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  In the current production, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been replaced by Mike Pence and Bill O’Reilly but the play remains just as much “an extreme feminist and far left polemic” as it was in its original incarnation.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.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

A GAMBLER'S GUIDE TO DYING at 59E59 Theaters

Gary McNair in A GAMBLER'S  GUIDE TO DYING.  Photo by Benjamin Cowie.
Written and performed by Gary McNair, A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is an entertaining recollection of the life of McNair’s grandfather, Archie, a man who was neither great nor simple, but who was a father and a friend, a liar and a cheat, a story teller and a hero to his grandson.  And if nothing else, he was an inveterate gambler and “the kind of guy who chased a thrill.  Just an ordinary guy with an ordinary life who was trying to make the world more exciting.”

McNair’s ruminations on his grandfather’s life begin with Archie’s big bet on England’s winning the World Cup in 1966 and culminate with Archie’s even bigger bet on his own life at the turn of the century.  Along the way, McNair manages to use Archie’s life as a jumping off point to explore some of our most intractable philosophical problems including life, death and immortality, pre-determination and free will, time travel, luck and probability.
Unfortunately, McNair’s musings are more platitudinous than insightful.  We are treated to such sophomoric thoughts as:

“…life’s a gamble.”

“There are two guarantees in life – you are born, and you die.”

“…until everyone IS dead, you can’t prove that everyone WILL die.”

“according to Sir Isaac Newton everything that has ever happened was always going to happen the way that it happened and everything that will ever happen will happen the way it will happen and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“You weren’t lucky to survive a stabbing.  You got stabbed!”

“We’re always time traveling.  It’s just that so far we’ve only worked out how to go forward.”

But if the play does not succeed as a thought-provoking philosophical exercise, it does succeed in capturing the essence of the gambler’s personality – the man who never can cash the big bet – and in reminding us of the extent to which our own immortality resides in our progeny and in their remembrances of us.  And for my money that is more than enough to justify the play’s current staging as part of the Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS Soars at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Susan McKey, Jessica Bedford, Robert Cuccioli and Jonathan Silver in WHITE GUY ON THE BUS. Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
Bruce Graham’s White Guy on the Bus, currently enjoying its New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is an absolutely extraordinary “Rashomon” of a play – one that allows its audience to interpret it in whatever manner might be consistent with their own pre-existing notions regarding race, class and vengeance, while still encouraging them at least to consider alternative explanations for what actually transpires on stage.  Thus, “politically correct” progressives will see ample evidence of “white privilege” in the fact that Ray (Robert Cuccioli), a well-connected, wealthy, white investment banker literally “gets away with murder,” while disadvantaged African-Americans suffer disproportionately in prison.
 
Similarly, the plight of Shatique (Danielle Lenee), a black, single mother, will resonate with the “politically correct” among us: after all, isn’t she balancing a multitude of responsibilities, including studying to become a nurse, working to support herself, visiting her son who is temporarily in the care of his grandmother, remaining in touch with her all-but-abandoned brother while he is in prison, and simply struggling to survive in her crime and drug-ridden ghetto?  Under those circumstances, who can really blame her if, when she is forced to make a difficult ethical decision, she fails to make the right one?

L-R: Robert Cuccioli and Danielle LeneƩ in WHITE GUY ON THE BUS. Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
Of course it also will be pretty obvious to the progressive contingent that Molly (Jessica Bedford), a white, well-educated, self-proclaimed liberal, working as a guidance counselor at a white all-girls academy in Bryn Mawr, is really a hypocrite and racist at heart.  Consider: after proclaiming her undying love for the city because of its “buzz,” its energy, and its diversity (in contrast to the all-white suburbs), what does she do but up and move to the suburbs as soon as she is pregnant in order to assure a safer life and better schools for her unborn child.  And didn’t she reluctantly admit that if her car were to break down at one o’clock in the morning, she’d much prefer if it were to happen in Bryn Mawr than in North Philadelphia?  QED: Racist!

And as for her husband, Christopher (Jonathan Silver), an aspiring sociologist whose dissertation prospectus is entitled “Male African-American Images in Television Advertising,” what more really need be said?  As his thesis adviser put it in rejecting his proposal “What right does a white man have to speculate on a black man’s image?” and then, in answer to her own question, “White man has no right, white man has no right!”  And so Christopher, another presumed racist, bites the dust but, availing himself of his “white privilege,” lands on his feet when Ray offers him a job.  And ends up with a great house in the suburbs, to boot.

But now let’s take a look at all of this from another vantage point: that of a politically in-correct conservative-leaning libertarian.  Yes, Ray is the beneficiary of “white privilege” (admittedly he is white) but that scarcely means that he doesn’t deserve credit for his achievements in life.  His mother died when he was seven.  His father was a bus driver and an alcoholic.  His brother went to jail for burglary.  But despite all that, Ray not only survived, but flourished.  Surely he deserves credit, rather than condemnation, for that.

And as for Shatique: yes, she is a black, struggling single mother.  But she is a single mother because she got pregnant at sixteen, and not as the result of rape, a condition for which she certainly must assume at least some responsibility.  Clearly she too deserves credit for the tremendous effort she is making to improve her life but providing her with a free pass for any and all mistakes she may have made or may yet make on the basis of her perceived “victimhood” is completely unjustified.  Regardless of her “victimhood,” or Ray’s “white privilege.” for that matter, shouldn’t they both still be held responsible for their actions?

Which brings us to Molly, that exemplar of smug, self-satisfied, “politically correct” hypocrisy.  With nothing at stake, Molly champions the right of African-Americans to take offense at any criticism emanating from a white person – simply because it comes from a white person – whether or not the criticism is justified by the facts.  She denies that anyone other than a white person can be racist and expresses the “theory that the disenfranchised – in this case African-Americans – due to the effects of slavery and the aftermath – can’t be racist because they never held the power” even to the point of denying that when eighteen black kids attack three Asian kids, that is a “racist” act.  And then, with everything at stake, Molly does a complete about-face, proclaiming that “we need to move.  Any place as long as it’s out of the city.  The schools are just – unless you’re rich enough for private just…forget about it.  The public schools are – well, you know. It’s weird but knowing you’re having a baby just…changes your whole point of view.  About everything.  People, our neighborhood.  Traffic.  I worry about traffic now.  I never did before.  Everything looks so…different.  It all seems dangerous.”

And Christopher?  But what, if anything, was wrong with his dissertation prospectus, “Male African-American Images in Television Advertising,” in the first place?  Notwithstanding his thesis adviser’s contemptuous remark - “What right does a white man have to speculate on a black man’s image?” – the fact is that a white man has every right to speculate on a black man’s image just as a black man has every right to speculate of a white man’s image.  Moreover, Christopher wasn’t even speculating: he was compiling and analyzing voluminous data on his subject, much in the way that Charles Murray did research for his books The Bell Curve and Coming Apart.  But then again, we saw how the students at Middlebury treated Murray, didn’t we?

There is one other character in White Guy on the Bus whom I have not yet mentioned and for good reason, despite the fact that she – Roz (Susan McKey) – is really the most important character in the entire play.  My problem is that, in talking about Roz, I run the risk of spilling the beans about the entire play.  But I will try to avoid that risk while eschewing spoiler alerts.

Roz is Ray’s wife and a truly dedicated English teacher.  Unlike Molly, she teaches in a disadvantaged inner-city school that is 72% African-American, 12% Hispanic, 9% Asian, and 7% “other.”  Despite that,  she has had finalists in nationwide poetry competitions, including two winners, in eleven out of the last fifteen years.  She is attempting to teach an illiterate student, Nazir, how to read – on her own time.  And she is this year’s state finalist for the national Teacher of the Year Award.

There is another way that Roz is very unlike Molly: she doesn’t spout platitudes or necessarily conform to whatever might be deemed “politically correct” at the moment. Notwithstanding Spike Lee’s contention that only a white person can be racist, she is fully prepared to accuse the black principal of her school of racism in light of the principal’s contempt for the Asians, Hispanics and “others”  - indeed, everyone other than the African-Americans - in her school.

It is not that Roz considers Molly to be racist.  On the contrary.  After Roz forces Molly to admit reluctantly that if her car were to break down at one o’clock in the morning, she’d much prefer if it were to happen in Bryn Mawr than in North Philadelphia, Roz readily concedes that “Molly, I would swear in court that you are not and have never been a racist.  You answered that question based on common sense.  You were honest.  None of us want our car to break down in the bad neighborhoods and around here the bad neighborhoods are black.  This is a fact.  But I work with people – like my principal – who would call you a racist in a heartbeat.  You would be perceived to be a racist because they didn’t like your answer.  It’s the new McCarthyism – don’t like the way someone thinks, call ‘em a racist.  Someone calls you a racist, how do you defend yourself?  Guess what – you can’t.”

In effect, Roz is strictly pragmatic, simply attempting to do the very best for the kids in her charge (despite their referring to her as a “white bitch,” a sobriquet which she did not consider a “hate crime” but actually used in a class on adjectives).  She entertains no preconceived notions to muddy the waters.  As she describes her work with Nazir, he is in “Tenth grade, can’t read.  So I meet with him after school and try to – I don’t know – do something for him.  I keep copies of job applications – not Microsoft or anything.  Realistic – fast food places.  Wal-Mart.  And we work on – I mean if he can at least fill one out maybe he can…I don’t know.”

To which, predictably, Molly’s response is: “You’re aiming kind of…well, low, aren’t you?  With the applications.  I mean, it’s as if you’re saying…okay, you – Burger King.  You’re from this neighborhood so don’t expect anything better.”

And Roz’s reaction: He can’t read, Molly.  I can be idealistic or realistic – can’t do both.

And there you have it.  Roz is the down-to-earth real adult in the room and it is what happens to her and how it reverberates throughout the group – especially as it affects Ray and Shatique - that animates the play.  I’m reluctant to say any more lest I inadvertently let the cat out of the bag and disclose too much.

My bottom line?  I think this is a terrific play with fine performances across the board and I urge you to see it.  And from my perspective – as a right-leaning libertarian -  I think that Bruce Graham has done as good a job of demolishing progressive “politically correct” pretensions as David Mamet himself might have done.  But then my liberal friends most likely would disagree.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jeff McCarthy Stars in KUNSTLER at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Jeff McCarthy and Nambi E. Kelley in KUNSTLER at 59E59 Theaters.
William Kunstler, an ACLU director from 1964 to 1972 was a staunch civil rights advocate, attorney, and liberal icon who gained both notoriety and acclaim for his spirited defense of clients ranging from the Mississippi Freedom Riders to the Chicago Seven, from the Black Panthers to the Attica Prison rioters, and from the American Indian Movement to the Weather Underground.  But if his clients were controversial (and they certainly were), so was the man himself.  On the one hand, for example, he argued that he defended his clients because, guilty or not, everyone is entitled to the best possible defense.  That is why, he contended, he didn’t limit his clientele to men like Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Mississippi Freedom Riders but also chose to defend such unsavory characters as Colin Ferguson (the black man who killed six people in a shooting rampage on a Long Island Railroad train), Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (the blind sheikh responsible for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993), and such mob bosses as John Gotti and Joe Bonnano.  And yet, at the same time he refused to defend right-wing groups such as the Minutemen, proclaiming that “I only defend those whose goals I share.  I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.”  Similarly, Kunstler viewed due process as merely a means to an end, unabashedly politicizing the issues in his cases if he thought that doing so might inure to the benefit of his clients.

Kunstler by Jeffrey Sweet, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is an enormously entertaining paean to William Kunstler, featuring an absolutely bravura performance by Jeff McCarthy in the title role.  But the 90-minute two-hander in which William Kunstler is gently confronted by Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), a young, black female law student who challenges him to justify his defenses of John Gotti or Colin Ferguson, could have been even better if it had addressed the contradictions in Kunstler’s persona more forcefully.  As it is, the play merely alludes to but generally glosses over Kunstler’s shortcomings – from the infidelities that led to the collapse of his first marriage to his rationalizing justifications for Ferguson’s murderous behavior as being “understandable” in terms of “black rage,” providing Kerry with limited opportunity to provide a strong counter-balance to the positive depiction of the liberal icon presented throughout most of the play.  And as a result, the play is neither intellectually stimulating nor thought provoking, although it certainly is extremely entertaining.


And maybe just being entertaining is quite enough. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

LaBUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip in WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS,  part of  LaBUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL
As a great fan of Neil LaBute, I eagerly anticipated attending a performance of his latest one act play, What Happens in Vegas, currently enjoying its world premier at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s LaBute New Theater Festival.  Unfortunately, I was to be sadly disappointed.  Not that this latest two-hander by LaBute doesn’t exhibit the same sort of sharp dialogue and clever character juxtapositions that exemplify his other plays for it certainly does.  Nor is it the fault of the two fine actors, Clea Alsip and Michael Hogan, whose portrayals of a sexy call girl and her cost-conscious client are spot on.  No, it is simply that What Happens in Vegas never comes across as a fully fleshed out play – not even a short one-act one – but rather as little more than a classroom exercise in playwriting.  To be sure, What Happens in Vegas is an occasionally mildly erotic and amusing riff on the encounter between that hot Las Vegas hooker and that married salesman on a tight budget, enabling LaBute to express at least a smidgen of his considerable literary talent, but it never amounts to very much more than that.
The remainder of the evening’s program consists of three other one act plays – Homebody by Gabe McKinley, American Outlaws by Adam Seidel, and Mark My Worms by Cary Pepper – all of which are currently enjoying their New York premieres (after having received their world premieres at past LaBute New Theater Festivals at St.Louis Actors’ Studio’s Gaslight Theater in prior years).  But again, despite some excellent performances, none of those three really grabbed me either.
Homebody is a disturbingly macabre tale of a dysfunctional twosome – Jay (Michael Hogan), an unsuccessful aspiring novelist in his late 30’s, and his mother (Donna Weinsting), with whom he is living.  The play reminded me of the work of Martin McDonagh whose The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore took Broadway by storm more than a decade ago.  But much as I could appreciate McDonagh’s playwriting talents, I found both The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore to be so fundamentally distasteful that I regretted having seen them both.  My reaction to Homebody is similar: admittedly it is a well-written and professionally performed work but I found it to be so distasteful that I just didn’t like it.  But if you’re a fan of McDonagh, you might very well enjoy it much more than I did.
American Outlaws is yet another two hander in which Mitch (Eric Dean White), a mild-mannered cuckolded accountant attempts to hire a hit man, Mike (Justin Ivan Brown), to kill his wife.  The relationship between Mitch and Mike turns out to be much more complicated than we might have imagined at first blush but making sense of it all required a greater suspension of disbelief than I thought the play was worth.  The play ends not with a whimper but with a bang but is sufficiently incoherent that I couldn’t really be sure who was banging whom (at least I didn’t have that problem in LaBute’s play).
Which brings us to the final play on the program – Mark My Worms – in which Mason (Eric Dean White) and Gloria (Clea Alsip) have been cast in a newly-discovered play by the renowned absurdist, La Salle Montclare.  The play is to be directed by John (Justin Ivan Brown) but the catch is that Montclare’s estate insists that the play be performed exactly as Montclare wrote it – typos and all - and Montclare was a terrible typist.  So when the play opens, for example, with Mason holding Gloria at gunpoint and saying, as per the script, “I’ve got a bun!,” when it should be apparent to anyone with a modicum of common sense that what he actually meant to type was “I’ve got a gun!,” Mason still is required to say “I’ve got a bun!,” rather than “I’ve got a gun!”  And when the script goes on to have Mason saying “Come out or  I’ll…hoot,” when Montclare obviously meant to say “Come out or I’ll shoot,” Mason is still required to express the absurd statement as written rather than what would actually make sense.  In a way it gives a whole new meaning to the term “theatre of the absurd.”
Gloria, however, does attempt to make sense out of it all and does so in an even more absurd manner.  She discovers a Ph.D. thesis written on Montclare by one Thorndike Farrington which attempts to explain Montclare’s obvious typos as intentionally distorted food references and, with the utmost pretension, she contends that Montclare “loved food as much as he hated violence…He thought food was the answer to all our problems…What he’s saying here is that you, the instrument of violence, should be wielding a bun.  Because if everyone who resorts to force did that, all violence would end.”  And in further reliance on Farrington’s thesis, Gloria goes on to cite him as saying that “Montclare’s unique dialogue should not be viewed within the framework of the traditional communications paradigm” and that the “transmutation of preconception is sublime subordination” - whatever any of that might mean.
It all reminds me, in its puncturing of academic pretension and pomposity, of the so-called “Sokal Hoax,” perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor, two decades ago in which Sokal submitted an article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, in which he proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic concept.  The editors of that supposedly scholarly journal actually published the article and, on the day it was published, Sokal revealed that the article was a hoax, describing it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense…structured around the silliest quotations…about mathematics and physics.”
It reminds me, too, of the very funny scene in the Woody Allen movie, Take the Money and Run, in which Virgil, a would-be bank robber, hands a note to a bank teller on which is written “I have a gun” – except that Virgil’s handwriting is so bad that the bank teller can’t decide whether it says “I have a gun” or “I have a gub.”  The point of all this being that while Mark My Worms is predicated on an amusing conceit, it’s been done before and, to my mind, not only more effectively (in the Sokal Hoax) but also more entertainingly (in Take the Money and Run).