Saturday, February 27, 2016

Invisible Girls Theatre Co. Revives Three Plays by Havel, Churchill and Beckett

Invisible Girls Theatre Company deserves considerable praise for its ambitious staging of Three PlaysUnveiling by Vaclav Havel, Abortive by Caryl Churchill, and Embers by Samuel Beckett – at TBG Theatre on West 36th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The juxtaposition of Havel’s Orwellian attack on Communist conformity, Churchill’s ruminations on a marriage crisis, and Beckett’s expression of existential despair was not only imaginatively conceived but, equally important, it was intelligently and creatively executed.

The entire program is just 90 minutes long with no intermission but a lot is packed into that brief hour-and-a-half.  In Unveiling, the first of the three one act plays, Ferdinand Vanek (Alexander Robin Kass) has been invited to the home of his best friends, Vera (Marcela Biven) and Michael (Patrick Hamilton) where his hosts ply him with food and drink, entertain him with a display of their own opulence and, most importantly, try to convince him to conform to the values and lifestyle that they deem most appropriate.  (Vanek, who also appears in several of Havel’s other works, is a thinly-disguised stand-in for Havel himself, a dissident playwright forced to work in a brewery because his writing has been banned by the Communist Czechoslovakian Government.)

In Caryl Churchill’s Abortive, Roz (Marcela Biven) and her husband, Colin (Patrick Hamilton), are grappling with the reality of Roz’s having been raped and having chosen to have an abortion, despite Colin’s having offered to raise the child as his own if she chose to keep it.  She’s not sure that she made the right decision and he’s not absolutely certain that she really was raped.  It is all taking a toll on their marriage, particularly on their sex life.

Embers is a rather typical example of Beckett’s sense of existential despair, although probably not his best.  Henry (David Carlson) seeks to drown out the incessant sound of the sea in his head through his own continual blathering, but to little avail (his father died in the sea and, by this time, he is probably quite nuts, as his wife Ada (Marcela Biven) never ceases to remind him.

The entire Three Plays production gets by with a minimal set, which presents no real problem in Abortive and Embers which originally were produced as radio dramas.  It is a bit more of a problem in Unveiling, however, where the audience is forced to simply imagine the opulence and other “stuff” which normally would be presented on stage and which are integral to the play.  But somehow the play’s director and its outstanding cast still make it work.

Friday, February 26, 2016

After 77 Years, Mint Theater Revives WOMEN WITHOUT MEN

L-R: Emily Walton, Dee Pelletier, Aedin Moloney, and Kate Middleton in WOMEN WITHOUT MEN.  Photo by Richard Termine.
When Madeline Albright claimed that there’s a special place in Hell reserved for women who don’t support other women, she surely didn’t have the denizens of the teachers’ lounge at Malyn Park Private School in mind – but she very well could have.  For it is there that the teachers in Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men (all of whom are women at the exclusive girls boarding school in Ireland in the 1930s) allow their most petty jealousies to gain the better of them – and ultimately come to bear the inevitable consequences of their actions.

None of the women, other than the newest member of the faculty, Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton), is married or engaged, or likely ever to get married or even have a suitor.  (Ruby is the exception: she has a boyfriend and fully expects to marry him some day, just not right away.)  Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey) is constrained by the fact that she must care for her aging mother and invalid sister, providing her with no real opportunity to create a family of her own.  She has channeled whatever creative energies she might have had into the writing of a a history of “beautiful acts” through the ages, annoying her contemporaries no end with her self-aggrandizing references to her book, The entire experience has left her unpleasant, officious and friendless.

Madamoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier) was born into a somewhat higher estate than the others, which meant that most men weren’t good enough for her but, when her grandfather lost all the family’s wealth (and with it their social standing and Madamoiselle’s dowry), it turned out that maybe it really was she who wasn’t good enough for most men.  Nor do marriage prospects for Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon) or Miss Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Moloney) seem any brighter.

Ruby and Margaret are forced to share living quarters which serves as a continuing irritant to both of them.  Ruby is well-liked by the students (if not by her fellow-teachers) but since Jean arrived, Jean appears to be replacing Ruby in the students’ affections, much to Ruby’s consternation.  Margaret resents the fact that Mademoiselle granted permission to one of her students to abstain from Margaret’s class walk without first clearing it with Margaret.  Miss Connors and Mademoiselle are at loggerheads over the proper use of the teachers’ lounge.  Miss Connors and Jean are at cross-purposes when it comes to the disciplining of a student, the use of space for a play rehearsal rather than tutoring, and the importance, or lack thereof, of participation in an elocution contest.  Somehow, Marjorie manages to maintain her distance and stay above it all.

Women Without Men was first produced in 1938 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin but, despite receiving positive reviews from both critics and audiences alike has not been revived since.  Now that oversight is being corrected with a wonderful revival  - indeed, the long-overdue American premiere! - of the long lost play currently being staged by the Mint Theater Company at New York City Center Stage II on West 55th Street in midtown Manhattan.

This, of course, is what the Mint Theater Company is justifiably noted for: unearthing worthwhile forgotten works and staging them with great aplomb (with ostensibly considerable emphasis on the works of forgotten female dramatists).  The lost plays by women that it staged in the past included A Little Journey by Rachel Crothers and Rutherford & Son by Githa Sowerby (among others), both of which proved to be excellent productions.  Nor has the Mint lost its magic touch: this production of Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men clearly deserves a place in that panoply of Mint successes.

Women Without Men is something of a whodunit but, unlike most whodunits, in which one or more murders would seem to be de rigueur, Ms Ellis predicates her mystery on what superficially would seem to be a far more trivial crime: the wanton destruction of Miss Connor’s nearly complete magnum opus, that history of “beautiful acts” through the ages.  No one is murdered or abducted – there is not even a jewel heist – but Miss Connor has devoted her life to writing her book and for someone to have taken it from her in this manner does appear to have been the most dastardly of acts.

No one really wished Miss Connor ill, but then no one really wished her well either, so it would seem that virtually anyone might have perpetrated the crime.  Suspicion quickly falls on Jean, however, and when Miss Connors discovers a piece of Jean’s broken brooch beneath her shredded manuscript, the case against Jean grows even stronger.

In addition to the six teachers, the cast includes the school’s Headmistress, Mrs. Newcome (Joyce Cohen), the school’s Matron (Amelia White), and three of the school’s students (Beatrice Tulchin, Shannon Harrington, and Alexa Shae Niziak).  The entire ensemble cast is just terrific, so good that it is simply impossible to single any one out.  Suffice it to say that the entire production is first-rate, in no small measure due to its first-rate cast.

But due as well to all the other women involved in this production since, in terms of direction and design, it is also an all-woman production: Jenn Thompson has done a fine job of directing while Vicki R. Davis (sets), Martha Halley (costumes), Traci Klainer Polimeni (lights) and Jane Shaw (sound) all deserve plaudits for their respective contributions.
Indeed, to paraphrase Madeline Albright, if there is a special place in Heaven reserved for women who work so well together to provide us all with such a fine theatrical experience, these women can all start adjusting their wings.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

WASHER/DRYER by Nandita Shenoy at Theater Row

Jamyl Dobson and Nandita Shenoy in WASHER/DRYER.  Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.jpg.
If Ted Cruz truly wants to understand what “New York values” are about, he might well attend a performance of Ma-Yi Theater Company’s delightful production of Washer/Dryer by Nandita Shenoy at the Beckett Theater at Theater Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  While that experience might lead him to the initial (erroneous) impression that what New Yorkers (or at least Manhattan-based co-op owners) prize above all else are their high status washer/dryer appliances, he’d quickly be disabused of that notion as he came to realize that “New York values” aren’t solely about money, the media, abortion and same sex marriage after all.

To be sure, New York is a progressive and polyglot city where a woman of Southeast Asian descent and a man of Chinese descent can not only get along but may even fall in love and marry; where an aspiring young Indian-American actress can be best friends with a flamboyantly gay black man; and where a white female power-hungry control freak may learn a lot about accepting her own son’s alternative sexual orientation from a seemingly traditional, smothering and doting Chinese mother

But so much for New York’s progressivism.  New Yorkers’ values also include a recognition of the fact that children can create families of their own without abandoning their parents or the families and traditions within which they were raised.  And New Yorkers’ values also include the realization that the generation gap can in fact be bridged with enough goodwill (and effort) on all sides.  And those values aren’t necessarily that different from those of the rest of the country.  In fact, they’re pretty universal.

Michael (Johnny Wu) is a 30-ish Chinese-American free-lance copywriter, living in Brooklyn with three roommates – which is about as far as he’s managed to get in untying himself from his mother’s apron strings.  Sonya (Nandita Shinoy), is a mildly neurotic, aspiring actress of Indian descent whose success to date has been limited to one major nationwide commercial and minor roles in a number of downtown off-off-Broadway theatrical productions.  With the money she earned from the commercial and a sub-prime mortgage loan, she has managed to acquire a small studio apartment (with a washer/dryer!) in an Upper East Side co-operative building and that’s where she’s currently living.

When Michael and Sonya travel to Las Vegas on a Vegas Groupon, they’re carried away by the moment (influenced, perhaps, by their stay in the Honeymoon Suite at the Monte Carlo) and marry impulsively at The Little White Chapel.  All well and good for they are very much in love but, as we all know, the course of true love never doth run smooth (at least not in the theatre).  And so, when they return to New York, they are forced to face reality and decide where to live.  

Obviously they can’t live in Michael’s apartment (what with the three roommates and all) and their present financial circumstances would seem to preclude their renting or purchasing a new apartment for the two of them.  So the only immediately viable solution is for Michael to move into Sonya’s studio apartment with her, small as it may be.  But what Sonya has neglected to tell Michael is that the rules of her co-op prohibit occupancy of her apartment by more than one person.  Which means that Sonya, unbeknownst to Michael, attempts to pass Michael off as nothing more than a temporary guest in her home, rather than as her husband.

That, of course, makes for all sorts of complications.  Wendee (Annie McNamara), the President of the Co-op Board is a stickler for the rules (most of which are of her own making) and she is generally distressed by Sonya’s flouting of those rules (including her failure to carpet 80% of her apartment, her lack of window guards, and her cavalier attitude toward leaving packages in the lobby).  Michael’s presence in Sonya’s apartment raises all sorts of suspicions in her mind - suspicions which are only amplified when she encounters Michael’s mother, Dr. Lee (Jade Wu), cooking dinner in the apartment.

Meanwhile Dr. Lee is most disapproving over Michaels’s marriage to Sonya, not because Sonya is of Indian rather than Chinese descent, but simply because Dr. Lee would disapprove of any woman whom her youngest son might have chosen to marry.  No girl, after all, could possibly be good enough for him.  But of course it all gets sorted out in the end, with a bit of sage assistance from Sam (Jamyl Dobson), Sonya’s flamboyantly gay, black best friend.

Washer/Dryer is great fun and would make a wonderful pilot for a successful television sitcom series in the manner of Friends or Cheers.  In writing her play, Nandita Shenoy has created several appealing characters and her own portrayal of the lead character, Sonya, is absolutely delightful.  Johnny Wu does a fine job as Michael in expressing just how torn he is between his mother and his new wife.  Both Annie McNamara as Wendee and Jade Wu as Dr. Lee succeed in conveying how true it is that maternal love will conquer all (so much for any disparagement of “New York values”!).  And as for Jamyl Dobson as Sam, well what is there to say?  He is truly larger than life, dominates any scene he is in, and yet succeeds in conveying a sense of centeredness that actually transcends that of all the other characters.