Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Black Boys Die at Theater for the New City

L-R: R. Ashley Bowles, Scarlett Smith, Lorenzo A. Jackson, and Brandon Mellette in WHEN BLACK BOYS DIE.  Photo by Rosalie Baijer.
William Electric Black is an exceptionally versatile, talented and socially conscious writer whose interests range from encouraging exercise and good nutrition for children to prescription drug awareness and obesity and stroke prevention.  A seven time Emmy Award winning writer for his work on Sesame Street, he is currently engaged in writing. producing, and directing a series of five plays (collectively called Gunplays) addressing the dangers of inner city violence and guns.

The first of these plays, Welcome Home Sonny T., a powerful politically correct polemic in favor of gun control and he rights of illegal aliens, was staged at the Theater for the New City (TNC) on First Avenue in lower Manhattan a little more than a year ago and we enjoyed it immensely.  Now the second play in the series, When Black Boys Die, is premiering at the TNC and, much as we enjoyed Welcome Home Sonny T., we liked when Black Boys Die even more.

When Black Boys Die centers on the untimely shooting death of Levon Weeks (Torre Reigns), a remarkable young man who, despite having been raised by a single mother in the projects, is on the verge of entering Syracuse University on a basketball scholarship.  His death occurs in the wake of his coming to the aid of Cece Torres (Scarlett Smith) to prevent her from being raped by Dray Oliver (Brandon Mellette), a neighborhood gang leader and drug dealer – and his death has repercussions throughout the neighborhood.  Ruby Weeks (Verna Hampton), Levon’s mother, becomes obsessed by the desire to engage the community into taking action against the senseless gun violence that has taken her son’s life by listing and posting the names of everyone killed in the community since her son’s death on the Fourth of July.  And Danielle Weeks (Brittney Benson), Levon’s sister and Cece’s friend, is driven to try to find out exactly what happened on the fateful day.

The play is well written and beautifully acted and not without its surprises.  Mr. Jackson (Lavern Williams), a high school art teacher who tries valiantly to mentor and inspire the neighborhood youth, provides a moral counterbalance to the depravity of gangbangers like Dray and his sidekick, JB (Lorenzo A. Jackson).   And even “Say What” (R. Ashley Bowles), an elderly neighborhood street vendor, has his moment in the sun, suggesting that even the least among us ought not be taken for granted, let alone counted out.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Mystery of Love and Sex at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater

L-R: Mamoudou Athie, Diane Lane, Tony Shaloub, and Gayle Rankin in THE MYSTERY OF LOVE & SEX,
The Mystery of Love and Sex by Bathsheba Doran, currently being staged at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is little more than a pretentious parody of a soap opera.  Will Charlotte (Gayle Rankin), a white, Jewish lesbian marry Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), a black, Baptist homosexual who is her college classmate and her “bff” since childhood?  Or isn’t she really lesbian at all?  Might she be bi-sexual – or maybe even heterosexual and just sexually curious?  And is Jonny really homosexual or is he simply preserving his virginity until marriage because of his religious convictions?  Or might he just be sexually confused too?  And does anybody care?

When Howard (Tony Shaloub) and Lucinda (Diane Lane) arrive on campus to visit Charlotte, they discover for the first time that Charlotte and Jonny’s relationship may not be quite as platonic as they were led to believe – and they’re not at all happy about it.  But why not?  They’d always liked Jonny, so what’s the problem?  It can’t be the difference in Charlotte’s and Jonny’s religions or cultural backgrounds since Howard is a New York Jew and Lucinda was born a Southern Christian (although she subsequently converted to Judaism) and if they didn’t allow their own families’ objections to their marriage to stand in their way, why should they object to their daughter’s following a similar course?.  Moreover, they had their own gay experiences in their youth (in reality in Lucinda’s case and at least in his imagination in Howard’s) so it can’t be Charlotte’s and Jonny’s sexual experimentation that’s bothering them.   Could it be that they – Heaven forfend! – are closet racists without even realizing it themselves?

As you might imagine, all of this “PC” stuff is enough to hold the audience’s attention for a while but eventually it does start to pall.  Not to worry.  Some gratuitous total nudity by Charlotte might re-ignite your interest.  And since this is, after all, a really politically correct show, it just wouldn’t do to restrict such  gratuitous nudity to white women.  So we are treated to additional color blind theatrics, in the form of  more gratuitous total nudity by Jonny too.

Rankin, Athie, Shaloub and Lane are all highly professional and do as good a job as might be expected of them with the material they’ve been given.  But while this mash-up may be very politically correct and occasionally maybe even a little titillating, it’s really not a lot to work with.  Indeed, it gives new meaning to the term “PC.”  Here it’s not only “politically correct” (although it surely is that), but it’s “pruriently caricaturish” and a “puerile conceit” as well.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnar in Revival at Mint Theater

L-R: Joe Delafield and Annie Purcell in FASHIONS FOR MEN.  Photo by Richard Termine.
Ever since its founding in 1995, the Mint Theater Company, arguably one of the finest off-Broadway theater companies in the city, has been dedicated to the mission of unearthing and producing lost or neglected but worthwhile plays of the past and infusing them with new vitality.  For the past two decades, it has held true to its mission, staging impressive revivals of seldom seen works by playwrights ranging from A.A. Milne to Edith Wharton, from Thomas Wolfe to D.H. Lawrence, from John Galsworthy to Leo Tolstoy, and from Ernest Hemingway to Arnold Bennett.  Now, for its first production this year, the Mint, located on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan, is staging a freshened revival of Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnar and it is another winner.

Molnar was an internationally acclaimed Hungarian playwright of the early 1900s, whose best known works are Liliom (upon which the classic musical Carousel was based), The Guardsman, and The Play’s the Thing.  Less well known is Fashions for Men, a light hearted comedy that was first produced in Budapest in 1917, although it subsequently did make it to New York in 1922 where it had a successful run on Broadway and was adapted into a motion picture (renamed Fine Clothes) in 1925.

Fashions for Men plays out in three acts, two set in an upscale haberdashery in Budapest and one in the Count’s study at his manorial estate, Gerelypuszta, and the sets themselves merit comment.  They are simply terrific, far superior to what one is accustomed to seeing off-Broadway and at least the equivalent of what one generally finds even on Broadway.  Daniel Zimmerman, the play’s Scenic Designer, deserves to be singled out for the major contribution his work makes to the success of this show.

Now to the play itself.  Peter Juhasz, the proprietor of the haberdashery (Joe Delafield), is a very good man, beloved by all, who sees nothing but the best in everyone.  But it is his very goodness that turns out to be his undoing as it results in his being taken advantage of by all around him.   Although many of his customers fail to pay their bills, he continues to extend them credit to the point that he is approaching bankruptcy.  He still might have pulled it out, but when his wife, Adele (Annie Purcell) steals from him and absconds with Oscar, his top salesman (John Tufts), it is just too much, and the shop is thrown into receivership.

Nonetheless, Peter blames himself rather than Adele or Oscar for his plight and bears neither of them any ill will.  He is, in short, something of a saintly schlemiel – the sort of person who, if you recall the punch line of the old joke, persists in asserting that “There must be a pony in there somewhere!”  Instead, he resolves to return to work for the Count, a former employer and benefactor, (Kurt Rhoads) who retains such affection for Peter that he offers him the position of general director of the Count’s Gerelypuszta Cheese Exporting Company.

As it turns out, the Count’s affections extend even more to Paula (Rachel Napoleon), the pretty young thing in Peter’s employ at the haberdashery shop, with whom he had been carrying on a flirtation whenever he visited the shop.  Peter had seen himself not only as her employer but also as her protector, a relationship that Paula also presumably bought into.  So when Peter reveals that he will be leaving the haberdashery shop, Paula contends that she will have to leave too, even if the shop’s new owners would be willing to keep her on, because her mother would never allow her to work for anyone other than Peter and she wouldn’t dream of opposing her mother’s wishes.

L-R: Rachel Napoleon and Kurt Rhoads in FASHIONS FOR MEN.  Photo by Richard Termine.
And so Paula elects to work for Peter at the Count’s cheese company, which is all well and good with the Count, who has had his eye on Paula all along.  And, of course, Paula has her own ulterior motive in following Peter.  As she explains to Philip, another of Peter’s employees at the haberdashery shop (Jeremy Lawrence), she intends to follow Philip to Gerelypuszta so as not to let His Excellency, the Count, slip through her fingers (although she will pretend to Philip that it is only because she doesn’t want to abandon him in his hour of need).

Before the play is over, the relationships among Peter, Paula, the Count, and Oscar have become increasingly complicated but it is all great fun and lest I be forced to issue a plethora of  spoiler alerts, I’d best say no more about the plot’s evolution and resolution.  Suffice it to say that the entire cast is just wonderful, that the play is cheerful and uplifting, and that I left the theater with a broader smile on my face and a bit more jaunty lift to my step than when I entered it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets in Revival

L-R: Ned Eisenberg and Marilyn Matarrese in ROCKET TO THE MOON.
In 1938, in the wake of the Great Depression and with Nazism and Fascism on the rise, the world appeared to be on the brink of collapse.  In the same year, Clifford Odets’s personal life was also imploding: his wife had filed for divorce and the Group Theatre, the collective which already had produced five of his plays, seemed to be falling apart.  And it was then that Odets wrote Rocket to the Moon, which was staged that year by the Group Theater and opened to mixed reviews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway.

Surely it is no coincidence that the play, also set in 1938 in New York City, relates the tale of Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg), a struggling dentist whose own marriage and career are in similar distress.  Dental patients are difficult to come by when people must choose between dental treatment and putting food on the table to feed their families.  (Dental treatment will lose out every time.)  Phil Cooper (Larry Bull), another struggling dentist who sublets space from Stark is in similar dire straits.  He is an incipient alcoholic who hasn’t paid his rent for several months, which only serves to worsen Stark’s position.

Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary), Stark’s wealthy and idiosyncratic father-in-law has generously offered to fund Stark’s purchase of more modern dental equipment and a move uptown to posher quarters, an offer that Stark, who always had big dreams, is inclined to accept.  But Stark’s wife, Belle (Marilyn Matarresse), who is largely estranged from her own father, is more reluctant to accept the offer.  There is a deep bond of friendship and affection between her and her husband – they have been married for a decade and endured the loss of a child together – but their relationship lacks passion and she never shared her husband’s grand ambitions.

When Stark hires Cleo Singer (Katie McClellan), a vibrant girl half his age, to be his dental assistant, the emptiness of Stark’s life is brought into sharper focus.  His practice is failing and he is stuck in a loveless marriage.  Cleo claims to have fallen in love with him and he has fallen for her.  Should he leave his wife and take a “rocket to the moon” with Cleo?  Or is he just suffering from a temporary mid-life crisis that will fade with time?

The situation is confounded even further by Mr. Prince’s falling in love with Cleo himself and by her being lusted after as well by Willy Wax (Lou Liberatore), one of Stark’s smarmier patients.  Rounding out the cast is Walter “Frenchy” Jensen (Michael Keyloun), a podiatrist from down the hall whose role is more that of the cynical outsider who is eager to comment on the world’s foibles while reluctant to commit himself.

L-R: Jonathan Hadary and Katie McClellan in ROCKET TO THE MOON.
The basic theme of Rocket to the Moon is one of “settling.”  Belle is overt about it: she is prepared to settle because “half a loaf is better than none.”  Mr. Prince, despite his wealth, is resentful about the fact that, under pressure from his own deceased wife (Belle’s mother), he settled for a business career rather than pursuing his dream of acting – which goes a long way toward explaining his encouragement of Stark to follow his own dream no matter the cost and his estrangement from his own daughter.  Cleo refuses to settle for the reality of her own impoverished life and conjures up a world of lies and fantasy instead.  And it is Stark’s personal crisis – whether or not to settle for the life he has with Belle and a middling dental practice or to give it all up to take a risky shot at greater happiness with Cleo – that is at the core of the play.

Rocket to the Moon has not been revived nearly as often as some of Odets’s better-known works including Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing and Golden Boy, despite the fact that Odets’s son, Walt, came to see it as his father’s “magnum opus” and the playwright Arthur Miller considered it to be Odets’s best play.  Fortunately that oversight is now being corrected by a wonderful revival by The Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street in midtown Manhattan.

In this production, Ned Eisenberg does a fine job in depicting Stark’s general ambivalence toward life, his weakness, submissiveness, and indecisiveness - but also his fundamental decency (he provides dental care for WPA workers at discount rates simply because they need it and most of his patients turn out to be family members in for free cleanings).  Katie McClellan plays her role with just the right mixture of youthful naivete and abandon while Jonathan Hadary is absolutely delightful as the quirky Mr. Prince.  But I thought that best of all was Marilyn Matarresse who managed to convey an extraordinary range of emotions – her resentment toward her father for his treatment of her mother, her ambivalent feelings toward her husband, her persistent despondency over the loss of her child, her rigidity, her stubbornness, and her underlying sense of insecurity.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Baba Brinkman in Rap Guide to Religion at Soho Playhouse

I used to think rap
was a whole lot of crap
and I didn’t wanna go
down to Soho
just to see some lame hip-hop show.

But then when I finally made a decision
to actually see A Rap Guide to Religion
at the Soho Playhouse on Vandam Street,
I found that rap had a really great beat
and I thought that the show itself was neat
And its rapper-performer especially sweet.
In fact, it totally changed my opinion
of this generation’s musical vision
and I no longer view rap with scorn and derision.

And it’s all due to one guy whose name’s Baba Brinkman -
a likable dude who’ll sure make you think, man.
A Canadian atheist rapper who’s white –
a really odd combo – but he still turned out right.
He not only performs but wrote the whole show
and there don’t seem to be anything he don’t know.

He’s a big fan of Darwin
and thinks that hisTheory of Evolution
delivers the very best solution
to why everything turns out as it does:
like why honeybees buzz
and ducklings have fuzz
and why roses have thorns
and rhinos have horns
and why you have fingers and why you have toes
and the size of your butt
and the shape of your nose…

But that isn’t all ‘cause he also explains
all sorts of stuff ‘bout our human brains,
like why it should be that we try to maintain
that suffering and pain
are somehow related to some God Above
and go hand-in-glove
with Divine Love.

And here’s the answer: it’s not teleology,
It’s just biology.
There’s no supernatural direction.
It’s all just a function of natural selection.
It’s the fittest who survive
and we all want to stay alive
and have lots of offspring to populate our hive.

And that’s just fine.
There’s no need to explain anything by intelligent design.

But Brinkman has lots more about which to rap
like God in the Gaps
(where Yahweh is hiding
or maybe it’s Zeus or even Poseiden)
and Theory of Mind and the historical value of believing
(even if it turned out to be self-deceiving).

But the show’s not a paean to atheism,
Nor an attack on believing as mere superstition.
Brinkman, in short, is no Christopher Hitchens
who spent half his life complainin’ and bitchin’
about everything wrong that he saw in religion
and he’s not like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins
who just went on talkin’ and talkin’ and talkin’
about all of the evil and harm that’s been done
by every religion under the sun.

No, that’s not Brinkman’s style, he’s not abusive
(despite his persistence
in denying God’s existence).
He’s much more inclusive
and concedes that religion (at least in the past)
served a worthwhile purpose (that may no longer last)
by strengthening the communal ties
that enabled societies to survive
and their members to thrive.

OK, here is the bottom line:
this is a show that’s really fine.
If you see it, you’ll not only learn a lot but you’ll have fun.
So don’t walk, run
down to the Soho Playhouse before it’s too late
‘cause this is a show that’s really great!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Irish RepertoryTheatre Stages Outstanding Revival of DA by Hugh Leonard

L-R: Paul O'Brien and Ciaran O'Reilly in DA.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The Irish Repertory Theatre, founded in 1988, is the only year-round theatre company in North America dedicated to the staging of Irish and Irish-American works.  Over the past quarter-century, it has achieved a well-deserved reputation (and earned a plethora of awards) for its staging of works by playwrights as diverse as Sean O’Casey, Brian Friel, Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Frank McCourt, W.B. Yeats, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Beckett, Noel Coward, Edna O’Brien, Dylan Thomas, J. M. Synge, Brendan Behan, and many, many more.

Now in its 26th season, the Irish Rep is staging a terrific revival of Da, Hugh Leonard’s largely autobiographical memory play at the DR2 Theatre on East 15th Street in lower Manhattan. (The play originally opened at the Hudson Guild in 1978 before moving on to Broadway, garnering not only that year’s Tony Award for Best Play but also the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.) The current revival is directed by Charlotte Moore (one of the Irish Rep’s original co-founders) and features Ciaran O’Reilly (its other co-founder) as Charlie, a middle-aged writer who returns from London to his childhood home to Dublin in 1968 to attend his adoptive father’s funeral.

O’Reilly plays the role of Charlie (who represents Leonard himself) with considerable insight and sensitivity, portraying his character’s insecurity as an adopted child and reluctance in accepting the parental love he is offered by his adoptive parents with consummate skill.  Paul O’Brien is equally expressive in the role of Da, Charlie’s loving adoptive father but an ignorant, foolish and un-ambitious man as well, who fails to communicate his true feelings to his son.

And that is the theme of the play – the tragedies resulting from failed communications between those with the best of intentions – and, to a greater or lesser degree, it pervades all of the relationships to which we are made privy: between Charlie and his deceased adoptive mother (Fiana Toibin); between his two adoptive parents themselves; between Charlie and Drumm (Sean Gormley) who was Charlie’s first employer and long time mentor; and between Da and Mrs. Prynne (Kristin Griffith), Da’s own long term employer.  To a lesser degree, the characters’ inability to fully share their thoughts and communicate their feelings is even evidenced in the relationships between young Charlie (played as a youth by Adam Petherbridge) and Oliver (John Keating), his boyhood friend, and that between young Charlie and Mary Tate (Nicola Murphy), a neighborhood girl known as “The Yellow Peril” for her ready sexual availability.

It well may be the case that “’Tis better to give than to receive.” but one of the play’s most important messages is that that doesn’t necessarily mean that one shouldn’t learn to accept gifts graciously.  Indeed, sometimes the greater good is achieved through the gracious acceptance of gifts than in their provision as it enables the giver to feel appreciated.  Surely, the relationships between Charlie and Da, between Charlie and his mother, and between Charlie and Drumm would have been vastly improved had all of them only learned that lesson early on.

O’Reilly and O’Brien are the true stars of this production and both of their performances are absolutely superb.  But the rest of the cast deserves considerable praise as well for their supporting performances, especially Sean Gormley who plays the role of the cynical, tightly controlled, and highly principled Drumm to absolute perfection.  In sum, this is one revival well worth seeing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cafe Society Swing Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

Evan Pappas in CAFE SOCIETY SWING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Café Society, the first racially integrated nightclub in New York City (and possibly the first in the country), was opened by Barney Josephson in Greenwich Village in 1938 - not only to be a fully racially desegregated club, a showcase for African-American talent, and an American version of European cabarets, but also as a way to mock the pretensions of the wealthy (who were satirized in wall murals painted by some of the most prominent Greenwich Village artists of the time).  As it happened, the club also provided Josephson with a place in which he could host political events and fundraisers for left-wing organizations.  Within a decade, the club (and its sister club, Café Society Uptown, which Josephson opened on East 58th Street in 1940) launched the careers of innumerable jazz and comic superstars including Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar and Carol Channing.  The clubs were a roaring success, flaunting the slogan “The Wrong Place for the Right People” and they were the place where celebrities as diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson and Errol Flynn might be found.  But in 1947, as the “red scare” hysteria of the late 1940’s gathered steam, it all began to fall apart.

That year, Josephson’s brother Leon was subpoenaed and found guilty of contempt when he refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs.  Given his own record of having hosted left-wing events at his club, his staunch stand against racial segregation, and his relationship to Leon, Josephson was pilloried as a “fellow-traveler” by a number of newspaper columnists including Westbrook Pegler,  Walter Winchell, and Dorothy Kilgallen (who accused Josephson of  “operating a Moscow-line night club.”)  Within weeks, business at Café Society and Café Society Uptown was down nearly 50%, Josephson was losing money, and he had to sell both clubs.

Café Society Swing, a homage to the original Café Society, is now enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, a block away from the club’s original uptown location.  It was written by Alex Webb who, in addition to being the play’s creator, is also its musical director and leads the play’s terrific eight piece jazz band on the piano.

The play’s book is slight, intended only to provide a scaffolding for the delivery of nearly two dozen songs, ranging from such classics as Stormy Weather and What Is This Thing Called Love to less well-known numbers such as Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ and Hurry On Down. The book is almost entirely the responsibility of Evan Pappas who delivers its message in several guises – as a newspaper reporter struggling to write the story that best captures Josephson’s persona with all its contradictions; as a bartender at the club itself providing us with a window into what it really was like; and, ultimately, as Josephson himself.  Pappas does a fine job with this material and (together with Cyrille Aimee) even gets to sing one of the play’s numbers, Closing Time.

L-R: Charenee Wade, Allan Harris, and Cyrille Aimee in CAFE SOCIETY SWING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But the play is really all about the music, not the book, and that’s where Cyrille Aimee, Allan Harris, and Charenee Wade, three extraordinarily talented vocalists, get to shine.  Harris, who also plays the guitar in the band and ties all the music together, gets it all going with a wonderful opening rendition of Cafe Society and Rollin’ and follows up with several other great performances, including One Meat Ball, I Left My Baby, Society Jump, Lush Life and Wrong Place, Right People.   Aimee exhibits a remarkable talent with a repertoire that ranges from an all-time classic (Stormy Weather) to a French love song (Parlez Moi D’Amour) to a traditional folk song (Lord Randall) to the perkiest of pop songs, Hurry On Down.  And Wade proves that she can belt out gospel and blues with the best of them, delivering super performances of What a Little Moonlight Can Do, All of Me, Rock Me, Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, Bad Girls Need Love Too and What Is This Thing Called Love, with the very best of her performances being the play’s concluding number, Strange Fruit - first performed by Billie Holiday at Cafe Society in 1939.