Monday, October 27, 2008

Night Train - October 27, 2008

I have become so inured to the mediocrity that is the majority of theater on Broadway, Off-Broadway and even that last bastion of 'innovation' Off-Off-Broadway that I often go barely hoping for better, simply expecting more and more of the same. Thankfully, every now and again, something happens that renews my faith that live theater is not simply a rehash of movies, a retelling of the same stories in the same ways or a soulless empty vehicle intended to sell tickets. Sometimes real gems are to be found and that is a very, very heartening thing to discover.

Mel Nieves's Night Train is one such gem. Normally I do not review staged readings, primarily because they are not meant to be reviewed. Its not really fair. They are opportunities for writers, directors and actors to put a new piece on its feet and see how it works with an audience. Often there are rough spots that are, of course, to be expected. But sometimes a piece is so strong that you forget the actors are holding scripts, you forget that the setting is nothing more than a few chairs arranged to invoke a taxi and you forget that you are watching a play because you are so completely captivated by what you are seeing and hearing. And that is precisely how I felt about the reading of Night Train that I saw tonight, presented as part of the LAByrinth Theater Company's Barn Series (which runs through November 19 at the Public Theater).

A scant 40 minutes, two amazingly natural actors (Elizabeth Canavan and Ed Vassallo), subtle, unselfconscious direction by Felix Solis, a bit of music and a refreshingly human script. There is not an extraneous word, nor a single dead spot, in this utterly engaging story of two absolute strangers sharing their hearts in a cab on a rainy night in New York City.

Free of any awkwardness, the wit was fresh, spontaneous and unforced. It flowed the way the very best of conversations do, those lightening in a bottle conversations you wish you could recapture but never can. Yet Nieves seems to have done it with a particular ease. Perhaps because his characters are so real, their words can't help but ring true. We laugh because we know these two people, because, in fact, we are these two people. And their moments of self-exposure are enough to make us cry.

A second performance of this reading will be given on Monday, November 3 - it's free! - and I encourage you to see for yourself that the theater is alive with fresh voices, fresh perspectives and a writer who does what our best playwrights have always done since the very beginning: show us ourselves.

Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Niagaras Farewell Show - August 15, 2008

According to their press materials The Niagaras have been called "The greatest unsigned band in New York" and I have to agree. Now the Niagaras, who have been performing wildly energetic live shows to delighted and fiercely loyal fans and newcomers alike in New York City as well as the occasional tours out of town (read Europe) for longer than some 'signed' bands have been alive (which says much about the dumbing down of the music industry), have finally decided to call it a wrap and venture into new territory.

Rather than perform their 'last waltz' in one of the many familiar and long-established venues they've played in over the years they chose to say good-bye in a relatively new space, Gavin DeGraw and Duggins King's The National Underground on East Houston Street. It's a small-ish space perfect for fostering the type of audience-to-band intimacy that the Niagaras are well-known for. However this farewell show could have been held in Central Park and and still maintained that intimacy, it's just how The Niagaras work. There is something good karma inspiring about ending such a long run in such a new venue because although the Niagaras as an entity may be no more, the members of the band are certainly continuing on with new projects.

Having arrived early enough I was happily ensconced inside once the band started to play but friends who were not so lucky arrived too late and were actually turned away at the door. No it was not some velvet rope nonsense, one assumes that would not hold well with the Niagaras - especially since at one point lead singer Robert Whaley actually left the stage and hit the street during at least one song. Not an entirely unknown turn of events as Mr. Whaley has been known to run through streets in the Village playing his trumpet to passersby (while his band holds down the fort inside until his return). So no velvet ropes here. But apparently occupancy limits had been reached (let's face it this is New York City, the occupancy limits were very likely doubled by the time they opted to bar the door.) Given the close quarters and the insane energy level inspired by the band and Whaley's innate kineticism and humor it is astounding how well-behaved the crowd remained - even while dancing, as much as one could dance in a space that was quite clearly not at all designed for dancing.

Despite the inherent sadness one might expect at a final performance, the mood over all was one of happiness. I had a feeling that this is what it might have been like to be in a room full of Shakers, or Sufi Dervishes or any number of other ecstatic religious groups. But with none of the guilt or shame one associates with any organized religious group, only the happy, blissful delight of being in the moment and feeling a part of something bigger than yourself.

There was also an air of old home week as Whaley called various Niagaras alumni to come onstage one by one and sit in. Niagaras' regular drummer, the talented Dylan Wissing, graciously gave up his seat for two previous drummers, Frank Whaley and Paul Capuzzo and then joined them - one drum kit, three drummers. Bass player Gary Ptak deserves kudos for keeping perfect pace with so many varied drumming styles. Aaron Wyanski added layers of sound with his keyboards bringing in unexpected and yet completely appropriate styles from piano bar Gershwin to early '70s psychedelia. Thomas Hutchings' saxophone upped the ante on Whaley's trumpet bringing to mind a channeling of Sam Butera and Louis Prima at their finest, and wildest. And all of this underscored by the masterful, driving lead guitar and inspired (and sometimes improvised) vocals of Tony Grimaldi whose onstage rapport, banter and song writing with Whaley are the crux of the Niagaras.

It did appear they were videotaping and recording this event which was a wise move - I imagine that roomful of fans, as well as those who waited patiently on the street to get in and those who simply could not get in, will be quite happy to get their hands on a copy of those recordings.

While the sensational Niagaras will no longer be performing, some members of the band will be continuing on with Robert Whaley in his new venture Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak which they describe as a "piano-driven, soul-influenced band" which promises to continue the Niagaras tradition while breaking new ground. After the show I saw Friday night it is a certainty that I will check out this new endeavor and I highly recommend any music lovers in the New York City vicinity who want to see seriously talented musicians make hard work look like child's play do likewise.

The Niagaras
Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak
Dylan Wissing
Aaron Wyanski
Thomas Hutchings

Monday, August 4, 2008

What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends: An Anti-Social Comedy - July 20, 2008

I went into Larry Kunofsky's "Hate All Your Friends" expecting an antagonistic bleakness. Yeah, good attitude.

I was pleasantly wrong. "Hate All Your Friends" is funny, funny stuff! I am quick to leave at intermissions if I feel like I've put in enough time during the first act and see nothing interesting coming down the pike, I'm happy to say that I was glued to my seat here. I consistently laughed out loud and that is not a common occurrence at the theater for me.

The base of the story is meeting between Matt, played hilariously by Todd D'Amour,
who has decided that he despises and loathes everyone in his life and that he has no friends and a cult-like group of "friends" who are more of a society with firm rules and regulations than a true group of like-minded individuals who care for and support each other. Their points and ranking systems for who is their best friend (for any given time period) is complex and often disturbing - but funny throughout.

The cast is quite a talented group all of whom are blessed with great comic timing. Since several double up on roles, the costuming
(Melissa Trn) - different bright and happy colors for different characters - is a nice visual assist to the audience.

The end of the play seems a bit out of place, not so much that it's really bothersome, but that is the only thing I can come close to saying is amiss in this very funny, thought-provoking piece.

What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends
The Lion @ Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
(between 9th & 10th Avenues)
New York, NY 10036

Performance Dates:
July 19, 2008 - August 23, 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

[Title of Show] - July 21, 2008

When [Title of Show] was playing Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theater I saw it and loved it. I found it fun, funny, inspiring, uplifting and just a plain old good time. It was a witty, cheery, sometimes touching story of two guys whipping up an original musical for one of the many theater festivals held in New York. The show was drenched with in-jokes, which personally I loved because I got them, and in terms of capturing the realities of writing and angsting over a new musical: this thing was as honest as you could want without having to suffer for your art. It was a delight.

My trouble with the show then was that I could not see how it could possibly move forward. It was a wonderful piece, but seemed to me to be extremely limited in the audience it might garner.

Then it moved to Broadway. I thought, well that's rich. This show is adorable with a capital A but how the hell do they expect to make a go of Broadway?

Goes to show you, if you dream it you can make it happen.

I could not have been happier for the creators and cast of this show - what a wonderful transition they have made to Broadway. I can say unequivocally that this is the very best show I have seen on Broadway in far, far too long a time. And I am so happy that I was wrong about its ability to move to a bigger house and still draw an audience because this is the kind of smart and funny show that deserves to be on Broadway and that audiences who are paying exorbitant ticket prices deserve to see. Not the same old big production schlock that Broadway has unfortunately become known for. The splashy shows with little or no substance that are geared to 'wow' you that you are actually getting some bang for your buck, but that leave you feeling like your intelligence has been insulted while your eyes were dazzled by pretty sets and costumes.

[Title of Show] has no splashy sets, no fancy costumes - in fact if memory serves the cast is wearing the exact costumes they wore Off-Broadway and guess what: it's exactly the way it should be. And if you are lucky enough to get a chance to see this special little Off-Broadway gem that has grown up to be a Broadway Star you will see how little splash is required when you have substance.

[Title of Show]
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 6th Avenue)
New York NY 10036

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cry Baby - April 2, 2008

I left at the intermission.

The sad part is that it's not bad, in fact there are some lyrics that are very funny, some lines that are very funny. The music is okay, sometimes very good. But man oh man it just does not gel in any way. It might've worked better off-bdwy, but even then it's got a real 'still in workshop' feel to it despite the slickness of the sets and beautiful costumes. The choreography is serious Broadway been-there, done-that. The chorus line of cops is a gay boy-bdway-queen wet dream come to life.

The use of the overture for the 'turn off your cell phones' was easily the best of that standard pre-show reminder of theater etiquette I've ever encountered and it really gave me hope that the show would be innovative and fun. As it is still in previews there might be some hope things will pull together but honestly, I just couldn't wait through an intermission for what only promised to be another hour of the same ol' same ol'.

Cry Baby
Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway
New York, NY 10036
Opens April 24

Monday, January 28, 2008

Save the World - January 24, 2008

Premiering Chris Kipiniak's first play aptly entitled Save The World is a thematically perfect choice for the wonderful Roundtable Ensemble, a not-for-profit theater company whose mission is to bring theater to undeserved audiences. Roundtable attempts to "save the world", one audience member at a time, by offering the experience of live theater to people who would otherwise not have the option.

Save the World is an ambitious attempt to bring the comic book genre to life. There is a fine line to walk while attempting this the many attempts to successfully transfer comics to blockbuster movies proves every summer. Transferring the comic book medium to the live theater is an even more difficult and delicate endeavor. In the hands of Michael Barakiva and his talented cast, for the most part Save the World succeeds. There are moments where monologues go a bit too long, or actors require more volume or diction - especially important in a play like this where we are absorbing huge amounts of exposition. But despite these minor points, the actors are all game to play the parts of super heroes and/or super villains and there are moments that are incredibly impressive. The slow motion fight sequences evidence what might amount to REAL super powers as actors hold poses worthy of Cirque du Soleil periods, Charissa Chamorro as Umbra is especially adroit in this capacity - you may find yourself looking to see if she is being supported by a wire. She's not.

Unlike a comic book movie, a live stage production is somewhat limited in the special effects that are available. Save the World takes this hindrance and runs with it.

The previously mentioned slo-mo fights, the lighting effects, sets and most impressively the sound effects are live theater's answer to digital computer effects. My favorite sound effect is used whenever Stagger (the charming Stephen Bel Davies in a fantastic red suit) stops time.

Even if you are not a fan of superhero comics there is a story here you will enjoy and performances that are humorous and poignant. Plus, you'll be supporting a stellar theater company that wants to Save the World.

January 17th - February 9th, 2008
Thur, Fri, Sat @ 8pm; Sat 3pm

or call 1-800-838-3006

American Theatre of Actors
Chernuchin Theatre

314 West 54th Street

running time: 2 hours (including 1 intermission)