Thursday, June 15, 2017

MY EYES WENT DARK Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Declan Conlon and Thusitha Jayasundera in MY EYES WENT DARK.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Declan Conlon and Thusitha Jayasundera deliver two of the most outstanding performances in any of the several plays that comprise this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  As Nikolai Koslov, a Russian architect who is driven obsessively to wreak vengeance upon Thomas Olsen, the air traffic controller whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife and children in an avoidable plane crash, Conlon performs with a cold, single-minded intensity that effectively succeeds in blurring the distinction between madness and sanity.  And in the role of Nikloai’s wife, Marya Koslov, as well as in the demanding roles of a whole host of other female characters who interact with Nikolai – including Katya (an eight year old girl), Dr. Geisinger (a trained psychiatrist), Helena (Thomas Olsen’s widow), Ms Weitner (an executive with Skyways, the air traffic control company that employed Olsen), and Yana (a woman who also lost her son in the plane crash) – Jayasundera displays an absolutely extraordinary range of acting talent.

My Eyes Went Dark, written and directed by Matthew Wilkinson, is an ambitious two-hander, inspired by true events, that played to sold-out audiences in London and Edinburgh and is currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters.  It is the tale of Nikolai Koslov, whose family died in a plane crash while en route to visit him in Nice.  As the facts emerge, it appears that the crash was not the result of terrorism nor mechanical failure nor pilot error, but rather was the consequence of misfeasance by Thomas Olsen, an air traffic controller with Skyways.  Clearly, Olsen and Skyways were at fault and should be held responsible, but are they morally or legally culpable as well for what was surely an honest mistake?

For Koslov the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” and when Olsen is acquitted of criminal liability, Koslov is pushed to the breaking point.  Ultimately, he avenges the deaths of his wife and children by killing Olsen – but without premeditation and with no subsequent recollection of the event.  Which leads us to ask: if Olsen is not morally or legally responsible for the deaths he caused without premeditation and through honest human error, should Koslov be held morally or legally responsible for Olsen’s death which he caused without premeditation and, indeed, without even any memory of the event?

The playwright alludes to these questions but never resolves them and doesn’t even really pursue them with any persistence.  Similarly, he suggests that Koslov’s intense animosity toward Olsen might have been motivated as much by his own guilt feelings at having created a situation in which his family had to fly to visit him in Nice in the first place as it was by a truly objective indictment of Olsen’s behavior.  He raises the issue of whether Koslov was sane or insane when he killed Olsen and what difference that might make in determining his guilt or innocence.  And he alludes to all the standard PC issues re forgiveness, acceptance, and getting on with one’s life.

Wilkinson touches on all those matters but never really seriously addresses them and that is the play’s weakness.  My Eyes Went Dark turns out not to be particularly intellectually challenging, despite the questions it raises, because once raising them it doesn’t really do anything more with them.  The premise of the play is a valid one but the play itself could use a lot more editing and fleshing out.

And so my bottom line is this: the play itself is somewhat disappointing but the actors’ performances are phenomenal and those performances alone are justification enough for your seeing this one.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

INVINCIBLE by Torben Betts Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, and Alastair Whatley in INVINCIBLE.  Photo by Manuel Harlan. 
Emily (Emily Bowker) is a pretentious ultra-left-wing artsy socialist who advocates that all things be communal – not only businesses and the banks but also housing, healthcare, public utilities, public transport and even the raising of children.  Indeed, if she were an American, rather than a Brit, she’d probably consider Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to be little better than reactionary Neanderthals.  She is opposed to all wars (she was raised by Quakers). She is opposed to the institution of marriage.  She is opposed to private school education.  She is opposed to inherited wealth.  In fact, there’s not much that she isn’t opposed to.  In short, she’s rather insufferable (and Emily Bowker portrays her brilliantly).

Her “partner,” Oliver (Alastair Whatley), with whom she has cohabited happily for years and who is the father of her children, is a much more realistic progressive: he is pragmatic enough to have re-joined the Labour Party since he realizes that, notwithstanding its shortcomings, it represents the only real means to take down the Conservatives.  And he is not at all averse to sending his children to private school if that’s what it will take to provide them with a proper education.  Emily considers him a sell-out.

Oliver and Emily are not married because Emily considers the institution of marriage to be nothing more than a medieval exercise and it offends her sensibilities.  Oliver does not have strong feelings on the subject but would like them to marry for his widowed mother’s sake.  She has but a few months to live and would very much like to see Oliver and Emily formally wed (even if not in a church) both for their and for her grandchildren’s sakes.  Emily will have none of it.

Oliver entered the Civil Service in an editorial capacity shortly after graduating from university and had been comfortably ensconced there ever since while residing (most recently with Emily) in London.  But due to the recession and England’s austerity program, he has been fired from his job which means that he and Emily can no longer afford to live in London.  (Of course they might have continued to live there had they been willing to rely on Oliver’s wealthy mother to subsidize them but Emily would have none of that either.  She is, after all, fiercely independent and certainly wouldn’t accept such ill-gotten gains as resulted from Oliver’s father’s banking career.)  So, instead, Oliver and Emily relinquished their London lodgings and relocated to a small town in northern England where housing costs are much lower than in London.  (Even there, they have chosen to rent, rather than buy, because of Emily’s disdain of property ownership.)  To be sure, they made the right economic decision - but it certainly was not the right social, personal, political or emotional one.

When we first encounter Oliver and Emily, they are settling into their new quarters and, in an effort to assimilate in their new environment, they have invited their married neighbors Alan (Graeme Brookes) and Dawn (Elizabeth Boag) to visit.  Emily is tidying up their home in anticipation of the arrival of her guests – which includes placing a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital prominently on their coffee table and avoiding discussing the problem of their own sex life (or lack of it) with Oliver - a discussion which he is eager to pursue and she refuses to address.  The only breaks in her routine occur when she reacts (frequently) to imagined sounds from the baby monitor (which shares prominence with Marx on the coffee table) and insists that Oliver immediately check on their two-and-a half year old child who, as it turns out, invariably is sleeping soundly in the other room.

When Dawn arrives, she comes across as a bored, physically well-endowed, relatively uneducated, lower-class, part-time receptionist, exuding sexuality, flirting outrageously with Oliver, and rather dismissive of her own husband.  Alan shows up somewhat later since he didn’t want to miss the end of the football game on the telly.  (After all, England was playing!)  He is a cheerful, overweight, garrulous, beer-swigging postman and football aficionado whose “best mate” is his cat, Vince (named after the HMS Invincible which was the ship on which he served out his military duty).  He also is evidently much more in love with his wife than she is with him and can’t get over the fact that “a big fat slob” like him managed to land “a spectacular-looking woman like her.”

And so the scene is set.  Alan and Dawn are flag-waving patriots whereas Emily thinks that patriotism is “mindless.”  Alan lives for football and takes pride in the fact that he has traveled all over Europe to watch England play while Oliver has no real interest in the game and much prefers cricket.  And Emily’s antipathy to football is much greater than Oliver’s: she pontificates that

“…highly popular sports like football are nowadays merely a means of keeping people pacified, of keeping people stupid. The more time, money and energy a man spends watching football, for example, the less time, money and energy he has to read important books and to educate himself and to question this hideous economic system and therefore, one hopes, to realize he’s being taken for a fool every single day of his life.”

Alan’s “best bloody mate” is his cat; Emily hates the cat which she considers a threat to her children and their pets.  Emily paints Jackson Pollock-like abstracts to which she attaches such pretentious names as The Reunification of the Body and the Soul in a Time of Grieving; Alan paints realistic but not very good portraits of his cat to which he attaches such mundane titles as Vince Staring Out the Window and Vince With A Rat in His Mouth.

Unsurprisingly, the evening does not go well.  The cultural gap between Oliver and Emily on one side and Alan and Dawn on the other is just too great an abyss to cross.  But it does provide the material for a wonderfully entertaining first act.

It is in the second act of Invincible by Torben Betts, now making its US premiere as part of the Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, however, that everything comes together and that all the loose ends are tied up.  Only then do we learn why Emily is so compulsively focused on her baby monitor, why Alan and Dawn have nothing to say about their son other than that he is “away,” how it was that a “fat slob” like Alan ended up with a “spectacular-looking woman” like Dawn, why Dawn is so dismissive of Alan and yet abides him, whether Oliver will ever develop enough backbone to stand up to Emily and whether that would make any difference in their sex life.  Vince disappears and it his disappearance, which eventually is explained, that in one way or another ultimately triggers all the revelations.

By play’s end, we have also re-discovered deeper truths.  First impressions can be misleading and we learn that there is more both to Dawn and Oliver than initially meets the eye.  Elizabeth Boag does an excellent job of revealing the dreams and aspirations that the lower-class poorly educated Dawn still harbors in her soul.  And Alastair Whatley does a similarly fine job in exhibiting Oliver’s growth over time.

But perhaps the most important lesson to take away from the play is that it is absurdly arrogant for liberal elitists to label those who do not share their most pretentious values as nothing more than (in Hillary Clinton's words) “irredeemable deplorables.”  Graeme Brookes, who virtually steals the show as Alan, makes that abundantly clear.  When push comes to shove, it is Alan – the overweight, talkative, postman who doesn’t know Karl Marx from Groucho - who proves to have far more “class” than his “betters” when it really matters.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Red Bull Theater's Revival of Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR at Duke Theater

L-R: Mary Testa, Michael McGrath, Michael Urie, and Talene Monahon in THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Nikolai Gogol’s penned his satiric masterpiece, The Government Inspector, a comedic but scathing indictment of virtually all elements of Imperial Russian society in 1834 but its publication was greeted with such animosity by all those whom it lampooned – dissolute masters and their buffoonish servants, prevaricating medical practitioners, incompetent postal workers, corrupt judges, crooked bureaucrats, dishonest academics, and adulterous wives and their hypocritical daughters – that it required the personal intervention of Tsar Nicholas I even to get the play staged for the first time in 1836.  We’ve come a long way since then (haven’t we?) and this is the United States in 2017, not Imperial Russia, but corruption, bribery, misfeasance, stupidity and hypocrisy still run rampant in all too many of our institutions (a fact to which anyone who has had to deal with the IRS or the DMV or the medical or educational establishments might readily attest).  Which is why Gogol’s play remains one for the ages. 

Jeffrey Hatcher’s rollicking adaptation of The Government Inspector for Red Bull Theater is currently premiering at The Duke on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  It is the latest of that company’s string of classic revivals of which Red Bull may be justifiably proud. 
When the leading citizens of a small provincial town in Russia – including Anton Antonovich (Michael McGrath), the town’s corrupt Mayor;  the Judge (Tom Alan Robbins); the School Principal (David Manis); the Hospital Director (Stephen DeRosa); and the Police Chief (Luis Moreno) – learn that a government inspector, traveling incognito, is coming to their village to root out their corruption, all hell breaks loose.  They determine to pay him whatever bribes, or do whatever else it might take, to protect themselves from his wrath.  But first they have to find out who he is. 

The entire play then revolves around a case of mistaken identity.  Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie), is a dissolute, impoverished, narcissistic civil servant from St. Petersburg but he does have a vivid imagination.  When he and Osip (Arnie Burton), his servant, arrive in town, Hlestakov is mistaken for the dreaded government inspector, bribes and “loans” (never meant to be repaid) are thrust upon him.  Both Anna (Mary Testa), the mayor’s wife, and Marya (Talene Monohon), their daughter, throw themselves upon him as well and, for his part, he is quite as willing to accept their advances as he is to accept the bribes he receives.

Both Michael Urie and Michael McGrath are outstanding in their starring roles as Hlestakov and the Mayor, respectively.  Both Alexis Distler’s Set Design and Tilly Grimes Costume Design also deserve positive mention; they provide the perfect backdrop for this exuberant production.