Friday, June 15, 2018

Jessica Walker Channels Suzy Solidor in ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Joseph Atkins, Jessica Walker, and Alexandra Mathie in ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It is no accident that Suzy Solidor lacks the name recognition of Edith Piaf or Marlene Dietrich; admittedly she was not in their class as a French chanteuse of the 1930’s and 1940s. And yet Solidor surely deserves greater recognition, not only as the openly bi-sexual, cross-dressing, flamboyant owner-entertainer of La Vie Parisienne, located in the first gay quarter of Paris and one of the hottest Parisian nightclubs of the time, but also as the “most painted woman in the world,” having had her portrait painted more than 200 times by such celebrated artists as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques, Raoul Dufy, Francis Bacon, Man Ray, Erte, Jean Cocteau, and Tamara de Lempicka.

The illegitimate daughter of a charwoman, Solidor came to believe that her father, an attorney who had abandoned her, was really the descendent of an infamous French pirate, prompting her to sing of  “the sea, sex and sailors” – that is, when she was not belting out even more erotic, Sapphic tunes.  Consistent with her personality, Solidor catered to all comers, both heterosexuals and homosexuals, at La Vin Parisienne, and not only to French intellectuals and French entertainers but also to Nazi officers - which ultimately led to her conviction as a Nazi collaborator after the war.

Jessica Walker is an exceptional, multi-talented woman in her own right, as a playwright, translator, actress and singer.  Not only has she brought Solidor to our overdue attention by penning All I Want Is One Night, currently being staged as part of the Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59Theaters, but in doing so, she personally translated Solidor’s songs from French to English and now is starring, as actress and singer, in this production.

Walker is superb in channeling Solidor’s persona and is very ably supported by the other two members of the production’s small cast.  Rachel Austin portrays both Daisy and Giselle, the former being one of Solidor’s long-time lesbian lovers and the latter being her much put upon handmaid of her later years when Solidor was descending into an alcoholic abyss of her own making.  Alexandra Mathie is even more versatile, playing five different roles including those of Bengt Lindstrom (the latest in the long line of artists commissioned to paint Solidor’s portrait); Tamara de Lempicka (who painted the most famous of Solidor’s portraits and who was another of her many gay lovers); Bambi (a flamboyant drag queen); and her long lost father. 

And special mention must be made of Joseph Atkins, the play’s musical director without whose terrific accompaniment on the piano and accordion, the play may well have languished.  I only wish there had been more musical numbers than the eight with which we were provided, for him to have accompanied.

Friday, June 8, 2018

SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS by David Byrne Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Andrew Strafford-Baker, Andy McLeod, Olivia Hirst, Stella Taylor, Richard Delaney in SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS. Photo by Richard Davenport  

Yuval Haran’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is an extraordinary book.  An International best-seller, it took a fresh look at what it means to be human and raised such questions as: If there were half a dozen different species of humans inhabiting the Earth 100,000 years ago, why is there only one – homo sapiens – still around today?  What happened to the Neanderthals and all the others?  Was our tribe, homo sapiens, guilty of some form of genocide against those rival species?  And if so, does that suggest that such vestigial tribal genocidal traits may have remained within us - with who knows what implications for our own future survival?  A rather pessimistic outlook on life.

Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski was truly a “renaissance man” of the last century.  A brilliant mathematician and outstanding chess player, he also co-edited the literary magazine Experiment while at Cambridge and, during the Second World War, worked in operations research for the United Kingdom to enhance its bombing strategies.  After the war, he turned to biology in an attempt to better comprehend the nature of violence in man.  In the 1950s, he appeared on the BBC’s television version of The BrainTrust but he remains best known for The Ascent of Man – the documentary about the history of humanity that he produced in 1973 which, in his words, showed “our progression from our primitive ancestors to the masters of science and technology and art that we are today” – a work as optimistic in its interpretation of man’s evolution as Sapiens is pessimistic. 

David Byrne’s Secret Life of Humans, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program, represents something of an amalgam between The Ascent of Man and Sapiens and is a remarkably original work.  To be sure, man’s evolution can be interpreted (as The Ascent of Man does) as having consisted of continuing and sustained advancement – just think, for example, of indoor plumbing, the steam engine, the automobile, air travel, antibiotics, the internet, the smart-phone…. Yes, there have been setbacks from time to time but isn’t it unquestionably true that, overall, man’s health, wealth, longevity, and quality of life have all improved dramatically over time?

On the other hand, there appears to be no denying that man’s inhumanity to man has, in many ways persisted undiminished.  Thousands of years after primitive tribes engaged in human sacrifice, the supposedly civilized citizens of Nazi Germany allowed the Holocaust to occur, culminating in the genocidal extermination of six million Jews.  And even now, three-quarters of a century later, we are witnessing Islamist terrorism, genocidal inter-tribal wars in Africa, inexplicable school shootings, biological warfare, nuclear saber-rattling, and the persistence of brutal dictatorships around the world.  The League of Nations failed and the United Nations is not doing much better, the Arab Spring petered out, and it is not difficult to argue, as Sapiens might, that in many ways man is devolving and regressing, rather that evolving and progressing.

Secret Life of Humans addresses this disconnect through the life of Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski (Richard Delaney) who bears full responsibility for the sentiments expressed inThe Ascent of Man but whose own actions during the Second World War may have fallen short of that.  (Bronowski may or may not have participated in the Manhattan Project but he assuredly did contribute to the deaths of innocent German civilians by calculating how to cause the most damage through fire-raising, i.e. dropping small incendiary bombs on German cities.)  How might we reconcile such an apparent inconsistency (which is played out on a larger scale when one considers the disconnect between mankind’s economic progress and its socio-political shortcomings)?

Well, for starters, The Ascent of Man does provide a good description of mankind’s continued progress over time.  But that progress is not in a “straight, unbroken line” as Bronowski contends.  Rather, it occurs despite occasional temporary backsliding.  Similarly, Bronowski himself may simply have evidenced his own temporary fallibility in his actions during the Second World War but that does not change the fact that, overall, he was a decent and moral man.

Additionally, It is possible that what is true in the spheres of economics and technology does not necessarily carry over into the spheres of social and political activity.  The Ascent of Man is certainly correct in describing man’s economic and technological history as an upward-sloping straight line but that does not necessarily entail similar uninterrupted advances in politics and social relations.  In Bronowski’s personal case, that would suggest his continued progress in mathematics, technology and science despite any shortcomings he might have exhibited in other areas.  As Bronowski himself expresses it when grappling with the problem of whether or not to assist his Government in improving its bombing strategies during the Second World War:

“There are three questions to my mind.  Should we do this?  Well, maths, itself, cannot be good or evil.  It is either correct or incorrect, regardless of any later applications.  Must we do this?  The alternative is unimaginable.  And can we do this?"

Finally, there is the possibility that it all depends on our differing value systems.  Ava (Stella Taylor) is a soon-to-be-unemployed teacher who has a one-night stand with Bronowski’s grandson, Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), in the course of which she prevails on him to provide her with the previously undisclosed material she needs in order to publish something “meaty.”  But Ava’s role in the play is more than that: she is also something of a narrator or one-woman Greek chorus and it is she who frequently raises the issues we’ve been discussing.  Thus it is she who claims that we all retain our “vestigial” traits, that “we’ve progressed, but we’ve not changed,” that The Ascent of Man was “pretty lightweight,” that Bronowski’s “view of the world is a little simplistic,” and that, in short:

“None of this is real….But it’s no less real than the value of the money in your pocket. Or the laws we decide to follow.  Or the borders of countries we’ve drawn on maps.  Or even human rights.  All only real because we’ve decided to believe in them."

But if human rights or any of our other values are only real because we’ve decided to believe in them, and not for any objective reason, then Bronowski’s wartime activities were only right (or wrong) if one believes them to have been so.  And capitalism or communism, democracy or dictatorship, terrorism or tolerance, globalization or xenophobia, genocide or foreign aid, are all only right or wrong because you think they are.  Quite a stretch and not one I’m able to make.

Richard Delaney is superb as Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski, initially supremely confident in his world view and the rightness of his actions but apparently ultimately coming to question his wartime activities.  Stella Taylor, as Ava, proves to be a formidable adversary and Andrew Strafford-Baker as Jamie provides the necessary linkage between the two and their conflicting philosophies.  Olivia Hirst is effective as Bronowski’s devoted wife, Rita, and Andy McLeod, as Bronowski’s wartime gay co-worker succeeds in deftly personalizing the emotionally devastating unintended consequences of wartime bombing when he loses his longtime partner, Martyn.

Secret Life of Humans is very creatively structured both in time and space with the characters, both alive and dead, in reality and in their own minds, communicating with one another over a period of decades, and with the simple re-arrangement of bookcases conjuring up images of offices, homes and libraries.  The play raises deep and thought-provoking questions and while no real answers are provided (how could there be?), it all makes for a more than satisfactory theatrical experience.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

TREMOR by Brad Birch in Brits Off Broadway Program at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Paul Rattray and Lisa Diveney in TREMOR.  Photo by Mark Douet.

Tremor by Brad Birch, a beautifully written, thought-provoking, and expertly performed two-hander, is one of the best plays currently being staged as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters.  In exploring its primary theme of survivor guilt, it deals with issues as diverse as our tendency to deny our true feelings and rationalize our real motivations; our desire to discover (or create) meanings and teleological explanations for events where none may exist; our search for guilty parties beyond the obvious (and, similarly, for victims who might not immediately come to mind); and our unconscious racist or ethnic biases (or, conversely our need to be so politically correct that we refuse to recognize realities in our dangerous world).

Sophie (Lisa Diveney) and Tom (Paul Rattray) were among a handful of survivors of a bus crash four years ago.  But while they were fortunate to survive the event physically, they weren’t so lucky psychologically or emotionally.  The trauma destroyed their relationship.  Tom went through a period of excessive drinking and his role in testifying against the bus driver (which resulted in the Muslim driver’s incarceration and made Tom a hero to some and a villain to others ) ultimately cost him his job.  Eventually,Tom did manage to move on: he married, fathered a child, started his own business, and convinced himself that he personally had done nothing wrong.

Sophie didn’t do that well: she remained racked with survivor guilt and failed to comprehend why she was alive when so many others, including children, died.  She continued searching for someone other than the bus driver himself (who may or may not have been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident) to blame for the crash – the police? the government? the bus company? the economic system? – and she continued to fault Tom for what she perceived as his racist attitude toward the bus driver.

When, four years after the accident, Sophie asks Tom to forgive the bus driver (who is on his death bed) the enormity of the difference in their world views becomes obvious to both of them.  But some differences are so great as to be irreconcilable and all we can do is move on.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Russell Dixon Steals the Show in Alan Ayckbourn's A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN

L-R: Frances Marshall, Antony Eden, and Louise Shuttleworth in A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN.  Photo by Tony Bartholomew.

Even now, in his late seventies, the remarkably prolific Alan Ayckbourn shows no signs of slowing down.  His 81st play, A Brief History of Women, premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England in late 2017 and is currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.  (And just for the record, Ayckbourn has already penned his 82nd play, Better Off Dead, which is scheduled to premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in September of this year).

A Brief History of Women relates the rather mundane tale of Anthony “Tony” Spates (Antony Eden), an ordinary man on an ordinary odyssey through life, with some emphasis on his slightly more noteworthy interactions with a small handful of different women.  The play is structured in four parts, set at 20 year intervals in Kirkbridge Manor, a Downton Abbey-ish manor house, in 1925 - or in one of its successor incarnations as the Kirkbridge Preparatory School for Girls (1945), the Kirkbridge Arts Center(1965), and the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel (1985).

When we first encounter Spates he is a 17-year old son of a farmer, serving as a temporary footman at Kirkbridge Manor during an engagement party being thrown by Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall) to celebrate the engagement of her daughter and Lord Edward Kirkbridge’s (Russell Dixon’s) step-daughter, Lady Cynthia (Laura Matthews) to Captain Fergus Ffluke (Laurence Pears).  In the course of the celebration, Lady Caroline has a bit too much to drink - it is, after all, the roaring ‘twenties and “bees knees” are all the rage – which results in her barging into her husband’s study - which she had been forbidden to enter - and so enraging him (by accusing him of being homosexual) that he verges on physically attacking her.  Spates gallantly comes to her rescue and is rewarded by Lady Caroline’s bestowing on him his first “real” kiss.

Twenty years later, at the end of World War II, Kirkbridge Manor has been converted into a relatively expensive girls’ preparatory school.  Through Lady Caroline’s encouragement, intervention and financial support, Spates succeeded in achieving an education well beyond the expectations of a farmer’s son, and now, at age 37, he has returned to what had once been Kirkbridge Manor and now is the Kirkbridge Preparatory School for Girls as an English and Geography teacher.  The school’s headmaster and classics teacher is Dr. Wynford Williams (Russell Dixon) and the other teachers at the school are Eva Miller (Frances Marshall), Phoebe Long (Louise Shuttleworth), Desmond Kennedy (Laurance Pears) and, of greatest significance, Ursula Brock (Laura Matthews) with whom Spates has been carrying on a not so clandestine affair.  Ursula’s grasp of reality is tenuous at best – while she persists in proclaiming her love for Spates, she also persists in her belief that Jimmy, her former fiancé who was killed during the war, will be returning to her – not in Heaven but right here on Earth! – in a blaze of glory.  Which might make for a rather difficult ménage a trois.  Not that it dissuades Ursula from attempting to have sex with Spates in full view of the entire student body, which results, inevitably in Spates’ dismissal.

A generation later, in 1965, the Kirkbridge Preparatory School for Girls (nee Kirkbridge Manor) has undergone yet another transition: it is now the Kirkbridge Arts Centre and Spates is its 57 year-old Administrative Director.  The Centre is preparing for its annual “panto,” a uniquely British winter musical comedy tradition that that integrates children’s fairy tales with British vaudeville, while adhering to various conventions, including the “principal boy” or male juvenile lead (who is usually played by a girl), the “panto dame” (played by a man in outrageously exaggerated drag), ample audience participation, bawdy jokes, and a comedy animal.  The panto for which the Kirkbridge Arts Centre is rehearsing is based on the story of Jack and the Beanstalk:  Dennis Dunbar (Russell Dixon) has written the play, is directing it, and is its panto dame in the role of Jack’s mother;  his wife, Gillian Dunbar (Louise Shuttleworth) is playing the front end of the family cow that Jack will be selling; Pat Wiggly (Frances Marshall) is Jack, the “principal boy”; and Rory Tudor (Laurence Pears)  is the peddler (or “piddler!”) whom Pat encounters on his way to sell the cow.

Gillian gradually reveals to Spates that she and Dennis have less than an ideal marriage, a fact that is underscored when she and Spates realize that when Dennis and Pat left to rehearse their musical duet, they had something more than that in mind.  It is the final nail in the coffin of Dennis and Gillian’s marriage and Spates, who seems to be making something of a habit of catching women on the rebound, is once again available – even if it means playing the rear end of a cow.

By 1985, Kirkbridge Manor once again has been transformed, this time into the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel, an assisted living residence.  Spates is now 77 years old and has retired from his former position as manager of the hotel but is temporarily filling in for the current manager.  Tilly Seabourne-Watson (Laura Matthews) and her husband, Jim Seabourne-Watson (Laurence Pears) have brought their 98-year-old great-grandmother, Caroline Seabourne (Frances Marshall) to stay.  Of course, Caroline Seabourne is (or once was) Lady Caroline Kirkbridge and both she and Spates recall that first kiss.  The world has come full circle.

I must reluctantly admit that I don’t think that this is one of Ayckbourn’s finest works but it is a wonderful vehicle for allowing six very talented performers to exhibit their talents.  Antony Eden is the only one of the six who does not perform multiple roles:  He is Anthony Spates from beginning to end but he does a terrific job as he evolves from callow youth to mature senior citizen.  Frances Marshall is equally impressive in her portrayals of the 38 year-old Caroline and the 98 year-old Caroline.  But there is even more to her than that: she is fine as the ethnically harassed German-Swiss teacher, Eva Miller, and even better yet as the exuberant “principal boy” Pat Wiggly.

Laura Matthews is delightfully charming as Caroline’s insecure daughter, Cynthia; as her patronizing great-granddaughter,Tilly; and as the irrepressible and delusional Ursula.  And in a complete about-face, she pulls off the role of Jenny Tyler, the relatively incompetent and surly stage manager at the Kirkbridge Arts Centre, with equal aplomb.  Laurence Pears is similarly effective in his roles as the upstanding Captain Fergus Ffluke; as Desmond Kennedy, the sports teacher; as Rory Tudor, the mindless hippie; and as Jim Seabourne-Watson, Caroline’s responsible great-grandson.  Louise Shuttleworth also deserves considerable credit as well for her portrayals of Mrs. Reginald Ffluke, Fergus’ mother; of the bigoted Phoebe Long; of the long-suffering Gillian Dunbar; and of Ruby Jensen, the receptionist at the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel.

But I have saved the very best for last.  Russell Dixon is brilliant as the selfish, misogynist, and brutish Lord Edward Kirkbridge.  He is even better as the stultified headmaster, Wynford Williams.  And he is simply phenomenal as Dennis Dunbar, the panto dame.  (He also has a minor role as Gordon, the hall porter at the Kirkbridge Hotel, that appears to have been thrown in by Ayckbourn as something of an afterthought but there’s no reason to hold that against him.)  Indeed, if anyone truly deserves standing ovations for his performances, it is Russell Dixon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES by Adam Rapp at 59E59 Theaters

Carolyn Molloy in THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES.  Photo by Anthony LaPenn.

Adam Rapp may be a highly successful and acclaimed playwright – he does have two OBIE Awards to his credit and in 2006 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist - but his work is not to everyone’s liking.  Assuredly, it is not to mine.  In general, I have found his plays to have been gratuitously scatological and/or sexually disturbing, with an undue emphasis on bodily functions.  And, to my mind, The Edge of Our Bodies, currently receiving its New York premiere in a TUTA Theatre production at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan is more of the same.

The Edge of Our Bodies is the coming-of-age-story of Bernadette (Carolyn Molloy), a precocious sixteen-year-old girl who is confronting all of the crises that a girl of her age might expect to face - and then some.  Her family is thoroughly dysfunctional: her father is directing a television show in Los Angeles where he is carrying on an affair with a stewardess, while Bernadette resides in Connecticut with her mother (who is hooked on Xanax and anti-depressants and who wouldn’t mind having an affair with her South American massage therapist herself); before play’s end, her parents are on the verge of divorce.  Meanwhile, her sister Ellen, a grad student at Harvard, living with her boyfriend in Cambridge, recently underwent an abortion and, at least to the best of Bernadette’s knowledge, “never seemed to care much about it one way or the other.”

As for Bernadette herself, she recently realized that her Brooklyn-based nineteen-year-old boyfriend’s preferred method of birth control – withdrawal at the last possible moment before ejaculation – wasn’t as effective as they both had expected it to be and so she has taken the train from Connecticut to New York and the subway to Brooklyn to let him know that they really should have used condoms (despite the fact that neither of them liked them) and that since they didn’t – well, she’s pregnant.  Unfortunately, when she arrives unannounced in Brooklyn, her boyfriend, Michael, is nowhere to be found and she spends most of the evening with Michael’s father, Wayne, who is undergoing headache-inducing and nausea-inducing chemotherapy treatments for prostate cancer.  Oh, and lest I forget, Wayne’s wife (Michael’s mother) has abandoned her family and is nowhere to be found, although she may be in Costa Rica.

And it all gets much worse.  When Bernadette is unable to connect with Michael, there really is nothing left for her to do but return to Connecticut, which she does.  Before boarding her train home, however, she stops off at a bar where she’s “lucky” enough not to be carded and where she allows herself to be picked up by Marc, a man more than old enough to be her father, who whisks her off to the China Town Holiday Inn where she distastefully (albeit enthusiastically) participates with him in his pursuit of his masturbatory sexual fantasies. Once he has “relieved” himself and fallen asleep, she has no qualms about further “relieving” his wallet of $20.  Then on to Connecticut.

But wait.  Unfortunately, Bernadette doesn’t have enough money to purchase a ticket that will get her all the way home so she contacts her mother who drives for ninety minutes to pick her up in New Haven.  Eventually Bernadette hears from Michael and learns that his father has committed suicide.  Reluctantly she concludes that her relationship with Michael is over too.  But not to worry.  Bernadette’s best friend, Briel, drives her to an abortion clinic and, while she undergoes a couple of days of subsequent pain and discomfort, it’s nothing that can’t be managed through some combination of pancakes, vanilla wafers, marijuana and sheer willpower.

In sum, it is all a consummate mess requiring a greater suspension of disbelief than I, for one, am capable of mustering.  I find it quite preposterous, for example, that a sixteen-year-old girl could simply leave her Connecticut boarding school with neither her mother’s nor the school’s knowledge, take the train to New York, arrive unannounced at her boyfriend’s home in Brooklyn, and remain out of touch with her family and school for the better part of a day, without setting off alarm bells.  And I find it equally incomprehensible that her mother would be so nonchalant about her daughter’s behavior that she wouldn’t mind driving for ninety minutes in the middle of the night to pick her up and, given the circumstances, subsequently wouldn’t even “ground” her.  Or that her school would let her off with nothing more than a “warning.”

Similarly, it is hardly believable that Bernadette would blithely accept the tawdry request of a stranger old enough to be her father that she participate with him in his sexual fantasies – and that no harm would come to her as a result.  Or that she wouldn’t have insisted on being with the boy she claimed to love so deeply in his greatest moment of need when his father committed suicide.  Or that she could be so cavalier about her parent’s impending divorce or her own abortion.

But all of this presumes, of course, that the story that Bernadette has told – the play is, in effect, an 80 minutes monologue – is fundamentally true and not simply a figment of a young girl’s imagination.  Bernadette is, after all, a prevaricator: we know that she has lied to any number of people about her name, her school, her birthplace, her parents’ occupations, and who knows what else?  She is also an aspiring short story writer and an accomplished actress.   Might she not also be lying or fantasizing about her abortion, Wayne’s death, her boyfriend, or her parents’ divorce?

My speculation is that she is not.  I think that the fundamental premises of the play are meant to be believed (difficult as that may be) but I am much less certain about such peripheral events as her relationship with Marc or her casual encounters with strangers on the train.  And therein lie the rubs: if we really can’t tell how much of what we have been told should be accepted as true and how much ought be perceived as a figment of Bernadette’s imagination, and if even that which we believe we are expected to accept as true strains credulity, how then are we to make sense of her coming-of-age passage?

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Ben Caplan in OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY.  Photo by Stoo Metz Photography.
When Fiddler on the Roof, adapted from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, was first staged on Broadway in 1964, there were those who carped that it was unduly sanitized and superficial.  They were distressed that a Russian officer was portrayed in the musical as sympathetic, rather than cruel, as Sholem Aleichem had described him.  And they were even more upset that whereas in Aleichem’s stories, Tevya the Milkman ends up alone, his wife dead, and his daughters scattered, in the musical adaptation the entire family is still alive at the end of the show and most are on their way together to a new life in America.

Fortunately, those critics did not prevail and Fiddler, sanitized as it was, went on to become one of the great blockbuster musicals of all time: it won nine Tony Awards, was enormously profitable and highly acclaimed, was the first musical to run for more than 3,000 performances, and is still the sixteenth longest running show in Broadway history.  The creators and producers of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, written by Hannah Moscovitch and now premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, would have been well-advised to bear the lessons of Fiddler in mind but unfortunately they did not.  And so, instead of a joyously entertaining yiddishkeit musical, we are being treated instead to a depressing rendition of the Jewish immigrant experience with excessive emphasis on the horrors of Romanian pogroms (even if it is set to klezmer music) – a truth that even Ben Caplan himself, the star of the show, cannot deny: in an aside to the audience he exclaims –

You guys all right out there?
It’s getting dark.
It’s getting a little dark
The laughs are turning into “why the fuck did I come and see this depressing show”

Well said, Ben.  I couldn’t agree more.

Fiddler set a very high bar for success for yiddishkeit musicals and Zero Mostel and Topol, both of whom starred in it at different times as Tevya, will long be remembered in the annals of theatrical history for their outstanding performances.  Ben Caplan is also an immensely talented performer - charming, personable and energetic to a fault – and I think he would prove a worthy successor to Mostel and Topol were he to be given the chance of reprising the role of Tevya in Fiddler.  Unfortunately, however, he is not currently being provided with that opportunity, starring instead in Old Stock – which is a far cry from Fiddler.  In this depressingly tasteless musical, Mr. Caplan’s enormous talents are largely squandered.  (Not that Mr. Caplan doesn’t have himself much to blame for that circumstance: in addition to starring in this production as The Wanderer, he also was responsible, together with Christian Barry, the play’s director, for writing most of the musical’s songs.)

Old Stock is the story of Chaya Yankovitch (Mary Fay Coady) and Chaim Moscovitch (Chris Weatherstone), two young Jewish Romanian emigrants to Canada in the early years of the Twentieth Century.  Chaya is 24 years old and has come to Canada with her extended family of 17.  Her husband, Yoachy, her one true love, died of typhus in Russia on the road they were traveling on their way from Romania to Canada and she lost the unborn child she was carrying on the same road.  Although her brothers may remain in the New World, ultimately she intends to return to Romania because she can’t bear the thought of an ocean separating her both from Yoachy’s and her father’s graves.

Chaim is 19 years old and has arrived in Canada alone, his entire family having been killed in Romania in a brutal pogrom.  He has no desire to ever return to Romania since, unlike Chaya, he got out of Romania “too late” - only after his family was destroyed - and Romania holds no attraction for him.

When Chaim first meets Chaya in 1908, it is love at first sight for him and he is eager for her to marry him.  Chaya eventually agrees, accepting guidance from her father to do so, but for her it is much more a marriage of convenience.  Over time, however, Chaim and Chaya do have four children – and eight grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren.  And fourteen great-great-great grandchildren with, hopefully, many more yet to come.

My disappointment with Old Stock, however, is not only that it is unduly depressing and gratuitously gory in its descriptions of Romanian pogroms, but also that it is tasteless, puerile, and misogynistic while paying lip service to political correctness.

For example, in a sophomoric song rife with platitudes, we are told that we should -  

ask for consent before you put your dick in –

Similarly, in another song that might have been composed by the Administration and Faculty of Antioch College, we are told again and again that –

Her pleasure is your obligation, if she gives the invitation
Has the right of course to say she’s not quite in the mood to play
Consent is still always de rigueur, you’ve gotta check with her.

But the truth, as attested to by the lyrics of the musical’s other numbers, is that sexual relations are perceived in the basest, most misogynistic, most puerile, and most anti-feminist manner.  To wit, sexual relations are described as, among other things -

Banana in the fruit salad…
Batter-dipping the corn dog
Bringing an al dente noodle to the spaghetti house
Cattle-prodding the oyster ditch with the lap rocket
Cleaning the cobwebs with the womb broom…
Going crab fishing in the Dead Sea
Parking the Beef Bus in Tuna Town… [and]
Roughing up the suspect

And so, when we’re also gratuitously informed that there –

ain’t nothing wrong with homosexuality –

(even though the play has nothing to do with homosexuality) and when, at play’s end, in a final PC homage to the trans-gender community (which the play also has nothing to do with), Ben thanks us all for our attendance by addressing us as –

…Ladies and Gentlemen and those who identify outside the binary…

my only reaction is “Please, please, spare me the sanctimony.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

EDUCATION by Brian Dykstra at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Elizabeth Meadows Rouse and Jane West in EDUCATION.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Bryan Dykstra has covered all his liberal-progressive bases (or should that be biases) in Education, his two-act play currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The play’s principal male protagonist, Mick (Wesley T. Jones) is an exceptionally intelligent high school senior with artistic pretensions and youthful rebellious enthusiasms; unsurprisingly, he is is cast as bi-racial, was orphaned as a young child, and was raised by his white uncle, Gordon (Matthew Boston), a highly articulate atheistic law professor.  The play’s principal female protagonist is Mick’s girlfriend, Bekka (Jane West), a high school junior who is white, similarly rebellious, and a singularly outspoken poet whose work is laced with expletives.   Bekka’s mother, Sandy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) is a God-fearing woman, much taken to citing the scriptures in support of her narrow-minded right wing religious beliefs while Bekka’s father (who we never actually meet) is a fundamentalist Christian deacon so mired in his primitive theology that it comes as little surprise when it turns out that he beats his daughter.  Rounding out the cast is Mr. Kirks (Bruce Faulk), the (similarly gratuitously bi-racial) principal of the school that Mick and Bekka attend who rues the fact that he has sold out his youthful liberal principles so that he might abide by the rules (arbitrary or not) and maintain some semblance of order at his school.

And there you have it:  Mr. Dykstra has written a play with a number of easily demolished straw men - flag-waving patriots, rule-bound types, and Christian believers – all of whom are presented as two-dimensional caricatures (the “dragons”), while those who are free speech advocates, atheists, academicians, quasi-activists, and young rebels passionately devoted to the expression of their “art,” are, of course, the “dragon slayers.”

Mick’s first art project is a trivial flag burning construct, for which he is summarily suspended from school.  His next project, the creation and burning of an effigy of Jesus made of dollar bills (so that he might attack both religion and capitalism in one fell swoop and for which he engages Bekka’s support), has even direr consequences.  When Bekka’s father beats her, he reveals his true sadistic nature.  When Sandy seeks to convince Gordon to keep Mick away from Bekka, she reveals her underlying racism.  When Gordon rejects Sandy’s entreaties, he exhibits the transcendent superiority of political correctness, academia, and atheism.  And when Mick and Bekka refuse to capitulate to the pressures brought to bear upon them, they establish that they, today’s youth, are, indeed, the true “dragon slayers.”

It is all too neat and predictable by half and this would have been a much better play if Mr. Dykstra had provided Mick and Bekka with more formidable antagonists in the personae of Bekka’s parents and Mr.Kirks.  But be that as it may and surprising as it may seem, Education still turns out to be quite an enjoyable play.  And there are two reasons for that.
First, while Mr. Dykstra may have fallen short on plot and character development, there is no denying that he has a wonderful ear for language.  Bekka’s conversation with Mr. Kirks concerning her Fuck Poem and her subsequent recitation of the poem itself are absolutely terrific as is the dialogue between Sandy and Gordon on the topic of separating Mick and Bekka.

Even more important, however, this play’s production has been blessed with a remarkable cast.  All five of the play’s actors are truly first rate but I was especially taken with Jane West as the fetchingly exuberant Bekka; with Elizabeth Meadows Rouse who perfectly expresses the small-mindedness of those on the extreme religious right; and with Matthew Boston who exquisitely succeeds in personifying the intellectual arrogance and self-satisfaction of all too many of today’s lawyers and academicians.