Thursday, March 15, 2018

EDUCATION by Brian Dykstra at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Elizabeth Meadows Rouse and Jane West in EDUCATION.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Bryan Dykstra has covered all his liberal-progressive bases (or should that be biases) in Education, his two-act play currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The play’s principal male protagonist, Mick (Wesley T. Jones) is an exceptionally intelligent high school senior with artistic pretensions and youthful rebellious enthusiasms; unsurprisingly, he is is cast as bi-racial, was orphaned as a young child, and was raised by his white uncle, Gordon (Matthew Boston), a highly articulate atheistic law professor.  The play’s principal female protagonist is Mick’s girlfriend, Bekka (Jane West), a high school junior who is white, similarly rebellious, and a singularly outspoken poet whose work is laced with expletives.   Bekka’s mother, Sandy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) is a God-fearing woman, much taken to citing the scriptures in support of her narrow-minded right wing religious beliefs while Bekka’s father (who we never actually meet) is a fundamentalist Christian deacon so mired in his primitive theology that it comes as little surprise when it turns out that he beats his daughter.  Rounding out the cast is Mr. Kirks (Bruce Faulk), the (similarly gratuitously bi-racial) principal of the school that Mick and Bekka attend who rues the fact that he has sold out his youthful liberal principles so that he might abide by the rules (arbitrary or not) and maintain some semblance of order at his school.

And there you have it:  Mr. Dykstra has written a play with a number of easily demolished straw men - flag-waving patriots, rule-bound types, and Christian believers – all of whom are presented as two-dimensional caricatures (the “dragons”), while those who are free speech advocates, atheists, academicians, quasi-activists, and young rebels passionately devoted to the expression of their “art,” are, of course, the “dragon slayers.”

Mick’s first art project is a trivial flag burning construct, for which he is summarily suspended from school.  His next project, the creation and burning of an effigy of Jesus made of dollar bills (so that he might attack both religion and capitalism in one fell swoop and for which he engages Bekka’s support), has even direr consequences.  When Bekka’s father beats her, he reveals his true sadistic nature.  When Sandy seeks to convince Gordon to keep Mick away from Bekka, she reveals her underlying racism.  When Gordon rejects Sandy’s entreaties, he exhibits the transcendent superiority of political correctness, academia, and atheism.  And when Mick and Bekka refuse to capitulate to the pressures brought to bear upon them, they establish that they, today’s youth, are, indeed, the true “dragon slayers.”

It is all too neat and predictable by half and this would have been a much better play if Mr. Dykstra had provided Mick and Bekka with more formidable antagonists in the personae of Bekka’s parents and Mr.Kirks.  But be that as it may and surprising as it may seem, Education still turns out to be quite an enjoyable play.  And there are two reasons for that.
First, while Mr. Dykstra may have fallen short on plot and character development, there is no denying that he has a wonderful ear for language.  Bekka’s conversation with Mr. Kirks concerning her Fuck Poem and her subsequent recitation of the poem itself are absolutely terrific as is the dialogue between Sandy and Gordon on the topic of separating Mick and Bekka.

Even more important, however, this play’s production has been blessed with a remarkable cast.  All five of the play’s actors are truly first rate but I was especially taken with Jane West as the fetchingly exuberant Bekka; with Elizabeth Meadows Rouse who perfectly expresses the small-mindedness of those on the extreme religious right; and with Matthew Boston who exquisitely succeeds in personifying the intellectual arrogance and self-satisfaction of all too many of today’s lawyers and academicians.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Outstanding Revival of TIME STANDS STILL by Donald Margulies at Theatre for the New City

Timothy Weinert as James Dodd
Maggie Alexander as Sarah Goodwin 

Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2009 and moved to Broadway in 2010 where, despite garnering rave reviews and a Tony Award nomination, it ran for only two months, re-opening on Broadway in late 2010 for another run of less than four months.  It is currently being revived in an excellent off off-Broadway production by Ego Actus and Lung Tree Productions at Theatre for the New City at 155 First Avenue in lower Manhattan that is well worth seeing.

Sarah Goodwin (Maggie Alexander) and James Dodd (Timothy Weinert) have been together for more than eight years, childless and unmarried (which is just the way they want it even if, by the standards of Sarah’s father, they are “living in sin”).  Their relationship works for them because it gives them both the freedom they require to pursue the vocations they love all around the world (she is an acclaimed photo-journalist dedicated to recording war’s atrocities and man’s inhumanity to man on film; he is a free-lance writer and journalist similarly engaged but in words rather than in pictures).

Recently they were both on assignments in war zones in the Middle East and the consequences for both of them were horrendous.  James had a mental breakdown – akin to shell shock – when confronted by atrocities that exceeded the limits of what his mind was prepared to absorb and he returned to their home in Brooklyn to recover.  Sarah did not accompany him then, remaining on assignment in the Middle East.  But what goes around comes around and so when Sarah subsequently was the victim of a devastating roadside bomb explosion which left her in a coma for two weeks, James was not there for her either.

As the play opens, Sarah is returning to their Brooklyn home where James, overwhelmed by guilt that he was not with her and upset by the fact that their legally unmarried status prevented him from assuming greater responsibility for her recovery, has become overly protective of her.  Sarah is eager for their lives to go back to just the way they were before her accident and for her to return to war zone assignments.  But James would prefer to change their lives completely: he would like them to marry, settle down, raise a family, and forego the adrenaline-rush dangerous lives they previously led.

Malcolm Stephenson as Richard Erhlich
Connie Castanzo as Mandy Bloom

Meanwhile Richard Ehrlich (Malcolm Stephenson), their very close friend and Sarah’s photo editor, is in the throes of an even more dramatic upheaval in his own life: his new girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Connie Castanzo) is almost young enough to be his daughter and is as different from Sarah (with whom Richard had once enjoyed a more intimate relationship) as a woman could possibly be.  While Sarah is a serious-minded, mature, rational and goal-oriented professional photo-journalist, Mandy is a childlike, relatively immature party planner, more into ice cream and balloons than geo-politics.  But Richard is quite taken with her, perhaps because he is in the midst of his own mid-life crisis.  Or maybe because he simply has tired of the high pressure life he led which he has come to see as less meaningful and emptier than he once imagined.  Or he may just have fallen in love for the first time.

Time Stands Still is an insightful and incisive exploration of the changes that occur in people’s lives, of the compromises that must be made when loving partners find themselves in fundamental disagreement over which paths to take together in the future.  Or the consequences that must be accepted when the paths they choose are so mutually exclusive that no compromise is possible.

And it is even more than that.  It is also a thought-provoking commentary on the ethical considerations which might enter into one’s choosing to photograph an an injured or dying child or a keening mother searching through the rubble for the remains of a loved offspring rather than coming to the assistance of the child or the mother in the moment of tragedy.

The four actors are all outstanding, each in his or her own way.  Maggie Alexander exhibits the powerful single-mindedness required of her role as Sarah, the acclaimed photo-journalist who will allow nothing to stand in the way of her art.  Timothy Weinert’s performance as James is more nuanced as he expresses the changes in goals and values that he has experienced as home and family begin to appear even more meaningful than publishing a major expose of the refugee crisis.  Malcolm Stephenson as Richard adroitly balances the multitude of pressures and influences on his life: his dedication to his profession, his loyalty to his friends, and his love for Mandy.  And Connie Castanzo is simply delightful as Mandy as we come to realize that her apparent shallowness and lack of interest in serious matters may simply have obscured her much deeper recognition of home and family really being the most important things in life after all.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Musicals Tonight! Stages Exuberant Revival of Cole Porter's ANYTHING GOES at Lion Theatre

L-R: David Visini (Ensemble); Jessica Moore (Erma); Beth Stafford Laird (Hope); Blake Spellacy (Purser); partially hidden - Cameron Lucas (Ensemble) and Cameron Benda (Ensemble); Nic Thompson (Captain); partially hidden - Kirsten Welsh (Ensemble); Brian Ogilvie (Evelyn Oakley); Jan Leigh Herndon (Evangeline); Daniel Scott Walton (Ensemble); and Spencer S. Lawson (Ensemble).

Musicals Tonight! was founded by Mel Miller in 1999 with the stated purpose of reviving early musicals that otherwise might have been lost to posterity.  Since then it has staged 99 shows – including Meet Me in St. Louis; Me and My Girl; Irma La Douce; Silk Stockings; Lady, be Good!; Paint Your Wagon; Milk and Honey; L’il Abner; Babes in Arms; Little Mary Sunshine; Carnival; Funny Face; Wonderful Town; and The Boys from Syracuse.  Its latest production, Anything Goes, is currently being staged at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan and it is absolutely terrific.

Anything Goes was originally produced in 1934, running for more than a year, and it has been revived on Broadway three times since then.  The original book was by the legendary team of Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and was updated by the equally renowned Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse.  And what they all came up with was a typical rollicking 1930s musical with a preposterous plot and unbelievable characters which, on its own, might never have stood the test of time.

But that doesn’t allow for the fact that it was Cole Porter who composed the score and lyrics and it is that that has made all the difference.  What would otherwise have amounted to little more than another predictable theatrical entertainment became instead a wonderful musical delight featuring some of Porter’s most memorable works including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’d Be So Easy to Love,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” “The Gypsy in Me,” and, of course, “Anything Goes.”

The musical is set on board the transatlantic liner S.S American where Reno Sweeney (Meredith Inglesby), an evangelist turned nightclub singer, is en route to London.  Also on board are the English Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Brian Ogilvie); his fiancĂ©e, Hope Harcourt (Beth Stafford Laird); and Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt (Jan Leigh Herndon).  Reno’s pal, Billy Crocker (Nick Walker Jones) has also stowed away, in hopes of breaking up the relationship between Hope (the love of his life) and Evelyn, and spends much of his time on board stalking Hope or attempting to avoid his boss, Elisha Whitney (Mark Coffin) and the ship’s Captain (Nic Thompson). Rounding out the cast of principal characters on board are the gangster, Moonface Martin (Carlos Lopez), disguised as a minister, and his moll, Erma (Jessica Moore).  Plus the ship’s purser (Blake Spellacy); a couple of Chinese sinners, Luke (Jordan de Leon) and John (Albert Hsueh), thrown in for comic relief; and innumerable other sailors and showgirls.  It all makes for great silliness and lots of fun, and serves as a superb backdrop for Cole Porter’s songs.

Not to forget the fantastic choreography!  Indeed, if any one individual may be said to have stolen the show, it is Casey Colgan, the musical’s remarkable director and choreographer.  Colgan has performed a miracle on a small stage with a very talented cast and his dance numbers are as good, or better, than anything you’re likely to be seeing on Broadway or anywhere else.    

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Recreating the "Battle of the Sexes" in BALLS at 59E59 Theaters

Foreground L-R: Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren in BALLS.  Photo by Russ Rowland.
Balls by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters, is a remarkable production.  Set in 1973 in the Houston Astrodome on an exceptionally creative set, Kristen Robinson’s shape and direction-shifting tennis court, it is a play-by-play replication of the classic $100,000 winner-take-all “Battle of the Sexes”  tennis match between the world’s top-ranked female tennis player, 29 year-old Billie Jean King (Ellen Tamaki) and Bobby Riggs (Donald Corren) who was at one time the world’s top-ranked tennis player but who now, at age 55, although still a strong tennis player in his own right, might better be described as the consummate tennis hustler.
But this work is much more than just a brilliantly choreographed simulation of that iconic tennis match which the playwright has used so effectively to explore the broader ramifications of both the feminist movement and the sexual revolution since their inceptions.  Thus we are reminded that while the world’s attention was drawn to the entertainment provided by the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match (it is estimated that 50 million Americans and 90 million people worldwide watched the match on television), far more important events affecting women’s (and men’s) lives were transpiring (not the least of which was the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion that was handed down in the same year).

The play’s title, Balls, refers not only to the obvious – tennis balls and testicles – but also to those celestial orbs, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth itself, that ultimately reflect the direction of our lives.  As the Earth turns and revolves around the Sun, time passes and values change.  (They evolve or deteriorate depending upon your perspective.)  Or, as the Ballboy (Alex J. Gould) asks at one point: “Why’s everything gotta keep changing?”  To which the Ballgirl (Elisha Mudly) answers: “because the world keeps spinning.”
Billie Jean learns to see the world not only in terms of the straight lines and oblongs of the tennis court but in terms of “triangles” as well as she enters into an intimate lesbian relationship with her travel secretary, Marilyn Barnett (Zakiya Iman Markland) even while remaining married.  Her husband, Larry King (Dante Jeanfelix), fully supports her (at least initially), suppressing any thoughts he might have regarding the sanctity of marriage with the rationalization that “Over time, people want to explore new things.  And it’s your job to support that.”

And given the near-simultaneity of the Roe v. Wade decision and the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, it comes as no surprise that the subject of abortion plays a central role in Balls.  As it turns out, not only did Billie Jean once have an abortion but another female tennis star, Chris Evert (also played by Elisha Mudly) once underwent one as well.  And it doesn’t even end there: so did the Ballgirl (although we never do learn for sure whether her unborn child had been fathered by the Ballboy or was the result of an affair with someone else).

And as for the “sanctity” of the very institution of marriage itself, make of this what you will.  Billie Jean and Larry eventually divorced.  Chris Evert has been married four times (at last count).  Even the Ballboy and Ballgirl married – and subsequently divorced.  Apparently the marriage center will not hold.
And so our attitudes toward abortion changed.  And to marriage.  And to same-sex relationships.  And even to sex change operations (ala Renee Richards).  All of which some of you will view as progress and others of you as regress.  But there also were some changes between 1973 and today that I believe all but the most misogynistic among us must recognize as progress.  Sandra Day O’Connor did become the first female justice on the Supreme Court (today there are three).  Sally Ride did become the first American female astronaut.  And Billie Jean was paid just as much for winning her match against Bobby Riggs as he would have been paid had he beaten her.

Balls is performed in a circus-like manner, in part, I’m sure, to convey the carnival-esque mood that surrounded the original “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match but even more, I am convinced, to reflect the playwright’s good-humored contempt for the overall human condition.  Or as Marilyn expresses it: “…how silly it all was.  That anyone could make such a fuss about a boy and a girl, or a girl and a girl, and who’s better at swinging some wooden stick at some stupid balls.”

To that end, the Line Judges are depicted as clowns by Clownboy (Richard Saudek) and Clowngirl (Olivia McGiff).  And two tennis Superfans are played by twin buffoons Cherry (Cristina Pitter) and Terry (Danny Bernardy).

And yet, when all is said and done, it is Cherry and Terry who have the last laugh.  When Jim Brown (also played by Dante Jeanfelix) attempts to explain away the fact that he has been arrested innumerable times by asking “Well you try living your life under a spotlight.  Wait, why are we even talking to you??” and Chris Evert chimes in, in justification of her multiple marriages, “Yeah, what the hell have you done in the last forty years?” Cherry’s response is clear and to the point:

“Well, I raised five kids on my own after Daddy’s heart attack…I look out for all the seniors on my block…and I volunteer at the homeless shelter every weekend…”

to which Terry adds:

“And I’ve been working sixty hours a week at a shit job so I could help bring up my sister’s kids.  Then I looked after our sick mama every night while studying for my masters in real estate…which I finished this week, which is why we’re here celebrating!!!”

Monday, January 15, 2018


L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Autumn Dornfeld in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
This year’s LaBute New Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan consists of three one act plays: Hate Crime by Neil LaBute, Winter Break by James Haigney and Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis.  Of the three, Haigney’s Winter Break stands head and shoulders above the other two: it is a brilliantly scripted exposition of the disconnect that exists between those who view the worldwide Islamic movement as nothing worse than a long overdue counterbalancing corrective to the flaws and excesses inherent in Western Civilization’s focus on the rights of the individual, the Judeo-Christian tradition, capitalism and other free market democratic principles (or at the very least nothing more than a movement predicated on Shariah-based moral principles fully as deserving of respect as our own more secular-oriented ethos), and those who perceive in the Islamic movement the gravest threat confronting our world since the rise of fascism and Nazism in the1930s and 1040s.

L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Spencer Sickmann in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Joanna Khouri (Kelly Schaschl), a 21-year old student raised in suburbia as an Episcopalian, has converted to Islam (changing her name to Aisha in the process) and is planning to travel to Turkey to live and study with the Sufis for two-and-a-half weeks during her school’s winter break.  Her mother, Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) (who wouldn’t know a Sunni from a Sufi) is understandably distraught by this turn of events and Joanna’s brother, Bailey (Spencer Sickmann), a graduate student in sociology who fancies himself something of an expert on cultures other than his own, is convinced that if his kid sister follows through on her plans she will be decapitated in the Middle East or be brainwashed into returning to the United States as a terrorist.  Haigney has done a superb job in depicting the alternative realities perceived by the three Khouris and Schaschl, Dornfeld and Sickmann are terrific at conveying their distinctively differing emotional states. 

L-R: Chauncy Thomas and Spencer Sickmann in HATE CRIME, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Neil LaBute’s Hate Crime, on the other hand, was disappointing.  Indeed, I don’t think it was a fully developed play at all but little more than an idea for one which was never brought to fruition.  A rather submissive young gay man (Spencer Sickmann) is about to marry his older partner but, before the marriage is consummated, he falls in love with a tough alpha-male gay man (Chauncy Thomas).  The two new partners plot to kill the older gay man on the day of the wedding and to make the murder look like a hate crime.  And that’s it.  We have no idea what subsequently happens and, frankly, the set-up required so great a suspension of disbelief that I didn’t much care.  LaBute is, of course, a master of language and dialog and so, unsurprisingly, there are occasional moments of sharp wit and humor even in this theatrical fragment (I hesitate to refer to it as a one act play).  And both Thomas and Sickmann play their roles with gusto.  But it’s just not enough.

L-R: Autumn Dornfeld and Chauncy Thomas in PERCENTAGE AMERICA, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The third play, Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, is based on a very clever series of conceits: (1) that we all lie in our personal relationships (about our ages, our residences, our educational attainments, our occupations, our families, and on and on; (2) that these lies segue into our acceptance of lies on a grander scale in the form of “fake news” and “alternative facts” in political, national and world affairs; and (3) that stripping away all the lies and spin to arrive at the kernel of “truth” in what we are told is the greatest erotic turn-on of all.  Arial (Autumn Dornfeld) and Andrew (Chauncy Thomas) are on a first date (perhaps resulting from an internet connection), finishing off pizza and wine in Arial’s apartment.  They’ve succeeded in good-naturedly stripping away one another’s self-aggrandizing self-descriptions as if it is a sort of foreplay before they get down to the serious stuff of stripping the world at large of its dishonesty.  Both Dornfeld and Thomas are passionate actors and they play their roles for all they’re worth but it doesn’t quite work.  I think the play has great promise but it’s not there yet and could use another couple of workshops.

Sunday, December 17, 2017


Daniel Llewelyn-Williams in A REGULAR LITTLE HOUDINI.  Photo by Sheri Bankes.
The Christmas season - traditionally a time of hope, dreams and magic - well may be the very best time to stage a play like A Regular Little Houdini, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters.  Written and performed by the very appealing and multi-talented David Llewelyn-Williams, the play explores the world of Alan John Williams, the young son of a Welsh dockworker, who aspired to escape his working class background and emulate his hero, Harry Houdini, by creating for himself an alternative life of magic, liberation and “amazements.”

David Llewelyn-Williams delivers a strong performance as Alan John Williams (and of the rest of his family to boot), dealing not only with Harry Houdini’s (and Alan’s) magical and escapist escapades but also with the most serious issues of life, death and survival.  In addition, however, he has sprinkled his performance with delightful bits of sleight-of-hand and other legerdemain that lighten the mood and never fail to entertain.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

CROSS THAT RIVER by Allan and Pat Harris at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Carolyn Leonhart, Jeffery Lewis, Maya Azucena and Allan Harris in CROSS THAT RIVER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Allan Harris, the acclaimed jazz musician, and his wife, Pat, devoted a decade to the development of Cross That River, and we can be glad they did.  Currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters, Cross That River is much more than a musical success – though it truly is that – with its remarkable score that runs the gamut from jazz to blues and from gospel to country western.  It is, in addition, the uplifting tale of Blue (played by Allan Harris himself as an adult and by Jeffrey Lewis as a youth), a runaway slave who was separated from his mother as a child and raised by his aunt, Mama Lila( Maya Azucena).  Blue manages to escape from slavery in Louisiana to freedom in Texas, becoming one of America’s first black cowboys, eventually leading a cattle drive to Abilene.  Along the way, he interfaces with a most diverse cast of characters: Courtney (Carolyn Leonhart), his master’s white daughter and his first love; a nameless old white man who guides him across the Sabine River to freedom; a mule skinner cook; the remnants of a tribe of renegade Comanche Indians; a regiment of black Buffalo Soldiers; Annie (also played by Maya Azucena), an exploited mail order bride; and the denizens of Diamond Jim’s  - assorted whores, gunslingers and card sharps.

The musical’s transcendent theme is man’s unquenchable thirst for freedom, whether he be a black slave prior to the Civil War, a Native American confined to a reservation, a woman exploited by a brutal paternalistic society, or an immigrant to our shores.   But what makes the play so timely today is its insistent focus on the fact that while America was never perfect and still isn’t, it is consistently evolving in the right direction and that that evolution is dependent upon the cooperative inter-relationship of all classes in our society.  It thus provides a sorely needed rejoinder to the polarizing forces in today’s world who see everything in terms of identity politics, whether they be white supremacists and anti-immigrant die-hards on the right or supporters of groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter on the left.

The musicians onstage are all extremely talented – Alan Grubner on violin, Miki Hayama on keyboard, Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion, Seth Johnson on guitar, and Jay White on bass and vocals – but it was Shirazette Tinnin who really blew me away with her extraordinary riff conjuring up the thunderous galloping of horses’ hooves.

Shirazette Tinnin in CROSS THAT RIVER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The four actors were also exceptionally talented – Allan Harris as Blue; Jeffrey Lewis as Young Blue; Maya Azucena as Mama Lila, Annie, a saloon hall girl, a Native American woman, and young Lila; and Carolyn Leonhart as Courtney, a saloon hall girl and as a Native American woman.  But for my money, it was Maya Azucena who really stole the show in both of her principal roles as Mama Lila and as Annie, not only in her ability to really belt out a song but in her expression of a deeply sensuous feline sexuality.

Maya Azucena in CROSS THAT RIVER.  photo by Carol Rosegg.