Saturday, December 15, 2018

World Premiere of BITTER GREENS by Clea DeCrane at 59E59 Theaters

L-R:  Regan Sims, Andy Do, Jessica Darrow, Ben Lorenz, and Clea DeCrane in BITTER GREENS.  Photo by Brendan Swift.

I shouid not be surprised to learn that it was Rainer Maria Rilke’s work that inspired (or at least influenced) Clea DeCrane in her writing of  Bitter Greens, a well-crafted but less than earth-shattering play about five self-absorbed but fundamentally insecure millennials currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.  In “Notes” to the script of Bitter Greens, Ms DeCrane quotes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as follows:

“That is why us young people, who are beginners in everything, must, with our whole being, with all our forces, gather around our anxious, upward-beating hearts, and learn to love.  For we are so often and so disastrously wrong when we fling ourselves at each other when love takes hold of us, we scatter ourselves, just as we are, in all our messiness, disorder, bewilderment... and what can happen there?  

What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that we call our communion and that we would like to call our happiness, if that were possible, and our future?"

And, as if to underscore Rilke’s influence, the lead character in Bitter Greens, a 22 year old brilliantly successful overachiever, is named Reyna – played in this production by Ms DeCrane herself.  Three of the other four characters in the play – Caitlin (Jessica Darrow), Andrew (Andy Do), and Lily (Regan Sims) – are also 21 or 22 years old; all were classmates and friends as undergraduates at Berkeley; and, to a greater or lesser degree, all but Caitlin have bought into some sort of stereotypical Californian millennial foolishness: veganism, ultra-environmentalism, naturopathic medicine, etc.

Andrew, Reyna’s Japanese-American boyfriend, is cute and very much in love with her, but he is relatively ineffectual and indecisive (he has difficulty even deciding whether to stay in or eat out) and he certainly constitutes no threat to her.  Caitlin, one of Reyna’s closest friends from college, is a talented artist but can’t quite believe it herself.  And Lily, another of Reyna’s college friends, is involved with her partner, Indigo, in building a company that manufactures herb-infused tonics; she is excited over their success in acquiring the funding they need for their enterprise while glossing over the fact that most of it actually came from mommy and daddy.

Reyna and Andrew have just returned from Tokyo and she is eagerly awaiting word that she has landed the dream job she applied for at Green Communications (the most competitive post-grad program in the country).  There’s not much doubt that she’ll get it: after all, she did intern for Green Comm all through college (even winning the company’s Initiative/Leadership award), and she did double major in college, and she did graduate magna cum laude.  And, over the course of her entire life, she never did fail to get whatever it was that she set her sights on.

Never, that is, until now.

When Reyna learns that she didn’t get the job – and, what is worse, that Andrew got it instead – she simply goes off the rails.  It is a situation with which she cannot cope rationally because she never really learned how to deal with failure. (It is analogous to the picture Andrew painted for her of older Japanese children who, when they tripped, invariably fell on their faces because their overprotective parents consistently prevented them from falling as young children, with the result that they never learned to put their hands out in front of them to protect their faces.)  And so it is that Reyna’s relationship to Andrew takes a macabre turn in connection with her millennial obsession with vitamin supplements and super-foods.
And it is then that it all goes from bad to worse when Jack (Ben Lorenz) shows up.

Jack is the fifth member of the cast, not quite a millennial himself, but almost.  He’s 28 years old and relatively sexy but pretty much something of a grubby loser, nonetheless.  He dropped out of Stanford six years ago and is now working at Trader Joe’s while still harboring fantasies of returning to college some day.  When he delivers an order of stuffed peppers to Kayla in her presently vulnerable state, the immediate consequences are relatively foreseeable.  The ripple effect on the other members of Kayla’s millennial crowd are, however, less anticipated.

The press release for Bitter Greens describes the play as “an explosive look at the deep roots of jealousy and privilege, and how relationships can deteriorate when the foundation in which they were born completely changes”.  And the entire cast of Bitter Greens does do a superb job of bringing Clea DeCrane’s play to life and expressing just what it means to be a millennial in today’s world.   Yet, when all is said and done, I doubt if the play’s “explosive” insights would matter all that much to anyone who’s not a millennial herself.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut's MOTHER NIGHT Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Gabriel Grilli and Andrea Gallo in MOTHER NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In 1962, more than a half-century ago, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Mother Night, a meta-fictional novel brimming over with a plethora of audacious characters, both real and imaginary: Nazi propagandists, double agents, Communist spies, white supremacists, and on and on.  A motion picture adaptation of the novel was released in1996, featuring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman.  But it was not until last year that the novel was adapted for the stage by Brian Katz, premiering to generally very positive reviews at Custom Made Theatre Company in San Francisco 

The play has now arrived in New York, directed by Brian Katz, where it is enjoying its East Coast premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.  And it is simply terrific.

Mother Night is the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Gabriel Grilli), an American-born writer raised in Germany since the age of 11, whose literary ability brought him to the attention of Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine - which he ended up serving all too well.  To be sure, he had also been recruited as a double agent for the United States and he did pass along coded secret information to the Allies in his virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts heard throughout Germany.  But it was still the case that those broadcasts inspired the German people, reinforcing their belief in Hitler’s and Goebbels’ racist propaganda.  Or as Vonnegut wrote: “he served evil too well and good too secretly, the crime of our times.”

As the play begins, Campbell is in an Israeli jail, writing his memoirs and awaiting trial for his war crimes by the State of Israel.  And as the play ends, he is preparing to leave the world and contemplating the morals he has learned along the way:

When you are dead, you are dead…

Make love when you can.  It is good for you.

And, perhaps most important of all:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Between the play’s opening scene and its closing moments, we are treated to a variety of flashbacks to different events at different times and in different settings, in which six other very talented actors play a wide variety of different roles.  Campbell is married to Helga (Trish Lindstrom), a famous German actress,  but loses her in the war.  He is approached by his “blue fairy godmother,” Frances Wirtanen (Andrea Gallo), an American secret agent who convinces him to spy for the US and pass along coded secret messages to the Allies in his radio broadcasts.  After the war, he is captured by Lt. Bernard O’ Hare (Dared Wright) of the American Third Army but manages to avoid the hangman’s noose when Wirtanen succeeds in “disappearing” him and settling him anonymously in Greenwich Village.

It is there that he meets George Kraft (Dave Sikula), a reclusive artist who also turns out to be a Communist spy, and Lionel Jones (Eric Rice), a paranoid-schizophrenic dentist and the leader of a white supremacist organization.  And along the way, we also are introduced to Helga’s younger sister, Resi, and Campbell’s mother (both of whom are also played by Trish Lindstrom); Helga and Resi’s Nazi father, Noth, (also played by Dared Wright); Joseph Goebbels (also played by Dave Sikula); and a young Dr Epstein and Adolf Eichmann (both played by Matthew Van Oss).

Ultimately, Campbell, betrayed by both Kraft and Resa and his spirit broken, determines to accept the consequences of his wartime actions, arranges to be captured by Israel’s Mossad and be taken to Israel, there to await a fair trial for the war crimes he committed – despite his receipt of another letter from Wirtanen offering to intercede on his behalf to set him free.

The play is extraordinary in its scope, a tribute to both Vonnegut and Katz, and to the performances it has elicited from its very talented cast.  Assuredly, this is one well worth seeing.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

SEPARATE AND EQUAL Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Adrian Baidoo and Ross Birdsong in SEPARATE AND EQUAL.  Photo by Jeff Hanson.

Currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, Separate and Equal is a powerful, provocative, and timely play that addresses the issue of America’s racist history with considerable insight and unusual creativity.  Written and directed by Seth Panitch, the play was produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Metro NAACP and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and was inspired by personal recollections from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.

The play is set in Birmingham, Alabama in 1951, three years before the Warren Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision mandating school integration - and thereby overturning the holding of Plessey v. Ferguson which had established the concept of “separate but equal” as the law of the land.  The play perfectly captures the essence of Jim Crow Alabama at that time through the medium of a series of basketball games played by six teenagers – three white and three black – struggling to deal with its constraints.

The set for Separate and Equal is designed to simulate a basketball court, one that is reserved for whites during most of the week and is only supposed to be used by blacks on Sundays.  Today, however, when three black teenagers – Calvin (Adrian Baidoo), Emmett (James Holloway) and Nathan (Edwin Brown III) – show up, it is only Wednesday.  Presumably, though, any white teenagers who might have wanted to use the court are all in school, so what can be the harm if….

Except for the fact that three white teenagers – Edgar (Ross Birdsong), Jeff (Steven Bono Jr.), and Wesley (Dylan Guy Davis) - have chosen this day to cut school and they show up too.  The situation is fraught with risk but the teenagers manage to overcome it (at least superficially and for a while) in a manner superior to what their elders might have achieved.  The older generation, after all, was so set in its ways that even the idea of a black teenager’s addressing a white teenager by his first name without attaching the honorific “Mister” was difficult to accept.  Certainly Edgar’s mother, Annabelle (Barbra Wengerd) and Calvin’s mother, Viola (Pamela Afesi) – who worked for Annabelle – were uncomfortable with it.

Separate and Equal can be enjoyed and appreciated on many levels.  It is a first-rate depiction of the relationships between whites and blacks in Jim Crow Alabama in the 1950s – not only relationships of teenagers with one another but also relationships with black elders such as Two Snakes (Will Badgett) and with police officers such as Lt. Connor (Ted Barton) and Lt. Dixx (Jeremy Cox).  It is also a brilliantly choreographed rendition of a basketball game that I found enthralling.  And the playing out of the basketball games, which are at the very center of the play, turn out to be a wonderful metaphor for the evolution of race relations in this country over the last century.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

SONGBOOK SUMMIT Concludes With The Anderson Twins Tribute to Jimmy Van Heusen

The Anderson twins at SONGBOOK SUMMIT.

This year’s four weeks’ production of Songbook Summit at Symphony Space, featuring Peter and Will Anderson on saxophones, clarinet and flute, has come to a close with a tribute to the life and works of Jimmy Van Heusen, Frank Sinatra’s good friend and go-to songwriter.  In the first three weeks of the 2018 Songbook Summit production, the Anderson twins, supported by Tardo Hammer on piano, Clovis Nicolas on acoustic bass, Philip Stewart on drums, and Molly Ryan on vocals, played the songs of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Hoagy Carmichael,. All of those programs featured musical arrangements by Peter and narratives by Will, together with a wide array of historical film clips and drawings from the Al Hirschfield archives and all three programs were enormously entertaining (see our recent posts on all three programs).

It is not at all surprising, then, that the final week’s program, devoted to Van Heusen and staged in a similar format, was equally entertaining.  The Van Heusen name (which the composer assumed after seeing an advertisement for the shirt company!) may not be as recognizable as that of Berlin, Kern or Carmicahael, but perhaps it should be.  Van Heusen was, after all, exceptionally prolific, having written 800 songs recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Bette Midler, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane, from Peggy Lee to Doris Day, and from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra (who alone recorded 85 of them).

Among the Van Heusen hits featured in this final Songbook Summit program were Love and Marriage, High Hopes, Like Someone in Love, It Could Happen to You, My Kind of Town, Here’s That Rainy Day, and, in a terrific finale, Come Fly With Me.  The film clips that accompanied the musical program were also remarkably enlightening, including shots of characters as disparate as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; the members of the “Rat Pack” (Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop); Groucho Marx; Bette Midler; Willie Nelson; and Johnny Carson.

The 2018 Songbook Summit may be over but the Anderson twins are planning a similar program for next year devoted to four other renowned American composers (individual selections have not yet been made).  I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Anderson Twins Play Hoagy Carmichael at SONGBOOK SUMMIT

L-R: Molly Ryan, Peter Anderson and Will Anderson in SONGBOOK SUMMIT.  Photo by Geri Reichgut.

Irving Berlin was arguably the greatest American composer of the twentieth century and Jerome Kern may well have had an even greater influence on the Broadway musical, but Hoagy Carmichael was unquestionably “jazzier” than either of them – both figuratively and literally.  Indeed, Carmichael was so “jazzy” in a figurative sense that he actually served as one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations in his creation of James Bond.  And, in a literal sense, one need only listen to Bix Biederbecke’s recording of Riverboat Shuffle, Carmichael’s first big Dixieland hit – or recordings of Stardust or Skylark or Jubilee or Georgia on My Mind, for that matter - to appreciate the enormous musical contribution that Carmichael made to the jazz world.

Songbook Summit, featuring Peter and Will Anderson, two exceptionally talented musicians on saxophones, clarinets and flute, has been running at Symphony Space on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan since early August.  It is a four weeks program devoted to the works of Irving Berlin (August 7-12), Jerome Kern (August 14-19), Hoagy Carmichael (August 21-26), and Jimmy Van Heusen (August 28-September 2).  We were fortunate in having attended performances of both the Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern programs and we enjoyed them both immensely, not only for their musical entertainment values but for their educational values as well (see our recent reviews of both programs). But having just come from the penultimate performance in the Hoagy Carmichael program, I must say that, strictly from a musical standpoint, this was the best program of the three.

I suspect that that may be because Carmichael was so much more of a true jazz composer than Berlin or Kern ever were, so that the Anderson twins found themselves so much more in their own element when performing his works.  And that may be true of the other very talented musicians backing up the Andersons as well: Tardo Hammer on piano, Clovis Nicolas on acoustic bass, Philip Stewart on drums, and Molly Ryan on vocals.  But whatever the reason, the Carmichael program was just terrific with several knockout performances.

I was particularly taken with the Anderson twins’ opening performance of Riverboat Shuffle, with Tardo Hammer’s virtuoso solo piano performance of Heart and Soul, and, of course, with Molly Ryan’s big band renditions of Skylark, Jubilee, The Nearness of You, Lazy River, Two Sleepy People, and Georgia on my Mind.  All in all, the segment of Songbook Summit devoted to Hoagy Carmichael clearly was a huge success.

The final program in this year’s Songbook Summit will focus on Jimmy Van Heusen and will run from August 28 through September 2.  I can hardly wait.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Anderson Twins Play Jerome Kern in SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space

L-R: Peter and Will Anderson in SONGBOOK SUMMIT

Chalk up another win for the Anderson twins.  We have just come from the Jerome Kern program they staged in the second week of this year’s Songbook Summit at Symphony Space on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (August 14-19) and we found it to be as delightfully entertaining as was the Irving Berlin program we attended during the first week (August 7-12). (See our August 12 post: “Peter and Will Anderson Present SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space”).

If Irving Berlin was the greatest American composer of the twentieth century, Jerome Kern was assuredly the composer who had the greatest influence on the Broadway musical.  Prior to 1927, Broadway musicals largely consisted of light comedies, revues, and operettas in the European tradition but Kern’s production of Showboat that year changed all that.  For the first time, a plot-driven musical play was staged on Broadway, one dealing with racism and other serious subjects, and Broadway has not been the same since.

In the course of his remarkable career, Kern collaborated with the leading lyricists of his time including P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin.  He wrote over 700 songs used in over 100 stage works including such classics as Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, The Song Is You, I Won’t Dance, Nobody Else But Me, and The Way You Look Tonight.

Peter and Will Anderson have taken all this material and used it to create a terrific jazz program based on Kern’s work (arrangements by Peter).  This, of course, is rather ironic given that Kern didn’t care for jazz and was vehemently opposed to altering, adapting or interfering with his work – which is absolutely essential to its jazz re-interpretation and improvisation.  But the Anderson twins have done such a great job that I’d like to think that Kern would be more than willing to forgive them.

The Anderson twins are exceptionally talented jazz musicians (Peter on the tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, and Will on the alto sax, clarinet and flute).  Peter’s arrangements are also excellent and Will does a superb job of educating his audience with narratives, video presentations, and lessons, even while entertaining them musically.  And, in the performance I attended, the brothers were also very fortunate in being backed up by three other top flight musicians: Tardo Hammer on the piano, Clovis Nicolas on the acoustic bass, and Phil Stewart on the drums.

And we cannot forget Molly Ryan on vocals whose renditions of Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, A Fine Romance, and I Won’t Dance were all exceptional.

The third program in this year’s Songbook Summit will focus on Hoagy Carmichael and will run from August 21 through August 26.  I’m looking forward to it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Peter and Will Anderson Present SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space

Peter and Will Anderson, 31 year old identical twins, are exceptionally talented jazz musicians (Peter on the tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, and Will on the alto sax, clarinet and flute).  Together they currently are presenting this year’s Songbook Summit, a homage to four of the greatest American songwriters of the last century: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jimmy Van Heusen.

In Songbook Summit, the twins are devoting a week of performances to each of the four composers at Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Each show runs 90 minutes without intermission and consists not only of musical performances by the twins but also video presentations, Al Hirschfeld drawings, and informative narration by Will regarding the subject of that week’s performances.  In their musical performances, the twins are backed up by Tardo Hammer or Steve Ash on the piano, Clovis Nicolas on the acoustic bass, Phil Stewart on the drums, and Molly Ryan on vocals.

The first of the four programs (which ran from August 7 through August 12) was devoted to Irving Berlin, arguably the greatest American songwriter in history and it was really terrific.  It began with a wonderful rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band and concluded with a very creative arrangement of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, in which call and response were between Molly Ryan (vocally) and the Anderson twins (instrumentally).  Also included in the program were great performances of Puttin On the Ritz, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Blue Skies, Isn’t This a Lovely Day, White Christmas, Always, and I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.

The Irving Berlin program has now drawn to a close so if you missed it, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.  But you still can get tickets to the Jerome Kern program which will be running from August 14-19; the Hoagy Carmichael program which will be running from August 21-26; and the Jimmy Van Heusen program which will be running from August 28-September 2.  And if those programs turn out to be anywhere near as good as the Irving Berlin program was, you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Ellinor DiLorenzo Stars in BELOVED by Lisa Langseth at The Lion Theatre

Ellinor DiLorenzo as Katarina in BELOVED at The Lion Theatre.

Beloved by Lisa Langseth was originally produced in Sweden and subsequently adapted into the film Pure - which won the 2010 Guldbagge Award (Sweden’s equivalent of our Academy Award) for Best Screenplay.  The play, in an English translation by Charlotte Barslung and directed by Kathy Curtiss, has now arrived in New York where it is enjoying its US premiere in a fine production by Scandinavian American Theater Company at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.

Katarina (Ellinor DiLorenzo) is a culturally and socially unsophisticated young woman, employed at the mall, and living with her boyfriend Mattias in a mundane and barely satisfactory relationship.  It is not that there is anything really wrong with Mattias: he is a “nice guy” with a regular job as a fork lift operator who treats Katarina decently and both of Katarina’s parents like him. It is just that he is pretty much of a couch potato and while sex with him is OK, that’s all it is, just OK.  And Katarina is convinced - or at least hopes – that there is more to life than that, that there can be more “truth,” more “freedom.” After all, one only lives once.

And then Katarina discovers classical music and has a true musical epiphany. Which in turn leads to her entering into a relationship with Adam, an acclaimed conductor at an opera house - and the consequences of that relationship are more disastrous than epiphanous.  Unsurprisingly, Adam is a married man whose family invariably takes precedence over his relationship with Katarina.  (The child seat installed in the front of Adam’s car inevitably relegates Katarina to the back seat alone whenever Adam has occasion to drive them anywhere.)

Beloved is a one-woman show.  Neither Mattias nor Adam nor anyone else ever makes an appearance.  Rather, Katarina delivers an extraordinary monologue describing her social, cultural, intellectual and sexual growth while in thrall to Adam – and the price she pays for it.  Or as the playwright herself describes what she has written: The self-destructive person is interesting and terrible. Beloved is about a person who searches for her own destruction.

Elinor DiLorenzo’s performance as Katarina is spot on, capturing the passions, the frustrations, the aspirations, the resentments and the ambivalences of a young woman in today’s politically correct yet still largely patriarchal society.  It is a performance not to be missed.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


R-L: Molly Groome and Jake Robinson in THE PLOT, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Summer Shorts: A Festival of New American Short Plays, produced by Thoroughline Artists and hosted annually at 59E59 Theaters, consists of six one-act plays performed in repertory in two parts.  This year, the first part, Series A, consists of The Living Room by Robert O’Hara; Kenny’s Tavern by Abby Rosebrock; and Grounded by Chris Bohjalian.  The second, Series B is comprised of The Plot by Claire Zajdel, Ibis by Eric Lane, and Sparring Partner by Neil LaBute.

As we indicated in our last post, we were rather disappointed by the plays in Series A.  We have just seen the plays in Series B, however, and we found them to be far more entertaining.

In The Plot, a creative and artfully contrived take on the intra-familial dynamics attendant on their parents’ divorce, two adult siblings are forced to confront their mother’s attempt to control their lives even after she is gone - and their budding awareness of their own mortality.  Frankie (Molly Groome) is a 26 year-old no-nonsense associate at a law firm; her 28 year-old brother, Tyler (Jake Robinson), is a freer spirit. At their mother’s behest, they meet in a cemetery to view the final resting place she has arranged for herself – only to discover that she has arranged for theirs as well.

L-R: Lindsey Broad and Deandre Sevon in IBIS, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Ibis is far and away the most convoluted and intricate of the three works – perhaps even a bit too much so for a one-act play.  Victor (Harold Surratt) abandoned his family twenty years ago when his son, Tyrone (Deandre Savon), was only seven years old.   Over the years, there were a slew of rumors about Victor – that he had opened a jazz club in Paris, that he was electrocuted in a freak accident, that he hanged himself out of remorse.  Now in his late 20’s and with his mother just having died of cancer, Tyrone determines to discover the truth about his father.

To that end, he retains a female private detective, the aptly-named albeit pseudonymous “Sam Spade” (Lindsey Broad) – who he meets at The Blue Parrot but who, rather unexpectedly, alleges no awareness of who Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet were nor what The Maltese Falcon nor Double Indemnity referred to – in order to solve the mystery and, if possible, track down his father.  Sam succeeds and Tyrone eventually does meet with his father, only to question Victor more about Victor’s own childhood and Victor’s own absent father than his own.

Tyrone, as it turns out, seeks answers to the world’s mysteries and the meaning of life in numbers, in alphanumeric codes, and in the quantification of the unquantifiable.  And, surprisingly, there may have been more to his apparent foolishness than one might have expected.  As for Sam, she seems to have been struggling with her own childhood demons.

One of the play’s main themes is the cyclical repetition of history as Victor reprised his own father’s effective abandonment of him in his own abandonment of Tyrone.  A second theme is Tyrone’s contrived mathematical exposition of coincidences.  And a third relates to Sam’s own mysterious background, about which we are left largely in the dark.  That’s a lot to deal with and the playwright’s surfeit of material might well have been utilized even more effectively in three different plays, rather than having been crammed into just one.

L-R: Joanna Christie and Keilyn Durrel Jones in SPARRING PARTNER, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Sparring Partner is quintessential Neil LaBute, a sharply written and insightful two-hander exposing some of the more tragicomic aspects of our human existence.  A woman (Joanna Christie) and a man (Keilyn Durrel Jones), her boss, meet frequently for lunch in the park.  He is married, she is divorced, and they both are movie aficionados, using the lunchtime opportunity to play Hollywood Names. Theirs has been a long time flirtation, but only of the mind.  Or almost only so.  There have been the occasional touches or hugs or even dances but nothing that might even remotely be considered sexually inappropriate.  And yet there is no doubt that their feelings for one another run deep, that he considers his marriage to be a failure, and that she’d hop into bed with him in a moment if he really were available.  But is it commitment to his marriage or just a lack of courage that prevents him from taking the next step?  And will she be willing to go on this way with him forever?

I found Sparring Partner to be the best of the three plays, not only because of LaBute’s writing but equally importantly because of Joanna Christie’s and Keilyn Durrel Jones’s sparkling performances.  They were both absolutely terrific.

If you’re planning on seeing only one series in this year’s production of Summer Shorts: A Festival of New American Short Plays, I recommend that you make it Series B.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES A at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Kate Buddeke and Adam Landon in THE LIVING ROOM, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo be Carol Rosegg.

For the past twelve years, Thoroughline Artists has staged an annual program of Summer Shorts: A Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theatres.  Each year’s program generally consisted of six short plays by both established and emerging playwrights, divided into two series of three one-act plays each.  And each year’s program generally proved to be extremely entertaining.

This year’s program again consists of six one-act plays, three in Series A and three in Series B. The plays in Series A are The Living Room by Robert O’Hara; Kenny’s Tavern by Abby Rosebrock; and Grounded by Chris Bohjalian.  The three in Series B are Sparring Partner by Neil LaBute; Ibis by Eric Lane; and The Plot by Claire Zajdel.

I have not yet seen Series B which won’t open officially until August 5 but I have just seen Series A and I must say I was rather disappointed.

For starters, I thought that The Living Room jumped the shark and was largely incomprehensible.  It has been presented as a satire about Frank (Adam Landon) and Judy (Kate Buddeke), white people in a living room who simply do what white people do but who come to question the very nature of their reality – in the course of which they break down the fourth wall, engage in Brechtian absurdities, endow the playwright (or director) of the play in which they just happen to find themselves with God-like attributes, and blur the distinction between actors and audience - and all with gratuitous racial overtones.  I found the entire play to be a mash-up of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage…,” Becket’s Waiting for Godot, The Truman Show, and Westworld.  I’m really not certain what the playwright’s intentions were but I didn’t find the work interesting enough to try even harder to find out.

L-R: Francesca Fernandez MaKenzie and Stephen Guarino in KENNY'S TAVERN, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo be Carol Rosegg.
Unlike The Living Room, both Kenny’s Tavern and Grounded were comprehensible but had the depth of #MeToo hashtag messages.  Both plays again explored the sad truth that women have frequently been sexually exploited by mentors, married men, and men old enough to be their fathers, but neither play brought any new insights to the issue.  In Kenny’s Tavern, the exploited woman is a school teacher, Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), who would readily have slept with her married man exploiter, Ryan (Stephen Guarino) if he’d only been willing and who analogizes her relationship with Ryan to that of Monica Lewinsky with Bill Clinton.  And in Grounded the exploited woman, an airline stewardess, is Emily (Grace Experience) who was the victim of years of statutory rape, the traumatic aftereffects of which don’t seem to have left her with anything worse than a surmountable fear of flying over the ocean.

L-R: K.K. Glick and Grace Experience in GROUNDED, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The actors in all three plays do as effective a job as might be expected in their respective roles, given the material they have to work with.  I only wish that material were better.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

THE POSSIBILITIES by Howard Barker and THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE by Caryl Churchill

L-R: Kathleen Wise and Madeleine Russell in THE POSSIBILITIES.  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Now in its thirty-second repertory season, PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) is staging an engaging double bill at Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan, featuring a portion of Howard Barker’s The Possibilities together with Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke.

The Possibilities was written in 1986 and consists of ten short plays that explore the illogical, irrational, counter-factual, and counter-intuitive aspects of the human condition within a variety of different contexts and at various times in history.  It does so in a manner that Barker referred to as “Theatre of Catastrophe” but which I see as a more traditional example of “Theatre of the Absurd” or “Theatre of the Ridiculous.” In this production, only four of Barker’s ten vignettes are staged but they are more than enough to keep your head spinning.

In the first, The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act, Judith (Kathleen Wise) seduces her enemy - and decapitates him.  In the second, Reasons for the Fall of Emperors, Alexander of Russia (Jonathan Tindle) relates to an Officer (Adam Milano) and to a Peasant bootblack (Christopher Marshall) in unexpected ways.  In the third, Only Some Can Take the Strain, an itinerant bag-lady Bookseller exhibits a surprising attitude toward her wares - and a bit of paranoia which might well be justified. And in the fourth, She Sees the Argument But, which was far and away my favorite of the four pieces, a Woman (Madeleine Russell) is reprimanded by an Official (Kathleen Wise) for the promiscuous act of exposing her ankles – and rather than expressing remorse, suggests that her promiscuity might extend well beyond that.

L-R: Jonathan Tindle, Tara Giordano and Kathleen Wise in THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE.  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke was written originally in 1978 as a television play before its subsequent adaptation for the stage.  It is the story of a young girl, Selby (Tara Giordano), eager to do good as a charity worker and scrupulously avoiding entangling her charitable work with politics.  As she puts it: “
By definition charity is non-political. By definition, politics is uncharitable”. 
The play introduces a multitude of characters - including Selby’s philanthropic boss, Price (Jonathan Tindle)  as well as assorted rock stars, food columnists, and politicians - and features impressive multi-media effects,  unfolding in 66 short, episodic scenes, in the course of which Selby learns that separating charitable and political issues really is an impossibility.  Or as the Mayor (Chris Marshall) proclaims: “There’s something political in everything.”

The play is a scathing indictment of charitable institutions, much of it justifiable. But it then often devolves into a gratuitous attack on the free market capitalist system as a whole, which I found to be far less justifiable.  In any event, the play is sharply written, well-directed, and beautifully performed.

And so, in sum, this is a double bill well worth seeing.   

Friday, July 20, 2018

Edward Gero Stars as Antonin Scalia in THE ORIGINALIST

L-R: Edward Gero Stars as Antonin Scalia in THE ORIGINALIST.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Antonin Scalia was the son of an Italian immigrant father and first generation Italian-American mother; a devout Roman Catholic; the father of nine children; an opera-lover; and a law professor who taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and Stamford University.  But he is best remembered as one of the most brilliant, influential, principled, conservative and controversial Supreme Court justices in recent history.

Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed by the Senate (98-0) in 1986, serving on the Court with great distinction until his untimely death 28 years later.  One of the most conservative members of the Court, he vigorously opposed treating the Constitution as a “living document” whose provisions could be re-interpreted by the judiciary over time to reflect changing times.  Rather, he saw the Constitution as a document fixed in its meaning whose words were no more subject to re-interpretation than were the notes of a musical score (which remained for all time as they were first written).  Thus, he described himself as an “originalist,” by which he meant that he sought to interpret the Constitution as he believed it had been understood when it was first adopted.  As he expressed it: “it’s what did the words mean to the people who ratified the Bill of Rights or who ratified the Constitution.”

It was this approach that led Scalia inexorably to his conclusions that the death penalty (clearly recognized in the original Constitution) was constitutionally permissible but that the Constitution did not recognize any inherent rights to abortion or same-sex marriage (which were not even referenced in the Constitution).  It was not that he necessarily believed that the death penalty was a desirable punishment nor that he thought that abortion or same-sex marriage were undesirable (although he very well might have), but rather that he felt that it was not up to the judiciary but to the legislature to make such decisions.  In his opinion, if the people wanted to ban capital punishment or legalize abortion or same-sex marriage, that was their right – but they had to do it through legislation, not through judicial activism.

It was also this approach that led Scalia to uphold an individual’s Second Amendment right to own a firearm, determining that the term “militia” as used in that amendment would have been understood, at the time of the amendment’s ratification to have meant “the body of all citizens.”  It was this approach, too, that led Scalia to oppose “reverse racist” affirmative action programs or policies that accorded special status to favored classes on the grounds that such programs or policies were clearly unconstitutional (being inconsistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law).  And it was this principled approach that sometimes led Scalia to decisions that he, himself, said he “deplored,” such as his upholding the constitutionality of flag-burning as an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

The Originalist, written by John Strand and directed by Molly Smith, is a truly mesmerizing and thought-provoking play.  Set during the 2012-13 term of the US Supreme Court and focusing on the complex persona of Antonin Scalia (with all his strengths and weaknesses), the play premiered in Washington, DC in 2015, less than a year before Scalia’s untimely death.  It is currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan at a most appropriate moment, with our nation as politically polarized as I can ever remember it being and with the Senate on the verge of debating the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Edward Gero is truly remarkable in his channeling of Antonin Scalia – body and soul.  He does a fine job expounding Scalia’s judicial philosophy but, even more importantly, he communicates the man’s underlying sense of fairness and deeply-rooted humanity, as evidenced by the close relationship he shared with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Court’s most liberal members and in many ways his polar opposite – and by his decision to select a liberal to challenge him as one of his four law clerks.

Cat (Tracy Ifeachor) is the liberal law clerk Scalia chose for this term – and she may be more than even he bargained for.  She is a self-described socialist, a top-of-her-class Harvard Law School graduate, a black woman, and a lesbian to boot - and her values and beliefs, on everything from gay marriage to gun control to abortion - are diametrically opposed to Scalia’s.  And she is determined to influence Scalia as much as he might influence her, thereby helping to restore the political middle to our polarized society.

The Originalist is basically a two-hander, with Scalia and Cat sharing the stage as sparring partners.  Cat gives as good as she gets, a tribute to Tracy Ifeachor’s own considerable talents.
The only other character in the play is Brad (Brett Mack), a Republican, white male who had been Cat’s contemporary at Harvard.  His more limited role in the play seems to be to act as something of a foil to Cat and to re-raise the issue of affirmative action from another perspective   It is a role which he handles very effectively.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

PTP/NYC Stages BRECHT ON BRECHT at Atlantic Stage 2

L-R: Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Jake Murphy, and Carla Martinez in BRECHT ON BRECHT.  Photo by Stan Barouh.
An exile from Nazi Germany, an avowed Marxist, and an unabashed apologist for Soviet Communism, Bertolt Brecht was unquestionably one of the most influential playwrights of the last century.  The author of more than fifty plays and screenplays – including The Threepenny Opera, The Life of Galileo, The Good Women of Setzuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Mother Courage and Her Children – as well as hundreds of poems, he upended the classic theatrical world with his innovative “epic theater,” a non-linear self-referential socio-political exercise in which audiences were continually reminded that what they were watching was not real but only a representation of reality.  To that end, he sought to “alienate” his audiences through the use of a variety of spectacular dramatic incongruities including the elimination of conventional props, circus-like atmospherics, breaking down the “fourth wall,” and having characters step out of their assigned roles to engage their audiences directly.

Brecht’s work was greatly informed by the fact that he was forced to flee Nazi Germany, initially settling in Scandinavia before emigrating to the United States, only returning to East Berlin in 1947 after having been investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist views. – and by the fact that he was a staunch Marxist and apologist for Soviet Communism.  Brecht’s socio-political and dramatic inclinations led inexorably to his ridiculing and parodying capitalism and free market systems for their presumed devolution into authoritarianism and his perception of their other shortcomings (including the exploitation of the individual).

Now in its thirty-second season, PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project)) is persisting in its mission to present theatrically complex and thought-provoking work of contemporary social and cultural relevance and, to that end, it is currently staging a superb revival of Brecht on Brecht at Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan.  As adapted by George Tabori from a potpourri of songs and excerpts from Brecht’s plays and private texts, Brecht on Brecht was originally produced in 1961, but it remains a remarkable revue of the playwright’s life and is as timely today as it was more than a half-century ago.

The play remains true to the principles of Brecht’s “epic theater,” with its Company of ten highly accomplished performers all donning red noses and cavorting about onstage in a rollicking circus-like atmosphere and directly addressing the audience while delivering powerful monologues and soliloquies and fine renditions of eleven of Brecht’s best-known songs (set to the music of two of Brecht’s principal collaborators, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler).  All of the performances were good but my very favorites were Army Song and Barbara Song (both sung by the entire Company), Pirate Jenny (sung by Christine Hamel) and Surabaya Johnny (sung by Carla Martinez) - and what was for me, the high point of the play, not a musical rendition at all but rather an exceptional monologue by Christine Hamel in the role of Judith Keith, “The Jewish Wife” forced to flee Nazi Germany. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

THE PROPERTY by Ben Josephson Premieres at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row

L-R: Warren Kelley, John Long, Phil Gillen, and Rachel Botchan in THE PROPERTY.  Photo by Hunter Canning/@huntercanning

The first of Ben Josephson’s seven plays to be produced in New York, The Property is currently premiering at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  Not totally realistic but not entirely impressionistic either, the play seeks to provide insights into the lives of five intimately-related but singularly dysfunctional individuals.

Irene (Rachel Botchan) is the play’s central character.  Previously married to Vernon (Sam Tsoutsouvas), an economically successful but flagrantly immoral man, she is currently married to Eddie (Warren Kelley), Vernon’s polar opposite.  While Vernon is an unapologetic wealthy beneficiary of our capitalist system, Eddie is a low-paid bookstore employee and would-be Marxist revolutionary. And where Vernon is a highly-sexed, fun-loving, womanizer whose philandering led to his divorce from Irene and his virtual abandonment of their son, Todd (Phil Gillen), Eddie is a faithful husband to Irene and a concerned and well-meaning step-father to Todd – albeit a rather boring and uninspiring man in his own right and one who much prefers to spend his time reading books in the family cottage rather than engaging in more personal contact with other human beings.

But Irene’s divorce and remarriage didn’t just affect Vernon, Eddie and Todd, it changed Irene too: once free-spirited and artistically creative (when married to Vernon), she has since settled for the more stultifying life of a mid-level bank employee.  When Greg (John Long), a compassionate school teacher but relatively ineffectual and unsuccessful individual shows up to rent the cottage, the lives of all concerned are up-ended.  Vernon, who has been estranged from both Irene and Todd for years, returns to attempt to advise Irene regarding the economic and financial ramifications of her rental of the cottage to Greg and, at Irene’s urging, to try (reluctantly) to assist Todd in establishing his own career path.  Greg becomes enamored of Irene and she of him, but not to much avail given their moral scruples.   Eddie loses his job – for which he blames what he perceives as a corrupt capitalist system - but he resents the loss of his cottage retreat to Greg even more than he resents the loss of his job and he turns increasingly to drink.  Meanwhile Todd’s teenage rebellion, aggravated by Vernon’s initial abandonment and subsequent interference in his life, his lack of respect for Eddie, and his dismay at his mother’s infatuation with Greg, result in his descent into full-fledged heroin addiction. 

In a program note, the play’s director, Robert Kalfin wrote:

“The play is not judgmental.  Rather it is humanely compassionate and understanding; offering no solutions, just a portrait for reflection.”

Well, you sure could have fooled me.  I found the play to be quite judgmental – and justifiably so.  The portraits it paints of the five principals virtually cry out for judgment.  Should one not be judgmental regarding Vernon’s infidelities and his abandonment of his children?  Or of Eddie’s refusal to accept responsibility for his own life?  Or of Greg’s reluctance to come to grips with the real world? 

In any event, notwithstanding Josephson’s or Kalfin’s intents, the play certainly elicited judgments from me.  And I think that’s a good thing.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Jessica Walker Channels Suzy Solidor in ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Joseph Atkins, Jessica Walker, and Alexandra Mathie in ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It is no accident that Suzy Solidor lacks the name recognition of Edith Piaf or Marlene Dietrich; admittedly she was not in their class as a French chanteuse of the 1930’s and 1940s. And yet Solidor surely deserves greater recognition, not only as the openly bi-sexual, cross-dressing, flamboyant owner-entertainer of La Vie Parisienne, located in the first gay quarter of Paris and one of the hottest Parisian nightclubs of the time, but also as the “most painted woman in the world,” having had her portrait painted more than 200 times by such celebrated artists as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques, Raoul Dufy, Francis Bacon, Man Ray, Erte, Jean Cocteau, and Tamara de Lempicka.

The illegitimate daughter of a charwoman, Solidor came to believe that her father, an attorney who had abandoned her, was really the descendent of an infamous French pirate, prompting her to sing of  “the sea, sex and sailors” – that is, when she was not belting out even more erotic, Sapphic tunes.  Consistent with her personality, Solidor catered to all comers, both heterosexuals and homosexuals, at La Vin Parisienne, and not only to French intellectuals and French entertainers but also to Nazi officers - which ultimately led to her conviction as a Nazi collaborator after the war.

Jessica Walker is an exceptional, multi-talented woman in her own right, as a playwright, translator, actress and singer.  Not only has she brought Solidor to our overdue attention by penning All I Want Is One Night, currently being staged as part of the Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59Theaters, but in doing so, she personally translated Solidor’s songs from French to English and now is starring, as actress and singer, in this production.

Walker is superb in channeling Solidor’s persona and is very ably supported by the other two members of the production’s small cast.  Rachel Austin portrays both Daisy and Giselle, the former being one of Solidor’s long-time lesbian lovers and the latter being her much put upon handmaid of her later years when Solidor was descending into an alcoholic abyss of her own making.  Alexandra Mathie is even more versatile, playing five different roles including those of Bengt Lindstrom (the latest in the long line of artists commissioned to paint Solidor’s portrait); Tamara de Lempicka (who painted the most famous of Solidor’s portraits and who was another of her many gay lovers); Bambi (a flamboyant drag queen); and her long lost father. 

And special mention must be made of Joseph Atkins, the play’s musical director without whose terrific accompaniment on the piano and accordion, the play may well have languished.  I only wish there had been more musical numbers than the eight with which we were provided, for him to have accompanied.