Sunday, February 16, 2020

Cambodian Rock Band


Lauren Yee’s (The Great Leap) residency at Signature Theatre is off to an auspicious start with the New York premiere of this ambitious play with music. The play moves back and forth between 2008 and the 1970s. Neary (Courtney Reed; Aladdin), the American-born daughter of Cambodian refugees, has been in Phnom Penh working alongside her Canadian boyfriend Ted (Moses Villarama; Fast Company) for the tribunal trying to bring long overdue justice to Duch (Francis Jue; Soft Power, Wild Goose Dreams), head of the notorious S21 Prison where thousands were tortured and killed, who had been arrested after 30 years of hiding in plain sight. Neary’s father Chum (Joe Ngo), who had previously shown little interest in her work, suddenly shows up at her hotel unannounced. Before long we learn the reason for his visit and the connection between him and Duch. Back in 1975, Chum and his friends Sothea (Reed) and Leng (Villarama) were members of a rock band, Cyclo, who were recording their first album. Chum put his entire family at risk by postponing their flight from Cambodia a week to finish the album. All the members of the talented cast double as the musicians. The play is interspersed with Cambodian rock numbers from the seventies as well as contemporary numbers by Dengue Fever. It was frustrating that the lyrics were not translated. A Dylan song also plays an important role in the story. The first act, which describes the father-daughter meeting in 2008 and the events of 1975, contains the bulk of the music. The grimmer second act is mostly set in an S21 Prison cell in 1975. During intermission the playwright greeted a large contingent from a Bronx organization for Cambodian refugees and begged the audience to be understanding if the play triggered unexpected behavior from them. The brutality we witness is brief but chilling. The return to the father-daughter story in 2008 seems a bit anticlimactic. While the drama and the music do not always cohere as well as one might like, the concept of combining them mostly works. The production is greatly enhanced by an excellent cast which also includes Abraham Kim and Jane Lui. The inimitable Francis Jue is alway a treat to watch. Takeshi Kata's (Gloria, Office Hour) set efficiently captures both the bustle of Phnom Penh and the bleakness of a prison cell. Linda Cho’s (Grand Horizons) costumes and wigs for Cyclo band members vividly recall the 70s. Chay Yew’s (Mojada, My MaƱana Comes) direction is assured. While there are a few rough spots, I admired the overall effort. Running time: two hours 45 minutes including intermission. NOTE; There is a very helpful timeline hidden deep within the Playbill after the cast biographies. I suggest reading it before the play.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Anatomy of a Suicide


After an acclaimed run at the Royal Court and a Blackburn Prize, British playwright Alice Birch’s ambitious experimental play is now in previews at Atlantic Theater Company. Birch (Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again) certainly does not make things easy for the audience. There are three different scenes, each from a different time period, being performed simultaneously onstage. Occasionally scenes coalesce with the same dialogue occurring in all three. To further complicate things, five of the ten actors play multiple roles. In addition, two of the characters are played by more than one actor. The links between the characters in the simultaneous scenes only gradually become clear. I don’t want to give too much away here. The three leading characters, Carol (Carla Gugino; After the Fall, A Kid Like Jake), Anna (Celeste Arias; Uncle Vanya at Hunter) and Bonnie (Gabby Beans; Marys Seacole), all suffer from emotional problems. The author seems to be suggesting that depression and a tendency to attempt suicide can be inherited. While I certainly give her credit for ambition, I sometimes found it difficult to divide my attention three ways. Attempting to tell three stories involving 22 characters does not allow much time to develop a character in any depth. The fine cast also included Jason Babinsky (Network), Ava Briglia (School of Rock), Julian Elijah Martinez (Network), Jo Mei (The World of Extreme Happiness), Vince Nappo (The Jew of Malta), Miriam Silverman (Junk, A Delicate Ship) and Richard Topol (Indecent, Fish in the Dark). The sparse set by Mariana Sanchez (Marys Seacole) includes scattered plants and bushes of varying size that seemed a bit incongruous. Kaye Voyce’s (True West, After the Blast) costumes are a great help in creating the characters. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz (Red Speedo, The House That Will Not Stand) deserves much credit for making the multiple components run like clockwork. While I was initially fascinated by the play’s challenges, I was rarely moved. While I admired it, I didn’t find it truly satisfying. Running time: one hour 45 minutes, no intermission.

NOTE: Avoid seats in Row B at the Linda Gross Theater; there is no rise between Rows A and B.

Dana H.


Following LA and Chicago productions, Lucas Hnath’s (A Doll's House, Part 2; Hillary and Clinton, Red Speedo) fact-based one-woman drama has reached New York, where it is now in previews at Vineyard Theatre. In a sense, Hnath did not actually write the play. Almost all the words we hear are those of his mother, Dana Higginbotham, recorded in a series of interviews conducted by Steve Cosson, artistic director of the investigative theater group, The Civilians. Late in 1997 Ms. Higginbotham, a hospital chaplain, was abducted and held in captivity for five months by an ex-patient who was raised in the Aryan Brotherhood. When she suggested that her son write a play about her experience, Hnath resisted for years, fearing that he was too close to the material. Finally he found a way to approach the story: having a disinterested party, Cosson, interview her. Hnath then edited and shaped transcripts of these interviews into the work we see. To preserve his mother’s voice to keep the result authentic, he found an ingenious solution: he cast an actress to lip-sync her words. Since that actress is the magnificent Deirdre O’Connell (Fulfillment Center, By the Water, Circle Mirror Transformation), his solution works brilliantly. What sounds like a stunt turns out to be very effective; without uttering a sound, Ms. O’Connell brilliantly brings Dana’s words to life. Seated in a chair in the middle of Andrew Boyce’s set suggesting a generic motel room like the ones she stayed in during her captivity, O’Connell/Dana H. answers Cosson’s questions, occasionally referring to the dog-eared manuscript in her lap. Her memory is often muddled, but she provides enough harrowing details to make the audience squirm. She raises many issues, including the reluctance of the police to go against a member of the Aryan Brotherhood to help her, the propensity of someone who was physically abused by her parents to think that she deserves the punishment she is getting, the thought that her abductor is the incarnation of her spiritual condition, and the long-term PTSD that the incident left. At one point the interview format is interrupted by a flashy, noisy interlude that I found questionable and unnecessary. The ending provides some uplift as she describes her work as a hospice chaplain easing the transition from life to death. Les Waters (In the Next Room, Big Love) directs with a sure hand. Kudos to the lip-sync consultant Steve Cuiffo. There are many unanswered questions, including how her son, even though away at college, could have been ignorant of her plight for so long a period. While I have some reservations about the play, I was thrilled to witness Deirdre O’Connell’s amazing performance. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Happy Birthday Doug


Drew Droege’s previous one-man show, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, was a very funny look at the perils of gay assimilation seen through the eyes of a guest at a same-sex wedding in Palm Springs. Its humor was not just funny but anchored in social commentary, which might explain how it became a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Unfortunately, his new show, now at SoHo Playhouse, is totally devoid of any social significance, consisting solely of a series of impersonations of guests at a 41st birthday party held in the private room of a Los Angeles wine bar. The guests all seem to be related to the entertainment industry so there are “in” jokes aplenty. A guest named Christopher refers to his absent partner Don, suggesting a tie to Isherwood and Bachardy which was confusing because Isherwood died in 1986. Another guest is the ghost of Oscar Wilde, whose presence does not add wit. While Droege is a talented performer, the writing lacks focus here. The only overarching theme seems to be bitchiness. Tom Detrinis directed. Most of the audience seemed to be having a wonderful time. I was not. Running time: 55 minutes.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

West Side Story


I will confess that I groaned when I heard that hotshot European director Ivo van Hove was going to direct this much-beloved musical. Having disliked his videocentric versions of The Damned and Network, I shuddered to think what he would do when he got his hands on this Laurents-Bernstein-Sondheim classic. When I further learned that he would not be using the iconic Robbins choreography so critical to the show’s success, I grew even more fearful. Judging from today’s preview at the Broadway Theatre, most of my fears turned out to be unwarranted. True, this production depends even more on video than the two shows I mentioned, but the video projections are generally better integrated into the production. While Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s choreography is no match for Robbins’s work, it has lots of energy and suits the production well. The omissions (e.g. “I Feel Pretty”) and reinterpretations may offend those who are devoted to the original versions, but they serve the director’s darker and grittier vision of the show. The young, diverse cast are excellent dancers, good actors and at least adequate singers. The two female leads, Shereen Pimentel as Maria and Yesenia Ayala as Anita had strong voices. Two of the male leads, Isaac Powell as Tony and Dharon E. Jones as Riff were out for the performance I attended, but their understudies, Jordan Dobson and Ahmad Simmons respectively, were fine. Amar Ramasar was strong as Bernardo. The costumes by An D’Huys were eclectic and not much help in distinguishing the Jets from the Sharks. The excellent lighting by Jan Versweyveld, who also designed the set, was important in that regard. The tattoos by Andrew Sotomayor are excessive and mostly unattractive. The set consists mainly of a video screen that covered the entire back wall that opened partially to reveal the drugstore and the bridal shop. The video design by Luke Halls is at the heart of the production. At times, it is used to amplify what the actors are doing. It was initially difficult for me to know where to look but I soon adjusted. At other times, the projection shows street scenes that, for some reason, move slowly forward. Elsewhere, it illustrates the current song, e.g. Puerto Rican hurricanes for “America” and abuse by police for “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Occasionally, it provides commentary on the present, such as a view of the border wall with Mexico. Most usefully, it shows the action in the drugstore and bridal shop which are basically too small and too far away to see properly. There are a couple of pandering gestures to the audience: the gang members gratuitously strip to the waist for the rumble and one of the gangs includes a same-sex couple. The show has been streamlined to 105 minutes, which allows less time for character development. I suspect that the less devoted you are to earlier productions, the more likely you are to enjoy this one. I think a younger audience will find it very appealing. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Confession of Lily Dare


If you have a low tolerance for high camp and Charles Busch’s (The Divine Sister, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) brand of female impersonation, you can skip this play and the rest of this review. If, on the other hand, you are a Busch devotee, you will want to hurry to the Cherry Lane Theatre for his newest play's Primary Stages premiere. My fears that Busch’s usual shtick might have gone stale by now proved unfounded. As both performer and playwright, he is in good form. In the words of the program, the title character, played by Busch of course, goes “from convent girl to cabaret chanteuse to infamous madame.” Busch has been very generous to the rest of the cast, particularly to Jennifer van Dyck (The Divine Sister, Two Shakespearean Actors) and Christopher Borg (Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind), both of whom get ample time to shine in multiple juicy roles. The other three actors only have a single role to fill. Nancy Anderson (Wonderful Town, A Class Act) and Kendal Sparks (Judith of Bethulia, Where’s Charley) are both fine as Lily’s longtime friends. The final cast member is none other than Howard McGillin (The Phantom of the Opera, Anything Goes), who fits right in as Lily’s suave nemesis. As in any Busch work, there is no shortage of laugh lines. Lily’s cabaret rendition of “Pirate Joe” is worth the price of admission. The action does lag occasionally; a slight trim would be beneficial. The costumes by Rachel Townsend and wigs by Katherine Carr are a show all by themselves. The set by Brian T. Whitehill (You Should Be So Lucky) is not at the same level, but good enough. Carl Andress (The Divine Sister, Die Mommie Die!) once again shows his talent for directing Busch’s work. Depending on your comfort level for camp, you will either be delighted or miserable. Running time: two hours including intermission.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Grand Horizons


Of the three Bess Wohl plays to make it to New York this season (the other two were Continuity and Make Believe), this new play, which marks Wohl’s Broadway debut. is far and away the funniest and slickest. While it lacks the innovation of Make Believe or Wohl’s earlier play Small Mouth Sounds, and has a few minor problems, it is irresistibly entertaining. Furthermore, it provides a marvelous showcase for two fine actors, Jane Alexander (The Sisters Rosensweig, First Monday in October) and James Cromwell (“Babe,” The Invention of Love), as well as juicy roles for the other five actors. Shortly after Nancy and Bill move into the titular senior community after their 50th anniversary, Nancy suddenly announces that she wants a divorce. Bill does not object. Their two adult sons, the practical, unemotional Ben (Ben McKenzie; “The Report”) and the overemotional Brian (Michael Urie; Torch Song, Buyer & Cellar), arrive, along with Ben’s very pregnant wife Jess (Ashley Park; Mean Girls), to attempt to talk them out of divorce. There are two additional characters, Tommy (Maulik Pancholy; It’s Only a Play, “30 Rock”) and Carla (Priscilla Lopez; In the Heights, Pippin), each of whom has a marvelous scene that probably should have been cut despite its entertainment value. The dialogue is very funny and often witty but occasionally stoops to sitcom level. Amidst the hilarity, there are moments that raise thought-provoking issues of identity, parenthood, female empowerment, and the difficulty of clear, honest communication. Most of the time, the mix works well. The production levels are very high. Instead of a curtain, there is a gigantic projection by Bryce Cutler (Soft Power) of an aerial view of row after row of identical attached houses. The set by Clint Ramos (Torch Song, Once on This Island) shows the first floor of one of the units, blandly neutral, accented by safety grab bars in peculiar places. The costumes by Linda Cho (The Lifespan of a Fact) befit the characters well. Leigh Silverman’s (The Lifespan of a Fact, Chinglish) direction is assured. While it may not be the best play I have seen recently, it certainly is the funniest. The audience loved it. Running time: two hours ten minutes including intermission.

NOTE: Did Second Stage learn nothing from the mistakes made at the Tony Kiser Theater when they renovated the Helen Hayes Theater? Once again, the cramped seats are unstaggered with very narrow armrests and little legroom.