Sometimes the best way to accept the inevitable is to step into the realm of the fantastic and approach the unapproachable through magical thinking and an encouragement toward vacating reality. In You Will Get Sick by Noah Diaz, directed by Sam Pinkleton presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the unnamed characters traverse through unspecified settings and manage their lives of quiet desperation with humor and a sense of camaraderie that comes with a price. The price is avoiding the blinding truth until they are ready to receive it.
Daniel K. Isaac’s character is the emotionally distant, sweet #1, who has a phone conversation with Linda Lavin’s #2 at the top of the play. Initially, I questioned why they speak to each other since money is discussed upfront and it wasn’t clear what the exchange services were. However, when character #2 straightens out how she wants the money delivered, we discover she is an actor, is on a project and above all needs to supplement her finances. Character #1 eventually clarifies the services he pays her for in this absurdist, quirky play whose surreal elements are funny, surprising and metaphoric.
Interestingly, there is an internal war in character #1, which we may identify with at one level or another. He has been in denial about the severity of his illness. The initial service he requires of #2 is to listen to him as he tells her about his condition, so in the telling he can acknowledge what he is going through, confront it and then position himself to tell his sister. At least he knows he is in denial. Blindness related to not admitting the signs of disease when they first appear is a typical reaction, unless one is a hypochondriac, which #1 clearly is not. When we understand what #1 is going through, we consider COVID-19 deniers.The most extreme were on their death beds scorning their nurses and doctors’ COVID diagnosis. These went to their deaths with the peaceful conviction that anything other than COVID was killing them.
Though #1 isn’t as blind as those individuals, he can’t reconcile his illness. He can’t even admit to himself that his body is falling apart, that his hands are growing numb, that it is becoming harder to walk and impossible not to fall in the shower. His condition is incurable and there has been a diagnosis which we never learn. Yet, as the play progresses, #1 struggles with himself emotionally and must be as detached as possible to begin to comprehend that the plans for his life, his hopes and dreams have been shuttered by the drama that is overtaking his body’s ability to function.
Many youth who are immortal until they aren’t, think that illness is what happens to the old and feeble. However, this doesn’t appear to be Character #1’s thinking…that sickness is for the old. We discover later in the play in a discussion he has with his sister that he is aware that sickness can impact the young and kill them. In fact he took care of his sibling Patrick who was ill, maybe of the same disease, and nursed him until he died. So he is not a callow thirty-something. Clearly, taking care of his brother was a sacrifice of love, but it took its toll on him. In his discussion with his sister, #1 states he doesn’t want her to take care of him, nor does he want aides to help out. Somehow, he will deal with this on his own and allow the illness to take its course. The recognition of the impact of illness on family, since he has had that experience, most probably has overwhelmed him. Denialism and blindness allow one to transition to the truth gradually.
The first step in #1’s plan is to come back from denialism and face reality with someone who is not a relative. To do this and remain less emotionally overwhelmed, he decides to pay someone to listen to him reconcile the fact that he is “sick,” though he never frames it as an illness that is cutting short his life. That is a bridge too far, and one he is not ready to cross. Thus, Lavin’s humorous character #2 becomes the one to take on the impossible burden of listening to him as he describes factually what his body is doing. Character #1’s mind and emotions are so shut down, he can’t discuss this with his co-workers or his sister, just yet. Character #2 will help prepare him for those discussions.
Character #2 is desperate for the money and does odd jobs and takes acting classes so she can become good enough to audition for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Character #2 and #1 are idiosyncratic and pursue their own realities and somehow manage to accept one another’s weirdness with generosity so that what they both wish, they help each other achieve. The actors are superb in making the unusual seem regular with their direct, in the moment authenticity. Importantly, though they are not friends, #1 and #2 help each other feel less alone against the personal trials they face.
Character #1’s connection with character #2 strengthens after he sends her a check which he didn’t sign. That forces a face-to-face meeting which leads to other meetings, the next when he hires character #2 to tell his sister (Character #3 is Marinda Anderson) about his condition. When the three of them meet, Diaz constructs a humorous scene in a restaurant with a crying waiter (Nate Miller) that Pinkleton directs with excellent pacing for humor. After this meeting with his sister we understand the limitations of family and why #1 doesn’t want to bother her about what he is going through.
In addition to his illness, #1 faces another problem. He must escape the monstrous birds that sound like crows, who prey upon and kill the sick. Nate Miller’s character #4 plays a number of parts relating to the bird menace. One is a salesman who sells insurance to protect against the humongous birds. Another is a despondent waiter (he appears in #1’s meeting with his sister) whose mother was taken by a monstrous bird. Thus, on top of having to confront the deterioration of his body, #1 has to beware of these other worldly birds. Interestingly, #2’s attitude toward the bird attacks is sanguine, almost uninterested. She will stay well as an older person and help this thirty-something in his illness. Theirs is an ironic reversal of the natural order of things.
Character #2’s response to Miller’s bird insurance salesman sums up her reaction to most things at this point in her life’s experience. She tells him a choice epithet about where to go. Linda Lavin’s #2 uses epithets as seasonings to make her delectable, unstoppable character more immediate and no nonsense. Lavin, with decades of know-how has fine tuned her rhythm and timing for humor, cleverly waiting for the chortling laughter that always follows her character’s well-placed retorts.
Diaz messages a number of themes with these unusual characters who are fanciful but manage to be endearing because they are so vulnerable. Caregiving, Diaz suggests, sometimes requires allurements like money because family can’t always be counted on to help. Sometimes strangers are better attuned because they are not emotional and there are no problematic bonds. Characters #2 and #1 arrive at a congeniality of quid pro quos. #1 even goes to one of #2’s acting classes where they act out “lion” and “tiger” in a humorous segment which actually takes #1’s mind off his condition and physically helps him. Lavin is not only spry at 85-years old, her “lion” and “tiger” steal the show. Her spot-on performance has her addressing the audience and singing an audition song (for the part of Dorothy) in which she ends up in the wrong register. And after trying it a few times, #2 never gets it right.
For his part Isaac’s #1 handles the absurdist elements with authenticity. When he spits up the hay, symbolic of where he originated from, and representative of his illness, the action is weird and frightening, but believable. He negotiates the straw-man, scarecrow imagery in the later scenes with matter-of-fact acceptance. These segments and his apparent suspension (with special effects) suggesting tropes from The Wizard of Oz, an iconic story whose verities relate to the characterizations in You Will Get Sick, are fascinating to ponder. However, the playwright is a master of the opaque and uncertain, never really pinning down any particular truths apart from the fact expressed in the title and our susceptibility to our mortal state. That he delivers these themes gently with fantastic elements is enough.
Isaac’s character #1 echoes Dorothy’s wish to return home as related to The Wizard of Oz. Lavin’s #2 helps him achieve that wish as #1 helps #2 achieve her goal. At the play’s conclusion we note that the money #2 has received from #1 has allowed her to purchase a gingham dress and red shiny slippers so she can properly audition for the part of Dorothy, a dream she’s had her entire life.
#1 makes it home. For him home is in a field of hay (though wheat might be more metaphorical). There he meets up with his brother Patrick, Character #5 (Dario Ladani Sanchez) who joins him holding a microphone. It is Patrick’s voice we have heard (in voice over) expressing #1’s interior thoughts throughout the play.
At the conclusion we understand the importance of #5 in helping give #1 solace and comfort to keep his emotional turmoil at bay so he can function and find his way to “get back to where he once belonged.” At home in the field with Patrick, #1 is able to breathe freely, away from the noise and the hectic gyrations of city life. There, he seems well and is in his right place. The metaphors settle into a finality at the conclusion. Indeed, the human condition vies between sickness and wellness. As Diaz’s title suggests, humans are mere mortals. There is an immutable inevitably of sickness. During it, if we are fortunate, we will “get back to where we once belonged” (our home and what that means to us).
Kudos to dots (set design) Michael Kross and Alicia Austin (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Lee Kinney (original music and sound design) Daniel Kluger (original music and sound effects) Skylar Fox (magic and illusions) Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design) who bring Diaz’s play and Pinkleton’s vision of it to fruition.
Diaz’s daring, imagistic play is in its World Premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre until 11 December. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/you-will-get-sick/performances
In its second Off Broadway go-round (Lincoln Center in 2002) Terrence McNally’s book and Stephen Flaherty’s music with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics of A Man of No Importance directed and designed by John Doyle, is currently at CSC until 18 of December. The production is Doyle’s unaffecting and warm goodbye as Artistic Director of CSC. The uplifting, poignant musical appropriately reminds us of the vitality of theater, whether it be in an office space or a majestic 1500 seat house on 42nd street. Unlike the titular film A Man of No Importance is based on (1994, starring Albert Finney, written by Barry Devlin, produced by Little Bird) live theater is interactive. The audience spurs on the actors in a kinetic, telepathic bond that is incredibly enjoyable once opening night jitters are put to rest.
This most probably is what keeps protagonist Alfie, a DIY theater director of Dublin’s St. Imelda’s Church players inspired and engaged, though their performances are reportedly terrible. And it is why he is wickedly devastated when Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) closes down their production of Salome, because it is inappropriate and untoward for a community church theater show, though the story is right out of scripture. Actually, by the end of the production we learn that the butcher, Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), who is one of their amateur troupe, complained to Father Kenny that Salome was tantamount to pornography because he had a small role and that pissed him off.
Alfie (portrayed by the likable and heartfelt Jim Parsons) apart from his love and spirit guidance by Oscar Wilde, who encourages him to read poems while at his job as a conductor on a Dublin bus, is a closeted, sensitive gay man. He lives with his domineering sister Lily (the always superb Mare Winningham) in their small apartment, where he keeps a raft of books and tests out his gourmet international recipes on her unadorned, “Irish stew palette.”
The year is 1964 before the cultural revolution, “free love,” mini skirts, The Beatles phenomenon and a relaxation of Catholicism’s strictures that didn’t really happen until decades later. Then, the Republic of Ireland was repressed and oppressed by doctrine that made it look more like the radical, right-wing conservative anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, red state swamp areas of the American South in 2022. Because of such cultural dispossession, Alfie lives in a fantasy world of art, theater and poetry. He remains inspired by his spiritual advisor, fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, as he tries to improve the lives of those around him, whether at his job as a conductor, at home with his sister, or at the church, directing his St. Imelda Players.
When Father Kenny closes down their amateur troupe, Alfie is quite bereft, until the St. Imelda Players decide to perform a play of the events that have brought them to where they are at the finish line in the present (1964) with no winning trophy. But instead of directing them, Alfie will be the star of their play.
Cleverly, McNally, Flaherty and Ahrens adjusted and adapted the film as a flashback sandwiched by the present. The church players become the Greek chorus who engineer the events of the play, streamlining them into the action that happened at St. Imelda’s before Father Kenny shuttered their company. They sing songs that embody the emotional feeling and turning points of those events. These songs include the conflict between and among the characters, personal confessions and revelations, and the positive message that they gain from what they’ve learned together. They introduce Alfie as their star, then perform the tuneful, ironic opening number, “A Man of No Importance,” in celebration of their beloved friend and director who is their hero, integral to all of their lives. We learn by the conclusion of their musical, that to them, he is a man of great significance.
Doyle has staged the musical with an approach to DIY theater, reflective of what the St. Imelda Players might effect. The props are cleverly selected, i.e. a drum is used as the bus steering wheel. The actors use minimal furniture to create the environs where the events occur. Chairs suggest the bus that conductor Alfie is on with the driver, the affable and lively Robbie Fay (A.J. Shively, whose “The Streets of Dublin” rocks it). The players become the bus passengers with a new passenger Adele, the lovely voiced Shereen Ahmed catching the attention of Alfie as he quotes from a poem by his spirit mentor Oscar Wilde. By the end of their ride, The St. Imelda Players complete singing the titular “A Man of No Importance.”
As the players give us a tour of Alfie’s life in Dublin, we drop in on him with sister Lily, who is happy to discover that Alfie has found interest in a woman. She sings”Burden of Life” as an answer to her prayers so that perhaps now Alfie can settle down, and she can be free of taking care of him. Mare Winningham is humorous and vibrant as she takes on the role of Lily. A Catholic woman, she and the others in the troupe miss all the cues that her brother just might not be into women. When this finally comes out later, she reassures him in the song “Tell Me Why” that even though he is gay, she loves him anyway and he should have told her.
Alfie’s interest in Adele is not because her beauty entices him romantically. He thinks she is perfect for the role of Salome. Though she avers and refuses the part initially, Alfie is persuasive and she finally relents. It is his hope to have the handsome Robbie play the part of John the Baptist, perfectly cast to act with Adele. Robbie puts him off and instead invites him to come to the pub (the wonderful “The Streets of Dublin”). Alfie accompanies Robbie and makes a fool of himself singing “Love’s Never Lost” in front of Robbie’s friends. Embarrassed, Alfie leaves, further disturbed at Breton Beret’s (Da’Von T. Moody) interest in him. Additionally, he’s confounded by the “love that dare not speak its name,” a love that he feels for his “Bosie,” as he imagines Robbie to be. (Bosie refers to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover.)
Alfie can only admit this inner conflict as he looks at himself in a mirror encouraged by Oscar Wilde (Thom Sesma). He sings the lyrical “Man in the Mirror” as a way to work through his emotions to achieve self-acceptance. Parsons approaches Alfie’s inner conflict with yearning and honesty, confessing in a dream-state to the persecuted and vilified Oscar Wilde, a man who understands the torment he goes through.
Spurred by her discussion with Mr. Carney about Alfie’s weirdness (“Books”), Carney’s insistence that Salome is pornography, and his pressure to marry, which Lily puts off using Alfie as an excuse, Lily makes an attempt as a matchmaker. She invites Adele home for a meal that Alfie has cooked. Afterward, Alfie walks Adele home and as a friend, he gets her to admit she has “someone.” Her tears suggest that there is a reason her boyfriend is not with her. To reassure her Alfie calms her with another beautiful ballad, “Love Who You Love.” As she leaves, Alfie bumps into Breton Beret who propositions him. Alfie wisely restrains himself. His intuition is correct but his unresolved conflict between his shame at being gay and his longing to find someone to be with is a devastation in a Catholic country where being a homosexual is a mortal sin requiring repentance and conversion. Interestingly, he imagines Oscar Wilde encourages him by suggesting that the only way to remove temptation is by giving in to it.
In Doyle’s production the musical is streamlined to eliminate an intermission and keep it as one continuous series of events that move with swiftness, as players would effect their version of what happened, without including every detail. There are fewer players and most of them are incredible musicians that round out the small band tucked away in a second floor balcony against the back wall of the CSC playing area, where the audience abuts on three sides. Thanks to Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations), Caleb Hoyer (music director) Strange Cranium (electronic music design) the music arrangements, Doyle’s staging and the players’ vocal work is gorgeous, and seamlessly, perfectly wrought in configuring the St. Imelda’s Players’ production. Indeed, they are much better than they’ve jokingly been described.
After the turning point (“Love Who You Love” carries the theme) the players reveal that Adele can’t continue with her lines as Salome because the words convict her soul. She can’t act a role where she’s supposed to be innocent and virginal, because in real life, she’s a fallen woman, who had intercourse out of wedlock and now is pregnant. Full of guilt and remorse her punishment is self-torment and humiliation. She must emotionally suffer the rest of her life because abortion is out of the question and the father won’t marry her to make the baby legitimate. The church and the oppressive paternalistic folkways of the culture vilify her with unworthiness and condemnation.
Catholicism hangs over the heads of the characters like a dirge of annihilation and judgment. Adele will have to go home to receive help from her parents to raise the child. Meanwhile, Mr. Carney also uses religious folkways to shut down the play. To add insult to injury, Robbie feels condemned by Alfie when Alfie unwittingly interrupts Robbie and Mrs. Patrick (Jessica Tyler Wright) making love in the bus garage. Feeling the weight of the sin of adultery, Robbie insults Alfie and judges Alfie’s life is without love, an accusation that torments Alfie because he loves Robbie.
Alfie can never reveal this love to him because it would drive Robbie away. Though Alfie has attempted to confess to Father Kenny (“Confession”) he can’t bring himself to reveal his great sin and thus is damned with guilt. As a result of the conflict of loving someone who would never love him, and being accused by that same person as being unloving, Alfie throws caution to the winds. He engages with Breton Beret who has been waiting for the opportunity to make himself look like a real man by beating up a “poof.”
Clearly, the film (1994) was made at a time when the Catholic church was dealing with its own sexual sins which finally came to the fore in the world wide expose of pederasty in the church around 2002. However, the film/musical sets the events back in the 1960s before any of the cultural revolutions took place. Nevertheless, to understand the full force of Catholicism condemnation of homosexuality, check the numbers of gay men who were abused as Alfie is abused by the likes of Breton Beret, or look at the numbers of Catholic gay men committing suicide because they couldn’t reconcile their feelings with their religion. Also, read up on the Republic of Ireland’s approach toward girls who got pregnant out of wedlock in the book Philomena (also a fabulous film with Judi Dench). Or read the stories of the Magdalene Laundries, captured in the film The Magdalene Sisters. The brutality of the paternalistic Catholic folkways winked at male adultery like Robbie’s and swept it under the rug as “boys will be boys.” As for gays or women with babies born out of wedlock, the humiliation, shame and condemnation was a cruelty that destroyed lives.
In the book of the musical McNally is not heavy handed with Catholicism in its iteration at St. Imelda’s community church. The musical has a light touch and religion appears to take a back seat, if we are not aware of the entrenched history of the church and its devastation on its believers. Rather, it is understated with Robbie’s anger at being discovered by Alfie, and Adele’s tears when the father of her child abandons her after he takes what he wants. Alfie gets the worst of it because he is discovered as a homosexual by the police who come to save him from being beaten to death by Beret. But the rub is he can’t press charges for assault because public opinion against “poofs” is more reprehensible than a physical assault. In fact it is intimated that Beret gets backroom laughs and cheers for beating up a homosexual who fell for his enticement.
McNally, Flaherty and Ahren configure the church’s worst folkways to be the sub rosa driving force for all of the humiliation, self-condemnation and torment that makes the conclusion so incredibly vital to A Man of No Importance. Thanks to Doyle, the performers and the creative team’s talents, the conclusion is uplifting and poignant for us today with a message of love and acceptance that is never old. It is the true spirit of Christmas in this “Happy Holidays” season, and in the United States needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops. In its quiet and unassuming way, A Man of No Importance is a trophy winner.
Kudos to Ann Hould-Ward (costume design), Adam Honore (lighting design) and Sun Hee Kil (sound design) and the entire cast and creative team who bring Doyle’s vision to life. The excellent must-see A Man of No Importance is at CSC until 18 December. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.classicstage.org/current-season/a-man-of-no-importance
The outrageous, mind-bending Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure and The Square) presents an informal treatise on power constructs in his immensely sardonic, over-the-top Triangle of Sadness. Deftly, Östlund presents an interesting sequence, holds our attention, then gyrates away on another tangent. Tension, shock and awkwardness, that comes from uncertainty and being whipped off-balance, characterizes this filmmakers’ modus operandi. Profoundly, our state of unease, uncertainty and laughter keeps us entertained on his playground of Triangle of Sadness.
The film provides an extraordinary and macabre fun house where no rules apply. Indeed, reversals turn on a dime. Also, mythic themes pop up and unravel our complacency. Östlund enjoys having his audience on. Invariably, his situations and characters, profoundly stained, cause us to feast on our own hypocrisy while projecting our foibles onto his characters. As a result we laugh heartily at the wild ride he makes us take. With mischievousness Östlund proves that all human nature has at its core the same rotted substance. Regardless of how elite the class, how gorgeous the outer shell, how “in control” and staid people appear to be, they, and humanity are one crooked mess that drown in their own s**t. (This is a marvelous metaphor that Ostlund slams us with in the middle of the film.)
The title references a physical imperfection-the cosmetic industry term “triangle of sadness.” Alluding to the wrinkles between the eyebrows, these imperfections eventually need Botox for a smoother appearance. Humorously, Östlund strikes us with the phrase during the opening sequence of the film. Relating it to the important theme of physical perfection and the sanctity of beauty, that triangle metaphorically haunts the characters throughout the film. In every sequence wrinkles eventually appear on the surface of the once perfect situation. Afterward, problems, storms, trauma and insidiously terrible events rain down.
As usual Östlund begins his film with energy. Backstage at a casting call, we note a documentary crew. Barking orders and questions, assistants interview gorgeous, camera-beautiful men about their career choices in a profession that pays women models much more. Put through their paces the hunky models alternate their facial expressions. First, assistants tell them to think H & M Ad: boyish grin, fun-loving, happy. Then assistants tell them to change their expression for the upscale brand image like Dolce & Gabbana. The hotties change their facial expressions to a remote and solemn stare. At some point during the models rapidly alternating expressions, the assistant mentions their “triangle of sadness.”
Thus, in this hysterical sequence the filmmaker exposes the elitism built into the culture through subliminal images that promote brands. Rich equals remote and unflappable. And middle class equals accessible, friendly, economical. When we wear the upscale brands, and manifest the serious look, we don wealth. The filmmaker ridicules this canard, the foundation of corporations’ overpricing and profiteering.
Immediately, the filmmaker preps us for a subtle expose of the themes of wealth, privilege, beauty, as he pits them against the middle class struggle to gain the enviable elites’ “heavenly” status and position by any means necessary. Meanwhile, the concepts of worth and value of life, decency, generosity, wholeness, kindness fly out the window. The “Eternal Verities” of ancient times, in other words, the moral and human values brought by insight, meditation and reflection don’t show their expressions when money, power, privilege hold sway. The various players in the cruise portion of the film are pawns of corporate commercialism and conspiring victims of their own demise.
After the humiliating casting call the writer/director highlights his protagonist Carl (Harris Dickinson) who we just watched embarrass himself. Sitting in a luxury restaurant, he looks upscale with his female physical equal, the lovely Yaya (Charlbi Dean). The opening shot of this perfect couple shines with the superiority of great genes and the discipline to maintain and enhance them.
Ironically, Östlund presents that beauty equals wealth and status. And gorgeousness opens the doors to privilege. However, once Carl and Yaya open their mouths, another hysterical truth emerges. If pretty is surface, ungraciousness goes clear to the bone, hinting at soul ugliness.
As the couple nit picks about who should pay the check employing gender stereotypes and power constructs, the clever dialogue hits the mark. Though Yaya earns more than Carl, an ironic reversal, their bickering shows their physical perfection only delivers money to Yaya. As such the filmmaker uses the occasion of Yaya making more than Carl as a gender power dig. Though she offered to pay the day before, she changed her mind because the alpha male should pay.
Thus, the wrinkle appears. Destroying the image of their picture perfect looks and happiness we saw at the top of the scene, they quarrel. With incredibly clever and funny dialogue, Östlund introduces the themes that will abide throughout. Additionally, in the scene and throughout the film, he strips bare cultural male insecurities, fake etiquette, the destructiveness of ancient folkways and much more.
With a striking jump cut, we arrive with the stunning Carl and Yaya on a luxury cruise. Perhaps their looks have served a monetary reward after all. Interestingly, they’ve been invited to enhance the landscape of the cruise to go along with the other elite classy appointments. Also, Yaya an influencer got the cruise as a free perk, a lucky benefit. How this turns out defies one’s imagination beyond definitions of wild and crazy.
As they converse with a senior set of passenger couples, they hang with a Russian fertilizer oligarch, an arms manufacturer an oil baron, etc. Dimitry (Zlatko Burić gives a LOL performance) introduces himself with the phrase, “I sell s$it. After a huge pause, he clarifies, “fertilizer.” Occasionally, we note shots of the crew who makes the ship sparkle and satisfies the passengers every whim. Even Carl’s insecurity takes precedence when he complains a crew member leers at Yaya. Summarily, the captain’s first mate fires him. Indeed, a speedy launch comes a few hours later to remove him. Yes, these rich and beautiful rule the little people, the microcosm of the larger macrocosm of global reality, Östlund, suggests. But remember, the wrinkles.
Passenger requests land from extreme to extreme. In fact Dimitry’s partner suggests the crew take a break in a mawkish attempt at being egalitarian. Of course, they do, for a bit, leaving no one at the helm of the ocean-going yacht. When the Captain (a winningly negligent and drunk Woody Harrelson) refuses to join them for the break, we note another wrinkle. The smooth surface of the ocean can turn on his orders which suffer delays as he puts off his assistants. Finally, one nails him down with a momentous decision. When will they have the meet-up with the passengers at the Captain’s Dinner?
By the time viewers reach the final act of the immersive, volatile and innately entertaining Triangle Of Sadness, which lands them on a desert island with a small group of shipwreck survivors, they will have sworn that its beginning, set in beauty-obsessed corners of the fashion world, happened a few movies ago. This is the heartiest possible compliment I can give Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s latest brainy satire, a continually self-renewing yet uncompromisingly coherent opus. It’s reminiscent of a rich and compact trip you might find yourself on in a country you haven’t visited before, with every new experience feeling just as welcome, rewarding and surprising as the last.
To tell more would ruin the Buñuelian twists of this poison-dipped farce on class and economic disparity, which doesn’t skewer contemporary culture so much as dunk it in raw sewage. A NEON release opening in theaters November 29th.
Did you know that in the 1930s the Nazis ran propaganda summer camps for youngsters, like the one in Yaphank, on Long Island New York and elsewhere across the United States? Camp Siegfried was created by the German-American Bund, led by Fritz Kuhn to sway various Americans to support Germany in its bid to overthrow Communism, Judism and “corrupt” liberalism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Considering that there was a large German immigrant population in the United States, the Nazi Party’s idea of propagandizing United States German citizens toward the benefits of Nazism in support of Hitler’s Germany was a sound one.
Bess Wohl’s titular play about Camp Siegfried falls short of powerfully dramatizing the true nature and danger of such Nazi camps that were pro-Hitler retreats sponsored by German loyalists. Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, a two hander “romance among the Nazis” directed by David Cromer is currently running at 2ndStage with no intermission. Unfortunately, the production lacks dynamism, terror and moment in its attempt to reveal the gradual inculcation of Nazi doctrine in the minds of the protagonists.
Wohl’s attempt not to give too much away proves damaging to the overall impact of the play. What should be directly energized and dramatized in the Nazi Party’s will to dominate, never really comes across. The only time it does is when a speech is proclaimed by She (Lily McInerny’s graduated intensity works well) and only because of the added response to the speech. It becomes the high point because of canned cheering which increases as the venom and hatred increases in She’s speech, spoken in German. (There are no super-titles, so German is an imperative if you want to understand it.) But by the time that speech arrives, so much more could have been done to incisively reveal the sub rosa impact of the brainwashing on the teens that should be terrifying but isn’t. The play’s overall effect lands with a thud as do its themes which are muddled.
This camp and others in New York stoked the fervency for the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden which was protested by those against Hitler’s fascism. The camps were considered egregious and they were shut down. Camp Siegfried’s propagandizing was greater than what Wohl’s play suggests in her attempt to portray the interactions between the teens. This is a missed opportunity especially for us during this time of growing white nationalism in our culture which needs to be called out for its violent hatefulness. Those who proudly display swastikas should not be greeted with smiles and pats on the back. Such acceptance is consent and grows toward hate crimes. And if the symbols of Nazism are understated, or treated as non existent as in Wohl’s play, that is an inconvenient misdirection. Not revealing the typical abundance of signage used by the Nazi Party loyalists in the US camps is questionable and removes the play’s chilling effect.
Hitler and Goebbel’s propaganda was steeped in occult symbolism. The Nazis believed in the power of the Swastika in their flags, insignias, their specially designed uniforms which conveyed “majesty” and fear in their intent to show dominance and preeminence. To suggest subtly how one might be seduced into wickedness without showing the associated “signs” of how that wickedness is conveyed is problematic. This is especially so when Camp Siegfried’s name is used, but the power of Nazi will and their purpose for the camp in this play, appears expositionally without menace until the very end, and as a result, seems random and confused.
The camp is seen through the perspectives of these teens as an OK place where they can have sexual fun, abuse each other verbally and physically and learn “stuff.” That they they are propagandized into one of the greatest, evil political belief systems of 1938 on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland after annexing Austria is momentous. That sense of moment is intentionally mitigated because only part of the story at the camp is conveyed by the teens. For me, that is a weakness in the play’s structure in addition to its dependence, not on dramatic dialogue, but on exposition. Dynamic drama is missing. For example She’s visit to the doctor, if activated with an actual visit instead of as exposition, the weight of the camp’s abuse would be made more powerful by the doctor’s direct comments. Additionally, drama might have been conveyed via a different, more visceral examination of the camp reflected in scenic design and lighting design. Costume design and sound design succeed best at conveying the sinister symbols of Nazism at the camp but only during She’s speech and in He’s costume after he joins her when she is finished.
Depending upon the resources one looks up, in 1938 in this camp and others, those at the camp dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Swastika flags were situated next to the American flag. However, since Wohl’s play involves a two character limitation of the nameless He (Johnny Berchtold) and She (Lily McInerny), there are no other “campers” to show this “glory” of Hitler that the camp Nazis uplift. There are no portraits of Hitler, though there supposedly were at the real camp.
We only see the camp exterior. Brett J. Banakis’ scenic design creates the naturalistic set of a hillside and wooden fence-like wall abutting the camp. When He and She put together a platform that is later used for She’s speech, there are no swastikas, pictures or flags draping it, though there is canned cheering. The effects of what the climax of that speech might have been thematically and viscerally are diminished because the key symbolism of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda is absent. A sinister aspect is only suggested in the canned cheering in what sounds like a Nazi rally in 1930s Germany.
In Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, much is expositional; much is ancillary. We hear Hitler and Goebbel’s names mentioned as streets in the camp. We hear that the teens must do the work and if they are injured, they must suffer through it and be strong. She discusses the symbolism of the name Siegfried which she has learned and she tries to learn German. He chops wood for the all night bonfires; no workers from labor unions are allowed as unions were thought to have Jews (a reference He makes). The discriminatory aspects of this are downplayed. As he chops wood they get to know one another and more things are revealed about the camp. For example She reports various girls brag about having sex with specific boys.
That the young men and women are being encouraged to “breed” and create Aryan replicas is unconnected to Nazism and the import of the activity is skewed. In one segment while He masterbates masochistically, She sadistically belittles and demeans him to be worthless. Their activity is disjointed and we are led to believe that their behavior isn’t connected with what the intentioned propaganda of the camp toward young men and women is. In some scenes after they couple, She demonstrates pride in telling He about her pregnancy. Her pregnancy is a lie, learned propaganda and manipulation. Wohl’s He and She fall in line with the learned camp behaviors out of gross inferiority and shyness. However, the characters are shallowly drawn and lack emotional grist. They are not easy to empathize with and thus, their indoctrination has less of an impact on the overall themes and conclusion which ends hollowly.
In the source material Camp Siegfried’s grounds had Nazi and Hitler Youth flags and pictures of Adolf Hitler. Men were photographed in uniforms (Italian Fascist-style blackshirts, SA-style brownshirts and Nazi military uniforms. It is arguable whether it is more frightening to see a sexual relationship between two teenagers budding against a background of Nazi flags whipping in the wind next to American flags, or an absence of them as if they don’t exist. However, in their absence, the danger and horror of what Camp Siegfried symbolized for that time and what its exploration through the teens’ eyes intimates for our time is lessened to the point that one wonders why the titular camp was selected and its purpose downplayed as an artifice. There is no visceral imagery or camp life that is believable and too much exposition gets in the way of the dynamic dramatic.
When He and She first meet on a back wall of the camp hillside, He tells She about the camp activities which include marching. If the “power” and “glory” of Hitler’s propaganda spectacle was manifest each day with the signage and Swastika flags, without learned revulsion, then Nazification would have drawn He and She in large part through the spectacle of such symbols that the adults at the camp salute to and venerate. But that which was a huge part of the symbolism used to bring unity, awe and fear by the Nazi Party and German loyalists, who use the camp to train future Nazi leaders, is absent. The audience is never allowed in to the camp and what they hear isn’t enough to make a difference because it is never activated or visualized.
The only events actualized concern their sexual relationship, the wood chopping, the platform building and the speech. All should have more than a slim thread of the Nazi connections but they don’t until the last two minutes of the play and only through exposition. Otherwise this would be a typical summer camp (it isn’t). We follow two teens (the actors in their Broadway debut make the best of their roles) and their relationship. She gives a speech with a Nazi salute that reveals her indoctrination. And the purpose of the camp is revealed with her description of what she’s been through to the doctor. We only find that out because she tells He.
Wohl conveys the focus of the camp in a gradual sub rosa way via exposition and He’s behaviors. Unconnected to the other camp members or activities, the action is unclear as to the extent it is unfair and cruel (until at the conclusion She reports how the doctor defined what happened at the camp as a delusion). Likewise, another activity He engages in is archery. But its importance as potential discipline and military training is muted as are all the actions we see the teens undertake. However, in reality camp activities are organized to make future Nazi leaders in the US to run for political office, to unify German Americans, and place them in leadership roles to dominate in coherence with Hitler’s Third Reich.
This is hinted at via exposition and reportage at the end of the play when She reports to He that she went to a doctor outside the camp after He has beaten her badly. When she tells the doctor why she’s so cut up, revealing the camp’s abusive treatment in addition to He’s beating, the doctor (an outsider) tells her, “Anyone can be seduced.” And he follows this with, “Never underestimate your infinite capacity for delusion.” As she reports this to He, the spell is broken. She tells He they were both caught up in the delusion. He doesn’t accept what she says and tells her that Herr Kuhn has invited him to Germany and he will meet the higher ups and join the “worldwide fight.” This important scene with the doctor is reduced to exposition, yet it is what changes her mind about the camp.
Anything that might strike horror for us today is not shown. This seems misguided and changes the thrust of the play, whitewashing it. There is nothing benign about a Nazi Swastika flag next to the American flag which was pictured at the real Camp Siegfried. The play’s camp carries the title, but the substance and meaning are squeezed out of it. Thus, the lure of the propaganda which should be terrifying to us because we know what is behind it, never finds emotional power or effect. The forward movement becomes some teens playing at sex and being adults and searching out each other with a backdrop at a camp that we hear appreciates the Nazi Party, Hitler, teaches German, has all-night rallies and marches. The culmination occurs when She delivers a speech and lifts her hand in the Sieg Heil salute and feels pleased with herself but reverses after her discussion with the doctor.
It may be horrific to have a Nazi Swastika onstage with other Nazi paraphernalia, but that horror is real and signifies something beyond just the freedom to express it. More might have been done to reveal the iconography of the Nazi party that was propagandizing the teens at the camp since it was such iconography that swelled German pride during that period of time in Germany and during the 1939 Nazi Party rally at Madison Square Garden.
Thus, the play never rises to the dramatic moments of danger and fear that Wohl might have brought to bear during our time that again sees the rise of white nationalism in our country, and on Long Island. There, on Long Island, the KKK, confederate flags and white nationalistic Holocaust Denier T-Shirts have been seen in allegedly patriotic parades and boat regattas supporting Donald Trump, a proponent of White Nationalism (think Nazis) and anti-democratic insurrections. Not to include the symbols or uniforms as they were used at the real Camp Siegfried, when white nationalism threatens our very democratic institutions is problematic.
At the Capitol on January 6th, there are pictures of Holocaust deniers proudly wearing T-shirts proclaiming that 6 million more should have been killed. This occurred during an insurrection that intended to nullify our constitution and install a despotic, white nationalist, who decries not indecency, bigotry, anti-semisitism, racism and hatred, but anyone who criticizes him. This is a time when a known Holocaust denier went to Mar-a-Lago, a few days ago, the place once referred to as the Southern White House. Actions and words carry great meaning.
The Nazis gently referred to and mildly presented in this play via exposition were essentially absent. Especially absent are key symbols of Nazi propaganda that the Nazi Party used for their potent and clever manipulation to sway the minds of Germans. Their non-appearance in the play is definitely a teachable moment. Likewise, the decision to omit these dramatic elements carefully constructed by the Nazi Party to excite and unify, in a play about Nazi allurements, also is a teachable moment. Their absence is silence.
Camp Siegfried runs with no intermission at https://cart.2st.com/events
In the microcosm is the macrocosm. This is especially so in the setting Will Arbery presents in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, the sardonic, metaphysical-realistic 95-minute play acutely directed by Danya Taymor, currently at the Signature Theatre presented by The New Group.
A key theme of Arbery’s exceptional work turns on the notion that the larger picture of what is happening resides in the details which human beings have a penchant for ignoring, though it is right before their eyes. Do we see the connections, or are we like the characters in this play, willfully unaware until a catastrophe results and it is too late to do anything about it? Arbery examines these themes in his thought-provoking, stylized work that suggests we cannot escape how we relate to our environment, no matter how much we attempt to obviate it. Indeed, Arbery points out that it is this blindness that has brought us to the brink of self-annihilation. Ironically, even standing on the brink looking down, we can’t manage to do what is needed to confront the human disaster that is unfolding before our eyes.
At the opening of Arbery’s play two truck driver forty-somethings, Peter (the superb Jeb Kreager), and Basil (Ken Leung is his vivacious side-kick), share their morning coffee before they take their rounds spreading salt to safe-guard the roads in and around Evanston, Illinois. We let this information slide away from us without giving it much thought. However, everything in Arbery’s play is profound and the characters’ lives and future are encompassed in the smallest detail of salt spreading. In that detail is reflected the wider invisible world that the characters sense is out there, both under the ground, pushing to break apart the sham infrastructure that cities have built for the purpose of commerce, or in the invisible world that hangs above in the ambient atmosphere pressing down on the characters to confound them and make them despondent.
The world that Arbery’s characters inhabit is representational. The action takes place in the environs of the Evanston “salt dome,” in the truck, and in Maiworm’s home, all staged with superb and symbolic minimalism by Matt Saunders’s scenic design, Isabella Byrd’s lighting design and Mikaal Sulaimon’s sound design. Before Peter and Basil begin their shift, Maiworm, the public works administrator who is their boss (the excellent Quincy Tyler Bernstine), stops in as she does each morning. Maiworm is astute and stays on top of the forward moving trends regarding the Green Movement. She understands the “larger picture” of the changing environmental conditions which impact their jobs and of which Peter and Basil remain unaware. Maiworm attempts to enlighten them by reading an article to them, the gist of which states that the record colder temperatures are requiring record levels of salt use. These are driving up the salt costs.
If we are paying attention, we understand the cause and effect of global warming and weather weirding indicated in this small detail of salt costs. After Maiworm reads the article, Peter says an article should be written about the fun he has with Basil driving in the truck. He doesn’t catch the “devil” in the details. In other words, he never makes the leap that the costs might impact his current job, his hours or salary. He assumes all will remain static in this job he’s had for twenty years.
Basil, who writes micro-fiction, ignores the underlying significance of the article for another reason. He tells Peter no one wants to read an article about their job because it has no “pull” or interest. The connection between Arbery as a writer and Basil is understated. It is as if Arbery twits himself about the intentional boring context of “salt costs climbing,” knowing that such a subject will not keep the audience engaged. However, Arbery is having us on. That is not what the play is about. And how the playwright cleverly connects this “detail” with its hidden significance making it dynamic and indelibly related to his characters is striking and horrifically revelatory to us.
Basil asks Maiworm about the impact of the increasing salt costs. Arbery reveals why Basil asks the question in the next scenes when we see that he and Maiworm have developed a covert sexual relationship unbeknownst to Peter. Thus, unlike Peter who doesn’t see or care about the symbolism behind the details, Basil is open to Maiworm’s thoughts and most probably encourages the direction of her decisions to feather her own nest and advance in her administrative position which must take into consideration the budget which includes the price of salt. However, on another level, he too misses the significance connecting the dots to climate change and colder weather which will create havoc if the powers that be (including Maiworm), don’t properly plan for it.
In a humorous scene that follows, we understand why Peter loves driving in the truck with Basil. They act silly and ridiculous, sharing “manly” antics as “roadies,” who do their job and maintain a friendly relationship, where they can cut loose and have a free-for all (which mostly entails cursing). Also, during this time Basil and Peter discuss more personal issues. Basil relates the dream he has of his grandmother who has told him, “Don’t let the Lady in Purple come near you.” He states, in the last part of the dream, The Lady in Purple does come near his grandmother, who dies. We intuit that the Purple Lady may be Death.
Additionally, Basil discusses that he ends up fusing with the Purple Lady and reverts to a dying little boy as the Purple Lady takes him. This, he tells Peter, happens during a time when cities are freezing and burning. Basil’s description is metaphoric and prescient in its representation of global warming, which he never mentions by name as if it doesn’t exist. By degrees, Arbery reveals how the events Basil describes in the dream come to fruition in his life in a mysterious way that merges phantasmagoria with reality later in the play.
Peter expresses that he is sad and his dreams are surrounding darkness and noise. This reflects Peter’s depression and suicidal thoughts. Basil, who has discussed Peter’s wanting to kill himself and kill his wife is concerned that Peter is in bad shape. Basil tells Maiworm about Peter and she vaguely comments she’ll watch out for him.
The dynamics of the interrelationships complicate as we learn more about Maiworm’s adopted daughter, Jane Jr., who suffers from depression and has suicidal thoughts like Peter. As Jane Jr. Rachel Sachnoff gives a fine, nuanced performance. of the only character who understands the impact of climate change. Maiworm’s concern for Jane Jr. includes trying to direct her interests by getting her to read Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Additionally, Maiworm encourages Jane Jr. to help others by singing to them at the nursing home. To make her feel needed, Maiworm uses Jane Jr. as her confidante. After a nightmare provoked by the suicide of the journalist who wrote the article Maiworm reads to Peter and Basil, Maiworm discusses her anxiety about Evanston. Maiworm tells Jane that she saw the dead rise from under the ground as the journalist fused with them. Then she segues the discussion to heated permeable pavers, the technology to make roads heat up so they can melt ice and snow to eliminate the use of salt and reduce costs.
Like all exceptional playwrights, Arbery reveals the trenchant themes by gradually through their connections. Eventually we learn one aspect why the heated permeable pavers might be a great solution. The salt is incredibly toxic and destructive to wildlife. Salt run-off pollutes the water table creating toxic blooms releasing poisonous chemical compounds and metals that kill animals and people.
Interestingly, this is the first we hear of such a technology, but not the last. We discover much later when Arbery connects the dots that Maiworm, to advance in her position, is part of the program to bring heated permeable pavers to Evanston, unbeknownst to Peter and Basil, whose jobs will become obsolete as a result. However, the implications of this Arbery does not make “visible” until after personal devastation occurs to each of the characters over the course of the three consecutive brutal winters in Illinois when the play takes place.
Arbery boxes in the characters who increasingly become dislocated through sadness and depression, indirectly caused by ignoring the moment of what is happening around them in the environment. Arbery indicates that though they don’t see the larger picture of the apocalyptic effects of climate change, in the unseen realm of the invisible world, it impacts them day and night. Jane Jr. is aware of this. It is mostly the cause of her depression and desire to end her life. She considers her Dad lucky that he died and doesn’t have to experience the impending doom that can be felt everywhere. Maiworm and others go about their lives as if nothing is happening. They live in a denial and that doesn’t quite work because they sense the coming destruction but don’t articulate its connection to what they feel is happening. Articulation is the beginning of recognition.
The unseen doom disturbs everyone. Peter’s suicidal thoughts continue and his situation worsens after his wife dies from an accident on the icy roads that didn’t have enough salt on them (presumably because less salt was used to defray costs). Fortunately, his daughter lives and they bond over Dominoes Pizza and watching the truck come to their door, a fun event for the six-year-old. Their relationship is the bright light in the play.
Maiworm’s guilt about Peter’s wife’s death is understated, but her behavior becomes more hyper and the overarching doom she senses increases in her life with Jane Jr. Additionally, the doom is in Basil’s dreams and shows up in his micro-fiction. When he is confronted with his past and inability to deal with it in his present, he is swallowed up (the Purple Lady makes an appearance). Basil joins the other dead in the earth metaphorically and physically fulfilling his nightmares. How Taymor and her team effect this is strange and dislocating, intensifying the play’s foreboding which becomes palpable to the audience.
Maiworm who could understand the impending doom of global warning’s impact on their lives, can only manage to live in the microcosm to fulfill her desire for advancement. She is the most blind and she blindsides others. Palliative measures to correct the dire future with “heated permeable pavers,” are too little too late. Caught up in the details, she ignores the “bigger picture.”
The climax of the encroachment of the unseen (the environment rebelling), upon the characters occurs toward the end of the play where Arbery delivers his key message delivered by a supernatural incarnation of a presence from the past, Jane Jacobs. As Jacobs, Ken Leung arises in black funereal dress. Without his accent he comes across with clear, precise anger and a clarion warning. Jane Jacobs suggests what we must do as human beings to face the oblivion of our own making. See the play; there is no spoiler alert.
Taymor’s direction of the actors is spot-on as they convey the suppressed doom in the tension and growing personal alarm in their dreams and confessions. All of the creative artists majestically bring together Arbery’s and Taymor’s vision of the dire consequence of the environment rebelling as an incarnate “thing.” Saunders, Byrd, Sulaiman and Sarafina Bush’s costume design, help to manifest terror in the atmosphere of the play through the suggestions of mysterious other-worldiness peeking through reality. We “get” the palpable danger human beings have created for themselves with their willful ignorance, negligence and dereliction of duty. That danger drives Maiworm, but because she ignores the signs and can’t translate what she feels into understanding, her obsession is misdirected. Caught up with the pavers for the future, Maiworm forgets to order salt for the present winter and they must hire others to do the job of salting the roads. She is rewarded for her incompetence as her advancement continues up the administrative chain.
The director and her team use at varying intensities darkness, shadows and light to great effect. Additionally, they alternate silence and loud sounds of the truck engines, screeching tires and grating sounds made by the raising and lowering of the warehouse garage doors. They employ storm sounds as well. These help to enhance the ominous atmosphere the characters feel and creates in us a growing dread. Also, the use of lighting and sound suggest the extremes of heat and cold and the eerie, weird quality of the environment as a being which humanity has monstrously shaped by its abuse. As a result of Taymor’s direction, Saunders, Bush, Byrd and Sulaiman’s artistry the nameless stark, terrible becomes real and the playwright’s themes hit home. Their prodigious efforts combined with the actors’ authenticity create memorable live theater that should not be missed.
For tickets and times go to their website https://thenewgroup.org/production/evanston-salt-costs-climbing/
Mike Birbiglia is back after his last Broadway outing four years ago, which centered around his daughter’s birth, in The New One. In his fifth collaboration directed by the superb Seth Barrish, Birbiglia shares his intimate health secrets. You know, the one’s that are confidential, only seen by Birbiglia’s doctors. This is territory Birbiglia has circled before because he gets great laughs, sharing his marred humanity. We understand. All of our bodies are a mass of quirks, glitches and imperfections, and this is especially so if we are what doctors can’t even refer to now as this thing called “healthy.” That’s because you may be the perfect specimen of MRI wellness and drop dead tomorrow of an undetected, congenital pre-disposition to flame out. The possibility of an unannounced dropping dead with alacrity is a point Birbiglia humorously makes during his one-man show, currently at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center.
The comedic writer/performer provides a wellspring of humor we heartily drink from. As we savor the long “draughts” (British spelling), from the mirth he serves with humility, we happily appreciate the refreshment for its healing power to make us forget the bedlam in the world, which Birbiglia avoids referencing. Wisely, no political topics are found in his show whose structure is less “stand-up” and more like an interactive one-act play. The interaction is the audience’s highly vocal, contented “purring,” of, chortles and “lololols” as we psychically enter each door Mike opens and receive a surprise at the abundance of gifts inside. Birbiglia is a great raconteur. Every detail connects with every other, so as we watch and listen, the golden mean spirals throughout his show.
One key spiral centers around Mike’s stories of his bodily weaknesses. Physical perfection surrounds us in the bombardment of weight loss, cosmetic surgery, sports centers and various enhancement ads that remind us we need to improve and look “sparkling” and youthful. And then there’s Mike, showing up in jeans and a shirt pulled over his un-ripped musculature. He does not look like he can bench press 1000 pounds. How refreshing. And it is obvious his outfit has not been tailored to bulk up his physique. Here is a typical guy whose physical body is average, but whose mental acumen is exceptional. The night I saw The Old Man & The Pool, Mike’s hair was sticking up electrically, like it refused to obey the comb. How can you not like this guy? He is completely unpretentious, unpompous and easily relaxed (He has worked hard to achieve the look and the ethos.) His humor is just what we need right now. Welcome back, Mike Birbiglia!
It was about the fifth minute after Birbiglia started his riffs that I decided I loved the show. By this point I and my audience colleagues were drawn in, standing in his shoes with empathy, hooked by his magnanimity, great good will, wit, and wise self-perception. It was a pleasure to join in freely with audience members, chortling and at crucial junctures, shedding a tear or two at the poignance of some of the themes about family and his daughter. This was especially so after connecting with him over something we all have to confront, our mortal flesh and the fear of losing loved ones.
During the 80-minute performance, Birbiglia gives the audience free reign to walk with him on a guided tour into his most personal thoughts about death, dying, his childhood, wife and family. It’s a circuitous route beginning with a foray into medical charts during various doctors’ visits and dictums that with his Type 2 diabetes and heart issues, he must do cardio. The heart issue is the first focus. This was reinforced and illustrated via projection onto a clever backdrop, a curved wall of white “graph paper” superimposed on the blue chlorinated pool (the chlorine turned into a funny riff). Breath test results were projected as a tell-tale line resembling the “normal” example of breath it takes to blow a ping pong ball up a tube (think of Ed Harris in the film The Right Stuff). Then we see Mike’s line which is short and rockets downward to oblivion.
Mike’s discussion about this is hysterical. The doctor translates the information saying the line looks like Mike is having a heart attack in the office. It’s a riotous presumption because Mike is upright and breathing normally. Meanwhile, the dialogue between Mike and the doctor about the chart line is a romp into the ridiculous. It is about this time when we think, well, maybe he should go to a Holistic doctor. When Mike tells us the doctor suggests cardio exercise, his response is even funnier. Then, we are off and running into acceptable exercise for Mike, which eventually becomes “the YMCA pool” and swimming, as all else has failed.
Let’s segue for a moment to consider the once in a life-time COVID-19 pandemic that we experienced and which is still going on though few acknowledge it. After reading all I could discover about COVID-19, I get the significance of comorbidities and heart issues and heart attacks (a frequent COVID-19 causation of death). Our health is everything and doing whatever we can to maximize staying alive for our families should be paramount. Our concern about living and losing life (How many of us lost loved once because of COVID-19 or its after effects?) has been ratcheted up as a result of the over 1,100,000 deaths to the virus that still is considered a “hoax” in some lunatic circles. So Birbiglia’s discussions about health were vital to the audience, and humorous as Mike uses it as a launching off point for the most important topics which he covers “down the road” of the show.
Somewhere between the belly laugh 15 or 16, we realize what Birbiglia is doing. He is helping us negotiate the rocky waters of existence and the existential conundrum that we had to confront shockingly these past years and still face. We are not immortal. Death may be more imminent than we realize. After the dire hell of COVID-19 for New Yorkers (Birbiglia lives in Brooklyn…he doesn’t have to mention COVID-19), we are acutely aware that as we live, we understand it is only for a blip in time and we may increase or decrease that blip as we so choose. It’s heady stuff.
Making the most of the time we have together is another theme that Birbiglia sneaks in sub rosa, as he tells stories about his health, heart disease issues in his family, the frozen silence as he says “Take care,” to his parents and never “I love you.” And most importantly, his love and the impact of his health on his daughter Oona, who is six to his forty-four.
Back to the review. Birbiglia’s storytelling and set up are heavy with detailed images that are unforgettable. There is one I’d like to evacuate from my mind, but I can’t for a number of reasons. These emerged by the end of the show. Mike describes the naked body of a man who sits on a bench in the men’s locker room at the YMCA that he saw when he was a kid around the age of six. Mike couldn’t help but stare at the man because it was the first time he had seen adult genitalia. It happened as things happen when we are kids, and the images stick with us forever and as such, we can describe them like it was yesterday. Mike’s storytelling process reveals how these “poetic” images of remembrance have a way of layering meaning through our lives. Ironically, they eventually come to bite us in the behind much later, when we have the age and experience behind us to meditate and reflect on the the past.
Birbiglia’s descriptive image of this man relates throughout. And of course, he makes sure that it comes to bite, not only him, but all of us, who by the conclusion have been so invested with appreciation for Mike’s wit, we recognize the most vital point of wisdom that Birbiglia weaves throughout. Momento mori. After the impact of having to stay home and quarantine for two months to stave even greater numbers from dying, one appreciates that reminder. And that is the thrust of Birbiglia’s pool exercise, his eating habits and his largesse at presenting himself as the key human target to laugh at. But when you figure that the only thing sacrificed is ego, which is an artificial construct to defend against death, hurt, insult, what better way to defend against these things than to ridicule and laugh at how they operate in ourselves. Nevertheless, eventually comes the reality that there is no defense against death, not even humor. This is another point Birbiglia makes. And as such, he emphasizes we must make each moment count.
Birbiglia closes with the image of the man in the locker room.. In deference to Mike because HE HATES SPOILER ALERTS, I will just comment that the guy in the locker room is one of the many threads, phrases, impressions, metaphors, images that he uses to eventually build up to the mountain top of revelation that is poignant and identifiable. The threaded metaphors beautifully set up future punchlines (though with him, his perceptions are so acute and wise, they are more than what is invoked by the word “punchline.”). They are pin pricks which sharpen and alert us to ourselves, alert us to the laziness with regard to things we should be on top of. The show combines laughter and revelation to shake us up. As Mike shares his experiences, he is saving himself, and he is throwing us a life preserver so we can follow his example and save ourselves with regard to those things in our personal lives that are not examples of “a house in order” but are examples of mess and chaos.
That said, immutable values and themes are paramount in The Old Man & the Pool. Laughing about how we deceive ourselves strengthens us in our humanity to face our mortality, which in living our lives, we tend to ignore. For example, Mike discusses how the form for the family will sat on the table for three years before he and his wife began to fill it out in earnest. This is one of those funny/unfunny stories which hit home for audience members who laughed in recognition. Mike and his wife couldn’t discuss dying. They didn’t want to think about what happens if one dies first and leaves the other spouse and that’s not even considering what happens to their daughter. Wills are tricky because we are too busy living our lives now. Culturally, we don’t really deal with death well. The best way is through humor and Mike’s show mentors how to deal with “it” through wisdom and a “healthy” dose of self-deprecation.
Birbiglia’s incredible worth is in helping us laugh about the things we fear like death or helping us receive the commonality of how a pizza (it’s incredibly bad for you), stays up and parties with you after you devoured five slices or more five hours before. Birbiglia reminds us that we need to laugh about the big and the little things because, believe it or not, they are related. We need to laugh about the fear we experience going into a doctor’s office blowing into a tube and having such a rotten test score it charts as a heart attack. We need to chortle when our daughter shatters our self-esteem and tells us we have, “God forbid in our culture if you have this and are a celebrity, “yellow teeth.” Oona tells Mike this during one of their story times together.
Like all artists who are multifaceted (the program lists Mike as a comedian, director, actor and author who won a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Outstanding Solo Performance), Mike is an adept at understanding the wide breadth of human experience and how to share self-conscious stories which deal with immutable verities. Above all, his show, after the worst of COVID, reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. We should be open to silliness and innocence as his daughter reminds him when they read together at night. (These sweet moments and his whispery lifting of his voice to imitate hers are some of the the finest in the show.) What Birbiglia’s prodigious artistry does is help us love ourselves and commune with others, whose humanity it is OK to love, too. His is an exceptional mission of comfort in this tide of times.
Traveling with his show to other parts of the country, Birbiglia knows his audience and senses what it needs based on what he needs; the purr of laughter. Regardless of his political views (we don’t know them), we understand what counts: he is a father, husband and son. And his self-ridicule reveals that he lacks the ego to present himself as “all that.” His ethos retrenches to audience laughter which he provokes with mundanities and homely quips. Audience purrs and belly laughs pace at about about every 30 seconds or as long as it takes to relate the set-up, then settle to the uproarious and witty point. It’s more of an overall build with twists upon twists, until at the end, the last twist lands with an explosion.
In The Old Man & the Pool, Birgiglia hits it out of the ballpark. The solo performance flies by despite everyone wanting him to slow down and “make it last.”
Kudos to all that makes this happen every night until Mike Birbiglia leaves Lincoln Center. The creative team reveals their mastery in Beowulf Boritt’s sensational, fun set, Toni-Leslie James “man of the street” costume design, Aaron Copp’s nuanced and symbolic lighting design, Kai Harada’s excellent sound design (I heard every word), Hana S. Kim’s superb, astute projection design. All thanks goes to the inimitable director Seth Barrish and Birbiglia’s collaboration.
This is a superb must-see especially if you need a laugh or two or hundreds. For tickets and times go to their website: https://mikebirbigliabroadway.com/
In the service of confronting anti-Asian racism and the bias against mental illness, Catch as Catch Can by Mia Chung, directed by Daniel Aukin widely misses. The one-act play at Playwrights Horizons, reignited from a run at The New Ohio Theatre in 2018 complicates structurally and thematically. Unfortunately, the lack of forthright presentation skews the power of the messages and leaves one questioning the characterizations. Instead, one should be questioning the impact of parental conditioning on learned behavior.
Our conditioning is how we abide by family roles, gender, ethnic biases, unless we choose to overcome them. Conditioning importantly impacts our psychological stability. This theme, if clearly presented by the playwright is prescient for us today. However, much was lost in the presentation of this production at Playwrights Horizons until November 20th.
Three actors fluidly portray six roles which is easy enough. The roles they illuminate are of different ages and genders and there’s the rub. Jon Norman Schneider and Rob Yang at the top of the very long one-act (1 hour 50 minutes), portray mothers Roberta Lavecchia and Theresa Phelan. In subsequent scenes they play their sons Robbie Lavecchia and Tim Phelan. Cindy Cheung portrays father Lon Lavecchia and daughter Daniela Lavecchia.
What is the point of the actors portraying characters who are cross-gender, cross ages while they, too, belie the ethnicity of their characters (Italian and Irish)? In watching Cindy Cheung portray father Lon Lavecchia, and daughter Daniela Lavecchia, we see how the character has been influenced by her father’s parenting. In watching Jon Norman Schneider portray mother Roberta Lavecchia and son Robbie Lavecchia, we understand the mother’s influence on her son. Likewise, as we watch Rob Yang portray mother Theresa Phelan and son Tim Phelan, we understand how Tim’s nature and behaviors are conditioned and influenced by his mother Theresa. Wouldn’t the dialogue reveal this without all the crosses to bear?
It took me about 3 minutes to understand that the effeminate mannerisms and strained voices of Jon Norman Schneider as Roberta and Rob Yang as Theresa were stylized to convey the impact of these women on their children. This becomes clearer when we later see the doubling up portrayals of the actors playing the sons, as “chips off the old maternal block.”
The first scene between the two mothers sitting and having tea played more for humor than for authenticity. However, I found myself forced to listen acutely to the dialogue to understand that neighbors Roberta and Theresa are concerned about their sons and that is a point of mutual shared interest. Their sons have been with Korean American women. Roberta is comfortable enough not to disguise her bias against son Robbie’s wife, who he divorced two years prior. On the other hand, Theresa is concerned that her son Tim is going to be engaged to a very pretty Koren American woman who looks “like a doll” and has small hands. We discover later that Tim who has severe emotional issues has been lying to his mother about this woman, perhaps to reassure her he is “normal,” for she can’t accept another way for him to be.
The playwright has sought to stylize the entire foray into subjects which perhaps should be dealt with honestly rather than to obscure them. However, even in neighborly relationships and in families, so much occurs sub rosa. In all human relationships behavior is obscured. And sometimes we learn more from what is not said than what is. That is one message of the play, it would seem, as an outcropping of the playwright’s intentional doubling and mixing of ages and genders and also including two Asian actors. The question remains, does the mixing of genders, ages and ethnicities elucidate or befuddle? And to what extent does confusion enhance one’s passion in expressing one’s message?
Stripping away the artificial and stylized constructs, the authentic action which is most on point is the preparation for the family reunion. where we have already seen where the food and last names identify ethnicity for the Italian Lavecchias and Irish Phelans. We become engaged as the actors hang the Christmas lights, get the chaffing dishes and organize for the large buffet, that is sprinkled with humor, including the thought that a friend’s vegan teenager will not be eating Mrs. Lavecchia’s wonderful meatballs and sausages. The scene is in the congeniality of the season until a monkey wrench is thrown in when Tim and Daniela go shopping to pick up additional supplies. Tim kisses Daniela, truths are revealed. The moment is incredibly awkward and sets us up for Tim’s later emotional and psychological breakdown. Cheung and Yang do a bang-up job with this scene as a lead in to the strongest part of the play, Tim’s illness.
The last part of the one-act is the clearest. Tim’s profound depression which he’s been hiding from his mother is acute. Friends also miss it and can really do little to help. In the conversation he has with his mother that moves from response to comment, Yang’s portrayal of mother and son is superb and differentiated. Theresa’s unemotional delivery segues into Tim’s unemotional, opaque monotone that reveals his desolate state. Thus, when Cheung’s Daniela explains that she finds he tried to hang himself in their house where he was staying, we are not surprised. Nor are we surprised at Daniela’s expressed hatred for Theresa who can’t acknowledge what is happening to her son. We have seen Tim’s debilitating depression in action with his mother who doesn’t understand her son.
The subsequent hospital scene where Yang’s Tim acts out against being there to his final scene with Robbie convey the misery and hopelessness of his condition. Yang and Schneider do a wonderful job at this juncture. From benign beginning between the almost silly Theresa and Roberta to the conclusion, Tim’s severe illness finally emerges. We note that the events and conversations have led up to this point as merely the tip of the iceberg below which Tim’s state looms to crash into his mother. He can no longer front with her and they become alienated. Theresa rejects his mental state and perhaps as a distraction appears more concerned about herself. However, Robbie is accepting and loving to Tim. We would like to believe he will be there for him. Yet, in a fade to black the outcome is uncertain, as is with mental illness where the patient doesn’t believe in the efficacy of his own survival.
With a different directorial approach, the themes might have been brought to bear more powerfully. Unfortunately, with this iteration, there is much that remained muddled. One wonders how the dialogue would stand up if the six characters were not in search of delineated roles melting into a mix of ages and genders. Possibly, if performances were less stylized with speech patterns and mannerisms forcing for laughs, the results would have been more dynamic. Indeed, the parts of the production that were authentic and acted with spot-on immediacy (minus exposition), were standouts. Kudos to the three actors in those sections.
Kudos to the creative team that effected the variety of setting changes including the hospital scene. Likewise, to the fine organization of props and setting for the Christmas celebration. The team includes Matt Saunders (scenic design), Enver Chakartash (costume design), Marika Kent (lighting design), Bray Poor (sound design).
It’s the 31st year of the NYBG Holiday Train Show starring New York’s architectural beauties in miniature from all the boroughs in New York City to Westchester County and beyond to upstate New York. Returning for its third year, NYBG GLOW in a multitude of colors lights the pathways, trees and landscape with vibrant greens, fuscias, reds and blues making the Garden even more magical than it is year round.
The Holiday Train Show and GLOW have boasted sold-out evenings the past two years. This is because NYBG GLOW is New York City’s largest outdoor holiday light extravaganza. This year it expands covering even more of the Garden’s spectacular plant collections. These include an all-new display of 60 glowing orbs in the designed waterfalls of the Native Plant Garden.
During the 23 special, select evenings, the Garden’s buildings, including the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Building become dramatic, striking pageantry. The Garden’s creative teams have dispersed thousands of lights (energy-efficient) in choreographed displays to twinkle and beckon to visitors throughout the landscape. The light production accompanied by a selection of music is designed to lighten New Yorkers’ hearts with a celebratory spirit of thankfulness. The botanical creators have captured beauty in their demonstrated love and talented artistry exercised in the service of joy and uplift for the 2022 winter season that is not under previous extreme duress of the pandemic that we’ve suffered through these past three years. However, if one feels to, though vaccination cards will not be checked, one may comfortably wear a mask in the Conservatory and when not eating in the Hudson Garden Grill and the Pine Tree Cafe.
The creative team of Applied Imagination in Alexandria, Kentucky reflects the energy and celebratory thankfulness in their differently arranged installations of the iconic landmarks that New Yorkers have come to appreciate more than ever during the past three years, two of which were spent in worry for older loved ones. Some of these amazing replicas include the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, Rockefeller Center and more. The trains and miniature structures are spread throughout the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Nighttime is the most mysterious and fun time to visit because of the dark beauty of the plants sheltering the buildings faithfully sculpted from plant parts arranged for the spectators’ maximum enthusiasm and delight.
This year’s show features a new addition to the190 miniatures previously displayed in the Garden’s wondrous exhibit enjoyed by children and adults alike. It is a brand-new version of an old favorite-The George Washington Bridge-with more elaborate detail and grandeur lighting. The new George Washington Bridge took Applied Imagination’s staff more than 1,000 hours to create.
Another new feature is the interpretative signage that presents illustrations and descriptions of some of the 150 different varieties of plants and plant parts used to create the Holiday Train Show miniatures. If you download the Bloomberg Connects app, you will discover the plant stories, using preserved plant specimens from NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbariums, the largest plant research collection in the Western Hemisphere. The collection contains almost eight million specimens.
For the train lovers, as you saunter among the foliage and the luxuriously arranged plant designs among the replicas, you’ll see various type of trains trundling along tracks brushing apart foliage. A favorite house of mine is the miniature of Poe Cottage, the house in the Bronx where Edgar Allan Poe worked on some of his most famous poems. In previous years I’ve enjoyed watching a G-scale model locomotive moving past the house and imagining the train which Edgar Allan Poe took to visit cities in the Northeast from Philadelphia to Baltimore and then to parts of the South all in the service of his writing.
Some of the G-scale model trains include trolleys, American steam engines, streetcars from the late 1800s and modern freight and passenger trains. These move seamlessly along nearly 1/2 mile of track along overhead trestles, through tunnels, and across bridges high above visitor’s heads including all five New York City bridges from the Queensboro (Kock) to the Whitestone, from the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge to Hells Gate and the renovated George Washington Bridge.
Beverages and light fare will be available at one of nYBG’s outdoor bars or the Bronx Nigh Market Holiday Pop-Up. Additionally, professional sculptors will create intricate ice carvings inspired by the Garden’s wonderland.
NYBG GLOW will take place on the following dates: Friday and Saturday, November 18-19; Wednesday, November 23rd; Friday, November 25; Saturday, November 26; Friday, December 2; Saturday, December 3; Friday, December 9; Saturday, December 10; Sunday, December 11; Thursday, December 15; Friday, December 16; Saturday, December 17; Thursday, December 22; Friday, December 23″ Monday, December 26; Friday, December 30,2022; Sunday, January 1; Saturday, January 7; and Saturday, January 14, 2023.
For more information and for ticket alerts, visit the NYBG website at: https://www.nybg.org/event/holiday-train-show/plan-your-visit/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA99ybBhD9ARIsALvZavW_okYP0jpG51EZp6LHNZdRAJSK2G7HaoVA5OoH_L24aU_xpDoQgNEaAtp2EALw_wcB
From the response of the audience’s standing ovation and cheering, the snarky comparison by critics to the lead actors of Almost Famous and Dear Evan Hansen and other criticisms didn’t seem to matter. That is because Almost Famous delivers. This is especially so if one has seen the titular film (2000). If you appreciate a nod to what Howard Stern refers to as the best music of the past (better than the 1960s), and take that love or fandom to The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, you will be happy you went to see this enjoyable production of Almost Famous directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Written by Cameron Crowe (book and lyrics), and Tom Kitt (music and lyrics), based on the Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures film written by Cameron Crowe, the show spreads its uplift and hope during a holiday season that is bringing crowds to Manhattan. Tourists, rockers and Broadway fans up for an entertaining night out will be pleased at the sterling voices, the humor, the energy of the performers and the music which connects the familiar story-line to the historical 70s music scene with nostalgia and poignance.
The classic rock covers (i.e. Deep Purple, the Allman Brothers), sustain us while Kitt’s original music is interesting with memorable songs like “Morocco,” “The Night Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” and “Everybody’s Coming Together.” The new melodies (a combination of rock and pop), convey the heart of the characters who are subtly drawn.
Fandom is the key to frequent successful film to stage transference. It may or may not apply here. The creators have taken a leap into the Broadway musical genre. They’ve created original songs for live performance and they have slipped in songs from the period (Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Lynard Skinner, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Elton John) into the musical’s action but not in the same way as in the film, whose background was replete with rock ‘n’ roll songs from start to finish. That doesn’t happen with this musical that has 18 newly-written songs. Included are four reprises from Tom Kitt (music) and Cameron Crowe (lyrics). The songs move the action as the characters express their conflicts, issues, desires and feelings and get tangled up in each others’ agendas.
Staged cleverly with Sarah O’Gleby’s movement, director Jeremy Herrin and the creative team eschew traditional choreography and keep the sets simple and minimalist to suit roadies on tour with the exception of William’s and Elaine’s home. This is in the service of suggesting the free form movement of the 1970s. The concept of great rock was fading into new musical trends like Rap then moved in the 1980s to MTV domination. Ultimately, the musical is a nod to 1970s rock ‘n’ roll and its ethos before commercialization and digital technology skewed it into something else.
Though the action is condensed with the added musical numbers, the arc of plot development, based on Crowe’s real-life journey as a teenage rock writer, follows the film. Wisely, the humorous lines in the production are lifted from Crowe’s writing, which won an Oscar for best original screenplay (2001).
One of the most important themes of the musical reveals an ambience of the 1970s, that was culturally strained between liberalism and conservatism. This is partly suggested by the opening number “1973,” when William Miller (the excellent Casey Likes), confesses to rock ‘n’ roll critic Lester Bangs (a manic, funny Rob Colletti). William sings about his conflicts with his mom. She stands in the way of his discovering “who he is.” In a state of flux, his mother Elaine (the humorous Anika Larsen), a teacher fearful of “drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll,”controls William and his sister Anita to the point where Anita (Emily Schultheis), rebels and leaves home.
However, Elaine can’t quite figure out who she is either. She adopts a healthy vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, clearly a liberal cultural influence. Yet, conservatively, she disagrees with subversive music (the rock ‘n’ roll Anita loves), and its cultural aftereffects (sex, drugs, wild partying). The pull of conservatism and liberalism is one William faces in his conflict with Elaine, but he’s leaning toward the underground and subversive, reinforced when his sister gives him all her rock ‘n’ roll albums to be “cool.” These inspire him to write for his school newspaper with the hope of a possible career as a writer or future music critic.
One element of his confusion, unbeknownst to him. is that his mother had him skip grades and lied about his age. Meanwhile, he is embarrassed because he has no pubes, is alone, uncool and alienated by classmates who humiliate him. Naturally, when he receives a response from Lester Bangs, the finest rock critic in Christendom, who accepts and encourages him, he jumps at the chance to write for Bangs’ Creem Magazine. On the road to being a bone fide critic, he lands an assignment from Rolling Stone to profile a rising band called Stillwater.
William manages to obtain Elaine’s permission by swearing he will remain pure and stay away from drugs and sex. Elaine relents because she dimly thinks it is better to connect with him and “keep him near,” (which fails), rather than lose him like she lost Anita. Ironically, she loses him in a different way. The rock band “kidnaps her son,” a funny and wonderful refrain in “Elaine’s Lecture” which is a lament that carries her angst about what is happening to William. He goes on the road with the band to get an interview, for which Ben Fong-Torres (Matthew C. Yee), will pay him handsomely. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up.
Likes’ William enjoys the excitement of “getting down” with beautiful young women who assist bands in their mission to be great. These groupies, cheering the praises of their leader Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer), have re-branded themselves as The Band-Aids. They are rock ‘n’ roll muses and their mission is “all about the music.” Indeed, Penny Lane has so fulfilled her role, that musicians have written 14 songs about her, and “all of them good,” affirms Estrella (Julia Cassandra).
With such a build-up of excitement Likes’ William is smitten with Penny (Solea Pfeiffer), and her Band-Aides who, along with Estrella, include Sapphire (Katie Ladner) and Polexia (Jana Djenne Jackson). Solea Pfeiffer is an “all that” Penny Lane who doesn’t quite convince us that she is about the music and so “cool” and scintillating to musicians, that she is their fount of inspiration. But then she is not supposed to. The Band-Aids, Penny and Stillwater’s Russel Hammond (Chris Wood), Jeff Bebe (wild, rocking Drew Gehling), Larry Fellows (Matt Bittner), and Silent Ed (Brandon Contreras) are “hype.” The actors (the Band-Aids and Stillwater), do a superb job of managing their characters’ “cool” with enough awkwardness for us to know that they are “almost famous,” but not there yet. And as a result, they will never really achieve super stardom because they get in each other’s way and are totally “uncool.”
The Band-Aides and Stillwater must walk the tightrope of not believing their own image to avoid falling into a destructive abyss which threatens throughout. This conflict and tension abates after the moment of truth on the airplane, especially when Woods’ Hammond and Gehling’s Jeff Bebe reveal their deepest secrets because they fear the plane will crash. This scene is technically delivered to surprising effect. Humorously, the tiny jet “flying” on a chord from one side of the stage to the other was so “over-the-top,” it worked in the service of farce.
The actors did a great job with the scene to convey just enough humor and fear to “spill the beans” and further wreck Stillwater’s “togetherness.” Believing their own hype brought them to facing this catastrophe on the plane. If they continued to take their humble tour bus, they would have been safer. The real dose of reality that Hammond says he wants is a pose only revealed when he thinks he’s going to die. Thanks to Derek McLane (scenic & video design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), Peter Hylenski (sound design), and the actors’ authenticity, the scene embodies their magical thinking vs. truth, a key conflict and theme of the musical.
Williams’ adventures initially captured in his journey through the songs, “Who Are You With?,” “Ramble On,” “Penny and William,” “Fever Dog,” and “Morocco,” evidence the pitfalls of being a rock ‘n’ roll critic who is always a “watcher” of the action, not a creator of it. Colletti’s Bangs humorously warns William to be “honest and unmerciful.” When William gets a taste of the band culture, its groupies and the challenge to be accepted, he tries not to be overwhelmed or lose his “objectivity.” Yet, he succumbs to their manipulations. First, there’s the rejection of him as a critic (called “The Enemy” by Stillwater’s Jeff Bebe). This wears him down and makes him want to “fit-in.” Though he resists and manipulates band members with flattery, he never adheres to Lester Bangs’s sage advice. Gradually, William is sucked in because Stillwater’s Bebe, Hammond and Penny Lane are good at “the game.” William is clever, but he’s a neophyte.
This “congenial” conflict between William, the band and Penny Lane disappears when he believes he is a friend, (“Something Real,” “No Friends,” the healing of divisions with “Tiny Dancer,” “Lost in New York City, Pt. 1” and “River/Lost in New York City Pt. 2”). But this “friendship” is a blind and his presumed love with Penny Lane eventually clarifies for him when she leaves him to the Band-Aids and joins Hammond (“It Ain’t Easy”). He is discouraged, but hangs on and writes a piece for Rolling Stone. However, it is rejected by fact-checker Allison (Emily Schultheis), and he is accused of writing a puff piece that Stillwater encouraged him to write. Only until Wood’s Hammond finally verifies William’s honest and “unmerciful” article to Rolling Stone, is the “magical fake world” of the band blown apart. However, this is beneficial for it allows the band and groupies to begin a new day.
Through lines in characterization are consistently effected. The conflict between son and mother abides from start to finish and provides much of the humor. Anika Larsen deftly balances Elaine as a typical loving parent, whose concern, knowledge and control are acceptable to the audience. She is never acerbic or preachy in the songs “He Knows Too Little (And I Know Too Much),” “Elaine’s Lecture,” and “Listen to Me.” Resolutions occur by the conclusion, when Anita has found herself and the full company sings the reprise of “Everybody’s Coming Together,” a rousing standout.
The actors, shepherded by Jeremy Herrin, do an excellent job of precluding who will end up on the floor of their own demise. This is strongest when we note the rifts between Bebe and Hammond, beginning when the T-shirts are distributed, then moving to the partial healing of their divisions on the bus with the singing of “Tiny Dancer,” another knockout scene and high-point at the conclusion of Act I. Though manager Dick Roswell (Gerard Canonico), has brought them together for a while, the conflicts among band members continue. They encompass Penny Lane and Russell’s relationship. Penny Lane is sold out in a bet that William witnesses during the Poker game scene. Pfeiffer’s Penny Lane and Likes’ William are excellent together with resonating lyricism and power when he saves her life after she overdoses on Quaaludes.
Most of the new songs work. Additional strong scenes/songs include Penny and William’s “The Real World,” Russell and Penny Lane’s “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You” and “Something Real” when Woods’ Hammond falls apart at a fan’s house. At this point before the end of Act I, William attempts to keep Russell away from acid and fails. Woods and Likes do an excellent job revealing the negative pressure on their characters from the hype that Wood’s Hammond attempts to escape. It is an irony that he can’t because he is as needy and “uncool” as Penny Lane, Jeff Bebe and the others. However, he just hides it better.
Interestingly, in his immersion with the band, the only time they all come out of their “image” is when Likes’ blows it up with the final Rolling Stone piece about them, something that Wood’s Hammond encourages and has yearned for. Then, even Penny Lane is able to gain the strength to go to Morocco, leading to a satisfactory conclusion with “Fever Dog Bows,” which the entire company sings as a tribute to 1970s rock ‘n’ roll.
Kudos to the creative team already mentioned with special praise for Bryan Perri’s music supervision and direction, and Lorenzo Pisoni as physical movement coordinator. This is one to see for the shimmering performances, rousing music and nostalgia for a time we will never see again in its wacky innocence and silly “hedonism,” which seems quaint viewed through our current perspective. For tickets and times go to their website: https://almostfamousthemusical.com/