Sunday, August 6, 2017

SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES B at 59E59 Theaters

59E59 Theaters’ Summer Shorts 2017 Festival of New American Short Plays is staged in two segments: Series A, which includes Playing God by Alan Zweibel, Jack by Melissa Ross, and Acolyte by Graham Moore (see our last review) and Series B, which Includes Break Point by Neil LaBute, A Woman by Chris Craigin-Day, and Wedding Bash by Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds (which we have just had the pleasure of seeing in its opening performance. 

L-R: Andy Powers, Donovan Mitchell, Rachel Napoleon, and Georgia Ximenes Lifsher in WEDDING BASH, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
To my mind, Wedding Bash was far and away the best of the three works.  The playwrights have done a brilliant job in their presentation of an unusual subject – destination weddings and how differently they may be perceived by participants and guests – and the entire cast is wonderful in portraying all four of the very entertaining characters they have created.  Lonny (Donovan Mitchell) and Dana (Rachel Napoleon) have returned from their destination wedding in Sedona (a place they selected because of its fabulous red rocks and because it was far cheaper for them to hold their wedding there than, say, in Los Angeles).  Alan (Andy Powers) and Edi (Georgia Ximenes Lifsher), two of their wedding guests, are now visiting them in their home in Sherman Oaks and, as one might expect, talk turns to their memories of the wedding.

To Lonny and Dana it was fabulous – what with the Sedona backdrop (and economy) of it all.  But to Alan and Edi, not so much.  From their point of view, Lonny and Dana were simply selfish, imposing big costs on their guest for travel and hotel accommodation just so that they might save some money themselves.


L-R: John Garrett Greer and Keilyn Durrel Jones in BREAK POINT, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Neil LaBute has been participated in 59E59 Theaters’ Summer Shorts programs for nine years so it comes as no surprise that he has an entry in this one.  Break Point is a two hander in which Oliver (John Garrett Greer), a world-class tennis player, attempts to bribe Stan (Keilyn Durrel Jones), another world class player albeit one not quite in Oliver’s class, to throw a game.  I am generally a fan of LaBute’s but I was a little disappointed in this play.  On the one hand, I thought it was somewhat overwritten with Oliver and Stan excessively circling around the moral issue confronting them, while on the other hand, I thought that they never truly focuses sharply enough on the real issue.  But both Greer and Jones deserve credit for two fine performances.


L-R: Jennifer Ikeda and Mark Boyett in A WOMAN, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
In A Woman, Kim (Jennifer Ikeda) is a strong-willed ardent Christian feminist who, for ten years, has been trying to convince her Presbyterian Church to choose a woman as an elder, in contravention of the church’s rules which allow women to be deaconesses but not elders.  Now her old friend, Cliff (Mark Boyett) has just been name pastor of her church and she is trying to convince him to do what his predecessors would not.

Despite excellent performances by both Ikeda and Boyett, I found A Woman to be the least satisfying of the three plays on the program.  From my perspective, it was just another glib spouting of identity politics – only this time applied to the church rather than to national government.  It is one thing to argue that a woman ought not be denied the Presidency of the United States or the position of elder in the Presbyterian Church simply because she is a woman and I would certainly agree with that  But it is quite another to argue (as Hillary Clinton did) that a woman should be elected President simply because she is a woman (or that she should be named an elder of the Presbyterian Church for no reason other than that she is a woman as Kim proclaims)

Monday, July 31, 2017

SUMMER SHORTS 2017, Festival of New American Short Plays, Arrives at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Quincy Dunn-Baker and Claire Karpen in JACK, one of three plays in SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES A.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Summer Shorts 2017 marks the eleventh annual season that this festival of six new American one act plays is appearing at 59E59 Theaters.  It is like a flight of light rose wines or white wine spritzers – not very heady stuff, to be sure, but a pleasant respite from the more consequential considerations of our lives as we enter upon the dog days of summer.
 
This year’s program is in two parts playing in repertory: Series A consists of Jack by Melissa Ross, Playing God by Alan Zweibel and Acolyte by Graham Moore while Series B includes Break Point by Neil LaBute, A Woman by Chris Cragin-Day and Wedding Bash by Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds.  Series B hasn’t opened yet but we’ve just seen Series A and enjoyed it very much.

To my mind, Jack was clearly the best of the three plays.  It was a very endearing treatment of the difficulties of dealing with death, loss and moving on.  Maggie (Claire Karpen) and George (Quincy Dunn-Baker) have been divorced for six months but still see each other every week to hand off their pet dog, Jack, of whom they have shared custody ever since their separation.  But Jack’s death (at age 18) has broken their last remaining link to one another and neither of them seem to be dealing with it very well.  Both Ms Karpen’s and Mr. Dunn-Baker’s performances are superb – nuanced and sensitive.


L-R: Bill Buell and Dana Watkins in PLAYING GOD,one of three plays in SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES A.  Photo by Carol Rosegg. 


Playing God was the least substantial of the three plays, a bit of fluff with some humorous moments.  When Doctor Fisher (Dana Watkins) unilaterally decides to induce the birth of Barbara Graber’s (Flora Diaz) baby a week before its due date simply so that he can go on vacation, God (Bill Buell) is so piqued by the doctor’s arrogance in usurping God’s right to determine when a child will be born that he comes down to Earth to put the doctor in his place – which ultimately seems to mean not much more than trouncing him at squash.  God’s Assistant (Welker White) shows up too and she’s so annoyed at the doctor that she gives him – wait for it – a cold sore!  There are some funny lines which might have worked better in the Borscht Belt and Buell is rather droll in his role but otherwise the play doesn’t amount to very much.


L-R: Sam Lilja, Orlagh Cassidy, Bronte England-Nelson, and Ted Koch in ACOLYTE, one of three plays in SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES A.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Acolyte is a fictionalized rendering of a scene that actually might have occurred in the life of Ayn Rand, arguably the most influential novelist of the twentieth century.  She was a major influence on intellectuals and politicians on both the left and the right and is probably more responsible for the growth of the libertarian movement than anyone else.

It has been known for decades that Ayn Rand had an affair with Nathaniel Branden, her principal acolyte and a man young enough to be her son – with the full knowledge and begrudging acceptance of both Rand’s husband and Branden’s wife.  The play is set in Rand’s apartment late on a Saturday night and those in attendance are Ayn Rand (Orlagh Cassidy); her husband, Frank O’Connor (Ted Koch); Nathaniel Branden (Sam Lilja); and his wife, Barbara (Bronte England-Nelson).  And it is the premise of the play that this was when and how Ayn informed Frank and Barbara of her intention to sleep with Nathaniel and obtained their acquiescence to her scheme.

In a note in the play’s script, the playwright actually contends “Note: This actually happened” though what exactly “this” refers to is not clear.  If it is simply the fact that Rand and Branden had an affair with the full knowledge and acceptance of their spouses – well, we already knew that.  But if it is that the scene depicted in the play actually occurred – well, then one might wonder how the playwright could possibly know that.

There is no denying that Ayn Rand was a forceful, creative and challenging individual who had a significant influence on political thought to this day.  But she was also something of a two-dimensional cardboard character who saw everything in terms of black and white – and something of a hypocrite to boot.  It is to Grahan Moore’s credit that he has succeeded in capturing both of these aspects of her persona.  On the one hand, he has given her the best monologue of the play, the one in which she demolishes both liberal and conservative thinking:

“The liberals believe that God is dead and that we live only for the betterment of the least fortunate.  First they extended their helpful hand to women, then Jews, then the blacks, and soon enough it will be the sapphists and queers and whatever other supposed unfortunates they can unearth.  The mob will grow in number, and it is the the mob to which they pray.  Too dumb to realize that that if they give the mob this power of righteousness – that if morality is only what the mob decrees at any given moment – then what is right and true and just will change every spring with the blooming of the lilies.  Today’s hero will become tomorrow’s villain.  And eventually, one day, with the fire of an Old Testament plague, the collective’s opprobrium will burn us all.  The Bolsheviks came for my father.  The Leninists came for me.  The liberals will come for you.

“And the conservatives?  They’re even worse.  Their hypocrisy runs so deep that they devote the entirety of their intellectual energy to disentangling their knotted limbs.  How many pointless words has Mr. Buckley vomited on the page to explain the obvious and laughable contradiction that cleaves his mushy brain in two.  He is a capitalist, who believes in the free market.  But he is also a Christian, who believes that we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  Well: you cannot do both.  If Christianity teaches that each of us has a touch of heaven’s grace within our soul, that our worth derives from god – then our worth cannot be measured in dollars, and it cannot come from the marketplace.  Is my value determined by the light in my breast or the labors of my body?  The history of this country is that of Christians claiming to believe in the market so long as it suits them, or capitalists praying fervently to a god that deep down they know isn’t real.  The liberals ae dumber, true, but at least they’re fucking honest.”

And yet, on the other hand, Moore makes it abundantly clear that there is another side to the story as well.  And so, he has Barbara Branden addressing Ayn Rand like this:

“…you’re a hypocrite.  You claim the mantle of a tradition of knowledge straight from Aristotle, but you know what?  You’re just like every other street corner preacher with a bible in one hand and a collection jar in the other.  You gussy it up in your books with this faux-academic language – ‘epistemological crises’ and ‘problems with the universals’ - but you never even went to a university.  You’re not a philosopher.  You’re not even an artist – you’re a con artist.  You twist your system of beliefs to grant you whatever it is that you want in the moment.  Fame?  Money?  My husband’s cock?  I was 15 years old when a girl in my neighborhood lent me her copy of The Fountainhead.  I read your story about an iconoclast who didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought – a character who lived completely for himself, by his own rules, without a second’s concern for the chattering of the naysayers.  You know what I learned?  Not to back down to a bully.  To stand up for what I want, what I believe, what I hold dear, no matter what crap anybody spits in my face.  So thank you, Ayn, for teaching me that lesson.  You want to have sex with my husband?  Apparently, there is nothing I can do to stop you.  But you want my permission?  Fuck you.  You either get to live out your twisted sexual fantasies or you get to stand there atop that marble pillar of righteousness.  But you don’t get to do both.”

Orlagh Cassidy’s portrayal of Ayn Rand is pitch-perfect, capturing her intellectual pretensions, her cool self-centered rationalism, and her idiosyncratic passionate sexual narcissism.  Sam Lilja and Bronte England-Nelson are equally good as Nathaniel and Barbara Brandon, exhibiting the unwavering loyalty to their cult leader that only twenty-somethings can muster.  And Ted Koch provides just the proper balance in his role as Frank O’Connor, Ayn Rand’s relatively unschooled husband, an actor/painter wannabe who really doesn’t comprehend what his wife and her followers are even talking about (and doesn’t much care that he doesn’t so long as he can drown his pain in alcohol).    


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Terrific Revival of Stoppard's ARCADIA at Atlantic Stage 2

L-R: Andrew William Smith and Caitlin Duffy in ARCADIA.  Photo by Stan Barouh.
Tom Stoppard, arguably the world’s greatest living playwright, is a theatrical wizard and polymath whose plays involve the very biggest, deepest and most complex philosophical and scientific ideas, ranging from chaos theory to determinism to free will, from Fermat’s Last Theorem to fractals to computer algorithms, from Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy to the irreversibility of time, from Byron and poetry to landscape design and botany – ultimately arriving at man’s most fundamental ontological and epistemological questions regarding the very nature of life, death and reality itself. And if all that sounds daunting, never fear: Stoppard is such a literary genius that you’ll probably find him bringing more clarity to those subjects than you’re likely to have gotten from all the lectures and university courses in mathematics, physics and philosophy you may have attended over the years. And there’s little doubt in my mind that you’ll find Stoppard’s presentations far more entertaining to boot.

Arcadia, Stoppard’s masterwork, touches on all of the above and more and is widely recognized as one of the greatest plays of our time.  Originally produced at the Royal National Theatre in London in1993, it won the 1993 Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Play that year. When the first New York production opened two years later, it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and was nominated for the 1995 Tony Award.  When it was revived in London, it received even more glowing reviews than it had 16 years earlier and a subsequent Broadway revival was equally successful.  And now the play is being revived by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) in association with Middlebury College in a terrific off-Broadway production at Atlantic Stage 2 on West 16th Street in Manhattan.  Admittedly, one might assume that all those predecessor London and Broadway successes would be tough acts to follow but the PTC/NYC company has proved itself to be fully up to the task.

Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, a stately English home in both the years 1809–1812 and in the present (1993 in the original production and around the turn of the millennium in this latest revival).  In this production, it is In 1809 that Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy), a teenage prodigy, apprehends a number of remarkable mathematical and physical truths on her own, including the laws of thermodynamics, chaos theory and fractals, while her tutor Septimus Hodge, (Andrew William Smith), is engaged in an illicit romantic liaison with Charity Chater, the wife of Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle), a second-rate poet who, upon discovering his wife’s dalliances, challenges Septimus to a duel. (Hodge is also a friend of Lord Byron who, as it turns out, also is staying at the house at the time and who also gets to sleep with Charity.) (Neither Charity nor Byron ever actually appear in the play, but the importance of their roles cannot be overestimated.)

In the present, Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen), a writer, is investigating the history of a hermit who may once have lived on the Sidley Park grounds, while Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper), a literature professor, is investigating the very period in the life of Byron when he was in Sidley Park. As matters unfold, the truths about what actually occurred in Sidley Park two centuries earlier is gradually disclosed and the play’s many mysteries are (at least partially) resolved.




Thursday, June 15, 2017

MY EYES WENT DARK Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Declan Conlon and Thusitha Jayasundera in MY EYES WENT DARK.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Declan Conlon and Thusitha Jayasundera deliver two of the most outstanding performances in any of the several plays that comprise this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  As Nikolai Koslov, a Russian architect who is driven obsessively to wreak vengeance upon Thomas Olsen, the air traffic controller whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife and children in an avoidable plane crash, Conlon performs with a cold, single-minded intensity that effectively succeeds in blurring the distinction between madness and sanity.  And in the role of Nikloai’s wife, Marya Koslov, as well as in the demanding roles of a whole host of other female characters who interact with Nikolai – including Katya (an eight year old girl), Dr. Geisinger (a trained psychiatrist), Helena (Thomas Olsen’s widow), Ms Weitner (an executive with Skyways, the air traffic control company that employed Olsen), and Yana (a woman who also lost her son in the plane crash) – Jayasundera displays an absolutely extraordinary range of acting talent.

My Eyes Went Dark, written and directed by Matthew Wilkinson, is an ambitious two-hander, inspired by true events, that played to sold-out audiences in London and Edinburgh and is currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters.  It is the tale of Nikolai Koslov, whose family died in a plane crash while en route to visit him in Nice.  As the facts emerge, it appears that the crash was not the result of terrorism nor mechanical failure nor pilot error, but rather was the consequence of misfeasance by Thomas Olsen, an air traffic controller with Skyways.  Clearly, Olsen and Skyways were at fault and should be held responsible, but are they morally or legally culpable as well for what was surely an honest mistake?

For Koslov the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” and when Olsen is acquitted of criminal liability, Koslov is pushed to the breaking point.  Ultimately, he avenges the deaths of his wife and children by killing Olsen – but without premeditation and with no subsequent recollection of the event.  Which leads us to ask: if Olsen is not morally or legally responsible for the deaths he caused without premeditation and through honest human error, should Koslov be held morally or legally responsible for Olsen’s death which he caused without premeditation and, indeed, without even any memory of the event?

The playwright alludes to these questions but never resolves them and doesn’t even really pursue them with any persistence.  Similarly, he suggests that Koslov’s intense animosity toward Olsen might have been motivated as much by his own guilt feelings at having created a situation in which his family had to fly to visit him in Nice in the first place as it was by a truly objective indictment of Olsen’s behavior.  He raises the issue of whether Koslov was sane or insane when he killed Olsen and what difference that might make in determining his guilt or innocence.  And he alludes to all the standard PC issues re forgiveness, acceptance, and getting on with one’s life.

Wilkinson touches on all those matters but never really seriously addresses them and that is the play’s weakness.  My Eyes Went Dark turns out not to be particularly intellectually challenging, despite the questions it raises, because once raising them it doesn’t really do anything more with them.  The premise of the play is a valid one but the play itself could use a lot more editing and fleshing out.

And so my bottom line is this: the play itself is somewhat disappointing but the actors’ performances are phenomenal and those performances alone are justification enough for your seeing this one.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

INVINCIBLE by Torben Betts Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, and Alastair Whatley in INVINCIBLE.  Photo by Manuel Harlan. 
Emily (Emily Bowker) is a pretentious ultra-left-wing artsy socialist who advocates that all things be communal – not only businesses and the banks but also housing, healthcare, public utilities, public transport and even the raising of children.  Indeed, if she were an American, rather than a Brit, she’d probably consider Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to be little better than reactionary Neanderthals.  She is opposed to all wars (she was raised by Quakers). She is opposed to the institution of marriage.  She is opposed to private school education.  She is opposed to inherited wealth.  In fact, there’s not much that she isn’t opposed to.  In short, she’s rather insufferable (and Emily Bowker portrays her brilliantly).

Her “partner,” Oliver (Alastair Whatley), with whom she has cohabited happily for years and who is the father of her children, is a much more realistic progressive: he is pragmatic enough to have re-joined the Labour Party since he realizes that, notwithstanding its shortcomings, it represents the only real means to take down the Conservatives.  And he is not at all averse to sending his children to private school if that’s what it will take to provide them with a proper education.  Emily considers him a sell-out.

Oliver and Emily are not married because Emily considers the institution of marriage to be nothing more than a medieval exercise and it offends her sensibilities.  Oliver does not have strong feelings on the subject but would like them to marry for his widowed mother’s sake.  She has but a few months to live and would very much like to see Oliver and Emily formally wed (even if not in a church) both for their and for her grandchildren’s sakes.  Emily will have none of it.

Oliver entered the Civil Service in an editorial capacity shortly after graduating from university and had been comfortably ensconced there ever since while residing (most recently with Emily) in London.  But due to the recession and England’s austerity program, he has been fired from his job which means that he and Emily can no longer afford to live in London.  (Of course they might have continued to live there had they been willing to rely on Oliver’s wealthy mother to subsidize them but Emily would have none of that either.  She is, after all, fiercely independent and certainly wouldn’t accept such ill-gotten gains as resulted from Oliver’s father’s banking career.)  So, instead, Oliver and Emily relinquished their London lodgings and relocated to a small town in northern England where housing costs are much lower than in London.  (Even there, they have chosen to rent, rather than buy, because of Emily’s disdain of property ownership.)  To be sure, they made the right economic decision - but it certainly was not the right social, personal, political or emotional one.

When we first encounter Oliver and Emily, they are settling into their new quarters and, in an effort to assimilate in their new environment, they have invited their married neighbors Alan (Graeme Brookes) and Dawn (Elizabeth Boag) to visit.  Emily is tidying up their home in anticipation of the arrival of her guests – which includes placing a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital prominently on their coffee table and avoiding discussing the problem of their own sex life (or lack of it) with Oliver - a discussion which he is eager to pursue and she refuses to address.  The only breaks in her routine occur when she reacts (frequently) to imagined sounds from the baby monitor (which shares prominence with Marx on the coffee table) and insists that Oliver immediately check on their two-and-a half year old child who, as it turns out, invariably is sleeping soundly in the other room.

When Dawn arrives, she comes across as a bored, physically well-endowed, relatively uneducated, lower-class, part-time receptionist, exuding sexuality, flirting outrageously with Oliver, and rather dismissive of her own husband.  Alan shows up somewhat later since he didn’t want to miss the end of the football game on the telly.  (After all, England was playing!)  He is a cheerful, overweight, garrulous, beer-swigging postman and football aficionado whose “best mate” is his cat, Vince (named after the HMS Invincible which was the ship on which he served out his military duty).  He also is evidently much more in love with his wife than she is with him and can’t get over the fact that “a big fat slob” like him managed to land “a spectacular-looking woman like her.”

And so the scene is set.  Alan and Dawn are flag-waving patriots whereas Emily thinks that patriotism is “mindless.”  Alan lives for football and takes pride in the fact that he has traveled all over Europe to watch England play while Oliver has no real interest in the game and much prefers cricket.  And Emily’s antipathy to football is much greater than Oliver’s: she pontificates that

“…highly popular sports like football are nowadays merely a means of keeping people pacified, of keeping people stupid. The more time, money and energy a man spends watching football, for example, the less time, money and energy he has to read important books and to educate himself and to question this hideous economic system and therefore, one hopes, to realize he’s being taken for a fool every single day of his life.”

Alan’s “best bloody mate” is his cat; Emily hates the cat which she considers a threat to her children and their pets.  Emily paints Jackson Pollock-like abstracts to which she attaches such pretentious names as The Reunification of the Body and the Soul in a Time of Grieving; Alan paints realistic but not very good portraits of his cat to which he attaches such mundane titles as Vince Staring Out the Window and Vince With A Rat in His Mouth.

Unsurprisingly, the evening does not go well.  The cultural gap between Oliver and Emily on one side and Alan and Dawn on the other is just too great an abyss to cross.  But it does provide the material for a wonderfully entertaining first act.

It is in the second act of Invincible by Torben Betts, now making its US premiere as part of the Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, however, that everything comes together and that all the loose ends are tied up.  Only then do we learn why Emily is so compulsively focused on her baby monitor, why Alan and Dawn have nothing to say about their son other than that he is “away,” how it was that a “fat slob” like Alan ended up with a “spectacular-looking woman” like Dawn, why Dawn is so dismissive of Alan and yet abides him, whether Oliver will ever develop enough backbone to stand up to Emily and whether that would make any difference in their sex life.  Vince disappears and it his disappearance, which eventually is explained, that in one way or another ultimately triggers all the revelations.

By play’s end, we have also re-discovered deeper truths.  First impressions can be misleading and we learn that there is more both to Dawn and Oliver than initially meets the eye.  Elizabeth Boag does an excellent job of revealing the dreams and aspirations that the lower-class poorly educated Dawn still harbors in her soul.  And Alastair Whatley does a similarly fine job in exhibiting Oliver’s growth over time.

But perhaps the most important lesson to take away from the play is that it is absurdly arrogant for liberal elitists to label those who do not share their most pretentious values as nothing more than (in Hillary Clinton's words) “irredeemable deplorables.”  Graeme Brookes, who virtually steals the show as Alan, makes that abundantly clear.  When push comes to shove, it is Alan – the overweight, talkative, postman who doesn’t know Karl Marx from Groucho - who proves to have far more “class” than his “betters” when it really matters.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Red Bull Theater's Revival of Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR at Duke Theater

L-R: Mary Testa, Michael McGrath, Michael Urie, and Talene Monahon in THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Nikolai Gogol’s penned his satiric masterpiece, The Government Inspector, a comedic but scathing indictment of virtually all elements of Imperial Russian society in 1834 but its publication was greeted with such animosity by all those whom it lampooned – dissolute masters and their buffoonish servants, prevaricating medical practitioners, incompetent postal workers, corrupt judges, crooked bureaucrats, dishonest academics, and adulterous wives and their hypocritical daughters – that it required the personal intervention of Tsar Nicholas I even to get the play staged for the first time in 1836.  We’ve come a long way since then (haven’t we?) and this is the United States in 2017, not Imperial Russia, but corruption, bribery, misfeasance, stupidity and hypocrisy still run rampant in all too many of our institutions (a fact to which anyone who has had to deal with the IRS or the DMV or the medical or educational establishments might readily attest).  Which is why Gogol’s play remains one for the ages. 

Jeffrey Hatcher’s rollicking adaptation of The Government Inspector for Red Bull Theater is currently premiering at The Duke on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  It is the latest of that company’s string of classic revivals of which Red Bull may be justifiably proud. 
When the leading citizens of a small provincial town in Russia – including Anton Antonovich (Michael McGrath), the town’s corrupt Mayor;  the Judge (Tom Alan Robbins); the School Principal (David Manis); the Hospital Director (Stephen DeRosa); and the Police Chief (Luis Moreno) – learn that a government inspector, traveling incognito, is coming to their village to root out their corruption, all hell breaks loose.  They determine to pay him whatever bribes, or do whatever else it might take, to protect themselves from his wrath.  But first they have to find out who he is. 

The entire play then revolves around a case of mistaken identity.  Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie), is a dissolute, impoverished, narcissistic civil servant from St. Petersburg but he does have a vivid imagination.  When he and Osip (Arnie Burton), his servant, arrive in town, Hlestakov is mistaken for the dreaded government inspector, bribes and “loans” (never meant to be repaid) are thrust upon him.  Both Anna (Mary Testa), the mayor’s wife, and Marya (Talene Monohon), their daughter, throw themselves upon him as well and, for his part, he is quite as willing to accept their advances as he is to accept the bribes he receives.

Both Michael Urie and Michael McGrath are outstanding in their starring roles as Hlestakov and the Mayor, respectively.  Both Alexis Distler’s Set Design and Tilly Grimes Costume Design also deserve positive mention; they provide the perfect backdrop for this exuberant production.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Olivier Award Winning ROTTERDAM by Jon Brittain Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Anna Martine Freeman and Alice McCarthy in ROTTERDAM.   Photo by Hunter Canning.
When her boyfriend, Josh (Ed Eales-White), introduces Alice (Alice McCarthy) to his gay kid sister Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman), Alice can no longer remain in denial of the truth she has known but refused to admit even to herself since she was nine years old: Alice “likes” Fiona and doesn’t really “like” Josh in the same way.  In fact, Alice has always “liked” girls rather than boys.  In fact, Alice is a lesbian.

Fiona has been out of the closet for years but Alice still is not – and doesn’t come out fully even after they become lovers.  Oh, a few people know - including Josh, of course, with whom Alice remains close friends and Lelani (Ellie Morris), Alice’s young, gay, ditzy co-worker - but her parents don’t know and Alice is reluctant to tell them.  Indeed, the reason Alice has remained in Rotterdam for the past seven years has been to avoid returning home to England where she’d be forced to tell them.

And then, when Alice finally summons up the courage to e-mail her parents with the truth but before she manages to hit “send,” Fiona discloses that she has an even more momentous announcement to make: Fiona is transgender; she has always known that she is really a man and, while she may or may not ultimately opt to undergo transsexual surgical procedures, from now on she wants to live as one; her - or rather his - new man’s name is Adrian.

Alice and Fiona – I mean Adrian (or do I?) – are truly in love.  But how can that be?  If Alice is in love with Adrian and Adrian is a man, does that mean that Alice really isn’t a lesbian after all?  If Fiona was a woman (at least in Alice’s eyes) and Adrian is a man, are Fiona and Adrian really the same person?  Might Alice have been in love with Fiona and not now be in love with Adrian?  But how can that be if Adrian doesn’t really believe that he is changing but is only belatedly admitting to himself and others who and what he always has been?

And what of Josh and Adrian?  If Josh only lost Alice to Fiona because Alice was a lesbian and Fiona was a woman but Alice is no longer a lesbian and Fiona is now a man, does that mean that Josh has a second shot at wooing Alice?  And if Alice is still a lesbian and Adrian truly loves her, is he prepared to go back to being Fiona for her sake?

Rotterdam by Jon Brittain is a beautifully written play, not only heart-wrenching but highly entertaining, simultaneously dramatic, comedic, and thought-provoking.  It is a plea for greater understanding of the pain endured by many in the LGBTQ world but, even more than that, it is an exploration into the very nature of “identity.”

Is “identity” the core that is left when we peel away all the outer layers of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and whatever biological or cultural traits we may express – what many might see as our fundamental selves, our essences, our spirits or our souls?  Or is it quite the opposite: is there no such core at all, is the idea of a “self” or a “soul” a mere illusion, and is it the sum total of all those outer layers – our race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and whatever other biological or cultural traits we may express – that constitute our true identities?

In Rotterdam, Jon Brittain may not answer all those questions – no one really could, certainly not to everyone’s satisfaction anyway – but he gives us lots to think about and that’s more than enough.
 
Ed Eales-White, in his role as Josh, conveys  warmth and sensitivity in his relationships both with his lost love, Alice, and with his kid sister, Fiona (now his kid brother, Adrian).  Ellie Morris as Lelni adds just the right comedic touch to this otherwise heartbreaking production as a gay naïf, all firecrackers and silver lame, who somehow manages to evade the advances of her boss – a married man twice her age and her father’s best friend – while yet benefiting from living rent-free with him and his family.  Alice McCarthy plays Alice with the perfect balance of propriety, loyalty, vulnerability, and uncertainty that the role demands.  And Anna Martine Freeman pulls off the toughest role of all: she is both lesbian Fiona and transgender Adrian – and she forces us to believe it.

Ellan Parry’s set design on a small stage that lesser designers might have found limiting also deserves recognition.  It is all primary colors and larger than life murals with doors leading in and out of unseen corridors, capturing the intensity of the emotional roller-coaster on stage.   And a cleverly concealed closet for coming in and out – both literally and figuratively.

Having played to sold-out audiences in London (where it won the prestigious Olivier Award), Rotterdam currently is making its US premiere as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in Manhattan.  I urge you to see it.