Sunday, July 26, 2015

Summer Shorts 2015 Series A at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Clea Alsip and J.J. Kandel in 10K.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Now in its ninth year, Summer Shorts 2015, the highly acclaimed annual festival of new American short plays, is currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The festival consists of three one-act plays presented in each of two series running in repertory:  the plays in Series A are 10K by Neil Labute, Glenburn 12 WP by Vickie Ramirez, and The Sentinels by Matthew Lopez;  those in Series B are Built by Robert O’Hara, Love Letters to a Dictator by Stella Fawn Ragsdale, and Unstuck by Lucy Thurber.

Unfortunately, I won’t be seeing Series B this year.  But I did see Series A and I’m glad I did.  All three plays in this series are simply terrific and all of the actors’ performances are first rate across the board.

The three plays in Series A are situated in different venues and the characters in the three plays bear little superficial resemblance to one another.  The man (J. J. Kandel) and the woman (Clea Alsip) in 10K are two young married (but not to each other) joggers who meet by chance on a wooded jogging path. The characters in Glenburn 12 WP are Troy Davis (W. Tre Davis), an African-American hipster in his mid 20s, and Roberta Laforme (Tanis Parenteau), a Native American professional woman in her early 30s; they also meet by chance – but in an Irish pub near Grand Central, rather than in a park.  In The Sentinels, Alice (Meg Gibson), Kelly (Michelle Beck), and Christa (Kellie Overbey) are three widows who meet regularly over a period of years in the same coffee shop in the Financial District to commemorate their husbands’ deaths.  But despite these differences, there does appear to be a theme that ties these works together: in all of them, the characters have experienced losses and are forced to deal with them, each in his or her own way.

In 10K, the man and the woman realize that they are suffering from similar losses: both are married and parents but neither enjoys, within his or her own marriage, the personal and sexual pleasures that they once took for granted.  The woman’s husband travels constantly and is seldom home; the man’s wife hates the world.  Nor do their children provide them with the satisfaction that they thought they would.  Now, finding themselves stuck in unsatisfactory marriages, they resort to dreams and imaginative fantasies to provide what is lacking in their reality.  But will that be enough?

L-R: Tanis Parenteau and W. Tre Davis in GLENBURN 12 WP.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
In Glenburn 12 WP, Roberta, who is something of a regular at the pub, is mourning the loss of her friend Krystal.  Troy walks in, having tired of participating in a nearby protest movement, and Roberta engages him in conversation.  As it turns out, neither Troy nor Roberta are anything like what the other expected, and before the play ends, they’re bantering back and forth in a manner neither would have imagined possible, given the difference in their backgrounds and the stereotypical images that each had of the other’s ethnic and cultural heritage.  Kieran, the pub’s regular bartender, isn’t there and Roberta goes downstairs to search for him.  By play’s end, we realize how much more there is to Troy than we should have thought; we understand why Roberta is mourning Krystal; we find out what happened to Kieran; and we discover that Roberta deals with loss quite differently than do the joggers in 10K.

L-R: Meg Gibson, Kellie Overbey, and Michelle Beck in THE SENTINELS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Finally, The Sentinels moves backwards through a series of scenes from 2011 to 2002 as Alice, Kelly and Christa meet annually to commemorate the losses of their husbands.  They all evolve over time and each deals with her loss in her own way: Alice throw herself into socio-political causes; Kelly remarries and is pregnant; Christa is just moving on.  Different strokes for different folks but it works for them.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Outstanding Revivals of BOY'S LIFE and BOY GETS GIRL at The Seeing Place Theater

L-R: Natalie Neckyfarow and Brandon Walker in BOY'S LIFE.  Photo by Russ Rowland.
Now in its sixth season, The Seeing Place, located on East 26th Street in Manhattan, is currently staging two exceptional revivals in repertory: Boy’s Life by Howard Korder and Boy Gets Girl by Rebecca Gilman.  It is the juxtaposition of these two plays, both focusing on gender relations, that resonates synergistically to enhance our appreciation of both.

Boy’s Life was originally produced in 1988, garnering a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize nomination at the time, but comes across as somewhat dated today.  Those were the pre-PC days, you may recall, when “no” meant “maybe,” “maybe” meant “yes,” and “nice girls” simply couldn’t be expected to actually say “yes” outright.  It was then that the idea that “boys will be boys” was well nigh acceptable and young women were taught to be wary of post-adolescent men only a few years out of college who might use any ruse – from lying to alcohol – to lure them into bed.

Three such men are Jack (Brandon Walker), Don (Alex Witherow), and Phil (Logan Keeler) who have evolved from being “campus cut-ups to wasted potentials” and who attempt to continue to live lives centering on cheap beer, drugs, and sexual conquests.  Jack is married to Carla (Candice Oden) and has a son but he doesn’t allow those minor details to stop him from attempting to pick up Maggie (Natalie Neckyfarow), nor from borrowing Phil’s or Don’s apartment to facilitate his afternoon trysts.

Phil and Don are a bit more sensitive than Jack (who is clearly the alpha male in the group) but both of them are just as much on the make.  Phil will say almost anything if he thinks it might enable him to re-connect with Karen (Mary Ruth Baggott) – and if he can cop a feel in the process, so much the better.  Don hooks up with Lisa (Brisa Frietas), a waitress and aspiring sculptress, and ultimately falls in love with her, but even that doesn’t prevent him from engaging in a one night stand with another mentally unstable girl (Olivia Baseman).

The play unfolds as a series of brief vignettes rather than as a linear story line and is most effective in doing so.  After 90 minutes of this, a full picture has emerged, reflecting the playwright’s view of men behaving badly.  Despite its being somewhat dated, Boy’s Life is still a thought-provoking and funny play.  And it provides a wonderful prelude to the even more powerful Boy Gets Girl that succeeds it.

L-R: John D'Arcangelo and Erin Cronican in BOY GETS GIRL.  Photo by Russ Rowland.
Boy Gets Girl was first produced in 2000 (by which time it should have been understood that “no” meant “no” even if the world was not quite ready to accept today’s ultra-PC and romance-suffocating “yes” means “yes” standard).  It was acclaimed by Time Magazine as the “Best Play of the Year” and I can readily see why.

In this excellent revival, Theresa Bedell (Erin Cronican), a highly intelligent and talented journalist, reluctantly agrees to go out on a blind date with Tony Ross (Daniel Michael Perez).  Their brief meeting goes well enough and she agrees to meet him again for dinner but, before that second encounter reaches its conclusion, she realizes that she has made a mistake and attempts to end their relationship.  It is not that she perceives anything particularly wrong with Tony; it is just that she doesn’t think that they have enough in common to justify the expenditure of her time when she’d rather devote herself to her career.

But Tony is not on Theresa’s wavelength and does not realize that “no” really does mean “no,” even as regards such mundane matters as meeting for a drink or dinner.  He persists in his attempts to woo her, telephoning incessantly, sending unwanted flowers on a daily basis, showing up unexpectedly at her office.  His persistence escalates to obsession, from that to stalking and, ultimately, to the most pathologically threatening behavior.

Theresa enlists the aid of her hapless secretary, Harriet (Emily Newhouse); of her boss, Howard Siegel (Einar Gunn); and of her co-worker, Mercer Stevens (Brandon Walker), but all to no avail.  Eventually she turns to the police as well and Detective Beck (Virginia Gregory) manages to assist her in establishing an alternate life for herself – one free of Tony but less than ideal.

Erin Cronican (who not only plays the lead role in Boy Gets Girl but also directed Boy’s Life) is absolutely sensational as Theresa.   She perfectly epitomizes the successful feminist in today’s world who finds herself forced to balance a variety of different relationships, including not only those with Tony, Harriet, Mercer and Howard but also that which develops between her and Les Kennkat (John D’Arcangelo), a successful director of soft-core films featuring big-breasted women.  Much of the success of this production must be attributed to her performance.

That is not to deny that Ms Cronican has been very ably supported in this production by the other members of The Seeing Place Theater’s ensemble cast.  Especially noteworthy are Mr. Gunn who plays the role of Howard with just the sort of paternalistic concern that Ed Asner brought to his relationship with Mary in the Mary Tyler Moore Show; Mr. D’Arcangelo, who manages to convey both sensitivity and smarminess in his role as Les; and Mr. Walker, who exhibits the range of his talent by bringing to his role of Mercer so much more restraint than was called for in his role as Jack in Boy’s Life (and, incidentally, who also directed Boy Gets Girl).

Mr. Korder, Ms. Gilman and The Seeing Place Theater all do seem to have predicated these plays on two assumptions with which I don’t necessarily agree.  The first is that male attitudes toward women are almost entirely a function of nurture or conditioning, rather than nature or genetics – that is, that men are attracted to women with large breasts because they have been conditioned by men like Len Kennkat to find large breasts attractive, not that men like Len Kennkat create the films they do, featuring women with big breasts because that is what men want to see.  In support of that contention, they cite such examples as the appeal of women with small feet among the Chinese or of women with long necks among some African tribes.  Surely, it is argued, such fetishes must be a result of conditioning, not genetics; otherwise they would be universal.

And certainly there is merit to that argument.  But the more we learn about evolution, it seems to me, the more we realize that more of our likes and dislikes than we ever imagined do have an evolutionary basis in the survival of our species, and I would have liked to have seen that alternative addressed rather than dismissed out of hand.

The second point on which I tend to disagree is with the plays’ implication that all men are on a spectrum when it comes to mistreating women – that the only difference between men like Jack and Don and Phil who are continually seeking to bed women, on the one hand, and psychopaths like Tony, on the other, is one of degree, not of kind.  To that end, in a very clever bit of casting, Brandon Walker appears as the insensitive, philandering Jack who attempts to conceal his marital state from Maggie in Boy’s Life and then as the much more sensitive and honorable Mercer in Boy Gets Girl.  But what I believe that is meant to suggest is that maybe they’re really not so different:  after all, why did Mercer neglect to tell Theresa he was married for so long?  And did you see the way he was massaging her shoulders?   Finally there is the coup de grace as Mercer admits that the thought of sleeping with Theresa had, indeed, once flashed before his mind.  Obviously, he’s no better than Jack.  (It’s all rather reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s unfortunate statement to the effect that “I’ve looked at many women with lust.  I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” isn’t it?)

Sorry, but I can’t buy it.  Mercer’s not on the same spectrum as Jack but, even if he is, neither is on the same spectrum with Tony.  Men may behave badly in many different ways and to many different degrees, but psychopaths and stalkers are in an entirely different league.  This is the same objection that I have to the unfortunate tendency in today’s world to conflate rape with sexual harassment.  To be sure, sexual harassment is reprehensible but it isn’t rape and any attempt to conflate the two only trivializes the true horror of rape itself.

But I digress.  Whatever differences I might have with the playwrights or The Seeing Place Theater regarding their interpretations of male behavior, the fact remains that these are their plays, their ideas, and their productions, not mine, and they have every right to present them as they see fit.  And so they have – and most effectively, with considerable power and humor, I might add.  These are productions very much worth seeing.