Category Archives: Broadway

‘The Kite Runner’ Resounds With Poignancy and Profound, Personal Intimacy.

(L to R): Eric Sirakian, Amir Arison in The Kit,e Runner (Joan Marcus)

Rarely in life do we have the opportunity for second chances, to reverse the most dire, pitiful and hateful moments of our lives and transform them with aching hope toward acts of kindness, decency and courage. This resurrection of hope toward faith in God is integral to Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of The Kite Runner, based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, currently running at the Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street in New York City.

Acutely, The Kite Runner is a story of relationships. These abide between father and son, between servant and master, between friends who are in fact brothers. There is also the relationship the individual has with himself. In the instance of the protagonist Amir (portrayed with aplomb and fearless generosity by Amir Arison), this relationship reveals his struggle as a divided self, unable to overcome his sin of cowardice, fear and guilt that leads to self-betrayal and betrayal of those who love him.

(L to R): Evan Zes, Eric Sirakian, Amir Arison in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

In the play the relationships are further tested against the backdrop of a an economically, culturally and politically roiling Afghanistan, where Pashtuns (Sunni Muslims) have historically oppressed Hazaras (Shi’a Muslims). When the monarchy, which has managed to control the economic, religious and political divides eventually topples in 1975, chaos follows. This chaos spawns the major conflict of the play as Pashtuns and Hazaras attempt to survive in the new political landscape.

However, before that de-stabilization occurs, we witness the peaceful, prosperous life of Amir with his father Baba (Faran Tahir), though Amir feels that sometimes his father hates and despises him as a weakling. Baba is a wealthy businessman, who retains his servant Ali (Evan Zes), and his son Hassan (Eric Sirakian), like members of his family for forty years, despite their being lower class Hazaras. Baba and Amir are non- practicing Westernized Pashtuns. Years later when Amir returns on a mission of redemption and forgiveness, an Afghani driver characterizes him and Baba as “tourists,” superficially Afghani. Since Baba raises Amir without attention to strict religious observances and pretensions about class, the closeness and love between Baba and Ali and their sons is heartening.

Amir Arison in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

In fact the beautiful friendship the boys have in a then peaceful Afghanistan is so well acted by Arison’s Amir and Eric Sirakian’s Hassan, that we nearly forget Amir’s warning comments at the top of the play, “I became what I am today at the age of twelve. It’s wrong what you say about the past about how you can bury it, because the past claws its way out.” Amir, who narrates throughout makes these comments in San Francisco almost twenty-five years later as a warning salvo before he relates the flashback of haunting events with Hassan. These are events with which we identify because of their intense poignancy and emotional grist that transcend culture, language, religious and classist differences. These seminal and particularly resonant scenes of Amir’s life with Hassan, fly like kites to the heart of our shared human experiences, revealing psychic flaws and mortal humanity.

After Amir’s warning comments, director Giles Croft’s vision of an idyllic, happy Afghanistan before the political upheavals is poetically suggested and elucidated as Amir’s wistful memories with the ensemble onstage. Croft employs the kite and sail metaphor in the props and scenic design to link Amir from the kites he watches being flown in San Francisco in 2001, as the threaded memory that brings him back to his time in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1973.

(L to R): Amir Arison, Eric Sirakian in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

Arison takes on the mannerisms and stance of a younger self as he plays “cowboys and Indians” with his friend Hassan, who importantly remains the same age throughout the play in his enthusiastic, vibrant and noble self. Of course, this is as it must be because this is Amir’s memory of Hassan, who disappears, never to be seen again, after the negatively defining incident that impacts Amir’s life for twenty-five years.

Tabla Artist Salar Nader provides the melodic drumming as Arison’s Amir narrates and steps in and out of the action seamlessly against Barney George’s minimalist scenic design, a fence, enhanced by William Simpson’s projection design and Charles Balfour’s lighting design. These artistic elements effect various places along Amir’s journey into self-torment which takes him from Afghanistan to the US, then back to Afghanistan and back again to the U.S.

Azita Ghanizada, Amir Arison in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

Croft establishes the setting in the flashback as an elusive but powerful memory. Spangler uses the dialogue in Farsi as Amir and Hasan play, which conveys the beauty of the time and the poetic rhythms of the language. It is rarely used afterward, except for an exclamatory effect or a “hello” or “goodbye.” We enjoy the bond of these two boys who have gone beyond their classes and religions to find the spiritual element which always remains but which Amir loses after his self-described sin and act of infamy against Hassan, Ali and Baba. But caught up in the joy of their youthful and free relationship, we forget what Amir says that he buried in his past that claws him back. We join them in play, as the literate Amir carves their names in a pomegranate tree as the Sultans of Kabul. And Amir reads to Hassan from a favorite story about which we discover later ironically relates to Hassan’s and Amir’s relationship to Baba.

(L to R): Amir Arison, Eric Sirakian in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

We get a flavor of this pleasant Afghanistan from these elements along with the two pieces of patterned curtain arranged prettily as two halves of a sail reminiscent of a kite as a backdrop for certain scenes. Amir familiarizes us with his relationship with Hassan as his friend who is one year younger. Yet, he indicates that always there is the distinction that Hassan is a servant, though Baba appears to love him, showering him with the same presents for his birthday that Amir receives. One gift we see is a cowboy hat which, of course, Amir has to put on and wear also.

Like two peas in a pod, the boys are motherless; Amir’s mother died giving birth to him, which Amir credits being one reason for Baba’s anger at him. And Hassan’s mother ran away to join a troop of actors and musicians, which was a fate worse than death in Afghanistan. Thus, both fathers must raise their sons without wives, though Baba has girlfriends and comes home late ignoring Amir who is lonely and insecure. Amir’s sole comfort comes from his friendship with Hassan. On the other hand, Ali is always there for Hassan, who has an inner core of strength, love and confidence.

(L to R): Faran Tahir, Dariush Kashani in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

Spangler’s characterizations run deep and the actors make the most of the nuances in conveying the explanation of why Amir behaves as cruelly as he does. Though Hassan demonstrates love and faithfulness to Amir, whom he considers his best friend, Amir is incapable of returning this honor. Thus, as the myth goes, when Hassan learned to speak, the first word he said was “Amir.” For Amir the tragedy is that he has to understand and accept the love and faithfulness that Hassan has for him. He doesn’t. To our chagrin, though Arison makes Amir likeable, we discover that Amir is incapable of showing love and loyalty to anyone. So when the boys meet up with Assef (Amir Malaklou), a bigoted Pashtun bully, Amir behaves like a coward wussy, while Hassan fearlessly protects them both with his attitude, his innate courage and confidence. Also, he is a crackerjack with his slingshot which helps save the day.

(L to R): Amir Arison, Amir Malaklou in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

Crofts stages the kite fighting tournament as the high point of Hassan’s and Amir’s relationship with excitement and verve, as the actors pantomime the cutting of the kite strings. Hassan, as the best kite runner, anticipates where the last “enemy” kite will fall. Securing that kite will be the prize that forever emblazons Amir and Hassan as the best team at kite fighting. However, when Hassan runs after the blue kite, Asseff and his gang intercept him. Asseff cannot brook losing the tournament to an unworthy blood polluted Hazaras. To punish and humiliate Hassan, he demeans him sexually in a cultural defilement and sin, which Amir hears happening from a hidden position. Amir is too frightened to help Hassan beat off the gang, because he believes himself to be too much of a wussy to stand up to Assef’s tyranny. Amir runs away, embarrassed and ashamed. What would Baba think?

(L to R) Faran Tahir, Amir Arison in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

After this incident on the day that Amir achieves his father’s praise for winning the tournament, he is desolate. Amir yearns for an elusive peace and freedom from guilt and self-torment in not helping Hassan. Amir’s sin of cowardice and lie of omission blossoms into overwhelming self-recrimination that causes him to project his self-hatred onto Hassan. Rather than to face the truth of his own inner weakness, he accuses Hassan of theft, one of the worst acts Baba says a man can commit. When questioned, Hassan admits he has stolen to protect Amir from Baba’s wrath, because both Ali and Hassan understand the reason why Amir has dishonored them.

(L to R): Dariush Kashani, Amir Arison in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

Baba forgives Hassan the theft and expects Ali and Hassan to go on as before. However, Ali and Hassan leave the household to maintain their honor. Ironically, Amir is even more ashamed of his wickedness because once again, Hassan has protected him out of the strength of sacrificial love in a move that is Christ-like. Amir’s is a monstrous act because Hassan the younger, the “low class” Hazaras is the more honorable, kinder and more loving person. Amir must face that he is a two-fold liar, a coward and an unworthy human being.

Amir’s unconscious guilt and self-recrimination consign him to a life of self-torment, until he allows himself to be redeemed by a call from Baba’s former business partner Rahim Khan (Dariush Kashani) who tells him, “Come see me. There is a way to be good again.” This is the opportunity to make amends to Hassan’s son Sohrab. Wisely, Croft casts Eric Sirakian as Hassan and Sohrab. Sirakian is absolutely terrific in both roles. And in Act II when Sohrab begs not to be taken to an orphanage where he will be harmed, he breaks your heart.

(L to R): Eric Sirakian, Amir Arison in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

Interwoven in the relationships of Spangler’s adaptation are all the Shakespearean verities and vices elevated: sacrificial love and forgiveness, betrayal of self and those closest to us, unforgiveness, sadism and wanton cruelty leveled on an innocent who sacrifices himself for love and friendship. And these processes are pitted against the fateful opportunity to reverse the course of personal destiny and transform self-loathing to empowerme,nt, love and acceptance. Amir eventually is brought to his second chance in Act II. Interestingly, it is the time of the Taliban ascendancy to the point of despotic tribalism and murder.

Though he doesn’t believe in the religious observances, Assef’s bullying psychotic nature has found its true purpose to torture and kill in Taliban Afghanistan. That Amir must face his old demons of guilt, cowardice and fear to confront his nemesis Assef, fight him and escape with Sohrab, who Assef has kidnapped, is an incredible journey toward Amir’s personal closure and reconciliation with God.

Salar Nader in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

If anything The Kite Runner underscores Amir as an Everyman, who reaches the bottom of his own personal abyss to seek forgiveness which helps him understand the meaning of “brotherly” love, the sacrificial love that his childhood friend Hassan (the marvelous, heartfelt Eric Sirakian) unquestioningly, gracefully bestows upon him.

Amir Arison and the company of The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

This imagistic, stylized production fades in and out of the epic in its cultural scope and breadth of events that take place between 1973 and 2001 in Afghanistan from monarchy, to republic, to communist coup, to Russian invasion, and Taliban takeover. Amir’s journey moves to Pakistan and San Francisco then back and forth again. With brief phrases of language at the beginning and sprinkled here and there, that reflect cultural authenticity, the fateful story emerges. Amir narrates and we witness vignettes that explore Amir’s evolution as a worthy human being. Arison does a yeoman’s job with a challenging role that spans decades and keeps him onstage until the intermission, then brings him back until the conclusion. With the music of the tabla drums, the singing bowls and the schwirrbogen, we find the rhythms of the culture always pulsating, to remind us of the vitality of history and ancestry.

(L to R): Azita Ghanizada, Amir Arison, Eric Sirakian, Houshang Touzie in The Kite Runner (Joan Marcus)

This is a fine adaptation and resounding, soulful production whose themes are immutable and current. Praise goes to the ensemble and Giles Croft who shepherds them to move like a synchronized pageant. Kudos goes to the Drew Baumohl (sound design), Jonathan Girling (composer and music supervisor), Kitty Winter (movement director) and Salar Nader (tabla artist and additional arrangements), as well as the other creatives previously mentioned.

The Kite Runner is at the Helen Hayes Theater for a limited engagement that ends 30 October. This is one not to miss for its acting, its stunning vibrance, poignancy and heart. For tickets and times go to their website: https://thekiterunnerbroadway.com/

‘Mr. Saturday Night,’ Billy Crystal, David Paymer, Dazzle With Comedic Genius and Heart

(L to R): Brian Gonzales, Chasten Harmon, Randy Graff, Billy Crystal, David Paymer, Shoshana Bean, Mylinda Hull, Jordan Gelber in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

Billy Crystal’s reshaped Mr. Saturday Night at the Nederlander Theatre, directed with acute sensitivity by John Rando is based on Crystal’s 1991 Oscar nominated titular film. This production “hurts!” (in today’s parlance “kills:). Crystal embodies “Mr. Saturday Night” from head to toe. In the two act musical Buddy Young, Jr. (Crystal) luckily faces the opportunity of a second chance in his waning comedian years. With this do over, he gets to reexamine how he sabotaged his career with the hope of regenerating it. Most importantly, he faces the opportunity to revitalize his estranged relationship with his brother Stan (David Paymer reprises his Oscar nominated film role) and his non existent relationship with daughter Susan (the golden voiced and superb Shoshana Bean).

Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

We all love second chances because we need so many of them. Buddy is no exception as the writers fashion his character to bump up against chance after chance. Indeed, in flashbacks from present to past to present, we note that as Buddy’s ego explodes with his successes, he eventually blows every chance that comes his way. When it is announced that he has died on TV (a symbolic reaffirmation of hope for a resurrection) Buddy plunges into the opportunity with the help of agent Annie Wells (Chasten Harmon covered by Tatiana Weschsler the night I saw the musical). The dramatic problem arises. Perhaps Buddy has gained the wisdom to retrieve the lost golden ring of success and once more establish himself. But what if he hasn’t?

This caveat is the crux of the conflict and arc of development. Can Buddy get out of his own way long enough to be the best human being he can be, absolving himself of past regrets with humility and aplomb? You’ll just have to see this reconfigured Mr. Saturday Night to find out

Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

Crystal, himself is receiving a new thrust of fame in this upward moving transition in his career as a Broadway star going for his second Tony Award. He won a special Tony for 700 Sundays) doing what he enjoys, performing in front of a live audience every night. The production, despite a few twitches, is an absolute joy to see, and Crystal is the ebullient muse of hilarity, pattering jokes with lightening speed and seamless grace.

(L to R): Billy Crystal and David Paymer in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

Reprising his role with Paymer, Crystal is the former Borscht Belt comedian, who once had a successful TV show until he didn’t. Paymer is his long suffering brother/manager/agent who was generous with his own salary during their heyday, but barely has enough to treat his girlfriend to a pricey dinner. Randy Graff does a fine job as wife Elaine, encouraging Bean’s Susan to “give her father a break.” “Putting up with her father is something Susan finally shutters with maturity and firmness, prompting Buddy to reassess, reevaluate and recalibrate or lose her love. The scene between Bean and Crystal against the warm background of the projections of the NYC brownstones and the doorway to Susan’s apartment and new relationship with her Dad is beautifully done.

Randy Graff and Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

The production combines an endearing and poignant update with LOL vibrance. It soars with Crystal’s outstanding performance where he sings and dances, as one would expect seventy-something Buddy Young, Jr. to crow out a tune and jubilantly hop and skip some mildly energetic dance steps, sans flips, strenuous tap or break dancing. Indeed, Paymer and Crystal deliver their enjoyment “I Still Got It,” and companionship together and also dig deep when their characters hit the abyss: Paymer in the exceptional “Broken,” and Crystal in the profound “Any Man But Me.” Surprising, endearing, adorable, belly-laughing, fun, thoughtful and appealing, the principals are a team and appear to have fun making the audience laugh in a time when we desperately need to apolitically chortle and “fall out” in a life-affirming way.

Billy Crystal and Shoshana Bean in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

With Book by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, Music by Jason Robert Brown and Lyrics by Amanda Green, the production has been nominated for five 2022 Tonys, including Best Musical, Book, Score (Brown and Green), Leading Actor in a Musical (Crystal), and Featured Actress in a Musical (Bean). What is marvelously stranger than fiction is that the film, if one reads the “critics” was not “the bomb,” it did not “kill” and it did not, in Buddy’s words “hurt them.” It flopped. Crystal and his creative team are to be credited for courage and gumption to try again, this time as a Broadway musical, one of the most difficult of creations and during an ongoing pandemic that no one likes to acknowledge.

Shoshana Bean in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

However, this is Mr. Saturday Night’s persevering second chance. With the added lift of the music and dance, and overall nostalgic silliness of 50s TV bits, where actors dress in hot dog costumes, cigarette boxes, etc., (Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, Mylinda Hull) Mr. Saturday Night offers a retrospective on a history younger audiences don’t know. Also, it is an encomium to comedians who were huge greats in their time, some of whose stars still shine in films on Turner Classic Movies and black and white TV reruns.

The musical also highlights the importance of the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills, where comedians and entertainers could credibly try out their material and look for opportunities like Buddy did when he “covered” for Milton Berle at Farber’s. As the musical flashes back to Buddy, Stan and Elaine as twenty-somethings, we discover it is at Farber’s that he lands the gig that launches his successful career and Stan’s as agent and manager. The flashback also reveals how he met Elaine (Graff manages to be a convincing younger version of Elaine) whom he unwittingly “stole” from Stan in a a sour note between the brothers. Thus, the characterization and arc of development eventually reveal head on undercurrents of the strife between Crystal’s Buddy and Paymer’s Stan as a loop of pain which the actors convincingly inhabit and play battling each other.

David Paymer in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

All these events with his brother, long suffering wife and broken-hearted but defiant daughter reveal the depth of the characters. They also illuminate reasons for Buddy’s self-torment, ambition and feelings of inferiority all of which are the fountain of his comedy which is part insult comedy, part ironic defense, and the type of ridicule which makes angels laugh. But when it’s directed at the individual in question, it hurts for real as dismissive one upmanship. Buddy has a tough time differentiating Shakespeare’s, “All the world’s a stage,” and is continually making his entrance and never pausing long enough to realize he needs to exit.

Brian Gonzales, Mylinda Hull, Billy Crystal, Jordan Gelber in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

In an important scene with agent neophyte Annie (the fine Wechsler), Crystal’s Buddy gets to praise his comedy mentors. We note on the walls of the Friar’s Club and in projections a wide expanse of brilliant funny men and a few women of high humor. Buddy’s rant implies Annie should know the greats and this inspires her to do her research, then work like the devil to help Buddy get something which turns out to finally land as a part in a film. The role is funny and incredibly poignant and it requires Buddy audition, which he does. But after all the angst rehearsing and auditioning and blowing a chance at closeness with his daughter, his “big opportunity” is destroyed when the role is given to Walter Matthau. Bummer. Crystal handles this earth shattering moment with an ethos that’s believable Buddy. What he’s lost isn’t recoverable, for the loss isn’t just this part, its his mountainous history of regrets.

Brian Gonzales, Mylinda, Jordan Gelber in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

Unlike the film which referenced the comedian’s waning years from a younger man’s perspective (Crystal was in his forties, ironically “old” at that time), this Mr. Saturday Night shines in the age appropriate sequences. Interestingly, it is their younger portrayals by Paymer and Crystal as the twenty-somethings, that seem a stretch with wigs (Charles G. Lapointe) and make-up that don’t quite cohere.

However, when the flashback to Farber’s arrives, we’ve been prepped with jokes by the opening number “We’re Live” (Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, Mylinda Hull). Then Buddy does his act at a retirement home (“A Little Joy”), which is a laugh riot. And by then, we’ve become acquainted with the premise, the announcement of Buddy’s death on TV, and his “new lease on his career” as agent Susan-Tatiana Wechsler sings “There’s a Chance, ” and excited Buddy and Stan sing and move to “I still Got It.” So, what’s a bad hair day for the two men returning to their younger days measured against the overall success of the well paced Act I that moves even more briskly through Act II and the conclusion after which Crystal takes a few audience questions? Well…(said with an upward lilt of a Jewish accent).

Chasten Harmon in Mr. Saturday Night (Matthew Murphy)

The themes of aging and regrets not answered, second, third and fourth chances, familial reconciliation, and redemption even for the incorrigible, spin in and out with a bow and a wink, superbly subtle. The sets of Buddy and Elaine’s home, Faber’s, the paneled Friar’s Club and the old time TV Studio designed by Scott Pask are spot-on, as is the costume design by Paul Tazewell & Sky Switser enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s lighting design and Kai Harada’s superb sound design. The Video & Projection Design is smashing, reminiscent of divided screens from the period, creating various effects pegged to the emotion of the scene.

The choreography by Ellenore Scott is just enough for this type of show and the actors are at ease and comfortable with their steps and movement. As silly as Elaine’s wishful thinking about leaving for “Tahiti” is, Graff pulls it off looking debonair and adorable. Thanks to Jason Robert Brown’s Arrangements and Orchestrations, David O’s Music Direction and Kristy Norter’s Music Coordination, the tone and tenor of the music fits with the book by Crystal, Ganz and Mandel, with Green’s lyrics. The time, effort and love shows, as all is held together by John Rando’s direction. Wow!

Get your tickets to this must-see show. You are not going to see this production with this cast again. For tickets and times go to their website: https://mrsaturdaynightonbroadway.com/

‘Funny Girl’ the Broadway Revival Starring Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo, Jane Lynch, Jared Grimes

Jared Grimes and Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Funny Girl has been successfully presented in the UK’s West End in revival (2016, book by Harvey Fierstein), in Paris, and in regional theater. However, producers have been loathe to consider a full-on Broadway revival until now. This is so for numerous reasons, not the least of which Barbra Streisand, who originated the role as a relatively unknown 21-year-old in 1964, inevitably draws acute comparison with anyone daring to try the part on for size.

Streisand was Fanny Brice in a confluence of personality, genius talent, comedic flair and pure drive. Though she didn’t win the Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical (1964 when Funny Girl opened), she won the best actress Oscar for the 1968 film adaptation. It was a satisfying recognition after her tremendous work in making Fanny Brice and Funny Girl legendary. Her connections to the role, and association with the show’s signature songs became inviolate. So it is a good thing that Funny Girl is in play in this revival; perhaps more revivals will come in the near future.

(L to R): Kurt Csolak, Beanie Feldstein, Justin Prescott in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

That said it takes a courageous sensibility to attempt to transmogrify the role of the Fanny Brice Ziegfield Follies star away from Streisand’s iconic work, in this first Broadway revival. Kudos go to Beanie Feldstein who stars with Ramin Karimloo, Jared Grimes and Jane Lynch in the Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics), Isobel Lennart (book), Harvey Fierstein (revised book), Funny Girl revival directed by Michael Mayer. Currently, the production runs at the August Wilson Theatre.

Beanie Feldstein has the appropriate determination to portray “the greatest star.” Nevertheless, during specific moments, she appears to be overwhelmed by the complex and profounder transitions the role requires as Fierstein’s book travels in flashback from the opening scene where Fanny gets ready to go onstage. The flashback of her memories follow how she moved from childhood to teen rising star to successful Follies celebrity who becomes an icon in her time. Uncloaked is her first anointing from gambler Nick Arnstein who compliments her on her talent. And as her star rises she becomes worthy of their budding relationship and blossoms, as his star dims and his wealth diminishes. By that time they’ve married.

(L to R): Leslie Flesner, Afra Hines, Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Feldstein is not new to challenges. She debuted on Broadway as Minnie Fay in Hello Dolly (2017). And she has been appreciated and noted for the humorous Booksmart and Lady Bird, and in her role as Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story.

In the role of Fanny Brice she is uneven at best, at worst out of her kin, vocal acumen, acting talent, comfort/confidence zone. When she teams up with others (“I’m the Greatest Star” (“Reprise), “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Sadie, Sadie,” “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”), she shines with capability and confidence. When she carries the song on her own (“Who Are You Now?” “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People,” “The Music That Makes Me Dance”), she skates on thin ice.

Beanie Feldstein and the cast of Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Not fervent with authenticity and the intensity that the role requires with songs like “People” which Fanny sings to convince herself to let go and love Nick Arnstein, who her mother has suggested is a criminal, she isn’t quite believable. However, with the ensemble, Jared Grimes’ wonderful Eddie Ryan and Ramin Karimloo’s suave, alluring Nick Arnstein, Feldstein relaxes and has more fun. Also, with the exuberant Jane Lynch (not necessarily believable as a pushy, Jewish mother), she overcomes herself and more comfortably inhabits the role.

Beanie Feldstein and Jared Grimes in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Sometimes Feldstein’s sweet singing went a tad flat momentarily in the first act and became a distraction to the events undergirded in the song. In her attempt to make Fanny Brice her own, certain schtick works if it glimmers, strikes, then vanishes. When it becomes repetitive, the humor loses its “funny.” As such, the youthful Fanny, the bumbling Fanny and the fake pregnant Fanny are clever. She is appropriately, broadly a ham (“His Love Makes Me Beautiful”). As Feldstein takes off on the visual, risque joke, the audience adores it and their adoration sets Fanny off into Fanny Brice stardom, all Beanie believable.

Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

The flashback of the cute, adorable, wide-eyed innocent Fanny, the gutsy star-driven dreamer with heart (“I’m The Greatest Star”), works for a season. When she meets Nick and is with him for a while,, she doesn’t quite transition to charming, sensual, intriguing funny, the lure which entices Nick. Thus, their relationship never moves beyond the girlish Fanny who transforms into the Fanny who is a star that is beyond Nick in success, talent and charm. At some point the “Star is Born” meme should come alive when she exceeds Nick in grace and beauty as a Follies “Great.” Feldstein never quite pulls that off. Nor does she manifest the pain Fanny experiences when Ramin’s Nick and she part ways which leads into the overcomer Fanny who transcends, heartbroken but triumphant.

Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Karimloo’s Nick is gorgeous, fit, debonair and experienced. This superficial ethos lures Fanny like bread does to fresh water fish. In their scenes and songs (“I Want To Be Seen With You,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Who Are You Now,” and You’re a Funny Girl” that Nick sings alone), both actor’s make sense of these scenes because Karimloo plays the seducer, the lover, the partner who acts upon her as the receiver. Feldstein doesn’t have to do much but “fall” into his arms and be under his spell. And that is easy to do. The women in the audience are standing in her shoes enamored of Karimloo’s aura and sterling voice.

(L to R): Deborah Cardona, Toni DiBuono, Jane Lynch, Jared Grimes in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

However, the complications of their marriage, seem static and should be predictable but are not emotional as Feldstein’s Fanny doesn’t register that her relationship is dissipating with Nick after she becomes a “Sadie.” Despite all the lovely set appointments by David Zinn’s scenic design for their Long Island home, the irony is manifest. It is not a home because it lacks warmth as Nick’s concern about money takes over.

Ramin Karimloo and the cast in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Eventually, even Karimloo (who beautifully sings throughout and does a bang-up job in “Temporary Arrangement”), when Nick sings about his going off by himself to make money…has difficulty with latter scenes between himself and Feldstein. When Feldstein’s Fanny attempts to save their marriage by outtricking a trickster, his response to Fanny’s gambit is interesting, if not lackluster. Nick’s reckless gambling has placed him out of Fanny’s status and wealth. Feeling emasculated when his project goes bankrupt, he is driven back to his criminal ways to recoup, which he never can because he lands himself in jail. The urgency between them in the parting scenes right before his prison sentence and after fall flat. We don’t care all that much about her heartbreak because Feldstein’s Fanny doesn’t seem to either by the “Finale.”

Jared Grimes, Jane Lynch in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

The book has been revised by Harvey Fierstein to streamline Act II which is a fine change-up. Fierstein transfers “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” sung by Mrs. Brice (Jayne Lynch) and Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes) to the second act. Both are super conveyors of good will and have a blast together during the number. Indeed, Lynch’s and Grimes’ numbers are noteworthy as they possess the stage with grace, aplomb and enjoyment that the audience appreciates.

(L to R): Peter Frances James, Jane Lynch, Jared Grimes, Beanie Feldstein, Ephie Aardema, Debra Cardona, Martin Moran, Toni DiBuono and the cast of Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Jared Grimes’ tap is non pareil and brings down the house. Grimes is helped by tap choreographer, Ayodele Casel, who also succeeds in creating a number in which Feldstein shines with the ensemble (“Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”). Overall the choreography by Ellenore Scott is strongest and most fun in the Ziegfeld numbers supported by the extraordinary costumes by Susan Hilferty with her expansively winged butterflies, shimmering chorus (“Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”), bridal outfit in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” and in Fanny Brice’s outfits nearing the end of the production, reflecting the progressing years after the flashback ends. All are enhanced by the lighting design by Kevin Adams and Brian Ronan’s sound design.

Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

If you have not seen the West End revival of Funny Girl in the UK or at a regional theater, this production bears seeing for a number of reasons. Fierstein’s revised book is excellent and gives a lot of play to the characterization of Nick Arnstein. The entire company and the leads’ team work shines. The music is wonderful and the historic figure of Fanny Brice, a woman who made her career at a time when women had power in theater is something to be reminded of. Brice went on to more success in the entertainment industry in later years. Her life is one to remember.

Final mention must be made about the superb musical team. They include Michael Rafter’s music supervision and direction, Chris Walker’s orchestrations, Alan Williams’ dance, vocal and incidental music arrangements, Carmel Dean’s and David Dabbon’s additional arrangements, and Seymour Red Press’s and Kimberlee Wertz’s music coordination.

The show runs with one intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: https://funnygirlonbroadway.com/

Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in ‘Macbeth’ a Stark, Thematic Whirlwind to Chill and Confound

(L to R): Maria Dizzia, Daniel Craig, Amber Gray in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

Intentional contradictions abound in the production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth currently enjoying a packed house in its limited run at the Longacre Theatre. Directed by Sam Gold, starring the inimitable Daniel Craig as the titular witch-doomed protagonist and superlative Ruth Negga as his feral, treachery-inspiring wife, the presentation is bold, daring, dramatic, enthralling, surprising, weird, completely irregular and defiant of critical examination.

Yet, the critics have had a field day, a bit reminiscent of Peter O’Toole’s production of Macbeth (1980), that critics ridiculed immodestly. However, the audience found O’Toole and the cast mesmerizing, and packed the Old Vic each night. Gold’s Macbeth is packing the Longacre Theatre despite venom-tongued, snarky criticism.

Ruth Negga in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

Macbeth theatrical productions have sprung up as star vehicles for Patrick Stewart, Alan Cummings, James McAvoy and Ethan Hawke to name a few. With each revival, each iteration of Macbeth, there have been intriguing conceptualizations. And this is as it should be, whether in modern dress, in an insane asylum or as this current production, on a stage stripped of showy spectacle, except for some of the Macbeth’s costumes, especially Lady Macbeth’s by Suttirat Larlarb. Gold’s bare stage, the back wall painted black, and Christine Jones’ minimalist set design (save the backdrop against which Macduff and Macbeth fight in the last scene), resemble a rehearsal space. There, the players strut and fret on the Longacre stage, for two hours and twenty minutes. Their discourse is audience directed interaction with resonant, beautifully delivered soliloquies by Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and others, i.e. Ross. Indeed, as Ross, Phillip James Brannon steals the scene where he describes the wanton blood-letting of Macduff’s family by Macbeth.

From the moment witches Maria Dizzia, Phillip James Brannon and Bobbi Mackenzie appear at their kitchen worktable and stovetop making preparations and cooking up their stew (which has a distinctive odor of root vegetables), in this pre-scene before the play, nothing is as what it seems (a key theme). The audience chats. The lights are on. Ushers seat audience members. Many ignore the casually dressed characters whose costumes have less distinction than the audience apparel. It is apparent that Gold is upending our expectations about Macbeth’s movers and shakers, the witches. These are homely, benign-looking creatures of no consequence, “cooking up a storm or two.”

(L to R): Danny Wolohan, Michael Patrick Thornton, Daniel Craig in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

Along with the theme that everything is in reverse (fair is foul, foul is fair), and appearances are not to be trusted, the fog machine (carried by various players) symbolizes misdirection and gaslighting. The fog and mist serves a twofold purpose: to create scenes of foreboding and an atmosphere of doom because reality and truth are indecipherable to the players. Unpredictability is another theme this production brings in from beginning to end. Nothing is assured, no action of the characters is staid; only the lines spoken in various accents are dependably Shakespeare’s (though truncated) in this interpretation which doesn’t quite follow the play’s usual format and dialogue with precision.

Gold shepherds his actors to take liberties, break the fourth wall, at times appear to ad lib, use anachronisms and coy props, like a can of beer for a gallows laugh and employ the acutely strange. For example he has Paul Lazar in a switch off from his role of trusting King Duncan take off his bloody “fat” vest and strip down to his shorts to “become” the porter who receives Macduff (Grantham Coleman) and Lennox Michael Patrick Thornton. All is at the hazard and then it is not. There is comedy in the tragic and a hysterical mania flows throughout. If this is confounding, it is purposeful. The kingdom in chaos and confusion reigns everywhere. Without clarity and leadership Scotland falls prey to a treacherous usurper who transforms the realm to one of darkness, uncertainty, moral weakness, corruption and lies all of whose troubling turbulence will not be easily stemmed. The witches have generated all of these elements.

Daniel Craig and the company of Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

The witches cook; we ascertain their “agreement.” As they plot, we recognize that the events are being determined, unseen and unknown way before the witches manifest themselves on the heath. By the time they appear to Macbeth and Banquo (Amber Gray), they’ve completed the brew which the witches make Banquo and Macbeth drink, alluring their souls and psyches forever to their fates, ineluctable, irrevocable.

In dramatic irony with emphasis, Gold allows us to see the witches’ power and control. This is something that King James I would have believed, something that Shakespeare wrote for him. I never understood the extent of their power before, thinking they trick Macbeth with the power of suggestion. In Gold’s vision, the witches’ plot has been a while in the making, in another realm and beyond the awareness of all the characters. Thus, we are reminded that before majestic events occur, there are forces at work that may never be understood or gleaned. However, that doesn’t mean that because they are unknown, they don’t greatly influence the events. Gold emphasizes this notion with his pre-play action of the witches.

Amber Gray in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

Additionally, before they state the over arching theme of this production “fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air,” at the beginning of the play, out comes Michael Patrick Thornton in antic humor. He discusses the superstition about stating the name of Macbeth onstage, violating the dictum it must not be mentioned and should only be referred to as “The Scottish Play.” After getting audience laughs, Thornton gives an interesting discourse on, James I, King of England and Scotland, his obsession with witches and witch burnings, and Shakespeare’s writing three of his finest tragedies during The Bubonic Plague, where he and others in Europe had to “shelter in.” Macbeth was written during the Plague.

This and more Thornton relates effectively with humor, pacing and irony, addressing the audience as himself, though he later portrays Lennox, a murderer and the messenger of doom for Macbeth. The transition from Thornton in the present to the increasingly serious past events and spell-casting witches is masterfully seamless as we are taken to the hanging and death of a traitor who has admitted and repented his treason against the king, something Macbeth will never do.

The timeless currency of the play abides. Gold (as some critics suggested he should) doesn’t specifically reference the events going on globally (2022) via scenic design or props. He doesn’t need to; the parallels are manifest. The play’s greatness is in its revelation of the best and worst of human nature revealed in the dialogue, events and fine performances by Craig, Negga and the other leads.

Negga’s Lady Macbeth reveals her wicked heart’s desire in her soliloquies. These prepare us for the extent to which she must manipulate her husband by any means necessary, including insulting his manhood and demeaning his fears of failure and pangs of conscience. Not understanding that he is terrorized about the significance of his terrible deeds, she upbraids him for fleeing Duncan’s bedchamber carrying the bloody daggers with him which evidence his guilt. It is as if he begs to be caught and punished for what he’s done; the scene between Negga and Craig is effective and authentic.

Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

By this point the couple has become divided by intent and the consequence of their actions; Macbeth feels the dire results coming, Lady Macbeth does not let it impact her. The shift is clear and Gold never brings them together again with affection. In this first part Lady Macbeth swamps Macbeth’s nobility. She stirs up his acknowledged desire for the throne, despite his rational judgment that no good result will come of killing Duncan, his kinsman and his guest.

As Macbeth, Craig’s, doubt, confusion and fear before killing Duncan and his shock and horror afterward are straightforward and powerful. Likewise, Negga’s Lady Macbeth is steely as she mentally fashions his will and bends it to hers. Pointedly, after both are crowned, Craig’s Macbeth and Negga’s Lady Macbeth accurately reveal the dissolution of their self-respect and love for each other. Craig’s Macbeth becomes obsessed by the negative results his inner guilt has forewarned. After his crowning the witches’ prophecies “fog” his judgment provoking his jealousy that Banquo’s heirs will be on the throne and his will not. Lady Macbeth’s distraction grows after she chides Macbeth at the banquet, the last time they will be purposefully together. She is not apprehending Banquo’s ghost that plagues Macbeth’s mind because of the witches’ prophecy of Banquo’s heirs. At the end of Act I, the witches’ plot is in full force. It submerges any decency left in this once august couple, who now grow emotionally isolated from each other, locked in their own soulful torture chambers.

(L to R): Daniel Craig, Michael Patrick Thornton in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

Gold’s direction of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at this juncture in their relationship (showing no affection only rancor), indicates that the regicide, whether they want to admit it or not, has been the defining movement of their lives. Everything afterward is a counting down to their deaths. Craig’s performance reveals scene by scene, soliloquy by soliloquy the evanescence of courage with wanton carelessness and cheek (one example is when he gets the beer and drinks it). After he witnesses Banquo’s ghost he admits he is “stepped in blood so far, should I wade no more, returning would be tedious go’er.” Thus, “blood will have blood;” he allows his unrestrained lust for power to expand its corruption and visits the witches for affirmation, which he is duped to believe they give him. But what seems fair, is really foul.

Interestingly, following Shakespeare, Gold and his creative team suggest that the seeds of evil are planted by spiritual forces way before Macbeth’s self-treachery and vengeful violent nature become visible. The corruption and wickedness blossom imperceptibly, then accrue with coverups and lies (symbolized by fog and mist). The more the despotic tyrant doesn’t achieve his goal, the more he furiously lusts to accomplish it with the “help” of the witches who give him an illusory prophecy that he is immortal. This sustains him unstopped by his countrymen, until Macduff (Grantham Coleman) kills him. Indeed, tyrants like Macbeth are never satisfied. When Banquo’s son Fleance (Emeka Guindo) escapes Macbeth’s killing, thwarted, Macbeth shifts his path. Murderous revenge becomes his goal.

(L to R): Ruth Negga, Amber Gray in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

Craig manifests Macbeth’s transitions, superbly moving from guilt in refusing to go back to the King’s chamber to smear the chamberlains with Duncan’s blood, to raging at the audacity of Banquo’s ghost coming out from and around the banquet table, returning again and again in a scene that is chillingly effective. And when he attempts to secure his kingdom and learns that Malcolm and Macduff left for England to conspire against him, he has no compunctions about wiping out innocent Macduff’s family in revenge (another powerful scene). He has lost it; logically his blood-lust and terrorism only will inflame his enemies even more and give them license to turn his own subjects against him.

Indeed, blood will have blood, the recurring theme. Negga’s nightmare isolation is acutely staged and rendered as Lady Macbeth envisions blood stains that can never be cleansed from her hand…soul. In this version, Gold and the actors helped me better understand Shakespeare’s behind the scenes look into the human mind, soul and heart of a serial murderer and political tyrant and his unwitting, power-hungry ambitious wife. With brilliance Gold and the actors relay the process of how the wicked couple are snared by conscience then incited by megalomania to never repent. They select the path of emotional self-violation and we get to watch them unravel.

(L to R): Phillip James Brannon, Bobbi Mackenzie, Maria Dizzia in Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

After the bloody combat between Macduff (Grantham Coleman) and Daniel Craig’s Macbeth renders Macduff victorious, Macduff defers to Malcolm (Asia Kate Dillon) as the King of Scotland. In conclusion she takes the power her father rightly bestowed upon her in the play’s beginning.

SPOILER ALERT. Gold truncates Malcolm’s dialogue so she doesn’t invite Macduff and the other thanes to Scone for her crowning. Interestingly, the play continues as an epilogue of irony. The actors put off their roles, fling themselves on the floor, take a well deserved break, and pass around bowls of “gruel” to each other that the witches prepared (offstage). The cast eats their portions silently as the audience watches, (it looks unappetizing). As they eat Bobbi Mackenzie (a witch and Macduff’s slaughtered child) soothingly, lyrically sings Gaeynn Lea’s originally composed song for Macbeth, “Perfect.” The last lines are:

“Tragedy’s viewed through its own lens; but just out of frame sits an old friend, watching our choices play out in the end, returning each other to where we began. Wish I had known it wasn’t meant to be, wasn’t meant to be perfect.”

Daniel Craig and the company of Macbeth (Joan Marcus)

This may be interpreted in many ways; an ironic apology for what we’ve witnessed as Macbeth’s failure that turned out badly. Indeed, as an “every person” such horrific behaviors can’t “be” perfect, ever. On the other hand it is humanity’s evolutionary process to continue and since we all are mortal, attempting to live forever, as Banquo and Macbeth attempted, the song/play speaks to human foibles. The message emphasizes imperfection, life’s disjointedness and entropy. Every murderous, cataclysmic, bloody, debacle where a despotic nature’s worst impulses for power, regency, a new Russian empire are allowed to be acted out, it is not meant to be…perfect and will not be. Thus, the despot needs to give it up sooner rather than later and save lives in the process. In another interpretation the actors wind down in their community with each other as they seal their commitment to take up their parts and “die another day.”

Shakespeare affirms the sanctity of life and the balance of evil and good in the thoughts of the noble, courageous yet monstrous Macbeth and his Lady as they bring about their own retribution and justice. Their own being effects their demise: Lady Macbeth commits suicide; Macbeth by giving himself over to the process of evil after his regicide. In reality, we can never know the inner thoughts of a Vladimir Putin or Stalin or Hitler. We can only guess at their fears, paranoias and heart’s desires. In Macbeth we have the luxury of understanding the tragedy of their rise and fall.

This is a unique production thanks to Gold, the cast, the superbly effective lighting design by Jane Cox, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, special effects by Jeremy Chernick and projection design by Jeanette Ol-suck Yew. Also, the original music by Gaelynn Lea is amazing. For atmospheric effects I particularly enjoyed the crashing revelations (i.e. lighting, sound, etc.) when the ambiguity of the witches’ prophecies clarify (i.e. how Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane). Additionally, kudos to Sam Pinkleton’s movement. Coupled with lighting, sound and special effects the chilling atmosphere of opaqueness and obscurity with the fog machines (which signified the theme of cover ups, lies, obfuscation of “truth”) was strengthened. David S. Leong’s direction of the violence was effected believably in service to the theme of blood will have blood.

This Macbeth will not be duplicated in your lifetime with this community of individuals. It is an incredible experience. For tickets and times go to the website: https://macbethbroadway.com/

‘American Buffalo,’ Explodes in its Third Broadway Revival With Phenomenals Fishburne, Rockwell and Criss

Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo © 2022 Richard Termine

David Mamet’s American Buffalo, first presented on Broadway in 1977 with Robert Duvall as Teach followed with three Broadway revivals. The 1983 revival starred Al Pacino as Teach, the 2008 revival starred John Leguizamo. Eluding the Tony award each time, but garnering multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominations, the 1977 production did win a New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best American Play.

Perhaps Neil Pepe’s direction of this third revival of the American classic, currently at Circle in the Square will bring home a few Tonys. It is a sterling production of Mamet’s revelatory, insightful play about the American Dream gone haywire for a couple of wannabe criminals whose concept of friendship and getting over test each other’s mettle.

Sam Rockwell in American Buffalo (Richard Termine)

The cast is more than worthy to line up with Mamet’s dynamic, vital characterizations. The actors are seamlessly authentic in the roles of Donny (Laurence Fishburne), Teach (Sam Rockwell) and Bobby (Darren Criss). I didn’t want the play to end, enjoying their amazing energy and finding their portrayals to be humorous, poignant, frightening, intensely human and a whole lot more. Their depth, their interaction, their careful interpretation of each word and action that appeared flawlessly real is so precisely constructed in their performances, it is incredibly invigorating and a justification for live theater-why it is and why it always will be.

Mamet’s early writing is strong and singularly powerful as evidenced in American Buffalo. The play involves a string of events that happen over the course of a day in Don’s Resale Shop which is a hazard of incredible junk for the ages, fantastically arrayed by Scott Pask’s talents as scenic designer. The play opens at the height of drama (we think), when Donny upbraids Bobby about the right protocol to take regarding “doing a thing” as a preliminary action in a future plan they will endeavor. Then the developmental action sparks upward and never takes a breath in the crisp, well-paced Pepe production.

(L to R): Darren Criss, Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo (Richard Termine)

Immediately, we note Fishburne’s paternal and fatherly approach to Darren Criss’ innocent, boyish, “not too swift” acolyte into how to be sharp in business and not let “friendship” get in the way. Donny’s mantra relates throughout American Buffalo. As we watch his interaction with Bobby, we can’t help but see the organic humor in their characters which are contradictory and perhaps disparate from us in intention, discourse, values, initially, but are our brothers in humanity, whether we admit it or not.

(L to R): Laurence Fishburne, Darren Criss, Sam Rockwell in American Buffalo (Richard Termine)

At the outset it is impossible not to align ourselves empathetically with these acting icons, each of them award winners with a long history of prodigious talent over decades of experience in film, TV and stage. They are a pleasure to watch as they inhabit these characters, that are a few class steps above Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths‘ denizens. LIke Gorky’s underclass, these “higher in stature” nevertheless live in their dreams as they deal with the very real and shabby circumstances of their lives. Thus, junk doyen Donny is the wise businessman who, by the play’s end belies all of the instructions he relates to Bobby at the beginning. And Bobby who intently listens to show Donny how much he is willing to learn to remain in his favor, learns little because he has let Donny down at the outset when he is “yessing” him with wide-eyed reception.

Darren Criss in American Buffalo (Richard Termine)

As a counterweight to the teacher-pupil, father-son relationship and manipulation between Donny and Bobby, the manic, feverish Teach throws around his knowledge, experience, street smarts and volatile “friendship.” He is their foil, their activator, their stimulator, their inveterate “loser” with a talent for braggadocio and despondency, and clipped epithets about the other denizens in their acquaintance. He is an apparent backstabber and one to watch as someone who sees themselves as dangerous, but botches his self-awareness and presumption to greatness at every turn.

Rockwell knows every inch of Teach and performs him with gusto and relish. He is integral to this team of exceptional actors that Pepe directs to high flashpoints of authenticity and spot on immediacy. This is collaboration at its best. From the layout of their characters’ plans in Act I to the consequences of the plan’s execution in Act II, the still point of behavior is the crux of what Mamet’s Buffalo presents with crushing ruthlessness.

(L to R): Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo (Richard Termine)

Examples abound throughout, but are particularly manifest in Act II. It is there that Rockwell’s Teach releases the anger within the character to reveal his self-destruction, self-loathing and disappointments. Rockwell’s Teach lashes out, only to be topped by Fishburne’s essentially kind and fatherly Donny, who erupts like a volcano at Teach in a shocking display of force. The drama in the second act is so alive, so expertly staged by J. David Brimmer as Fight Director, if Teach had moved an inch more slowly than he did, he would have been badly injured by the essentially good-natured but seriously, no-joke Donny. The altercation is a work of art, incredibly precise in its build up of the characters’ emotions, then release.

Likewise, Teach’s explosion against Bobby is devastating in another way. Brutal and exacting, Teach exploits Bobby as his victim. Using him as a backboard to release his fury and self-loathing, he redirects Donny to believe Bobby and another individual have double-crossed Donny and Teach in their plot to steal, undercutting Teach’s and Donny’s deal. Bobby’s attempt is feeble as he tries to verbally defend himself against Teach’s relentless onslaught, borne out by Teach’s years of inner frustration which have encompassed failure after failure. Teach won’t hear Bobby. Enraged at himself and his own assumed victimization, as he spews venom on the double-crossing Bobby and his “accomplice” to incite Donny, his violence crashes in a high, then a low.

(L to R): Sam Rockwell, Darren Criss, Laurence Fishburne in American Buffalo (Richard Termine)

Once again, the frenemies are tragic counterparts in a social class that is hurting. Teach’s rage is otherworldly. Bobby’s sorrowful reception of it without fighting back is heart-breaking. Criss is just smashing. I wanted to run up with alcohol and bandages to help stem the external wounds, knowing Bobby’s soul harm is irreparable. Through both brutalizations by Fishburne’s Donny and Rockwell’s Teach, the audience was silent in tension and anticipation. And then the mood breaks and here comes humor and apologies and I won’t spoil the rest.

The togetherness and human bonds displayed are as rare as the American Buffalo head rare coin Donny believes he had and lost. The coin lures the three who are governed by dreams of wealth, like iron pyrite. The resultant failure of their plans, emotional devastation and self-harm is never dealt with. Only Donny’s soothing of the situation is a partial rectification. Interestingly, whatever the type of friendship Teach, Donny and Bobby have will be strengthened by the thrill of the gambit, the crooked deal, the need to “get over” to salve lives that exist without purpose, overarching destiny or moment, except to move toward death, with “a little help from their friends.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 14: (L-R) Darren Criss, Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell pose at a photo call during rehearsals for the revival of David Mamet’s play “American Buffalo” at The Atlantic Theater Company Rehearsal Studios on March 14, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage for American Buffalo) Photo By Bruce Glikas Instagram: photo by @bruglikas /@broadwaybruce_ @gettyentertainment @buffalobway

This portrait of Americana is particularly heady and current. Though the play is apolitical, it does speak to class, the macho bravado of making plans and screwing up, the lure of illegality as cool, and the consolation provided by the older wiser individual who the younger men are fortunate to befriend, though he is a subtle manipulator and user, as they all are in the game of “getting over.”

In American Buffalo Mamet suggests this game is as American as the American Buffalo, as American as apple pie, as American as the right to bear arms. Indeed, it is in the soil and the soul of our culture and we cannot escape it, though we may not embrace the ethic and ethos of the “art of the steal,” especially when law enforcement comes knocking. Nevertheless, the play suggests a fountain from which to drink and either be poisoned by the perspective, refreshed, nourished, but never bored. For that reason and especially these acting greats, this production should not be missed.

Kudos to Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design, Dede Ayite’s costume design and all the technical creatives whose efforts are integral to Neil Pepe’s vision for this third revival. For tickets and times go to their website: https://americanbuffalonyc.com/

‘A Strange Loop,’ is a Laugh Riot With 11 Tony Nominations

(L to R): James Jackson, Jr., Jason Veasey, John-Michael Lyles, Jaquel Spivey, L. Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, Antwayn Hopper in The Big Loop (Marc J. Franklin)

A Strange Loop, awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama transferred to Broadway this year after an Off Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons. The musical steps into the psyche and being of fat, Black, queer Usher and unapologetically opens the door into his life, dreams and realities as messy and screwed-up and admirable and heroic and amorphous and yearning as they are.

Jaquel Spivey (center) and the company of The Strange Loop (Marc J. Franklin)

With book, music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson, directed by Stephen Brackett and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, The Strange Loop is currently running at the Lyceum. The production is as particular as a feedback loop stuck on itself, rounding turns with robotic precision, speeding up and slowing down to begin where there is no beginning, and end, well, never. In a very weird and wonderful way, as we view the machinations of how a fat, Black queer deals with being a loathsome/cool fat Black queer, whether one is straight, white, 18-40 BMI female, age 20 and up, or 35- 75-year-old straight, white male 23-40 BMI, or slender Asian or Latina straight or gay male or female, 30-70 somethings, or any identifying LGBTQ individual of any age, shape and size, this satire about identity, sex, race, gender and inner self vs. outer self makes one belly laugh.

Maybe it’s the uber embarrassing put downs Usher sustains with hurt aplomb, reviewing “live” encounters in his imagination (i.e. with the wonderful Jason Veasey on the subway), which plays abusively cruel tricks on him and makes our souls beg for some surcease from the screaming self-torment in his raucous mind, which endears Usher to us. Though there is little to identify with physically, (there were very few fat, Black, queer men in the audience), if one strips away his exterior and listens to him, one identifies with Usher’s sufferings and the “rapid recyclying” thoughts that plague all of us in our incessant and irrevocable “glass is empty” humanity.

(L to R): Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr. Jaquel Spivey, L. Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper in The Strange Loop (Marc J. Franklin)

In this production, Usher stands before us naked without ego. Unlike us, he admits to humorous self-flagellation. Humorously, he actualizes it so we see his zany mania in all its immediacy, through the songs, gyrations, expansive gestures and verbal somersaults of his inner thoughts portrayed by six talented actors. These include: Thought 1 (L Morgan Lee), Thought 2 (James Jackson, Jr.), Thought 3 (John-Michael LYles), Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison), Thought 5 (Jason Veasey), Thought 6 (Antwayn Hopper). All are dressed to “kill him” with unkindness in various color coordinated costumes (designed by Montana Levi Blanco), switched up in the many scene changes. All of these crazies are humorous, exuberantly antic, wild, sassy, picky, aggressive, politically correct, negative, negative, negative.

What they are not is encouraging, uplifting, complimentary. Positive thoughts are not funny. Jackson is about funny insult comedy in A Strange Loop, which also, sometimes is not so funny. This is especially so when the self-humiliating protagonist Usher has the courage and raw desire to “let it all hang out,” including weathering insults about the size of his genitalia to garner LMAO laughs, as he trolls for sex partners on his phone apps (acted out by his thoughts, costumed for the occasion). It is also not funny when he attempts to sexually connect in a graphic, “sensual,” anal, sex scene (with Antwayn Hopper), evocatively staged with blue lighting (designed by Jen Schriever). The end result settles unromantically, poignantly, where he is left in an emotional void and alienating disconnect. We don’t laugh. We silently “take it in.”

The company of The Strange Loop (Marc L. Franklin)

The irony we are seduced by is that Usher is a creative who we watch in his creative process, writing a musical about a fat, Black queer-who writes a musical about a fat, Black queer…(continue the loop). Thus, it is an imperative that he embrace his inner wacko with relish, but is his own “straight man” in not cracking a smile as he undergoes his self-delivered smackdowns via his “Thoughts.” That insanity of six shouting manics is the foundation of his art and the subject humor of his misery with which he entertains. Thus, he must not psychoanalyze it away, meditate it away, zen it away or pill pop it away. His extremities of pain take precedence, so his comedic funny man stand-up, song-up can flourish. “Strange” is art, the weirder the better. And as we laugh at this clown, we salve our own inner hell.

In his Broadway debut, the superbly versatile Jaquel Spivey as Usher, whose funny bone is as large as his spirit, draws us in after the few minutes of chaos and boredom he experiences at his job as an usher at The Lion King, chiming the ridiculous miniature glockenspiel-ish bell to alert the audience to their proper protocol. But its Usher’s six soul derivations and tangling loopy thoughts, jangling against each other, ripping into him, bringing up his present condition of being nowhere in his career path as he attempts to write a “Big, Fat, Black, Queer Musical,” that will land him on Broadway. The irony here is absolutely mind-catching because the title of his musical is The Big Loop and here he is on Broadway.

Jaquel Spivey in The Strange Loop (Marc L. Franklin)

Thus, not only is Jaquel Spivey’s Usher ushering us into a novel kind of weirdo that is all about the interior soul, it is also a joke on us, as Jackson wipes out every BS convention leveled by producers about why certain plays “won’t work” on Broadway or Off.

Well, this one does, with its themes and its representative musical score which is repetitive and driving, characteristic of a loop which Spivey’s Usher coherently describes and explains as he exposes his “bizarre” in real time. In all the commotion of his being, Usher, perhaps Jackson’s alter ego, is laughing the longest and hardest at audience members who are farthest away from the “EWWW fat, Black, gay” loser protagonist.

Jaquel Spivey and the company in The Strange Loop (Marc L. Franklin)

Spivey’s adorable portrayal is winning and likable because in presenting Usher’s extremely dire misery wryly and sardonically (with his imperfect, voice singing Jackson’s effervescent word crammed songs), we find ourselves tangled interactively in his loops. If we are as honest as Usher, we’ve been there, done that with our own six thought conveyors (maybe more), driving us nuts. And “dollars to donuts” the 20-something guys laughing like roaring lions behind me felt much of Usher’s pain and were thrilled to be able to laugh at him and themselves.

What Jackson gives us with his genius are the fantastic perspectives with which to view this character as he exposes his insults, slights, sword jabs in loopy repetitive three/four crescendoing note melodies that Usher internalized from the cultural, familial influences around him. In various scenes his thought posse, well dressed in appropriate attire shreds and pickles him as he rides the subway, checks out gay apps on his phone to get a boyfriend, visits his mom and dad who insist he write a religious Tyler Perry play, and confronts their censure about his gayness which they find unacceptable.

The company of The Strange Loop (Marc L. Franklin)

When the set changes into a Tyler Perry facsimile in a switch up from the neon boxes his thoughts move in and out of through most of the play, the moment happens at just the right time. Spivey’s Usher steps into Perryland, taking on various characters in Perry-type costumes and wigs to please his religious mother who he portrays in the Perry send up, as he sings her affirmation that “AIDS is God’s punishment for being gay,” rousing the audience to “clap along.”

Indeed, the loop has gone around once too many times into debasing self-destruction. Thus, eventually, Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison) who plays Usher’s mother in the play within a play, observing Usher’s religious Perry play, breaks the fourth wall and asks him something like, “isn’t this enough? When are you going to let these people go home?” (not the exact quote, but near the meaning)

However, it’s not done; the loop continues. There’s more laughter and amazement to come because Usher is a frenzy of pain and giddiness, with fragmented memories of his father, fearful that Usher might be attracted to him, and his mother telling him she loves him.

Usher can’t process it, but he can reveal it. And somehow that is enough. Perhaps at some point he will “get” that it’s OK, and all of this labyrinth need not be straightened out. Nor should he attempt to emerge from it to achieve “wholeness.” After all, this is his unique contribution and purpose to entertain. If we can laugh about “it” and “him,” then so can he, even though his thoughts may not quite be in the mood to laugh at themselves. But he is his own archetype, an “every person,” so he can bear with that, too.

Kudos to Arnulfo Maldonado’s flexible, seamless multi-faceted scenic design which brings fresh perspective to each, swift scene change, as supple as Usher’s thoughts. Praise must also be given to Drew Levy’s sound design, Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design), Michael R. Jackson (vocal arrangements), Tomoko Akaboshi (music coordinator), Chelsea Pace (intimacy director).

You should see this well-deserved awarded play that has garnered 11 Tony nominations. This is especially so if you need to laugh at yourself. Who doesn’t? For tickets and times go to their website: https://strangeloopmusical.com/

‘for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf’ Amazing!

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (Marc J. Franklin)

When you have contemplated suicide, the rainbow with all its Biblical and mythological significance is not enough. The pain is cyclical, repetitive and cataclysmic until you end it. However, in ntozake shange’s choreopoem, for the empowering community of black women shining through the clouds of history to speak an anointed truth that has been forged like gold over the centuries, the embodiment of the living rainbow of love is enough.

The revival, currently at the Booth Theatre is directed and choreographed by the anointed Tony award nominated Camille A. Brown (Choir Boys). Shange’s iconic tone poem was initially presented on Broadway in 1976 to great acclaim, transferring its success from the Public Theater. Brown’s re-imagining is a heightened elucidation, different from the 2019 production at the Public Theater which featured mirrors, a disco ball and other shimmering dance party effects.

Brown and her design team have removed elements of reflection in the 2019 production and worked toward an affirming strength in the divisions of light divided through a prism to become seven color bands whose hues are picked up in all the dramatic elements of theatrical spectacle engineered by the creative team. The team manifests the vibrant colors of creation and coordinates them with lighting design effects (jiyoun chang) and eye-popping emergent luminescence in a multitude of shapes projected on large panels on both sides of the stage (myung hee cho-scenic design, aaron rhyne-projection design).

To original music and Brown’s seminal choreography the team ingeniously relates Shange’s poetic story themes. Each monologue and bridge by the company reveal a prodigious conceptualization. As they relate theme to color, the actors’ dance and movement resonate the energy of the color they “wear” (sarafina bush-costume design), enhanced by the coordinated lighting and the projections as the music synthesizes all these elements with astonishing power and emotion.

The large panels on either side of the stage close in the central focus on the majesty of the bands of the rainbow embodied in the following marvelous and sterling actresses who sync exquisitely in choreographed unity. These include Amara Granderson-Lady in Orange, Tendayi Kuumba-Lady in Brown, Kenita R. Miller-Lady in Red, Okwui Okpokwasili & Alexis Sims-Lady in Green, Treshelle Edmond & Alexandria Wailes-Lady in Purple, Stacey Sargeant-Lady in Blue, D. Woods-Lady in Yellow.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (Marc J. Franklin)

As each of the Ladies announce their stories and receive encouragement from their fellow hues, an emotional progression and journey emerges from youth to motherhood to sisterhood, healing and self-love. The emotions from each of the stories move from revelation to relational love and devastation, to acceptance and self-affirmation, to empowerment, with the merging of all the colors to self love which of course is light. (The rainbow is refracted sunlight through moisture prisms after a rain.)

Some of the colors and stories resonate with great joy and the exuberance of youth: the story of graduation night, the beginning of adulthood and sex for the first time by Lady in Yellow (D. Woods). Others take on the hue of the experience described: abortion cycle #1 by the Lady in Blue (Stacey Sargeant), who trails with “& nobody came, cuz nobody knew, once i waz pregnant & shamed of myself.” In the bridges to the monologues the rainbow ladies add their encouragement and dance with superb breath control and conditioning.

I particularly enjoyed Tendayi Kuumba as the Lady in Brown who humorously expresses her inspired love for “Toussaint,” whose books she discovers by sneaking into the adult section of the library. As a first foray into the world of a love mentoring, and influence, she lifts up the Haitian freedom fighter and he becomes her lover (she is a precocious 8-years old), and confidante late at night as they conspire “to remove the white girls from my hopscotch games.” The resolution occurs when she meets a “real-live-boy” named Toussaint who is interested in her. When she considers the great distance she must travel to Haiti, she decides he’ll do fine.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (Marc J. Franklin)

In the brilliant “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” the Lady in Green (Alexis Sims when I saw it), identifies how the soul can be stolen. The outrage and anger belies the humor underneath as the audience realizes the Lady in Green’s outcry hits home. How many have subdued their inner voice and being for the sake of pleasing another and then didn’t process the identity theft until too late? When emotion and feeling end up residing in the power and confidence of another because of bestowment is this not a form of theft? As one of the more powerful of Shonge’s poems anger is appropriate because the theft is subtle and secret and must be watched or one loses everything.

Perhaps the most telling and dramatic is The Lady in Red’s monologue “a nite with beau willie brown.” Presented by the pregnant Kenita R. Miller, we understand the raw horror of a man who has gone over the edge with PTSD and who brings down everyone else around him. With three children willie brown is emotional, irrational and sly. He desires control and power over the Lady in Red and has beat and manipulated her. However, she has had enough. Miller’s performance builds and intensifies as she compels us to feel the real plight of trying to save the lives of children from their abusive biological father who doesn’t take responsibility for raising him; they aren’t married. Delivered with incredible empathy, love and force, Miller’s performance is breathtaking. Clearly, deeply she reaches the soul level, indicating what it is like to confront one who has learned to kill and can’t turn it off. Just dynamite.

Camille A. Brown has infused an emotional reality in the presence of these ladies of color that is felt and is experienced. Not only has she discovered the way of story telling through the actors’ rich performances, she has threaded their beauty through movement and dance, steady drum beats and lyrical notes of powerful, velvet femininity.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (Marc J. Franklin)

This is emphasized throughout, but perhaps most in the “laying on of hands” in which all of the hues anoint each other and the Lady in Red expresses in the beginning of the segment that there was something missing. But by the end in the company of the rainbow women, she states, “i found god in myself & i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” Only then after the expurgation of all that is ill in the culture to receive and distinguish all that is loving and graceful, the Lady in Brown concludes, “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are movin’ to the ends of their own rainbows.”

Cookie Jordan’s hair & wig design speaks out to individuality, empowerment and self-confidence. This especially resonates in a world where women’s rights and “colored” women’s rights have been dismissed by white men who intend to rule like demented, genocidal lords over us if we let them.

The original music, orchestration and arrangements by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby flow seamlessly in and out of the gorgeous mosaic of Brown’s dance and movement choreographed to perfection against Shange’s poems, backdropped by sustained flashes of scintillating color projections. Drum arrangements by Jaylen Petinaud provide the beating heart of Shange’s work, pulsating energy and life. The music and drums electrify the actors who in turn electrify the audience in felt, authentic moments. Tia Allen as music coordinator and Deah Love Harriot’s music direction provide further grist to this intense team work that brings such memorable force to Shange’s masterwork.

This must be seen by every woman as it is an incredible, uplifting production that explores the secrets in every woman’s heart, unexpressed, felt, experienced. The production’s currency aligns with the recent Supreme Court draft to turn down Roe, an abomination of desolation, un-Christian, indecent, genocidal. Juxtaposed against wickedness, Camille A. Brown’s production is an affirmation of hope and the glory of womens’ empowerment to throw off the darkness. Indeed, as Shange shows us the way; the rainbow in the full representation of a unity of all colors in self-love is the light.

For tickets and times, go to their website: https://forcoloredgirlsbway.com/

‘The Minutes,’ Too Close For Comfort, a WOW!

(l-r) JEFF STILL as Mr. Assalone, TRACY LETTS as Mayor Superba and CLIFF CHAMBERLAIN as Mr. Breeding. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

The beauty of Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, directed by Anna D. Shapiro is that there is no hearty mention of political parties in Steppenwolf’s “very American” production whose patriotic music blares as the audience takes their seats at Studio 54. The music (Andre Pluess), and the City Council’s meeting room set design (David Zinn), remind us that it is in the small towns and cities of our democratic government that the American Dream comes to fruition, as it moves toward the hope that in our country, all men and women are created equal and are guaranteed their inalienable rights stated in the Declaration of Independence as under-girded by the constitution.

During The Minutes, the veil is lifted so we may watch democracy in action, vaguely referenced by Big Cherry’s Mayor Superba (Tracey Letts). What occurs on this momentous rainy night, when the city council gathers in a quorum to conduct its business, is a bludgeoning reminder of our blind hypocrisy regarding our pretensions to democratic self- government. When uncontrollable atavistic compulsions in our natures arise and dominate the best of us, is it even possible to govern with equanimity, Lett’s and the creative team ask?

This question appears to be at the heart of Letts’ rich and profound exploration of an Everyman/Everywoman city council, one of whose members we discover toward the last twenty minutes of the play is a whistleblower. What happens to him reveals the power of what America can and should mean vs. what America is revealed to be, in its local governments which often usurp our nation’s lofty principles and subvert them into governance by raw, destructive emotions born out of traditions of fear and hatred.

The point is made that the elected officials that govern Big Cherry, the central focus of this fascinating production, are neither Republican or Democratic. Nor at first do we anticipate that this council is anything but a representative democratic institution that functions as a proper governmental council should, with an emphasis on doing what is “the best” for the constituents who elected these men and women. In addition to Mayor Superba the board members include a bi-racial, gender appropriate, non-ageist group who look to be inclusive and bring inclusive issues to the fore as presented during the meeting.

The officials include Ms. Innes (Blair Brown), Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman), Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy), Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller), Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy), Mr. (Austin Pendleton), Mr. Peel (Noah Reid) and Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still). Note Letts’ clues of character with the particular, irony weighted selection of names. The names push the envelope of belief to convey the play’s sardonic tone at the beginning.

Vitally, the tone and humor increasingly morph toward revelation of the mystery of the previous week’s minutes that end in the shocking banality of evil at the play’s conclusion. As the production devolves into atavistic horror, we understand the city council’s cultural appropriation of the Sioux’s tribal dance. Incredibly open to interpretation, it symbolizes how they approach their concept of city council government. They attempt to empower themselves as warriors of their mission which they take to a radical extreme, defying the national, constitutional mandate while wickedly, hypocritically posing to uplift it.

(l-r) JESSIE MUELLER as Ms. Johnson, NOAH REID as Mr. Peel, JEFF STILL as Mr. Assalone, TRACY LETTS as Mayor Superba and CLIFF CHAMBERLAIN as Mr. Breeding. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

The play drives to the heart of the dangerous atavism in this nation on both political divides without stating “Democrats” or “Republicans;” the party is not the point. Human nature is the point. Whether its book bannings, “don’t say gay,” Southern botch job of COVID as politicians and QAnon representatives scream “my body my choice,” then turn around and reverse “my body my choice” women’s rights with abortion bans, or the smear job screamed out by rabid #metoo pretense, pushing the ouster of former Governor Cuomo, equanimity and rationalism aren’t to be found.

Letts’ drives this home…revealing how the mundane often cloaks the dark, emotional abyss underneath. If only Satan sported horns, chains of diabolism and wore a name tag hailing his identity. Too often the sweetest people are the most malevolent, especially if they are working for your best interests in government. Ah, “something wicked this way comes and it’s the human heart.” BEWARE!

Without going into the specific plot points because there is no spoiler alert, at the top of the play, Letts introduces us to the EVERYMEN AND EVERYWOMEN city council members who are “average” individuals of a cross range of the “middle class.” At the outset, as they arrive, they move into their friendship groups, to elicit support from each other for their proposals that they intend to present at this evening’s meeting.

Throughout the play Mr. Peel questions what happened at the previous week’s meeting which he missed because his mother passed away. Mayor Superba and Mr. Hanratty casually dismiss Mr. Peel’s questions at the outset. However, Mr. Blake suggests that he will be rebuffed roundly and warns him that Mr. Assalone will lead the others against him so he won’t get anywhere with finding out what occurred.

Lett’s cleverly sets up the conflict focusing on what happened, why no one wants to discuss the previous meeting and what happened to Mr. Carp (Ian Barford in a profound dramatic performance) who is absent and apparently is no longer on the council. With a weird dismissal of Mr. Peel’s questions which under the law must be answered, we and Mr. Peel are set to wondering whether this is a cover-up and who and why the previous meeting cannot be easily discussed. We also wonder, along with Mr. Peel, what happened to Mr. Carp and why the duly elected official is no longer on the council. Was it Mr. Carp’s choice, Mayor Superba’s choice or the council’s choice that he left?

(l-r) JESSIE MUELLER as Ms. Johnson and NOAH REID as Mr. Peel. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

This relatively new council member Mr. Peel, who we discover a bit later had become friendly with Mr. Carp and supported his cause is no wiser about the circumstances as the meeting comes to order with the typical prayer and pledge of allegiance as all governmental meetings follow with sleepy, traditional protocol. Thus, we forget Mr. Peel’s questions and concern and with the demonstrated banality of what we’re familiar with, settle into regularity until Mr. Oldfield presents his case for an important consideration, an empty parking space.

Oldfield portrayed by the esteemed and wonderfully LOL, on-point Austin Pendleton conveys much of the humor in Lett’s The Minutes. In whatever he does Pendleton is a standout of authenticity and moment. Once Mr. Oldfield and his subtle request about the parking space is dismissed, the business at hand is presented.

Mr. Hanratty and Mr. Blake have their pet projects which eventually are objected to and voted down. Interestingly, the figure on the fountain that Hanratty wants to renovate gives rise to how the figure represents the foundation of the city. The members who are in the know provide the dramatic re-enactment of the mythic Battle of Mackie Creek that the figure’s heroism is dedicated to in the fountain. Only Mr. Peel is not familiar with the history of Big Cherry because it is his wife’s birthplace, not his. Thus, he does not take part and watches as Big Cherry’s history rises up from its past in a re-enactment.

All take part, even Mr. Oldfield, who provides the horse hoofs’ sounds. Their “theatrics” are humorous and the actors, as their council counterparts really ham it up appropriately to audience applause. Thus, we are reminded of such mythic re-enactments that traditionally dot the nation as harmless fun. However, the Civil War re-enactments are perhaps more than that for those who take part yearly (before COVID). Letts and the creative team call into question their significance and symbolism. To what end do those go to the trouble to show up and fight with accurate replicas of guns, cannons, outfits, and some even living on the fields for a week or more to “remember.” Curious.

(l-r) TRACY LETTS as Mayor Superba and NOAH REID as Mr. Peel. Photo: Jeremy Daniel IG @JeremyDanielPhoto

Letts opens one’s eyes to conceptual meaning made physical. With regard to the Civil War, the devastation and destruction…one questions why re-enact it yearly? How can bloodshed (the greatest number of casualties in a war before COVID) and violence be fun? (Interestingly, COVID will have killed twice as many in the same time period. Thus far, there are a recorded number of US deaths at over one million twenty thousand on Worldometer in a two-year period.) However, the re-enactment is relished by the council members because it manifests glory in their history. It binds them in community and makes their lives as council members meaningful. Of course, the further symbolism and importance of this act blossoms by the conclusion.

Mr. Peel, with knowledge of what the previous meeting was about but with an inability to attend it and give support to Mr. Carp who was making a presentation, wants to discover the resolution of Mr. Carp’s petition. It is revealed in the minutes of the meeting which Mayor Superba has refused to release. However, a way is made. Eventually, in a flashback, we get to see why Mr. Peel wants to know what happened. And we also discover why Mr. Carp is no longer on the city council. The question remains with this revelation and the solving of the mystery of the minutes Mr. Peel has sought, will he stay on the council which his deceased mother never wanted him to be on in the first place?

Criticism has been made of Letts’ leaps in plot, sometimes illogical notions, etc. I would put it to those critics. This is not a play about linear logic, refined judgments and profound political moment. It is about us. and what we have to fear in ourselves. In that the play should make you weep. It won’t. It is not only about this nation, it is about human nature. In that it is timeless. Like most theater that attempts to get some of who we are down, it is irreparably flawed. Thus, it should be left as is.

Kudos to all the actors for their strong performances in this ensemble piece as well as the director who aptly shepherded them so you could hear a pin drop from the audience the last “minutes” of the play. Kudos to Ana Kuzmanic (costume design) Brian MacDevitt (lighting design), Ty Defoe (choreographer), Tom Watson (hair & wig design) and see above for the other designers mentioned.

You need to see this a couple of times to let it sift your soul, or not if you hate that kind of thing. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.studio54theatre.com/events/the-minutes-25/#.YnLPLNPMJPY

‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’ a Zany Exploration of the Fate of Humanity at Lincoln Center

Gabby Beans in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Thorton Wilder’s Pulitizer Prize winning The Skin of Our Teeth currently in revival at Lincoln Center’s Viviane Beaumont, presents the fate of the human race in three segments when the human family represented by the Antrobuses (Greek for man or human), faces extinction. The first debacle is the ice age; the second is the great deluge; the third is a seven years war. The play leaves off in uncertainty for surely humanity will continue to face threats of extermination and will continue to shake these off, repair itself and scientifically progress to greater heights and lower depths in its struggle to survive as a species. Though Wilder leaves this conclusion uncertain through the character of Sabina (the vibrant and versatile Gabby Beans), the very fact that the characters make it as far as they do is a witness to human resilience and tenacity.

(L to R): Julian Robertson, Roslyn Ruff, Paige Gilbert in The Skin of Our Teeth, ( Julieta Cervantes)

The production, one of spectacle and moment, whimsy and humor is acutely directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz for maximum effect. It succeeds in various instances, to be poignant and profound as the Antrobus family (James Vincent Meredith-Dad, Roslyn Ruff-Mom, Julian Robertson-Henry, Paige Gilbert-Gladys) and their maid Sabina (Gabby Beans), the narrator who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, claw their way through history to survive. These “every men” and “every women” archetypes experience representative cataclysms, all the while confronting the questions about the human race and their place in history until the end of time.

Though Wilder references Bible figures like Cain, suggests Adam, Eve and Lilith (Lily Sabina), and the disasters that have foundations in tribal religious mythology (the great flood myth is recorded in most indigenous cultures), other cataclysms are scientifically and historically referenced (the ice age, dinosaur extinction, seven year’s war between England and France). Wilder is intentionally out of chronological order, suggestive, melding various historical/cultural documents of literature and religion with scientific discovery. Throughout, the vital thread is humanity’s survival.

(L to R): Roslyn Ruff, Julian Robertson, James Vincent Meredith, Paige Gilbert in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

The questions the characters raise which float throughout each act are philosophical and moral. For example is the human race worth saving from the struggles, trials and horrors which will continue to threaten both people and their environment? Should humanity just throw in the towel, lay down and refuse to repair itself or evolve technologically, artistically, scientifically? Given the rapacity and murderous ruthlessness of son Henry (aka the Biblical Cain, the spirit of murder in humanity), will the human race just exterminate itself with weapons of its own making? Or as humanity’s mother, Ruff’s Mrs. Antrobus suggests, will the family unit sustain the human species, enabling it to succeed in each progressive and evolving era?

Given the latest foray into extinction by Vladimir Putin as he attempts to obliterate Ukraine into the dust bin of history, bully democratic countries to heel to his genocide, and bribe apologist lackeys in the extreme global radical right, including the QAnon members of the Republican Party, Wilder’s overriding questions are current. This is especially so in the last segment when Ruff’s Mrs. Antrobus and daughter Paige Gilbert’s Gladys emerge from the basement where they’ve been sheltering for a seven years war to reunite with Sabina (Gabby Beans). All welcome the new peace. However, they consider how they will rebuild as they view the burned wreckage of their bombed out home.

The Company of The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

As the curtain of the last act rises on the devastation, one can’t help think of Ukrainian towns (the Russian soldiers have since left), and Mariupol, where Ukrainian families and soldiers shelter in basements and in a steel factory, as they suffer Putin’s inhumane starvation, while bombs blast above, uselessly pulverizing dust. The irony is so beyond the pale; Putin bombs dust in helpless fury while every minute the heroism, bravery and resilience of Ukraine’s “Antrobus” spirit thrusts into the heavens, memorializing that Ukraine will never capitulate to the likes of Putin. It is a humiliation for Russia. They for allowed such a serial killer to usurp power, genocide women and children and bomb dust because the Ukrainians embody the slogan, “live free or die,”refusing to bow to one man rule and an abdication of their human rights.

Electing to die honorable Roman deaths, rather than submit to Putin’s vengeful, psychotic temper tantrums, they shame those officials who pretend to uphold democracy but, like Putin, vitiate human rights with lies. Uncannily, what’s happening in Mariupol dovetails with Wilder’s prescient theme, that the human race will never capitulate to fires, floods, and its own murderous instincts.

Though Sabina grouses that she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired as she begins the first lines at the top of the play again, the wheel of irrevocable change and life goes around once more with new things for humanity to learn in a new way that is never a repetition of the past. However, Sabina doesn’t see that human history is a spiral and not a circle. She is blind to the human experiment, which Wilder suggests we must understand beyond her limited vision.

Priscilla Lopez in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Indeed, no human being desires going into survival mode. But cataclysm squeezes out benefit from humanity’s collective soul during great trials. Wilder suggests it is worth the price. Through these actors’ sterling portrayals, we understand that human tenacity and hope propel the human race to make it to the next day. And as the species collectively moves through the days, weeks and years, it evolves a finer wisdom, strength and efficacy. Wilder suggests, this is confirmed again and again and again with each debacle, each disaster, each cataclysm, each deranged maniac that would make war on his brothers and himself.

Some scenes in this enlightened production are particularly adorable. The representative sentient beings of the ice age, the dinosaur and mammoth are the most lovable pets thanks to the brilliant puppeteers (Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West).

The Company of The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Unfortunately, Antrobus (the solid James Vincent Meredith), tells the dinosaur and mammoth to leave the warmth of their Jersey home so he has room to take in refugees like prophet Moses, the ancient Greek poet Homer and the three Muses: Melete, “Practice,” Mneme, “Memory” and Aoide, “Song,” who would otherwise freeze to death. The dinosaur’s and mammoth’s expulsion is heartbreaking; the ice age destroys their kind. However, Wilder ties their extinction to necessity. Humanity gave up some unique, particular species and from that arose incalculable value. In this instance the preservation includes the foundation of human laws of civilization, timeless poetry and the spirits who inspire art to soothe the collective human soul and generate its hope and creativity.

The sounds of the ice shelf moving, the projection of the towers of ice and the smashing of the home are particularly compelling thanks to the technical team, as the Antrobus family and their maid and sometime object of Mr. Antrobus’ affections escape, “by the skin of their teeth.”

(L to R): Roslyn Ruff, Julian Robertson, Paige Gilbert, James Vincent Meredith in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Wilder’s zany, human account has the same setting of bucolic New Jersey throughout. In Act II it’s still New Jersey, but it’s the wild equivalent of sin city in Atlantic City and the boardwalk that has a carnival atmosphere with a lovely gypsy fortune teller (Priscilla Lopez) who warns Antrobus that she can tell him his future, but his past is lost and incomprehensible. It is an interesting notion because one then thinks of the adjuration, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” However, this doesn’t quite follow for the Antrobus family who are forward moving in progress.

Lopez’s Fortune Teller predicts the great deluge. Terrifying warning sounds rendered by a huge mechanism register the wind velocity and impending storm ferocity. The sounding of the alarm of the impending deluge is scarily effected. Warnings are ignored by the tourists and those who enjoy the fun, dancing, drugging and alluring lights of the Atlantic City boardwalk. As doom approaches, they party. Of course the Antrobus family flees to a boat after pursuing their natures (slippery Robertson’s Henry has killed someone else). Gabby Beans’ Sabina follows them, a veritable member of the family in her seductions of Antrobus, manifested in Act II, hinted at in Act I.

James Vincent Meredith, Roslyn Ruff in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

A powerful scene in Act III occurs after the war is over and the Antrobuses convene at what’s left of their Jersey home. Henry confronts his father, for he is the enemy and Antrobus senior threatens to kill him. Of all the characters, the murderous Henry is the most useless. The daughter is the golden child as was the child they no longer speak of, the beautiful, gifted Abel who Henry resentfully killed. But in Act III, after Henry expresses his feelings of isolation, loneliness and desolation being insulted and demeaned by his father, there is a breakthrough and resolution which is heartening. The scene, beautifully rendered by Julian Robertson, who is in his element as the enraged and hurt son and James Vincent Meredith as the commanding then empathetic father, suggests that hope and love are possible through communication.

Director Lileana-Blain Cruz shepherds her fine, spot-on cast with aplomb to performances that never appear off focus or muted for Wilder’s unique characterizations.

The fun of this production also is in the set design, aptly configured by Adam Rigg, effervescent and vibrant in the first two acts, symbolic and moving in Act III. The colorful costumes by Montana Levi reveal the time periods. Act I presents suburban housewife and family and children with happy-go-lucky flowery dresses, with the appropriate fur coat and stylized costumes for Homer, Moses and the others. Act II presents the 1920s flapper style and for the men the orange pin stripes typically emotive for officials of the Convention for Mammals. The lovely Fortune Teller outfit is glamorous, as she is like a Hollywood celebrity and Sabina is the seductress in shimmering red. In Act III the outfits are back to the housewife/mother and maid look similar to the costumes in Act I. Levi’s stylized flair takes in the themes of the act and threads the overall survival mode of the play with precision and care.

With Blanco, Yi Zhao’s accompanying lighting, Palmer Hefferan’s terrific sound design and the integrated, vital projections by Hannah Wasileski, the artistic technical team provides the canvas which sets off the events and the performances, making them more striking. Even more fun are the expert puppeteers who made me fall in love with the animals and shed a tear at their demise. I am calling out these individuals again, BRAVO to Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West.

I’ve said enough. Go see it. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/skin-our-teeth/

‘Potus,’ A High Octaine Farce With Riotous Performances by Rachel Dratch, Vanessa Williams, Lilli Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Suzy Nakamura, Julie White, Julianne Hough

(L to R): Julie White, Suzy Nakamura in POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

POTUS: or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is a laugh riot, pants wetter that begins from the moment the lights dim in the audience. Writer Selina Fillinger turns every political meme on its silly and dangerous head as award winning director Susan Stroman shepherds her superb cast for maximum rollicking humor that doesn’t quit. Of course, there is a point to this brilliantly “mad” production, currently running at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre. The theme? WWWD?

(L to R): Vanessa Williams and Julie White POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

In other words, “What Would Women Do,” if they ran the country? Well, it turns out in the play, they do! However, because they are not the president, they don’t receive credit for making the big man look good, while taking the flak from what he has managed to botch or not do at all. White men of both political parties pay billions of dollars to make sure that women aren’t presidents. BILLIONS. It makes one think, does it not? What are white men on that they are willing to spend BILLIONS to prevent women taking the highest office in the land? Has there been a time in US History when both political parties had women candidates running against each other for the presidency? POTUS suggests it’s about time.

Lilli Cooper, POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

The theme gradually expands and is framed as a question by various female characters in this profoundly funny black comedy. As the events whip by in Fillinger’s ebullient and raucous two act play, they reveal that without his women as his right and left arms, this particularly lame president, who could double for a former president whose last name begins with “T,” would be up sh*t’s creek without a paddle, plunging over a sewage waterfall to his sludgy demise. Do they enable him? It’s one way to look at it. Another is they will never have any chance at all to be in the man’s world without doing what they do. Without a penis, their vaginas bar them for as long as men decide. That is the fleshy point!

(L to R): Rachel Dratch and Julie White POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

The farce which sends up various former presidents we’ve had (to be fair Republican presidents, because Republicans are never fair), moves at the speed of light for pacing, quips, one-liners and thrust and parries that make absolute sense. So does the gyrating plot which moves from mountain top to mountain top until you are so elevated, you can’t breathe for the belly laughs.

(L to R): Lilli Cooper, Rachel Dratch, Vanessa Williams in POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

With a cast of seven (all award winners), and an intricate set (Beowulf Boritt), of well appointed rooms spinning on a turn table that reflects areas in the White House, we happily spend time with the females, including a pilot fish reporter. Most of them are highly efficient, talented geniuses who make POTUS pop and generally keep him and the country together. This is a feat considering that “the servant of the people” is a ninny incompetent who is a firestarter, and the women must be at the ready to contain his blazes like advanced technically able forest rangers.

(L to R): Suzy Nakamura, Julianne Hough, and Lea DeLaria in POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

The frolic represents a day in the life of the women of POTUS and a few hangers on like his wife, sister and a “has-been” reporter “in” with the press secretary. These marvelous women include his chief of staff Harriet (Julie White), press secretary Jean, (Suzy Nakamura), secretary Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), his dalliance Dusty (Julianne Hough), his sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), slick journalist Chris (Lilli Cooper) and his wife Margaret (Vanessa Williams). All of them are beyond capable and the actresses are a prodigious, laugh a second team.

With frenzy these “wonder women” “keep the balls in the air” for the presidential apotheosis and get him through his day of discussions, briefings, handshakes with physically challenged vets, and a meeting with foreign dignitaries about nuclear non-proliferation treaties. After these events, POTUS is just in time for the FLM (Female Models of Leadership), dinner as icing on his evening cake. Through all these, we witness the machinations these fabulous women spin behind the scenes, but never see the president in action.

In fact, not one male is present on the Schubert stage. How quaint! Considering the few females proportionate to males in the theater world (even female critics), this is quite a lovely step in the right direction.

Vanessa Williams in POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

After an explosive fight in which his wife tells him “to stop acting like his father, grow a pair and get his anal cyst removed without anesthesia,” which we hear about, POTUS publicly states the First Lady is absent from a gathering because she is having a “cunty morning.” “Cunt” is the first word that is spoken by Julie White’s Harriet at the top of the play, as she relates to press secretary Jean POTUS’ public cruelty. It is at the heart of the play’s themes and a remark that sets the media world on fire. Indeed, in POTUS’ world, women don’t count except as utilitarian sex objects; if they are salient, they are “cunts.”

Though we laugh as the correction machine starts to turn and hell breaks loose in the kingdom, the point hits home. Subsequently, one “cunty” event happens after another on this average day at the White House with an invisible POTUS and the women front and center who must suck it up and smile, making the badies go away.

The cast of POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

We get to meet Ratchel Dratch’s insecure press secretary Stephanie who is learning physical power confidence and taking her own space, employing full body postures to block Margaret, the First Lady, from going in to give her husband “what for.” Margaret’s edgy, dark insults fly at Stephanie intentionally “behind her back,” while Stephanie is in the room suffering Margaret’s fury and accomplishing her job impeccably. Of course, Margaret believes her role as wife takes precedence over her role as First Lady. However, Harriet and Stephanie prove that is true only up to a point. They prevent the first couple seeing each other (not that they ever do), and block her like linebackers with words and actions.

Potus’ packed schedule doesn’t warrant a discussion with the always fuming Margaret, and he obviously has told Harriet to keep her at bay. However, the First Lady has gravitas and can help smooth the situation which is crassly getting out of hand, inflamed by the media. Allowed to fester like a pustule, his public insult in front of diplomats causes a growing international kerfuffle. Interestingly, “I’m sorry” is not in his vocabulary.

The cast of POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

The snoopy reporter Chris (Lilli Cooper), who makes herself comfortable in press secretary Jean’s office, milks the situation for all its worth. It’s a meme; she has twins; a milking machine attached to her breasts gathers breast milk in plastic bags, while she collects the latest juicy gossip about how Margaret handles the president’s “cunty” remark. Interestingly, the comment explodes the offensive meter with countries like Bahrain, who think that the scurrilous reference inferring the First Lady’s female genetalia is nasty and disturbing.

Nevertheless, in the world of power plays and reelections, offense at this remark is a legitimate way to leverage its relationship with POTUS’ administration. Of course Bahrain’s allies and allies of allies all pile on. None of this we see; we only view the frenetic and LOL behavior of the President’s female clean up squad, who must ironically blow by the gender insult to them, as if it is “nothing.”

Suzy Nakamura, POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

The situation only worsens when Stephanie stumbles upon the very attractive Dusty (Julianne Hough), armed with a security badge, as she floats around the White House looking for the president to discuss their shared secret which makes her vomit. Dratch’s Stephanie freaks. She believes Dusty is her replacement. Throughout Dratch as Stephanie ups the laughs with her spot-on, completely organic reactions to Dusty and the increasingly wild situations. With acumen, press secretary Jean discovers Dusty is a POTUS dalliance that Harriet has scheduled to speak to the president under Harriet’s advisement. Dusty, a wealthy farmer’s daughter, wants a deal with POTUS about seed planting, leveraging something she carries, and making public statements.

The breaking point thrills when POTUS’ sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria delivers some of the best lines), arrives at the White House to have her brother pardon her convictions for drug crimes. Of course, this will be over Margaret’s dead body, Harriet’s attempts to compromise, and Jean’s attempt to suppress her passion for their former love. The chaos converges and Stroman with the rocket launch of Fillinger’s present, zany, crazy-hysterical script sends us to the heavens and then the depths, when, at the end of Act I, it looks like POTUS is quite dead and requires a body double. Is the former president anywhere to be found?

(L to R): Julianne Hough, Lea Delaria and Suzy Nakamura in POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

There is no spoiler alert. So much of the wonder of Stroman, the fabulous comedians, the salient crackling script is in each “scene” which must be seen and not read about here. I can’t recommend POTUS enough. This is especially so if you need to laugh feverishly, hysterically, manically, in the face of the ongoing viral plague, freak weather events, Trump Capitol insurrection permissiveness by a Republican (?) DOJ, 2 trillion in Republican tax breaks for billionaires and Putin’s war genociding women and children in Ukraine which Republican apologists like Rand Paul appear to support (???).

Julie White in POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, written by Selina Fillinger (Photo by ©Paul Kolnik)

Humor and laughter in the midst of darkness helps us get to the next day. The heroic President of Ukraine Volodomyr Zelenskyy reminds the “free world” what courage it takes to be independent of one-man rulers like despot/genocidist Putin who channels Stalin’s extermination of Ukrainians in the Holodomor of 1932-33. That Zelenskyy is a brilliant artist, comedian, producer (Studio Kvartal-95), who rose to become a figurative and literal “Servant of the People,” reveals the importance of laughter and comedy as a foundation to confront trauma and tragedy.

Thus, for non-billionaires and the little people with little, Stroman, these wonderful actors and genius writing by Fillinger are worth their weight in gold. Final kudos go to Sonoyo Nishikawa (lighting design), Jessica Paz (sound design), Linda Cho (costume design), all of which help to make this wondrously absurdist delight the still point in time that you must see, especially if you are a straight white guy who is “macho” enough to handle it. All others in the family of human beings will appreciate it.

POTUS is the “MAX,” especially now in this political season where everything is at the hazard. For tickets and times go to their website: https://potusbway.com/

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