Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sense of an Ending at 59E59 Theaters

Hubert Pont-Du Jour in SENSE OF AN ENDING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
When Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down (allegedly by the very Tutsi rebels with whom he had been planning to sign a peace accord), killing the President and all aboard, it sparked a vengeful reaction by Hutu extremists who seized control of the government and massacred 800,000 Tutsi, hacking many to death with their machetes and burning others alive.  As the Hutus advanced on Kigali, many Tutsi sought sanctuary in the local Catholic church – but to no avail.  The Hutus found them in the church, doused them with the church’s own fuel, and set them ablaze.  Virtually all died.

On the day that President Habyarimana’s plane was downed, Father Neromba, the head of the Catholic church in Kigali and a Hutu himself, had a vision: the Virgin Mary came to him and told him – what?  Sister Justina (Heather Alicia Simms) and Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham) were Catholic nuns of the Benedictine order at Father Neromba’s church in Kigali and they knew of his miraculous vision.  And they were also Hutu.

Now, five years after the massacre at the church, Father Neromba has disappeared and is being sought on charges that he was complicit in the massacre.  Sister Justina and Sister Alice have been arrested on similar charges and are awaiting transfer to Belgium, where they are to be charged with having provided the Hutus with the fuel with which they burned their Tutsi victims alive.  Predictably, they deny the charges brought against them and hope to convince the world of their innocence, even before they are brought to trial in Belgium.

To that end, they have agreed to meet with Charles (Joshua David Robinson), a reporter for the New York Times whose editor, Kendra, has sent him to Rwanda to get the human interest story that will portray the two sisters’ plight in the most sympathetic light.  Charles would love to be able to bring back such a story for Kendra (she is not only his boss but also his romantic interest), but it is even more important to him that the story he brings back be the truth: Charles, as it turns out, has had a bit of a problem with the truth in the past, having been accused of plagiarism, and his current assignment, if truthfully and successfully completed, could go a long way toward restoring his own reputation.

When Charles arrives in Rwanda, he is met by Paul (Hubert Point-Du Jour), a Tutsi corporal in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the military force that has restored order in Rwanda) who is to be his guide.  Paul is convinced that the sisters are guilty as sin and that their protestations of innocence are a pack of lies and, in support of his position, he produces Dusabi (Danyon Davis), a Tutsi and the sole survivor of the genocidal massacre at the church.

In Sense of an Ending by Kern Urban, currently receiving its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, it is up to Charles to interview the sisters, to listen to Dusabi’s story, and somehow to arrive at the truth of what really transpired at the church.  But the challenge confronting Charles goes much deeper than that:  not only must he determine the nuns’ factual culpability, if any, for the massacre that occurred at the church but he must determine their moral culpability, if any, as well.  Whatever the nuns may have done, should their allegiance to their Catholic faith and to Father Neromba (who, after all, may have been directed in his actions by the Virgin Mary herself) enter into Charles’ moral calculus?  Whatever they may or may not have done, were they ever really in a powerful enough position themselves to do anything else?  If nothing that the nuns did not do but might have done would have made no difference in the final tragic result anyway, should they still be punished?  Is there a greater moral value – one of reconciliation – that transcends questions of guilt or innocence in individual acts?

Sense of an Ending is an exceptionally powerful play, portraying the horrors of war and ethnic rivalries, massacres and genocide, in all their gory details, and it forcefully addresses the importance of determining the factual truth in the face of conflicting Rashomon-like stories.  That alone makes this play well worth seeing.  But it doesn’t do nearly as good a job, I’m afraid, at resolving the deeper moral questions that are brought to the fore, relying instead on papering over real differences in a couple of kumbaya scenes.

The entire cast of five was excellent but I was especially impressed by Hubert Pont-Du Jour and Danyon Davis.  Mr. Pont-Du Jour’s nuanced portrayal of Paul as a Tutsi soldier with a stereotypical view both of Hutus and Americans, who had seen so much of death that it left him futilely longing for any sign of humor in life, was absolutely extraordinary.  In stark contrast to Mr. Pont-DuJour’s coldly controlled portrayal of Paul, Mr. Davis’ portrayal of Dusabi was all fiery intensity and raw emotion.  It all made for a striking contrast and wonderful theater.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Drop Dead Perfect Returns to Theatre at Saint Clements

L-R: Jason Cruz and Jason Edward Cook in DROP DEAD PERFECT.  Photo by John Quilty.
Drop Dead Perfect by Erasmus Fenn (whomever he might be) received rave reviews and played to sold-out audiences last year, prompting its current return to Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street in midtown Manhattan.  In its present incarnation, it features the same zany cast: Everett Quinton (in drag) as the wealthy and mentally unbalanced Idris Seabright; Jason Edward Cook (also in drag) as Vivien, Idris’ physically handicapped ward who is an aspiring sculptress; Jason Cruz as Ricardo, a mysterious Cuban stranger; and Timothy C. Goodwin who does double duty as Phineas Fenn (Idris’ lawyer) and as Phineas’ son (the play’s narrator).

Idris is taken to writing and re-writing her will (which appears to be Phineas Fenn’s main function) and to sketching stilllifes – which requires that her subjects really be still - even if that entails freezing her goldfish, waxing her apples, or killing and stuffing her dog.  She becomes especially deranged when Vivien announces her intention to leave Idris’ home and go to Greenwich Village to pursue an artistic career.  The arrival of Ricardo, who bears a striking resemblance to Idris’ former lover, and who is not above dallying with the affections of both Idris and Vivien, complicates matters still further.

The play is clearly intended as a star turn for Everett Quinton who does what he does and does it very well (though some might question why he bothers to do it in the first place).  But without detracting from Mr. Quinton’s performance, I must say that, much to my own surprise, I was far more impressed by Jason Edward Cook’s extraordinary dance performance.

Joe Brancato, the play’s director, has described the play as “a madcap romp that celebrates and satirizes movie melodramas, with a nod to both Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Burnett” and the play’s press release emphasizes that it is “laced with double-entendres and homages to 1950s television and Hollywood melodramas” and only is “recommended for those who possess a slightly twisted sense of humor and appreciation of slapstick TV comedies such as I Love Lucy and camp horror such as Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte.”

I won’t disagree and, if you fall into that category (“those who possess a slightly twisted sense of humor and appreciation of slapstick TV comedies such as I Love Lucy and camp horror”), then this production might be right up your alley.  But if not, you may be disappointed, finding that the show’s double entendres, sophomoric ethnic humor, penis jokes, and persistent satirization of Lucille Ball really are more puerile than clever.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

James Lecesne Soars in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

James Lecesne is a highly accomplished and versatile writer and actor – and, even more importantly, a truly compassionate and admirable individual.  He has written three novels for young adults, including Absolute Brightness, from which he has adapted his play, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.  His acting credits include stints on Broadway, off Broadway, and in television.  He was executive producer of the documentary film After the Storm, which followed the lives of twelve young people in post-Katrina New Orleans.  And he wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning short film Trevor, which inspired his co-founding of The Trevor Project, a nationwide suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ youth.  Quite a resume.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, currently being staged at the Westside Theatre on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan, revolves around the disappearance and murder of Leonard Pelkey, a flamboyantly gay 14-year-old, whose larger than life persona and absolute refusal to be anything other than what he was affected all around him.  In the course of the play, we never do meet Leonard but we come to know him nonetheless through the words of all of those whose lives he touched.

First among them is Chuck DeSantis, the hard-boiled detective in a small town on the New Jersey shore who investigates the Leonard Pelkey case.  DeSantis is played brilliantly by James Lecesne – who plays every other role in this extraordinary solo tour de force as well – and that includes Leonard’s “aunt” Ellen Hertle, the shrill proprietor of the local beauty parlor who first reports Leonard missing; Phoebe, Ellen’s 16-year-old daughter who finds herself called upon to act as Leonard’s schoolyard protector; Gloria Salzano, the widow of a mob boss who discovers one of the shoes Leonard was wearing at the time of his disappearance floating on the lake near her home; Marion, one of Ellen’s clients, who attempted unsuccessfully to convince Leonard to “tone it down”; the Germanic proprietor of a watches and clocks repair shop who related to Leonard as a result of his own nostalgic recollections of his own lost son; the pretentious proprietor of the theatre and dance studio where Leonard had been studying, who is a bit fearful that he might be accused of pederasty (whether pronounced in the British or American fashion) for merely offering car rides to some of the older boys at his studio; and one of Leonard’s bullying schoolmates, hung up on video games.  Lecesne plays them all with insightful precision, seamlessly switching from one character to another   It is a truly virtuoso performance.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is, of course, a tragedy, as is any death, but most especially the unnecessary death of a child whose entire life still lay before him.  And it is, of course, a mystery: who killed Leonard Pelkey?  But it is much more than that, much more than a tragedy or a mystery: it is at one and the same time a revelation of the interconnectedness of all of us (underscored by Lescesne’s playing every role) and a celebration of our differences.  As Marion related it, Leonard once told her that “if he stopped being himself, the terrorists would win.”  And it is that sentiment which pervades this production and which results in the play being such an uplifting one, despite the tragedy of the unusual 14-year-old boy’s untimely death.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mac Brydon Stars in PIMM'S MISSION at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Mac Brydon and Ryan Tramont in PIMM'S MISSION.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Both Robert Pimm (Mac Brydon) and Thomas Blander (Ryan Tramont) are regulars at the pub in midtown Manhattan owned and operated by Jim (Brad Fryman). They meet there regularly on Sundays where their conversations range from Robert’s commiserating with Thomas over Thomas’ recent divorce, to Robert’s disclosure of his own corporate misadventures in Great Britain (which led to his current relocation in the US), to Robert’s insistence that Thomas try to find a true mission in life.  At this point, one might assume they are “friends,” although Robert is not prepared to go quite that far, quibbling extensively in the best Clintonian fashion on just what the meaning of “friends” is.

This Sunday, Robert is seated at the bar, nursing both a drink and a superficial wound to his head, just moments after an explosion at the nearby Zincorp building resulted in the deaths of 15 innocents - and Thomas is nowhere to be seen.  FBI Agent Staats (Daniel Morgan Shelley) and his sidekick, FBI Agent Charles (Patrick Hamilton), are canvassing the area in their search for clues.  In the course of their investigation, they encounter Robert who can’t quite seem to recall how he arrived at the bar but whose description, as it turns out, matches that of a man who was seen leaving the Zincorp building shortly before the explosion occurred. 

Subsequently, Staats learns that Thomas is an employee of Zincorp and that he works at its headquarters – in the very building in which the explosion just occurred.  And Jim reluctantly informs Staats that although he never quite overheard the details of Robert and Thomas’ many earlier conversations in the pub, it was clear to him that they were “discussing things” in a “pretty secretive” manner.

There’s not much more I can write about the plot of Pimm’s Mission without ruining its surprise ending - other than to say that, as the play evolves, it becomes increasingly evident that there is more to Robert and his relationship to Thomas than first meets the eye.  I will, however, give you one hint: if you’re justifiably concerned over the threat of Islamic terrorism, you may be a bit disappointed.  On the other hand, if you’re more politically “progressive” and inclined to perceive capitalism as a bigger bugaboo than Islamic terrorism, then you may find the play’s highly contrived conclusion to be more satisfying.

Notwithstanding that artificial contrivance, however, the play is very well written and quite entertaining.  It unfolds over a period of 75 minutes with no intermission in a series of sharply constructed bar scenes in which Staats is interrogating Robert, interspersed with flashbacks to scenes involving Robert, Thomas and Jim in the same bar on various Sundays preceding the day of the explosion.  Written by Christopher Stetson Boal and directed by Terrence O’Brien, Pimm’s Mission is currently receiving its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.  All of the cast members merit praise for their performances but Mac Brydon, bouncing back and forth from the present to the past and back again, delivers a truly bravura performance – one might even say a star turn - and deserves a special accolade.