Monday, January 18, 2016

The LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL at 59E59 Theaters

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.