Monday, August 1, 2016

Tenth Anniversary Season of SUMMER SHORTS at 59E59 Theaters

Elizabeth Masucci and Frank Harts in AFTER THE WEDDING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Summer Shorts, New York City’s annual festival of new American short plays, is currently in its tenth season at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  This year’s program consists of six plays – three in Series A  and three more in Series B.  We just saw the three in Series A at yesterday’s opening: The Helpers by Cusi Cram, After the Wedding by Neil LaBute, and This Is How It Ends by A. Rey Pamatmat.  (The three in Series B – The Dark Clothes of Night by Richard Alfredo, Queen by Alexander Dinelaris, and Black Flag by Idris Goodwin - will have their official opening on August 7.

The Helpers is a mildly amusing two hander in which Nate (David Deblinger) and Jane (Maggie Burke), Nate’s one time therapist, find their roles reversed, with Nate attempting to be of assistance to her rather than the other way around.  Both Deblinger and Burke perform with comedic sensibility, but the play itself remains little more than a one joke production.

After the Wedding was, in my opinion, far and away the best play on the program.  It was another two hander, this one featuring Frank Harts and Elizabeth Masucci as an unnamed but happily married couple celebrating their sixth anniversary.  In the course of the play, we learn of the single event on their honeymoon night that left such an indelible imprint on their lives that persist in their rationalizations and denials (both to themselves and to one other) of what actually occurred and what it all meant.  Both Harts and Masucci deliver superb performances.

This Is How It Ends was the most ambitious and complex play on the program – and the most preposterous and pretentious to boot.  Jake (Chinaza Uche) is rushing off to spend the day in sexual abandon, now that his roommate Annie (Kerry Warren) has revealed to him that she is really the Anti-Christ and that, with the assistance of her underlings, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, she is about to destroy the world.  Warren is the cutest Anti-Christ you’re ever going to meet and her four underlings – Death (Nadine Malouf), Pestilence (Satyhya Sridharan), Famine (Rosa Gilmore) and War (Patrick Cummings) are similarly off-putting (each in his or her own way).  (Who would ever have imagined, for instance, that War and Pesilence really were closeted gay lovers, that  Famine got her rocks off by surreptitiously spying on their lovemaking, or that Death really fancied herself as humanity’s champion?)  The play is an off-the-wall, phantasmagorical extravaganza that might have been written by Adam Rapp on steroids but despite the clever conceit and the outstanding performances of the entire cast, it really was not my cup of tea.

Monday, June 20, 2016

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES by Israel Horowitz Premieres at Cherry Lane Theatre

Israel Horowitz, a very prolific writer with more than 70 plays to his credit, has the distinction of being the most produced American playwright in French theater history.  Appropriately enough, his latest play, Out of the Mouths of Babes, currently premiering at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, is set in a Paris loft where four women meet to pay their last respects to the recently deceased centenarian professor whom they all loved at some time in their respective lives, and who, in turn, loved all of them at some time in his own.

Estelle Parsons is perfectly cast as Evelyn, the 88 year old grand dame of the group and one of the deceased professor’s oldest and earliest wives who shared his bed back in the Big Band era of the1940’s.  Judith Ivey is equally well cast as Evvie, twenty years Evelyn’s junior, and the only one of the four who never married him (by her choice, not his, as she remained his lover in the hipper 1960’s when their music centered on the Beatles and their ilk rather than Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald).  Janice (Angelina Fiorellisi), the craziest and most self-destructive of the lot, was younger still and arrived on the scene later, but she did succeed in teaching him to play Chopin’s Etudes (which does come in surprisingly handy as the play approaches its close).  Finally, Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee), young enough to be his granddaughter and the last of his many wives, turns out to have been the prime motivator in bringing the four women together for his funeral.  And it is she who really animates the entire production with her unbridled enthusiasm.

This is not a deep or thought-provoking play and you’re unlikely to spend much time pondering its nuances.  But it is nonetheless very entertaining, due to the exceptional performances of all four of these very talented actresses as they reminisce on the lives they led.

Friday, June 10, 2016

HERO'S WELCOME by Alan Ayckbourn in Repertory witH CONFUSIONS at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Evelyn Hoskins and Richard Stacey in HERO'S WELCOME.  Photo by Tony Bartholomew.
Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions was first produced in Scarborough in 1974 and had its London premiere in 1976 but we still had to wait another 40 years before it finally came to NY.  On the other hand, Hero’s Welcome, Ayckbourn’s newest play (his 79th in case you’re counting) premiered in Scarborough just last year and, fortunately, we haven’t had to wait nearly as long for this one to open here.  The two plays – Confusions and Hero’s Welcome - are currently playing in repertory at 59E59 Theatres on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  We reviewed Confusions (which we very much enjoyed) in our last post.  Now here’s our bottom line on Hero’s Welcome: we loved it and it’s clearly another Ayckbourn hit.

The hero of Hero’s Welcome is Murray (Richard Stacey) a decorated soldier returning after 17 years to his old home town of Hadforth with Baba (Evelyn Hoskins), his foreign-born bride.  When Murray left Hadford, nearly a generation ago, it was under something of a cloud: for some unknown reason, he abandoned his pregnant fiancĂ©, Alice (Elizabeth Boag) on the church steps the day they were to be wed.  Alice is now the town’s mayor and married to Derek (Russell Dixon), a builder, and it should come as no surprise that she’s not particularly pleased with the fact that Murray has returned.

Somewhat more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Brad (Stephen Billington), who is now married to Kara (Charlotte Harwood), isn’t especially glad that Murray has returned either.  Indeed, if it were up to Alice and Brad (and probably Derek as well), the town would give Murray a welcoming parade and then an even more enthusiastic literal sendoff to anywhere else.

But Murray and Baba have other ideas.  They plan to remain in Hadforth and refurbish The Bird of Prey, the hotel/pub once owned by Murray’s family.  Alice, in her capacity of mayor, considers The Bird of Prey to be an anachronistic eyesore that should be totally demolished and replaced by whatever the British equivalent might be of “urban development.”

The play is rife with plots and sub-plots.  Is Murray really the hero he’s been made out to be?  Why did he really leave Alice on the church steps?  How long will Kara put up with Brad’s disparaging treatment and, if she ever does feel she’s had enough. What will she do about it?  What, if anything, does Brad’s obsession with guns portend?  Or his obsessive competitiveness with other men and his cavalier attitude toward the truth?

The cast of Hero’s Welcome consists of the same three men and two women who comprised the ensemble cast of Confusions, with the addition of Evelyn Hoskins who truly steals the show as Baba.  To be sure, Richard Stacey, who played some of the lesser roles in Confusions truly comes into his own here in the starring role of Murray.  Nor is this to to say that the other members of the cast aren’t just as good here as they were in Confusions for they truly are.  It is just that Evelyn Hoskins is so refreshingly delightful as Baba that one tends to forget just how talented the other members of this cast really are.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

CONFUSIONS by Alan Ayckbourn Opens in NY After 40 Years

L-R: Elizabeth Boag, Stephen Billington and Russell Dixon in CONFUSIONS.  Photo by Tony Bartholomew.
Alan Ayckbourn is an enormously talented and prolific playwright with 79 plays to his credit who frequently focuses in his work upon the seemingly eternal “battle between the sexes” - that apparently unending conflict between misogynistic, philandering and domineering males on one side and their often submissive and mistreated female partners (who, nonetheless, often are the ones to have the last laugh) on the other.  It was in1974 that he wrote Confusions, a series of five separate one act plays interconnected in having a character in each of the first three appear in the next play on the program.  Their interconnectedness was further enhanced by the fact that all five related, in one way or another, to that “battle between the sexes” and to the fact that they were performed by an ensemble cast of just three men and two women playing 20 different challenging roles.

Confusions was first produced at the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1974 and had its London premiere in 1976 at the Apollo Theatre.  Now, forty years later, it is finally receiving its long overdue New York premiere as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  It’s been a long time to wait but I must say that this outstanding production by the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough was well worth waiting for.

In Mother Figure, the first of the five plays on the program, Lucy (Elizabeth Boag) is the first of Ayckbourn’s mistreated women to appear.  Her husband, Harry, a traveling salesman, is on the road , as he usually is, having little interest in his family, and she is left to tend to their home and three children herself.  Nor is she doing a very good job of it as both she and her home become increasingly disheveled to the point that she doesn’t bother to change out of her nightclothes during the day nor even answer the phone when it rings.

Lucy’s neighbor, Rosemary (Charlotte Harwood), is herself mistreated by her male chauvinistic husband Terry (Stephen Billington), and when they check in on her to see how she is doing, she is rather non-plussed.  Lacking adult companionship, her knowledge of how to deal with adults in an adult manner has atrophied and she treats them the only way she knows how: as if they, too, were children.

And yet it works and it is Lucy and Rosemary, not Terry, who prevail.  Terry not only drinks his milk (albeit reluctantly) as a well-behaved child should but also apologizes to Rosemary for his earlier disparaging behavior toward her.  Score one for the ladies.

In Drinking Companion, Harry (Richard Stacey), Lucy’s philandering traveling salesman husband (who we heard about but never actually got to meet in Mother Figure) is attempting heavy-handedly to seduce Paula (Charlotte Harwood) and/or Bernice (Elizabeth Boag), either or both of the two younger women he has encountered in his hotel’s bar.  He doesn’t get very far and the only beneficiary of his behavior would appear to be the waiter (Stephen Billington) who serves round after round of drinks to the three of them and who Harry tips somewhat more extravagantly as he becomes increasingly intoxicated.  Score two for the ladies.

The same waiter whom we met in Drinking Companions is there again in Between Mouthfuls but this time he is working in the hotel’s restaurant rather than in its bar and is serving dinner to two couples seated at two different tables.  Mr. and Mrs. Pearce (Russell Dixon and Elizabeth Boag) are seated at one table, blissfully unaware of Polly (Charlotte Harwood) and Martin (Richard Stacey) seated at the other.  Polly and Martin saw the Pearces as soon as they entered the restaurant, however, and, if it were up to Polly, she would have left on the spot.  But Martin, who is employed by Mr. Pearce, refuses to leave, fearful that it would damage his career if Mr. Pearce were to have seen him and might then have suspected that he chose to leave the restaurant in order to to avoid his boss.
As the waiter serves first one table and then the other, we become privy to their respective conversations.  Mrs. Pearce, it seems, suspects that her husband has been having an affair but does not know with whom.  Martin is focused solely on his career at the expense of his marriage which causes Polly considerable distress.  We learn, too, that the relationship between these two couples goes well beyond Martin’s employment by Mr. Pearce.

Before the end of their meal, Polly has gotten sick to her stomach, not with the food but with Martin, and storms off.  Mrs. Pearce has had it with Mr. Pearce as well and walks out – but not before upending a plate of food in his lap.  The men, insensitive to the women’s feelings and seemingly unconcerned over their withdrawal from the scene, meet and repair to the bar for a brandy.  Score it a tie (although maybe the women did win on points…Mrs. Pearce did get to upend that plate of food in Mr. Pearce’s lap and Polly did manage to stick it to Martin in a way that I really can’t get into without disclosing one of the play’s biggest surprises….)

Mrs. Pearce shows up again in Gosforth’s Fete, this time as the town councilor scheduled to deliver a speech launching the building of a new village hall.  Gosforth (Russell Dixon), megaphone in hand, is overseeing the afternoon festival which is being held on his land and is supervising the organization of the accompanying tea in the tea tent by Milly (Charlotte Harwood).  The vicar Richard Stacey) is also in attendance but apparently even his divine connections can’t prevent everything that could possibly go wrong from going wrong.
The sound system isn’t working and Gosforth is having his hands full trying to fix it.  When he finally does, the consequences of its working turn out to be worse than its not functioning at all as announcements relating to matters that might better have remained concealed are inadvertently revealed to all and sundry.  And then, when the sound system is functioning, it is the tap on the tea urn that jams which ends up scalding the vicar, flooding the amplifiers, and literally shocking (and potentially electrocuting) more than one participant at the fete.
Meanwhile, a troop of cub scouts at the fair have become virtually unmanageable, even by their scoutmaster Stewart (Stephen Billington) who is (or at least had been) engaged to marry Milly before all hell broke loose.  As Stewart seeks solace in drink, thunderstorms roll in, hastily built platforms and stages collapse, and the fair devolves into utter chaos.  It all makes for a very funny slapstick scene that marks the comedic high point of the show.  Everybody loses in this one (except the audience which wins big).

It all might have ended there on that exuberant note – but it doesn’t.  There is still one play to go, A Talk in the Park, which differs significantly from the other four.  For starters, none of the five characters in this play – Arthur (Russell Dixon), Beryl (Elizabeth Boag), Charles (Richard Stacey), Doreen (Charlotte Harwood) and Ernest (Stephen billington) – appeared or were even alluded to in any of the other four plays and, perhaps even more telling, none of them seems to have any real connection to any of the others in this play either.  They are just five strangers seated on park benches, each attempting to avoid unwanted contact with one of the others while seeing nothing wrong in attempting to regale a third with his or her own tale of woe.  It is a sad commentary of the degree to which individuals are taken with the importance of their own lives and assume that everyone else should be interested in them as well while taking little or no interest in the lives of others.

Because A Talk in the Park is so different from the other four plays, some critics over the years have contended that it should not have been included in the Confusions program, that the other four plays would have sufficed and that, had it been omitted, it would have led to audiences leaving the theater in an even more cheerful mood.  I don’t agree.  I’m not only delighted that Ayckbourn saw fit to include A Talk in the Park in the program but I actually consider it the best of the five plays, the one that is the most thought-provoking, and the one that leads us to reassess the other four in a different light.

The five person ensemble cast of Confusions is absolutely brilliant with each of the five cast members called upon to play anywhere from three to five diametrically different roles.  Elizabeth Boag’s transition from Lucy, a virtually abandoned wife in Mother Figure to Bernice, a tough younger woman whom her philandering husband is seeking unsuccesfully to bed in Drinking Companions, is truly remarkable.  Her further transitions into the haughty Mrs. Pearce in Between Mouthfuls and Gosforth’s Fete and finally into Beryl, a battered woman, in A Talk in the Park are equally delicious.

Charlotte Harwood has proven herself to be similarly versatile.  As Rosemary in Mother Figure and again as Polly in Between Mouthfuls, she effectively plays the role of the unappreciated wife; as Paula in Drinking Companion she succeeds in fending off the unwanted advances of someone else’s philandering husband; as Milly in Gosforth’s Fete, she’s affianced to a Dudley Do-Right-type character but even he doesn’t know all there is to know about her (at least not right away).  And by the time she evolves into Doreen, a seemingly mildly paranoid older woman in A Talk in the Sun, she’s virtually come full circle.

Stephen Billington, too, appears in all five plays: as the ubiquitous waiter in Drinking Companion and Between Mouthfuls; as the demeaning husband, Terry, in Mother Figure; as the Dudley Do-Right-type cub scout leader in Gosforth’s Fete; and, ultimately, as the unhappily married Ernest in A Talk in the Park.  He is effective across the board.

Richard Stacey appears in four of the five plays but the range of characters he portrays is as broad as that of any of the other cast members.  He is Harry, the sleazy philandering traveling salesman in Drinking Companion and Martin, the self-centered husband, in Between Mouthfuls, only to emerge as the vicar in Gosforth’s Fete. By the time we get to A Talk in the Park, he has morphed into Charles, a self-proclaimed victim of misfortunes not of his own making.

Finally, Russell Dixon appears in just three of the five plays but his roles are the juiciest of all and he plays them for all they are worth.  As the pompous Mr. Pearce, he dominates the scene in Between Mouthfuls, only to do himself even one better in his antic portrayal of the buffoonish Gosforth in Gosforth’s Fete.  And I daresay that of the five bench sitters in A Talk in the Park, it is the lecherous Arthur, played by Dixon, who is likely to remain with you the longest.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

ROSS & RACHEL at 59E59 Theaters

Molly Vevers in ROSS & RACHEL.  Photo by Alex Brenner.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the whole actually may be worth less than its parts.  And that is the case, I fear, with Ross & Rachel, currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, a year after its critically acclaimed production at the Edinburgh Fringe.  To be sure, the play by James Fritz is exceptionally well written – a terrific monologue or, rather, a finely executed dialogue between a long married husband and wife, with a single actor speaking for them both. Moreover, both the play’s direction and its staging are first rate.  And, perhaps most important, Molly Vevers’ bravura performance in this one woman tour de force really is something to write home about.

And yet, notwithstanding all that, the play left me dissatisfied and I would be loath to recommend it.

The play’s title is, of course, a direct allusion to Ross Geller and Rachel Green, the two prominent characters in Friends, the long-running television sitcom, (endearingly played by David Schwimmer and Jeniffer Ansiton).  In the TV sitcom, Ross (the nerd) and Rachel (the high school prom queen) were the on again off again friends clearly destined to become a loving couple.  But then what?

In Fritz’s play, TV’s Ross and Rachel are never mentioned but the play’s title, scattered allusions to incidents in the sitcom, and the personae played by Molly Vevers (she is a beautiful woman and her husband a nerdy college professor) are enough to make Fritz’s intention clear: it is to question whether story book endings really are likely in real life or whether flirtations, boredom, illness and death are more likely to take their toll on any romantic relationship.

Without disclosing too much about the play’s plot and denouement, suffice it to say that it all was a bit too much of a downer for my taste and even a bit macabre.  Yes, it was all done very well – but to what end?. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

CITY STORIES: Tales of Love and Magic in London by James Phillips

L-R: Phoebe Sparrow and Matthew Flynn in PEARL.  Photo by James Phillips.
City Stories: Tales of Love and Magic in London is currently enjoying its US premiere as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  This is not a single play but rather a half dozen wonderfully phantasmagorical one act plays, each of which has been written and directed by James Phillips and all of which, in the most unexpected ways, seek to explore the deepest interrelated issues of faith, love, change, connection and self-identity.  In lesser hands, these explorations might have come across as platitudinous or absurd or both but as written and directed by Phillips and as performed by this truly enthralling and accomplished cast, they are consistently entertaining and thought-provoking.

The six plays are Narcissi,The Great Secret, Lullaby, Occupy, Pearl and Carousel, but they are played in repertoire with a selection of just four at each performance.  In the opening performance that we attended, the four plays presented were Occupy, Lullaby, Narcissi, and Pearl.

Daphne Alexander in OCCUPY.  Photo by James Phillips

In Occupy, Mark (Matthew Flynn) is a member of a secret society working beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral to preserve all the letters written to God throughout history.  Ruth (Daphne Alexander) has written and posted just such a letter and now wants it back.  Her mesmerizing interaction with Mark makes for a terrific two hander.

In Lullaby, everyone in the world is rapidly falling asleep and Audrey (again played beautifully by Daphne Alexander) appears to be one of the last holdouts, if not the last.  Her closest friend, Rachel (Phoebe Sparrow) is sinking fast but there might yet be time for her to restore her relationship to Joe (Tom Gordon).

In Narcissi, Jack (Tom Gordon), an impoverished artist, informs Natalie (Sarah Quintrell), an equally impoverished pianist who he never met before, that she is truly the love of his life.  And it is up to the two of them, separately and together, to sort it all out.
Finally, in Pearl, David (Matthew Flynn) encounters a woman whom he takes to be the incarnation of his lost true love, Marguerite.  But is Pearl (Phoebe Sparrow) really who he thinks she is?

The four plays are all exquisitely written and performed with an almost other-worldly sense of style.  And the entire production is enhanced by the accompanying original music composed and performed live on the piano throughout the show by Rosabella Gregory.

Monday, May 2, 2016

TOAST by Richard Bean in Revival at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Steve Nicolson, Simon Greenall, Will Barton, Matthew Kelly, and Matt Sutton in TOAST.  Photo by Oliver King.

It seems to me that there really is much less to Richard Bean’s Toast than first meets the eye.

At first blush, the play, set in a drab, sterile bakery factory in Hull, appears to be something of an existential metaphor for the transience and meaninglessness of human life, inevitably resulting in death and despair (somewhat along the lines, perhaps, of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit).  Most of the play’s truly outstanding ensemble cast of seven, led by the cadaverous Mathew Kelly as Nellie, are predominately attired in white bakery aprons, (intended, it would seem, to underscore the colorlessness of their lives).  Nellie survives on cheese sandwiches and the short rations of cigarettes allowed him by his wife; others subsist on fish paste sandwiches. Several are sexually frustrated in their very limited lives outside the bakery, devolving into a motley crew of puerile pranksters at work: Cecil (Simon Greenall) has taken to sneaking up behind Peter (Matt Sutton) and grabbing his testicles while Blakey (Steve Nicolson) seems content simply fondling his own.  Colin (Will Barton)  is the group’s singularly ineffectual shop steward while Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) may be the most dysfunctional of all: he arrives late for his shift, can’t recall his new address or phone number, and struggles even to remove his motorcycle helmet.  Indeed, life in the factory may well have been just what Thomas Hobbes had in mind when he coined the phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

When Lance (John Wark), an alleged student of social and economic history, arrives on the scene, our initial expectations appear on the verge of realization.  He is a Mephistophelian character in a bright red shirt that contrasts sharply with the others’ drab whites, a self-described agnostic who ultimately describes himself to Nellie as “having raged unsuccessfully against the dying of the light several years ago,” as one for whom “being dead has made a significant difference in my life,” and as one from “The other side.  From across the metaphorical water….The land of living souls and rotting bodies.  The next world.”

Spoiler Alert!

And yet it is all for naught.  The red shirt is nothing more than a red herring.  When the oven breaks down and several of the men risk life and limb to put it right, some tragedy seems inevitable.  But it’s not.  No one dies; the oven is fixed; the men survive with nary a burn; Lance turns out to be mentally disturbed rather than sinister; and the men return to their cheese and fish paste sandwiches, their cigarettes, their sexual frustrations, and their twelve to sixteen hour days in the factory.  And that’s it.

Toast, Richard Bean’s first play, premiered at the Royal Court in 1999 and recently enjoyed a very successful revival in London and on tour throughout the UK.  And it is only now, after a delay of seventeen years, that it is belatedly being given its US premiere at  59E59 Theaters on East 59thStreet in midtown Manhattan (with its highly acclaimed British cast intact) as part of that theater’s highly regarded Brits Off Broadway program.
For the past several years, we have very much enjoyed the Brits Off Broadway programs staged annually at 59E59 Theaters.  This year, however, we have been mildly disappointed by the first two plays in the 2016 program.  For starters, we found Echoes, the initial play in this year’s program, to be rather wanting, despite outstanding performance by its co-stars, Filipa Braganca and Felicity Houlbrooke..  And now, having attended a performance of Toast, the second show in this year’s Brits Off Broadway program, we find that we’re experiencing a similar reaction: Toast’s seven man ensemble cast is truly outstanding, but as for the play itself, not so much.