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.


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.