Sunday, February 16, 2020

THE SABBATH GIRL by Cary Gitter Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Lauren Annunziata and Jeremy Rishe in THE SABBATH GIRL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.



Observant Orthodox Jews refrain from doing any work on the Sabbath – and they construe “work” to include even activities as trivial as turning on an electrical appliance or changing a light bulb.  That can, of course, create problems on Saturday when some unanticipated need to accomplish some forbidden task arises.  Enter the “Shabbos Goy” – a non-Jewish neighbor or friend ready and willing to come to their rescue.

Seth (Jeremy Rishe) is a 32 year old divorced Orthodox Jewish-American currently living on the Upper West Side, having “emigrated” from his “ancestral” community in Riverdale subsequent to the dissolution of his three year old quasi-arranged marriage to a nice Jewish girl from a good Jewish family.  Here his “Shabbos Goy” of choice had been his Korean neighbor, Mr. Lee, but Mr. Lee has unexpectedly moved out.  And his new neighbor, as it turns out, is Angie (Lauren Annunziata) a very attractive Italian-American art gallery curator who has a great eye for art but not nearly as good an eye when it comes to boyfriends.

Angie’s latest art discovery (and relationship misstep) was Blake (Ty Molbak), a 31 year old hotshot whose considerable artistic talent and sex appeal were more than outset by his narcissism, arrogance and outright untrustworthiness.  Which brings us back to Angie and Seth.

Superficially, at least, the two would appear to be polar opposites.  She is a single Italian-American woman, cool, sharp, secular, passionate, forward-looking – just what one might expect of the curator of a trendy art gallery in Chelsea.  He is a divorced Jewish-American man, awkward, religious, traditional – just what one might expect of the co-owner (with his sister, Rachel) of a knish shop on the Lower East Side. But beneath the surface, Seth and Angie actually have more in common than one might ever have imagined: they are both lonely, intelligent, charming and compassionate – and ripe for the discovery of their own “b’sherts” (the Yiddish term for that which was meant to be).

And so it is not surprising that Angie becomes Seth’s new “Shabbos Goy” or better yet, his Sabbath Girl, (the title role in The Sabbath Girl by Cary Gitter, currently enjoying its New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan).  Of course the road to true love never doth run smooth, not even for “b’sherts,” and Seth and Angie have their hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is Seth’s knish shop partner, his well-meaning devout older sister Rachel (Lauren Singerman).  But they are helped along the way by Sophia (Angelina Fiordellisi), Angie’s romantic, magical grandmother.

The theme of The Sabbath Girl, revolving around the romantic relationship between a nice Jewish boy and his “shiksa goddess,” may not be remarkably original, but it can make for wonderful entertainment.  And this variation on that tried and true theme is especially charming, not only because it is very well-written but because the play’s entire ensemble cast is simply terrific.  Lauren Annunziata is outstanding as Angie as she allows the cool artificial exterior of her hip persona to be peeled away, disclosing her truer self.  Jeremy Rishe is equally good as Seth, conveying his tortuous struggle in reconciling his religious convictions with the demands of his heart.  Ty Molbak provides great comic relief as Blake, the Fonz-like hip artist who manages to command Angie’s attention, at least temporarily.  Lauren Singerman as Rachel, may be the best yenta I’ve seen since Molly Goldberg, expressing her own struggle between her devotion to her faith and her love for her baby brother.  And Angelina Fiordellisi as Sophia adds just the right touch of magical wisdom to tie it all together in one very entertaining show.


Monday, January 13, 2020

MAZ AND BRICKS By Eva O'Connor at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Eva O'Connor and Cieran O'Brien in MAZ AND BRICKS.  Photo by Lunaria.

No, Maz and Bricks doesn’t address the issue of the Irish “troubles” but that’s just about the only Irish theatrical mainstay theme it doesn’t touch on.  Child abuse, rape, trauma, familial estrangement, alcoholism, paternal love, depression, abortion, suicide, guilt, shame, the Catholic Church – it’s got them all.  So if you’re in the mood to see another quintessentially Irish two-hander addressing those timeless subjects, by all means get thee to 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan where Fishamble: The New Play Company is staging the US premiere of Eva O’Connor’s Maz and Bricks.

Surely you could do a lot worse.  The playwright (who also plays the role of Maz) may have been overly ambitious in the number of subjects she chose to take on in a single work of only 80 minutes duration but her enormous talent as both playwright and actress more than make up for any such shortcoming.  Her writing is as much poetry as prose and she employs her rhyming and rhythmic style effectively in portraying her characters’ vulnerabilities and sensitivities.

Ms O’Connor is superb as Maz, a staunch pro-choice campaigner, who meets Bricks (Ciaran O’Brien) on a tram in Dublin as she is en route to a pro-choice rally and he is going to pick up his four year old daughter to take her to the zoo.  Mr O’Brien is as terrific as Bricks as Ms O’Connor is as Maz notwithstanding the fact that, superficially at least, Bricks is about as different from Maz as one can possibly be: he doesn’t really care one way or another about abortion and, while Maz may have been traumatized by her early sexual experiences, his sole interest in life (other than his daughter) would seem to be bedding any woman who might be available.  And yet there is chemistry between them and by play’s end, by which time the two have spent a day on the tram and wandering through the streets of Dublin, we come to realize just how much more they (and, by extension, all of us) might really have in common than we ever thought.
  



Monday, December 9, 2019

ONE NOVEMBER YANKEE Starring Harry Hamlin and Stefanie Powers at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Harry Hamlin and Stefanie Powers in ONE NOVEMBER YANKEE. 
Photo by Matt Urban at NuPOINT Marketing.

One November Yankee, constructed by Joshua Ravetch (and I use the verb “constructed” rather than “written” advisedly) is simply too clever by half.  Currently enjoying its New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, it is really three intricately inter-related plays in one and is rife with puns, foreshadowings, coincidences, allusions, and pretentiously predictable analogues.

Taken as a whole, the tri-partite play is the tale of one airplane and three sets of siblings: Ralph and Maggie, Harry and Margo, and Ronnie and Mia.  The roles of Ralph, Harry and Ronnie are all played by Harry Hamlin and the roles of Maggie, Margo and Mia are all played by Stephanie Powers.

The plane in question is a Piper Cub with the tail number 1NY (whence the play’s title One November Yankee).  It is piloted by Margo, a rather ditzy librarian who crashes the plane in a remote corner of a New Hampshire forest, having run out of gas, having removed the plane’s locator beacon for repair and never having re-installed it before taking off, and having neglected to file a flight plan.  The only other passenger on the plane is Margo’s brother, Harry, an aspiring novelist who is on the verge of publishing his first novel (entitled A Very Troubled Journey With a Very Unhappy Ending).  A pair of self-described Jewish intellectuals, they were en route to their father’s wedding in Florida (to his second wife-to-be) when the plane went down.

Five years later, Maggie, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, arranges for the museum to grant her brother, Ralph, acclaimed as one of the top three modern artists in the world (at least everywhere outside of New York), a $75,000 commission to mount an installation at MoMA.  The installation that Ralph designs is a replica of the crashed Piper Cub 1NY which he entitles Crumpled Plane and which is intended to symbolize “Civilization in Ruin.”  If the New York critics like it, his reputation will be made.

The analogies between Ralph and Maggie on the one hand and Harry and Margo on the other are obviously much too blatant to be missed.  Both Ralph and Harry are insecure creative artists; their sisters, Maggie and Margo are pedestrian pedants, a librarian and a curator.  Both Maggie and Margo are on their third marriages and each has a son. But just in case the analogy between Ralph/Maggie and Harry/Margo is missed, the most trivial likenesses in their stories are underscored again, and again, and again….
    
Thus, Ralph, while placing the finishing touches on his installation, inadvertently gets red paint on his brand new shirt just as Harry’s brand new shirt is similarly covered with blood after the crash.   Margo extinguishes the flames from the crash with a fire extinguisher that turns out to be just like the one Ralph places on a pedestal as part of his exhibition.  Harry speculates that his chances of being rescued are like those of a “needle in a fucking haystack.  Like that artist Kantano.  His stuff depicts how small we are.  Inconsequential.  Dust.”  And Kantano, as it turns out, is one of the two artists Ralph most admires and one he beat out for the MoMA commission.  And on and on and on.

But if you’ve got any disbelief left to suspend, we still have the third sibling couple – Ronnie and Mia - left to deal with.  They are hikers who, as luck would have it, happen upon the plane’s wreckage five years after the crash, in the very month that Ralph’s installation is being unveiled at the MoMA.  And (wouldn’t you just know it?), discovering the wreckage affects them even more deeply than one might have imagined since they lost their own brother, Danny, in a different plane crash and haven’t yet really come to terms with that.

One November Yankee delivers several messages.  One is that art imitates life which imitates art which imitates life which…but you get the point of that one.  Another is that all sibling relationships are love-hate relationships, fraught with jealousy, misunderstanding, animosity and a remembrance and lack of forgiveness for any sin one’s sibling might ever have committed, knowingly or unknowingly.  And a third is that art is whatever artists or elite art critics say it is – or maybe that it’s really the other way around: maybe it’s that some “art” really is trash or debris and not “art” at all no matter who says it is.  Perhaps a line should be drawn somewhere – for starters, say, by denying that spattering elephant dung on a picture of Jesus Christ constitutes “art” – notwithstanding the fact that some self-proclaimed art critic might say it is. I’m really not sure what the play’s position on this one is.

Harry Hamlin and Stefanie Powers are both very fine actors, fully capable of delivering outstanding performances in a variety of roles but, sadly, you wouldn’t know it from this production. Ralph, Harry and Ronnie may all have been assigned different personae and costumed differently but I saw little differentiation in the way Hamlin performed what should have been three distinctively different roles.  And the same was true of Stefanie Powers in the roles of Maggie, Margot and Mia.   I suspect that that might have been Joshua Ravetch’s doing (although I really do not know this for a fact): as both playwright and director, he may have sought to emphasize the universality of the human condition (which might also explain the overuse of foreshadowings, coincidences, and analogues) even at the expenses of delivering more nuanced performances. If so, I guess he succeeded but at a serious dramatic cost.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

EVERYTHING IS SUPER GREAT by Stephen Brown Debuts at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Xavier Rooney, Lisa Jill Anderson, Will Sarratt, and Marcia Debonis in EVERYTHING IS SUPER GREAT.  Photo by Hunter Canning.

Dysfunctional families, abandonment, disappearances, dementia, failures to communicate, inter-generational conflict – these are among the most basic themes traditionally addressed on stage.  Seldom, however, are they explored as deftly and in such light-hearted fashion as they are by Stephen Brown in Everything Is Super Great, his first full length play to be staged in New York.  And it is why this play, produced by New Light Theater Company and Stable Cable Lab Co. and directed by Sarah Norris at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, engenders so many more laughs than tears from the audience.

Tommy (Will Sarratt) is an awkward 19-year old whose father abandoned his family years ago and whose older brother has been missing for months.  He is highly accomplished when it comes to computers but much less so when it comes to relating to others in real life – and he has serious anger management problems.  Having been fired from his job at Applebee’s for setting fire to the restaurant after getting into a row with a customer, he is currently.employed in an entry-level job as a barista at Starbucks and is living at home with his very well-meaning but smothering mother, Anne (Marcia Debonis).

Moreover, losing his job at Applebee’s was the least of Tommy’s problems: as a result of his setting the fire, he was charged with arson, a felony.  His mother did succeed in getting the charge reduced to a misdemeanor, but only on the condition that Tommy undergo therapy to learn how to deal with his anger management problems.  (Which really is a bit ironic since Anne apparently has anger management problems herself, subsequently getting into a fight with a customer at Walmart which gets her fired from her job there too.)

Anyway, Tommy is more than willing to undergo therapy - if he can do it through a course over the internet – but his mother has other ideas.  She insists that he enter into therapy with Dave (Xavier Rooney), a one-time co-worker of hers at Walmart who is now a wannabe therapist who believes that his MFA degree will enable him to treat Tommy effectively through art therapy.  But Dave, as it turns out, has abandonment and anger management problems of his own.  His girlfriend, Rachel, has walked out on him, taking all her stuff (and some of his), leaving no forwarding address and no explanation.

And just to add to the play’s overarching themes of dysfunctionality, disappearances, and abandonment, it turns out that Tommy’s immediate supervisor at Starbucks is Alice (Lisa Jill Anderson), an attractive 21-year old pot-smoking former schoolmate of Tommy’s (although she doesn’t remember him at all) who lives with her grandmother and is her sole care-giver.  And, wouldn’t you know it, grandma suffers from dementia, wanders off one day, and disappears as well.

So there you have it: Anne’s husband and Tommy’s father is gone, Anne’s oldest son and Tommy’s brother is gone, Dave’s girlfriend is gone, Alice’s grandmother is gone, and all that remains is for this dysfunctional group to sort it all out as best they can in the most cheerful, comedic manner one might imagine.

And they prove to be fully up to the task.  Will Sarrratt (who reminded me a lot of Thomas Middledith, the star of TV’s Silicon Valley) is terrific as the quirky, socially awkward and generally dysfunctional Tommy who is nonetheless quite intelligent and compassionate.  Lisa Jill Anderson succeeds in conveying a full  range of emotions as Alice, a young woman unfairly burdened with the responsibility of caring for her high maintenance grandmother.  Xavier Rooney is truly delightful as Dave, a lost soul who really isn’t sure who or what he wants out of life but is certainly going to give it his best shot.  And last, but certainly not least, is Marcia Debonis, whose exuberance, effervescence and just plain well-meaning (if often misplaced) goodness as Anne suffuse the entire production.


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.