Sunday, June 12, 2022

Epiphany

C-

Well, my recent lucky streak at the theater ended with a thud this weekend. Make that two thuds. Today’s disappointment was this Lincoln Center Theater import from Galway. Brian Watkins’ tonally wobbly homage to Joyce’s “The Dead” must have lost some key ingredient crossing the pond. For me, it completely failed as engrossing theater. On the bright side, it is providing employment for some fine actors including Marylouise Burke, Jonathan Hadary and Omar Metwally. Would that they had better material to work with. The high-strung mature hostess, Morkan (Burke), has invited a motley group of friends over to revive the celebration of Epiphany. No one is quite sure what Epiphany is and no one has read the detailed instructions their hostess had sent. The guest of honor is Gabriel, a celebrity author, whose promised attendance is the main attraction for the other guests. Morkan insists that her guests surrender their cellphones to avoid distractions from their goal, whatever that may be. They chatter inanely with little interest in what others have to say. Kelly (Heather Burns), a musician, punishes the guests with an excruciating excerpt from a contemporary piano piece. At this point it seems that the author is aiming for satire. Then there’s an extended slapstick episode involving Morkan’s oldest friend, Ames (Hadary), and a knife. Finally, Gabriel’s luminous partner Aran (Carmen Zilles) arrives with the bad news that Gabriel isn’t coming because he’s too depressed to leave the house. Aran’s charisma evokes undivided attention from the others. Sam, a psychologist (Metwally), administers an extremely personal test to Kelly. The mood darkens when Morkan reveals why her sister is not present. Most of the guests say their goodbyes, leaving Morgan and Ames sitting at the table as it begins to snow inside. That’s all, folks. Two hours have passed without intermission – or theatrical payoff. 

 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Lucky Star

 C

 

This fact-based drama by Karen Hartman tells the story of the Hollander family, well-to-do Jews in Krakow, who refused to heed the warnings to leave Poland in August 1939 from Joseph (Danny Gavigan), their one relative who left. Excerpts from their letters to him, which form the most significant collection from the Krakow ghetto to be preserved, and the context surrounding them, are the backbone of the play. The letters Joseph sent to Poland are of course lost. The story is framed as an over-enthusiastic book tour lecture by Joseph’s son Richard, who found the letters and had them translated and published. Richard’s closing remarks are interrupted by his adult son Craig (Sky Smith), who accuses him of not telling the whole story. The second act reveals much of what Richard left out, which involves another set of letters, between Joseph and a person whose identity I won’t give away. Unfortunately, this outline is more coherent than the play. Several of the family members we meet are too generic to make much of an impression. The fact that some actors play multiple roles, sometimes of differing gender, is confusing, especially one instance early on in which the same actor plays two women of opposite temperament without even a change of costume. The family experiences, while tragic, are in no way exceptional. At least for this Jew in his 80s, there was nothing that enriched my understanding of the Holocaust. Maybe the problem lies with me. Earlier productions in Baltimore and Chicago, when the play was called “The Book of Joseph,” received raves from the critics. The quality of the acting varies. Steven Skybell, who was so wonderful as Tevye in the recent Yiddish “Fiddler,” seemed too exuberant as Richard. The always appealing Alexandra Silber is marvelous in two very different roles. The remaining actors are Skye Alyssa Friedman, Nina Hellman, Eva Kaminsky, Alexa Shae Niziak, Mike Shapiro and Dale Soules. The costumes by David Burdick are evocative. Daniel Ettinger’s scenic design is versatile and efficient. I am at a loss to evaluate Noah Himmelstein’s direction because I am unsure whether better direction could have improved the result. Running time: two hours ten minutes including intermission.


NOTE: I will admit to carrying a grudge against the management of 59e59 Theaters. Their refusal to include any biographical information on the artists in their programs except for a QR code link is disrespectful both to them and to the audience. I have commented previously that they attract the least diverse audience in Manhattan. If they have been doing any outreach since my comment, it was not evident today.

 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn

A-

If you’re looking for an evening of light Summer entertainment, you should consider Mark Salzman’s delightful musical romp now in an Amas Musical Theatre production at Theater 555. Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn), newly awakened after an overdose of Friar Laurance’s sleeping potion, arrives in 1960’s Brooklyn in search of the Juliet-look-alike he spots in Verona where she is vacationing with her family. She is actually Bernadette Penza (Anna Kostakis), spoiled daughter of mob boss Sal Penza (Carlos Lopez) and his wife Camille (Judy McLane), who never lets her spouse forget that she is Veronese while he is merely Sicilian. Bernadette is soon to be wed to Tito Titone (Zach Schanne), a mobster on the make from Yonkers. When Romeo arrives in Brooklyn, he saves the life of Dino del Canto (Michael Notardonato), son of mob boss Don del Canto (Michael Marotta), who gratefully welcomes him into their family. Of course the Penzas and the del Cantos are archenemies. As they say, complications arise. The silliness of the plot is redeemed by a sterling cast of ten who elevate the material by their commitment to their roles, a tuneful score that Salzman appropriated from Italian opera and popular song, wonderful costumes by Joseph Shrope that define their characters, and unexpected flashes of wit sprinkled through the book. There is a funny language lesson which upends Pygmalion by having Dino teaching Romeo to coarsen his language to be more like Brooklynese. The score has duets, a trio and a quartet that are almost operatic. It’s hard to single out anyone from the excellent cast, but I will mention Burshteyn for his beautiful tenor voice, Kostakis for her limber dance moves, McLane for her vivid acting, Ari Raskin for her liveliness as Bernadette’s friend Donna and Viet Vo for adding depth to the role of family bodyguard. The versatile Troy Valjean Rucker is in a category by himself – he plays six roles, male and female, with aplomb. Director/choreographer Justin Ross Cohen keeps everything moving smoothly. It all adds up to a very pleasant couple of hours. As of today (6/4) it’s on TDF. Running time: two hours ten minutes including intermission.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Fat Ham

 B+

 

James Ijames’ very free riff on Hamlet has the distinction of winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama before it was ever seen by a live audience. Because of the pandemic, it only existed as a filmed performance by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. Now it is in previews at the Anspacher Theater in a completely recast co-production of The Public Theater and the National Black Theatre. All the characters are contemporary Black Southerners celebrating a recent wedding at a barbecue. The Hamlet role is given to Juicy (Marcel Spears), a chubby, soft-spoken young gay man who is pursuing an online degree in human resources. The barbecue celebrates the wedding of his mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford) and her late husband’s brother Rev, only one week after Pap’s death. Pap’s ghost appears, first to Juicy’s friend Tio (as in Horatio; Chris Herbie Holland) and then to Juicy, whom he tells that Rev arranged his death, which Juicy must avenge by killing Rev. In a nice touch, the same actor (Billy Eugene Jones) plays both Rev and Pap. The other arriving guests include Rabby (Benia Kay Thomas), an old family friend, and her daughter Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and son Larry (Calvin Leon Smith) as in Ophelia and Laertes. As the party progresses, we are treated to a sexy song by the voluptuous Tedra, a karaoke concert, a game of charades, and a lively dance number. It is hard to classify the play; I have settled on comedy with a few tragic overtones. Unlike Hamlet, the laughs are many and the body count is much lower. While there are underlying themes such as searching for one’s authentic self and living with joy rather than anger, the action is too lively to allow much time to ponder them. The production is first-rate -- the actors, scenic design by Maruti Evans, costumes by Dominique Fawn Hill, lighting by Stacey Derosier, and sound by Mikaal Sulaiman are all excellent, as is Saheem Ali’s direction. The audience was enthusiastic – at times too enthusiastic, drowning out some of the lines. My suggestion is just to sit back and enjoy the fun without worrying about verisimilitude or coherence. You won’t be bored. Running time: 100 minutes without intermission.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Bedwetter

A-

While I had not previously thought of Atlantic Theater Company as the go-to place for creative new musicals, I have changed my mind. The two most enjoyable musicals I have seen this year – Kimberly Akimbo and now The Bedwetter – were on the stage of their Linda Gross Theater.  When Sarah Silverman’s memoir appeared several years ago, composer Adam Schlesinger approached her with the idea of turning it into a musical. Schlesinger wrote the music, the two of them collaborated on the lyrics and Silverman enlisted noted playwright Joshua Harmon to work with her on the book. David Yazbek acted as creative consultant. The long-awaited result of their collaboration is finally here in previews and it is a hit. (Tragically, Schlesinger did not live to see it; he died of COVID two years ago.) The creative team has produced a very funny, very raunchy show with juicy roles for the nine women and two men in the cast. The music and the book are extremely well-integrated, with each song contributing materially to the action. The story describes Sarah’s (Zoe Glick) experiences when she was ten, newly arrived in a small New Hampshire town after her parents’ divorce, struggling to make friends and shamed by a bedwetting problem. Her mother (Lauren Marcus, u/s for Caissie Levy) is too depressed to get out of bed, her father (Darren Goldstein) is serially unfaithful, her older sister (Emily Zimmerman) avoids her and her grandmother (the wonderful Bebe Neuwirth) is an alcoholic. We also meet two of Sarah’s doctors (both played by Rick Crom), her teacher (Ellyn Marie Marsh), three of her classmates (Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis, Charlotte Macleod, and Annabelle Wachtel [u/s for Margot Weintraub]) and Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchet). While Sarah's situation hardly sounds like a barrel of laughs, Silverman can find the humor in almost anything. Laura Jellinek’s set is efficiently versatile. Kaye Voyce’s costumes, especially the schoolgirls’, are a delight. The audience was extremely receptive. If the thought of a ten-year old mouthing expletives upsets you, this is not the show for you. If that’s not a problem, go to the Atlantic website and book your tickets now! Once word is out, this will be a very hot ticket. Running time: two hours including intermission.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

POTUS or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying To Keep Him Alive

B

Selena Fillinger has to be one of the luckiest 28-year-olds in the history of New York theater. Her latest play has been given a world premiere at Shubert’s namesake theater without so much as a workshop or an out-of-town tryout. It has a top-drawer cast and a Tony-awarded director (Susan Stroman), scenic designer (Beowulf Boritt) and costume designer (Linda Cho). Surprisingly, the show has tiptoed onto Broadway with very little fanfare. And what kind of show is it? The show’s subtitle is almost a summary of the plot. The first word in the play is the C word and that sets the tone for all that follows. It’s a fun-filled, filthy, feminist farce with an all-female cast. We meet seven women in the president’s orbit: frosty first lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams), frazzled chief of staff Harriet (Julie White), frantic press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), foolish receptionist Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), felonious sister Bernadette (Lea Delaria), fresh-faced girlfriend Dusty (Julianne Hough) and forceful Time reporter (Lilli Cooper). Each has a role to play in getting through one of the worst days in the mostly unseen POTUS’s presidency. The spectacular set revolves to display many beautifully realized White House’s rooms right down to the ladies’ room, complete with coin-operated tampon machine. The connecting doors get quite a workout as the manic plot winds its way. There are many good one-liners and lots of physical comedy. While the first act is a gem, the play starts to lose energy midway through the second act, straining our willingness to suspend disbelief. The musical ending seems to belong to a different show. Nevertheless, for most of the way, it’s great fun. The audience loved it. One line about abortion rights got thunderous applause. It’s hard to single out anyone in the uniformly strong cast, but the talented Ms. Hough was a revelation to me and Ms. Dratch’s antics threaten to steal the show. It’s on TDF so tickets are within reach. I guarantee you will have a lot of laughs. Running time: one hour 40 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

How I Learned To Drive

 A

What a fascinating experience it has been to see Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-awarded play for a second time 25 years after its premiere, with three of same actors, Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse and Johanna Day, and the same director, Mark Brokaw. Since it’s a memory play, it’s not really a problem that the actors have aged. While Morse has turned a distinguished gray, the amazing Parker seems frozen in time somewhere in early adulthood. We need no context other than her expressions and demeanor to tell what stage of Li’l Bit’s life she is recalling. In her supporting role in which she plays both Li’l Bit’s mother and her aunt, Day is very strong. The other two actors, Allysa May Gold and Chris Myers, are competent. Since the play premiered, we have become accustomed to discussion of child molestation in the public arena, so the play has lost some of its shock value. Nevertheless, it still packs a powerful punch; rarely have I witnessed such attentive silence in a Broadway audience. I had forgotten how horrid Li’l Bit’s family was to her and how much she felt her father’s absence. I also did not recall that it was she, at age 11, who suggested meeting weekly with Uncle Peck, the only one in her family who was nice to her. Nor did I remember Peck’s chilling monologue describing his fishing lesson for the unseen cousin Bobby. There are also more humorous moments than I recalled. The scenes, which move back and forth in time, are titled as if they were chapters in a driver training manual. The scene of her first “lesson” is mesmerizing. The final meeting, during which the power shifts from Peck to Li’l Bit, is gripping. The scenic design by Rachel Hauck is minimalist with only a couple of upholstered dining chairs onstage for much of the play. A series of mostly truncated upright poles is scattered across the set, possibly suggesting telephone poles one might see on a road trip. Dede Ayite’s costumes are appropriate, and Brokaw’s direction is smooth. The play is so intimate that I feared it might be lost in MTC’s Friedman theater, but that was not a problem, at least not from a seat in mid-orchestra. Even if you have seen the play before, the superb performances by Parker and Morse deserve a second visit. Running time: one hour 35 minutes; no intermission.