Wednesday, February 3, 2016

WASHER/DRYER by Nandita Shenoy at Theater Row

Jamyl Dobson and Nandita Shenoy in WASHER/DRYER.  Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.jpg.
If Ted Cruz truly wants to understand what “New York values” are about, he might well attend a performance of Ma-Yi Theater Company’s delightful production of Washer/Dryer by Nandita Shenoy at the Beckett Theater at Theater Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  While that experience might lead him to the initial (erroneous) impression that what New Yorkers (or at least Manhattan-based co-op owners) prize above all else are their high status washer/dryer appliances, he’d quickly be disabused of that notion as he came to realize that “New York values” aren’t solely about money, the media, abortion and same sex marriage after all.

To be sure, New York is a progressive and polyglot city where a woman of Southeast Asian descent and a man of Chinese descent can not only get along but may even fall in love and marry; where an aspiring young Indian-American actress can be best friends with a flamboyantly gay black man; and where a white female power-hungry control freak may learn a lot about accepting her own son’s alternative sexual orientation from a seemingly traditional, smothering and doting Chinese mother

But so much for New York’s progressivism.  New Yorkers’ values also include a recognition of the fact that children can create families of their own without abandoning their parents or the families and traditions within which they were raised.  And New Yorkers’ values also include the realization that the generation gap can in fact be bridged with enough goodwill (and effort) on all sides.  And those values aren’t necessarily that different from those of the rest of the country.  In fact, they’re pretty universal.

Michael (Johnny Wu) is a 30-ish Chinese-American free-lance copywriter, living in Brooklyn with three roommates – which is about as far as he’s managed to get in untying himself from his mother’s apron strings.  Sonya (Nandita Shinoy), is a mildly neurotic, aspiring actress of Indian descent whose success to date has been limited to one major nationwide commercial and minor roles in a number of downtown off-off-Broadway theatrical productions.  With the money she earned from the commercial and a sub-prime mortgage loan, she has managed to acquire a small studio apartment (with a washer/dryer!) in an Upper East Side co-operative building and that’s where she’s currently living.

When Michael and Sonya travel to Las Vegas on a Vegas Groupon, they’re carried away by the moment (influenced, perhaps, by their stay in the Honeymoon Suite at the Monte Carlo) and marry impulsively at The Little White Chapel.  All well and good for they are very much in love but, as we all know, the course of true love never doth run smooth (at least not in the theatre).  And so, when they return to New York, they are forced to face reality and decide where to live.  

Obviously they can’t live in Michael’s apartment (what with the three roommates and all) and their present financial circumstances would seem to preclude their renting or purchasing a new apartment for the two of them.  So the only immediately viable solution is for Michael to move into Sonya’s studio apartment with her, small as it may be.  But what Sonya has neglected to tell Michael is that the rules of her co-op prohibit occupancy of her apartment by more than one person.  Which means that Sonya, unbeknownst to Michael, attempts to pass Michael off as nothing more than a temporary guest in her home, rather than as her husband.

That, of course, makes for all sorts of complications.  Wendee (Annie McNamara), the President of the Co-op Board is a stickler for the rules (most of which are of her own making) and she is generally distressed by Sonya’s flouting of those rules (including her failure to carpet 80% of her apartment, her lack of window guards, and her cavalier attitude toward leaving packages in the lobby).  Michael’s presence in Sonya’s apartment raises all sorts of suspicions in her mind - suspicions which are only amplified when she encounters Michael’s mother, Dr. Lee (Jade Wu), cooking dinner in the apartment.

Meanwhile Dr. Lee is most disapproving over Michaels’s marriage to Sonya, not because Sonya is of Indian rather than Chinese descent, but simply because Dr. Lee would disapprove of any woman whom her youngest son might have chosen to marry.  No girl, after all, could possibly be good enough for him.  But of course it all gets sorted out in the end, with a bit of sage assistance from Sam (Jamyl Dobson), Sonya’s flamboyantly gay, black best friend.

Washer/Dryer is great fun and would make a wonderful pilot for a successful television sitcom series in the manner of Friends or Cheers.  In writing her play, Nandita Shenoy has created several appealing characters and her own portrayal of the lead character, Sonya, is absolutely delightful.  Johnny Wu does a fine job as Michael in expressing just how torn he is between his mother and his new wife.  Both Annie McNamara as Wendee and Jade Wu as Dr. Lee succeed in conveying how true it is that maternal love will conquer all (so much for any disparagement of “New York values”!).  And as for Jamyl Dobson as Sam, well what is there to say?  He is truly larger than life, dominates any scene he is in, and yet succeeds in conveying a sense of centeredness that actually transcends that of all the other characters.

Monday, January 18, 2016


Michael Hogan in Kandahar in the LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
When Lila (Alicia Smith) first approaches him at the cocktail party, Lucas (Mark Ryan Anderson), doesn’t even realize she’s flirting with him.  He is, after all, 42 years old, slightly inebriated and physically challenged, while she, a beautiful and irrepressible 26-year-old, is nearly young enough to be his daughter.  And yet, ultimately, flirtation leads to seduction and at least one classic middle-aged male fantasy is fulfilled.

It all takes place in Stand Up for Oneself by Lexi Wolfe, the first of the six one-act plays that comprise St. Louis Actors’ Studio LaBute New Theater Festival, currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The six plays are by seven different playwrights (one is co-authored by two writers); their settings run the gamut from Greenwich Village to Memphis, Tennessee to Northern Ireland; and plotlines range from the pleasures of sexting to the ramifications of PTSD.  But for all their differences, they do share a unifying theme in their exploration of the human imagination and its location somewhere between fantasy and reality

Stand Up for Oneself focused on the fulfillment of a classic male fantasy in real life but the play that followed it, Present Tense by Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell, went a step further, into the world of virtual reality.  In Present Tense, Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) and Debra (Jenny Smith) are carrying on an illicit long distance affair which, due to logistical necessity, requires that they satisfy their desires through sexting rather than the real thing.  But as the sexting takes on a life of its own, it appears that their laptops may become more important to them than their own laps.  Or as Debra expresses it in a text message to Martin: “Please love me when I meet you.  Please prove that I am real.”  And as Martin responds: “I’m sorry.  I don’t know how.”

In The Comeback Special by JJ Strong, Bonnie (played by Alicia Smith even more delightfully and irrepressibly than she portrayed Lila in Stand Up for Oneself) and her boyfriend, Jesse (Michael Hogan), are touring Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.  Bonnie instigates their wandering off from their tour group and, by climbing over two velvet ropes and a sleeping guard they manage to make it into Elvis’ bedroom, which should, by all rights, have been off-limits to them.  There Bonnie fantasizes about making love to Jesse in Elvis’ bed but fails to persuade Jesse to have sex with her there.

That unfulfilled fantasy pales by comparison, however, with the emergence of Elvis himself (Neil Magnuson) from the en suite bathroom. Elvis, it seems has been ”stuck” in something of a limbo-like state since his untimely death in 1977, a reflection, perhaps, of the degrading circumstances under which he died.  (His body was found in the bathroom and he apparently died from a heart attack, possibly brought on and almost assuredly compounded by his history of drug abuse.)  In order to get “unstuck,” Elvis attempts to convince Jesse and Bonnie to kill him again or, barring that, at least to share his bed.

It is a truly fantastical situation.  But is Elvis really Elvis?  Or is he some lunatic Elvis impersonator who just wandered on the scene?  Or is it all a figment of Bonnie’s and Jesse’s vivid imaginations?

In Coffee House, Greenwich Village by John Doble, Jack (Justin Ivan Brown) and Pamela (Jenny Smith) are on a blind date, resulting from Jack’s having responded to a personals ad placed by Pamela in the New York Review of Books.   As they get to know one another, they allow their conversation to stray from the real to the speculative to the imaginary to the dangerously weird, culminating in a situation beginning to resemble a folie a deux.  Their ultimate victim is their unpleasant waiter (Mark Ryan Anderson) who, despite his rudeness, really doesn’t deserve the fate that befalls him.

The four plays already commented upon were all, in their own way, romantic comedies, and all dealt with the inter-related issues of human imagination, fantasy and reality within the confines of the “war between the sexes.”  But not all wars are as much fun as “the war between the sexes” and life is not always a romantic comedy.  There are real shooting wars, too, and they are much more painful to contemplate, even if they also provide us with an opportunity to explore human imagination.  The other two plays in this program – Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch by G.D. Kimble and Kandahar by Neil LaBute – fall into that category.

The title of the play Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch derives from the first line of a long ethnic joke, the point of which is our tendency to demonize “them” for their unacceptable behavior while rationalizing our own behavior when it turns out to be no different from theirs.  It is a classic example of our denial of reality and our substitution of imaginative explanations for valid truths, when it suits our needs to do so.

In the first scene of Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch, Hagerty (Mark Ryan Anderson) is a naked, broken, beaten, Irish combatant, who apparently has been betrayed by his neighbors, family or friends and is on the verge of being executed by firing squad.  (His powerful anguished performance in this role is one of the highlights of this entire production.)  In the second scene, it is Doyle (Justin Ivan Brown), who may well be the man who betrayed Hagerty, who is about to be executed by Evans (Neil Magnuson).  The futility of war and our tortured justifications for it are all front and center.

The final play in this program is Kandahar by Neil LaBute and, to my mind, it is the very best of the lot.  In a sharply written monologue, LaBute presents us with an example of the ultimate breakdown of the distinction between reality and fantasy.  An unnamed veteran of the war in Afghanistan (Michael Hogan), clearly suffering from PTSD to the point of being virtually paranoid-schizophrenic, delivers his poignant monologue in a way that is likely to remain with you long after you have left the theater.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE at the Cherry Lane Theatre

Geronimo Sands and Cliff Blake so-starring in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE.
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albion has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide and is reputedly the best-selling memoir of all time.  It has been adapted successfully for the stage and has been produced off-Broadway and in regional theatres throughout North America.  A television film based on the book starring Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria won an award as the best film made for TV back in 2000. And the latest incarnation of the stage adaptation, by Albion and Jeffrey Hatcher, is currently enjoying an excellent production at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, starring Geronimo Sands as Professor Morris Schwartz (Morrie) and Cliff Blake as Mitch Albion.

Morrie, a sociology professor at Brandeis, was Mitch’s favorite teacher in college.  Indeed, he was even more than a favorite teacher, more like a life coach.  In his undergraduate days, Mitch looked forward to receiving the nuggets of wisdom Morrie dispensed at their regular Tuesday meetings but, subsequent to Mitch’s college graduation, the two lost touch.  And then, after 16 years apart (during which time Mitch established himself as a successful sports reporter), Mitch suddenly learned that Morrie was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s fatal disease) and that discovery served as the trigger to bring the two together once again, prompting a resumption of their Tuesday meetings.

In these meetings, depicted in this production of Tuesdays With Morrie at the Cherry Lane, Mitch asks all the questions - about love, work, aging, family, community, forgiveness, and death – and Morrie provides all the answers (or at least a lot of free advice). And in playing their roles, both Mr.Sands and Mr. Blake exhibit exceptional talent.  As Mitch, Mr. Blake is pitch perfect: for all his material success, he makes it abundantly clear that there still is something missing from his life, something that Morrie may yet help him find.  And Mr. Sands is impishly charming as Morrie, the quintessential teacher, life coach, guru and guide for the perplexed, whose own humanity and spirituality transcend even his recognition of his own imminent demise

Or, as Mr. Blake has expressed it:

“Morrie teaches us the meaning of life.  How to live.  How to give.  How to cry.  How to die.  These are the most important lessons of our lives.  It’s time to retake Morrie’s class.  It’s the class of a lifetime.”

Now this certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea: indeed, it is much too saccharine a brew for my tastes.  But that is just me.  While I may see Morrie’s aphorisms as platitudinous and something of a cross between Dear Abby’s advice to the lovelorn and a batch of Chinese fortune cookie rejects (as I do), I am well aware that there are millions of you who feel otherwise.  There were, after all,10 million copies of the book sold and 10 million people can’t be wrong, can they?  (Well, yes, maybe they can but, still and all, they are 10 million strong and that large a constituency does deserve some consideration, doesn’t it?)

So here’s my bottom line.  If you enjoyed the book or the movie or found either to be inspirational, then I have little doubt that you will enjoy this staging of the play immensely.  And even if you didn’t much care for the book or the film, you still might get a kick out of this stage production, if only for Mr. Blake’s and Mr. Sands’ splendid performances.  But if fine acting isn’t enough for you and you seek something less spiritual and more substantial in a play, then maybe you ought just take a pass on this one.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Outstanding Revival of GOOD BOYS AND TRUE by Retro Productions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Schreiber Revival of HOT L BALTIMORE by Lanford Wilson

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

SONGBIRD Based on THE SEAGULL at 59E59 Theaters

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

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

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

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