Sunday, September 27, 2015

Powerful Revival of DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA by John Patrick Shanley

Susan Mitchell and John Talerico in DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA.  Photo by Peter Welch.
When John Patrick Shanley finally won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005 (for Doubt), he was long overdue.   His exceptional talent as a playwright was evident long before that – as early as 1984, in fact, when his second play, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, was first presented at Circle in the Square, starring John Turturro as Danny and June Stein as Roberta.  Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was revived a decade later at Stage 22, directed by Lissa Moira and featuring Susan Mitchell as Roberta.  Now, 20 years after that, the play is being revived again, this time at Theater for the New City on First Avenue in lower Manhattan.  It is again being directed by Lissa Moira and stars Susan Mitchell as Roberta (but this time John Talerico time plays the role of Danny).

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is subtitled An Apache Dance and, in directing this dynamic two-hander, Ms Moira has certainly taken that subtitle to heart: the play is as much choreographed as directed, with Danny and Roberta playing off one another with the smoldering emotion generally evoked by tango and apache dances.  Both Danny and Roberta are deeply damaged, needy, lonely individuals: she is a single mother who has virtually delegated the raising of her troubled son to her own dysfunctional parents; unemployed and an occasional drug user, she was sexually abused by her father but blames herself for that and cannot rid herself of her Catholic guilt; and, in turns, sexually insecure, promiscuous, submissive, masochistic and violently aggressive, she is, in short, a psychological mess.   He is a violent paranoid (nicknamed “The Beast” by his co-workers) whose immediate reaction to any perceived slight is to use his fists and who may have killed a man in a fight the previous night; he is also a possibly repressed homosexual who has fantasized about being the bride in a wedding and who is still living with his mother.

When Danny and Roberta meet in a local bar, it doesn’t appear to be a match made in Heaven (Hell might be a more likely locale) but there clearly is something between them: she is the first person he can talk to without her automatically making him angry and he is the only person she has ever found to whom she feels she can confide her innermost secret.  Unsurprisingly, they return from the bar to her room where sex is inevitable and an even deeper relationship might ensue – if they don’t kill each other first.

Both Ms Mitchell and Mr.Talerico are terrific in their respective roles.  The chemistry between them is palpable and they play it for all its worth.  In sum, this is a powerful play and this production is first-rate.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

RADIO MYSTERY 1949 by Dennis Richard at Clarion Theatre

L-R: Nate Steiwachs, Lisa Landino, Beth Griffith, Dan Burkharth, and Alexander Reed in RADIO MYSTERY 1949.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Radio Mystery 1949 by Dennis Richard, currently premiering at Clarion Theatre on East 26th Street in Manhattan, is a cartoonish period piece with pretensions to deeper significance.  Set in a New York radio station in 1949, back in pre-television days (when radio networks had to rely solely on our auditory rather than our visual sense to entertain and retain their audiences), the play revolves around the broadcasting of a live radio crime drama that goes badly awry when an unanticipated real life danger intervenes.

Norman Arizona (Dan Burkharth) is the producer of a radio mystery drama show sponsored by “Blue Coal” on the Mutual Broadcasting System; he is so desperately afraid that the network is about to cancel his show that he has not only taken to drink but has even considered committing suicide on air as a dramatic gesture to keep the show alive.  His fears have spread to the other actors on his show as well: Margo (Beth Griffith), Vespa (Lisa Landino), and Chicky (Alexander Reed), as well as to the station’s sound effects man, Chubby ( Nate Steiwachs).
Vespa’s problems are also compounded in the most trivial fashion: she is Croatian and is being forced to play the rose of a Latina which she finds linguistically difficult .  And Chicky has another much more serious problem: the neighborhood mob intends to kill him.

With only seconds to go before the latest radio mystery drama is to go on the air, one of the show’s actors still has not arrived.  At the last moment, Radio Nick (Fergus Scully) walks in but no one is quite sure whether he actually is the missing actor who Norman hired in a drunken stupor the night before or a terrorist for whom the police are searching.  When Radio Nick dumps his duffle bag on the ground and challenges the other actors to guess what is in it that might be ticking, the latter alternative seems much more likely.  And with that, the real life drama involving Radio Nick effectively supplants the mystery drama that was being aired.

According to the play’s press release, the play is much more than a mere period piece.  Rather, the playwright “is calling attention to an uncertainty that is peculiar to our times.”  These are the times in which “we are barraged with stories of unexpected bombings and mass murders, but we never know the real reasons behind these acts….leaving society gasping for explanations that never come.”  Presumably, the playwright also is alluding to issues of life imitating art, questions of ethnic identity, and the degree to which we tend to focus on the trivial in the face of the truly consequential.

Well, I guess one could look at the play in those ways but if those really were the playwright’s intentions, I’m afraid he didn’t succeed.  Despite the cast’s best efforts (and their exertions are truly considerable), the play still comes across as nothing more than a trivial comedic romp with two-dimensional cardboard characters, albeit one with occasional humorous moments. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Genevieve Hulme-Beaman Is Riveting in PONDLING at 59E59 Theaters

Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in PONDLING.  Photo by Paul McCarthy.
Pondling, a one-woman show both written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, debuted at the Dublin Fringe in 2013 and was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe last year.  It is currently enjoying its US premiere as part of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival at 59E59 Theaters on East 59thStreet in midtown Manhattan.

Ms Hulme-Beaman is exceptionally talented both as a playwright and as a performer (she won the Best Actress Award for her performance in Pondling at the Dublin Fringe).  As the sole performer in the play, she enacts the role of a very young farm girl, assisting her brother and grandfather in performing minor chores around the farm, and eagerly anticipating the start of the new school year where she would again see the “older man” of her dreams – her 14 year old schoolmate, Johnno Boyle O’Connor.
Pedaling about on her “my little pony” bicycle and proud of her new black patent leather shoes, she fantasizes about a future sophisticated and glamorous life with Johnno, re-imagining herself as stylish, elegant, and “a beautiful French swan girl by the name of Madeline Humble Butter Cup.”  It is just the sort of fantasy that normal little girls have engaged in since time immemorial, imagining themselves to be princesses, and if “Madeline” were the mild and innocent little girl she appears to be at first sight, there’d be nothing to be concerned about (and no reason for the play).

But we are quickly disabused of the notion that “Madeline” is just another normal little girl allowing her imagination to run rampant.  No, she is much more of a “bad seed,” as becomes increasingly evident.   Moving spastically, cackling raucously, and bellowing out her innermost secrets, she discloses, bit by bit, just how warped and pathologically malevolent she actually is.

“Madeline” prides herself on having found small ways to help out on the farm “that would go unnoticed by the untrained eye” but they’re not the sort of innocent things one might imagine.  For one, she “scared the birds from the bird feeder so the seeds lasted longer.”  For another, she “captured and killed the stray cat that scared the chickens at night” and “did it when no one was looking.”  The chore she especially loves is crushing cans –which she enjoyes so much that she moves the can crusher box from the larder to the chicken shed, where it ends up being used for a purpose for which it clearly was not originally intended.

When “ Madeline” finds a beautiful yellow flower, she imagines that it has magical powers but the powers she envisions are not those for turning straw into gold or frogs into princes; rather, they are the powers to kill or destroy anything and everything from her brother to Johnno’s girlfriend.  As it turns out, the flower is the poisonous tansy ragwort and “Madeline” ultimately does utilize its powers, although not in the manner you might suspect.

The play has its funny moments but the humor is very dark and it is much more a hauntingly macabre play than an amusing one.  Ms Hulme-Beaman’s performance is absolutely riveting as she expresses through words, actions and expressions the devolution of a superficially charming and delightful but fundamentally deeply disturbed little girl.