Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Black Boys Die at Theater for the New City

L-R: R. Ashley Bowles, Scarlett Smith, Lorenzo A. Jackson, and Brandon Mellette in WHEN BLACK BOYS DIE.  Photo by Rosalie Baijer.
William Electric Black is an exceptionally versatile, talented and socially conscious writer whose interests range from encouraging exercise and good nutrition for children to prescription drug awareness and obesity and stroke prevention.  A seven time Emmy Award winning writer for his work on Sesame Street, he is currently engaged in writing. producing, and directing a series of five plays (collectively called Gunplays) addressing the dangers of inner city violence and guns.

The first of these plays, Welcome Home Sonny T., a powerful politically correct polemic in favor of gun control and he rights of illegal aliens, was staged at the Theater for the New City (TNC) on First Avenue in lower Manhattan a little more than a year ago and we enjoyed it immensely.  Now the second play in the series, When Black Boys Die, is premiering at the TNC and, much as we enjoyed Welcome Home Sonny T., we liked when Black Boys Die even more.

When Black Boys Die centers on the untimely shooting death of Levon Weeks (Torre Reigns), a remarkable young man who, despite having been raised by a single mother in the projects, is on the verge of entering Syracuse University on a basketball scholarship.  His death occurs in the wake of his coming to the aid of Cece Torres (Scarlett Smith) to prevent her from being raped by Dray Oliver (Brandon Mellette), a neighborhood gang leader and drug dealer – and his death has repercussions throughout the neighborhood.  Ruby Weeks (Verna Hampton), Levon’s mother, becomes obsessed by the desire to engage the community into taking action against the senseless gun violence that has taken her son’s life by listing and posting the names of everyone killed in the community since her son’s death on the Fourth of July.  And Danielle Weeks (Brittney Benson), Levon’s sister and Cece’s friend, is driven to try to find out exactly what happened on the fateful day.

The play is well written and beautifully acted and not without its surprises.  Mr. Jackson (Lavern Williams), a high school art teacher who tries valiantly to mentor and inspire the neighborhood youth, provides a moral counterbalance to the depravity of gangbangers like Dray and his sidekick, JB (Lorenzo A. Jackson).   And even “Say What” (R. Ashley Bowles), an elderly neighborhood street vendor, has his moment in the sun, suggesting that even the least among us ought not be taken for granted, let alone counted out.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Mystery of Love and Sex at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater

L-R: Mamoudou Athie, Diane Lane, Tony Shaloub, and Gayle Rankin in THE MYSTERY OF LOVE & SEX,
The Mystery of Love and Sex by Bathsheba Doran, currently being staged at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is little more than a pretentious parody of a soap opera.  Will Charlotte (Gayle Rankin), a white, Jewish lesbian marry Jonny (Mamoudou Athie), a black, Baptist homosexual who is her college classmate and her “bff” since childhood?  Or isn’t she really lesbian at all?  Might she be bi-sexual – or maybe even heterosexual and just sexually curious?  And is Jonny really homosexual or is he simply preserving his virginity until marriage because of his religious convictions?  Or might he just be sexually confused too?  And does anybody care?

When Howard (Tony Shaloub) and Lucinda (Diane Lane) arrive on campus to visit Charlotte, they discover for the first time that Charlotte and Jonny’s relationship may not be quite as platonic as they were led to believe – and they’re not at all happy about it.  But why not?  They’d always liked Jonny, so what’s the problem?  It can’t be the difference in Charlotte’s and Jonny’s religions or cultural backgrounds since Howard is a New York Jew and Lucinda was born a Southern Christian (although she subsequently converted to Judaism) and if they didn’t allow their own families’ objections to their marriage to stand in their way, why should they object to their daughter’s following a similar course?.  Moreover, they had their own gay experiences in their youth (in reality in Lucinda’s case and at least in his imagination in Howard’s) so it can’t be Charlotte’s and Jonny’s sexual experimentation that’s bothering them.   Could it be that they – Heaven forfend! – are closet racists without even realizing it themselves?

As you might imagine, all of this “PC” stuff is enough to hold the audience’s attention for a while but eventually it does start to pall.  Not to worry.  Some gratuitous total nudity by Charlotte might re-ignite your interest.  And since this is, after all, a really politically correct show, it just wouldn’t do to restrict such  gratuitous nudity to white women.  So we are treated to additional color blind theatrics, in the form of  more gratuitous total nudity by Jonny too.

Rankin, Athie, Shaloub and Lane are all highly professional and do as good a job as might be expected of them with the material they’ve been given.  But while this mash-up may be very politically correct and occasionally maybe even a little titillating, it’s really not a lot to work with.  Indeed, it gives new meaning to the term “PC.”  Here it’s not only “politically correct” (although it surely is that), but it’s “pruriently caricaturish” and a “puerile conceit” as well.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnar in Revival at Mint Theater

L-R: Joe Delafield and Annie Purcell in FASHIONS FOR MEN.  Photo by Richard Termine.
Ever since its founding in 1995, the Mint Theater Company, arguably one of the finest off-Broadway theater companies in the city, has been dedicated to the mission of unearthing and producing lost or neglected but worthwhile plays of the past and infusing them with new vitality.  For the past two decades, it has held true to its mission, staging impressive revivals of seldom seen works by playwrights ranging from A.A. Milne to Edith Wharton, from Thomas Wolfe to D.H. Lawrence, from John Galsworthy to Leo Tolstoy, and from Ernest Hemingway to Arnold Bennett.  Now, for its first production this year, the Mint, located on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan, is staging a freshened revival of Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnar and it is another winner.

Molnar was an internationally acclaimed Hungarian playwright of the early 1900s, whose best known works are Liliom (upon which the classic musical Carousel was based), The Guardsman, and The Play’s the Thing.  Less well known is Fashions for Men, a light hearted comedy that was first produced in Budapest in 1917, although it subsequently did make it to New York in 1922 where it had a successful run on Broadway and was adapted into a motion picture (renamed Fine Clothes) in 1925.

Fashions for Men plays out in three acts, two set in an upscale haberdashery in Budapest and one in the Count’s study at his manorial estate, Gerelypuszta, and the sets themselves merit comment.  They are simply terrific, far superior to what one is accustomed to seeing off-Broadway and at least the equivalent of what one generally finds even on Broadway.  Daniel Zimmerman, the play’s Scenic Designer, deserves to be singled out for the major contribution his work makes to the success of this show.

Now to the play itself.  Peter Juhasz, the proprietor of the haberdashery (Joe Delafield), is a very good man, beloved by all, who sees nothing but the best in everyone.  But it is his very goodness that turns out to be his undoing as it results in his being taken advantage of by all around him.   Although many of his customers fail to pay their bills, he continues to extend them credit to the point that he is approaching bankruptcy.  He still might have pulled it out, but when his wife, Adele (Annie Purcell) steals from him and absconds with Oscar, his top salesman (John Tufts), it is just too much, and the shop is thrown into receivership.

Nonetheless, Peter blames himself rather than Adele or Oscar for his plight and bears neither of them any ill will.  He is, in short, something of a saintly schlemiel – the sort of person who, if you recall the punch line of the old joke, persists in asserting that “There must be a pony in there somewhere!”  Instead, he resolves to return to work for the Count, a former employer and benefactor, (Kurt Rhoads) who retains such affection for Peter that he offers him the position of general director of the Count’s Gerelypuszta Cheese Exporting Company.

As it turns out, the Count’s affections extend even more to Paula (Rachel Napoleon), the pretty young thing in Peter’s employ at the haberdashery shop, with whom he had been carrying on a flirtation whenever he visited the shop.  Peter had seen himself not only as her employer but also as her protector, a relationship that Paula also presumably bought into.  So when Peter reveals that he will be leaving the haberdashery shop, Paula contends that she will have to leave too, even if the shop’s new owners would be willing to keep her on, because her mother would never allow her to work for anyone other than Peter and she wouldn’t dream of opposing her mother’s wishes.

L-R: Rachel Napoleon and Kurt Rhoads in FASHIONS FOR MEN.  Photo by Richard Termine.
And so Paula elects to work for Peter at the Count’s cheese company, which is all well and good with the Count, who has had his eye on Paula all along.  And, of course, Paula has her own ulterior motive in following Peter.  As she explains to Philip, another of Peter’s employees at the haberdashery shop (Jeremy Lawrence), she intends to follow Philip to Gerelypuszta so as not to let His Excellency, the Count, slip through her fingers (although she will pretend to Philip that it is only because she doesn’t want to abandon him in his hour of need).

Before the play is over, the relationships among Peter, Paula, the Count, and Oscar have become increasingly complicated but it is all great fun and lest I be forced to issue a plethora of  spoiler alerts, I’d best say no more about the plot’s evolution and resolution.  Suffice it to say that the entire cast is just wonderful, that the play is cheerful and uplifting, and that I left the theater with a broader smile on my face and a bit more jaunty lift to my step than when I entered it.