Author Archives: caroleditosti

‘The Smuggler,’ A Thriller in Rhyme at Irish Repertory Theatre

 Michael Mellamphy in 'The Smuggler' at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).
Michael Mellamphy in The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).

In an energetic, boisterous performance delivered with a fever pitch that doesn’t quit or pause with quieter notes, Michael Mellamphy’s Tim Finnegan spills out The Smuggler, a story about how, as a naturalized citizen from Ireland, he was forced into a black-hearted situation he couldn’t refuse. In his delivery Mellamphy is like a high-speed train barreling down the track on a joy ride that threatens catastrophe at each turn in the journey, as customers and audience members alike are drawn in with his humor, excitement and storytelling verve, unfolding in rhyming couplets, that at times are insecure and slant. Written by Ronán Noone, himself an Irish-American immigrant from Galway, and directed by Conor Bagley, The Smuggler runs a slim 80 minutes at Irish Repertory Theatre in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre. It has been extended until March 12.

At the heart of The Smuggler the protagonist (a con artist) attempts to get over with his charm and engagement to elicit audience sympathy. He seeks this as he tells about his plight to make a way for himself and his family in a culture that is the antithesis of welcoming and helpful to those “down on their luck.” When he’s fired from his job as a barman in Amity, Massachusetts, every door appears to shut in Finnegan’s face. Understanding the dark irony that America is portrayed as the land of “opportunity” in the alluring myth (the streets are paved with gold) told to strangers from other shores to entice them to leave their home country to provide cheap labor whether legal or illegal, he is caught in a morass of financial wrack and ruin of his own making.

 Michael Mellamphy in 'The Smuggler' at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).
Michael Mellamphy in The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).

Not only does Finnegan enjoy “a bit of drink” (an explanation for the selection of his job as barman) he appears not to be too swift in forward planning financially with his wife. Everything is a surprise that happens to them, not that they are responsible for selecting actions that leave them hanging off a cliff.

Many immigrants face hellish experiences, exploited by craven, greedy bosses, forced to live in overcrowded quarters, the pawns of merciless overlords wherever they turn. We have only to read about the history of America’s labor movement or Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, or superlative, recent, non-fiction works (Tomato) to understand the desperation that immigrants go through, first to leave their countries, and then to attempt to “make it,” continuing the hell of the past in the present new “home.”

 Michael Mellamphy in 'The Smuggler' at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).
Michael Mellamphy in The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).

Thus, life moves from wheel to woe for those like Finnegan, who strike out to start a family, make missteps with bad choices, then fall on hard times. Finnegan and his wife live in a rental, that is no more than a shack with non-functioning plumbing. It is owned by a slumlord, a sleazy landlord who refuses to fix much of anything. As Finnegan unravels his dire circumstances with heavy poetic description, we identify with the immigrant experience, recognizing that the uniform abuse by those happy to mistreat and exploit the cheap labor of aliens and immigrants, is all too familiar.

What makes Finnegan’s experience a bit more interesting is how at each turn, being backed into a corner, by his boss, the landlord and the wife, he seeks a way to improve his family circumstances by “any” means necessary. Of course there’s the rub. “Any” reverts to lowering standards and morals he may have as a human being, as he turns to a life of theft and exploitation of other aliens and immigrants, he works with at his construction job.

 Michael Mellamphy in 'The Smuggler' at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).
Michael Mellamphy in The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).

Noone characterizes Finnegan during his monologue confessional with an emphasis on masculine bravado, fearlessness (especially when he confronts a menacing, “man-eating” rat) and chivalry in saving his wife and child from poverty, destitution and want. The heroic portrait is right out of “Captain America,” part of the glorious beauty of the American Dream of success, which lifts up the “heroic struggle” and vitiates the criminality, exploitation and violence that under-girds it. A good scam artist, Finnegan seductively blinds the audience to see things “his way,” so that they accept his justifications for his choices. His “bravery” and good will serves him like a magician’s prestidigitation at redirecting our understanding away from his conning nature.

Because his storytelling appears authentic and forthright, we gloss over his lack of accountability and responsibility in taking the low road toward crime, which he admits with (feigned?) abashment. Though he selects the exploitative way that harms and abuses others, we look at his efforts to succeed materially, not the dark side which he uses to get his “ill-gotten gains.” Finnegan’s “happy-go-lucky” attitude indicates that he knows the difference, but makes excuses for his behavior: “what else could he do?” The conclusion reinforces his triumph at “getting over.” The knock at the door, which we may anticipate brings recompense and punishment, never comes. Instead, the knock at the door brings a blessing. (There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see The Smuggler to understand the symbolism of the knock on the door of the bar he was fired from, that his life of crime enabled him to buy back later on.)

 Michael Mellamphy in 'The Smuggler' at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).
Michael Mellamphy in The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).

Thus, Finnegan’s ultimate success as an Irish American is in how well he has gotten over, gotten the loot, made a beautiful material life for himself and his family, so they can “live happily ever after.” That there is some danger that lurks behind the triumphant Finnegan brand is smothered over by his intrepid nature and gumption to “just do it!” His is a male Cinderella story of achieving wealth. His macho actions to sacrifice for “the wife and family” actually reference the Trumps and Putins of the world and ridicule those who amass little monetarily, but scrape enough to get by, living in humility, honesty and decency. With boldness, his bravado encourages criminality and uplifts the fact that the law (represented by his adulterous cop brother-m-law) is capricious, unequally meted out and dysfunctional. Dali Lama, an unqualified loser, you have no place in America with your muted, unmaterialistic, nice-guy values

Rather than to evolve with hard work, sobriety, education and an ethos that undermines the exploitation of the abusive system that enslaves its workers and has converted Finnegan into a criminal, Finnegan jumps right in and embraces the “opportunity” to be at the top of the heap as “King Rat.” The symbolism of his killing the rat “guarding” a safe in the basement, whose contents he takes, is quite apparent. Ultimately, if justice ever knocks at Finnegan’s door, then he will have effected his own final self-destruction. Maybe! However, with his glib rhyming he proves to himself that there is nothing he can’t accomplish to become a success and be the type of “American” that extols scammers, con artists, schemers and material wealth, regardless of the soul damage and foulness created in the process. If he needs to, Finnegan has proven he’s a survivor. He can even get over in prison, if need be.

 Michael Mellamphy in 'The Smuggler' at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).
Michael Mellamphy in The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of Carol Rosegg).

Clearly, Finnegan is smuggling more than a few ideas past the audience to justify his successful existence as proof of his greatness. The irony of themes and the well-written characterization acted by by Mellamphy and enhanced by the director’s vision is one more blow to smash the myths we may use to live by, as we dupe ourselves about America as a great nation. Clearly, it is fabulous for billionaires. For the immigrants who exploit and shred each other as the bosses divide and conquer them and us, it’s another America entirely. That Finnegan’s survival is cast in monetary terms aided and abetted to by his wife is his chief tragedy. But “what else can he do?” It’s the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” sung at every sports event nationwide.

Thanks to the creative team’s execution of set design which is just superb (Ann Beyersdorfer) atmospheric lighting design (Michael O’Connor) and sound design and original music (Liam Bellman-Sharpe). The production is first rate, if unsettling, as it leaves us with profound questions about how much we accept our foundational culture’s lies as truths.

For tickets to The Smuggler at Irish Repertory Theatre in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, go to their website https://irishrep.org/show/2022-2023-season/the-smuggler-2/

Ronán Noone

‘Pictures From Home,’ Strong, Humorous, Heartfelt Performances Bring Depth and Nuance to Must-See Theater

(L to R): Danny Burstein, Zoë Wanamaker, Nathan Lane in 'Pictures From Home' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Danny Burstein, Zoë Wanamaker, Nathan Lane in Pictures From Home (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

How does one negotiate one’s upbringing as an adult, when one’s parents still keep them under their charge and supervision as a comforting mainstay of their relationship? How does one one respond, if the parents in their relationships with adult children default to roles of superior authority figure vs. inferior minor? The superb Pictures From Home raises and answers these questions.

Pictures From Home in its premiere at Studio 54, currently runs until April 30. Written by Sharr White (The Other Place), and directed by Bartlett Sher (To Kill a Mockingbird) it sports a tremendous all-star cast who inhabit the characters to the cellular level. The play, which encapsulates photographer Larry Sultan’s decades-long project, exploring his relationship with his parents through pictures, is a knockout. Based on Sultan’s titular photographic memoir (1992), White’s work unfolds as an intimate portrait of a family that challenges the audience to think about how we reconcile issues with our own parents that we know may never be resolved.

White’s depiction of Larry (portrayed with great sensitivity and aplomb by the marvelously versatile Danny Burstein) and his parents, as a memory play is largely thematic. The son, Burstein’s Larry perseveres in his project initially to learn about his life and relationship with his parents through the post-war pictures taken before and after they moved to Southern California. Of course his initial intentions change with the passing years he gets to know his parents from a different viewpoint.

(L to R): Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker in 'Pictures From Home' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker in Pictures From Home (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In his quest to understand levels beyond surface identities, Larry chronicles the culture against the backdrop of family photos, videos. discussions and interviews during weekend visits (twice a month) from 1982-1992. Importantly, Burstein’s Larry discovers that the process of “information gathering” itself is wondrous, life-affirming and loving. He learns to live with the uncertainty that the truth about his and his family’s past and present is always shifting. Eventually, he realizes that this is an acceptable revelation that occurs despite his creating frustrations and annoyances for his parents and himself. Complications arise, as he explores other perspectives about them through what he hopes will become a “more objective” lens.

However, throughout the humorous and at times rancorous give and take sessions among son Larry, Dad Irving and Mom Jean (the inimitable Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker) there is the inevitable acknowledgement that this is “their” family. For good or ill they have navigated the emotional and psychological shark infested waters and stuck by each other protected by an abiding, scratchy, blanket of love. Who is anyone to judge them? There’s a quote about glass houses and throwing stones somewhere in this production which White, the actors and director take out and shake up with chiding humor to “not point the finger too readily or heartily.” Judgment doesn’t apply, regarding this intimate enlivened portrait; in fact, it is disingenuous.

Danny Burstein in 'Pictures From Home' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danny Burstein in Pictures From Home (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Indeed, we cannot look back in hindsight and determine accurately, Sharr White suggests as one of the themes of this clever production which sneaks up on you, if you allow it the grace to do so. At it strongest moments the presentation of the family dynamic, becomes like watching our own family dysfunctioning in real time. Larry’s motivations and intentions as he seeks out Irving’s and Jean’s approbation, insights and perspectives, and weathers his father’s criticism during the unfolding of the project, are right out of our own home movies. Not only are the interactions hysterical and funny, they are heartbreaking and identifiable, and at times searing.

If one is fortunate to have family, it is what all adult children (if they are honest) cannot really grasp in the fullness of its significance and meaning to their lives. We can’t even securely attribute our successes or failures to them because there is the ineffable mysterious that cannot be pinned down. And if one does attempt to acutely define what is undefinable and cover it with blame or calculation, it will be incomplete, misaligned and skewed by one’s own biases. Family relationships in all their warts, impurities and embarrassments are beautiful because they are attempts to get it right, Sharr White teases out of Larry Sultan’s photo memoir. The heartbreak of Larry, Irving and Jean is that with every imperfect interaction, they don’t quite hit the mark. That is the pain and that is the glory. At least they tried.

And just as Burstein’s Larry concludes by the end of the play (and project) and we concur as an audience watching the intimacies of what the photos reveal, family relationships, individual and combined, are infinitely complex. In that complexity, if grace is attempted, there is mirth in the clown car of family gatherings. You have to laugh. If you don’t find the humor, you weep, and of course in the humor, there has been much weeping and pain to allow it to rise to the levity of wit and wisdom.

Zoë Wanamaker in 'Pictures From Home' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Zoë Wanamaker in Pictures From Home (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

As Larry explores and unravels each home movie or picture, discussing it with Jean and Irving, he chooses to accept and love as his parents have and still love, despite the sorrows and pains. Underneath there are happinesses. And this is a treasure worth more than the profits that Larry gains when he publishes his photo memoir which receives wide acclaim and Irving’s praise and the relief that his son’s visits have accomplished “something worthwhile.” The time spent with his parents and their generosity in allowing him to needle and prod them could never be fashioned any other way. The bond they form holds no regrets because in due season, as Wanamaker’s Jean underscores in the poignant scene with Burstein’s Larry, she can’t live forever, though in his child-like heart he wishes she could.

Of course we “get” her question to him, “Why would I want to?” That one of the reasons why Larry might be doing this project, to redeem the time with his parents, turns out to be his finest reason for its accomplishment. Wanamaker and Burstein render every nuance and feeling out of their scene together which is lovely and outright smashing.

Thomas Wolf proclaimed in You Can’t Go Home Again, that you can’t return to the past, for time’s momentum dissolves what was into inaccurate memory. Likewise, there is something greatly tragic in viewing photographs to jar one’s memories and find meaning which can never be fully realized. For the faded photographs often capture a brand, a statement to cover over truths with impressions. However, as a photographer whose life is made full attempting to capture timeless compositions, Burstein’s Larry eschews Wolf’s adjuration and tries to discover meaning and substance from the impressions. And he doesn’t quite succeed to his liking, yet it is magnificent that he tries.

(L to R): Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein in 'Pictures From Home' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein in Pictures From Home (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Time and again he visits Jean and Irving, flying from his professorship, wife and children to his old homestead in Southern California (neatly effected by Michael Yeargan’s set design). As he interviews his parents and reviews again and again various photos from his childhood to capture the cultural zeitgeist and look for new interpretations of his life and parents beyond his memories from a child’s perspective, he concludes points, then argues with his father who disagrees with him. Ingeniously, he examines and reflects upon their poses, facial expressions, gestures, activities, captured in the still point, directing his parents toward a new interpretation. It is a humorous fact that the photos Larry selects for his book are precisely the ones that his parents and particularly his father dislike because they are not posed to perfection or portray a flattering image.

In the dialogue centering on the photos,White has given the actors the grist to take off into the amazing territory of nuance to bring out sub rosa emotions, defense mechanisms and disclosures from each family member. That Jean is not as forthcoming as her husband, but is nurturing and supportive of her son speaks volumes. She is wary and deeply loves and understands her husband’s weaknesses and defensiveness, though she gets fed up with him at times. He counts on her understanding and is the one to affirm his love for her toward the conclusion.

Through each of their interactions that represent the many visits from Larry, White creates vignettes that are thematic. In one when Lane’s Irving hysterically hobbles about with an injury we never learn how he received, the scene moves to an unexpected and poignant end-stop about aging. Lane’s Irving effects the emotional arc of the scene with incredible moment and a cry from the heart that is tremendously moving.

(L to R): Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein in 'Pictures From Home' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein in Pictures From Home (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In another interaction Jean’s growing dementia is subtly revealed in her panic about where she put various items. From the beginning of the play to the conclusion, Wanamaker subtly reveals Jean’s worsening condition. If one is not focusing, one might miss this incredible aspect of her performance. Wannamaker reveals Jean’s memory decline, nervous fidgeting and sometime irascibility, which Lane’s Irving discounts in the latter scenes that represent the end of the decade. We understand why Irving prefers not to note this as we look at the photo projections of them dressed to the nine’s decades earlier. Though we laugh, we get the undertones when Irving asks why Larry can’t use this photo where Jean is just stunning and Irving is certainly her inferior in the looks department.

The photos and videos blown up and projected on the set’s back wall become the backdrop upon which the actors acutely portray these individuals so that we become acquainted with them as archetypes with whom we identify. Thanks to 59 Productions these are integral to the themes in the vignettes. And they make all the more vital and poignant the last lines of the play when we discover that Jean dies after they move to Palm Springs (something which Larry disapproved of more for himself than for his parents). And as Burstein’s Larry proclaims his father’s illness and his death, his last lines fade and a visual of the photographer Larry Sultan is projected. Larry and Irving died in the same year, 2009. One cannot help but be stirred looking at his beautiful picture as a crystallization of his ancestry and his honest tribute to his parents in text and photos and this play’s messages of love, family, “seizing the day” and “memento mori.”

Kudos to Jennifer Moeller (costume design) Jennifer Tipton (lighting design) Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still (sound design) and Tommy Kurzman (wig/hair and makeup design) and of course 59 Productions projection design for bringing to life with the actors’ prodigious efforts the director’s stunning vision..

Pictures From Home is a must-see for the performances, the themes, the direction, the complexity and nuance of the play itself. For tickets go to their website, https://picturesfromhomebroadway.com/

New York Botanical Garden, ‘The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage’

The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage at NYBG on view February 18-April 23 (Carole Di Tosti)
Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool, The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage at NYBG on view February 18-April 23 (Carole Di Tosti)
Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool, The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage at NYBG on view February 18-April 23 (Carole Di Tosti)
Interior showcase gallery at NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a detail of The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Now in its 20th year and back in full swing after the COVID 19 pandemic, NYBG is bringing an exceptional presentation for this year’s Orchid Show entitled The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage.

Lily Kwong designer of this year’s The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage, NYBG press day (Carole Di Tosti)

For the 20th annual orchid extravaganza, landscape Artist Lily Kwong exhibits her immersive and dynamic designs. Throughout the exhibit Lily Kwong highlights her Chinese heritage by exploring the physical and psychic healing power of orchids. The exhibit is running from February 18 through April 23, 2023 in the NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

Lily Kwong discusses her design inspirations for The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage at NYBG Press Day (Carole Di Tosti)
NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a vast variety of orchids at The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Color coordinated exhibit displays, NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a red feature of The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Guest designer Kwong is featuring beguiling installations of thousands of orchids in the hope of recapturing our ancestral veneration of the land which previous generations often worked to produce food, environmental beauty and health. Lily Kwong’s designs touch the imagination and spirit with ethereal, peaceful landscapes inspired by ancient Chinese garden design and artistic principles and philosophical perspectives.

Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool upside down, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Understanding the diversity, adaptability and global cultural significance of orchids, Ms. Kwong was inspired to fashion spaces throughout the Garden based on classic paintings of Chinese mountainscapes. The Palms of the World and Reflecting Pool Gallery in the main entrance of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and the showcase theater gallery in the interior of the conservatory feature such mountainscapes festooned with orchids and other plantings.

Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Orchid mountain, interior showcase NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

The paintings that influenced Lily Kwong were passed down through her family from Shanghai. The effects created with stones, water features and companion plantings throughout the conservatory display all the variety of orchids imaginable including iconic and popular moth orchids as well as rare specimens.

Stones and water features, NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

The mountainscape designs meld ecology, culture, myth and spiritual solace that was present in Kwong’s heritage. The orchids also are representative in Chinese medicinal traditions and are used extensively for herbal teas and remedies. Kwong’s belief and interpretations of nature in the designs reinforce nature’s healing powers and encourage visitors to understand how the natural environment is crucial to our well being and soul’s equilibrium.

Orchid views of the interior theatrical showcase in the Conservatory, The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage Press Day. Background remarks are by Marc Hachadorian (NYBG Senior Orchid Curator) and Lily Kwong landscape artist. (courtesy,Carole Di Tosti)

Kwong collaborated with NYBG horticulturalists and Exhibitions staff to identify and assemble a gorgeous selection of orchids that are native to Asian countries. The displays are visually dramatic and striking. Also, they are emotionally evocative, inspiring visitors toward inner reflection and serenity in a remembrance that nature’s rhythms and harmonies impact our own survival on this planet.

Phalaenopsis hybrids, onicidiums (they have a fragrance) NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Kwong is the first woman of color to take on the role of NYBG guest designer of the Orchid Show. She felt an urgency to “celebrate an Asian-centered perspective in the midst of this charged and precarious moment.” Her intention with the entire exhibit is to “offer a bridge of cultural understanding across the valley between us, and act as an invitation to celebrate the diverse lineages that make up our country.”

Corsage orchidS, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Kwong’s vision for the exhibit dovetails with the NYBG’s mission. Jennifer Bernstein, Chief Executive Officer and The William C. Steere Sr. President of The New York Botanical Garden stated, “One of our major goals here at this beloved green space in the Bronx is to inspire visitors and learners of all ages to appreciate, respect and care for nature.”

Showcase gallery, orchids, mountain landscapes, waterfall NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage Press Day (Carole Di Tosti)

It is no surprise that the annual Orchid Show is one of the most popular of exhibits at the Garden. Jennifer Bernstein highlighted that the orchid exhibition provides an opportunity to feature the most diverse and celebrated of “our unparalleled living plant collections” so that the Garden may “educate the public about NYBG’s plant research and conservation work.”

Cymbidiums used for herbal remedies, teas and other medicinal uses in Chinese medicine, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

To be able to share the love of orchids and plants with Kwong (she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University’s Urban Studies program and participated in the Landscape Design program at NYBG-2017) in a collaboration which enhances the Garden’s mission was a pleasure for all who worked on the exhibit.

Phalaenopsis (moth orchids) NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Vandas (popularly known as rainbow orchids) NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Vandas (popularly known as rainbow orchids) in close-up NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Phalaenopsis hybrids, walkway gallery in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

This was especially so for Kwong, a Los Angeles-based artist who employs her varied talents and knowledge of horticulture, urban design, contemporary art, climate awareness, urban agriculture and wellness to reconnect people with nature through transformative landscape projects and site-specific botanical art installations.

Lily Kwong discussing how her heritage influenced her designs of NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Kwong’s career is particularly well placed for her goal to reconnect people with nature through her artfully designed botanical theater. She has been part of numerous public art initiatives since she began in 2017. These include botanical installations at The Highline, New York; Faena Arts, Miami; Grand Central Terminal, New York; Taipei Night Market, Taiwan; Bal Harbor Shops, Florida to name a few.

Rainforest gallery, dendrobium orchids used in Chinese medicine for age related diseases, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Paphiopedilum (lady slipper orchids) NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

As a result accolades have come her way: ARCHMARATHON & Dezeen Awards in 2020 for Glossier Seattle and the World Spa Awards for Shou Sugi Ban House in East Hampton, New York. Kwong was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 (Art & Style) list in 2018. She has been selected to speak at MOCA, The Aspen Ideas Festival, The World Youth Forum, Design Miami and NeueHouse.

Dendrobriums, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

When you are sauntering through the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory enjoying Kwong’s fabulous designs, also meditate on the importance of this incredible gift to New Yorkers that the Garden brings as a special haven and sanctuary to decompress and relax into nature’s wonders through every season. The Garden comprises a 250-acre landscape which includes a 50-acre, old-growth forest through which the Bronx River and waterfall meanders. It is breathtaking year-round.

Corsage orchids in close-up, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

And don’t forget to visit the Garden library at the far entrance, the most important botanical and horticultural library in the world. The LuEsther T. Mertz Library houses 11 million archival items spanning ten centuries and forming a historical record of plant species and extinction.

Marc Hachadourian (Senior Orchid Curator at NYBG) discussing the rare orchids in the glass case, The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Most importantly, know that the Garden is dedicated to conservation as well as research. It and takes in and restores plants which have been pirated as rare and exotic species for sale, sometimes worth thousands of dollars. The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium (the largest in the Western Hemisphere with 7.8 million plant and fungal specimens), is home to scientists. These work on-site in various cutting-edge molecular labs and in areas worldwide where biodiversity is most at risk.

Orchid mountain, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Palms of the World Gallery, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)
Palms of the World Gallery, NYBG The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage (Carole Di Tosti)

Reminders! On select evenings during The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage, adults 21 and over can enjoy the exhibition’s “Orchid Nights,” with music cash bars and food available for purchase. To learn more about The Orchid Show go to the NYBG website for tickets and other information about NYBG. https://www.nybg.org/

‘The Wanderers,’ Complex, Stylized, Engrossing Theater

Lucy Freyer, Dave Klasko in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Lucy Freyer, Dave Klasko in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Alternating seemingly disparate lives two couples actually reveal a similar arc of development, from marriage to divorce in Ann Ziegler’s humorous, cleverly crafted The Wanderers, an exploration of how individuals create their own deceptions, live by them then shatter them, experiencing a fragmentation of self from which they never recover. Acutely directed by Barry Edelstein and currently enjoying its New York City premiere at Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Ziegler’s play runs for 95 minutes with no intermission. Because of its popularity, it has been extended until 2nd April.

Anna Ziedler employs artifice of time and place to gradually promote the revelation of lives lived in quiet desperation and loss unrealized until trigger moments of clarity occur. Ziegler’s play is ambitious. In it she presents complex, interwoven stories of culture clashes, identities in crises, and the search for happiness when its dream is an illusion created by self-deceptions. She accomplishes this storytelling of two interrelated couples allowing the audience to merge the pieces of the puzzle by the conclusion of this wonderful and gutsy play.

Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Ziegler introduces us to the central character Sophie (Sarah Cooper) who makes her announcement in present time circa (2017) that she is divorcing her husband Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) whom she has known since she was a teenager. From this point on the play unfolds as a series of flashbacks of the two couples’ conversations. These occur in eight thematic scenes as pointed revelations in sequence, beginning with Abe’s parents Esther (Lucy Freyer) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko). Their conversations Ziegler carefully sculpts to contrast and abut Sophie’s and Abe’s interactions. To comprehend how the characters and their discussions are related, Ziegler keeps us focused on every word of dialogue, some of which is poetic and lovely. In other segments the dialogue is profound and richly thematic about identity, personal yearnings and self-revelation, especially in the scenes between Abe and Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes).

After Sophie introduces the profound metric of separation and divorce in her long marriage with Abe, Ziegler switches to another marriage which appears unrelated but is not. Esther and Schumuli (spoiler alert-Ziegler gradually reveals them to be Abe’s parents) are Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect. When we meet them, their arranged marriage has just been performed. In a sweet, intimate repartee, they discuss how to begin the consummation of their union. Clearly, Schmuli is the naive one and Esther is forthright, adventurous and maverick, having read books on sex which Schmuli has not. The passive, accepting, dutiful wife Esther doesn’t appear to be in this brief interchange. It is Schmuli who is gentle, hesitant and sweetly anticipating something which he is clueless about.

With just a few defining details, the characterizations of Esther and Schmuli, incisively, sensitively portrayed by Freyer and Klasko, have been set by Ziegler. By the end of the threads of their interactions, which move for nine years through chronologically ordered vignettes that alternate in a revelatory puzzle with Sophie’s and Abe’s interactions, we discover just how rebellious Esther is. Not content with being a house frau with little of her own autonomy and authority to establish a career for herself, we learn that events push her to disavow her identify as a woman who must bow to the paternalistic culture fostered upon women of their sect. After she visits a friend in Albany (Spoiler alert-her friend is Sophie’s mom) Esther learns that she can control her own body with birth control pills. After the momentous, life-changing birth of their son Abe, who Esther names “Abe” with great authority contravening religious ritual, she tells Schmuli she wants no more children.

Eddie Kaye Thomas, Katie Holmes in 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Eddie Kaye Thomas, Katie Holmes in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

That Esther is forging out a life beyond the boundaries of their sect and her marriage only is strengthened when her father-in-law prevents her from seeing her daughters. He takes them to live in a household where she will not influence them against their religion. Schumli opposes her taking the pill and “slips” telling his father what Esther told him. It is a severe violation of the sect, whose intentions are to “increase and multiply.” Rather than to subject baby Abe to a life of religious bondage composed of ritual after ritual, still unable to see her daughters, Esther moves out of the neighborhood to raise her son Abe by herself. It is the equivalent of a divorce, though nothing occurs officially. Esther leaves convinced that the “grass is greener” and she will live a much more fulfilled life out from under the paternalistic oppression of a religion and sect she disagrees with.

Esther and Schumuli’s crises points are revealed in Ziegler’s beautifully crafted dialogue. However, we don’t understand the final revelations and the profound impact of Esther and Schumuli’s crises on Abe and Sophie until the conclusion. That the play gyrates back and forth between the two couples who mesmerize us to keep track of the details, is part of the enjoyment in solving the mystery which eventually crystallizes. And like the mysteries of lives explored, Ziegler throws in twists and curves and with artifice masks them over to create the surprises that happen.

Ziegler uses a conceit to manifest and uncover the hidden elements in the marriage of Sophie and Abe that dovetail with elements of Abe’s parent’s arranged marriage. In both marriages there are external and internal prison bars that keep them from achieving happiness, fulfillment and peace individually and as couples. The conceit comes in the form of celebrity Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes) the character Ziegler uses to manifest the truths that both Sophie and Abe are avoiding in their marriage, their relationship with each other and with themselves.

Abe, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and success in his field, attends a reading where beautiful, luminous, entertainment star Julie Cheever is present. When Holmes’ Cheever replies to his email, they strike up an intimate and heartfelt conversation and Abe becomes so engrossed with writing to her, at times Sophie notices that he neglects his own children and their relationship.

Katie Holmes,  Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Katie Holmes, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Abe’s and Julia’s email conversations are acted out live by Eddie Kaye Thomas and Katie Holmes. Both actors are excellent and spot-on authentic. The emails are enlivened so that it is as if Julia Cheever is present with Abe who is over the moon that someone of her celebrity, beauty and intelligence is complimenting him about his work and inspiring him to discuss his parents and his upbringing. Indeed, Ziegler’s construct supplements Abe’s discussions with Sophie. What is revealed melds and substantiates the revelatory conversations of Esther and Schmuli, though these happened long before Abe was born. Because only Esther raised him, Abe never had an understanding of his father, nor the religion that would have given him power as a man. Raised outside of it without a father role model, he is lost. Though Esther encouraged his love of words and his wonderful success as a writer, as did Sophie, there are gaps in his soul and his life’s vision is myopic.

As Julia’s and Abe’s online relationship strengthens, eventually Abe wishes to meet her. However, this is not to be. After his father dies, his discussions with Cheever eventually lead to a revelation that is devastating for both Abe and Sophie.

Ziegler’s thematically structured scenes featuring the couples, first appearing disparate, are eventually conjoined. However, unless you read the script, think about the play at length or see it a few times, it is easy to miss the importance of what is happening as a precursor to Schmuli’s death, and why Abe decides to re-write and fictionalize how his father died to make his death more beautiful and moving.

Katie Holmes, Eddie Kaye Thomas in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Katie Holmes, Eddie Kaye Thomas in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Zielgler’s play is fluid and slips in and out of present and past which appear to be concurrent, though they are not. The artifice evokes aspects of consciousness and spirituality that are opaque. Because of the conceit that Ziegler has chosen to use as a vehicle to uncover the mysterious elements of her characters and their lives, the scenes suggest linearity, but for the sake of mystery, they are profound and labyrinthine. Like all flashbacks the scenes occur as a result of memory. Clearly, the characters nuance the events.

Well acted, the director has finely shepherded this as an ensemble piece, though only the married couples interact with each other. Yet, we feel we know them, know their agony and brilliance which surprise us in their final revelations.

Kudos to Marion Williams for the stylized spare set whose backdrop is populated by pages of books which encompass the great expanse of reading that the characters have accomplished in their lives. A table and some chairs are used to evoke a bedroom and other spaces. And of course there are piles of actual books almost an anachronism in a digital age. Kudos to other creatives who completed the director’s vision for Ziegler’s play. These include David Israel Reynoso (costume design) Kenneth Posner (lighting design) Jane Shaw (original music & sound design) and Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design).

The Wanderers is thought-provoking, symbolic and most strongly felt when the superb actors are authentic and in the moment, inhabiting the characters and making them alive. This play has proven itself a must-see by audience word of mouth, for it has garnered an extension. For tickets go to their website.

https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/the-wanderers/performances

‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett at Irish Repertory Theatre is Amazing

Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson in the Irish Repertory Theatre's 'Endgame' (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Endgame (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett suffered years of rejection until his wife managed to sell his work which gradually put him on the map. Now we question how this rejection was possible because his work is timeless and exemplifies his genius. His particular greatness lies in his creation of spare, staccato, memorable dialogue, enigmatic characters and static situations as metaphors of human existence and its banal, opaque meaninglessness. How could anyone miss Beckett’s exceptionalism? In Endgame Beckett believed he was at his best. Gloriously, the Irish Repertory Theatre is presenting this work and the production directed by Ciarán O’Reilly reflects the accuracy of Beckett’s opinion.

Starring the irrepressible Bill Irwin as Clov and stolid John Douglas Thompson as Hamm the production is perfection in its minimalism and ironies. It appropriately allows the audience to focus on the principal characters and their dire circumstance confronting the end of the world, the end of their relationships with each other, their personal closure, and the abject null of lives lived in their last days without joy, empathy or compassion. Interestingly, the play’s conclusion appears to happen in real time when the final words are proclaimed, Hamm’s story is told and the lights go out to audience applause. All that has been said and has needed to be expressed is said and done. And there is the precise end of it, as the audience is left to wonder and take nothing for granted about their own existential happenstance and what they have just witnessed in this shared humanity that plays out in a tragicomic unspooling.

Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson in the Irish Repertory Theatre's 'Endgame' (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Endgame (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Apart from their physical conditions of wrack and ruin, the characters are essentially ciphers. Hamm is blind and wheelchair bound, dependent on Clov, his handicapped, scattered servant who begrudgingly serves him, comes to his every “whistle” and obeys Hamm’s commands. Clearly, their symbiotic relationship is one based on mutual abuse and co-dependence as there is no love lost between them, though they’ve known each other since Clov was a child. Throughout the play, Clov limps with a barely controllable gait and awkward mobility to Hamm’s imperious orders. Toward the end of their repetitious tedium together, Clov even remarks he doesn’t understand why he continues to obey the cantankerous, unloving, pain-filled, acerbic older man.

In addition to Clov and Hamm are Hamm’s elderly parents who abide in the same large, spare room. They, also have lost their mobility and live without their legs in garbage cans filled at the bottom, first with sawdust and recently with sand. There are lids on the garbage cans and the parents pop up for a conversation until Hamm is tired of them and tells Clov to shut them up and close them out. Ironically, in the brief time we come to know father Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and mother Nell (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) we appreciate their relationship and the apparent affection between them. Beckett reveals their togetherness as they recollect the good times they had with each other, even making light of the accident when they both lost their legs. They put up with their son’s abusive and cruel nature and insults (he refers to Nagg as a “fornicator”). As a result we perceive them as empathetic characters while Hamm appears all the more obnoxious and querulous.

Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson in the Irish Repertory Theatre's 'Endgame' (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Endgame (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

These four hapless individuals are perhaps the last human beings in the world since Hamm refers to the external environment outside the ramshackle building where they reside as filled with death. The assumption is that the apocalypse has happened and there’s nothing left but a wasteland. The only objects that appear to make sense are inside their meager abode. These include Hamm’s piercing whistle, a few biscuits (in the play they look like dog biscuits) and Clov’s paraphernalia which include a spyglass and a ladder, an alarm clock and a few other items. There is also Hamm’s pet dog which is a stuffed animal, which may or may not give him comfort amidst his whining about “it’s” being enough, asking for his pain killer and his attempts to finish the story that he’s trying to tell, which symbolizes his and Clov’s lives.

The laughable irony is that the end of days are inhabited by these infirm individuals led by a powerless, despotic miscreant who presides over the others like a king, though he is powerless, halt, lame and blind (the Biblical reference is intimated). Instead of his physical helplessness guiding him into humility, the opposite is apparent. He is full of himself in his miserable state, which he appears to masochistically enjoy. (“Can there be misery loftier than mine? No doubt.”)

 (L to R): John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin in in the Irish Repertory Theatre's 'Endgame' (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Endgame (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Hamm and Clov are contrapuntal. They are unique personalities and they contradict each other but come to the same conclusions. Their state of existence must end and it has gone on long enough without meaning. As they speak to each other in short bursts of, oppositional banter, the overall effect is humorous, like a bad joke or punchline. However, their thrust and parry about “nothing” has philosophical power in their sporadic digressions about life, time and existence. Their interactions often end with a surprising, pithy statement from either of them and the overall effect is also like a poetic riff. For example Hamm says, “It’s a day like any other.” Clov counters, “As long as it lasts. All life long the same inanities.” In their counterpoint, there is the great observational moment about the redundant, vapid routines of living.

Considering that apart from a few moments when Clov looks out the window, and Hamm directs him to “drive” his wheelchair around in a circle, Clov kills a flea by throwing powder down his pants and Hamm uses a staff-like implement to try to move himself which he can’t, little happens. From beginning to ending they know the situation is absurd because their end is inevitable and irrevocable. And because they are helpless against time and existence itself, they can do nothing except what they do and say which is both funny and tragic.

(L to R): Joe Grifasi, John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin in the Irish Repertory Theatre's 'Endgame' (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Joe Grifasi, John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Endgame (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Bill Irwin’s Clov is a mastery of awkward physicality precisely effected. He is imminently watchable and uncharacteristic in his movements which are surprising and antic. In his stasis, John Douglas Thompson is his frustrated counterpart. Their banter is humorous and paced with authenticity bringing on the chortles and laughter because their characters are so passive and truthful about their condition. No one is raging against the storm which has already happened. They are waiting the interminable wait for “the end.”

O’Reilly’s direction and staging align with Beckett’s intent and we find ourselves mesmerized and waiting for the shoe to drop,, which only does in the little details and actions. One example of this occurs when Clov sets up the ladder and climbs it, anchoring his leg so he might safely look out the window on the “grey.” Another example occurs when Clov gets rid of the flea with the white powder which he roughly sprinkles down his baggy pants. A third action occurs when Clov brings out an alarm clock and hangs it on the wall. Each of these “events” and others (Hamm’s petting his stuffed dog, Hamm’s attempting to move himself with the gaff) create a kind of suspense that ends in nothingness. This is one of the themes of Endgame; ultimately, our actions result in little that impacts or changes existence. However, they do help to pass the time and “entertain” us until “the end,” which is uncertain.

(L to R): John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin in the Irish Repertory Theatre's 'Endgame' (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Endgame (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Charlie Corcoran’s scenic design, Orla Long’s costume design, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting design, M. Florian Staab’s original music and sound design convey the austere setting of a ramshackle room in a house beset by a post-apocalyptic, end times scenario. That the title references a game of chess where there are no winners and one of the players (Clov) threatens to leave numerous times but remains at “the end” is to Beckett’s purpose that all inevitably wanders into empty inaction which has little substance or meaning. Thus, we are left seeing characters confronting what they cannot, as we witness our own inability to reckon that there is an “end” to all of “this.” And as Nell states, nothing is funnier than unhappiness. So as we watch the characters struggle with their fateful endings, we laugh because life is nonsensical. And we are sad for the tragedy that reflects our own humanity.

This is an amazing production with flawless performances that you don’t want to miss. For tickets and times go to their website https://irishrep.org/show/2022-2023-season/endgame-2/

‘Colin Quinn: Small Talk’ Humorously Shines a Light on Chit Chat

 Colin Quinn in 'Colin Quinn: Small Talk' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Colin Quinn in Colin Quinn: Small Talk (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Colin Quinn is above all a social critic who strips away our lifestyles down to their humorous, bare bones ridiculousness. Having mastered the art of the quirky ironist, Quinn has previously cycled through six successful solo shows, two on Broadway (An Irish Wake and Long Story Short) and the rest off Broadway. His most recent Red State Blue State explored the depths of the political divide with his wit and wisdom to take no prisoners. In his seventh one-man show Colin Quinn: Small Talk, Quinn gives a fond farewell to the dying art of “small talk,” otherwise known as blather, chit chat, idle conversation. The show runs 1 hour 10 minutes through Feb. 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan.

 Colin Quinn in 'Colin Quinn: Small Talk' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Colin Quinn in Colin Quinn: Small Talk (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Directed by James Fauvell, written and performed by Colin Quinn, Small Talk manifests Quinn’s signature style which includes lightening delivery that ranges over subjects that branch out, circle around and mount with one-liners that crescendo to the next subject. Initially, Quinn illustrates clever examples of “small talk” and reveals how it functions to keep people sane, rational and polite with each other as the fine lubricant of a thriving civil society. During the LOL set up Quinn’s examples zero in on manners and sociability, blathering when one is with strangers waiting on line, in an elevator, at a party, and other various and sundry spaces and places when people are forced to be together, are feeling uncomfortable and pressed to end the silence of unfamiliarity.

Quinn references our illustrious past and appropriate social tactic used when charged with needing to “break the ice” in an uncomfort zone. Launch into a discussion about the weather. Once belittled precisely because “the weather” was always an apparent effort to stave off the humiliation of unsociable silence, Quinn insists in our day of internet and social media insult and rudeness, the pandemic’s forced isolation and social distancing and insularity, more than ever “small talk” is an imperative. It is a connection to kindness that our children need to learn. Friendly chit chat has been cut short by our hand held devices and redirection inward with mobile phones and air pods.

 Colin Quinn in 'Colin Quinn: Small Talk' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Colin Quinn in Colin Quinn: Small Talk (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Even self-checkout has decreased our affability as we avoid having to wait on lines and rush in and out of grocery stores, another result of the pandemic. Quarantining, social distancing and fearing elevator rides where even a “Hello” was initially dangerous, especially if the speaker was maskless, all contributed to small talk “destruction.” Quinn calculates that small talk has decreased by 87%, a problem that he intimates has decreased our humanity and graciousness with each other.

Quinn ironically suggests children should be taught chit chat as a talent to develop along with personality or they’ll become social introverts and isolates. Without such casual sociabilities, misanthropy runs rampant. Indeed, misanthropy is a tonal hallmark of social media (algorithms ping on controversy, argument and insult increasing a platform’s profitability). Quinn’ humorous insistence is to resurrect “small talk” along with agreeability which everyone appreciates rather than argument, negativity and complaint. This may help to diffuse the rancor whipped up by the news media and increased outrageousness by political parties topping themselves. As an encouragement he affirms that there is a direct correlation between saying “Yes,” and higher salaries. (This received a huge laugh.)

 Colin Quinn in 'Colin Quinn: Small Talk' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Colin Quinn in Colin Quinn: Small Talk (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Throughout the evening Quinn moves scattershot in and out of various subjects. He leads from one to the other in a domino effect cascading out into humorous observations about “personality” and our current presumptions about expressing our opinions on social media though no one cares. He briefly lands upon various personages from history (i.e. Adam and Eve, Socrates, Attila the Hun, King George of England circa the 1800s to name a few). He hysterically drops rapid-fire one liners aligning them to his topics.

Deftly, Quinn relates some of these to our assumptions about free speech and voicing what we think to political leaders, celebrities and those with power. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates made this ultimately possible and we have run away with the opportunity “mouthing off” online anonymously with impunity. Imagine a peasant (which we are in the classist sense) “mouthing off” to a King! It would never have been tolerated. We live in a time of incredible privilege with our rights, though we are delinquent on responsibilities.

 Colin Quinn in 'Colin Quinn: Small Talk' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Colin Quinn in Colin Quinn: Small Talk (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

However, Quinn reveals that to those online, the manifest concept is that everyone has the right to their opinion, even if it doesn’t make sense, is outlandish and has no facts backing it up. Social media has harmed the civil affability and humanity of our society. It reveals impairment. Quinn suggests: “If you post more than five times a day, you should be in a 72-hour psychiatric hold. (This also brought a huge laugh.)

The one thing we do have going for us as a country are our social constructs built on charm, talk and salesmanship, in other words, our inauthenticity. Quinn suggests fakery is our fine export and he intimates that we don’t want to see people being their “real selves.” This conjures up images of the unwashed, ungroomed, utterly nasty and debased, untoward person. Appearance and personality are our “coin of the realm.” To ditch these and the massaging aspect of “small talk” for the “real person” is NOT a good idea.

The production sports a clever backdrop that suggests a blackboard upon which chalk drawings of the topics to be discussed casts Quinn as our instructor in the fine art of verbal social graces to equip us for the future. Never was a teacher funnier. The blackboard (scenic design by Zoë Hurwitz) and otherwise bare stage are appropriate grist for his stand-up comedy club approach.

 Colin Quinn in 'Colin Quinn: Small Talk' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Colin Quinn in Colin Quinn: Small Talk (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Quinn mentions death’s inevitability. After quips and one-liners, he drops in that he had a near fatal heart attack. However, he is verbally fleet-footed and never gets more personal than that tip of the iceberg. At some point in the flurry of comedy he shares a humorous remembrance involving chit chat and Norm McDonald his buddy from SNL, who died in 2021. The story involves McDonald riffing on Quinn and using off-handed banter to relax the group they were with. Quinn as the brunt of the joke was a great “ice-breaker.”

The Brooklyn-born comic skirts the edges of politics in this show. It is a topic counter to his intent which is more about bringing people together and returning them to their humane roots. Thus, what’s a little kindness with others evidenced by some choice banter? Quinn makes excellent points about diffusing the impolitic divides that have sprung up over the years with niceties and small talk. Clearly, the January 27, Friday night audience appreciated his intent and comedic observations with chortles and belly laughs.

Kudos to the other creatives Amina Alexander (lighting design) and Margaret Montagna (sound design). If you are a fan of Colin Quinn you don’t want to miss Colin Quinn: Small Talk. If you are not, take the plunge and enjoy. You’ll be glad you did.

For tickets and times go to the website: https://www.colinquinnshow.com/

‘Not About Me’ by Eduardo Machado: Two Pandemics & Hiding in Plain Sight (Review)

(L to R): Mateo d'Amato, Charles Manning in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Mateo d’Amato, Charles Manning in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Contagion converts human bodies into weapons. The “gay disease,” an early name for the AIDS pandemic, burgeoned in the time of President Ronald Reagan, who initially did nothing to even acknowledge it existed. Likewise, COVID-19 which began in the time of an even more derelict Republican president, unfolded as a ubiquitous horror which could impact all mortal flesh because it was easily contracted in the air. For gay men who had been traumatized by the AIDS crisis, COVID-19 was a PTSD slap in the face, a double whammy. How does one reconcile the remembrances of friends who died of AIDS with the current COVID plague that still roams and kills older friends or those who have HIV autoimmune vulnerabilities or co-morbidities?

Insightful playwrights like Eduardo Machado, who have lived through both plagues, reconcile their emotions by writing. Machado’s latest play Not About Me, currently running at Theater for the New City until February 5th is an evocative, quasi, avant-garde, memory play which references an alignment between both plagues. As a result it raises trenchant questions which we must consider and confront as a culture or doom ourselves to greater catastrophes.

(L to R): Michael Domitrovich, Mateo d'Amato in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Michael Domitrovich, Mateo d’Amato in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Machado, a gay Cuban-American playwright who lived through the AIDS crises, found himself slammed with memories from that time, while negotiating COVID-19 quarantines, masking and isolation. Moving through the present crises, during these plague years, he recalled images of friends and events from “the first crises of his generation.” Themes about death and dying, isolation, loneliness and the desperate need for real, human connection resurfaced from that time in the early 1980s. These recollections linked with the present time almost four decades later.

Inspired to write about these themes, his friendships and companionable ideas, Machado’s Not About Me, which he also directs, takes place when the “gay disease” evilly blossomed. He evokes that time with music and sound (David Margolin Lawson) original music (Michael Domitrovich) minimalist sets (Mark Marcante) props (Lytza Colon) lighting (Alex Bartenieff) puppet designer/maker (Emily Irvine) and costumes (Kelsey Charter). At the back of the playing area hangs a neutral colored backdrop, upon which atmospheric film clips at various junctures are projected (Bird Rogers). These clips, which Machado also directed, convey cultural memes in their grainy, stylized, “period” ambience. One clip of figures costumed and made up for the Halloween Day Parade in the Village is particularly intriguing. It portends a magnificent irony. A “hedonistic,” colorful and carefree, gay lifestyle was gradually being smashed to bits with the ugliness of Kaposi sarcoma lesions and withering physical symptoms of AIDS. Two of Eduardo’s friends begin to manifest symptoms before the plague has a name.

(L to R): Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Charles Manning, Mateo d'Amato, Drew Valins in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Charles Manning, Mateo d’Amato, Drew Valins in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

The main character, whose gay friends call Ed (a point of friendly sub rosa bigotry) is the playwright’s avatar/alter ego, Eduardo portrayed by Mateo d’Amato. COVID-19 has compelled Eduardo to relate what he went through in the 1980s from the current perspective of COVID’s horrors. Thus, d’Amato’s Eduardo filters two plagues through his psyche as the unreliable narrator, who directly addresses the audience, then dramatically activates his memories with a picaresque, hybrid play with characters inspired by his friends and two actresses. Eduardo addresses the audience at the beginning of the play, during the play and most importantly at the conclusion, when he importunes the audience and evokes an estranged friend from that time, Tommy (Charles Manning) who may still be alive (despite COVID) and present in the audience.

Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) Mateo d"Amato in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) Mateo d”Amato in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

D’Amato’s Eduardo recalls certain events and exchanges with gay friends in New York City via selective memory, a clue to the main character and themes. In the opening address Eduardo stops himself three times and redirects his narrative. Is there something he wishes to disguise or hide, or is this a dramatic artifice? The gaps in the play indicate that Eduardo’s personality and the image of himself he wishes to convey perhaps reveal a skewed remembrance. What results includes a mash of emotions and encounters in a wild and sometimes unflattering portrait of a bi-sexual who fronts and manipulates his gay friends and most probably his wife Harriet, who never appears onstage. He appears most sincere and authentic when he desperately reaches out for comfort from two gay friends, and when he reveals his fear and insecurity to female actress friend Marjorie (Sharon Ullrich covered for Crystal Field when I saw the play). Marjorie knows he is gay.

Eduardo continually shifts in antic behavior, especially when he is doing drugs. He appears to be a flaunting egotist, shy, reticent, mercurial and effusive with various gay friends. Then he shape-shifts to wily confidence, compliments and expressed “love” with actress friend Donna (Heather Velasquez). In short he is an actor in his real life and an enigma at times to himself. He has learned to “front” because of his Cuban heritage which his gay friends ignore and attempt to suppress when they are clubbing. His center does not hold well, especially when he uses drugs. Eduardo’s fleeting, sincere moments waver, and he appears most real with Marjorie and at times with Gerald (Michael Domitrovich) and Tommy (Charles Manning). And he seems most persuasively authentic when he addresses the audience, just before the lights dim at the conclusion.

 (L to R): Mateo d'Amato, Charles Manning in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R): Mateo d’Amato, Charles Manning in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

This bold play is a discomforting landscape of Eduardo’s ambivalences searching for love, feeling lost and found and lost, as he yearns for a relationship with someone who can fill the void and make him feel less alone. Why he has not found this with his wife Harriet is revealed in a discussion with friend Marjorie who mentions that she noted Harriet does all the talking when they were together. He is not free with Harriet who dominates, though he has so much to offer. Ironically, this admixture of confused emotions and scattershot behavior fueled by Eduardo’s use of drugs runs rampant under the hovering cloud of the “gay disease,” which creates a great disconnect and human isolation for both the straight and gay society.

Tragically, the playwright reveals that it is a time when innocents, who did not understand what was looming, marched into the fire without safeguards because there were none. Many died before the medical profession woke up and began to identify what “the disease” was about. If this sounds familiar, parallels with the current plague subtly dot Not About Me. Both diseases have a similar ethos. We are still experiencing both. Thankfully, there are medicines and vaccines which can mitigate death, but not always.

Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) Mateo d"Amato in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) Mateo d”Amato in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

After d’Amato’s Eduardo gives his initial opening salvo, the play seamlessly moves to abundant flashbacks as Eduardo relives in his memory his experiences as a bi-sexual among gay friends and actresses Donna and Marjorie in this time when he was an actor and emerging playwright. Marjorie is an actress of renown with whom he rehearses a Tennessee Williams one act out in LA where Eduardo lives with Harriet, who is at least two decades older. Marjorie (Sharon Ullrich gives a heartfelt, touching performance) and Eduardo have a close friendship. She confides that she is dying of cancer and she will help him perfect his acting skills. In exchange, he will give her a sense of purpose and help her sustain the time she has left as they rehearse, then present the one-act at Ensemble Studio Theatre (LA).

Eduardo confesses that he is afraid of dying and doesn’t want to lose her. It is ironic that she is there for him at a critical point in his life as a preview for what will come with the death of friends. As they rehearse, to become closer to the character he is playing, she suggests he think of a time when he was lost.

Eduardo’s reverie opens up and he steps seamlessly into a gay bar in New York City when he was on Ecstasy and dancing with his friends. Though he is a professed bi-sexual and holds up his wife Harriet as a badge of honor, he is entranced by his gay friends and on the “down-low.” He especially is lost in desire for a beautiful director who wishes to direct a play of his.

Heather Velasquez, Mateo d’Amato in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

The gay friends include the caustic, jealous Frank (Ellis Charles Hoffmeister gives a humorous, edgy portrayal) the kindhearted, sweet Tommy (Charles Manning is spot-on) and Paul (Drew Valins is a quiet, sensitive buffer in the group). Paul is the one who alerts them to the “gay disease” and first identifies he has has “it.” Tommy and Frank also lust after the gay director Gerald (Michael Domitrovich, who co-wrote Tastes like Cuba with Machado). As they watch Gerald looking at Eduardo as he dances by himself, they become jealous when he joins Eduardo. Both Gerald and Eduardo feel “something” for each other and Gerald’s beauty unsettles him as does his kiss which humiliates Eduardo initially.

Clearly, the Ecstasy which is supposed to acclimate him to the gay bar makes him frenetic. Though Gerald proposes a future “date” of intimacy for them, it never pans out. In the interim, Gerald finds out he has the “unnamed” disease. Though Eduardo attempts intimacy, desperate to make a connection based on love, Gerald shows Eduardo the Kaposi sarcoma and pushes him away telling Eduardo he must “live” and continue working his art. Gerald doesn’t want to kill him. This is the first death knell of the play. It is chilling and tragic.

Additional flashbacks shift between Eduardo’s rehearsal with Marjorie in LA and his encounters with Donna (Heather Velasquez) who he cast in his play which she must later turn down. His relationships with Marjorie and Donna evolve as Eduardo’s ambivalence about his sexuality intensifies and rumors of the “gay disease” grow. His confused emotions turn into a confluence of attractions and “love” for Gerald and Donna. However, as with Gerald, his intimacy with Donna is never meant to be. Though he and Donna discuss a permanent relationship and divorcing their partners, by this point “the gay disease” is moving through the gay population with a vengeance and straight people are rumored to have it. Paul and Gerald are sick. We experience a growing dread because we know the dire consequences, though Frank boldly asserts, “I’m going to live my life.”

Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) Mateo d"Amato in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) Mateo d”Amato in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

When Marjorie dies, Eduardo’s center collapses. He throws himself at his gay friends and tries to initiate intimacy to stave off his aloneness. However, when Frank and Tommy “fight” for him, interestingly, Tommy insists he will be with Eduardo. Frank, who is clear-eyed, accuses Tommy of being with Eduardo to protect him from AIDS, which at this point, they both have, though they don’t admit it. As Frank leaves in jealousy and disgust, Eduardo seeks comfort in Tommy’s embrace. Tommy makes sure they engage in “safe sex.” Though Tommy attempts to have Eduardo commit to him when he is in New York, Eduardo is a chameleon and he must be in the driver’s seat as his career takes off.

After his intimacy with Tommy and his last visit with Gerald who is dying of AIDS (d’Amato’s and Domitrovich’s powerful scene is beautifully wrought) Gerald dies and the rumor goes around that the AZT experimental drug they gave Gerald actually hastened his death. Gerald’s forever absence is an emotional devastation. Eduardo’s notions about bi-sexuality end in gay authenticity. When he shares that he can’t be with Donna and that he is gay, she takes him to an evangelical meeting to pray and exorcise the “gay” out of them. The scene is hysterical. The ensemble in masks becomes the aroused prayer warriors and Donna (Velasquez is LOL believable and funny) “shakes, rattles and rolls” releasing her “lesbianism.” She, too, is bi-sexual. When the same preacher (Domitrovich) exorcises the “gay” from Eduardo, Eduardo fakes it, then reveals he faked it. This blows up Donna’s plans for their divorces and marriage to each other. Outraged, Donna throws up her hands in a cross and tells the Eduardo “devil” to get away from her. Eduardo states to the audience that he never saw her again except in films which she swore she would never do again. He is thankful the exorcism didn’t work. (So much for gay conversion which was rampant at that time.)

Heather Velasquez, Mateo d’Amato in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see the play to discover the direction d’Amato’s Eduardo takes with friends who are still alive and what his injunction is to the audience at the conclusion.

Mateo d’Amato with antic enthusiasm and “dramatic” verve that covers over a brooding loneliness, isolation and emotional pain, persuasively shows that the Latino Eduardo is hiding in plain sight. Lightning glimpses of the depths of his despair flash then vanish as the Ed persona takes over to dazzle, annoy, make jealous, provoke and boast about his exploits. Of all his gay “friends” Tommy appears to understand him best: understand his protests he is “bi-sexual,” understand his aloneness. It is Tommy who empathizes with him and loves him when he needs it most, though ultimately, he knows they are just friends.

(L to R) Michael Domitrovich, (back row) Charles Manning, Drew Valins, Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Mateo d'Amato (front row) Heather Velasquez, Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) in 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
(L to R) Michael Domitrovich, (back row) Charles Manning, Drew Valins, Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Mateo d’Amato (front row) Heather Velasquez, Sharon Ullrich (cover for Crystal Field) in Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

One of the most important take-aways from the bold and profound Not About Me is we must and should remember and learn from the past. And if it is not in the DNA of some to learn and change and be better, then perhaps as some did then and still do now, go ahead and ignore the warnings, like Frank. Frank understands that regardless, he will live and he will die and it is best to live as he wishes and accept the consequences of his choices. However, underneath it all, we never find out if Frank goes ahead and intentionally infects others without “safe sex,” knowing he has AIDS. Unlike Frank, Tommy will not. Later in the play we understand after another event, Tommy is an incredible friend worth keeping.

For his part d’Amato’s Eduardo always plays it safe with a healthy fear of death and dying and solipsism. Certainly, the characters in Not About Me, who don’t make it are the innocent victims, not understanding what they were up against, until it was too late. For those who have been warned in our current time and don’t believe the consequences or ignore them not caring that they may infect others, the same cannot be said if they willfully, politically flaunt contagion and their contagiousness.

Michael Domitrovich, Mateo d'Amato 'Not About Me' at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
Michael Domitrovich, Mateo d’Amato Not About Me at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Machado’s play appears to be a labor of love seasoned with doses of self-revelation that filters youth through the wisdom of remembrance and understanding. It explores past foibles and “warts” through an opaque lens of forgiveness, through which one might emerge cleansed or guiltier than ever that one is spilling “truth,” yet hiding in plain sight. (Though Machado borrows from his life to make assertions, the play is a fiction.) Throughout, the playwright brings us to the present day, always with these questions. What has been learned? Are we as a culture any wiser? Is Eduardo the avatar any wiser after sharing his reflections, pain and emotions? Or are we evolving into a greater muck with “one foot on a banana peel,” as we attempt to race forward to forget? The play brings these and other questions to the fore in its tragicomedy and ironies.

Not About Me is a must-see for its hybrid genre, its re-imagined collage of truths and realities about a “distant time.” It is notable for its acute and interesting performances and fine ensemble work. The high points shine with black comedy and a sardonic tone. Even more notable are its gripping moments of drama in its portrayals of individuals who have died and now live as flashes of light and darkness and evanesce, once the play is over and the audience applauds the actors.

For those too young to remember that time, and for those who do remember recoiling at the “gay disease,” the playwright conveys what it must have felt like for his gay friends and himself, who endured and suffered as they watched others cycle through symptoms, feared death, tried to live, stopped thinking, and tried to move past heartbreak via drugs or escapism or love as they hoped that things would get better. They eventually did get better, until the whole world shut down in quarantine and “resurrected” over one million, two hundred thousand dead (Worldometer) in the U.S. Our three-year COVID anniversary is coming up in March for the shutdown, though COVID was in the culture long before that, as noted by former President Donald Trump in Bob Woodward’s Rage.

Playwright Eduardo Machado at Theater for the New City (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)
Playwright Eduardo Machado at Theater for the New City in rehearsals for Not About Me (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

It would be remiss of me not to mention that the playwright is a friend whose classes I have enjoyed. Thus, this review has been one of the most difficult tasks as a reviewer and Drama Desk voter. That said, I highly recommend the play, especially for the younger generations, both straight and LGBTQ, who don’t even worry about AIDS contagion, thanks to Machado’s generation that went before them. For tickets and times go to Theater for the New City’s website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/

‘A Beautiful Noise’ Review: The Neil Diamond Musical is a Triumph

Will Swenson and the cast of A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Will Swenson and the cast of A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

How does one take the measure of a man toward the end of his life? Does one examine his relationships with others or does one examine the relationship he has with himself? In The Neil Diamond Musical, A Beautiful Noise, directed by Michael Mayer, currently at the Broadhurst Theatre, book writer Anthony McCarten (The Collaboration, Two Popes) approaches the question using the conceit of a therapeutic doctor/patient relationship.

To McCarten’s credit this complex bio-musical is unlike typical jukebox theater in its positioning of two protagonists: the older Neil of the present with the younger Neil in the past. Driven by this patient/therapist conceit, the musical incorporates Diamond’s songs with flashbacks centered around Diamond’s inspiration for their writing with the added heft of a hero quest. As Diamond unfolds himself to his doctor, certain topics can’t be discussed. He is keeping a part of himself in the shadows. Only through this complex journey into the past will his true identity emerge and be reconciled with his torments. Importantly, we learn through the melding of storytelling and songs why Neil Diamond was inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1984) and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2011). We also learn the sacrifice that it took for him to be who he is.

Will Swenson and the cast in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Will Swenson and the cast in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

The doctor/patient motif that provides a thrilling excavation into Diamond’s life and career is cleverly crafted. For weeks a psychologist (Linda Powell) has sessions with a reluctant present-day, older Neil Diamond (the superb Mark Jacoby) who goes to her so that he might examine his inability to interact with his third wife Katie and his children. They have told him that “he’s hard to live with.” Is he? Diamond doesn’t know and on some level, he doesn’t care and prefers to brood (perhaps about his Parkinson’s diagnosis). After a number of sessions (three brief scenes) during which Diamond the elder says little, the psychologist produces his songbook, The Complete Lyrics of Neil Diamond. She does this in the hope of engaging him to discuss songs which he has said reflect his life. In this way maybe a door will be opened into Diamond’s psyche to clear up the issues he is having with his family relationships and most importantly, in his relationship with himself.

Jacoby’s Diamond begins to engage with the psychologist as she reads from the book’s cover that he has 40 of the Top Forty Hits and 129 million of his albums have been sold. When she suggests that they discuss what some of the songs mean to him, he rejects her idea and humorously is piqued that she only is familiar with one of his songs out of his 39 albums. However, when she mentions that title, it strikes a sensitive nerve and he doesn’t want to discuss what it means to him. Unable to leave this “therapy” to please his wife, we understand that he chafes at being controlled, but out of love for Katie and the kids, puts up with the doctor and therapy sessions which have, thus far, proven fruitless.

(L to R): Michael McCormick, Tom Alan Robbins, Linda Powell, Mark Jacoby, Will Swenson in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Michael McCormick, Tom Alan Robbins, Linda Powell, Mark Jacoby, Will Swenson in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

When the doctor gives him the songbook and suggests that he pick out a song and talk about it, as he rifles through the pages, he notes his proud accomplishments. We hear the “Opening Montage” of a few of his hits. It is as if a genie has been released from his memory as he peruses the book, then shuts it, perhaps because the memories of what was are too painfully overwhelming. But ambivalently, he opens the book again commenting, “what a beautiful noise.” As he remembers, a back up group sings “Beautiful Noise,” and the young Neil Diamond (Will Swenson in an exhilarating performance) appears and sings with them to a backdrop full of glorious light and sound. The song includes an overlapping combination of riffs from some of his classic hits, signature songs which Swenson’s Diamond sings with lustrous power and energy.

The singers who symbolize Diamond’s concept of “The Beautiful Noise” with this song and throughout various numbers are Paige Faure, Kalonjee Gallimore, Alex Hairston, Jess LeProtto, Tatiana Lofton, AAron James McKenzie, Mary Page Nance, Max Sangerman, MiMi Scardulla and Deandre Sevon. They sing backup and dance the journey of Neil’s life and career as the songs explore and reveal his flaws in his relationships, most importantly the one he has with himself. The “Noise” who accompany him are as diverse as the street people who Diamond writes for. It is they and their ancestors who have “Come to America” to seek the American Dream that Neil Diamond himself represents. The play is a revelation of this which we learn at the conclusion of the production, when Jacoby’s Neil discusses the loneliness and fears of his childhood. Only then is he able to reconcile his identities past and present.

 The Noise in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

After the opening musical reverie, the older Neil then returns to reality in the doctor’s office. These positive remembrances have made Jacoby’s Neil comfortable enough to answer the doctor’s questions about writing his first song in Flatbush, Brooklyn for his high school girlfriend Jaye (Jessie Fisher) who he marries. During this exchange he refers to his escape into music and how he was obsessed with writing and performing songs to “get out of Flabtush.” Ironically, we learn throughout the musical that Flatbush is the place he seems to be forever escaping, before and after he becomes famous. His reasons for running are revealed by the older Neil at the conclusion. McCarten has fashioned the reason as his quest to acknowledge his true worth which will help him achieve peace with himself, Katie and the children

McCarten’s book sets up the paradigm and structure of older Neil digging deeper into his past. As he flashes back and forth in time with younger Neil, who manifests the songs inspired by his life, The Neil Diamond Musical, A Beautiful Noise takes off. Act I showcases Diamond’s rise to fame in the 1960s. Act II follows with his touring and concert glories as his career achieves stunning heights in producing 39 albums, while his personal life after two divorces and an empty bank account are in the abyss. We are delighted to travel back and forth from present to past to present as Jacoby’s Neil frames the journey to Powell’s therapist through flashbacks, as the vibrant, Swenson’s Neil enacts the “dream” and makes it reality.

(L to R): Will Swenson, Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell in A Beautiful Noise (Julieta Cervantes)

Guided by the doctor’s questions, Jacoby’s Neil relates his experiences beginning at Aldon Music where he meets Ellie Greenwich (Bri Sudia) in a humorous few scenes, getting his feet wet under her guidance. In one scene he pitches a slower version of “I’m a Believer.” She hears its possibility and voila she sells it to The Monkeys for a hit. Neil’s career is growing as he receives his first gold record. He is a success writing for the Monkeys, but it’s not enough. The older Neil illustrates the part of Neil that is never satisfied. The song is “silly,” he says. However, the doctor points out the depth in the song’s lyrics, a depth which indicates no part of Neil was ever occluded by commercialism. His own poetic voice always showed through in his songs.

Jacoby’s Neil softens with Powell’s therapist. He shares how he moved from writing songs for others to performing them. In a flashback, we note that Ellie believes he is “that good,” when he sings how “Kentucky Woman” should be performed during a “Demo Medley.” Because he needs to develop his performance skills, Sudia’s Ellie has him gain experience at the Bitter End in New York City. After singing a set (“Solitary Man,” Cracklin’ Rose”) Paul Colby (Michael McCormick) gives him $9.00 and asks the shy Neil to return. It is here that young Neil opens up to attractive fellow singer Marcia (Robyn Hurder). He tells her that he enjoys performing live for this, his first time. The uplifting experience strengthens and changes him. It allows him to express a vibrant, alive part of himself he has not acknowledged or thought himself capable of.

Robyn Hurder and the cast of 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Robyn Hurder and the cast of A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

We understand how this turning point shapes Diamond into the dynamic performer he eventually becomes with Marcia’s encouragement. Hurder’s Marcia suggests he write more upbeat songs that everyone can identify with. In this flashback segment, she and Neil sing “Song Sung Blue” which intimates how their growing romantic relationship is forged by his need to establish himself in a fruitful career and release his poetic and musical talents to become a success.

McCarten then shifts the flashback to the present in the doctor’s office. Jacoby’s Neil doesn’t want to discuss how his involvement with Marcia while Jaye is pregnant with their second child upends his marriage. Neil fights with the doctor not to remember what is painful that is revealed in songs he wrote at that time. These include songs about being torn between his wife and his mistress. Clearly, he is overwhelmed with guilt having grown close to Marcia who assists him with his career. It is a sore point and he isn’t ready to do the emotional work looking at why he took a self-destructive turn by reviewing how this angst came out in his songs.

Will Swenson, Jessie Fisher and The Noise in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Will Swenson, Jessie Fisher and The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

So when the doctor settles upon a classic hit created around that time, (which Robyn Hurder dances to in a bright red sexy costume when “Cherry Cherry” is performed) the older Neil jumps at the chance to talk about the creation of his song for “the mob.” These flashback scenes become the humorous high point of Act I. We are intrigued as the older Neil characterizes working with Bang Records as “the biggest mistake of my life.”

Ellie introduces Neil to Bert Berns (Tom Allan Robbins) who runs Bang Records, while Mob Boss Tommy O’Rourke (Michael McCormick) funds the company. In a flashback Swenson’s Neil makes a deal with them to produce hits, if they then produce more artistic songs like “Shilo,” which may not be hits. Though O’Rourke agrees, McCormick’s O’Rourke humorously indicates he has no intention of keeping his promise. In a scene where time stops, the older Neil tries to prevent younger Neil signing on with Bang Records by trying to take the pen away. Older Neil fails and younger Neil signs and is controlled by them. He must produce three hits or end up in peril of his or his family’s lives.

Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell (background) in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In revealing how younger Neil is torn between Jaye and Marcia, the musical number with the Noise “Cherry Cherry” rocks it as the number physicalizes Neil’s quandary first with Jaye and then moving toward Marcia until he is with her. As Fisher’s Jaye sings “Love on the Rocks,” with Swenson’s Neil begging her to stay, she asks if he loves Marcia. At this point the question is moot.

Neil’s exciting foray into success as he fulfills his contract to mob controlled Bang Records reaches its dramatic high point played out in a dingy Memphis motel, where he retreats to write and get away from the gun happy O’Rourke. Jacoby’s Neil reveals how he was under tremendous pressure to create or suffer the dire consequences. O’Rourke has the Bitter End bombed to send Neil “a message.” Older Neil shares how in Memphis after days of rain, the symbolic sun comes out. He credits the inspiration to “God” coming into the motel room, sealing his children’s future and his own. In thirty minutes the metaphoric dark clouds clear (dark clouds are used as a symbol throughout) and Neil writes one of his signature songs. Act I ends with the rousing “Sweet Caroline.” During their song performance the audience went wild the night I was there. The audience, and Swenson and the Noise “reach out, touching me, touching you.” Theirs is an electric connection that younger Neil is not able to muster with his wife Jaye and their children.

Robyn Hurder in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Act II begins with the persona Neil Diamond, who is now famous. Director Mayer has Swenson’s Diamond rise on a platform surrounded by lights and glory with a “Hollywood Squares” type layered set with the band in various “squares.” Clearly, Neil is becoming the award winning legend, singing “Brother Love.” Subsequently, through the older Neil’s retelling, we note that Swenson’s Diamond, with dazzling, sparkling sequins runs from concert to concert, fulfilling the destiny that he dreamed of in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the place that controls his psyche, the place he still runs from. This is especially so even though his concerts sell out with greater fandom than the Rock & Roll King Elvis. In the next decades with Marcia in twenty-five years of marriage, he has it all, friends with the Redfords, a Malibu home and money raining down. Where his first marriage to Jayne dissipated with “love on the rocks,” his marriage to Marcia quietly implodes during phone calls, separate lives and acknowledged disinterest. This is manifest with Hurder’s Marcia and Swenson’s Neil with “You Don’t Send Me Flowers,” in a lovely rendition.

At their divorce, Diamond gives Marcia everything and continues to work. Jacoby’s Neil tells us a few years pass and he meets third time lucky Katie and establishes a family. But the diagnosis has brought him to a place of reckoning at the therapist’s office. And we are back in the present when Powell’s therapist asks the question about Neil’s feelings of being alone, an emotion which permeates many of his songs. During this segment Mark Jacoby’s quiet resolve and recalcitrance breaks open in expansive revelation.

(L to R): Will Swenson, Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell (background) in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Will Swenson, Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell (background) in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

For the first time we hear him sing filled with the depth of years of repression to claim his self-affirmation in “I Am I Said.” Jacoby hits it out of the ball park and brings the entire journey into completion as Swenson’s Neil joins him and the two identities are conjoined. It is an astounding, brilliant piece of writing coupling the elements and characters bringing them into sharp focus. The power of the moment hinges on Jacoby’s portrayal of Neil which is heartfelt, touching and human. The conclusion memorably coalesces the dream coming to its full humanity in Neil Diamond. Merging his identity as a performer and as a cultural prophet he gains a new understanding of his emotions from the past viewing them with the comfort in the present reality of who he is and what he has accomplished.

Directed by Michael Mayer with Steven Hoggett’s choreography and Sonny Paladino’s music supervision and arrangements and the near-perfect performances, this astounding and prodigious effort is bar none. Above all it is a tribute to Neil Diamond the performer and Neil Diamond, the man, like all of us, broken by his own inner fears and isolation which is an integral part of his creative spirit and artistic genius. The breadth of the songs included in the show which reveal that Diamond mastered pop, rock, country and blues indicates why in addition to his awards is also an honoree at the Kennedy Center Honors and a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2018).

(L to R): Robyn Hurder, Will Swenson, Michael McCormick in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Robyn Hurder, Will Swenson, Michael McCormick in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Importantly, The Neil Diamond Musical, A Beautiful Noise probes themes that reveal how driving ambition and talent shadow an artist’s personal life. In chasing the dream it is sometimes difficult to fully enjoy one’s success. In his resolution at the conclusion, Jacoby’s Neil understands the importance of this and expresses gratefulness at all the directions, all the roads his life has gone down.

There are a few critical junctures that don’t quite work and sometimes the staging and sound were problematic for those not seated direct center. But these details are overshadowed by the ingenuity of the book, the resonance and gorgeousness of Diamond’s music, the energetic, believable performances and the organic, modern and retro dances. Jacoby’s Neil who is listening and participating as he watches Neil’s own reflections manifest before him, never flags in his portrayal in a difficult, complex role. Neither does Swenson who’s evocation of Diamond is an intimation of his attitude and spirit and not an imitation. Hurder, Powell, Fisher and Sudia are excellent and Sudia is flexible doing double time as younger Neil’s mom. Robbins and McCormick fulfill their portrayals with humor and kudos to them for taking on additional roles.

Mark Jacoby (standing) Will Swenson (sitting) and The Noise in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Mark Jacoby (standing) Will Swenson (sitting) and The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

David Rockwell’s scenic design, Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Kevin Adams’ fine lighting design and Jessica Paz’s sound design work to deliver an amazing production. Noted are Luc Verschueren’s hair, wig & makeup design and Annmarie Milazzo’s vocal design. Bob Gaudio, Sonny Paladino & Brian Usifer delivered the superb orchestrations and Brian Usifer is responsible for incidental music and dance music arrangements.

If Neil Diamond’s music doesn’t rock for you, see it for the performances and spectacle. If you adore Neil Diamond, what are you waiting for? Go to their website for tickets and times https://abeautifulnoisethemusical.com/

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‘The Collaboration,’ Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope are Brilliant as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

 (L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Whether you are an art aficionado, fan or critic, The Collaboration, by Anthony McCarten about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s joint effort to produce paintings together is an astonishing, dynamic production. Starring Paul Bettany (an Inspector Calls-West End) and Jeremy Pope (Choir Boy) and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the two-act play currently runs at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, extended until 5 February. This production which hails from the Young Vic Theatre is not to be missed.

Warhol’s and Basquiat’s alliance was an unusual meld for both artists, who were at different points in their careers and who, according to McCarten in the first act, were a thesis/antithesis in their personal lives, perspectives and personalities. Because Warhol and Basquiat are icons who helped transform the art world as unique and indelible fixtures in their own right, The Collaboration is of seminal importance. Not only does the work identify aspects of the artists’ individual and collective graces, it also inspires further exploration into the lives of these individuals and their synergistic and productive relationship.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bettany and Pope’s prodigious acting skills and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s superb direction in helping them tease out memorable details of emotion, gesture and nuance allow the actors to live and breathe their characters onstage. Bettany and Pope are a pleasure to watch in their authenticity as their portrayals by the second act lift toward the heavens into the phenomenal. They inhabit Warhol and Basquiat with vulnerability and humanity. So comfortably do they don the artists’ ethos, one forgets the play is a stylization and evocation of two mythic figures who attained immortality in spite of themselves.

Indeed, the production takes us on a fantastic journey with intermittent elements of realism that all the more enhance the beauty and tragedy of these men, whose lives were cut short. Though Andy Warhol lived to be 58 years-old, Jean-Michel died of an overdose of heroin at twenty-seven. At the conclusion McCarten suggests that their individual and collective work and their ability to inspire and whimsically play off one another are an irrevocable, immutable and timeless gift to all of us.

 Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The award-winning playwright (known for films The Theory of Everything {2014) Two Popes {2020} and the book writer of A Beautiful Noise) grapples with revealing their combined efforts in the short period of time they worked together. Indeed, the cultural mystique and reputation that precedes these men sometimes gets in the way. The more one knows about Warhol and Basquiat, the more frustrated one may become with McCarten’s presentation of their relationship, whose closeness is developed in filmed events of Bettany and Pope doing activities together, projected on the backstage wall and side walls during the intermission between Act I and Act II. Thus, if one leaves to get a drink or take a trip to the bathroom, the vital aspects of how Warhol and Basquiat’s relationship develops and how the men bond over time will be missed.

McCarten first introduces us to Warhol who visits the gallery of Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen’s accent at times trips over itself). There, Andy inspects Basquiat’s paintings as Bruno attempts to sell him on his idea of a collaboration. Though Bruno makes it seem that Basquiat is “dying” to work with Warhol, we discover this isn’t the case. Bruno is massaging Andy’s ego. In his exchange with Bruno, Andy views 24 of Basquiat’s paintings which unfortunately we never see. Bettany looks out into the audience to “view” Basquiat’s work, as we imagine what Andy sees and watch his expressions of shock, excitement, amazement and jealousy, all in Warhol’s inimitable stylistic phrasing and being. Bettany captures the characteristic Warhol exclamations “gee,” “oh,” and retains enough of the soft spoken and demur air that we’ve seen in films of Andy Warhol that bring us toward acceptance of his portrayal, which deepens as the play embodies their philosophical tension working together.

Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bruno is the catalyst for their collaboration. And it is Bruno who comes up with the concept of how to market the exhibition of their works with a poster of both in boxing shorts with Jean-Michel’s chest exposed and Andy’s chest covered in a black T-shirt, as they hold up their boxing gloves ready for their match up of paintings on Mercer Street in New York City.

To persuade a reluctant Andy, Bruno uses flattery and guilt. He chides the avid filmmaker that he hasn’t picked up a brush in years. When Andy shrugs off Bruno’s flattery with self-deprecation that his reputation “is in tatters,” and “no one loves him any more,” Bruno wisely counters Andy’s defense and makes him think. Bruno suggests that it is Andy who doesn’t return the love given to him, an idea that intrigues Andy because it divulges arcane, inner knowledge about his soul which may be accurate. Bruno has hooked Andy toward working with Jean-Michel. But he is completely drawn in when Andy realizes that this is a golden opportunity to employ his skills as a filmmaker and interviewer. He will film their collaboration and record it for posterity.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

After Andy leaves Bruno’s gallery, Basquiat keeps his appointment with Bruno and we see how the art dealer works his persuasion to lure Jean-Michel to accept Andy as an artist-partner. Like Andy, Jean-Michel is not convinced. In fact, he is nonplussed at the idea of painting with a world renowned artist and is suspicious and recalcitrant, suggesting that Andy is mechanistic and repetitive and his prints lack soul. With the same push-pull, parry and thrust that he experienced with Andy, Bruno cajoles and uses reverse psychology on Jean-Michel. He is not willing to take “no” for an answer, though Jean-Michel accuses him of exploitation when Bruno suggests the project is monumental and will have “art lovers lined up from the gallery door to JFK.”

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bruno stirs Jean-Michel on collaborating with Andy, using flattery and the unction that Andy really wants to work with Jean-Michael, though we have just witnessed that this is not true. Jean-Michel states he has nothing to say to Andy because they don’t “speak the same languages,” and he is not here to “bring Andy back from the dead.” Bruno, a master of human nature who pings Jean-Michel’s underlying vanity and competitiveness, finally reels him in with the discovery that Andy thinks Jean-Michel is “a threat to his entire understanding of art.”

The humor in both artist’s exchanges with the art dealer is organic, and the presentation of Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Basquiat are strikingly similar in their susceptibility to compliments, their egotism, their underlying insecurity with arrogance (Basquiat) and self-disdain (Warhol). As we watch the apparent tensions unfold, it is clear that Warhol and Basquiat may be sparring partners, but theirs is a match that is too coherent and intuitive not to work. Of course the idea that this will bring in tons of cash and, as Basquiat suggests, the bankers will be happy, emphasizes the themes of art’s pure expression versus art exploitation, and art as a business versus the pleasure and necessity to create art which drives both Andy and Basquiat. Meanwhile, as the inveterate money-minded dealer, Bruno encourages this promotional collaboration to harness their ambition and turn it into profits.

 Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

During Andy’s and Jean-Michel’s individual exchanges with Bruno dueling for advantage, themes and details in the artists’ lives surface. Andy’s mention of Valerie Solonas’ assassination attempt in 1968 that nearly took his life and caused him to look over his shoulder, expecting to be killed again is poignant and humanizing. The humanizing details continue throughout both acts and help to inform our understanding of the similarities between Warhol and Basquiat in their childhood experiences, for both were influenced by their mothers toward art, drawing and painting.

After the prologue with Bruno, the first act predominately takes place in Andy’s studio as the artists become familiar with each other, discuss their viewpoints, the idea of branding, what Andy’s art attempts and what Jean-Michel attempts with his art. Finally, they agree about what to paint and Andy sneaks in his filming as Jean-Michel paints and answers Andy’s questions. By the second act which takes place in Jean-Michel’s loft/studio/apartment, both artists have become close revealed in the film projections during intermission. At a crucial point in the second act and at Jean-Michel’s suggestion, they challenge each other good naturedly to take off their shirts and expose their wounds.

Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

It is a profound, humbling, bonding act. The icons are human and terribly vulnerable. We see Jean-Michel’s extensive surgical scar where he was injured, run over by a car. He had to recuperate for a long time, a trial which his mother got him through when he was 7-years-old by encouraging him to look at Grey’s Anatomy and draw what he saw to inspire his healing process. And we see Andy’s corset which he must wear to hold his organs in place and above it the long, disfiguring scars criss-crossing his torso, where the surgeons had worked feverishly to save his life from Valerie’s bullet which she shot into him at point blank range.

The second act evolves into an explosion of love and rancor between the two artists. When former girlfriend Maya (Krysta Rodriguez) comes to Jean-Michel’s place to settle up a financial arrangement with Jean-Michael, Andy tells her about their mutual friend Michael Stewart who is in a coma, beaten unrecognizable by cops because he was painting graffiti. Maya returns with the news of Michael’s death and pleads with Basquiat to go to the lawyer’s office with her to give testimony proving the cops murdered Michael. Basquiat refuses. Instead, he gives her the Polaroids of Michael’s mutilated face and body.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Jeremy Pope’s Basquiat transforms into raw nerve endings of emotion in a heart wrenching explanation why he can’t go to the lawyer’s office. The jitters, the nerves, the frenetic energy that need to be displaced because of Jean-Michel’s painful identification with Michael as a fellow sufferer who has just passed is Jeremy Pope’s tour de force throughout the rest of the act.

Basquiat reminds Maya and Andy of the heartless reality of Black racism and oppression evidenced in police brutality against Michael. The spirit of hate and bigotry murdered Michael and that same spirit is ranging to murder him, as he, too, painted graffiti at one point early in his career. Pope conveys Basquiat’s tortured grief at the loss of his beautiful friend. He is torn between wanting to help the Stewart family and preserve his own life and destiny. When Basquiat accuses Andy of indirectly killing Michael, who he was trying to heal with his painting, not understanding, Andy is shocked at Basquiat’s recriminations.

Krysta Rodriguez in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Krysta Rodriguez in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

McCarten reveals what painting means to Basquiat and how he perceives art’s power in this tremendous scene that hearkens back to Basquiat’s childhood when he encouraged his own healing by drawing “healthy” organs from illustrations in Grey’s Anatomy. Painting is his way of controlling, resurrecting life, defining power constructs and capturing racism symbolically to effect its change. When Basquiat tries to evoke healing for Michael spiritually, Andy’s commercial, material filming destroys the spiritual power to heal his friend who dies. Thus, for Basquiat painting is totemic and primal, sacred and holy while Andy, tortured by Basquiat’s questions reveals that art to him is an escape from self-loathing into an austere identity which only momentarily eradicates the deformed ugliness he is.

Ironically, at the core of their art, MarCarten suggests they symbolize and do different things. Andy films/records history to understand the creative process and see humanity, while never accepting his own. Basquiat employs the creative process to heal himself and others. One process is not better than the other, nor are they mutually exclusive. As their “collaboration” proves, both are integral to each other. Combined, they establish the inherent beauty and singularity of both.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

This incredible scene extends into a dance between Andy and Jean-Michel who pushes Andy to validate and reveal himself as he pretends to film him, though Basquiat has destroyed all of Andy’s films of their collaboration. Once again Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Basquiat challenge each other in a rivalry that can never be equal because Andy is not Black. Though he suffers discrimination because he is gay, their bond has limitations. Andy leaves then comes back apologetically though Basquiat has been cruel to him. And it is in the last minutes of the play that there is a touching reconciliation. The inevitability of their lasting artistic achievement is brought to the fore.

To effect the characters, the director’s vision and the creative team’s execution of it works well. Warhol’s and Basquiat’s wigs thanks to Karicean “Karen” Dick & Carol Robinson and Anna Fleischle’s costuming are on-point. Fleischle’s minimalist scenic design of white walls serves to intimate Bischofberger’s gallery, Warhol’s Studio on Broadway and Union Square, and Basquiat’s loft apartment/studio on Great Jones Street. Props and paintings and works and furniture are added and taken away accordingly. Basquiat’s digs in the second act require the greatest set-up, as he lives in cluttered disarray, unlike Andy’s studio which is neat, clean and “almost sterile.”

Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The second act reveals magnificent writing and magnificent acting. Throughout the concept of modern arts’ evanescence, that “everyone thinks they can do it,” and discussions of art critics attempting to nail down their work then toss it aside, are fascinating and richly profound. That both men were exploited and learned to then exploit themselves to become their own business models has currency for us today. Of course they became masters at self-exploitation. Considering that Basquiat’s brilliant light shined momentarily to leave a massive body of work and Warhol’s frenetic energy blasted an even more massive collection, their painting together was genius.

Because Warhol and Basquiat have been branded with their own mythology and entrepreneurship, understanding who they were, understanding their relationship remains elusive. Such comprehension cannot be gleaned in one play, nor should one expect to. However, McCarten creates a masterwork that Bettany and Pope use as a jumping off point to portray the divine and weak in both characters. They are stunning, beautiful, transcendent. Thus, to describe The Collaboration as a “biodrama,” as some critics have done, is wholly inadequate. Rather the play is McCarten’s vision enhanced by Kwame Kwei-Armah’s sensitive and profound acknowledgement of two artistic geniuses who collided in the tension of trying to do the impossible. And as a result of this collision, they formed something new. They integrated their own styles of art in these partnership paintings that embodied resonating themes at the core of their own lives.

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

As the final sardonic irony at the play’s conclusion, while Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Jean-Michel paint into immortality, we hear the voice of an auctioneer, representative of the art world now on steroids, directional from what it was like when they were alive in the 1980s. Their work together is valued in the multi-millions, the irrevocable exploitation of both.

Kudos to Ben Stanton’s lighting design, Emma Laxton’s sound design, Duncan McLean’s projection design and Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s original music. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2022-23-season/the-collaboration/

‘Between Riverside and Crazy,’ in its Stunning Broadway Premiere

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Rosal Colon, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

When it premiered Off Broadway at the Atlantic and then moved to 2nd Stage in 2014, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, directed by Austin Pendleton, won a passel of New York City Theater awards in 2015 (New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off Broadway Play). Also, it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Starring mostly the same cast as in its 2014 outing, the 2022-2023 production appears to be topping itself with solid, incisive direction by Pendleton and sharp ensemble performances led by the mind blowing Stephen McKinley Henderson, who inhabits Pops as sure as he lives and breathes the character’s feisty attitude, edgy humor and earthy sangfroid. Henderson’s performance is a tour de force, a character portrayal of a manipulator able to dodge and parry with the “best” of them to outsmart all comers and “get over” even when he has lost the war and is trying to win his last battle, though the likelihood isn’t in his favor.

Stephen McKinley Henderson in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Guirgis plies old ground in Between Riverside and Crazy. He examines Black lives that are moving on in the struggle to rise up in New York City, as they attempt to negotiate middle class economics, while the discriminatory city institutions fight them at every turn. In this environment every day is a hustle and the institutions who have hustled Blacks for generations are obvious. However, how does one fight City Hall and still remain in tact? Pops is an old salt and has managed to learn the ropes as a NYC cop. The problem is he lost his wife, his son has just been released from jail and he likes to have a drink or two or three. Can he suppress his wayward impulses, sustain himself and support his son getting back on his feet to prevent Junior’s recidivism?

The play opens with Pops having his breakfast (pie and whiskey-spiked coffee) with Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar in a riveting performance). Oswaldo is a friend of his son Junior’s who clearly is needy and has psychological issues which Guirgis reveals later in the play. Pops’ banter with Oswaldo indicates the situation and relationship between the men. Oswaldo positions Pops as his “Dad,” because he allows him to stay and help him get on his feet without paying rent, though Oswaldo affirms that he wants to and will when he is more flush in his finances. Who Oswaldo is and how he became friends with Junior clarifies as the play progresses. Indeed, they most probably share more than a few crimes.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Rosal Colon in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

As a former New York City cop who has been retired after being shot by another cop in a questionable racial incident that Pops has been litigating against the NYPD for eight years, Pops is aware of who Oswaldo is. Interestingly, ironically, he is helping out his son’s friend as a fatherly figure. Of course that isn’t as easy as it appears at the top of the play.

Pops lives in a spacious, valuable, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive in a gentrified area. The apartment whose former structural beauty and interior cared for by Pops’ deceased wife is apparent and fading (scenic design by Walt Spangler). Pops is in your face with Junior’s friends and girlfriend Lulu (the fine Rosa Colon) who he chides for exposing her ample buttocks and breasts and comments about her lack of intelligence to Oswaldo, behind her back as an afterthought. Guirgis has given Pops the bulk of the humorous dialogue and makes sure the other characters that circle him are beholden to him, and give him the proper obeisance, so he might gently insult and dominate them.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Clearly, Pops is witty with tons of street smarts, and we are drawn in by his outgoing nature and backhanded charm. However, Guirgis leaves numerous clues that Pops is into a power dynamic and must have the last word and must have the upper hand in the relationships he has with others. As we watch him “front” and “get over,” we ask to what extent this is part of his hustle and interior nature that he developed as a way to survive? To his credit Guirgis leaves enough ambiguity in his characterizations to suggest the deeper psychology along with the cultural aspects of discrimination without belaboring the themes. We are invited to watch these characters unfold with glimpses into their lives in a light-handed approach that is heavy with meaning, if one wishes to acknowledge it.

Thus, on the one hand Pops’ demeanor is entertaining and hysterical. On the other hand, it is so because Pops is driven to keep others “at bay” and “in their place.” This is the situation that abides until the conclusion, though Guirgis throws twists and divergences in the plot, redirects our attention and makes Pops appear to be the weak one who can’t get out from under his own foibles and issues. Guirgis constructs episodic humorous moments that are surprising and lead to an equally surprising resolution which is totally in character with Pops, whose every nuance, gesture and line delivery are mined brilliantly by Henderson, guided by Pendleton’s deft direction.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Michael Rispoli in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Thus, it would appear that Pops has created an environment where secrets are kept and Lulu, Junior and Oswaldo are allowed to take advantage of Pops’ largesse. This is especially true of Junior, who possibly is using his Dad’s apartment to store items that fell off a truck, something Pops turns a blind eye to. As Junior, Common is making his stage debut and he manages to negotiate the complex character’s love/hate relationship with Pops as they spar and “get along” as best they are able because both are dangerously similar in pride, ego and charm. This is so even though they are on the opposite sides of the law and Junior has recently been released from prison.

The principal conflict in Guirgis’ character study occurs after the playwright spins out the expositional dynamics. Pops’ former partner Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiance Lieutenant Caro (J. Anthony Crane in the Tuesday night performance I saw) have a scrumptious dinner that Pops cooks for them. After a lovely repast, Caro delivers a proposition to Pops. Only then do we understand the precarious situation Pops has put himself in. The dire circumstances have been encouraged by Pops’ own negligence and lack of due diligence. He has not kept up with his rent. He has not taken the offer the NYPD has put forth to pay for his pain and suffering (his sexual function has been debilitated) in the litigation. Additionally, Pops faces an eviction spurred on by the building’s tenant complaints, some of which seem sound, but also reveal discrimination.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Liza Colon-Zayas, Rosal Colon, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

How has Pops managed to back himself into this corner, though he doesn’t appear to belong in his wife’s wheelchair which he enjoys sitting in and can just as easily get out of? Importantly, Gurgis suggests sub rosa explanations for Pops deteriorated emotional state and his reliance on drinking. Nothing is clear at the outset, but after the visit by O’Connor and Caro, the extent to which Pops has allowed his potential enemies to leverage his present circumstances against him emerges. Will Pops be able to finesse the situation? By the end of Act One when Pops is injured and burglarized, we are convinced that Pops’ weaknesses have overcome him and he is doomed to go the way of his wife.

Guirgis’ Act II heads off in a zany direction which further validates the playwrights’ admiration for the prodigious character he has created in Pops, foibles and all. There is no spoiler alert, here. You’ll just have to see this superb production. A good part of the enjoyment of this premiere is watching Henderson hit every note of Pops’ subtle genius in redirecting those around him to eventually achieve what he wishes. He even bests Church Lady (the funny Maria-Christina Oliveras). Her machinations to “get over” on him which results in a reversal of fortune that is redemptive for both Pops and her are LOL smashing.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The ensemble is top notch and Pendleton’s direction leaves little on the table and is equally stunning. Kudos to the creative team with Alexis Forte’s costume design, Keith Parham’s lighting design, Ryan Rumery’s original music & sound design which are excellent. Gigi Buffington as vocal coach does a great job in assisting the actors in the parlance of the culture of Pops and his satellites so that they are seamlessly authentic and spot-on in their portrayals.

I did have a minor issue with Walt Spangler’s beautiful scenic design. Pops’ apartment revolves on a turntable which limits staging options. Granted that Pops is central to every scene. However, at times the actors’ conversations are directed toward Pops with their backs to the audience. These requires they project or “cheat” in their stance to be seen which at times they did not. This is an instance when the scenic design as lovely as it is didn’t enhance the overall production, but hampered it, a minor point.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Between Riverside and Crazy is a must-see for its performances, ensemble work and fine shepherding by Austin Pendleton. It is in a limited engagement until February 12th unless it is extended. For tickets and times go to their website: https://2st.com/shows/between-riverside-and-crazy#calendar

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