Sunday, May 22, 2016

ROSS & RACHEL at 59E59 Theaters

Molly Vevers in ROSS & RACHEL.  Photo by Alex Brenner.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the whole actually may be worth less than its parts.  And that is the case, I fear, with Ross & Rachel, currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, a year after its critically acclaimed production at the Edinburgh Fringe.  To be sure, the play by James Fritz is exceptionally well written – a terrific monologue or, rather, a finely executed dialogue between a long married husband and wife, with a single actor speaking for them both. Moreover, both the play’s direction and its staging are first rate.  And, perhaps most important, Molly Vevers’ bravura performance in this one woman tour de force really is something to write home about.

And yet, notwithstanding all that, the play left me dissatisfied and I would be loath to recommend it.

The play’s title is, of course, a direct allusion to Ross Geller and Rachel Green, the two prominent characters in Friends, the long-running television sitcom, (endearingly played by David Schwimmer and Jeniffer Ansiton).  In the TV sitcom, Ross (the nerd) and Rachel (the high school prom queen) were the on again off again friends clearly destined to become a loving couple.  But then what?

In Fritz’s play, TV’s Ross and Rachel are never mentioned but the play’s title, scattered allusions to incidents in the sitcom, and the personae played by Molly Vevers (she is a beautiful woman and her husband a nerdy college professor) are enough to make Fritz’s intention clear: it is to question whether story book endings really are likely in real life or whether flirtations, boredom, illness and death are more likely to take their toll on any romantic relationship.

Without disclosing too much about the play’s plot and denouement, suffice it to say that it all was a bit too much of a downer for my taste and even a bit macabre.  Yes, it was all done very well – but to what end?. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

CITY STORIES: Tales of Love and Magic in London by James Phillips

L-R: Phoebe Sparrow and Matthew Flynn in PEARL.  Photo by James Phillips.
City Stories: Tales of Love and Magic in London is currently enjoying its US premiere as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  This is not a single play but rather a half dozen wonderfully phantasmagorical one act plays, each of which has been written and directed by James Phillips and all of which, in the most unexpected ways, seek to explore the deepest interrelated issues of faith, love, change, connection and self-identity.  In lesser hands, these explorations might have come across as platitudinous or absurd or both but as written and directed by Phillips and as performed by this truly enthralling and accomplished cast, they are consistently entertaining and thought-provoking.

The six plays are Narcissi,The Great Secret, Lullaby, Occupy, Pearl and Carousel, but they are played in repertoire with a selection of just four at each performance.  In the opening performance that we attended, the four plays presented were Occupy, Lullaby, Narcissi, and Pearl.

Daphne Alexander in OCCUPY.  Photo by James Phillips

In Occupy, Mark (Matthew Flynn) is a member of a secret society working beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral to preserve all the letters written to God throughout history.  Ruth (Daphne Alexander) has written and posted just such a letter and now wants it back.  Her mesmerizing interaction with Mark makes for a terrific two hander.

In Lullaby, everyone in the world is rapidly falling asleep and Audrey (again played beautifully by Daphne Alexander) appears to be one of the last holdouts, if not the last.  Her closest friend, Rachel (Phoebe Sparrow) is sinking fast but there might yet be time for her to restore her relationship to Joe (Tom Gordon).

In Narcissi, Jack (Tom Gordon), an impoverished artist, informs Natalie (Sarah Quintrell), an equally impoverished pianist who he never met before, that she is truly the love of his life.  And it is up to the two of them, separately and together, to sort it all out.
Finally, in Pearl, David (Matthew Flynn) encounters a woman whom he takes to be the incarnation of his lost true love, Marguerite.  But is Pearl (Phoebe Sparrow) really who he thinks she is?

The four plays are all exquisitely written and performed with an almost other-worldly sense of style.  And the entire production is enhanced by the accompanying original music composed and performed live on the piano throughout the show by Rosabella Gregory.

Monday, May 2, 2016

TOAST by Richard Bean in Revival at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Steve Nicolson, Simon Greenall, Will Barton, Matthew Kelly, and Matt Sutton in TOAST.  Photo by Oliver King.

It seems to me that there really is much less to Richard Bean’s Toast than first meets the eye.

At first blush, the play, set in a drab, sterile bakery factory in Hull, appears to be something of an existential metaphor for the transience and meaninglessness of human life, inevitably resulting in death and despair (somewhat along the lines, perhaps, of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit).  Most of the play’s truly outstanding ensemble cast of seven, led by the cadaverous Mathew Kelly as Nellie, are predominately attired in white bakery aprons, (intended, it would seem, to underscore the colorlessness of their lives).  Nellie survives on cheese sandwiches and the short rations of cigarettes allowed him by his wife; others subsist on fish paste sandwiches. Several are sexually frustrated in their very limited lives outside the bakery, devolving into a motley crew of puerile pranksters at work: Cecil (Simon Greenall) has taken to sneaking up behind Peter (Matt Sutton) and grabbing his testicles while Blakey (Steve Nicolson) seems content simply fondling his own.  Colin (Will Barton)  is the group’s singularly ineffectual shop steward while Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) may be the most dysfunctional of all: he arrives late for his shift, can’t recall his new address or phone number, and struggles even to remove his motorcycle helmet.  Indeed, life in the factory may well have been just what Thomas Hobbes had in mind when he coined the phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

When Lance (John Wark), an alleged student of social and economic history, arrives on the scene, our initial expectations appear on the verge of realization.  He is a Mephistophelian character in a bright red shirt that contrasts sharply with the others’ drab whites, a self-described agnostic who ultimately describes himself to Nellie as “having raged unsuccessfully against the dying of the light several years ago,” as one for whom “being dead has made a significant difference in my life,” and as one from “The other side.  From across the metaphorical water….The land of living souls and rotting bodies.  The next world.”

Spoiler Alert!

And yet it is all for naught.  The red shirt is nothing more than a red herring.  When the oven breaks down and several of the men risk life and limb to put it right, some tragedy seems inevitable.  But it’s not.  No one dies; the oven is fixed; the men survive with nary a burn; Lance turns out to be mentally disturbed rather than sinister; and the men return to their cheese and fish paste sandwiches, their cigarettes, their sexual frustrations, and their twelve to sixteen hour days in the factory.  And that’s it.

Toast, Richard Bean’s first play, premiered at the Royal Court in 1999 and recently enjoyed a very successful revival in London and on tour throughout the UK.  And it is only now, after a delay of seventeen years, that it is belatedly being given its US premiere at  59E59 Theaters on East 59thStreet in midtown Manhattan (with its highly acclaimed British cast intact) as part of that theater’s highly regarded Brits Off Broadway program.
For the past several years, we have very much enjoyed the Brits Off Broadway programs staged annually at 59E59 Theaters.  This year, however, we have been mildly disappointed by the first two plays in the 2016 program.  For starters, we found Echoes, the initial play in this year’s program, to be rather wanting, despite outstanding performance by its co-stars, Filipa Braganca and Felicity Houlbrooke..  And now, having attended a performance of Toast, the second show in this year’s Brits Off Broadway program, we find that we’re experiencing a similar reaction: Toast’s seven man ensemble cast is truly outstanding, but as for the play itself, not so much.