Thursday, May 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, May 19, 2017

Mint Theater Revives THE LUCKY ONE by A. A. Milne

L-R: Robert David Grant and Ari Brand in THE LUCKY ONE.  Photo by Richard Termine.
A. A. Milne is best remembered as the author of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner but he really was more than just a writer of children’s books.  He also wrote essays, light verse, short stories and novels; he contributed to and was an assistant editor of Punch; and he was a playwright of considerable renown, in England and in the US, with several successes both on Broadway and in London’s West End.

The Lucky One, however, was not one of Milne’s more successful works nor, sad to say, ought it to have been.  It is a rather tired treatment of the age-old conflict between brothers – the golden boy and his less-favored sibling - a story as old as that of Cain and Abel and of Jacob and Esau.  There is also the overlay that perhaps things are not quite what they seem and we really ought to try to see things from the other guy’s perspective, shouldn’t we?  It should come as no surprise then that when The Lucky One was first produced on Broadway in 1922, it closed after only 40 performances.
 
Now the Mint Theater Company, justifiably acclaimed as one of the finest off-Broadway theater companies in the city, has chosen to stage the first ever revival of this play at the Beckett Theater at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  Since its founding in 1995, the Mint 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 and over the past two decades, it has staged superb revivals of seldom seen works by playwrights as diverse as Edith Wharton, Thomas Wolfe, D.H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Arnold Bennett.
  
Now, from a theatrical standpoint, the Mint has scored another success with its revival of The Lucky One.  The performances, the direction, the set – all are exemplary as we have come to expect from the Mint.  It is only the play itself that is wanting.

The play is the tale of two brothers: Gerald Farrington (Robert David Grant) who is the golden boy, working in the Foreign Service and engaged to be married to the lovely Pamela Carey (Paton Ashbrook) and his older and less-favored sibling, Bob Farrington (Ari Brand) who works as a broker in The City and who is Pamela’s close friend.  The underlying animosity between the brothers only emerges when Bob finds himself in legal trouble and Gerald fails to save him.

The ultimate confrontation between the two has been described in the play’s promotional material as being “as stirring as it is surprising,” but I found it to be neither.  Indeed, I found it all to be much too predictable.

In Twice Times, a children’s poem, Milne wrote about

… Two Little Bears who lived in a Wood,
And one of them was Bad and the other was Good….

…And then quite suddenly (just like Us)
One got Better and the other got Wuss….

…There may be a Moral, though some say not;
I think there's a moral, though I don't know what.
But if one gets better, as the other gets wuss,
These Two Little Bears are just like Us…
.
And in Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne wrote:

On Wednesday, when the sky is blue, 
And I have nothing else to do, 
I sometimes wonder if it's true 
That who is what and what is who.

For my money, these scraps of children’s verse say it all – and in simpler and much more entertaining fashion than does the play.

Which, of course, is not intended to take anything away from the play’s cast.  Both Robert David Grant and Ari Brand were excellent in their roles as the ill-starred brothers as was Paton Ashbrook as Pamela.  And the rest of the company, including Wynn Harmon and Deanne Lorette as the parents; Cynthia Harris as the great-aunt; Peggy J. Scott as Gerald’s old nurse; and Michael Frederic, Andrew Fallaize, and Mia Hutchinson-Shaw as family friends certainly brought as much to their roles as the play’s limitations would allow.

In particular, I would single out for praise Andrew Fallaize, who provided much of the play’s comic relief in his role as Thomas Todd, Gerald’s golf-obsessed friend.

And so my bottom line is this: I really don’t think this play was worth reviving in the first place.  But given that it was, the Mint Theater Company did a fine job of it.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Sophie Melville Soars in IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT

Sophie Melville in IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT.  Photo by Mark Douet.
In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father, King Agamemnon, in order to placate the goddess Artemis, so that she would allow his ships to sail to Troy.  And it is that myth which inspired Gary Owen to write Iphigenia in Splott – the British play that scored such a resounding success in Cardiff and Edinburgh before opening to rave reviews and playing to sold-out audiences in London’s National Theatre.  Now the play has crossed the pond, debuting at 59E59 Theatres on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program and I have little doubt that American audiences will embrace it just as enthusiastically.

This is an extraordinary one-woman show, starring Sophie Melville as Effie, an irrepressible potty-mouthed “stupid slag” and “nasty skank” (to use her own words) who, often as not, can be found wandering the streets of Splott in Cardiff, with an “in-your-face” confrontational attitude toward everyone she meets.  In an incredibly powerful monologue, she lets us know in no uncertain terms that she is an alcoholic and a drug-user; that she is irresponsibly promiscuous; that she is dependent for her survival, at least in part, on her grandmother’s charity – and that she feels a sense of victimization at the hands of society about it all.

When Effie hooks up with Lee, a wounded war veteran who lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan, she envisions her life changing dramatically.  But things don’t always turn out as one expects and the night Effie spent shagging Lee was just one of those things.  Yes, it affected her life deeply – just not as she imagined it would.

As a theatrical performance, Ms Melville leaves nothing to be desired.  She is physically as lithe as a feral cat and exhibits a comparable animal spirit.  Hers is a performance that truly deserves five stars.

But as to the play itself, and the message it seeks to convey, that is an entirely different matter.  It appears to me that Gary Owen is championing a world in which a sense of entitlement justifies individual irresponsibility and a reliance on “society” to fix everything and, since “society” didn’t fix everything for Effie, she was just as much a sacrificial victim as was Iphigenia. But the analogy is a false one.  Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father for his own failing (it was he who accidentally killed a deer in a grove sacred to Artemis for which he sought absolution, not through his own sacrifice but through that of his daughter).  But Effie has brought all her troubles on herself: “society” did not force her to drink or do drugs or engage in unprotected sex with strangers.  Her crises are of her own making, not of anyone else’s, and no sacrifice she might ultimately make as a consequence of her own misbehavior is comparable to Iphigenia’s.

I am well aware that many people disagree with me, that they prefer to blame “society” or “the man” or “the system” or “Wall Street” or “the top 1%” or anyone other than themselves for their problems.  Indeed, the press release itself for this production asserts that the play “drives home the high price people pay for society’s shortcomings.”  In his review of the National Theatre’s production for The Stage, Tom Wicker described the play as “a blisteringly powerful indictment of society’s failings….”  And Lyn Gardner, in her review for The Guardian, wrote: “Iphigenia was Agamemnon’s daughter, sacrificed by her father to ensure a fair wind to Troy and to further the ambitions of men.  But who are the Iphigenias of today, being sacrificed in the pursuit of growth and profit?  Seeing the heart torn out of your community and services cut is like having your tongue put out.”

If you happen to fall into that group of those who blame “society” for all their problems (I hope you don’t), then you will probably enjoy this production even more because, in addition to its being a bravura performance by a superb actress, it will reinforce your communal political philosophy.  But even if you don’t, if (like me), you still believe in individuals taking responsibility for their own lives, you’re still likely to appreciate Ms Melville’s terrific performance.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Retro Productions Revives AND MISS REARDON DRINKS A LITTLE at Gene Frankel Theatre

L-R: Heather E. Cunningham, Amanda Jones, and Sara Thigpen in AND MISS REARDON DRINKS A LITTLE.  Photo by Connolly Photo NYC.
Retro Productions’ has taken it upon itself to present revivals of “retro theatre” and to “tell good theatrical stories which have an historical perspective – with an emphasis on the 20th century – in order to broaden our own understanding of the world we live in.”  To that end, it has had some very notable successes including its productions of Benefactors in 2010 and The Butter and Egg Man and Good Boys and Girls in 2015.  Currently it is staging a revival of Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan.
  
I’d best get this off my chest at the outset: I don’t much like this play.  No, it’s more than that: I think the work is dismayingly mean-spirited and, while it is referred to as a “black comedy,” I find little humor in it – of any coloration.  Originally produced in 1967, it opened on Broadway in 1971 and is now being revived by Retro Productions in celebration of the 50th anniversary of its original opening.   Had it been up to me, I would not have revived it but of course it was not up to me.  So it should come as no surprise that I didn’t really enjoy this revival.

But it is equally important that I make it perfectly clear that my failure to enjoy this production was entirely a function of my negative predisposition to the work itself and should not in any way be interpreted as an indictment of this particular production.  Indeed, given the limitations of the material they had to work with, I think that Retro Productions – an exceptionally good company as evidenced by their previous successes - did a truly first rate job in direction, set design and, most tellingly, in the entire cast’s performances in this production as well.

Catherine Reardon (Heather E. Cunningham), Ceil Reardon (Sara Thigpen), and Anna Reardon (Amanda Jones) are all well-educated sexually-repressed and relatively dysfunctional sisters, all employed in some capacity or other by the New York City public school system, and all still coping with the after-effects of their father’s abandonment, their sexually-repressive upbringing by their mother, and their mother’s recent death.  Catherine, an assistant principal, is a spinster and the “Miss Reardon” of the play’s title. Anna, also unmarried, is a science teacher and an obsessive animal-loving vegetarian who is recovering from a nervous breakdown in the wake of an alleged sex scandal that may have involved her and a young male student at her school.  And Ceil, a school superintendent, is married – but to the man who was once Catherine’s boyfriend.

Catherine and Anna are living together in their mother’s old home when Ceil comes around to meddle in the decision that Catherine and Anna will have to make as to whether or not Anna should be institutionalized.  Also showing up uninvited are Mrs. Pentrano (Wynne Anders), an insensitive, self-centered neighbor; an unnamed high school student delivery boy (Sean J. Moran); Fleur Stein (Rebecca Holt), a school acting guidance counselor who hopes to enlist Ceil’s assistance in obtaining a permanent license; and Bob Stein (Christopher Borg), Fleur’s bombastic, misogynistic husband.

The play’s director, Shay Gines, has commented on the fact that “The play takes place as the Women’s Lib movement started to bloom here in the United States” and that “It focuses on four educated women who are dealing with issues that we can all relate to.”  How ironic then that the actor who steals the show is Christopher Borg whose bravura performance is the most memorable feature of this production.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Seeking the Loch Ness Monster in FOSSILS at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Adam Farrell, Helen Vinton, and Luke Murphy in FOSSILS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Fossils, written and directed by Nel Crouch, is an extraordinary play – wonderfully entertaining, intellectually stimulating, brilliantly executed,  theatrically ground-breaking, and as multi-layered as a geological excavation.  Currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of the Brits Off Broadway program, Fossils is produced by Bucket Club and breaks through the fourth wall while employing a remarkable variety of props ranging from toy boats to toy dinosaurs, from soap bubbles to water glasses, from a violin to a squirt gun.

Vanessa (Helen Vinton) is a 28-year-old scientist, currently studying the coelacanth, an ancient fish thought to have been extinct prior to its discovery in the 1930s and now considered to be something of a “living fossil,” providing us with a glimpse of the first fish that walked on land.  In her present position as a research fellow in evolutionary biology at the University of Kings Lynn, she also is supervising two PhD students, Dominic (Adam Farrell) and Myles (Luke Murphy).  And she is hoping to publish enough –preferably in Nature, a highly regarded scientific journal – to propel her to her ultimate goal, that of a position as a tenured professor by the time she is 35.

In a way, the mythical Loch Ness Monster might seem to be something like the coelacanth – if it does exist, wouldn’t it be something of a “living fossil” itself? – but Vanessa will have none of it.  When a local newspaper publishes a questionable photograph of the monster taken by one Brian Parker (Adam Farrell), Vanessa’s reaction – or over-reaction - is to tear the paper to shreds.  She is, after all, a scientific skeptic par excellence who gets her rocks off by arguing with creationists but even so, why so angry and why her refusal to even discuss the issue with the mainstream press?

But when Nature calls, offering her an opportunity to write a feature on the subject for the journal, the cat is out of the bag (or the fish out of the tank?).  Of course Vanessa accepts - her career is on the line - but the offer is a contingent one.  It requires Vanessa’s accessing her father’s research on the subject for, as it turns out, he was once the foremost expert on the Loch Ness Monster himself and an associate of Brian Parker.  Or at least he was before he abandoned both Vanessa and her mother 12 years ago.

Which means that Vanessa’s search for the Loch Ness Monster must become something of a search for her missing father as well.  And an exploration of man’s ancestry, his need to return to his intrinsic nature, and his (or her) subsequent evolution.

Helen Vinton, Luke Murphy and Adam Farrell are all outstanding in their roles delivering theatrically ground-breaking performances as they navigate their way through their symbolic world (populated with fish tanks and toy dinosaurs) and communicate not only with one another but through the fourth wall.  This is a production not to be missed.



Sunday, April 30, 2017

THE ROUNDABOUT by J.B. Priestley Premieres at 59E59 Theaters After 85 Years

L-R: Hugh Sachs and Emily Laing in THE ROUNDABOUT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
It is the 1930s – a time of worldwide economic depression, political upheaval, and social unrest.  In England, Lord Richard Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe) is lamenting the failure of his financial ventures.  He has been separated from his wife, Lady Kettlewell (Lisa Bowerman), for years.  His daughter, Pamela Kettlewell (Emily Laing), whom he has not seen since his separation, has become a communist and has traveled to Russia, in support of the new communist state.  And he has just attempted to sever his relationship with his mistress, Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks).

And then all hell breaks loose.  On a single day in late summer or early autumn, Pamela returns from Russia and arrives, unexpected, at Lord Kettlewell’s country house with her scruffy and oversexed Russian fellow traveler, Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley), in tow.  In short order, Hilda shows up too, as do Lady Kettlewell; the local busybody, Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey); and one of Richard’s young employees, Farrington Gurney (Charlie Field).  Richard’s old friend, Churton Saunders (Hugh Sachs), is already a guest at the house when all the others arrive as is Alec Grenside (Ed Pinker), an artist whom Richard has tentatively commissioned to paint some panels in the house. And, of course, Richard’s butler, Parsons (Derek Hutchinson) and his housemaid, Alice (Annie Jackson) are around as well.

The Roundabout by J.B. Priestley, in which all these characters appear, is a slight drawing room comedy that was originally produced in 1932 at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre.  Not too surprisingly, the play did not receive another major production again for the next 85 years; it is, after all, a rather trivial, stilted and dated play and its loss to posterity is far from devastating.  But equally unsurprisingly, after all this time, this “lost” play is now enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program because, despite all of the play’s evident shortcomings, it is still quite entertaining and provides an amusing look into one sector of a long gone world.

Moreover, we can be especially glad that Cahoots Theatre Company, in association with The Other Cheek and Park Theatre, are staging this production because they have done a truly first rate job.  Emily Laing comes close to stealing the show in her chameleon-like performance as Pamela – a passionate communist, an abandoned daughter, a broken-hearted lover, a manipulative schemer – but she is very ably abetted in her task by the rest of her company.  Hugh Sachs, Steven Blakely and Derek Hutchison deserve special mention for the comic relief they provide.


Monday, April 17, 2017

ANGEL & ECHOES at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Rachel Smyth and Serena Manteghi in ECHOES.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Henry Naylor wrote The Collector, the first of the three plays forming his Arabian Nightmares trilogy, in 2014.  The following year he wrote the second of the three plays, Echoes, which won the Spirit of the Fringe Award at Edinburgh before going on to play at 59E59 Theaters as part of that year’s Brits Off Broadway program.  Despite our having been quite impressed by both of the performers in that production - Felicity Houlbrooke and Filipa Braganca – we were disappointed in the play itself which we thought was “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.”  You can read our full review of that production at "2016 Echoes Review."

We were, however, clearly in the minority.  Many of those who saw the 59E59 Theaters production of Echoes last year actually were so taken with it that it is now back by popular demand and is being staged together with Angel, Naylor’s third installment in his Arabian Nightmares trilogy, as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program.  The two performers in the current production of Echoes are Rachel Smyth and Serena Manteghi and, like their predecessors, they, too, turn in outstanding performances.  But our opinion of the play itself really hasn’t changed despite some minor updating: in our review of the 2015 production, we commented on the playwright’s “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.”  In the current production, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been replaced by Mike Pence and Bill O’Reilly but the play remains just as much “an extreme feminist and far left polemic” as it was in its original incarnation.

Avital Lvova in ANGEL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Angel, however, is another matter entirely.  Having premiered at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival and winning two major awards, the play garnered 18 well-deserved four and five star reviews before arriving at 59E59 Theaters in midtown New York.  And it is this production of Angel – including Avital Lvova’s absolutely bravura performance as Rehana, The Angel - that makes this dual entry of Angel & Echoes in this year’s Brits Off Broadway production truly worth seeing.

Angel was inspired by the story of the young female Kurdish freedom fighter known as The Angel of Kobane who was reputed to have shot 100 ISIS fighters when they overtook her small town of Kobane in Syria.  In Naylor’s interpretation of the story, Rehana was a strong-minded peace-loving young woman who would have much preferred pursuing a career in the law but who found herself forced by circumstances to take up arms against her oppressors.  It is an empowering and exhilarating play that focuses on women’s strengths rather than their victimhood and it is Avital Lvova’s performance that makes it especially memorable.