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  In the current production, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been replaced by Mike Pence and Bill O’Reilly but the play remains just as much “an extreme feminist and far left polemic” as it was in its original incarnation.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