Monday, January 15, 2018

THE 2018 LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Autumn Dornfeld in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
This year’s LaBute New Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan consists of three one act plays: Hate Crime by Neil LaBute, Winter Break by James Haigney and Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis.  Of the three, Haigney’s Winter Break stands head and shoulders above the other two: it is a brilliantly scripted exposition of the disconnect that exists between those who view the worldwide Islamic movement as nothing worse than a long overdue counterbalancing corrective to the flaws and excesses inherent in Western Civilization’s focus on the rights of the individual, the Judeo-Christian tradition, capitalism and other free market democratic principles (or at the very least nothing more than a movement predicated on Shariah-based moral principles fully as deserving of respect as our own more secular-oriented ethos), and those who perceive in the Islamic movement the gravest threat confronting our world since the rise of fascism and Nazism in the1930s and 1040s.

L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Spencer Sickmann in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Joanna Khouri (Kelly Schaschl), a 21-year old student raised in suburbia as an Episcopalian, has converted to Islam (changing her name to Aisha in the process) and is planning to travel to Turkey to live and study with the Sufis for two-and-a-half weeks during her school’s winter break.  Her mother, Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) (who wouldn’t know a Sunni from a Sufi) is understandably distraught by this turn of events and Joanna’s brother, Bailey (Spencer Sickmann), a graduate student in sociology who fancies himself something of an expert on cultures other than his own, is convinced that if his kid sister follows through on her plans she will be decapitated in the Middle East or be brainwashed into returning to the United States as a terrorist.  Haigney has done a superb job in depicting the alternative realities perceived by the three Khouris and Schaschl, Dornfeld and Sickmann are terrific at conveying their distinctively differing emotional states. 

L-R: Chauncy Thomas and Spencer Sickmann in HATE CRIME, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Neil LaBute’s Hate Crime, on the other hand, was disappointing.  Indeed, I don’t think it was a fully developed play at all but little more than an idea for one which was never brought to fruition.  A rather submissive young gay man (Spencer Sickmann) is about to marry his older partner but, before the marriage is consummated, he falls in love with a tough alpha-male gay man (Chauncy Thomas).  The two new partners plot to kill the older gay man on the day of the wedding and to make the murder look like a hate crime.  And that’s it.  We have no idea what subsequently happens and, frankly, the set-up required so great a suspension of disbelief that I didn’t much care.  LaBute is, of course, a master of language and dialog and so, unsurprisingly, there are occasional moments of sharp wit and humor even in this theatrical fragment (I hesitate to refer to it as a one act play).  And both Thomas and Sickmann play their roles with gusto.  But it’s just not enough.

L-R: Autumn Dornfeld and Chauncy Thomas in PERCENTAGE AMERICA, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The third play, Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, is based on a very clever series of conceits: (1) that we all lie in our personal relationships (about our ages, our residences, our educational attainments, our occupations, our families, and on and on; (2) that these lies segue into our acceptance of lies on a grander scale in the form of “fake news” and “alternative facts” in political, national and world affairs; and (3) that stripping away all the lies and spin to arrive at the kernel of “truth” in what we are told is the greatest erotic turn-on of all.  Arial (Autumn Dornfeld) and Andrew (Chauncy Thomas) are on a first date (perhaps resulting from an internet connection), finishing off pizza and wine in Arial’s apartment.  They’ve succeeded in good-naturedly stripping away one another’s self-aggrandizing self-descriptions as if it is a sort of foreplay before they get down to the serious stuff of stripping the world at large of its dishonesty.  Both Dornfeld and Thomas are passionate actors and they play their roles for all they’re worth but it doesn’t quite work.  I think the play has great promise but it’s not there yet and could use another couple of workshops.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A REGULAR LITTLE HOUDINI at 59E59 Theaters

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams in A REGULAR LITTLE HOUDINI.  Photo by Sheri Bankes.
The Christmas season - traditionally a time of hope, dreams and magic - well may be the very best time to stage a play like A Regular Little Houdini, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters.  Written and performed by the very appealing and multi-talented David Llewelyn-Williams, the play explores the world of Alan John Williams, the young son of a Welsh dockworker, who aspired to escape his working class background and emulate his hero, Harry Houdini, by creating for himself an alternative life of magic, liberation and “amazements.”

David Llewelyn-Williams delivers a strong performance as Alan John Williams (and of the rest of his family to boot), dealing not only with Harry Houdini’s (and Alan’s) magical and escapist escapades but also with the most serious issues of life, death and survival.  In addition, however, he has sprinkled his performance with delightful bits of sleight-of-hand and other legerdemain that lighten the mood and never fail to entertain.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

CROSS THAT RIVER by Allan and Pat Harris at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Carolyn Leonhart, Jeffery Lewis, Maya Azucena and Allan Harris in CROSS THAT RIVER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Allan Harris, the acclaimed jazz musician, and his wife, Pat, devoted a decade to the development of Cross That River, and we can be glad they did.  Currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters, Cross That River is much more than a musical success – though it truly is that – with its remarkable score that runs the gamut from jazz to blues and from gospel to country western.  It is, in addition, the uplifting tale of Blue (played by Allan Harris himself as an adult and by Jeffrey Lewis as a youth), a runaway slave who was separated from his mother as a child and raised by his aunt, Mama Lila( Maya Azucena).  Blue manages to escape from slavery in Louisiana to freedom in Texas, becoming one of America’s first black cowboys, eventually leading a cattle drive to Abilene.  Along the way, he interfaces with a most diverse cast of characters: Courtney (Carolyn Leonhart), his master’s white daughter and his first love; a nameless old white man who guides him across the Sabine River to freedom; a mule skinner cook; the remnants of a tribe of renegade Comanche Indians; a regiment of black Buffalo Soldiers; Annie (also played by Maya Azucena), an exploited mail order bride; and the denizens of Diamond Jim’s  - assorted whores, gunslingers and card sharps.

The musical’s transcendent theme is man’s unquenchable thirst for freedom, whether he be a black slave prior to the Civil War, a Native American confined to a reservation, a woman exploited by a brutal paternalistic society, or an immigrant to our shores.   But what makes the play so timely today is its insistent focus on the fact that while America was never perfect and still isn’t, it is consistently evolving in the right direction and that that evolution is dependent upon the cooperative inter-relationship of all classes in our society.  It thus provides a sorely needed rejoinder to the polarizing forces in today’s world who see everything in terms of identity politics, whether they be white supremacists and anti-immigrant die-hards on the right or supporters of groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter on the left.

The musicians onstage are all extremely talented – Alan Grubner on violin, Miki Hayama on keyboard, Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion, Seth Johnson on guitar, and Jay White on bass and vocals – but it was Shirazette Tinnin who really blew me away with her extraordinary riff conjuring up the thunderous galloping of horses’ hooves.

Shirazette Tinnin in CROSS THAT RIVER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The four actors were also exceptionally talented – Allan Harris as Blue; Jeffrey Lewis as Young Blue; Maya Azucena as Mama Lila, Annie, a saloon hall girl, a Native American woman, and young Lila; and Carolyn Leonhart as Courtney, a saloon hall girl and as a Native American woman.  But for my money, it was Maya Azucena who really stole the show in both of her principal roles as Mama Lila and as Annie, not only in her ability to really belt out a song but in her expression of a deeply sensuous feline sexuality.


Maya Azucena in CROSS THAT RIVER.  photo by Carol Rosegg.

Friday, November 17, 2017

THE MAD ONES by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Krystina Alabado and Leah Hocking in THE MAD ONES.  Photo by Richard Termine.
The Mad Ones by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, is a rather traditional coming-of-age story set to music.  It revolves around Samantha Brown (Kristina Albado), the female valedictorian of her high school class, as she seeks to steer her own course in life while being buffeted by her well-meaning but strongly opinionated mother, Beverly (Leah Hocking); her cool, impulsive and free-spirited best friend, Kelly (Emma Hunton); and her genially laid back and loyal boyfriend, Adam (Jay Armstrong Johnson).
 
Beverly is a brilliant, Harvard-educated, tenured professor of statistics who knows exactly what she wants for Sam: she expects Sam to attend her alma mater almost as a matter of course.  Kelly knows what she wants too (at least some of the time): she is a bright, solid-B student, planning to attend the state university and hopeful that Sam will accompany her there, rather than going to Harvard or one of the other Ivies.  (Except, of course, when Kelly’d rather chuck it all and just take off for anywhere else.)  And Adam is certain of what he wants as well: he’d like to skip college, take over his father’s tire shop – and hang on to Sam.  It is only Sam who doesn’t really know what she wants.
 
Sam’s coming-of-age story is presented metaphorically as if it were to be one long road trip.  Her principal rite of passage is passing her driver’s test – which certainly is much more meaningful than the loss of her virginity to Adam or any transactions she might have at CVS.  Her guidebook is Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”   And the road trip she ultimately takes will be taken with Kelly.  Or with Adam.  Or inevitably alone.

The Mad Ones is mildly entertaining.  I enjoyed the music and the performances were all solid but the play itself really didn’t break any new ground.  In casting the role of Sam, the playwrights suggested that she should be an “infinitely inventive and exciting actress,” that she “transform into the star of the show,” and that “witnessing her metamorphosis is the theatrical purpose of the evening,” but if that was their goal, it didn’t work for me.  Kristina Albado was certainly a most competent and professional actress but her performance was dwarfed by those of Emma Hunton as Kelly and Leah Hocking as Beverly.  Indeed, it was Leah Hocking’s bravura rendition of “Miles to Go,” a feminist rallying cry, that was the closest thing to a show stopper.  (The role of Adam, which was effectively played by Jay Armstrong Johnson, will be taken over by Ben Fankhauser on December 5.)

Monday, November 6, 2017

COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN in Revival by Regeneration Theatre

L-R: Nicole Greevy, Lynnsey Lewis, and Sonja Gabrielsen in COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN.
When Ed Graczyk’s memory play, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was first staged on Broadway in 1982, it suffered from three serious shortcomings: (1) it addressed too many different issues for one play, (2) none of its surprise disclosures were really surprising, and (3) the issues it dealt with – ranging from transgenderism to breast cancer didn’t resonate with the public the way they do today.  Not surprisingly, the play was poorly received both by the critics and by the public (in his review for the New York Times, Frank Rich opined that it would “benefit from a new script, a total restaging and a revamped set”) and it closed after only 52 performances.
 
Despite that experience, however, Robert Altman, the play’s director, was not to be deterred and, having acquired the movie rights to the play, he doubled down and directed a film adaptation of the play with the same cast.  Alas, the film fared no better with the public or the critics than had the Broadway production with Vincent Canby of the New York Times allowing that “Ed Graczyk's screenplay, based on his flop play as directed by Mr. Altman on Broadway this year, is small, but less likely to be salvaged in the near future than even the Titanic. It's a sincerely preposterous, bathetic, redneck comedy-drama that sounds as if its author had learned all about life by watching ''Studio One'' at his mother's knee.”

In light of those inauspicious beginnings, one can only marvel at Regeneration Theatre’s courageous decision to launch an off-Broadway revival of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean after more than thirty years.  And yet they did.  And, surprisingly, we can be glad that they did.

For the fact is that, remarkable as it may seem, Regeneration Theatre’s revival at the Workshop Theatre on West 36th Street in midtown Manhattan is an entertaining production.  It still suffers from its attempt to deal with too many different issues, ranging from transgenderism to breast cancer, from religious fervor to infertility, from the consequences of unprotected sex to mental retardation, from alcoholism to psychological delusion, and on and on – and from its predictability.  But the play is no longer too far ahead of the times: issues that were only on the periphery of society’s awareness in the 1950s and 1970s (e.g. transgenderism and breast cancer) are now front and center in our consciousness.

To be sure, the play is very dated in the attitudes it exposes but that is to be expected.  It is, after all, a memory play reflecting public attitudes in 1955 and 1975, back when sex and gender were virtually interchangeable terms, when transgendered persons were indistinguishable from hermaphrodites, and when breast cancer was an embarrassment.  We’ve come a long way since then (even if not quite far enough) but the play is very effective in reminding us of how things once were.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean revolves around the members of a James Dean Fan Club, The Disciples, who reunite at a Five and Dime store in McCarthy, Texas in 1975 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the death of the actor James Dean who was filming Giant in Marfa, not far from McCarthy, at the time of his death.  Mona (Nicole Greevy in 1975 and Linnsey Lewis in 1955) was the president of the club, was and still is its most forceful member, revels in the recollection of what she perceives as having been her greatest achievement (that she actually was chosen to be an extra in Giant), and is the mother of a son named Jimmy Dean whose paternity is uncertain.  Sissy (Ariana Figueroa in 1975 and Sonja Gabrielsen in 1955) is the most sexually promiscuous of the bunch and takes the most pride in the size of her breasts.  Back in 1955, Mona, Sissy and their sexually ambivalent male friend, Joe (Elliot Frances Flynn), enjoyed lip-synching to performances of the Maguire Sisters.

Juanita (Monica Rey) manages the Five and Dime but doesn’t seem much involved in the Disciples’ activities.  Stella May (Kristin Sgarro) is the Disciple who married an oilman and made it big – if financial wealth is your measure of success.  On the other hand, Edna (Rebecca Miller) may be the one who really made it big – if one is to go by the size of her belly: when she shows up for the reunion, she is pregnant with her seventh child.

Which only leaves Joanne (Chris Clark), the unrecognizable stately woman in high heels who arrives in a yellow Porsche.  But I bet you can guess who she really is.

As the play wears on, each of the characters gets to reveal her secrets and their performances and disclosures are generally entertaining.  It is fun and I did enjoy it.  But it is still totally predictable and platitudinous and there are no blockbuster surprises.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

NO WAKE by William Donnelly Opens at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Tricia Small, Stef Tovar, and Tim Ransom in NO WAKE.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Rebecca (Tricia Small) is a sexually aggressive, manipulative woman – apparently most comfortable when she is literally and figuratively “on top” - who succeeded in seducing Nolan (Stef Tovar) several years ago.  But just look at what it got her: an unintended pregnancy which resulted in the birth of her daughter, Sukey (a psychologically damaged girl from whom she has long been estranged); an unhappy marriage to Nolan (Sukey’s father), a relatively indecisive, passive and defeatist individual, who ultimately abandoned her; and, eventually, a bitter divorce.  Rebecca has moved on since then to her second marriage to Padgett (Tim Ransom) – an Englishman as weak-willed as his predecessor but with a somewhat amusing British veneer, who sees himself, probably correctly, as “lacking,” “deficient,” and “less than fifty percent man.”  Nolan has moved on too, but to nothing more than a series of trivial relationships.

Under ordinary circumstances, Rebecca and Nolan might never have seen each other again but the circumstances in No Wake by William Donnelly, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, are decidedly not ordinary: Sukey has committed suicide and her parents are now in the process of arranging her funeral and memorial service (there is to be no wake not only because Catholics don’t do wakes for suicides but also because Sukey apparently had specified at some time that she never wanted a wake) and to sort through the remnants of her life.

There is probably no tragedy that parents can experience that is any worse than the suicide of a child and it would be reasonable, I imagine, for one to have expected that, in the course of this play, we would be treated to an exploration, or at least a depiction, of the emotional toll that such a tragic event can take.  Indeed, in the play’s press release, we are told that when Rebecca and Nolan “are forced to confront an unspeakable tragedy, they must navigate their complicated feelings of guilt, relief and grief” and we are assured that “acidically funny and brutally honest, No Wake unpacks the grieving process and the aftermath that death brings to those left behind.”

But to my mind, the play did no such thing, falling far short of the incisive analysis of Sukey and of her parents that we had been led to expect.  We don’t really discover why Sukey so hated her parents that she opted to estrange herself from them, let alone why she committed suicide.  We don’t learn much about the relationship between Rebecca and either of her two husbands either.  And we’re left high and dry in making sense of Rebecca and Nolan’s reaction to Sukey’s death or even to one another after the fact.

What we do learn, however, is that the play’s title is just too clever by half: ostensibly it refers not only to the decision not to hold a wake for Sukey but also to the fact that Rebecca, Nolan and Padgett are consistently reluctant to act decisively (don’t make waves, leave no wake – get it?)

At one point late in the play, Padgett confides in Nolan about the failure of his first marriage (pre-Rebecca) and says that “where I should have boiled, I evaporated.”  And that, unfortunately, was my reaction to this play itself: where it should have boiled, it evaporated.

It is at least possible, however, that I am being somewhat unfair to the playwright.  Perhaps it actually was his intention, all along, to show that different people may react to tragedies in different ways and that even in the case of a tragic suicide such as this, some parents may experience nothing more than numbness.  If so, he did succeed.  But, unfortunately, it led to something of a numbness in me as well and I doubt if that could possibly have been his intent.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

THE VIOLIN by Dan McCormick Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone and Kevin Isola in THE VIOLIN.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The Violin by Dan McCormick, currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is an immensely entertaining modern fairy tale set in the pre-gentrified Lower East Side.  All of the ingredients are there (albeit in somewhat mysterious or disguised form – omens and harbingers, departed souls, severed limbs, strange occurrences, secret passages, lucky discoveries, and, ultimately, happily-ever-aftering).

And so, when Terry (Devin Isola), who is mildly retarded (euphemistically described by his mother as “her special child”) lost both his parents in a flash he readily accepted the assurances of his older brother, Bobby (Peter Bradbury), a petty thief who survives by burglarizing stores and stealing cars but who is utterly devoted to Terry, that they had not really died but simply had been called to Heaven to be with God and that they might even return one day.  When Terry’s palms begin to itch, he takes it as an omen that money is about to come his way and, sure enough, while he finds no Aladdin’s Lamp nor Philosopher’s Stone nor even a winning lottery ticket, he does find a violin – a Stradivarius, no less – left in his gypsy cab.  Terry does not realize the violin’s worth nor how it may change their lives, but Bobby quickly does and hatches a plot to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars in reward money from its rightful owner for its return.

To that end, Bobby enlists the assistance of Gio (Robert LuPone), a skilled tailor (doesn’t every good fairy tale require a skilled tailor?) who is “legendary” in his neighborhood (or at least believes himself to be).  But the fact is that Gio’s father not only taught Gio the trade but also imbued him with morals and integrita, which leads Gio to be deeply conflicted over the entire affair.

Meanwhile, the mysteries (all of which are, in fact, resolved by play’s end) pile up.  What actually did happen to Bobby and Terry’s parents?  Why did Gio never marry, what was his relationship to Bobby and Terry’s parents, and why has he always been something of a father figure to both men?  Why does Gio only sit facing the door, as did his father before him?  And what, if anything, does the clutter in his shop conceal?  Is there any significance to the boot Bobby stumbled over on 14th Street – the one with the severed foot still in it?  And, of course, how will the violin caper turn out?

Robert LuPone is dispassionately cool as Gio, gradually providing us with most of the answers to our questions as he peels away the layers of his, Bobby’s and Terry’s lives.  Kevin Isola is mischievously charming as Terry (although he appears to be much less intellectually challenged and much more socially unaware than his description as “retarded” or “special” would have led us to believe; it is difficult, for example, to accept his expressing his having experienced an “epiphany” as he does - but that is not meant as a criticism of Isola; he played the role as it was written and did a fine job at that).

Best of all, however, is Peter Bradbury who provides an exceptionally rich portrayal of Bobby – a small time amoral hood who, at one and the same time, is fully committed to caring for his younger brother, despite being frequently and openly exasperated by him.  It is a complex role to play and Bradbury succeeds brilliantly.