Monday, November 30, 2015

Outstanding Revival of GOOD BOYS AND TRUE by Retro Productions

Retro Productions is an exceptionally talented theatre company dedicated to the presentation of “good theatrical stories that have an historical perspective - with an emphasis on the 20th century.”  Since 2005, it has staged eighteen full length plays to considerable acclaim, including terrific revivals of Michael Frayn’s Benefactors in 2010 and George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man earlier this year.  Now in its eleventh season it is reviving Good Boys and True by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, an excellent production that can only further enhance Retro’s well-earned reputation.

Good Boys and True had its world premiere at The Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 and its New York premiere at the Second Stage Theater the following year.  Moreover, the tale it tells, centering on the ramifications of the discovery and dissemination of a sexually explicit video tape, takes place in 1988, a generation earlier.  And yet this revival does not come across as dated at all.  Indeed, although the internet and sexting may have supplanted videotaping in today’s world, the play’s message is as salient today as it ever was.

Brandon Hardy (Ryan Pater) is an upper class upperclassman - a handsome, popular, intelligent senior at the prestigious and elite St. Joseph’s Preparatory School for Boys located in a suburb of Washington, D.C.  He is the son of two medical doctors, he is the captain of his school’s football team, and he has just been accepted to Dartmouth.  In sum, he would appear to have it all – until Coach Russell Shea (C. K. Allen) discovers a sex tape in which the male protagonist bears a striking resemblance to Brandon.  The female protagonist appears to be a working class girl from one of the public schools in the area, clearly not one of the upper class girls from one of St. Joseph’s sister schools.  To put the best light on it, the boy on the tape may have been exploiting, objectifying and using the girl for nothing but his own gratification; at worst, the tape might have been depicting rape.

Coach Shea, a friend of Brandon’s family (he was one of Brandon’s father’s classmates and teammates at St. Joseph’s a generation earlier), is as concerned (or even more so) over his school’s reputation and the potential consequences of the tape’s dissemination for Brandon and his parents as he is about the welfare of the girl or the implications of the tape’s having been made in the first place.  To that end, he enlists the aid of Brandon’s mother. Elizabeth Hardy (Heather E. Cunningham), entrusting her with the tape so that she might view it for herself, confront her son, and determine whether or not he actually is the boy on the tape.  Only then would they determine what action to take.

Spoiler Alert: Brandon does turn out to have been the boy on the tape and the girl, Cheryl Moody (Rebecca Gray Davis) was a working class public school girl he picked up at the mall.  The tape ends up being broadly disseminated (you really never can put the genie back in the bottle) and the repercussions for all concerned are considerable.

But that’s the easy part.  The mystery of who did what is relatively simple to determine but the question of why such things happen at all is much more difficult.  And it is the attempt to understand the “why,” not the “what,” that makes this such an interesting play.

The actual motivations that inform our actions often are unknown – even to ourselves.  As it turns out, Brandon’s closest friend at St. Joseph’s is Justin Simmons (Stephan Amenta) who has also applied to Dartmouth; in fact, the two intend to room together in college.  But Justin is not only gay and out of the closet but also services Brandon orally from time to time.  So was Brandon’s behavior as depicted on the sex tape an attempt to repress his own homosexual inclinations?  Did he make the tape and connive to have it discovered in order to affirm his own heterosexuality?

Cheryl admits to being more than suspicious when Brandon brought her to his friend’s empty house for their sexual romp and she is seen smiling on the tape at its inception.  So was she complicit in the entire affair or is it impermissible to even consider such a thing since to do so would constitute “blaming the victim”?

In the course of the play, we learn of Elizabeth’s own questionable behavior a generation earlier (as well as that of Coach Shea and of Brandon’s own father) when they were no older than Brandon is today.  Are they guilty of providing Brandon with a sense of entitlement and creating an environment in which such behavior would not only be acceptable but could flourish?

Is Brandon just a normal decent adolescent whose hormones ran rampant on one fateful day?  Or is he a basically bad kid with slightly sadistic tendencies who just didn’t think the rules applied to him?

In a program note, Heather Cunningham, the Retro’s Producing Artistic Director (who also plays the part of Elizabeth Hardy) understandably and quite justifiably focuses her attention on the play’s most overt message:

Rape culture and negative attitudes toward women are pervasive in our society.  It’s in how we address each other every day.  Slut shaming is nothing new – it’s been around since the 50’s and beyond.  “She’s easy” or “She’s a tease” have simply been replaced by “She’s a slut” and “She’s a whore.”  Making “those women” somehow “less than”.  Not important.  Not worthy of respect.

So I ask you…and myself…what are we going to do to change it?

Yes, we must change it.  But before we can change it, we really have to understand it and we don’t seem to have even reached that point yet.  Which really is what this play is all about.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Schreiber Revival of HOT L BALTIMORE by Lanford Wilson

L-R: Stephanie Seward, Anna Holbrook, and Alexandra Hellquist in THE HOT L BALTIMORE.  Photo by Bob Degus.
The Hotel Baltimore has seen better days (as evidenced by the missing “e” on the hotel’s sign which accounts for the play’s somewhat unusual title).  So, too, have its long term residents, including three members of the oldest profession.  Suzy (Jill Bianchini) is so accepting of her submissive state that she is prepared to return to a former pimp should she be forced to vacate the hotel, all the while persisting in flouncing about as if she were a glamour queen.  April Green (Stephanie Seward) simply does whatever if takes to keep going, including turning tricks on the floor, on a table, in a bathtub, or wherever.  And the Girl (Alexandra Hellquist) has so little understanding of who she really is that she cannot even decide on a name for herself and persists in seeking alternative worlds incorporating ghosts and concepts of reincarnation which ostensibly would prove to be more palatable to her than her own reality.

Nor will the three hookers be the hotel’s only casualties in the event that it is forced to close (which seems highly likely now that all its residents have received eviction notices).  What is to become of Jackie (Lisa Sobin), a tough, conniving thief and her passively pathetic brother, Jamie (Philip Rosen)?  Or the older folks: the mildly eccentric Mr. Morse (Peter Judd) and the sedate Millie (Ann Holbrook)?  Indeed, we might also ask what will become of the hotel’s employees, Bill Lewis (Jerry Topitzer) and Mrs. Oxenham (Joan D. Saunders).

Not that we’re going to find out.  The Hot L Baltimore by Lanford Wilson, won the Drama Desk and Obie awards for best play when it was first staged in 1973, and it is now being revived in a very professional production by T. Schreiber Studio for Theatre & Film at The Gloria Maddox Theatre on West 26th Street in Manhattan.  But the play wasn’t big on plot structure when it was first produced and, not surprisingly, it isn’t any bigger on plot structure in this latest incarnation.  Rather, its claim to fame rests on its depiction of various individuals and their relationships (trivial though they might be) under all sorts of circumstances.

In my opinion, that is the play’s shortcoming.  This would have been a much better play, I believe, if Wilson had allowed his plot ideas to evolve and then resolved them, instead of just leaving them out there as unresolved background issues, focusing solely on his characters’ emotional reactions.  Given the play as it has been written, however, the cast has performed splendidly.  I was particularly impressed by the performances of Jill Bianchini, Stephanie Seward, and Alexandra Hellquist as the three hookers; Lisa Sobin as Jackie; and Ann Holbrook as Millie.

Monday, November 9, 2015


L-R: Miranda Jean Larson and Jocelyn Vammer in ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD.  Photo by Al Foote III.

Tom Stoppard, arguably the greatest living English language playwright, achieved his first major success in 1966 when Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (before moving on to Broadway a year later in a Royal National Theatre production that won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as an award for Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1968 and an award for Outstanding Production from the Outer Critics Circle in 1969).  Now, nearly a half-century later, it is being revived by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company in a delightfully rambunctious production at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower New York.

This is an extraordinary work – a tongue-in-cheek comedy, an existential and absurdist tour-de-force that owes as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to William Shakespeare, and an exploration of the philosophical concepts of determinism, free will, chance and the laws of probability – all in one.

On the simplest level, it is a comedic spin-off from Hamlet, focusing on two minor characters from the Shakespearean play, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guldenstern, who have been tasked with accompanying Hamlet to England. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are no more than incidental characters and what we are meant to care about is what happens to Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes.  But in Stoppard’s play, everything is turned upside-down: it is Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern who assume center stage while Hamlet, Claudius, et al. are reduced to little more than supporting roles.

On a somewhat deeper level, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be seen as a re-working of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern may be the very reincarnations of Estragon and Vladimir (the protagonists of Beckett’s greatest work) and the Player and his acting troupe, The Tradedians (who play important roles in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) may represent Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky.

On its deepest level, however, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be interpreted as a philosophical exploration of the inter-related concepts of death and determinism, free will and the illusion of intentionality, chance and the laws of probability (this is a Stoppard play, after all).

In Stoppard’s hands, the plights that confront Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are seen to have been predetermined – or not. They are inevitable – or coincidental – or accidental – or random – or fated - or a consequence of the exercise of one’s own free will – or not. In other words, they are just the sorts of events that allow Stoppard’s imagination to take flight and permit him to explore the mathematical and physical paradoxes which have informed so many of his other works (e.g.  Arcadia, Hapgood, and  Jumpers).

In sum, Stoppard here addresses the fact that we all must go through life with limited knowledge – and yet we must go on. We, like Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern, don’t really know what’s going on about us, what is transpiring in the sea around us while we focus all our attention on what’s happening on the deck of our own small ship, or whether or not our seeming freedom of action is anything more than an illusion. And yet we must and do go on.

In this production, Thomas R. Gordon, the Artistic Director of The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company, has cast two women, Miranda Jean Larson and Joceylyn Vammer, as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.  Those roles have traditionally been played by men but this instance of gender-blind casting works beautifully, with both Larson and Vammer providing a welcome degree of light-hearted insouciance in their roles.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

SONGBIRD Based on THE SEAGULL at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Eric William Morris, Adam Cochran, and Kate Baldwin in SONGBIRD.  Photo by Jenny Anderson Photography.
Songbird by Michael Kimmel, currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is being billed as “based on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull,” but it is really much more (or less) than that: it is virtually a wholesale transfer of Chekhov’s classic melodrama from nineteenth century Russia to twenty-first century Nashville, Tennessee, with little more than the names of the characters changed (or transliterated) and the addition of some original (but not very memorable) country western tunes.  Other than that, the plot of Songbird hews pretty closely to that of the original Russian melodrama, merely substituting songwriting for playwriting and attempted suicide by hanging and traffic fatality for attempted suicide by gunshot.  And, oh yes, the substitution of a bluebird for a seagull.
Much of the action in The Seagull takes place on the country estate owned by Sorin, where Sorin’s sister, Arkadina (an acclaimed actress), has just arrived with her lover, Trigorin (a writer), to attend a presentation of a new symbolic play written by Arkadina’s son, Konstantin, and starring Nina, Konstantin’s girlfriend.  In Songbird, Sorin has become Soren (Bob Stillman) and his country estate is now a honky-tonk in Nashville.  His sister, Arkadina, has morphed into Tammy Trip (Kate Baldwin), a once famous and now fading country western music star.  Her lover, Trigorin, has turned into Beck (Eric William Morris), no longer a writer but now a commercially successful songwriter.  Konstantin is now Dean (Adam Cochran), the son who Tammy abandoned to launch her own career and who is now attempting to launch his own as – you guessed it – a writer of unconventional country western songs, much as Konstantin attempted to achieve success as a writer of unconventional plays.  And Nina, in her present incarnation, is Mia (Ephie Aardema), there to sing Dean’s song and as much in love with Dean as Nina was with Konstantin.

Also in attendance at Sorin’s estate in The Seagull are Medvedenko who is in love with Masha who, in turn, is in love with Konstantin who, as we already have learned, is in love with Nina.  Similarly, in Songbird, it is Rip (Don Guillory) who is in love with Missy (Kacie Sheik) who, in turn, is in love with Dean who, as we already have learned, is in love with Mia.  And, lest we forget, in Chekhov’s melodrama, it is Polina who is married to Ilya and carrying on an affair with Doctor Dorn; in Songbird, Polina has become Pauline (Erin Dilly), Tammy’s childhood friend, who is married to Samuel (Andy Taylor) and carrying on an affair with Doc (Drew McVety).

Unsurprisingly, Dean’s song in Songbird falls as flat as Konstantin’s play did in The Seagull, with similar dire consequences.  Mia falls out of love with Dean and in love with Beck, much as Nina fell out of love with Konstantin and in love with Trigorin, leading once again to similar dire consequences.  The unrequited loves, the quest for fame at all costs, life’s major and minor disappointments and the different ways in which we deal with them, sickness, despair, attempted suicide, and death – it’s all deja vu all over again, only this time in Nashville with music.

So if you’ve seen The Seagull, there might not seem to be much point in your attending a performance of Songbird as well, since the musical breaks no new ground and won’t really add to your understanding of the human condition – except for one thing: the cast of Songbird is absolutely superb and they have done a terrific job with the material they have been given.  Kate Baldwin is especially noteworthy as the callously self-centered and narcissistic Tammy Trip, but the rest of the cast is also first rate, exhibiting both exceptional theatrical and musical talent.  And, as a result, Songbird turns out to be considerably more entertaining than one might have expected after all. 

Monday, October 12, 2015


L-R: Christopher Michael McLamb, Jessie Dean, Sarah Grace Sanders, Ruthy Froch, Joey LePage, John Gasper, and John Smiley in WELCOME TO THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA.  Photo by Maria Baranova.  

Saudi Arabia is a land of stark contrasts.  It is an immensely wealthy country and its government spends billions of dollars annually to provide free education and free health care to all its citizens – and yet an estimated quarter of its population live in poverty.  Women are treated as beautiful princesses – protected, placed on pedestals, provided with the finest makeup and couture, and bedecked in jewelry – but then are forced to conceal themselves from the world beneath their abayat and are forbidden to drive or appear in public unaccompanied by a man.  Foreign workers are welcomed with the greatest hospitality and are paid extravagantly – but then are virtually consigned to live in drab and stultifying Aramco compounds.  The country is considered one of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East – but it was the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden and is the nation that spawned the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center on 9/11
Currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters, Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, written and directed by Luke Landric Leonard with music by Peter Stopschinski and lyrics by Katie Pearl and Leonard, is an extraordinary surrealistic theatrical production that brilliantly captures and exposes these contradictions.  And most surprisingly (at least to me) in today’s politically correct world, Mr. Leonard has succeeded in telling his tale not from a liberal perspective, but from a relatively conservative, pro-life, chauvinistically American and Christian one.

On the surface, the play is a dark musical comedy focusing on the lives of two American expatriates in Saudi Arabia: Hank Brown (Joey LePage), a Protestant adventure-seeking high school chemistry teacher and Tina Murphy-Brown (Jessica Dean), his much more conventional, Christian God-fearing wife, as they attempt to navigate thelr way between the alien culture of Saudi Arabia and that of their home country.  That requires them to deal with two British ex-pats who turn out to be their neighbors in the Aramco compound where they all are domiciled: Dick (John Smiley), a somewhat irrepressible Aramco employee, and his sexy and sexually provocative wife, Fanny (Sarah Grace Sanders) - as well as with Abdullah (Christopher Michael McLamb), a Saudi Arab associate, and his daughter Zillah (Ruthy Froch).

But as it turns out, the Browns have much more to deal with than a couple of sexually promiscuous and eccentric neighbors and an overtly hypocritical Arab and his daughter: they must also come to grips with their own consciences, particularly as they concern their unborn son Randy (John Gasper).  Is Randy the incarnation of their repressed consciences?  A mere figment of their imaginations?  The omnipresent soul of their aborted child?  The devil come for his due?  However you may interpret him, it is he who enlarges the play from a simple theatrical tale to a surrealistic experience that will remain with you long after you have left the theater.

Leonard has peppered his play with a host of corny jokes but there is much more to them than initially meets the eye.  There is more than a kernel of truth in virtually every one and most turn out to foreshadow or allude to much more significant developments in the play.  It is a virtuoso use of humor in moving the story along.

There is little doubt in my mind that other theatre-goers will interpret this play quite differently from the way that I have (my wife, who accompanied me to this performance, already has) – but that is all to the good.  It suggests that there may be even more to the play than I have discerned (or think I have),  For what it is worth, however, I believe that the play presents a thinly veiled pro-life argument, creating an analogy between the abortion of fetuses to the intentional removal of premature babies from incubators, leaving them to die outside the incubator (read: mechanical womb).  I think, too, that it exposes the foolishness of focusing on the trivial, at the expense of the truly meaningful: cold shouldering one’s third grade girlfriend doesn’t really hold a candle to decapitating an infidel.  Additionally, I think it exposes just how malleable are our personalities and how little we know and understand one another (or even ourselves) and how, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of us might become so deranged as to become something other than what we ever were. 

Finally, I think that it challenges the politically correct belief that all cultures are morally equivalent, i.e. that they may differ in details but that no one can say any one is better or worse (morally) than any other, only that they are different: on the contrary, the play suggests that American and Christian values of tolerance and humanity are, in fact, morally superior to those of Islamic fundamentalism (with its commitment to the absolute truths of the Quran and the legitimacy of beheading or crucifying infidels).

The play does hit a few false notes.  I thought that the number that began “I am a child of entropy….” near the play’s end was pretentious as best and incoherent at worst, obfuscating rather than illuminating the play’s messages.  But that said, the work succeeded in hitting its mark much more often than it failed, a credit both to the playwright and to the entire cast.  Of the several cast members, all of whom truly deserve accolades, I was most impressed by Ms Dean who did a beautiful job of expressing Tina’s internal demons with skill and sensitivity; Mr. McLamb who, in the role of Abdullah, provided just the comic relief that the play required; and, of course, Mr. Gasper, without whose powerfully enigmatic presence, the play would not have succeeded.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Powerful Revival of DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA by John Patrick Shanley

Susan Mitchell and John Talerico in DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA.  Photo by Peter Welch.
When John Patrick Shanley finally won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005 (for Doubt), he was long overdue.   His exceptional talent as a playwright was evident long before that – as early as 1984, in fact, when his second play, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, was first presented at Circle in the Square, starring John Turturro as Danny and June Stein as Roberta.  Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was revived a decade later at Stage 22, directed by Lissa Moira and featuring Susan Mitchell as Roberta.  Now, 20 years after that, the play is being revived again, this time at Theater for the New City on First Avenue in lower Manhattan.  It is again being directed by Lissa Moira and stars Susan Mitchell as Roberta (but this time John Talerico time plays the role of Danny).

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is subtitled An Apache Dance and, in directing this dynamic two-hander, Ms Moira has certainly taken that subtitle to heart: the play is as much choreographed as directed, with Danny and Roberta playing off one another with the smoldering emotion generally evoked by tango and apache dances.  Both Danny and Roberta are deeply damaged, needy, lonely individuals: she is a single mother who has virtually delegated the raising of her troubled son to her own dysfunctional parents; unemployed and an occasional drug user, she was sexually abused by her father but blames herself for that and cannot rid herself of her Catholic guilt; and, in turns, sexually insecure, promiscuous, submissive, masochistic and violently aggressive, she is, in short, a psychological mess.   He is a violent paranoid (nicknamed “The Beast” by his co-workers) whose immediate reaction to any perceived slight is to use his fists and who may have killed a man in a fight the previous night; he is also a possibly repressed homosexual who has fantasized about being the bride in a wedding and who is still living with his mother.

When Danny and Roberta meet in a local bar, it doesn’t appear to be a match made in Heaven (Hell might be a more likely locale) but there clearly is something between them: she is the first person he can talk to without her automatically making him angry and he is the only person she has ever found to whom she feels she can confide her innermost secret.  Unsurprisingly, they return from the bar to her room where sex is inevitable and an even deeper relationship might ensue – if they don’t kill each other first.

Both Ms Mitchell and Mr.Talerico are terrific in their respective roles.  The chemistry between them is palpable and they play it for all its worth.  In sum, this is a powerful play and this production is first-rate.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

RADIO MYSTERY 1949 by Dennis Richard at Clarion Theatre

L-R: Nate Steiwachs, Lisa Landino, Beth Griffith, Dan Burkharth, and Alexander Reed in RADIO MYSTERY 1949.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Radio Mystery 1949 by Dennis Richard, currently premiering at Clarion Theatre on East 26th Street in Manhattan, is a cartoonish period piece with pretensions to deeper significance.  Set in a New York radio station in 1949, back in pre-television days (when radio networks had to rely solely on our auditory rather than our visual sense to entertain and retain their audiences), the play revolves around the broadcasting of a live radio crime drama that goes badly awry when an unanticipated real life danger intervenes.

Norman Arizona (Dan Burkharth) is the producer of a radio mystery drama show sponsored by “Blue Coal” on the Mutual Broadcasting System; he is so desperately afraid that the network is about to cancel his show that he has not only taken to drink but has even considered committing suicide on air as a dramatic gesture to keep the show alive.  His fears have spread to the other actors on his show as well: Margo (Beth Griffith), Vespa (Lisa Landino), and Chicky (Alexander Reed), as well as to the station’s sound effects man, Chubby ( Nate Steiwachs).
Vespa’s problems are also compounded in the most trivial fashion: she is Croatian and is being forced to play the rose of a Latina which she finds linguistically difficult .  And Chicky has another much more serious problem: the neighborhood mob intends to kill him.

With only seconds to go before the latest radio mystery drama is to go on the air, one of the show’s actors still has not arrived.  At the last moment, Radio Nick (Fergus Scully) walks in but no one is quite sure whether he actually is the missing actor who Norman hired in a drunken stupor the night before or a terrorist for whom the police are searching.  When Radio Nick dumps his duffle bag on the ground and challenges the other actors to guess what is in it that might be ticking, the latter alternative seems much more likely.  And with that, the real life drama involving Radio Nick effectively supplants the mystery drama that was being aired.

According to the play’s press release, the play is much more than a mere period piece.  Rather, the playwright “is calling attention to an uncertainty that is peculiar to our times.”  These are the times in which “we are barraged with stories of unexpected bombings and mass murders, but we never know the real reasons behind these acts….leaving society gasping for explanations that never come.”  Presumably, the playwright also is alluding to issues of life imitating art, questions of ethnic identity, and the degree to which we tend to focus on the trivial in the face of the truly consequential.

Well, I guess one could look at the play in those ways but if those really were the playwright’s intentions, I’m afraid he didn’t succeed.  Despite the cast’s best efforts (and their exertions are truly considerable), the play still comes across as nothing more than a trivial comedic romp with two-dimensional cardboard characters, albeit one with occasional humorous moments.