainly pretty enough, but the lyrics are mediocre at best. Some collaboration might have pushed this piece from being simply "enjoyable enough" to something special.

The set design (Peter Barbieri, Jr. who also did the costumes) is exquisite and is the perfect New York City psychologist's office. Naturally the show is set in New York, where else would one find so many neurotic characters? This too is a bit of cliché, at least, and to Barbieri's credit, they do not all wear black. The show is very New York specific, right down to New Jersey and Staten Island jokes and street addresses of Starbucks and the Strand book stands. To a point that is fine for a New York audience, but seems too insular. When George (the delightful Scott Richard Foster) mentions he has moved to Washington Heights to get as far from Bleecker Street as he can, one wonders if anyone outside of New York City will have a clue as to what he's talking about.

The characters include Mr. & Mrs. Murphy (Jim Madden and Bertilla Baker), the squabbling retirees. Leila (Amy Bodnar), the sex-kitten with a broken heart and some serious hair extension issues at this performance. Dylan (David Patrick Ford), who can't accept his life of privilege and so takes on the personality of Bob Dylan - and does a very amusing and understated imitation. George Preston (Scott Richard Foster), as the indecisive introvert who cannot get over a girlfriend who broke up with him more than a decade earlier. Sunshine (Natalie Buster, who understudies all the female roles), the well-off child of an alcoholic suburban home who is finally ready to quit therapy after ten years. Mary (Trisha Rapier), the breast cancer survivor who refuses to leave her physically abusive husband. Baxter (Al Bundonis, whose time onstage is thoroughly captivating and far too brief), the Donald Trump-inspired real estate mogul who wants his father's approval. And The Voice (Ed Reynolds Young), who is the therapist Dr. Peterson visits with his own issues.

Abused wife Mary is possibly the most tragic, as well as the most clichéd character (no fault of Trishia Rapier's - it's just how she's written). She has two songs, one for each act that both say essentially the same thing: I'm not leaving my husband because when he beats me I feel loved. The fact that Dr. Peterson does not report this long-term abuse to the police is a plot problem. This is something that is required by law, yet he does not report the abuse even though it has gone on the entire time Mary has been in therapy - years! At one point Mary states emphatically that "THIS is my support group", one wonders how supportive they really are when not one of them has reported the situation either. When Dr. Peterson receives a phone call telling him that Mary has been killed by her husband towards the end of Act Two, it is no surprise. Mary's death is 'required' to propel Dr. Peterson into a full-out crises of confidence, but honestly, we all saw it coming: why didn't he?

While it is not particularly moving, Sessions is an enjoyable couple of hours at the theater. It's just unfortunate that it is more pop-psychology than the real thing.


Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Thru August 1

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Intimate Exchanges - Affairs in a Tent - June 16, 2007

Sir Alan Ayckbourn has been writing plays for a very long time. It stands to reason that an artist wants to try a little something new, a little innovation, every now and then. He certainly pulled it off brilliantly with The Norman Conquests and now Intimate Exchanges attempts a very similar gimmick, with a far broader scope.

While The Norman Conquests is actually three separate plays that all take place at the same time, Intimate Exchanges raises the bar. This is actually part of a sequence of plays (8 in all, with 16 different endings all going in different directions). This sounds overwhelming, and it could be: if you think about it too long. But in fact I saw only one in the sequence and I can see where it could go and how this 'sequence' could all play out. This does not mean you need to see all the configurations to enjoy it. Affairs in a Tent was a complete piece in its own right and I imagine the same holds true for all the others.

The people with the hardest jobs here are the actors: there are only two. They play all the parts in all the plays. In Affairs in a Tent they do an amazingly good job, this is not a simple matter of switching out a wig and a costume - all the characters are well-defined individuals. Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst are to be commended. Keeping all the characters, and all the scripts straight and crisp is a herculean task and they both rise to the challenge and excel. Claudia Elmhirst is particularly effective here - I had to strain to see that this was the same actress playing headmaster's wife, Celia, and hired help, Sylvie. Bill Champion's first appearance wearing a blond wig, as Lionel, a ne'er-do-well with good intentions, bears an uncannily resembles Michael McKean's David St. Hubbins in This Is Spinal Tap. This is just one layer of humor in addition to his wonderful, spot on delivery. He lands every line. These are two actors who do justice to comedy and it was a pleasure to watch them.

photo credit: Tony Bartholomew

While I found the play very funny, I thought as farce it might work better with more actors playing the parts to keep things moving. I noticed people in the audience straining to see the appearance of the 'next' character whenever one of the actors exited (which might mean a costume/character change) and that is a distraction that takes away from the piece. There is also a problem with extended set changes. Very near the end of this play there is a scene change that takes well over 3 minutes and that is a very long time to hold up the action, particularly so close to the end as things have risen to a fever pitch. It destroys the momentum and left me feeling disengaged from the final scene. Certainly this is a minor criticism in such a major work, but it seems an extra pair of hands helping with the change would solve this issue.

Intimate Exchanges
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY 10022
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Thru July 1

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Escape From Bellevue - June 16, 2007

It would be a mistake to attend a performance of Escape from Bellevue expecting to see a "musical". What you will see is a sort of one-man show with music. This is not to say it is a bad thing, just be forewarned. I am always hopeful that a show billed as a "rock musical" will actually deliver 'rock' - this does not always happen and sometimes, as in Escape from Bellevue, the music becomes secondary to a fun storyteller. So no, it's not the next Spring Awakenings, but it is a fun, entertaining 90 minutes. And during the musical 'breaks' there is definitely a feel of a mini-stadium concert. Sadly the amplification makes it nearly impossible to hear all the lyrics, which may be fine at a concert, but it falls short in a theatrical experience where the words are so vital to propelling the story. The set design and lighting effects are quite slick and the inclusion of several (very) short films round out the show.
Front man of The Knockout Drops, Chris Campion tells a great story. He acts out characters and takes on personalities without sounding at all stiff or rehearsed. You will never again hear the phrases "rodeo clown" or "Yo quiero culear tortugas" without laughing. Really.

The premise of Escape From Bellevue is Campion's troubles with alcohol, drugs and suicidal tendencies that landed him in Bellevue not once but three times. The first time when he drunk-dialed his friends in the middle of the day and said today would be his last "quicker than I could say Sylvia Plath the boys from Bellevue were at the door". Suicide humor: gotta love it. The second trip was spurred by "I'm going to kill myself" thrown at a girlfriend in the heat of an argument.

His encounters in the infamous mental hospital are quite funny, (the Thorazine story in particular is a riot), but despite the fact that he clearly had serious problems there is an emotional 'step back' in that he is telling stories without delving into and sharing the deeper emotions. However, at the end of the show there is a moment - after the third trip to Bellevue when he has checked himself into the hospital rather than being sent by well-intentioned and worried friends - that does touch a real emotional chord. He finds himself laughing "my light was back on" and feeling finally that he is "exactly where [I was] meant to be". When he says he is "grateful to be here", meaning that he did not commit suicide, we see at last the true depth that, had it been explored throughout, could have made a diverting piece into a very powerful show (without losing the fun).

Escape From Bellevue
Village Theater
158 Bleecker Street
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 8:00pm & 11:00pm
Tickets: 212-307-7171
Running time: 90 mins (no intermission)

Friday, June 15, 2007

In a Dark Dark House

The ultra-prolific Neil Labute has carved out a reputation as the foremost misanthrope of American theatre. His work features seemingly heartless characters who revel in their own sadomasochism, happiest in situations where they can cause immeasurable pain and suffering. For the longest time, I have defended and found much to enjoy in Labute's work, praising his sharp and focused voice even as the darkness of his plays became more and more conventional.

That praise ends with In a Dark Dark House, which is currently receiving its world premiere production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, under the auspices of Manhattan Class Company and the direction of Carolyn Cantor. This latest piece is slim and dramatically reckless, and often feels unfinished.

The drama takes place over three brief scenes, and it should be noted that if you happen to blink at any point, you might miss one of the many revelations that Labute haphazardly throws at the audience. Terry (Frederick Weller), a salt-of-the-earth midwesterner, has gone to visit his younger brother Drew (Ron Livingston) at a tony rehab where he's drying out. It turns out that Drew--a lawyer recently disbarred for shady business practices--has recovered memories of molestation in therapy, and has called his big brother in to authenticate them.

It is clear from the first moments that the two men don't get along. Even though he is dressed in a dirty bathrobe and barely speaking above a whisper, Drew's gentility shines through. Terry has taken a different path in his life; a truer path, at least to him. Their conversation when not discussing their shared past of abuse and hardship is polite but awkward, never reaching a level of intimacy you would expect from normal siblings. Labute understands this, and his early writing for the men can be thrilling. If only it were sustained throughout the entire piece.

If there is one thread that holds the work together, it is Weller's intensely vivid performance as Terry. His line readings are surly and glib with just the right dose of indignation, which are all good things in this case. Livingston tries hard but can't get over the fact that he's miscast; he's far too likable to play a calculating and manipulating leach. A third character, played appealingly by Louisa Krause, is introduced in the second scene, but it's hardly worth mentioning. She's drawn so thin that you begin to forget about her while she's still in plain view (a major problem, since Labute goes on to fashion her into a major plot device).

Carolyn Cantor's unsteady direction is also problematic; her style of cartoonish realism that served Essential Self-Defense so well only accentuates the textual flaws here. It may be time for Labute to take a break, or at least a breather: as his twists become more and more predictable, his work is becoming less and less watchable, and even longtime fans like myself are considering turning away. In the meantime, find someone to revive bash.

Tickets: Ticket Central
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
New York, NY 10014
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Through July 7

Cameron Kelsall is a guest reviewer for this blog. He also runs the blog Theatre Snobbery at its Finest, which can be read at

Living Dead in Denmark - June 14, 2007

Qui Nguyen's tremendously funny Living Dead in Denmark, part of the Vampire Cowboys Trilogy is being revived (as zombies tend to be) and presented as part of the First National Asian American Theater Festival. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to see this witty, hilarious play again.

Sometimes when people hear "Shakespeare" they turn away - "I'll never understand it" or "I hated it in high school". But Nguyen shows exactly how much fun Shakespeare really is: no, this is no iambic pentameter-heavy attempt to re-create the wheel. What it IS is a retake on some of Shakespeare's best-known characters and settings, a retake that involves toxic waste and zombies. May not sound like it could work, but it does - perfectly. Nguyen starts with time-tested characters and puts them into a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world and shakes it all together with some geek humor, perfect placement of classic lines of Shakespeare (that almost everyone will recognize), some ninja fighting, pop culture references and comes out with total genius.
Of course the writing is amazingly clever, but much credit must also be doled out to great direction by Robert Ross Parker, terrifically stylized fight sequences by Marius Hanford and understated production design by Nick Francone and hilarious zombie & gore effects by Chuck Varga. None of this would work nearly so well without this great cast. Some taking on more than one role, all of them pitch perfect. For the most part it is tongue in cheek funny, but there are moments of real pathos as well - just enough to let you know you are watching something that was created with much thought and love, not just a goof-fest. The scene with Laertes who is portrayed by a puppet (design by David Valentine - and gorgeous) voiced by Carlo Alban is utterly heart-breaking.

I could write volumes about each actor and how fully they inhabit their characters in this wonderfully dark and funny world, but that could take weeks. Each of them is a standout - which is quite a cool thing to pull off in a show that works as total ensemble.
This is the essence of exciting new theater. The Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company is a group of hard-working, TALENTED, people who make lively, fun theater on a very tight budget. But they prove at every show that you don't need piles of cash (just tons of talent) to make good theater. Though I'm sure they wouldn't say no to piles of cash. If anyone is interested in helping that cause you can see their website for details - it's tax deductible. I'm anxiously awaiting their next show - I have no doubt it too will be a killer.

Living Dead in Denmark
Beckett Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-352-3101
866-811-4111 (Toll Free)
June 12th - June 15th
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Featuring the amazing cast: Carlo Alban (Horatio, Laertes), Alexis Black (Juliet), Jason Liebman (The Ghost/Hamlet), Maggie Macdonald (Puck, Witch), Tom Myers (Caliban, Guildenstern, Witch), Melissa Paladino (Lady Macbeth), Jason Schumacher (Fortinbras), Andrea Marie Smith (Titania), Temar Underwood (Gravedigger, Rosencrantz, Witch, Oberon), Amy Kim Waschke (Ophelia).

Monday, June 11, 2007

Noche Flamenca - Aldaba - June 10, 2007

Before seeing the amazing Noche Flamenca my view of Flamenco had always been that it was an intense, beautiful art form - but extremely serious. It's nice to have my horizons expanded. Noche Flamenca is everything you might expect from a traditional Flamenco presentation - with just a little more.

My Spanish is very limited, so I only got some of the lyrics sung by Manuel Gago and José Anillo. But while you might miss the finer points, as I did, you don't need to understand Spanish to understand the emotions. The combination of dance, music and song are what immerse you, catch you up and take you places that hit your core. The choreography is perfection - not a single moment feels rehearsed or expected. It is as if everything is happening for the first time, sprung from pure emotion.

The first piece of the program, El Camino, introduces us to the entire company seated together as if they are just jamming at home and you feel at home. It's a party! It's a wonderful way to start the show. Each of the members take a few moments to show their stuff and of these my favorite was the delightful Elena Martín dressed in a fabulous red dress with white polka dots. Her movements were serious, then sensual and in the end simply sassy. She fairly brought the house down and proved there is humor in Flamenco for sure.

Solea por Bulerias let's Alfonso Losa show off his amazing frenetic footwork. His style is like watching a man possessed. His body seems to be moving on it's own and his expression is often one of surprise that he is being brought along for this amazing ride. It's as if the story of The Red Shoes is coming true before our eyes.

The charming piece Se Me Va begins with a quiet guitar solo by Miguel Perez before the closed curtains. Clearly this is a solemn song of love lost and regret, but then he is joined by singer José Anillo and things begin to lighten up a bit as pairs of clapping hands poke through the curtains and join the singer and the charming Vanesa Coloma as she dances, her expressions varying from disdain to shocked amusement.

The first act ends on an impossibly high note with Siguiriya showing off the astounding technical skill combined with raw emotion and ebullient stage presence of guest artist Alejandro Granados. The piece begins slowly, building to a crescendo of amazing physical control and complicated foot work that had the audience cheering wildly. His performance alone is worth the price of admission, but Noche Flamenco offers so much more!

Act Two again begins with the entire company. Quebrada a far more solemn start than Act One, and here we get to see not only the company but the wildly talented Soledad Barrio as she gives us a hint of what she can do. There is a moment in this piece where the three women twirl around each other, holding the precise poses and showing the tremendous control necessary for Flamenco that is so beautiful you wish it would simply go on and on.

The dancers get a break during the Solo de Guitarra which was performed by Chuscales. I can honestly say I was transported. You could hear a pin drop as the audience, formerly raucous in their vocal appreciation of the craft onstage sat in rapt attention to this gorgeous music. I can only assume we were all mesmerized. A man, a guitar and nothing more: and it was heaven.

And finally we have Solea. Soledad Barrio's solo piece. As with all the dance it begins low and builds. I wish I had words that could describe what she did. Again I must comment on the sheer level of physical control necessary to dance Flamenco and Ms. Barrio clearly has not only that control but an artistic fire of emotion that swept the audience to their feet even before the piece was done! I am rarely one to jump to a standing ovation - but I was one of the first ones up for this one. I was struck with how modest and delighted the performers were by this response. They seemed truly surprised and it was a sweet ending to a most fiery show.

Noche Flamenca is an experience not to be missed.

Noche Flamenca
Theater 80
80 St. Mark's Place
New York, NY 10003
Through July 29

Friday, June 8, 2007

LoveMusik - June 2, 2007

LoveMusik opens with Michael Cerveris as Kurt Weill in a pin spot hauntingly singing, in a thick German accent, about the fleeting nature of love. He is soon joined by Donna Murphy’s Lotte Lenya as the circle of light slowly expands revealing raw emotion, heartbreak and possibilities. They had me at “Speak Low”.

From here we are witness to the unfolding romance between two iconic figures of the theater. Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book, cleverly unravels the myths surrounding these two characters to present us with fully formed, fleshed out and powerfully human representations. Michael Ceveris and Donna Murphy create characters that are so interesting and engaging I found it impossible not to connect with them. I don’t want to reveal any secrets but there is a scene towards the end of the second act which involves Weill and Lenya and one small simple prop and the scene is devastating.

The production, directed by Hal Prince, and set design were minimal but with talent of this caliber there is no need for the distractions of overwhelming sets and scenery. From their first meeting in a row boat to their reunion in a Paris bedroom, Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design quietly suggests the setting allowing the focus to remain on the story. The performers in this show need little more than themselves to hold the attention of the audience. Donna Murphy is quite simply a revelation. Her Lotte Lenya is a self-assured, brash, spitfire balanced with a subtle vulnerability that is heartbreaking when it is revealed.

For every bit that Lenya’s character is big and colorful Michael Cerveris’s Weill is subtle and understated. His gentle delivery tinged with a shy determination to “take care of Lenya” is matched only by his love of creation. It is clear he is driven by two passions; love for Lenya and composing music. LoveMusik is appropriately titled.

Bertolt Brecht, as portrayed by David Pittu, is another theater figure who is brought down to human proportions. Way down in fact. After his introduction with Tango Ballad (from Threepenny Opera) we are taken on a rollercoaster ride of the ups and downs of his life. His relationship with both Weill and Lenya is documented in a less than flattering, but ever honest and unselfconscious, way.

LoveMusik includes a healthy sampling of the Weill music catalog. Some rather well known songs such as Surabaya Johnny (sung by Murphy in a second act show stopper as she is draped in an exquisite evening gown (costumes by Judith Dolan) to lesser known fare like I Don’t Love You. The songs are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the show in such a way that gives depth and power to Weill classics like It Never Was You that heretofore changed how I relate to them.

If I were asked, what would you expect the outcome to be if one of the most prolific and honored directors in theater history collaborated on a new musical with a Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winning writer, my answer would be nothing less than LoveMusik.

This review was a collobration between Gary and Marxsny.

Manhattan Theatre Club at The Biltmore Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, New York
Tickets: 212-239-6200/800-432-7250
Running Time: 2 hr 35 min with one intermission
Open Run

Rabbit - June 7, 2007

Nina Raine's Rabbit is a deceptive little play. Right from the opening lines of "no" *pause* "no" *pause* "no" spoken in a Beckett-like style by a father and daughter you are deceived. Because it is not a Beckett-y play. It switches to a naturalist comedy as we meet the daughter, Bella (Charlotte Randle) and her friend Emily ( Ruth Everett) at a bar celebrating Bella's 29th birthday. And we are deceived. Because it's not completely a comedy. It switches to flashbacks of Bella and her father and we find that the truth of this piece is Bella's desire to let go of the past - and her inability to truly do so.

photo credit: Robert Workman

Bella's father is dying. He is in hospital attended by his wife and sons while Bella tries to live her life and celebrate her birthday at a party she has arranged with all her friends; the majority of whom have never met. This is because Bella needs to be in control, needs to not risk that an old flame may be more interested in Emily than her, not risk that she might find love if she lets herself feel. But the night of her birthday, as her father is dying, the combination of emotions and the co-mingling of her various groups of friends makes it impossible for her to keep her memories at bay. Makes it impossible for her to continue to deceive herself.

On the surface this is a thoroughly enjoyable light play with witty dialogue, amusing characters and the 'oops' factor of running into an old love. But below the surface is a smart dissection of human relationships, how enduring old pains can be, and how difficult it can be to let go of subjective memories.

The cast is superb. Hilton McRae as Father is wonderful as he shows us a man losing his ability to communicate because of illness, and a younger man who has the same problem - for different reasons. Charlotte Randle runs the gamut of emotions and takes us with her every step of the way. Ruth Everett makes the young doctor Emily enchanting - it's not easy to tell a story about dissection and neurology and make it casual and fun. Adam James (Richard) and Alan Westaway (Tom) show us two very different men with much in common below the surface and Susannah Wise (Sandy) has a comic timing and delivery that is enviable. Nina Raine has written a very smart, very deceptive little play here and her direction is clear and crisp.

Rabbit is a pleasure. You will not regret the deceptions and you might gain a little insight.

59E59 Theaters (B)
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 1 hour 50 mins with intermission

Now in Previews
Opens on June 10, 2007
Closes on July 1, 2007

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Passing Strange - June 6, 2007

The coming of age story is not by any means a new plot line, but it can be enjoyable and moving when it's well done - or when there is an actual story to be told. This usually means we care about the protagonist. Passing Strange is the coming of age story of a whiny kid who finds his way to Europe while attempting to learn the ropes of the craft of songwriting. And to smoke hash. Gotta say: I could not care less.

There's no dramatic push to drive him away from his fairly comfortable, middle class home in Los Angeles where he lives with his mother. From what we are shown the main reason for his rebellion is that his mother wants him to attend church. He feels his spiritual path lies elsewhere but nonetheless joins the church choir (because he falls for a girl in the choir). So much for spirituality as his driving force. He ends up leaving home to roam Amsterdam and Berlin to find 'the real' - I'm hazy on what this actually means. Perhaps it was defined in one of the many endless songs which, while admittedly had a great beat, my toe was tapping, were unintelligible. If the lyrics were moving or meaningful in any way, neither I nor the people attending with me could hear them.

The set was well designed by David Korins whose work is always clever and fresh. While at first the set appears to be a whole lotta "not much", it is deceptive. We find musicians are set on descending platforms that rise and fall depending on the action and the back wall is revealed to be a full 'light wall' that becomes a city of neon and is quite impressive. I wish I could say the production deserved such stylish treatment.

This is a show that needs a hefty edit job. There are smart bits of dialogue, there might even be a story here, but as one of the oft repeated lyrics of one of the many (unlisted) songs says: "Too bad it takes so long". It does indeed take far too long to go absolutely nowhere.

There are fine performers working hard here, but truthfully there was only one standout, Colman Domingo who plays multiple roles (Mr. Franklin, Joop, and Mr. Venus) is the only - and I mean only - character who actually makes any sort of connection to the audience. If I had to choose one fatal flaw in this show that would be it -- the absolute lack of connection to the audience. In fact the bulk of the show seems played purely for the cast and musicians themselves, taking the concept of the fourth wall to a place more like a biosphere. On more than one occasion cast members were cracking each other up like Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on a bad episode of the old Carol Burnett show. It was barely funny in the 1970s - it's really not funny here. Really. I expect a little more professionalism at the Public.

The welcome resurgence of rock in Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals is not well served here. Wait for something better to come along. Something with an actual story.

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Tickets: 212-967-7555
running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Closes July 1

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Facing East - May 27, 2007

The extremely negative treatment of homosexuals within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) is not new ground for the stage, i.e. Angels in America, Confessions of a Mormon Boy. So I was pretty sure I knew the territory we'd be exploring in Facing East. What I was unprepared for was the incredibly high quality of the acting and the writing. Here's where I must admit to a bit of New York bias here as this show has transferred in from Utah I truly didn't expect this level of polish. In this case the unexpected was a very good thing indeed.

The title refers to the day of resurrection when the chosen will be called to heaven - exactly as they were when they were buried which prompts an amusing anecdote about a great aunt wanting assurances that the funeral director would securely attach her stockings to a garter so she would not have her nylons around her ankles when she rose up and stood before the lord. The Lord coming in from the east, which is why all the graves in the cemetery the play is set in face east. No unsightly spinning in the graves here, you simply rise up and you're facing east.

And yes, I did say that the play is set in a cemetery. This is where we meet Ruth and Alex whose son Andrew's funeral has just ended. Alex cannot bring himself to leave the grave site so the groundskeepers can "fill in". He is torn up by the hypocrisy of the funeral "No one should attend the funeral of someone they didn't know. We didn't know him." The story focuses primarily on Alex, who is the host of a soon-to-be syndicated radio show called One-Minute Dad where he dispenses daily doses of homespun fatherly advice; yet feels "I failed my own son." Alex's (Charles Lynn Frost) remorse is palpable and his sorrow at the loss of his son could have turned to teeth gnashing and anger but instead is handled with dignity and depth of emotion that had a majority of the audience in tears. Yeah, okay I admit it, I was one of 'em. But I heard LOTS of sniffling so I wasn't the only one!

Ruth (Jayne Luke) is a remarkably well-controlled mother in mourning. Her religion is her rock and her role as mother is her greatest accomplishment - yet she seems unusually calm about Andrew's death - even for someone with such intense faith in the hereafter. We find out why later in the show but I will not divulge that here. Ruth's hint of chill could have made her a monster, but Luke makes sure she is not. She, like Alex, are fully developed HUMANS with just as many flaws as any of us - and just as many good points. As they talk about the Andrew they knew in a 'do-over' of the funeral that Alex insists they perform regardless of the fact that people are waiting for them, we find out about Andrew (who never appears). Flashback conversations are cleverly staged by having one parent in black-out speaking 'as Andrew' while the other parent recounts a memory giving us insight into their talented, spiritual, sweet-natured, 24 year old son who took his own life and who happens to have been gay.

In the last third of the show we meet Marcus (Jay Perry) who was Andrew's lover (his one and only) for the last year. Marcus arrives graveside hoping to be late enough to have missed the family whom he did not want to upset by being present. As Marcus reveals his stories of Andrew we find that despite the 'ultimate, unforgivable sin of homosexuality' many members of their family had been regular visitors to Andrew and Marcus's home. Alex seems truly crushed to learn this because he was not a part of it, at the same time he seems somewhat comforted that some people had the good sense to love his son the way he deserved to be loved. Alex having lost the true love of his life, before his marriage, firmly believes "everyone deserves a chance to be in love". It is unfortunate that he did not practice that belief more strongly with Andrew, but despite what may read as 'downer' material here, Facing East ends with a sense of redemption and hope.

Though this show is still in previews, I am posting this now because this show is a limited engagement and I hope this gives people a chance to get in there and see it. You will cry, you will laugh, you will be moved and you will not be sorry you went. (But do remember to bring some tissues.)

Facing East
Atlantic Stage Two
330 West 16th St.
New York, NY 10011
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Opening Night - May 29
Limited engagement through June 17
Running time: 75 minutes (no intermission)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sum of Us - May 25, 2007

It is not often that you get to see a show that includes strap on dildos, a lesson in a relatively unknown history, rock, blues and Joan of Arc but in SUM OF US Michelle Matlock and INNER PRINCESS (whose members are Becca Blackwell, Lee Frisari, and Tanisha Thompson) present an admirable work in its early stages - and yes it includes all of the above and then some.

The premise of the show is a rock band's late-night rehearsal in a former speakeasy. The band's members are, described in broadest terms, gender-benders - the location, their material, and their life concerns and issues summon the spirit of Gladys Bentley a famous performer during the Harlem Renaissance.

The mixture of rock with early 20th century blues works, though there is not nearly enough of it. In fact the piece works best when there is strong interaction between Gladys and the women of the band. Unfortunately this too is at a minimum, but as this is a work in progress I imagine there will be addendums to the show in future. The current running time is slightly over an hour and there is no dearth of material to be explored here so expanding and adding would certainly be welcomed.

Michelle Matlock is an impressive performer who not only entertains but sincerely wishes to educate her audiences, this is something she does extremely well. While you are busy laughing or tapping your toes, you are learning. The history of homosexual performers is not something that is often addressed in entertainment, possibly because of the closet, possibly because of a simple lack of historical awareness. But Matlock has clearly done her homework - and she's going to share it with us. It seems this is a special love of hers, as she does something similar addressing a different historical stereotype in recounting the history of Mammy in her solo show The Mammy Project. Sort of a Cliff Notes history lesson with music. And I do mean that as a compliment: we learn best when we are moved and entertained.

The performers of Inner Princess each have a different style and appeal and they work well together. There is a genuine camaraderie and sense of humor here and their music is infectious. Bass player Becca has the most one-on-one interaction with Gladys and her performance as Billy Tipton, while brief, is particularly strong. It doesn't hurt that she bears a remarkable resemblance to the late Tipton.

Each band member has her own series of short anecdotes illustrating issues of gender confusion and discrimination and these too are shining moments. Drummer Lee Frisari's delivery as she tells how a recently incarcerated man tried to pick her up (regardless of her gender) at the health food store where she works is particularly funny "He asked me about calcium. I told him about calcium. 'Are you a man or a woman,' he asked me. I kept telling him about calcium."

Guitarist Tanisha's anecdote about trying to get a hot date home in a cab before the fire burned out is frustrating and sad. And the injustice of someone not getting laid because of a cab is infuriating. And Bentley's sorrow at having to drop the drag, and thus lose her true identity, due to McCarthyism is fairly heartbreaking.

There are some rough spots, but as the performers freely admit after the performance as they ask for objective audience feedback, this is still a work in progress. The beginning is a little weak and amorphous, and the end, while fun and uplifting comes a touch too soon. I wanted to know more about the current characters and their historical counterparts, hopefully in the next incarnation the Sum of Us will add it all together.

p.s. ladies, I have to vote to ditch the blue strap on... that bad boy's a little on the small side (just my opinion.)

Sum of Us
Dixon Place
258 Bowery, 2nd Floor
New York, NY
through May 26

Monday, May 21, 2007

Gaslight - May 19 , 2007

Gaslight, or Angel Street, its alternate title, was written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938 yet its illustration of manipulation is as relevant today as it ever was, and seems all the more insightful for its age. It's a fine play, made into an even more compelling movie because suspense can be so much more impactful onscreen with the use of cut-aways and music. As a stage production, Gaslight still has impact and the production currently up at the Irish Rep has much to recommend it.

Odds are good that everyone is familiar with the story, but here's a quickie overview: bad man tries (successfully) to make rich young wife think she's losing her marbles while he attempts to find rare jewels in their home that were undiscovered during a murder/break-in that took place more than a decade before in the same house.

As the 'bad man' David Staller plays Jack Manningham with the absolute confidence of a seasoned sociopath. There are times when actors become self conscious playing 'evil' characters and want to round out with something that touches their humanity. But not Staller and I say BRAVO! We want to hate the villain and he opens the door and invites us in to hate him HARD! He taps into something best described as a Vincent Price vibe, all gentlemanly sophistication wrapped around Charles Manson.

His confused young bride of "five years and a little" Bella (Laura Odeh) is a study in contradictions. One moment she is happy as a lark, the next distraught that she may be losing her mind - the fact that she holds onto a thread of disbelief in her impending madness shows through every now and again and we want to shake her and say "yes! wake up, this guy is bullshitting you into the nuthouse!" She's trapped in a web of subtle brainwashing yet deep down there is a core of strength that has not been bullied by her husband and Odeh shows us that and we root for her. It would be easy to play this part as a sniveling bimbo, but Laura Odeh gives us layers, showing sparks of independence and self-confidence that blossom in the end and are ultimately very satisfying.

A happy accident of the Manningham's maid, Nancy (Laoisa Sexton) dating the servant of a retired police detective who had been in charge of the unsolved murder/break-in is Bella's salvation. The detective, Rough (Brian Murray) is the life preserver she needs to save herself from losing her mind. Murray's Rough is witty, calm and self-possessed; at first his relaxed delivery had me concerned that he was going up on lines. How stupid of me! Rough is a man who instinctively knows that he's on the right track, and he sees no reason to be brusque or panicked when he explains the situation to Bella. He is a port in the storm, and Brian Murray plays him in a delightful Sherlock Holmes meets Columbo fashion that is utterly charming and reassuring, and yes, funny. When he comforts Bella with "My dear, you've had a bad time." His understatement gets an enormous audience-wide laugh of agreement.

The smaller yet significant roles of housekeeper Elizabeth (Patricia O'Connell) and maid, Nancy (Laoisa Sexton) are no less well played. You want to hug Elizabeth - especially when she is confronted by Manningham's early return home while she is hiding Rough - and slap Nancy. That hussy! Well done ladies!

The set design by James Morgan is sumptuous, extremely detailed and uses the unique layout of the Irish Rep's stage to great advantage. My only complaint is slight, and it regards Charlotte Moore's direction of the blocking. For those of us in the side section a majority of the action is played with the actor's backs towards us and while luckily theater is more about voice than visuals, it would have been nice to see a little more than was presented here. Granted, it is a challenging space, but folks on the sides are entitled to as much of the production as those in the center.

Still that is my one complaint, and as such has little bearing on this reviewer's opinion that this production of Gaslight is well worth your time.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
(between 6th & 7th Avenues)
Runs through July 8th
running time: 2 hours with one 15 min intermission

all photo credits: Carol Rosegg

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Silverland - May 16, 2007

I'm not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry after seeing Silverland. Both responses seemed appropriate which seems altogether fitting. In his tremendous debut play Benjamin Davis displays a deft turn of phrase, rhythms reminiscent of of everything from The Greeks to Shakespeare to Sam Shepard's early work - and yes, it all works! As a first piece this is ambitious in its scope and in the hands of director Di Trevis and 6 talented actors it is a harrowing warning on global warming, and an exploration of the human desire for companionship.

The year is 2011, the starting place a rave outside London. Six characters meet and their stories unfold over the course of a year - the final year 2012. The year the world ends, the Mayans stopped their calendar there, global warming is hitting its peak, the world is in the throes of a fresh water drought and looking towards space for new resources and in the midst of all this: we dance!

There is a wonderful blend of poetic and vernacular language here. When Mikey (Bradley Taylor) the more street-savvy of the two young ravers, quotes "He who binds to himself a joy, Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies, Lives in eternity’s sun rise" his pal Dario (Cary Crankson) shouts out "Blake!" They high-five like two literature geeks. It is delightful and unexpected and we are forced to reevaluate our initial impressions of these characters who at first glance seem to be mere goofball kids out to get high and dance - a valuable lesson. Of course, later in the play when they finally realize that they are not quite in the same reality they were at the start they quote Arthur Brown's Fire - in true head-banger fashion.

There is repetition of key pieces of dialogue and moments from their lives that resonate as the characters move through time from one New Year's Eve to the next and exemplifies the cycles of the earth, cycles of our lives. The beginning is the end: the end, a beginning.

The character of Cleo, played with humor, power and charm by the graceful Ony Uhiara is the most enigmatic. I will not disclose 'who' she is, but suffice to say without her there would be no story. Jane Gibson's movement choreography for Cleo is at once sensual and religious.

The artist, Ellie (Sophie Hunter) is both prophet and the soul of social conscious. Her recurring dreams of drowning and her fascination with the melting glaciers and storm surges propel us towards the inevitable. Sophie Hunter repeats a haunting mantra which is reprinted in the show's program:

"You know, we sit here on the edge of it, on the precipice, just waiting to fall.
And when we do it will be a plunge into the deep dark,
and our green island will be engulfed by the silver sea."

Each time she repeats this I thought well, it's just going to be the same - but it was not. As the play moves forward her retelling of this mantra becomes more and more emotional, more urgent and kudos to Ms. Hunter for giving me goosebumps with these lines.

Tom McClane (Gabriel) and Tim Steed (Stockers) as the epitome of the money making ruiners of the world are, as Mikey and Dario, also not quite what they seem on first glance. Gabriel and Ellie fall for each other and we discover that Gabriel feels more social responsibility than the stereotypical banker/stockbroker. Stockers, who is at first glance "slimy geezer" is revealed to have a secret need that he cannot seem to fulfill; and I believe his journey was the one that moved me the most.

Silverland is at once a warning and a reassurance. Di Trevis's deft direction is a perfect match for this poetic, funny and multi-layered work. It's a strange combination that leaves you feeling both hope and resignation: is the end of the world the cycle of life is as it is meant to be, it is our misfortune to live in 'interesting times' or can we repair the damages we have done? We are left satisfied and questioning in the same breath - what more could you ask from the theater?

59E59 Theaters (B)
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 1 hour 45 mins no intermission
Runs through June 3

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Happy End - May 14, 2007

Happy End set in 1919 Chicago is the story of a gangster (Bill Cracker, played by Joey Piscopo) and Salvation Army Lieutenant (Lillian Holiday, played by Lorinda Lisitza) who meet and fall in love at Christmas in the midst of Bill's gang's biggest heist.

I think Brecht and Weill are fun fun fun. I wish I could quote Michael Feingold's adaptation and say that Theater Ten Ten's production of Happy End was "fantastic beyond belief" but that would be wrong. It's a decent production, but smacks heavily of community theater despite it being the longest continuously operating Equity Theater Company in New York. The theater is located in a basement auditorium with acoustics that vibrate and echo in a most unpleasant manner particularly when the brass instruments are blowing and operatic soprano of Lorinda Lisitza is trilling like Jeanette MacDonald. Lyrics are often lost to the din. This is unfortunate as the lyrics are more than half the fun of a Brecht Weill collaboration.

This is not to say the production is without merit. I applaud director David Fuller's attempt to incorporate the cavernous space, but due to the fact that the audience is not raked it might have served the show better to go old-school traditional and keep the actors on the proscenium stage where we could all see them rather than have them staged on the floor for large portions of the show effectively dismissing those of us not in the front 2-3 rows. I am also stymied as to why there was a need for two intermissions for a show with no major set changes and a running time of just over two hours.

Some of the musical productions work, some do not. "The Bilbao-Song" was amusing and well done, "The Sailor's Tango" and "Surabaya-Jonny" were half trilling vibrato and for the most part unintelligible. I would have thought this was just my old ears giving way until I heard the people behind me sighing and shuffling: this happened every time Miss Lisitza hit the high notes. Honestly, we want to hear the words - do your vocalizing at before the show.

"The Song of the Big Shot" was fun and charming. Greg Horton (Dr. Nakamura "The General") hit just the right mark of being 'stage sinister'. Timothy McDonough ("Baby Face") and Dave Tillistrand (Sam "Mammy" Wurlitzer) were charming stand-outs in the "gang". I was lucky to hit a performance where Sandy York was playing Major Stone - she was in charge without being strident and her voice was perfect (yes, I could hear every lyric thank you). This brings me to the reason I stayed through the two intermissions: Joey Piscopo.

I saw Joey Piscopo's solo show Joe Piscopo's Son in this same space. (Which I must stress works so much better for straight plays than for musicals.) Seeing him play gangster Bill Cracker with cool disdain and boredom via Sinatra was a treat. One of the high points of the show is a short film depicting "The Heist" - it is black & white (sepia) and a perfect recreation of a 1919 silent film which is integrated into the live action to superb results. Mr. Piscopo directed the film. As Bill Cracker runs through the Salvation Army service he calls out "don't mind me I'm just passin' tru" and one hopes this is the case. He deserves a better venue.

HAPPY END, A Melodrama With Songs
Theater Ten Ten
1010 Park Ave
between 84th and 85th Streets
running time: 2 hrs 10 mins (including 2 intermissions)
Through May 27, 2007