Monday, December 16, 2013

Handle With Care Starring Carol Lawrence

L-R: Jonathan Sale, Sheffield Chastain, Carol Lawrence, and Charlotte Cohn in HANDLE WITH CARE.
What may appear as “happenstance” or “coincidence” to one individual well may be seen by another as “fate” or “destiny.”  Or, what is known in Yiddish as “b’shert” - at least in regard to one’s divinely fore-ordained spouse or soul-mate.

Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) had little desire to accompany her grandmother Edna (Carol Lawrence) on a trip to America but she really had no good reason not to.  She had been relatively depressed for the last year, ever since her boyfriend Haguy left her, and she had been dreaming of her own “b‘shert” – who looked nothing like anyone she had ever met before.  So why not make her “safta” (grandmother) happy and go along with her?  It might even give Ayelet a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument.

But Edna, it seemed, had other ideas.  This was not to be a trip to see the sights in New York or Washington.  No, it was to be a trip from one tawdry motel in one God-forsaken town in Virginia to another – from Roanoke to Goodview - never staying in any one for more than a day or two and sometimes for no more than a few hours.  Why Edna chose to stay at the motels she did wasn’t immediately clear - although all did seem to be located in proximity to Food Lions’ supermarkets.

As it turned out, Edna ended up getting less out of her trip than she had bargained for.  Not only did she never find whatever or whomever she may have been seeking, but then, just to add insult to injury, she upped and died.  That, as you might imagine, was something of a downer for Ayelet as well – but then Ayelet got more than she bargained for.

In attempting to arrange for the return of Edna’s body to Israel for burial, Ayelet makes the mistake of retaining the services of Terrence (Sheffield Chastain), a good-hearted but bumbling deliveryman employed by DHX who immediately “loses” Edna’s body.  Confronted by a crisis over which he feels he has no control, Terrence enlists the aid of his childhood friend, Josh (Jonathan Sale), to extricate him from his predicament.  And so Josh, who is still mourning the loss of his wife in an automobile accident more than a year ago (and who, despite being Jewish, speaks little Hebrew himself) is thrown together with Ayelet (who speaks little English) and matters take a turn for the better.  How difficult, after all, can it be to resolve linguistic differences for a God capable of stretching out a day’s worth of oil for eight days or precipitating a virgin birth?

Handle With Care by Jason Odell Williams, currently playing at The Westside Theatre Downstairs on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan, is a slight and rather predictable, but nonetheless entertaining, comedic love story that, apropos of this holiday season of miracles, does just that: it resolves the mystery of Edna’s quest and brings love to the lovelorn – and all in a manner that some might say was truly miraculous or even “b’shert.”  (Others, of course, might still contend that the play’s subsequent miraculous turn of events wasn’t a matter of fate or destiny at all but rather was an example of mere coincidence, but then, what do they know: there’ll always be some spoilsports, non-believers and Grinches among us.)

Not surprisingly, the legendary and Tony-nominated Carol Lawrence is absolutely delightful as Edna, the Israeli grandmother, torn between her own nostalgia and her love for her granddaughter.  Charlotte Cohn is equally good in a very demanding role requiring her to transition rapidly and seamlessly from Hebrew to English and back again.  Sheffield Chastain plays the most comedic role of Terrence with great physicality and Jonathan Sale conveys a wide range of emotions from grief to joy and from irritability to dismay with professional flair.  All in all, the play may be inconsequential but it is fun. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Anderson Twins in Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz

L-R: Peter Anderson (clarinet), Will Anderson (sax), Luc Decker (drums), Clovis Nicolas (bass) and Alex Wintz (guitar) in LE JAZZ HOT: HOW THE FRENCH SAVED JAZZ.  Photo by Eileen O'Donnell.

I first saw the Anderson twins (Peter and Will) at 59E59 Theaters some fifteen months ago when they channeled Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey in The Anderson Twins Play the Fabulous Dorseys That production was a multi-media work consisting of film clips of the Dorseys, some stilted dialogue by the Andersons (intended to suggest the Dorsey’s own sibling rivalry), and remarkably good musical renditions by Peter and Will (accompanied by four other very talented musicians).  I loved the music but was less impressed by everything else about that production.

Now the Anderson twins are back at 59E59 Theaters in another multi-media production of their own making – Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz – and this time they have done everything just right.  This is, in short, a terrific show in all respects.  Not surprisingly, the music again is wonderful (the Anderson twins are extremely talented, after all, and they are accompanied here by three other very accomplished musicians (Randy Napoleon or Alex Wintz on guitar, Clovis Nicolas or Neil Miner on bass, and Luc Decker or Phil Stewart on drums).  But what really distinguishes Le Jazz Hot from Fabulous Dorseys is the way in which the film clips in this production have been integrated into this work in a manner that enriches and enhances its musical aspects rather than detracts from them.

Quincy Jones once said that “If it weren’t for France, jazz would be dead,” alluding to the fact that in the post World War II period, hundreds of American jazz musicians (including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and Kenny Clarke) performed in France before larger audiences than were available to them in America.  In Le Jazz Hot, the Anderson’s quintet delivers top flight renditions of some exceptional pieces composed by or associated with the greatest jazz artists of all time, including Django Reinhardt’s Nuages, Sidney Bechet’s Promenade aux Champs-Elysees, Josephine Baker’s There’s a Small Hotel, Louis Armstrong’s C’est Si Bon, Duke Ellington’s Degas Suite, and Dizzy Gillespies’s Tour de Force – all performed against a backdrop of film clips of interviews with or performances by the historic artists themselves.

In the show’s penultimate set, the quintet delivers an unusual jazz interpretation of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune while on screen we are treated to a six minute segment from the film The Red Balloon.  It is a delightful and charming juxtaposition that adds emotional depth to the evening’s performance.

And what better way to end the show than with Cole Porter’s I Love Paris?  If you already love jazz or Paris or both (and, really, who doesn’t?), you’ll love this show.  And if you are one of the few who doesn’t love jazz or Paris or both, I’d be willing to wager that once you’ve seen this show, you will.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Richard Pryor Jr. Stars in Welcome Home Sonny T

L-R: Richard Pryor Jr., Verna Hampton and Levern Williams in WELCOME HOME SONNY T.  Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.
Welcome Home Sonny T, currently playing at the Theater for the New City on First Avenue in lower Manhattan, is a powerful politically correct polemic in favor of gun control and the rights of illegal aliens, expressing the utopian dream that someday all men, whether white, black or Hispanic, will learn to live in peace.  The playwright, William Electric Black, a seven time Emmy Award winning writer, is best known for his work in family television (including such shows as Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic Productions), and this play, his first in a planned series of five addressing inner city violence and guns (to be collectively called Gunplays), appears to be directed at a similar young audience.

A few years ago, Sonny T and his friend Jasper held up a store and Jasper killed a man.  Jasper is now serving time in prison for his crime but Sonny T, as a result of the fortuitous intervention of Reverend Miller (Richard Pryor Jr.), has managed to avoid incarceration: Reverend Miller cut a deal with the authorities whereby Sonny T was permitted to enlist in the Army rather than be prosecuted for his involvement in the crime.  Now Sonny T is returning home from Afghanistan and the entire community, including his mother, May (Verna Hampton), his sister, Lashon (Brittney Benson) and his brother, Rodney (Kadeem Ali Harris), are planning a welcome home celebration for him at the Community Center run by Reverend Miller.

As luck would have it, Rodney is currently running with Jasper’s brother, Big Boy (Brandon Mellette), a truly bad apple.  Big Boy has provided Rodney with a gun that he persists in urging him to use.  Moreover, Big Boy not only resents the fact that his own brother is in jail while Sonny T avoided imprisonment by joining the Army but he also is violently bigoted against the Mexicans who have moved into his neighborhood and who, as he sees it, are taking jobs away from blacks.  When Carlos Mendez (Nestor Carrillo) delivers food to the Community Center for Sonny T’s party, Big Boy is livid.  When it develops that it was Carlos’ brother Hector who was shot the previous week and when Carlos organizes a march in his honor to occur at the same time that Sonny T’s party is scheduled, we just know that there is an accident waiting to happen.

Reverend Miller has attempted to tamp down the Black/Mexican ethnic tensions that threaten to destroy his community and to put an end to the gun violence that permeates it but he cannot help but be somewhat ambivalent in his approach.  A one time black activist prone to violence himself in the 1960s, he retains his identification not only with the black community but with all who are oppressed, including the Mexicans, and he can even understand their resorting to gun violence.  But he has grown since then and he realizes that guns are not the right answer and cannot provide a permanent solution to our problems.

The cast of seven does a fine job of depicting the pressures affecting the residents of our inner cities and their resorting to gun violence that is often the unfortunate consequence of those pressures.  I was particularly impressed by Kadeem Ali Harris’s portrayal of Rodney, torn between his love for his brother and his loyalty to Big Boy, and by Brandon Mellette’s portrayal of Big Boy, the angriest of angry young men.  Nestor Carrillo also did a fine job as Carlos Mendez, the young immigrant Mexican trying to make it in his new home.  Brittney Benson evolved in her role as Lashon, a good girl struggling to survive under difficult conditions.  And Levern Williams deserves special mention for his Sherman Hemsley-like portrayal of Funkygood.

One final note: the jazz/blues background saxophone music provided by Harry Mann was just terrific.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Towards the Moon, a Folk-Rock Musical from Scotland

L-R: Lindsay Avellino, Liam Nelligan, and Lindsay Wund in TOWARDS THE MOON.  Photo by Paul Andrew Perez.

Despite his apparent delusions of grandeur (he expects to write a great novel but can’t seem to come up with any good ideas), Bobby (Liam Nelligan) seems to be the quintessential loser.  He’s 27 years old and still living at home with his Mum (Lindsay Wund); he has just been fired from his job at a call center by Ms McKenzie (Elizabeth Pryce Davies); and he has been dumped by his girlfriend, Mandy (Elena Ruigomez).  Unable (or unwilling) to find a new job and rejected when he applies for admission to James Watt College, Bobby seems to have hit rock-bottom and he turns to drink for solace.

But it is always darkest before it gets totally black.  Bobby discovers that his best friend, Sam (Ricky Romano) has hooked up with Mandy (which Bobby sees as his friend’s betrayal of him, despite the fact that Bobby and Mandy already had broken up).  Inebriated, Bobby lunges in anger at Sam, trips on the corner of a bench and falls on his head, rendering himself unconscious.  And ironically, that’s when Bobby’s life turns around.

While in hospital, Bobby has an out-of-body experience, in which he sees himself lying unconscious on his hospital bed with his one remaining friend, Mag (Lindsay Avellino) at his bedside, and that, literally, turns out to be his wake-up call.  Bobby does in fact write his novel and it is a great success.  He travels to New York, becomes rich and famous and, in the most hackneyed and timeworn of literary traditions, discovers that “east or west, home is best,” “all that glitters is not gold,” and that, indeed, ”what does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  Or as several of the actors in Towards the Moon frequently put it:

You can’t see the stars in New York.
Not like you can on the Clyde.

And ultimately, that is the message that I think we are meant to take away from Towards the Moon by Andrew McGregor, now premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  Not that one should face reality and abandon childish dreams (for if Bobby had done that he never would have become the acclaimed writer he always knew he was meant to be).  Nor that one should stick to his dreams at all costs, no matter how far-fetched they might be (which, is, of course, what Bobby did for so long that it cost him his love, his home, his friends and family).  Rather, the mixed message that is conveyed is that we should hold fast to our dreams but never forget that what we sacrifice in seeking to achieve them might be worth more than whatever we actually do realize – in much the way that King Midas eventually discovered not that gold was worthless (it certainly isn’t), but that what one sacrifices to get it may well be worth much more.

Towards the Moon is a folk-rock musical that first saw the light of day at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012.  It is pleasant enough, covering very familiar territory, breaking no new ground, and with a relatively forgettable book and lyrics.  But the score is distinctively entertaining and the musical’s young and enthusiastic cast members are so contagiously exuberant that audience members (including this one) at the performance I attended uniformly left with broader smiles on their faces and bouncier springs to their steps than when they first walked in.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Preacher and the Shrink Opens on Theatre Row

L-R: Tom Galantich and Dee Hoty in THE PREACHER AND THE SHRINK,
Dr. Michael Hamilton (Tom Galantich), the senior pastor of his church, has been estranged from his daughter, Constance Hunter (Adria Vitlar), ever since the untimely death of his wife (Constance’s mother) from breast cancer years earlier.  Her death did a real job on Constance in many ways.  For one thing since Constance could no longer believe in the existence of a God that would allow her mother to suffer and die as she did, it prompted her to leave her father’s church.  For another thing, it caused her to abandon her home because she could not bear to experience omnipresent reminders of her mother’s life and death.  Additionally, it led to her estrangement from her father, perhaps because she blamed him (as God’s representative on Earth) for what befell her mother; perhaps because she simply blamed him personally for not having found a way to save her mother himself; perhaps because he failed to assuage her pain after her mother’s passing; or, more likely, for all of those reasons.  Worst of all, however, her mother’s death damaged Constance emotionally and psychologically (and perhaps irreparably), as she began to obsess over her own breasts – not only her perception of their beauty and sensuality but also her conviction that she was genetically destined to eventually suffer the same fate that befell her mother.

Rev. David Wheeler (Mat Hostetler), the junior minister in Mike’s church, only wanted to console Constance, to encourage her to return to the church and, ideally, to bring about a rapprochement between her and her father – but he got more than he bargained for.  It is said that “no good deed goes unpunished” and that’s what turned out to be the case here: Constance so misconstrued David’s actions that she threatened to charge him with sexual misconduct for fondling her breast.  When Constance urged her father to initiate an investigation into David’s actions, Mike was non-plussed.  On the one hand he wanted to be as supportive of his daughter as he possibly could be and her charges were quite serious.  On the other hand, he knew David well, he really couldn’t believe that Constance’s accusations possibly could be true, and he realized that even if David were found innocent of such charges, the very fact that they had been brought at all would be ruinous to his life and his career.

To my mind, that is the point at which The Preacher and the Shrink by Merle Good, now previewing at The Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, really jumps the shark.  Mike seeks advice from Dr. Alexandra Bloomfield (Dee Hoty), a prominent psychiatrist, as to how he should handle the situation confronting him, without realizing that Dr. Bloomfield is the woman with whom he had once had a youthful affair at a Christian summer camp (and without realizing how the loss of her virginity then had affected her).  An unlikely coincidence, to be sure, but there is more: unbeknownst to Mike, Constance was one of Alexandra’s patients!  Yes, some suspension of disbelief may be necessary to derive the fullest pleasure from a theatrical production, but this all does seem a bit much.

And yet the play continues to strain credulity even more.  Constance offers to drop her charges against David if Mike will deliver a sermon in which he renounces his religious beliefs.  It is sort of the flip side of God’s testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as proof of his devotion to the Lord.  Here Constance is testing Mike by asking him to renounce God as evidence of his devotion to his daughter.  And get this: Mike actually considers Constance’s demands!

Many good plays have addressed the question of the effect that false accusations of sexual misconduct might have on innocent parties.  Oleanna by David Mamet and Doubt by John Patrick Shanley are just two that come immediately to mind.  The Preacher and the Shrink fits into that genre but, despite being professionally performed and well-directed, its undue reliance on coincidences in the intersections of the lives of its characters causes it to fall well short of their level of excellence. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All That Fall, Beckett's Radio Play, at 59E59 Theaters

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in ALL THAT FALL AT 59E59 Theaters
All That Fall is quintessential Beckett, a chronicle of birth and death, sex and sickness, childlessness and old age, loss, grief, despair, the meaninglessness of life and yet, through it all, an hilarious recognition of the need to go on.  It is an existential inquiry, a murder mystery, a tragicomedy, all at one and the same time, but most important of all, it is wonderful theatre.

Set in rural Ireland, the play focuses upon the bitter, septuagenarian, rheumatic and overweight Maddy Rooney (Eileen Atkins) as she struggles to make her way to the train station to meet her blind husband, Dan Rooney (Michael Gambon) upon his return from work.  Her intent is to surprise him on his birthday.  But before arriving at the train station, she encounters Christy (Ruairi Conaghan) with his dung cart; Mr. Tyler (Frank Grimes), a retired bill-broker on his bicycle; and Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper), a racecourse clerk and “old admirer” in his limousine.  It is no coincidence that with each meeting the transportation technology advances – from cart to bicycle to automobile – nor that each means of transportation is beset with its own problems, foreshadowing a climactic crisis when Dan’s train is late. (Christy’s hinny refuses to pull the cart and must be whipped; Mr. Tyler’s bicycle tire goes flat; and the engine in Mr. Slocum’s car dies (as does the hen he accidentally runs over in the road).

Once Maddy arrives at the train station, the plot thickens.  As it turns out, Dan’s train was late because of a horrible accident along the way: a child fell to the tracks and died under the train’s wheels.  But why is Dan so reluctant to tell Maddy about it?  Was he involved?  When he later comments, as he and Maddy wend their way home, albeit in a seemingly totally different context, “Did you ever wish to kill a child?” and admits to having resisted just such impulses himself in the past, what is he really saying?  And when we recall his comment to the effect that when he was alone in his train compartment “I made no attempt to restrain myself” – what does it all mean?

Originally commissioned by the BBC as a one act radio play, All That Fall was first broadcast in 1957.  Beckett vehemently opposed its being transferred to a medium other than radio, denying requests to stage the play from both Ingmar Bergmann and Sir Laurence Olivier (although he did authorize a French TV version in 1963 and a German stage production in 1966).  Since Beckett’s death, his estate has followed Beckett’s wishes, generally granting permission only for radio productions or staged readings in which producers agree to limit actors to speaking their lines and simply walking to and from their chairs.

That is what the estate did in authorizing the Richard Darbourne Ltd-Jermyn Street Theatre-Gene David Kirk stage adaptation of All That Fall in 2012.  Directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, the play was first presented last year at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London in the form of a live radio play with the actors holding scripts and with few props and a minimalist set.  It then moved to The Arts Theatre in London’s West End where it was performed in the same fashion before arriving at 59E59 Theaters this month where it is being presented in a similar manner.

Despite the restrictions imposed by Beckett’s estate, this is one terrific production.  Even within the confines of the conditions imposed upon him, Trevor Nunn has done an extraordinary job in coordinating Beckett’s detailed sound effects with minimal movements by the play’s actors in order to achieve an outstanding production.  In so doing, he also has elicited fine performances from each and every one of his actors but most especially from Eileen Atkins.  Hers is a truly remarkable talent and she displays it in this production for all its worth.

Not until very near the end of the play do we learn the significance of the play’s title when Dan asks Maddy what the text of the coming Sunday’s sermon is to be.  Maddy responds that it is “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down” – at which point they both burst out laughing.  But what is so funny?  It might, of course, simply be bemusement over the fact that God hadn’t done much to raise Maddy up, given her bent posture.  More likely, though, it runs much deeper than that, alluding not only to the child who fell from the train but also to Minnie, the child that Maddy herself lost years ago; to Mr.Tyler’s unborn grandchildren given his daughter’s recent hysterectomy; and to all other children who may have died unborn or prematurely.  Maddy and Dan appear to be laughing at the notion that God cares about “all who fall” or, indeed, at the very idea that God even exists at all.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Dream Play by August Strindberg at The Gene Frankel Theatre

Miranda Webster in A DREAM PLAY at The Gene Frankel Theatre
August Strindberg wrote A Dream Play in Swedish in 1901 and it was first performed in Stockholm six years later.  It is considered one of Strindberg’s most important and ground-breaking plays.  Strindberg, himself, having written the play following a near-psychotic episode in his own life, referred to it as “the child of my greatest pain” and “my most beloved play.”  As Strindberg described it:

“In this dream play., the author has…attempted to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream.  Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable.  Time and place do not exist…the imagination spins, weaving new patterns, a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities, and improvisations. The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble.  But one consciousness rules over them all, that of the dreamer; for him there are no secrets, no scruples, no laws. He neither acquits nor condemns, but merely relates; and, just as a dream is more often painful than happy, so an undertone of melancholy and of pity for all mortal beings accompanies this flickering tale."

The principal character in the play is Agnes, the daughter of the god Indra, who descends to Earth seeking to understand humankind and the reasons behind human suffering.  She encounters many characters, including those of primarily symbolic value (such as those representing theology, philosophy, science and law, and she experiences all sorts of human suffering including poverty, cruelty, and the repetitive routine.of daily life.  Ultimately she concludes that human beings are to be pitied and she returns to Heaven.

The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company is currently staging an English language production of the play adapted and directed by Thomas R. Gordon at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan.  It is an ambitious project that is being carried out by a young and enthusiastic troupe which states that its mission

“…is to produce theatre for the New York City community that not only entertains audiences but also enlightens and educates everyone involved…[and that it is] dedicated to producing shows that can change a person’s heart and imagination.” 

To that end, the company’s prior productions have included Dracula: Bloodlines by Thomas R. Gordon, both Macbeth and The Tempest by Shakespeare, The Three Sisters by Chekov, and Lysistrata by Aristophanes.  It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The English Bride at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Ezra Barnes, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, and Amy Griffin in THE ENGLISH BRIDE.  Photo by Bob Eberle.
The English Bride, Lucile Lichtblau’s award-winning three hander, now playing at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, is an absolute gem.  Based on a real-life failed bombing attempt of an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv in 1986, the play is, at one and the same time, a tale of terrorism and international espionage, a chronicle of lies and deceit, and a traditional love story.

There is no question that Eileen Finney (Amy Griffin), a plain, tough, common, working class woman from Leeds and the play’s title character, attempted to board a plane in London bound for Dusseldorf and Tel Aviv with a bomb in her suitcase.  Nor is there any doubt that although she, herself, was unaware of the bomb’s presence, Ali Said (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), her Palestinian lover and fiancĂ©, was not only fully aware of it but was instrumental in putting it there.  Which left it up to Dov (Ezra Barnes), a Mossad agent, to find an answer not to the question “What did he know and when did he know it? but, rather, “What did he do and why did he do it?”

That question leads, inevitably, to many others.  What were the real circumstances of Eileen’s relocation from Leeds to London?  Did she truly love Ali?  Did he love her?  Was their original meeting accidental or premeditated?  Who was the stranger who visited Ali?  Did Eileen know who he was?  And on and on.

Finding answers to those questions is no easy task.  Neither Ali nor Eileen are paragons of virtue, after all, and sorting out their lies from their truths would challenge the ability of Diogenes, let alone Dov.  But in the course of the play, we do learn enough about all three characters to form at least tentative conclusions regarding what happened and why – although your conclusions may differ in many respects from mine and neither of us ever will be sure of the complete truth.

The role of Eileen Finney is the juiciest part in the play and Amy Griffin milks it for all its worth, in a manner reminiscent of a young Rita Tushingham.  She quickly makes it apparent that while Eileen may be one angry woman with a big chip on her shoulder, she is, at the same time, insecure and vulnerable; that we ought take whatever she says with a large grain of salt; and that she really is in love with Amir – unless, of course, it’s just that she’s in love with the idea of marrying him, bearing his child, and proving something to her mother and the rest of the world.

Michael Gabriel Goodfriend is equally sure-footed in the role of Ali Said, effectively conveying Ali’s political anger and personal emotional ambivalences – that is if there really are any ambivalences to be conveyed.   Eileen might lie if it suited her purposes but Ali’s lying bordered on the pathological – or not.

Nor is Dov any less likely to distort the truth to his own ends as Ezra Barnes makes clear in a marvelously understated and controlled performance.  He may not be the mirror image of Ali but they are worthy adversaries and the actors, themselves, play off one another in two sparkling performances.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Promising Workshop Presentation of Damascus Square

Last Friday we attended a workshop presentation of Damascus Square, a new musical co-written by Shai Baitel, Oran Eldor, and Sarah Hirsch, at 54 Below in midtown Manhattan.  While the play still has a few rough patches to be ironed out (which is, of course, the reason for doing a workshop production in the first place), even at this early stage, we found this work in progress to be very promising - both stimulating and entertaining, with a strong book, a delightful score and clever lyrics.  A full-scale staging of the musical is expected sometime next year and we’re very much looking forward to it.

The musical is based on the story of Eli Cohen (herein played by Richard Blake), the Israeli Mossad agent who infiltrated the highest echelons of the Syrian Government in the 1960s and whose actions are generally credited with having played a major part in Israel’s subsequent overwhelming success in the Six Days War.  In this re-telling, Cohen is revealed not only as one of the most heroic of Israeli patriots in that nation’s history but also as a much more complex man whose divided (and, at times, misguided) personal loyalties may have driven him in unexpected directions (somewhat reminiscent of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson’s behavior in the classic film The Bridge on the River Kwai).  It is an intriguing and provocative concept and one that is intelligently and effectively explored in this production by a first-rate cast including, in addition to Blake, Tovah Feldshuh as Tamara Sharon, the head of Mossad; Bradley Dean as Amin al-Hafez, the Ba’ath Party leader befriended by Cohen; Natalie Charle Ellis as Nadia Cohen, Ed Cohen’s wife; and Etai Benshlomo as Majid, the innocent intermediary who unknowingly facilitates Cohen’s undercover exploits.  

Friday, October 11, 2013

Jericho Starring Jill Eikenberry at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Jill Eikenberry, Carol Todd, Andrew Rein, Kevin Isola, Eleanor Handley, and Noel Justin Allain in JERICHO by Jack Canfora at 59E59 Theaters.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
“Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down…."

Currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, Jack Canfora’s Jericho is set in Jericho, Long Island, circa 2005, not in the ancient Canaanite city of the same name.  But in the Long Island community, battles (albeit familial and emotional rather than nationalistic and military) still are being fought.  Joshua – or “Josh” (Noel Joseph Allain) as he is known in the off-Broadway production – still plays a decisive role.  And, perhaps most telling, the walls still come tumbling down.

In fact, the walls (of the World Trade Center) came tumbling down on 9/11/2001 - four years before the play began, thereby setting the stage for all that was to follow.  This is intended to be not only figuratively but literally the case: the stage is cluttered with debris, a mass of upended tables and chairs and other assorted non-descript objects, the flotsam and jetsam of the 9/11 attack, all of which the actors access in creating the sets for their subsequent scenes.  This, in fact, suggests two things: first, that the characters current lives are really a consequence of the 9/11 tragedy; and second, that out of the chaos that the 9/11 attacks engendered, new and better worlds yet might be created.

Alec (Kevin Isola) died in the 9/11 tragedy and his traumatized widow, Beth (Eleanor Handley) never fully recovered: despite medication and psychotherapeutic intervention, she remains delusional, refusing to accept the fact that Alec is truly gone and unable to establish an intimate relationship with another man.

That other man, at least potentially, is Ethan (Andrew Rein) a patient and decent chap whose own brother, Josh, narrowly escaped death himself at the World Trade Center on the same day.  That narrow escape apparently left Josh suffering both from “survivor’s guilt” and from an accentuated sense of his own “Jewishness” and it wreaked havoc on his marriage to Jessica (Carol Todd) who is understandably reluctant to join him in emigrating from Long Island to Israel in fulfillment of the sudden re-awakening of his sense of Jewish identity.

Rachel (Jill Eikenberry), Josh’s and Ethan’s mother, continues to live in Jericho, Long Island in the house where she raised her sons, but she is about ready to sell the house and move on herself – not to Israel but to Florida where she could join her sister, Helen,  in comfortable retirement in their golden years.  But Rachel hasn’t left yet and, before she does, she hosts her traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her family: her two sons, Josh and Ethan; her daughter-in-law, Jessica; and Ethan’s latest flame, Beth.

One need not be solipsistic to recognize that, at least to some degree, we all live in worlds of our own making and build walls around ourselves to preserve those worlds as we perceive them.  For many, it is difficult enough even to think outside the box, let alone live outside the box, but should the worlds to which we’d become accustomed begin to crumble, as they so often do, we may be forced to face up to the unpleasant reality that our world might no longer be what we once imagined it to be or that it might be time for a change or that another’s world may not necessarily coincide with our own.

And that is what this play really is about, not the the literal collapse of the World Trade Center as much as the figurative crumbling of the worlds we construct around ourselves and our need to construct other worlds over time to replace them.  Thus, Rachel’s perfectly satisfactory original world was her Long Island home but ultimately she came to explore an alternate reality in Florida’s retirement community.  Ethan’s free-wheeling Jewish-American world was up-ended when he began dating Beth – a shiksa of partial Palestinian descent.  And while Josh’s youthful insular worlds in Long Island and Manhattan, may have satisfied his needs prior to 9/11, they proved inadequate for him in the days after 9/11; once terrorists destroyed the Wall Trade Center, he found himself forced to tear down the world of his youth, replacing it with an alternative orthodox Jewish religious community structure.

Beth’s world collapsed when Alec died and she struggled mightily, albeit unsuccessfully, to replace it.  Jessica was content with her assimilated Jewish-American world and didn’t really want to replace it with Josh’s new vision of a brave new world in Israel.  (In a way, Jessica’s problem was the mirror image of Beth’s: while Beth could not accept that the world that included her dead husband was truly gone, Jessica could not accept the fact that Josh’s own world had so changed that, although still very much alive, he was truly lost to her.)

This is a thoughtful and well-written play in which it seems that there is almost always more to a character’s persona than first meets the eye and all of the actors do a wonderful job of pacing their revelations to retain our interest throughout the entire work.. As we come to understand Josh better, we learn that the “survivor’s guilt” he feels at having survived the 9/11 tragedy has a deeper basis than we might at first have suspected.  And we discover another dimension to Beth’s deep despondency over Alec’s death as well.

Kevin Isola is charming as Alec (and as Beth’s shrink, Dr. Kim).  Andrew Rein, as Ethan, exhibits a wide range of emotions in his various relationships with his mother, his brother and his girlfriend, Beth.  Not surprisingly, Jill Eikenberry is delightful as Rachel, a Jewish mother making a valiant effort to understand her children and keep her family together while attempting to build a life for herself. 

The role of Josh – son, brother, husband, newly-minted Zionist, and tortured survivor – is a particularly difficult one to play but Noel Joseph Allain does it with considerable skill.  Eleanor Handley’s role as the mentally disturbed Beth role is far from an easy one either but she too pulls it off with great aplomb.  But it was Carol Todd as Josh’s put-upon wife, Jessica, who I thought did the very best job of all, enabling the audience to actually experience the feelings of one whose world is falling apart in the most unexpected of ways. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Film Society in Revival on Theatre Row

By the 1970s, the British Empire had begun to crumble and South Africa was still in the throes of Apartheid - and it is against this backdrop that all of the action in Jon Robin Baitz’s remarkably insightful play, The Film Society, takes place.  Set in Blenheim, a boys’ boarding school in Durban, South Africa in late 1970, the play revolves around the inevitable changing of the guard at Blenheim and the conflicts and contradictions faced by Jonathon Balton (Euan Morton) as he attempts to balance his nascent youthful liberalism and his loyalty to his friends, Terry Sinclair (David Barlow) and Nan Sinclair (Mandy Siegfried) against his love for his school, his devotion to his mother, Mrs. Balton (Roberta Maxwell), and his obligations to the school’s owner and Headmaster, Neville Sutter (Gerry Bamman) - and all within the context of his own personal loneliness and self interest.

Originally produced in Los Angeles in 1987, when Baitz was still only in his mid-20s, and making its New York debut a year later, The Film Society is now enjoying its first New York revival in an excellent off Broadway staging by The Keen Company at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  Directed by Jonathan Silverstein, the play effectively captures the ambivalent spirit of the times and the inevitable conflict between generations.
On the one hand, we have Neville Sutter who has sought to navigate a gradualist course, modernizing the school’s philosophy by hiring younger, idealistic teachers like Jonathon, Terry and Nan while not fully abandoning the school’s traditional values.  In his camp is his Assistant Headmaster, Hamish Fox (Richmond Hoxie), a retired military officer, who has clung even more tenaciously to the school’s old values – including cricket, penmanship, and caning, not necessarily in that order.  And finally there is the wealthy Mrs. Balton whose deceased husband provided Neville with the funds he needed to purchase the school in the first place.
On the other side are the mildly activist Terry, whose invitation to a black priest/educator to participate in Blenheim’s centenary celebration enraged the parents of the school’s students and threatened the school’s very existence; and his wife, Nan, even less radicalized than her husband but still much more aware than Neville, Hamish or Mrs. Balton that, indeed, ”the times they are a’changing.”

And then there is Jonathon, whose sympathies well may be with Terry and Nan  - it is he, after all, who seeks to expand his students’ horizons by exposing them to classic films, whence the title of the play – but whose ties to his mother, his headmaster, his school, and his own self-interest are what create the tensions that make this play so well worth seeing.

What is seen as betrayal and “selling out” by one man may be interpreted as “becoming an adult,” or “facing reality” by another.  That is the question that confronts us in judging Jonathon.  Depending upon the choices he makes, will he be betraying his friends and “selling out”  - or simply “growing up” and “facing reality”?  Or is there even more (or less?) to Jonathon than meets the eye?  Might his actions simply be a matter of his own self-interest or self-preservation – or even just a reflection of his own insecurities?

All of the actors in this revival of The Film Society have been well cast and all deserve praise for their performances. In particular, Gerry Bamman, in the role of Neville Sutter, perfectly captured the essence of an uptight controlled traditional British Headmaster; Richard Hoxie was absolutely delightful as Hamish Fox - the retired British military officer now serving as Neville’s Assistant Headmaster; and David Barlow portrayed the mildly activist but ultimately submissive Terry Sinclair with beautiful precision.  Most outstanding was Euan Morton who succeeded admirably in pulling off the most challenging role of all, that of the lonely, ambivalent and conflicted Jonathon Balton, 

The symbolism which permeates The Film Society is sometimes quite heavy-handed. Blenheim, itself, a declining boys’ school clinging to the past, may be taken as a proxy for all of South Africa in the days of apartheid.  When Jonathon orders a copy of the film “A Touch of Mink” to show to the students in his “Film Society,” he receives a print of “A Touch of Evil” instead - a harbinger, one might suspect, of the unexpected consequences yet to come.  Neville is going blind - reflecting, perhaps, his refusal to see the changes coming to South Africa - although they are all around him.  And Hamish is suffering from terminal spine cancer – about which no further explanation would seem necessary.

The heavy handedness of all that symbolism might best be explained by Baitz’ relative youth when he wrote the play and, had he been a bit more subtle, the play might have been even more effective..  But that is a very minor quibble over what is otherwise a very stimulating production and one well worth seeing.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bless You All! A Broadway Revue Revived After 60 Years

Ruth Pferdehirt in BLESS YOU ALL! A BROADWAY REVUE.  Photo by Dixie Sherican
Bless You All!, A Broadway Revue with sketches by Arnold Auerbach and music and lyrics by Harold Rome, originally opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway to positive reviews in 1950 – but that still didn’t prevent it from closing after only 84 performances.  Now, after more than sixty years, UnsungMusicalsCo. (UMC), is staging the show’s first ever revival off off Broadway in a limited three-week engagement at The Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street in downtown New York – including in it some new sketch material by Herman Wouk.

This revival does have  a lot going for it.  Some of its jazzy tunes are quite delightful; the choreography is very impressive; and both the singing and the dancing are memorable.  I was especially impressed by the long-legged, balletic Jennifer Lee Crowl, by Ruth Pferdehirt’s terrific rendition of “Little Things” (which came close to being a show-stopper), and by Billie Wildrick’s powerful and touching “You Never Know What Hit You.”

But it wasn’t quite enough for me.  The show’s material was very uneven to begin with more than a half-century ago and, despite the valiant efforts of Ben West, UMC’s Artistic Director, to re-organize the show’s sketches, eliminating its weakest numbers and tacking on the Wouk skit, it remains a very uneven production to this day.  The comedy sketches, in particular – a send-up of the snooty 21 Club, a vaudevillean slapstick pie-in-the-face routine, a caricaturish mockery of presidential campaigning on television, and Wouk’s comedic depiction of a corrupt judge on the lam, to name just four – were sophomoric at best and failed Borscht Belt routines at worst.
So here’s my bottom line: if you’re into nostalgic reminiscence of Broadway revues of the 1940s and 1950s – including some fine song and dance – this revival of Bless You All!, A Broadway Revue might just do it for you.  But if your sights are set somewhat higher than that, you may find yourself more disappointed than delighted by this production.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

English Language Premiere of Mr. Bengt's Wife by August Strindberg

Kersti Bryan as Margit and Eric Percival as Mr. Bengt in MR. BENGT'S WIFE.  Photo by Jingxi Zhang.
In Mr. Bengt’s Wife, August Strindberg’s ambivalent attitude toward women, coupled with his view of marriage as an emotional battleground, are in full display.  Sometimes referred to as Strindberg’s response to Ibsen’s The Doll House, this play has only been performed infrequently and never before in English.  Indeed, since 1882, it has been produced just five times – in Stockholm in 1882, Cologne in 1908, Vienna in 1914 (where the Austrian Church demanded that it close after only two performances), Berlin in 1920, and again in Stockholm in 1971.

The current production, very professionally staged off off Broadway by The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, is based on the play’s first translation into English (by Malin Tybahl and Laurence Carr) and is directed by Craig Baldwin.  Set in Sweden in 1882, it focuses on the life of Margit (Kersti Bryan), a complex character with sado-masochistic tendencies, given to childlike fantasies of being swept off her feet by a dashing knight on a white charger, both victim and seductress, at times submissive while at other moments nothing but a selfish, self-centered bitch.  A prototype of the independent New Woman, perhaps, and a potential feminist icon.  Bryan plays her role brilliantly, practically stealing the show.

Margit was orphaned as a young girl and sent to a convent where she was abused both physically and emotionally by the Abbess (Vicki Blackenship) but befriended by The Confessor (Matt Hurley).  She is rescued from the convent by Mr. Bengt (Eric Percival), a mounted nobleman, just as she had fantasized she would be and he carries her off to be his wife and live happily ever after with him in his castle.

Unfortunately, Margit’s expectations are not fulfilled.  Mr. Bengt’s crops fail.  He goes bankrupt and is plunged into poverty, losing his estate to The Bailiff (Shawn Fagan), the King of Sweden’s unscrupulous representative and Margit’s childhood friend.  Margit’s marriage collapses and she sues for divorce.

After her divorce, Margit not only is pursued by The Confessor and by The Bailiff but also remains the love of Mr. Bengt’s life.  Or at least we are led to believe all that.  It’s also possible that the entire realistic-surrealistic story we’ve just witnessed on stage was nothing more than Margit’s dream.  You’ll have to decide.

While Kersti Bryan may steal the show as Margit, she is ably supported by all of the other five members of the cast, particularly Matt Hurley as The Confessor, Shawn Fagan as The Bailiff and Vicki Blackenship in the dual roles of The Abbess and The Chief Judge’s Wife. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Freefall by Charles Smith at Drilling Company Theatre

L-R: Omar Evans, Milena Davila, and Rosario Salvador in FREEFALL.  Photo by Lana Davidovich.
Freefall by Charles Smith initially premiered at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 1993 and had its off-Broadway debut at Theatre Row the following year.  Now, nearly 20 years later, it is being revived in an outstanding limited run off off Broadway production by Theatre for a New Generation at Drilling Company Theatre on West 78th Street in Manhattan.

The play is set on the south side of Chicago in 1991 but it is far from dated.  Its broadest themes relating to familial and quasi-familial relationships - parents and children, siblings, and the brotherhood of the streets – are as compelling today as they were two decades ago.

Grant (Jason Bond) and Monk (Rosario Salvador) are two brothers whose lives have diverged sharply over the years. Grant is a desk cop in Chicago who, with his wife, Alex (Milena Davila) is attempting to live out a version of the middle-class American suburban dream.   Monk, on the other hand, has just been released from prison after having been incarcerated for five years for burglary and is seeking to establish a new life for himself while searching for the mysterious benefactor who befriended him in prison.  Complicating Monk’s efforts are Spoon (Omar Evans) a Chicago crime lord and drug kingpin who is attempting to lure Monk back into a life of drugs and burglary.

When Monk shows up at Grant’s and Alex’s home, the brothers are forced to confront the meaning of family ties, a confrontation made all the more difficult by the fact that it was Grant who arrested Monk in the first place.  And the issue of family relationships is further underscored by Alex’s own seeming ambivalence toward her own familial responsibilities: is her primary role that of a daughter to her own aging parents or that of a wife to her despondent spouse?

All four actors are absolutely first rate in their portrayals of relatively dysfunctional characters in difficult circumstances but I was especially impressed by Omar Evans as the street-wise gangster Spoon and by Rosario Salvador as the struggling conflicted Monk.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Playing Sinatra by Bernard Kops at Theater For The New City

L-R: Katharine Cullinson, Austin Pendleton, and Richard McElvain in PLAYING SINATRA at Theater For The New City.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Bernard Kops, an 87 year old immensely talented and prolific playwright, has written more than 40 plays for stage and radio, nine novels and six volumes of poetry.  Despite his well-deserved European recognition, to date few of his plays have been produced in the United States.  Fortunately, that oversight is now in the process of being at least partially corrected: his Playing Sinatra, which originally opened to rave reviews in London in1991, is finally receiving its American premiere at Theatre For The New City on First Avenue and East Tenth Street in downtown Manhattan.  And it is just terrific.  Indeed, it is difficult to understand why it took so long for it to get here.

Theatrical history is rife with plays dealing with dysfunctional siblings, in many instances focusing primarily on sexually repressed spinster sisters.  Think The Glass Menagerie or The RainmakerPlaying Sinatra is a play of that genre but one packing even more of a wollop.  It is The Glass Menagerie or The Rainmaker on steroids.  Imagine The Glass Menagerie as it might have been written by Jean Genet or The Rainmaker had it been penned by Harold Pinter and you’ll get some idea of what I’m driving at.Since the death of their parents just a few weeks apart, Sandra Lewis (Katharine Cullison), a middle-aged spinster has lived with her brother Norman (Richard McElvain), a sometimes violent  bookbinder whose agoraphobia may be the least of his mental ailments in their cavernous ancestral home in Streatham, London.

Norman appears to be content with his life as it is.  He seldom leaves the house and busies himself with his bookbinding and with his fancied gourmet cooking (which, if truth be told, amounts to little more than microwaving TV dinners which are transformed in his mind’s eye into haute cuisine).  He remains the boy he once was, albeit now in a man’s body.

Sandra, on the other hand, does leave the house on a daily basis to work at a tedious office job and she, at least, has not given up entirely on life.  Indeed, she even may have been exploring the possibility of selling or moving from their home. .In a way, she is the opposite of Norman, not a girl trapped in a woman’s body, but rather a middle-aged sexually repressed woman who never allowed the young girl she once might have been to emerge.  Today, the only things that bind the siblings together are their shared history, promises they made to their deceased parents, and a mutual passion for the life and music of Frank Sinatra.  It is in Sinatra’s lyrics that they find what others might discover in Ecclesiastes.

When Phillip de Groot (Austin Pendleton), an American and self-described “seeker” arrives on the scene, his disruptive influence on the lives of Sandra and Norman is immediately palpable.  But will Phillip be Sandra’s “platonic lover,” her savior, or her destroyer.  He’s certainly nothing like Laura Wingfield’s “gentleman caller” (a la The Glass Menagerie) and whether or not he’ll turn out to be the likes of Lizzie Curry’s Bill Starbuck (a la The Rainmaker) remains to be seen.

Cullison is absolutely wonderful as Sandra Lewis, at one moment capturing her distraught angst and sexual frustration, in the next portraying her fear of men seeking to get into her knickers, moving on to exhibit her deep devotion to her brother (which almost appears to border the incestuous), only to affirm her dream of finding in Phillip the “platonic lover” she has long sought.  McElvain is equally good as the mentally disturbed Norman, whose delusional quirks run the gamut from a damaging agoraphobia, to a compulsive love of Sinatra, to momentary ourbursts of violence to repressed homosexuality.  And Pendleton is just grand as the enigmatic and manipulative Phillip who, chameleon-like, manages to allow the other characters and the audience to make of him what they will.

This is one hell of a play and deserves a longer run.  Go see it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

NYC Fringe 2013: Waiting for Waiting for Godot

L-R: Dave Hanson and Chris Sullivan in WAITING FOR WAITING FOR GODOT
Waiting for Waiting for Godot (WFWFGodot), now playing at the Kraine Theater on East Fourth Street in Lower Manhattan as part of FringeNYC 2013, is not only a terrific meta-reworking of the original Beckett classic but is also a delicious send-up of the entire Beckett canon.  In this production, set in a dingy backstage dressing room rather than on a country road, Val (Dave Hanson) and Ester (Chris Sullivan), are understudies for the roles of the two hobos, Vladimir and Estragon, in Waiting for Godot, and are themselves awaiting the arrival, not of Godot but of their play’s Director, in the hopes that he will come to tell them that he intends to give them an opportunity to play their roles onstage.

In Beckett’s The Unnamable, the novel’s unidentified protagonist, after a long disjointed monologue, proclaims “…you must go on.  I can’t go on.  I’ll go on” – a sentiment at the core of Beckett’s work but one that is not very different from that hoary theatrical mantra: “The show must go on.”  And, indeed, for the multi-talented Dave Hanson, who wrote WFWFGodot and who also plays the role of Val, the distinction between Beckett’s words and the theatrical mantra would appear to be a distinction without a difference:  the play must go on and so must the two understudies, if not onstage, then at least with their own lives.

Val and Ester are consumed by the same absurdist existential questions that tormented Vladimir and Estragon and fare no better in their struggles than do their alter egos.  In Waiting For Godot, it is an unnamed boy who arrives to tell the two hobos that Godot won’t be showing up that day after all; in WFWFGodot, it is Laura (Amy Weaver), the perky Assistant Stage Manager, who informs them that the Director they had been hoping to see won’t be making an appearance that day either. The consequences are the same: despair  

But WFWFGodot is much more than just a retelling (or even a meta-retelling) of the Waitng for Godot story, simply set in a different venue with Ester’s vest substituting for Estragon’s boot: it is also a delightful parody of Beckett’s signature style.  When Ester gives Val an acting lesson, emphasizing the “miserly” approach to acting wherein an actor does nothing but repeat another actor’s lines, the verbal repetitions and repetitions of repetitions constitute an hysterical send-up of Beckett, culminating in what I took to be a similar send-up of James Joyce as well.

Hanson plays the role of Val with comic genius and Sullivan turns in an equally impressive performance as Ester. In sum, this production is likely to go down as one of the very best of the FringeNYC 2013 and if the show’s not yet sold out and you can still manage to get tickets for one of the few remaining performances, I’d strongly urge you to do so.