Thursday, November 21, 2019

EINSTEIN'S DREAMS Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Zal Owen and Brennan Caldwell in EINSTEIN'S DREAMS.  Photo by Richard Termine.

Richard Feynman, the renowned Nobel Prize winning physicist, once remarked “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”  Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity may not be as incomprehensible as quantum physics but it certainly is difficult to fathom.  How, for instance, can one really get his mind around the fact that the passage of time itself is dependent upon the perspective of the observer?  Or that time slows down as one travels faster so that an interstellar space traveler moving at, say, one-tenth the speed of light could return to Earth younger than his own children?

As a consequence, writers attempting to expound upon these themes are faced with a difficult choice: they can write dry, scholarly, textbooks which may prove of value to students of physics, cosmology and mathematics but that may do little to enlighten or entertain the general reader.  Or they can sacrifice rigorous textbook explanations and adopt, instead, more metaphorical approaches to these subjects - approaches that may not be totally factually correct in an objective sense but that still will capture the essence of the issues involved.

As an example, they may note that time spent with a lover passes quickly whereas five minutes in a dentist’s chair may seem like an eternity.  Or, as Albert Einstein, himself, once expressed it:

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour.  Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute.  That’s relativity.”

This sentiment, of course, is a soft psychological truth, not a hard scientific one, but it does capture the essence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the effect that the passage of time can only be measured relative to an observer’s own point of view.

Alan Lightman is something of a Renaissance Man.  Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from Princeton and with a PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology, he went on to teach at Harvard and MIT.  But he is not only a physicist and teacher: he is also a published poet, essayist and novelist.  And so it should come as no surprise that he also is the first professor at MIT to have received a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities - nor that he has lectured at more than 100 universities regarding the differences between the ways that scientists and artists view the world.

Lightman’s best known work, Einstein’s Dreams, originally published in 1992 and subsequently translated into 30 languages, was an international bestseller.  In the novel, set in 1905, Albert Einstein appears as a young patent clerk, struggling to make sense of the world, to distinguish his dreams from reality, and to construct his magnum opus, the Theory of Relativity.  The book consists of thirty chapters, each envisioning a different world in which time functions differently:  In one, it is “sticky,” with people “stuck” in a single moment in their lives.  In another it is circular.  In a third, it is finite and about to end.  In a fourth, it flows backwards.  In a fifth, cause and effect are not necessarily chronological .  And in yet another, it branches off into alternative universes.  

And so the question arises: If such “other” worlds did exist, how would their alternative conceptions of time affect human behavior?  And finally: Are those one encounters in one’s dreams any less real than those one encounters when awake?

(One is reminded ot the words of Lao Tzu, the Chinese Taoist philosopher who once, upon awakening from a nap during which he dreamt he was a butterfly, said: “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”)

The book Einstein’s Dreams was adapted for the musical stage as Einstein’s Dreams by Joanne Sydney Lessner (book and lyrics) and Joshua Rosenblum (music and lyrics) more than a decade ago and debuted in London in 2005.  Now, fourteen years later it is finally enjoying its New York off-Broadway premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan in a production by the Prospect Theater Company and directed by Cara Reichel.  (I’d like to think that New York theater lovers in some alternative universe didn’t have to wait quite so long.)

In this production of Einstein’s Dreams, the struggling, dreaming Albert Einstein is played by Zal Owen; Josette, the mysterious woman of his dreams and a stand-in for time itself, is played by Alexandra Silber; Michele Besso, Einstein’s close friend, is played by Brennan Caldwell; and Peter Klausen, Einstein’s officious boss at the patent office, is played by Michael McCoy.  They are all excellent in their respective roles, as are Tess Primack in her dual roles as Mileva, Einstein’s first wife in real life and as Marta, the patent office’s typist; Stacia Fernandez as Hilda, Klausen’s world-weary secretary; Lisa Helmi Johanson as Besso’s wife, Anna; and Vishal Vaidya as Johannes Schmetterling, the patent office’s eager new emploiyee.  But I must say I was most taken with Talia Cosentino in her role as Josie, the exuberantly intelligent little girl who lit up the stage whenever she appeared.    

Monday, October 28, 2019

IMAGINING MADOFF by Deb Margolin at Lion Theatre on Theatre Row

L-R: Gerry Bamman and Jeremiah Kissel in IMAGINING MADOFF.  Photo by Jody Christopherson.

The most important word in the title of Deb Margolin’s thought-provoking play, Imagining Madoff, is not “Madoff” but “Imagining.”  That is because this is no simple re-telling of the tale of the greatest Ponzi scheme in history (Bernie Madoff’s theft of nearly $65 billion from trusting investors, a crime for which he is currently serving a prison term of 150 years).  Rather, it is a highly speculative philosophical, theological, and psychological investigation of why Madoff acted as he did and the moral and ethical issues underlying his actions (and those around him).

Imagining Madoff had its critically acclaimed sold-out New York premiere earlier this year at 59E59 Theaters.  It is now enjoying an encore engagement at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.

The play is beautifully written and artfully executed with Jeremiah Kissel cast as the tortured, enigmatic, and thoroughly amoral Bernie Madoff; Jenny Allen as his loyal but confused and guilt-ridden secretary; and Gerry Bamman as Solomon Galkin, Madoff’s friend and a Holocaust survivor and poet who is the treasurer of his synagogue (the synagogue itself turning out to be one of the victims of Madoff’s fraud).

(In Margolin’s original version of the play, the friend/Holocaust survivor/poet/synagogue treasurer was not the fictitious Solomon Galkin but the real life Elie Wiesel but when Wielsel objected and threatened to sue, claiming that the play was defamatory and obscene, Margolin converted Wiesel into Galkin.)

Obedience – to parents, teachers, priests and other legal, military and religious authorities - is generally considered a virtue.  But not always.  I doubt if anyone today would claim that the obedience of German citizens to Nazi authorities was a virtue (nor, for that matter, that the obedience of Americans to those enacting Jim Crow laws was either).  But then what are we to say about Abraham’s obedience to God as evidence by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac if that, indeed, was what God commanded?  Would Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac have been a virtue – or a sin?

Or does it all come down to a question of trust – Abraham’s trust in God, the average citizen’s trust in his government, or Galkin’s trust in Madoff – to always do the right thing?  And when they don’t?  Is that what is so dismaying Madoff’s secretary: her misplaced trust in her so-highly regarded employer?

Jeremiah Kissel, Jenny Allen, and Gerry Bamman are absolutely superb in their respective roles as Madoff, his secretary, and Galkin.  And while Deb Margolin provides no perfect solutions to any of these deep philosophical problems, she does ask all the right questions.  And that, at least, is a big step in the right direction.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

LUDWIG AND BERTIE by Douglas Lackey at Theater for the New City

L-R: Stan Buturia and Connor Bond in LUDWIG AND BERTIE.  Photo by Anthony Paul-Cavanetta.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (Connor Bond) and Bertrand Russell (Stan Buturia) had little in common in nature, background, or philosophical outlook.  Russell was an Englishman, a generation older than Wittgenstein, a heterosexual sensualist, a hedonist, a pacifist imprisoned for refusing to serve in the First World War, and a self-proclaimed agnostic.  By contrast, Wittgenstein was an Austrian, a bi-sexual, a decorated combat soldier in the First World War, and a puritanical religious Catholic coming to grips with his Jewish roots.  Yet the two men had an enormous effect on one another and were also arguably the two most dominant philosophers of the twentieth century.

Ludwig and Bertie by Douglas Lackey, currently premiering at Theater for the New City on First Avenue in New York’s East Village, tells their story.  It is a comprehensive bio-pic of the lives of the two philosophers, the influence they had on one another’s philosophies, and the extraordinary relationship that existed between them.  The play is a remarkable achievement on two levels: on one level, it provides an exhaustive explication of their respective philosophies (which even those most familiar with the concepts underlying analytic philosophy should find informative and educational).  And on another level, it also provides an entertaining theatrical experience for those less committed to the nuances of philosophical thought in its explorations of these men’s personae.

In penning Ludwig and Bertie, Lackey has taken some liberty with historical facts (as often occurs in bio-pics).  For example, he portrays an argumentative episode involving the aggressive wielding of a poker as having occurred between Wittgenstein and Russell when it actually transpired between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper (as describef by David Edmonds and John Edinow in Wittgensteins’s Poker).  And while it is true that Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler were schoolmates, there is no real evidence that they ever actually met – then or as adults – although Lackey credits Wittgenstein with having successfully appealed directly to Hitler to achieve freedom from the Nazis for his siblings despite their Jewish ancestry.  But these are minor matters and Lackey does provide a true picture of the lives of Wittgenstein and Russell in the broadest sense.

Both Connor Bond and Stan Butuna are outstanding in their respective roles as Wittgenstein and Russell and they are ably supported by the rest of the cast: Hayden Berry as the young Wittgenstein; Pat Dwyer as the philosopher, G. E. Moore; Alyssa Simon as Russell’s paramour, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and as Wittgensteins sister, Gretl Stonborough; and Daniel Yaiullo as Wittgenstein’s gay lover.

ROUND TABLE by Liba Vaynberg Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Liba Vaynberg and Craig Wesley Divino in ROUND TABLE.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

We really can’t know for sure who other people truly are.  Indeed, we really can’t even know who we ourselves truly are.  Or at least that’s the main message I took away from Round Table by Liba Vaynberg, the intricately structured thought-provoking play currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.

Not that the play didn’t broadcast other messages as well.  It did.  For one: There’s a big difference between love and romance.  In fact, as Laura (Liba Vaynberg) sees it, love is the very opposite of romance.  In her words:

“Love’s about like shitting in the same toilet and romance is for people who have potpourri bowls in their bathrooms.”

For another: It may be difficult to be a feminist and fall in love…but it’s not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle.

And for a third: The granting of informed consent is not just a moral imperative in sexual relations; it is a necessary perquisite in all aspects of human relations including the very acceptance of another’s love and even the manner, timing, and scripting of one’s own demise.
*   *   *
Several years ago, Pamela Wolfstein (or someone writing pseudonymously under that name) wrote a successful romance novel and the floodgates opened.  A whole slew of writers were retained to ghost-write formulaic imitations of that singular success story and so they did.  Laura, despite being an avowed feminist herself, was one of them, penning books with covers of heaving bosoms under the pseudonym Pamela Wolfstein, that were sold at airports to middle-aged soccer moms.  And now, as it turns out, Laura is the last of them, the originator of the series having died three years ago.  So is Laura now really Pamela Wolfstein herself?

Zach (Craig Wesley Divino) has a PhD from Harvard in Medieval Literature and currently earns his living as a teacher, writer and consultant on the subject to video and computer game companies and to Round Table, the hit television series based on the Arthurian legends (think Game of Thrones).  Indeed, he actually wrote a couple of the episodes for Round Table himself, working out the plot twists for those episodes by participating in LARP (live action role playing) as King Arthur, as the Knight Tristan, as the Scholar Giles, and as the Wizard Merlin.  In doing so, he was joined by Lena (Sharina Martin), a bartender in real life who may be a little in love with Zach herself and who well may be using LARP to replace her own childhood dreams in the fantasy role of the Sorceress Morgan. And by Jeff (Matthew Bovee), a tax attorney in real life who role plays Arthur’s foe, Mordred, perhaps in part to help him to repress or at least displace his own latent childhood homosexual tendencies.   But who then are Lena and Jeff today - really?

Zach and Laura meet through online dating, which does seem particularly appropriate for the two of them since online dating might be viewed as a bridge between virtual reality and, well, real reality.  They hit it off but it’s not clear whether their relationship will blossom into love or simply peter out after several nights of ice cream, sex, and romance, given the sharp distinction Laura draws between love and romance and her own feminist leanings.
At Zach’s urging, however, Laura eventually takes a stab at LARP herself – role playing as the Druid Laurel and as Queen Guinevere – but the game doesn’t come as easily to her as it does to Zack, Lena and Jeff (perhaps because she’s simply somewhat more realistic than any of them are.  So where do Zach and Laura go from there? 

Well, if they really are falling in love (and it seems they are), and if they’re both comfortable with the need for informed consent in all its aspects (and it seems they are), and if neither Laura’s feminism nor Zach’s LARP represent insurmountable obstacles (and it seems they don’t), and If Lena’s feelings for Zach aren’t a real impediment (and it seems they’re not), then everything should be copacetic, right?

Well, maybe not.  Because we left just one thing out.  Zach is very ill – probably dying – from some mysterious mental or brain condition and he has neglected to tell Laura anything about it.

Kay (Karl Gregory), Zach’s gay brother, is a competent and compassionate EMT, and the most sensible and well-grounded of the bunch.  He is fully aware of Zach’s condition and does everything in this power to be of aid to him, ensuring that he keep his medical appointments and insistently attempting to convince him (albeit to no avail) that he abandon his foolish devotion to LARP, which Kay perceives as physically life-threatening in light of Zach’s condition.  But if there is little that Kay can accomplish in that realm, given Zach’s obstinacy, there is absolutely nothing at all he can do in regard to Zach’s star-crossed relationship to Laura.
*   *   *
Round Table is an intriguing theatrical production – when if sticks to its primary plot lines involving the distinction between reality and fantasy, the nature of the “self,” and the relationship between Zach and Laura.  But it goes off the rails occasionally with extraneous matters.  I don’t think, for instance, that there was any point in introducing the issue of Kay’s mild frustration with his partner’s persona.  And, to mix a colorful metaphor, Lena’s suggestion at one point that Zach might be undergoing an adult circumcision as part of a conversion to Orthodox Judaism was just a ridiculous red herring.

*   *   *
The cast of five is absolutely terrific in both their real life 21st Century parts and in their legendary Arthurian roles.  Matthew Bovee as Jeff is a sensitive and tentative tax attorney – but he also makes for a ruthless Mordred.  Sharina Martin as Lena and the Sorceress Morgan reminded me a bit of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another female bartender of color in real life, although Lena’s fantasies, unlike AOC’s, tended more toward sorcery than socialism.

Karl Gregory as Kay provided the play with the solid grounding it required as a counterweight to the fantastical doings of the other four.  And Craig Wesley Divino as Zach, Arthur, Tristan, Merlin and Giles, was simply mesmerizing across-the-board.

But my greatest praise is reserved for Liba Vaynberg who not only wrote the play but starred in it brilliantly as Laura, the Druid Laurel, and Queen Guinevere.  By writing the play and then starring in it herself she provided the perfect meta-example of what LARP, self-identification,  and the fine line between fantasy and reality are all about.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Jill Eikenberry Stars in FERN HILL by Michael Tucker

L-R: John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, and Mark Blum in FERN HILL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg. 

Fern Hill by Michael Tucker, currently enjoying its New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is a beautifully written and brilliantly performed play about three “artsy” couples in their golden years and the relationships that exist between the partners in each of the three marriages:

Vincent (John Glover) is an established painter who will be entering the hospital for hip replacement surgery in a matter of days and who will be turning eighty in two months.  His much younger wife, Darla (Ellen Parker), is an acclaimed photographer who is about to be honored with her first one-woman exhibition in Vienna.

Jer (Mark Blum), is a respected writer and college professor who is celebrating his seventieth birthday today.  His wife, Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) is another talented painter, albeit one not nearly as well established as Vincent.  Together they own and reside in Fern Hill, a farmhouse retreat outside the city.

Billy (Mark Linn-Baker) is a stoner, a foodie and a rock-and-roll musician who will turn 60 next week.  His Asian wife, Michiko (Jodi Long), first met Billy when he was on tour years ago and she was one of his groupies; she currently works in a college’s Fine Arts Department.

The three couples have been close friends for years and now are all together at Fern Hill where they are about to celebrate the milestone birthdays for all three men: Billy’s sixtieth, Jer’s seventieth, and Vincent’s eightieth.  And to consider Sunny’s proposal that they form something of a commune and all move in together at Fern Hill to live out their final years together.

Sunny’s idea really does make a lot of sense.  Far better that they all age together and care for one another in their twilight years than that they go off to separate retirement or nursing homes to live out their final days among strangers or, worse yet, become burdens on their children.  Naturally, Vincent is all for it: he is, after all, the oldest and the frailest of the group with the shortest remaining life expectancy.  And while he loves his New York loft, the area in which it is located is rapidly becoming gentrified with “undesirable” hedge fund types and celebrities and even one of the Kennedy kids, and he doesn’t like that at all so he really won’t mind giving it up.  And that’s reason enough for Darla, his primary caregiver, to favor the idea as well.
And, despite their being the youngest of the three couples, it makes particular sense for Billy and Michiko for an additional financial reason: Billy’s band, Olly Golly, is no longer as popular as it once was and Billy’s and Michiko’s combined income has declined substantially (although they’re still spending as much as ever); if they move to Fern Hill, they can sell their New York apartment and live comfortably from the proceeds of the sale.  And of course Sunny loves the idea: it was her idea to begin with after all, she loves her friends – and maybe Jer is no longer quite enough for her.

Jer, however, is the lone holdout.  Yes, he loves his friends but he doubts that he would love them as much if they were around all the time.  More than any of the others, he values his privacy – as well he should.  For as it turns out, Jer has been carrying on with a young, promiscuous student – which might not fit in so well with his living a communal life with his more elderly friends at Fern Hill.

When Jer’s adulterous affair is disclosed, Sunny is understandably upset.  She considers throwing him out and perhaps she will.  But the issue of whether or not she throws him out is not really what drives the play.  Nor is the issue of whether or not the six friends actually will form a commune and live together in their final years at Fern Hill.

No, what really animates the play are the discussions among the six friends regarding their own sex lives; the distinctions they draw between sex and intimacy; their marriages; their own past indiscretions, shortcomings, and prior adulterous experiences; their perceptions of how they or their partners may have changed over the years; and their own assignments of credit or blame for whatever failures may have occurred in their relationships.

It is all very enlightening but, as Billy put it, it is also a kind of Rashomon experience in which the participants each see things in a different way.  So, for example, Jer sincerely blames Sunny for his own infidelity since she stopped “adoring” him and stopped “enjoying” their active sex lives whereas Sunny honestly believes that their sex lives had been artificial “performances” for years and that she only stopped “adoring” Jer when he stopped being “adorable.”

Tucker has a wonderful ear for language.  Billy’s rendition of his recipe for spaghetti and clam sauce, for example, might not be in a class with Hamlet’s soliloquy but it is, without doubt, the most delightful exposition of a recipe for the classic dish that I have ever heard. And Darla’s explanation of why Jer was so easily seduced by one of his students was as sharp and succinct as it could be:

“You were the man.  Men are easy, Jer.  They come with a handle.”

The entire cast of Fern Hill is absolutely terrific but two members of the cast really stood out.  Jill Eikenberry’s performance as Sunny, the betrayed and disillusioned wife, still in love with her husband but wishing that things could just go back to the way they were, was impeccably nuanced.  And Mark Linn-Baker was simply superb as Billy, the 60-year-old drug and alcohol addicted Peter Pan who never really grew up and continued to live in the past – though, all things considered, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea after all. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

ONLY YESTERDAY - A Night in the Lives of John Lennon and Paul McCartney

L-R: Tommy Crawford and Christopher Sears in ONLY YESTERDAY.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
It was more than fifty years ago, back in 1964, that “Beatlemania” was all the rage, but to us (and many others, we are sure) it seems like it was “only yesterday.”  That year, with six number one singles under their belt and having received a rousing reception in their debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show (an estimated 73 million people tuned in to watch them on their black and white TV sets), the “Fab Four” embarked on a months-long nationwide concert tour before adoring crowds across America.

When their tour was temporarily stalled by a hurricane in Florida, however, they were forced to put everything on hold for a day or two, making an unscheduled stop in Key West before continuing on to Jacksonville.  And so it was that John Lennon and Paul McCartney, both in their early 20’s, found themselves holed up together for the night in a cheap hotel room in Key West with little to do but drink and talk.  Which is just what they did.  Until they also cried.
Or at least that’s pretty much what Paul said happened when he was interviewed more than four decades later.  It was on a radio broadcast in 2011 that he recalled that night in 1964 when he and John drank, talked and cried together for reasons he could no longer be certain of but which he thought probably related to the deaths of both of their mothers when they were in their early teens - and the emotional toll it took on them.

This was really all that the playwright Bob Stevens had to go on when he wrote Only Yesterday, a slight but charming one act play, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  In Only Yesterday, we are treated to Stevens’ imagining of what might have transpired on that night in 1964 as John Lennon (Christopher Sears) and Paul McCartney (Tommy Crawford) not only drank and talked – and, yes, cried – but also engaged in good humored horseplay from Monopoly to pillow-fighting, jammed on their guitars, half-heartedly attempted to write some songs, and even delivered a blow for integration by refusing to perform before a segregated audience in Jacksonville.

Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the show is light on the Beatles’ own music but it does include tunes by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry - and remarkably entertaining impersonations of Bob Dylan (by Crawford) and of Elvis Presley (by Sears).  Indeed, the Presley impersonation was a real show-stopper and, if nothing else, it alone is sure to leave you smiling for days to come.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Traveling Through Time with TECH SUPPORT at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Margot White, Mark Lotito, Leanne Cabrera, Ryan Avalos, and Lauriel Friedman in TECH SUPPORT.  Photo by Russ Rowland. 

Tech Support by Debra Whitfield, currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is one for the ages – but not in a good way.  It is a trite rom-com, dependent upon a preposterous time-travel premise, in which Pamela Stark (Margot White), a middle-aged rare book dealer living in Manhattan in 2020, inadvertently embarks on a series of journeys to random years in the twentieth century: 1919, 1946, and 1978.

Pamela is in the throes of a divorce and something of a Luddite, capable of adjusting a pop-up toaster or opening a Tupperware container, but not much more.  She perceives herself as “an analogue girl in a digital world.”  And so, when her computer’s printer acts up, she is forced to telephone “tech support” for assistance but when she presses the wrong button on her phone, she somehow finds herself back in the year 1919.  It is there that she meets Charlie Blackwell (Mark Lotito), the kindly proprietor of Mrs. Blackwell’s Boarding House; Grace (Lauriel Friedman), an intelligent and politically ambitious women’s suffragette; Maisie (Leanne Cabrera), a much milder, fragile and old-fashioned – albeit pregnant - suffragette; and Chip (Ryan Avalos), a decent, handsome young man who, unbeknownst to him, is responsible for Maisie’s pregnancy.

(Pamela’s subsequent time travels are predicated on even sillier contrivances: she fiddles with the dials on a Victrola and a radio, pushes the wrong door buzzer, and provides a Lyft driver with a house number but no street name.)

But back to 1919.  Pamela prevails upon Maisie not to undergo an abortion, not because Pamela herself is pro-life (indeed, she actually professes to being pro-choice) but only because abortions in 1919, unlike in 2020, are really dangerous.  In fact, Pamela admits to once having had an abortion herself, although she also allows that

“I had a lot of sleepless nights and if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure I’d make the same decision.  But I’m glad I had the choice!”

Anyway, Maisie doesn’t get an abortion and gives birth to Chip Jr. (Ryan Avalos), the spitting image of his father, wouldn’t you know, and it’s a good thing for Pamela that she did because when Pamela lands in 1946 (right after the end of World War II), she meets Chip Jr. and they fall in love.  (Wasn’t so great for Maisie, though, who died in childbirth, which is simply glossed over.  Maybe an abortion illegally performed by a doctor in 1919 might actually have been safer for Maisie than giving birth that year, but we’ll never know and won’t really bother to think about.)

And this is what is wrong with the play.  The playwright consistently attempts to have things both ways, without actually dealing with serious issues in any depth.  And so, in similar fashion, when Grace’s subsequent marriage to Charlie is teetering on the brink of collapse because her successful political career is interfering with what her husband really wants -  a wife who will stay home, cook, clean and darn his socks - we are treated to this banal exchange:

Grace: You know that I love my job and I feel that I’m just now starting to make a difference.  But I love you more.  What does it matter how many men and women I help, if the one who means the most to me isn’t there?  I want to come home.  If it means resigning my office, so be it.

Charlie: I don’t know what to say.  I’m flabbergasted.

Grace: You don’t have to say anything except “welcome home.”

Charlie: Oh Gracie….I love you so much.  I guess all I really wanted to hear you say you loved me enough to give it all up –

Grace: I don’t understand –

Charlie: You don’t have to quit.  I won’t let you quit – you’re doing a lot of good for the city and I want you to know that you have my “full support.”  Just hire another assistant, so we can have dinner together, every once in a while.

The play is also insufferably knee jerk pretentious.  According to Pamela, for example,

“…for some women it’s [abortion’s} become more dangerous because of antediluvian laws passed by old white men –“

and according to Grace

“There are forward-thinking men and women here {New York] but I’m not so sure about the rest of the country – especially in the hinterlands.”.

And there you have it: Tech Support is a hodgepodge of homilies and its audience is trapped in this time warp for 85 minutes.  But I feel sorrier for the play’s cast of five, all of whom are consummate professionals who will be trapped in this time warp for the next several weeks (the play is scheduled to run through September 21).  All five actors should be commended for performing exceptionally well, especially in light of the material they have been given to work with.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

SONGBOOK SUMMIT 2019: The Andersons Play Louis Armstrong at Symphony Space

The Anderson twins.  Photo by Lynn Redmile.
We have been privileged to have attended many of the Anderson twins’ concerts devoted to the lives and music of individual musicians - including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Duke Ellington – and we have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  But last night’s performance of Songbook Summit 2019: The Andersons Play Louis Armstrong at Peter Norton Symphony Space's Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre on Broadway and 95th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was in a class of its own.  This was a truly memorable performance of the work of one of the worlds' greatest entertainers and jazz ambassadors and it rose head and shoulders above all of the Anderson twins’ other performances, wonderful as they all were.

I’m not really sure why that should have been the case.  I don’t think that it was due to the performances of Peter and Will Anderson themselves: while the twin virtuosos on the tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet, and flute performed brilliantly in their paean to Louis Armstrong, they do so consistently, so I don’t think it was that.  The twins were very ably accompanied by Rossano Sportiello on piano, Paul Wells on drums, and Vince Giordano on string bass, bass sax, tuba, and vocals and those three were all equally terrific but then, so too were their counterparts - Jeb Patton on piano, Chuck Redd on drums and vibraphone, Neal Miner on bass, and Molly Ryan on vocals – who performed at last week’s concert, Songbook Summit 2019: The Andersons Play Duke Ellington, so I don’t think it was that either.

Mike Davis.  Photo by Jean Kratochvil.

At least part of it may be attributable to the performance of Mike Davis, the extraordinary young trumpet player, who was brought in at the last minute to substitute for Jon-Erik Kellso whose scheduled flight from Switzerland to America had been delayed.  Nothing can be more vital to a concert celebrating the life and work of Louis Armstrong than the band’s trumpet player so I had a moment of trepidation when I heard that Mr. Kellso wouldn’t be there and that the young Mr. Davis would be filling in for him. 

My concerns were quickly alleviated.  Mr. Davis performed absolutely brilliantly and it is hard to imagine how Mr. Kellso, or anyone else for that matter, could have done any better.  Indeed, I count myself truly fortunate in having had this opportunity to attend a Mike Davis’ performance.

A second factor that might help to explain why this concert, Songbook Summit 2019: The Andersons Play Louis Armstrong, was so spectacular relates to Louis Armstrong himself.  The Anderson twins’ Songbook Summit concerts are not just musical performances but include entertaining narrations by Will Anderson relating to each musician’s life, accompanied by expressive video presentations and Al Hirschfeld illustrations.  And the story of Louis Armstrong’s life was so remarkable that it lent itself to the most entertaining of narrations and video presentations.

Born to a fifteen year old girl who turned to prostitution to support her family, Armstrong was abandoned by his father, growing up in a New Orleans neighborhood so dangerous that it was known as “The Battlefield.”  He dropped out of elementary school and was incarcerated at the age of eleven for 18 months in the Colored Waifs’ Home for having shot a blank into the air on New Year’s Eve   Yet he surmounted the most difficult of obstacles and went on to become an icon of the jazz world and to influence performers and musical genres as diverse as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues.

Songbook Summit 2019: The Andersons Play Louis Armstrong begins with a rendition of “Muskrat Ramble,” written by Kid Ory and first recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, a tune which went on to become the group’s most frequently recorded piece.  The show continues with exceptional performances (among others) of “St. James Infirmary,” "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "Potato Head Blues," "Swing That Music," “What a Wonderful World”  and, of course, "Hello Dolly."

Songbook Summit 2019: The Andersons Play Louis Armstrong is only scheduled to run through August 23 so there’s scarcely any time left to see it.  But we sure urge you to make the effort.  You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

SONGBOOK SUMMIT 2019: The Andersons Play Duke Ellington at Symphony Space

Peter and Will Anderson’s Songbook Summit is becoming a “not to be missed” annual event at Peter Norton Symphony Space's Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre on Broadway and 95th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  In last year’s program, the Anderson twins, two exceptionally accomplished jazz musicians (Peter on the tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, and Will on the alto sax, clarinet and flute), paid tribute to four of the greatest American songwriters of the last century - Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jimmy Van Heusen - devoting a week of performances to each of the four.  It was one helluva show and we absolutely loved it.

This year’s program showcases just two musicians, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and devotes only six performances over three days to each of them.  And that is the only bone we have to pick with the twins regarding this year’s production.  We would have liked to have seen even more musicians featured and we assuredly would have preferred to have seen longer runs.  A mere six performances over the course of only three days for each of them just doesn’t seem to do justice to Ellington and Armstrong, two of America’s all-time jazz greats.

Be that as it may, we just saw the first half of this year’s program – The Andersons Play Duke Ellington – running only from August 13-15, and it was terrific.  Duke Ellington was the most prolific American composer of all time who shattered musical barriers with his distinctive style while traveling around the world with his jazz orchestra for more than a half century.  He passed away in 1974 but the twins bring him to life again, at least for the ninety minutes of their program.  (The second half of this year’s Songbook Summit - The Andersons Play Louis Armstrong – won’t be staged until August 21-23, so we’re unable to comment on that program yet.)

The Andersons Play Duke Ellington showcases Ellington’s life and music with video presentations, entertaining narration by Will Anderson, Al Hirschfeld illustrations, and an all-star jazz sextet that includes, in addition to the Anderson twins, Jeb Patton on piano, Neal Miner on bass, Chuck Redd on drums and vibraphone, and Molly Ryan on vocals. 

The show begins with a rousing instrumental rendition of that perennial Ellington favorite”Take the A Train.”  It continues with entertaining renditions of "Mood Indigo," "Caravan," "In My Solitude," and "Satin Doll."   It provides an intriguing lesson on the Influence of Japanese music on Ellington with “Ad Lib on Nippon.”  And it culminates in Molly Ryan’s belting out a show-stopping "It Don't Mean a Thing If it Ain't Got That Swing."

The audience loved it as did we.  Little wonder that we’re eagerly awaiting next week’s staging of The Andersons Play Louis Armstrong.

Sunday, August 4, 2019


L-R: Ro Boddie And Jack Mikesell in APPOMATTOX, part of SUMMER SHORTS - SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The Summer Shorts program at 59E59 Theaters on East 50th Street in midtown Manhattan is an annual event consisting of six one-act plays by established and upcoming playwrights, equally divided between two series, A and B, and it is generally well worth seeing.  Unfortunately, we were unable to attend a performance of this year’s Series A but we have just returned from the opening performance of Series B and I can assure you that this second half of 2019’s program is as good as it gets. 

Series B consists of three plays – Lucky by Sharr White, Providence by Nancy Bleemer, and Appomattox by Neil LaBute – and each is excellent on its own.  Taken together, however, they make for a truly memorable production.

The three plays deal with three totally different issues – PTSD, marriage, and reparations for slavery – but they take a very fresh look at those issues and that is what makes this production really worth seeing.  This is no rehash of conventional wisdom on those traditional themes.  Rather, it is an original, nuanced and challenging look at all of them that will leave you with more to think about than you might have bargained for.

Phil (Blake Delong) is the “lucky” soldier returning home in Lucky – “lucky” because he was neither killed nor physically injured during his service in World War II.  But the scars he bears are deep, even if they are not in physical evidence, and his re-integration into peacetime society does not come easy.  Both he and his wife, Meredith (Christine Spang) are forced to confront the un-confrontable and do so with the greatest sensitivity.

Providence is a delightful romp in which Michael (Jake Robinson) and his wife, Renee (Blair Lewin) have returned to Michael’s boyhood home to attend the wedding of Michael’s sister to Pauly (Nathan Wallace).  But nothing is as simple as might seem at first blush.  Neither Michael’s parents nor his aunts and uncles appear to have “good” marriages and several of Michael’s aunts and their offspring aren’t even on speaking terms.  And what does that say about the very institution of marriage?  When Pauly seeks advice from Michael and Renee regarding his own forthcoming marriage - he doesn’t need any advice about sex, he knows all about that, but he does want to know what married people actually talk about – it forces Michael and Renee to see their own marriage in a new light.

Jake Robinson and Blair Lewin are wonderful as the relatively young marrieds sorting it all out.  But it is Nathan Wallace who truly steals the show with a bravura performance as the conflicted groom-to-be.

Lucky and Providence are excellent productions but Neil LaBute’s Appomattox is in a class by itself and is far and away the best play of the lot.  Joe (Jack Mikesell), who is white, and Frank (Ro Boddie), who is black, are friends - at least to the extent of lunching together and tossing a football around.  Indeed, their racial difference might even seem to serve to bring them closer together since Joe is a typical well-meaning liberal who perceives himself as totally aware of the sensitivities of African-Americans.  But is he?  Or is he just another self-satisfied liberal confident in his own convictions, whether they be about busing or affirmative action or illegal immigration of reparations – just so long as he’s not expected to sacrifice too much.

Both Jack Mikesell and Ro Boddie are outstanding in their respective roles.  And wherever you might fall on the political spectrum, I daresay their performances will cause you to at least re-evaluate your position.

Monday, July 22, 2019

DOGG'S HAMLET, CAHOOT'S MACBETH by Tom Stoppard at The Atlantic Stage 2

L-R: Lucy Van Atta, Peter Schmitz, Christo Grabowski, and Connor Wright in DOGG'S HAMLET.  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Potomac Theatre Project (PTP/NYC) was founded in 1987 and moved to New York in 2007.  This year, in association with Middlebury College, it is staging a limited engagement of works by Vaclav Havel, Harold, Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard at The Atlantic Stage 2 on West 16th Street in downtown Manhattan.  Half of this season’s program, Havel: The Passion of Thought, consists of three of Havel’s “Vanek plays” – Audience, Private View, and Protest – together with Pinter’s The New World Order and Beckett’s Catastrophe.  Last week, we were fortunate enough to attend a performance of that production and we thoroughly enjoyed it (see our recentpost).

The other half of PTP/NYC’s thirty-third repertory season showcases Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.  Now, having attended a performance of that show as well, we are delighted to say that it is just as good.  In fact, it is terrific.

In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein challenged the generally accepted view of language as being fully explicable in terms of signification – i.e., the idea that all words, in all circumstances, may be understood as simply standing in for the objects, actions or qualities they represent.  That, of course, is the way children learn languages to begin with: they are shown five, red apples or a boy throwing a ball and are thereby taught what the words “five,” red,” “apple,” “boy,” “throw,” and “ball” mean.  But while Wittgenstein never denied that such signification plays an important role in language, he contended that there was far more to language, meaning and communication than that.

As an example, he imagined a situation in which two construction workers – A and B – shared a primitive language consisting only of the four words: “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam.”  Now if an observer, unfamiliar with the language, were to hear A shout out “Beam!” and then were to see B handing something to A, it certainly would be reasonable for him to conclude that the word “beam” merely signified whatever it was that B handed to A..  But what if it didn’t?  The word “beam,” as A used it and as B understood it, might actually have meant “bring me that object” or, if B were already aware of what A would want next, it might even simply have meant something like “Next” or “Here” or “Ready” or “OK.”

In the late 1970s, Tom Stoppard was so inspired by that passage in Philosophical Investigations and by the blacklisting of the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout that he wrote two plays: Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth.  Both were based on Shakespearean classics (much as was Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead); both imagined the ramifications of speakers of different languages using the same words but with different meanings and/or understanding the same words in different ways; and the two plays were meant to be produced together as Dogg’s HamletCahoot’s Macbeth.  Indeed, Stoppard expressly stated:

“The comma that divides Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth also serves to unite two plays that have common elements; the first is hardly a play at all without the second, which cannot be performed without the first.”

Dogg’s Hamlet is a direct riff on Wittgenstein’s thought experiment regarding the meanings of words based upon their actual use rather than solely on their signification.  In Stoppard’s play, several high school students including Abel (Zach Varricchione), Baker (Connor Wright), and Charlie (Madeline Russell) are preparing a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in English.  The catch is that the students only speak Dogg which uses the same words as English does but with altogether different meanings (“useless,” for instance, means “good day” and “mouseholes” means “egg”) so that to them, what we understand as English is truly a foreign language.   When Easy (Matthew Ball), a deliveryman who speaks English rather than Dogg, arrives with materials to build the play’s set – including bricks, cubes, slabs and planks - all hell breaks loose.

That, of course, is because what Easy means by “brick,” “cube,” “slab,” and “plank” (which is what we and other English-speakers mean by those words) isn’t at all what Abel, Baker, Charlie and other Dogg-speakers mean by them.  To Dogg-speakers, “brick” means what “here” means to Easy; “slab” means “yes” or “okay”; “cube” means “thanks” or “thank you”; and “plank” means “ready.”  A collapsing Tower of Babel would seem inevitable – and it is.

Ultimately, Dogg’s Hamlet does include a performance of a comically abridged version of Hamlet - and then an encore performance of an even more abbreviated version of that.  And, as something of a bonus, Easy (and the audience) manage to learn (or “catch”) a little bit of Dogg to boot.

L-R: Denise Cormier, Christopher Marshall, Lucy Van Atta, and Tara Giordano in CAHOOT'S MACBETH.  Photo by Stan Barouh.
Cahoot’s Macbeth pushes the envelope even further.  Stoppard dedicated this play to the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout who, together with others, was prevented from plying his theatrical trade in his native country by the totalitarian Communist Government of Czechoslovakia.  In response, Kahout, Pavel Landovsky, and others formed the “Living-Room Theatre” (LRT) troupe which supported itself by working as street-sweepers and waitresses by day while secretly performing plays in homes at night.

One such performance (of an abridged version of Macbeth), taking place in Cahoot’s Macbeth, is interrupted by the arrival of an Inspector (Tara Giordano) who understandably sees in the troupe’s “acting without authority” a metaphorical attack on the authority of the Communist Government.  And once again, Easy appears – only this time he’s speaking Dogg rather than English!

Stoppard’s double bill is as effective as George Orwell’s 1984 in its depiction of the transcendent importance of language in human society, especially in repressed societies.  Its play on words, its coded references, its metaphorical allusions, all of which we have come to associate with Stoppard, are here used to produce a very effective serio-comic double-barreled tour de force.

All of the members of the PTP/NYC ensemble deserve recognition for jobs very well done, with several of them playing multiple roles in these plays within plays, but I was especially impressed by the performances of Peter Schmitz in his multiple roles as Dogg, Shakespeare and Claudius in Dogg’s Hamlet and as Duncan and Lennox in Cahoot’s Macbeth, Matthew Ball as Easy in both plays, Christo Grabowski as Fox Major and Hamlet in Dogg’s Hamlet and as Banquo and Cahoot in Cahoot’s Macbeth, and Tara Giordano as Lady in Dogg’s Hamlet and as the Inspector in Cahoot’s Macbeth.

And kudos should go out to all of those at PTP/NYC who had the insight to create the combination of Havel’s “Vanek plays” (with a Pinter prologue and a Beckett epilogue) with this Stoppard double-bill, thereby underscoring the issues of freedom of speech, the rights of the individual, and the power of the spoken (or written) word.