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.

Monday, April 25, 2016

ECHOES by Henry Naylor at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Filipa Braganca and Felicity Houlbrooke in ECHOES.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Both Felicity Houlbrooke and Filipa Braganca are exceptionally talented actresses and both deliver truly spectacular performances in Echoes, currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway Festival.  But, sad to say, their talents are largely squandered on this play which, despite its success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is little more than a superficial diatribe seeking to establish the moral equivalence between the excesses of British colonialism and the horrors of Islamic terrorism and proclaiming the eternal victimhood of women and ethnic minorities at the hands of men and Western Europeans.

Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke) is a 17 year old Victorian pioneer woman from Ipswich who accepts the British Government’s offer of free passage to India in the mid-nineteenth century so that she might marry a soldier and fulfill her responsibility to provide him with offspring to help populate the British Empire.  Samira (Felipa Braganca) is a 17 year old Muslim woman from Ipswich who travels to the Middle East today so that she might marry an Islamist terrorist and contribute to the establishment of a Caliphate   In dueling monologues, Tillie and Samira expound on their ordeals and ultimate disillusionments but without ever really acknowledging any responsibility for their own actions.

To be sure, men must bear much of the responsibility for the exploitation and subjugation of women over the ages and European society must accept responsibility for much of the exploitation of indigenous peoples around the world.  But it is long past time, I think, for us simply to be satisfied with two dimensional attacks on all men and all of Western culture and to examine in greater depth the degree to which women and ethnic minorities may have been complicit in their own victimization.  And Henry Naylor, in penning Echoes, has failed to even approach those questions and has taken the easy way out  – with a couple of gratuitous swipes at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz thrown in for good measure, as if to underscore the fact that the play really is nothing more than an extreme feminist and far left polemic.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

ARSENE LUPIN VS SHERLOCK HOLMES at The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company

L-R: Kevin Sebastian and Philip O'Gorman in ARSENE LUPIN VS SHERLOCK HOLMES.  Poster Design by Kevin Sebastian.  Poster Photography by Max Kilsheimer.
Arsene Lupin vs Sherlock Holmes, currently being staged by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company at The Gene Frankel Theater on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, is an entertaining tour de force adapted by Thomas R. Gordon (Onomatopoeia’s founder and artistic director)  from the short stories The Fair Haired Lady and Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late by Maurice LeBlanc and A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.   The play provides everything that one might expect – the theft of a precious jewel (the Blue Diamond) by the notorious Arsene Lupin (Kevin Sebastian); the unexpected death of Mme. Rosette Bordeaux (Taylor Khaldy); the inability of Inspector Justin Ganimard (Alexander Larkin) of the French Police to solve the murder or robbery cases or to capture Lupin; the Police’s reluctant decision to call upon Sherlock Holmes (Philip O’Gorman) for help; - together with the mystery of the fair haired lady, the discovery of a secret passage at the Chateau Thibermesnil, counterfeit currencies, and, of course, the matching of wits between Holmes and Lupin.

It is frequently the case that the enjoyment of a theatrical production requires, at the outset, a suspension of disbelief, and that is certainly the case here.  For starters one must learn to overlook the actors’ on again off again French accents and focus instead on their general exuberance   And, if nothing else, they are exuberant.

There are fifteen characters in this production, played by ten different actors with several playing two or more roles.  Of them all, I thought the most outstanding was Lisa Monde who portrayed Alexandra James (A.J.) ”Raffles” Holmes, the daughter of Sherlock Holmes, a character invented by Mr. Gordon specifically for this play as a strong counterpoint to Holmes himself.  I was also particularly impressed by the performances of Kevin Sebastian as Lupin and David Alexander in the dual roles of Victor Grunbaum and Jean Dudouis.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


L-R: Zoe Watkins, Aedin Moloney and Barrie Kreinik in WHEN I WAS A GIRL I USED TO SCREAM AND SHOUT. Photo by Carol Rosegg..
When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout by Sharman Macdonald premiered in London in 1984 and was first produced in New York City four years later.  Now it is being revived by Fallen Angel Theatre Company at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre on West 42mnd Street in midtown Manhattan, marking its first off-Broadway production and its first production by an Irish/British New York based company.

Fallen Angel was founded in 2003 by Aedin Moloney, a highly accomplished actress who recently delivered an outstanding performance as Margaret Willoughby in the Mint Theatre Company’s superb production of Women Without Men.  Now she is doing it again, delivering a fine performance as Morag, a beleaguered Scottish mother attempting unsuccessfully to repair her damaged relationship with her daughter Fiona (Barrie Kreinik).

When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout is a memory play set on the rocky coast of Scotland in 1983 when Fiona is a grown woman in her late 20’s, shifting back and forth through a series of flashbacks between that time and Fiona’s early childhood, her pre-pubescence, and her teenage years.  What is generally established is just how blissfully ignorant Fiona and her best friend, Vari (Zoe Watkins), were of all things sexual and theological in their early years, how Fiona not only did little to alleviate those conditions but contributed to them, and how it all led to the direst consequences including Fiona’s impregnation by Ewan (Colby Howell) at age 15, her subsequent strained relationship with her mother, and the failure of mother and daughter to ever truly reconcile.

The performances of all four cast members were commendable but as for the overall production, not so much.  The play is really two separate plays, one a slice of life impressionistic expression of Fiona’s relatively stultifying upbringing with its emphasis on her sexual and religious ignorance and the other a more structured rendition of the events leading to her pregnancy and her subsequent relationship with her mother.  But the two plays never really mesh into one - the first is more smarmy, anatomical and distasteful than enlightening and the latter, which should have provided the play’s driving force, is much too tepid to be truly effective.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

HAPPILY AFTER EVER at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Brennan Lowery, Molly-Ann Nordin, Jeffrey Brian Adams, and Marlon Meikle in HAPPILY AFTER EVER.  Photo by Erik Carter.
For much of human history, little distinction was made between one’s gender and one’s sex, or between one’s sexual characteristics and one’s sexual orientation, or between one’s biological sexual markers and one’s sexual self-identification.  It was simply assumed that what it meant to be male was to have a Y chromosome, to have a penis and testicles, to be physically attracted to and sexually stimulated by women, and to think of oneself as a man.  And what it meant to be female was to lack a Y chromosome, to have a vagina and uterus, to be physically attracted to and sexually stimulated by men, and to think of oneself as a woman.  And all the parts were thought to go together in neat packages: chromosomes, sex organs, emotional inclinations, and self-identifications.  Sure there were tomboys and sissies among us – and occasionally we even came across blatant homosexuals or lesbians -  but those were thought to be rare aberrations of little significance.

Not any more.  The gay rights movement, culminating in the broad acceptance of same sex marriage, has led, in turn, to the recognition of the extent to which all those parts really don’t necessarily go together, a better understanding of the degree to which one might exhibit male physical sexual characteristics and a female sexual orientation (or vice versa), and the belated realization that we were wrong to have believed that one’s sex (as evidenced by one’s chromosomes and sex organs) and one’s gender (as evidenced by one’s orientation and self-identification) must necessarily coincide.  Yes, they usually do – but not nearly as consistently as we once thought.

Indeed, the very idea of there being any such thing as, say, a lesbian trapped in a man’s body was once taken to be nothing more than a sophomoric oxymoronic joke.  That is, until today.

It is this revolutionary change in our thinking about sex and gender that lies at the heart of Ricochet Collective’s production of Happily After Ever, a rather quirky impressionistic play by Laura Zlatos currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The play’s slight plot revolves around Janet and Darren, newlyweds eager to create a perfect life for themselves and one that must, of course, include a perfect baby.  But life throws them a curve when Janet gives birth to a baby with both male and female genitalia.  Is it a boy?  A girl?  Both? And what, if anything, should they do about – or to - it?

Are sex and gender absolutes or are they relativistic concepts: in other words, is one either male or female and that’s all there is to it, or do those concepts really lie on a continuum so that one can be mostly male or mostly female or sort of both?  And whether absolute or relative, are sex and gender fixed or are they malleable?  Might sex be fixed and gender malleable – or the other way around?  The questions never seem to end.

While the play’s primary focus is on these conundrums, the playwright also raises all sorts of other questions of a relative or absolute nature.  Are happiness and unhappiness absolutes or are they also relativistic – i.e., are we happy (or unhappy) irrespective of our perceptions of others’ happiness or unhappiness or is our own happiness somehow dependent upon our perception of the happiness (or lack thereof) of others?  Schadenfreude, anyone?  To that end, we are introduced to Janet and Darren’s next door neighbors, Jerry and Dharma, the perfect couple whose own lives come to represent the standard against which Janet and Darren measure their own.

In directing how the characters in her play should be cast, Ms Zlatos specified that “Janet and Dharma should be played by a woman or someone who is feminine” and that “Darren and Jerry should be played by a man or someone who is masculine.”  In fact, in this production, Darren and Jerry are played by two very talented “real” men (Jeffrey Brian Adams and Brennan Lowery, respectively) and Janet is played by an exceptionally exuberant and irrepressible “real” woman (Molly-Ann Nordin)..  But Dharma is played by a notorious drag queen (Marlon Meikle) whose over-the-top femininity surpasses that of most “real” women, only serving to underscore the degree to which our perceptions of sex and gender are relativistic rather than absolute.

Nor is it just the concepts of sex and gender that Ms Zlatos contends are more relativistic than absolute.  The same thing apparently can be said about the concepts of love and loyalty and most anything else you might imagine.  As an example, in response to Janet’s affirmation that she “was not meant to be alone,” Darren’s response is much less reassuring in any absolute sense than one might have expected:

“And now, you never will be.  Except when I leave for work every day.  Or if I take a really long shit.  Or when I need to get the hell away from you, but it’s pretty damn safe to say that I’ll be there for the minimum amount of time it takes to keep you around.”

And when Janet seeks absolute assurance from Darren that

”you’ll love me, right?  Forever.  And after that even.  And again after that”

the best that Darren can come up with is:

“I promise to love you as long as you don’t get fat.”

The only other character in the play is Tommy (Jim Anderson), a runaway, misunderstood family dog who, as it turns out, is really a bitch, Tania.  Apparently even the sexual identification of dog can be suspect and relativistic.  As played by Mr. Anderson, the droll and downcast Tommy adds further comic relief to an otherwise unusual and entertaining production.