Category Archives: NYC Theater Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He relates some of these to our assumptions about free speech and voicing what we think to political leaders, celebrities and those with power. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates made this ultimately possible and we have run away with the opportunity “mouthing off” online anonymously with impunity. Imagine a peasant (which we are in the classist sense) “mouthing off” to a King! We live in a time of incredible privilege with our rights, though we are delinquent on responsibilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Des Moines,’ the Opaque and Mysterious Artfully Shine at TFANA

 Arliss Howard, Johanna Day in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)
Arliss Howard, Johanna Day in Des Moines (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)

In Des Moines by award winning writer Denis Johnson nothing vital seems to happen during the time Dan, his wife Marta, their grandson Jimmy, Father Michael and Mrs. Drinkwater get smashing drunk and have a wild party in Dan and Marta’s modest second floor apartment in Des Moines, Iowa. Yet, in the 12 hours they spend together, much does happen. Connections are made, personal revelations are expressed and in each individual’s life, as a result of the dynamic interactions that take place, all experience a shift. For some it’s in perspective. For others the change is behavioral. However, in this deceptively “small” but mighty play, Johnson reveals the importance of listening to others’ faint soul cries and helping them relax into a zaniness that soothes.

(L to R): Michael Shannon, Johanna Day, Arliss Howard in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)
(L to R): Michael Shannon, Johanna Day, Arliss Howard in Des Moines (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)

At the play’s outset for a moment all is blackness. We hear a deafening roar, a loud cacophony of noise, a piercing, grating, rolling thunderous sound like a ripping away of the earth’s atmosphere as if a bomb had been dropped. We ask what is happening and what does that sound mean?

The lights come up on cab driver, husband Dan who has come home from work. He hits upon what the sound might be as he discusses with wife Marta that Mrs. Drinkwater, the wife of a man who died in a recent plane crash, has sought him out to ask him questions. Dan was one of the last people to speak to Mr. Drinkwater, when he took him to the airport, before he got in the plane that crashed in an embankment, killing everyone onboard. Thus, we put together the roaring sound at the top of the play with the plane engines roaring before the crash.

 Arliss Howard, Johanna Day in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)
Arliss Howard, Johanna Day in Des Moines (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)

By the end of the play we are no closer to understanding the symbolism, though it is repeated during a blackout between scenes after a raucous party. Perhaps it symbolizes the “veil being rent,” what must happen in human consciousness to allow enlightenment and an awakening to flood the psyche with new understanding. Though Johnson makes references to being awakened and made aware, these concepts are fleeting, and unexplained.

This is one of the joys of Des Moines in which Johnson seems to suggest that human existence in its greatest depth is about understanding, empathy and the bridge of consciousness between and among people in the realms of their own experience. All of these elements at one point or another Johnson touches upon in each of his characterizations, portrayed by prodigious actors, who are incisively directed by Arin Arbus.

(L to R): Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)
(L to R): Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in Des Moines (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)

During Dan’s discussion with Marta, we understand that he is startled that Mrs. Drinkwater would seek him out to ask him questions about her dead husband. It is as if she looks for anything to bring her comfort through the trauma she’s experiencing from her partner’s strange death in a shocking, rare accident. During Dan’s discussion, the playwright raises questions about the fragility of life and the permanence of death. The conundrum of dying in life daily, momentarily looms, then vaporizes as Dan jumps to raw reality. He tells Marta how medical examiners attempt to identify the smashed bodies picked up at the crash site. From what he’s learned from Mrs. Drinkwater, the next of kin are asked to think about looking for one identifying feature of their loved one and not look at or imagine the entire body. Immediately, one’s loved one is reduced to one feature to better help the coroners during the cold and alienating identification process. This is another startling crash of death’s finality which shakes Dan.

(L to R): Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)
(L to R): Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in Des Moines (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)

Arliss Howard who portrays Dan with an organic realism and authenticity relays Dan’s concern about Mrs. Drinkwater. She is Black and Mr. Drinkwater was a prominent Black lawyer. Seeking information, Mrs. Drinkwater has shown up at the car garage daily to joggle Dan’s memory until he finally pictures her husband and remembers snatches of conversation they had in the cab before Dan dropped him off at the airport. Thus, an ancillary, “meaningless” conversation carries with it great moment for Mrs. Drinkwater and for Dan in light of the catastrophe of Mr. Drinkwater’s irrational and sudden death. Indeed, we are reminded if it happened to him, death will happen to us. Momento mori. Mortality is a hard fact Dan nor Mrs. Drinkwater can’t seem to negotiate, nor can Marta as we discover in her interaction with Father Michael when the priest visits.

Johanna Day as Marta is perfect as Dan’s patient, dutiful partner, who listens to Dan’s concern and gets the importance of this last conversation with the husband. Also, it isn’t unusual to her that Mrs. Drinkwater wants to know everything Dan can remember. We learn later that Dan and Marta, too, have suffered a sudden loss of a loved one. Thus, Mrs. Drinkwater’s endless questioning makes weird sense and reveals the pain and hurt she obviously experiences. It is a shared hurt for Dan and Marta, which we note later in Marta’s fleeting few words which vaporize into thin air, not belabored because the pain of loss has settled into the characters’ ethos, becoming a part of their consciousness.

 Hari Nef in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)
Hari Nef in Des Moines (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)

From their interchange in the kitchen, we note that Dan’s and Marta’s is a close relationship. This closeness bears up throughout the play. They appear to be a typical, married, older couple who have lived together for years. However, on closer inspection, there is nothing typical about them. There is a profound comfort to their relationship that reveals a tight bond that connects them beyond understanding. This closeness especially manifests in their drinking, carousing, acceptance and love of their transgender grandson, who lives with them and who is wheelchair bound. They are also bonded together having experienced pain, loss and tragedy.

The character dynamics take off when Father Michael (the superb Michael Shannon) visits. Denis Johnson has set up Father’s Michael character by having Dan discuss with Marta that he saw Father Michael wearing make-up in front of a gay bar. Ironically, Dan mentions that he won’t feel so inferior or insecure at Confession knowing that Father Michael is less than perfect and most probably is gay. His response is all about forgiveness and an absence of judgment. And it is clear that this has now become a two way street of forgiveness and acceptance.

(L to R): Hari Nef, Heather Alicia Simms, Johanna Day, Arliss Howard in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)
(L to R): Hari Nef, Heather Alicia Simms, Johanna Day, Arliss Howard in Des Moines (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)

Marta has asked Father Michael to come over to receive comfort and perhaps prayer as she tells Dan that the doctors only gave her two to four months to live because the cancer has spread throughout her body. The only comfort Father Michael gives is his honesty in saying that death is a mystery and one can’t say much about it. However, the most accurate and hopeful comment he tells her is that the doctors don’t know everything. In other words their prognosis may be wrong. Father Michael ends any further discussion of Marta’s cancer and shifts to another topic abruptly which is humorous. Then the action gyrates so that Dan and Marta decide to pick up some beers as if the dire conversation never happened nor should happen. Dan and Marta promise to come back, leaving Father Michael with Jimmy (Hari Nef) in a blonde wig, rhinestone boots, make-up and wheelchair.

Jimmy who has been crippled by a doctor during the sex change operation appears to take this in stride. However, we discover what is motivating Jimmy’s apparent calm later in the play, the hope of walking again. The scene between Nef’s Jimmy and Shannon’s Father Michael is wonderfully acted, free and spot-on quirky. Jimmy tells Father Michael that he heard his parents discussing that Father Michael wears make-up. Father Michael is honest. Jimmy suggests that Father Michael allow him to be his make-up artist. Though Father Michael prefers putting on his own make up, with good will, he lets Jimmy add lipstick, rouge and eye-shadow to his face. The two bond during this amazing scene because the actors are “in the moment” superb.

 (L to R): Arliss Howard, Johanna Day, Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)
(L to R): Arliss Howard, Johanna Day, Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in Des Moines (courtesy of Gerry Goodstein)

As Jimmy, Hari Nef is adorably believable without pushing any of “behaviors” to get a laugh. Shannon’s prodigious versatility as an actor has him portray cruel thugs (Bullet Train) and Elvis (Elvis and Nixon) to name a few of his screen roles. As Father Michael he is organic, hysterical and profound. He negotiates the whimsical and empathetic priest with an uncanny and otherworldly aspect. Shannon’s delivery of Father Michael’s most philosophical and trenchant lines is sheer perfection in their tossed away thoughtfulness. It is as if Shannon’s Father peers into another realm, expresses what he sees, then retracts from it like nothing extraordinary has happened, though it has.

To round out the gathering Mrs. Drinkwater (the heartfelt Heather Alicia Simms) shows up looking for the gold wedding band that she gave Dan and forgot to take back. Dan and Marta have not returned with the beers, so Father Shannon and Jimmy introduce themselves and Mrs. Drinkwater tells them that her husband was killed in the plane crash. Abruptly, Father Michael announces that they need to have drinks and specifically, depth chargers (shots dropped in a mug of beer). At this point, the wild party begins and when Dan and Marta return with more beer, the events revolve upside down and sideways as each takes their turn at Karaoke and “lets it all hang out.” Kudos to Hari Nef, Michael Shannon and Heather Alicia Simms for their passionate renditions of their solo numbers.

(L to R) Heather Alicia Simms, Johanna Day in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)
(L to R) Heather Alicia Simms, Johanna Day in Des Moines (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)

The fun is in watching the actors enjoy themselves to the hilt and in the process, convey the loneliness and angst each of the characters personally experiences. We appreciate the drunken camaraderie and comfort they share. It is better than that of “old friends” who know “too much” of their pain and torment. Nevertheless, they have just enough information about each other. They understand that they all are imperfect and have experienced loss, uncertainty, confusion. They have been tossed about by life’s seemingly random trials, forced to assign their own meaning to the haphazard and horrible events. Theirs is the sticky understanding that they can help each other through their personal crises that none of them can specifically explain because it can’t be articulated. All they can do is state concrete facts about conditions. But underneath are miles of subsurface emotions, psychic damage, pain, fear, sorrow.

(L to R): Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Gerry Goldstein)
(L to R): Hari Nef, Michael Shannon in Des Moines (courtesy of Gerry Goldstein)

The hope is that they are alive with the determination to keep on “truckin’,” as they receive solace in understanding the ubiquity of their absurd-life-in-death condition. They, like all human beings, roll a metaphoric boulder up a hill, knowing at the top they will slip and fall to the bottom. Then, they will have to do it again and again does Sisyphus of Greek mythology.

For Dan and Marta, the loss of their daughter who overdosed is most acutely felt, a fact they mention then drop. For Mrs. Drinkwater, the loss of her husband has dislocated her and upended her identity about herself. Who is she now and how does she define herself without him? For Nef’s Jimmy, the paralysis is devastating, but it may not be permanent. At one point when Jimmy is alcohol buzzed, he stands up and proclaims that he, “will walk again.” Lastly, Father Michael is negotiating his physical person, his celibacy, his marriage to Mr. Drinkwater (a mysterious notion) and his straddling the otherworldly realms of consciousness and spirit.

(L to R): Arliss Howard, Johanna Day, Heather Alicia Simms in 'Des Moines' (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)
(L to R): Arliss Howard, Johanna Day, Heather Alicia Simms in Des Moines (courtesy of Travis Emery Hackett)

Johnson’s play cannot easily be pinned down in its hybrid, comedic absurdism and avant garde elusiveness. It zips along with unlikely and surprising twists with every character dynamic and every character expose. Its strong spiritual themes about life, the afterlife, consciousness and no boundaries between and among these realities, are thought-provoking. The ensemble’s acting is top-notch and their team work reaches a high-point when each performs their solos while the others move into themselves, all creating an exceptional, flowing dance.

Arin Arbus has staged the wildness so that it is zany yet meaningful with the help of Byron Easley (choreographer). Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, Qween Jean’s costume design, Scott Zielinski lighting design and Mikaal Sulaiman’s original music and sound design effectively capture the director’s vision and enhance Johnson’s themes about human nature, pain and seeking to escape from it with like-minded others through alcohol or just letting go. In this production, which emphasizes humanity, forgiveness, understanding and empathy, we realize the isolation of individuality and the commonality of emotions whether joyful or sorrowful, that often prompt escapism to crazy, if only for a moment in an eternity of time.

This is one to see. It ends January 8 and runs with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.tfana.org/current-season/des-moines/overview

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’ Tidings of Comfort and Joy in Dylan Thomas’ Reflections

(L to R): (back row) Kylie Kuioka, Ali Ewoldt, Kerry Conte, (front row) Dan Macke, Jay Aubrey Jones, Ashley Robinson in A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep. (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Irish Repertory Theatre’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales by the brilliant Dylan Thomas, adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore hits the spot for Christmas loveliness and grace. An old-time favorite of Irish Repertory Theatre, this is the sixth version they have produced since their first adaptation in 2002 of A Celtic Christmas. Thanks to Charlotte Moore’s prodigious dramatic talents this is one of the most heartwarming, elegant and memorable of versions and I’ve seen a few. Perhaps it is because of its simplicity as a chamber musical, which features poignant songs written by Charlotte Moore, and the favorite traditional carols of the season, one receives a new appreciation of Christmas. Its vitality in bringing together a community that greatly longs to erase thoughts of separation that have characterized the past few years, cannot be underestimated.

Kylie Kuioka in A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep. (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

For this production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the stage is flanked with tall, stalwart looking Christmas trees uniformly lit against a mirrored background which adds to the stage width and depth, thanks to John Lee Beatty’s set design. There are even large presents tucked away in a back corner on the left side of the stage continuation. The light reflections, and nuanced lighting (Michael Gottlieb) softly enhance the six singers. These include Kerry Conte, Ali Ewoldt, Jay Aubrey Jones, Kylie Kuioka, Ashley Robinson and Reed Lancaster, who was covering for Dan Macke the night I saw the production.

(L to R): Kylie Kuioka, Ali Ewoldt, Dan Macke, Jay Aubrey Jones, Ashley Robinson, Kerry Conte in A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep. (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

The trees in their arrangement are an excellent choice not only for their placement but for their symbolism representative of Christ and Christianity. The fir tree was widely adopted during the Victorian Age after a picture of Queen Victoria, German Prince Albert and their family appeared in Illustrated London News. Queen Victoria was so popular that the public became enamored of the royal family standing around the decorated, tall, fir tree. They clamored to make it fashionable, cutting down their own trees or purchasing them from vendors after demanding them. Certainly, the historic Christmas captured by Thomas’ gorgeously poetic language seems best ringing out the holiday season with the trees as a evergreen, mythic backdrop.

The music supervision by John Bell and music direction by David Hancock Turner are impeccable. I particularly enjoyed the carols I hadn’t heard in a long while, the traditional ones like “A-Soaling” (Hey, Ho, Nobody Home), “I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas” and the humorous “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake.” There are songs sung in Welsh “Tawel Nos” (“Silent Night”) which moves to a beautiful segue of “O Holy Night.” And I was surprised to discover that “Deck the Halls,” All Through the Night” and “Suo Gan” are traditional Welsh songs.

(L to R): (front row) Kylie Kuioka, Ali Ewoldt, Dan Macke (back row) Jay Aubrey Jones, Ashley Robinson, Kerry Conte in A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep. (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

I felt an otherworldly appreciation of the carols and live music and singing arranged with thoughtfulness and joy. Thoma’s clever and poignant remembrances narrated with every attention to his incredible wordcraft by the ensemble remind us of a romantic past that we all long for. I am so sick and tired of the canned, artificial music signaling commercialism and grasping greed as it pipes over the loudspeakers of big box stores and various establishments. I do hope this chamber musical was recorded. Its one-of-a-kind exceptionalism in its celebration of a historic time before cell phones, mass media, television and the complications of what at times seems like overwhelming chaos, is bar none.

Kerry Conte in A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep. (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

What was another pleasant surprise were the songs “Take My Hand, Tomorrow’s Christmas,” “Open Your Eyes,” and “Walking in the Snow.” The music and lyrics are Charlotte Moore’s and they appropriately threaded throughout the 75 minute presentation among Thomas’ memories that speak of childhood innocence, frankness (in his recall of the quirky aunts and uncles) and sense of security and safety embraced by a loving family. His work is a milestone and thankfully Irish Repertory Theatre has shared its immutable glory with us, reminding us of family, friends, love, community, history and the meaning of such vital themes that strengthen our lives.

Ashley Robinson in A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep. (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

David Toser’s costume design are befitting of the fashionable stylishness of a lovely holiday party where everyone is shining in their finery like their own decorated Christmas trees. In this “never to be forgotten day at the end of the unremembered year” Thomas’ snowy Christmas Day in Wales at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a stunner whose nostalgia is all the more affecting now that Christmas has passed.

(L to R): Ali Ewoldt, Dan Macke, Jay Aubrey Jones in A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep. (courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

See it before it closes. For tickets and times go to their website: https://irishrep.org/show/2022-2023-season/a-childs-christmas-in-wales-4/

‘Some Like it Hot’ Fires up the Laughter, Dazzling at the Schubert

 (L to R): Christian Borle, J. Harrison Ghee in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
(L to R): Christian Borle, J. Harrison Ghee in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

One of the more intricately updated movie adaptations on Broadway that sparks a flame that will surely last, Some Like it Hot is perfect for the holiday season and year-round. From start to finish the sensational cast keeps the audience laughing, thanks to enlightened direction, (Casey Nicholaw), seamlessly wrought staging, superb pacing, on-point timing and smashing songs sung by spot-on principals and company.

Performances by standouts J. Harrison Ghee (Jerry/Daphne), Christian Borle (Joe/Josephine), Sugar (Adrianna Hicks), Natasha Yvette Williams (Sweet Sue) and Kevin Del Aguila (Osgood) hurtle the comedy at breakneck speed around the roller coaster turns of plot, mostly familiar to those who have seen the original titular film upon which this two-act musical comedy is based. Currently, Some Like it Hot is at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre without an end-date.

With book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, with additional material by Christian Borle and Joe Farrell, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Some Like it Hot, mostly through songs unspools the story of two Chicago musicians. Witnesses to a murder by a crime boss and his henchmen, Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) and Joe (Christian Borle) must leave town to avoid being killed. As they flee for their lives moving from the streets of Chicago to a train journey across country to California, to their hotel destination, the cast joyously sings 10 songs in Act I and 8 songs in Act II.

The Company of 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)
The Company of Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)

The strongest numbers meld superlatively with the jazz/blues club and rehearsal scenes and display the wacky characterizations, i.e. Osgood (the marvelous K.J. Hippensteel) and his relationship with Daphne, for maximum humor. The club and rehearsal songs are rollicking, streams of musical electricity that include “I’m California Bound,” “Take It up a Step,” “Zee Bap” and “Some Like it Hot,” and in Act II “Let’s Be Bad,” and “Baby, Let’s Get Good.” The music can’t be beat if you love jazz, blues and a compendium of styles from that era.

The opening speakeasy scene “What Are You Thirsty For,” prepares us for the rousing up-tempo and hot jazz style that characterizes the music of Sweet Sue’s all-girl band. The song, like all of those in the club scenes maintains the high-paced energy which never lets up, thanks in part to Natasha Yvette Williams, whose band conductor Sue rules with a firm hand, is humorous and twits Josephine (Joe) about her age because she looks dowdy and frumpy, in a joke that is milked throughout. In assuming their new roles as women, both Joe and Jerry take pride in their beauty and femininity and are insulted if men “step out of line” and take liberties, or as in the instance of Sweet Sue with Josephine/Joe, feel hurt pride that they do not look pretty and young. Of course the irony that these men are becoming enlightened to what it is really like to be women, pestered and objectified by men is just priceless.

Adrianna Hicks in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
Adrianna Hicks in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

The first number establishes the setting of the Great Depression and Prohibition and introduces three leads two of which by the skin of their teeth avoid a police raid and being locked up by Mulligan (Adam Heller), who hauls in Sweet Sue and her band closing them down. That Jerry and Joe escape, establishes their characters’ MO throughout. They shuck and jive, deep man dive to survive, staying one step ahead of police or gangsters. But I am getting ahead of myself. Out on the street and down on their luck, jobs for a bass player and sax player are hard to come by.

Joe and Jerry try the Cheetah Club, owned by Spats Columbo. Mark Lotito’s convincing no nonsense gangster with a humorous touch is perfect for the role which requires some fleet footedness, during the wild chases and shoot-out scenes acutely conceived, staged and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.

At the Cheetah Club, Spats’ man Mack (Casey Garvin) hires Joe but rejects Jerry because he’s Black. The musical is savvy about revealing the extreme Jim Crow racism of the 1930s through Mack’s obvious prejudice. The production also beautifully answers the racism and bigotry with the idea of family, love and unity with the cleverly written “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him).” Joe insists he and Jerry are a duo, and family (the Tip Tap Twins) who must stick together. As an act “We’re two of a kind, if you’re colorblind, separate mothers …but we’re brothers under the skin.” The singing is accompanied by Joe and Jerry’s excellent tap dancing which wins the day when Spats himself appears and reveals his approval of their talents.

The irony is not lost on us that Spats is tolerant of Jerry’s Black heritage and in this light is more humane than your average lynching bigot from the South, bullying Blacks to bow and scrape. Of course Spats is a murderer of another type (he kills competitor thugs and rats); he’s just not a racist or lynching bigot murderer. This is a fantastic send-up of “honorable” criminals vs. low-down, scurrilous, hate-filled murderers which is intimated but never stated. Thus, Spats we can laugh at, the the bigot in the Southern shadows we prefer not to think about though they exist and are the reason why Sweet Sue goes to California and not Alabama.

Kevin Del Aguila in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
Kevin Del Aguila in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

The clever lyrics and humor related to the bigotry toward Black performers during a time of extreme Jim Crow racism in the nation is a subject for jokes delivered by Sweet Sue and Jerry sparingly with irony. The references to racism are understated, and actually highlight the difference between past and present. Yet it is enough as a sad reminder and subtle warning about the uptick in white nationalism and bigotry in our time, hyped up on steroids during the former president Donald Trump’s administration because he gave permission to the KKK and other groups to express their racial hatreds openly as “very fine people.” In this production, the lightheartedness countering the prejudice and racism of the time sends a powerful message about acceptance that is not preachy or overdone.

For example Sue ironically determines the destination of her all-girl band to a place where they won’t be lynched or ostracized since Sue, bass player Jerry/Daphne (J. Harrison Ghee), lead singer Sugar (Adrianna Hicks) and others are Black artists. However, Sue never uses racially charged words. She only refers to how she looks and the audience breaks out in hysteria. After all, it’s the 1930s. Yet residual bigotry is in tragically in the 2022s. Importantly, the beauty of this update reveals the vitality of music and the arts which have always been in the forefront of accepting people, not for their skin color, elitist pedigree or class, but for their artistry and talent. Thus, the theme that art, music and entertainment as a noble calling is underscored as it brings us together in unity and harmony and encourages the best of our humanity.

The complications thicken when Jerry and Joe are at the Cheetah Club and prove themselves to be successful. Excited, Joe wants to discuss their order in the program with Spats at the precise moment when the musicians witness Spats murdering Toothpick Charlie for giving information to Mulligan. The frenzy of Joe and Jerry witnessing the murder and then running away in a marvelous chase scene into the women’s dressing room where they get the idea to go out in drag to save their lives is logically wrought and hysterical. Dressed as Daphne and Josephine, Joe and Jerry are able to walk by Spats and his henchmen without a “hitch.” Now, the only thing left for them to do is follow a tip they receive about joining Sweet Sue’s band.

Natasha Yvette Williams and the Company of 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
Natasha Yvette Williams and the Company of Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

In a one line quip, we learn they pay two ruffians to steal the instruments of a female bass player and sax player who had jobs in Sue’s band but lost them when they were unable to get instruments at the last minute. Thus, Daphne and Josephine conveniently step up for the positions as the clever Sweet Sue notices their unusual coincidence and timing. This tweak is one of many that works in Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s well thought out book that is filled with new quips and one-liners that land every time, thanks to Williams, Borle and Ghee’s exceptional timing and delivery.

With the conceit of Daphne/Jerry and Josephine/Joe going cross country as women using the all-girl band as their sanctuary and milked to max, the rest of the action follows a steady route until they arrive at their destination. On the journey the men get to bunk with women and learn temperance and self- restraint as they are reduced to looking but not touching. Also, Josephine discovers the inner workings of the lovely Sugar who he is falling in love with (“A Darker Shade of Blue,” “At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee”) as she sings the blues ballads about her life and dreams.

In California the intensity increases. Joe and Jerry have to decide whether to leave and go to Mexico. However, there are dangerous reasons that stand in the way of their making the best decision of their lives. Joe has fallen for Sugar and Jerry has fallen for being a woman, a condition which emerges when the wealthy Osgood in “Poor Little Millionaire” shows he is interested in Daphne. As Osgood appeals to the feminine in Jerry, Jerry/Daphne has a new knowledge of himself as an evolved individual whom he actually likes better than when he was Jerry. This is not only LOL and J. Harrison Ghee makes the most of this new knowledge, it is refreshingly current and an excellent update of the original material in the film by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, Spats and his men are making their way toward Jerry and Joe. It is only a matter of time before they will meet face to face. When they do in “Tip Tap Trouble,” the chase is an incredible tap dance with precisely timed, synchronized movement that is choreographed using doors. Nicholaw’s staging is a marvel. The number is paced by the ensemble to perfection with such apt choreography, it is absolutely breathtaking. The number brings down the house.

Adrianna Hicks in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)
Adrianna Hicks in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)

In this musical comedy as in the film, “all’s well that ends well.” Spats is arrested just in time by Mulligan and the couples reveal themselves and there are no hard feelings. In fact Osgood is pleased. The notion that you love despite gender and race, if you have the openness to allow yourself that joy, is the most satisfying of the musical comedy’s themes. And it is the most welcome and truthful. For, as Some Like it Hot posits, if one looks and truly sees individuals for who they are, no one should be rejected or belittled. It is a fantastic notion for this LOL musical comedy whose profound underlying meaning shouldn’t be underestimated.

From cast, principals, music and every element referred to in this review, the production has been fine tuned as a celebration of one of the greatest comedy films which was a stylistic throwback to the thirties. Likewise with this production there are numbers which reflect the black and white musicals of the past, whether it be their elegance or brassy, jazz tunes and rigorous tap numbers. The ensemble and swings are perfection and add to the enthusiasm and excitement of a show that is beyond sizzling fun. Some Like it Hot is a love letter to Hollywood Studio films that we will never see again, and a love letter to the present that we hope for with unity, tolerance and love.

Kudos go to Natasha Katz (lighting design) Brian Ronan (sound design) Gregg Barnes (costume design) Scott Pask (scenic design) Josh Marquette (hair design) Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (make-up design). The train is amazing thanks to Scott Pask who manages a streamlined, futuristic look that is full bodied and rich. The full bodied richness is especially so with the hotel interiors and various spaces that Nicholaw transitions into and out of in the twinkling of an eye to keep up the pacing. It is as if the entire production is on a metronome and moves to the ethereal beats of hilarity, somewhere out there in comedy heaven.

All praise goes to Mary-Mitchell Campbell for her music supervision, Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter for their orchestrations. Final kudos goes to all involved with dance, vocal and musical arrangements and the creative team who helped to make this production shimmering glory every night.

What a smashing, important production that is as light as a feather going down but stays with you for its vital themes, music, rhythms (I just adored “Tip Tap Trouble” for its multiple layers) LOL book and great delivery by actors, who managed to be funny and not cartoonish.

See it! Go to their website for tickets and times https://somelikeithotmusical.com/

‘The Piano Lesson’ is a Striking Revival That Delivers Exceptional Acting, Acute Direction and Prodigious Mastery

Danielle Brooks in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

How do we reconcile a past of misery, torment and devastation? Do we bury it or embrace the goodness our ancestors brought to bear as they raised us? Do we take the next steps to rise up to the inner glory they encouraged, or mourn in resentment never exorcising the anguish that seeped into our psyches? In August Wilson’s richly crafted Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, currently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the character Berniece (superbly portrayed by Danielle Brooks) must reconcile herself to her past and become the conduit that translates legacy into new beginnings for her family and her daughter.

The Piano Lesson symbolizes how African Americans must approach their painful history of slavery as a planting field which may give birth to strong generations that carry new hope and opportunity for a positive future. Additionally, in this production directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson, Wilson suggests what that future might be with an uplifting conclusion where family understanding and unity are restored after nefarious forces steeped in colonial, paternalistic folkways and institutional racism, sought to keep the family divided and conquered.

John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

August Wilson’s play debuted on Broadway in 1990, not only winning the Pulitzer Prize but also winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, as well as the New York Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. The Piano Lesson which takes place in Pittsburgh, 1936 is one in a collection of 10 plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Each of the plays, set in a different decade, chronicles African American struggles and triumphs as various families move away from the remnants of slavery and its impact from 1900 through the 1990s. The work has enjoyed three revivals, one Off Broadway in 2013 and the two Broadway outings (1990, 2022).

This outstanding revival features seminal performances by a superb ensemble and a clarifying vision about the play by the director. Each actor brings vitality and authentically to manifest the roiling fear and oppression that still hangs over the lives of characters Berniece (Danielle Brooks) Boy Willie (John David Washington) and family uncles Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson) and Wining Boy (Michael Potts) as they attempt to move beyond their traumatic past. It is a slavery past where ancestors saw toil and heartache and a recent past where Berniece and her family saw violence, bloodshed and anything but a peaceful passing to ancestral graves.

(L to R): Michael Potts, Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Events come to a head when Boy Willie visits the family for the first time in three years since Berniece lost her husband Crawley. Boy Willie comes with a vital personal mission so he braves his sister Berniece’s ire because he is at a turning point in his life. Berniece and Boy Willie have been estranged because she blames him for Crawley’s death. Tired of sharecropping for others, Boy Willie leaps when he is offered an opportunity where he, too, can embrace the “American Dream.” In an ironic twist he would be purchasing land his ancestors worked as slaves made available after the slave master’s descendant, the head of the Sutter family, fell down a well and died. Boy Willie’s purchase would allow him to end being exploited by others so he might work to lift himself to a better life.

However, he needs to raise more cash to complete the land deal, so he intends to sell their family heirloom, a beautifully carved upright piano which is housed in Uncle Doaker’s Pittsburgh home where Berniece and her 11-year-old daughter live. As is often the case with inheritances, there are family squabbles about how to dispose of various items. The piano not only is valuable materially, it symbolizes the family’s history and legacy, which is both beautiful and terrible. An ancestor carved the faces of family members on it to soothe the slave master’s wife who was missing her slaves that were traded for the piano. Over the years, the piano has become the family totem that conveys a spiritual weight and emblematic preciousness. Wilson signifies this when Boy Willie and friend Lymon find it nearly impossible to lift by themselves.

Berniece understands the piano’s significance to the depths of her soul and refuses to allow Boy Willie to remove it. For seven years after their mother died, Berniece stopped playing it to honor her mother’s remembrance. Though only Maretha (played by Jurnee Swan at the performance I saw) and Uncle Wining Boy play it, Berniece justifies keeping it because of Mama Ola Charles. Mama Ola daily polished it “til her hands bled, then rubbed the blood in…mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it” and mourned over the tragic loss of her husband, Boy Charles who was murdered after he stole it and hid it to retain its ownership. He believed if the Sutter family kept the piano, they symbolically “lorded” it over the Charles family, who they would oppress as their ersatz slaves, if not physically, then psychically and emotionally.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Gradually, Samuel L. Jackson’s Doaker reveals the story of the piano’s history since slavery days. With understated reverence as an explanation why Berniece will never let it go, he discusses how the carvings of each ancestor and their stories reside there as a remembrance of their identity and the sacrificial death of his brother Boy Charles, who first imbued the piano with the symbolic and spiritual significance of their family’s legacy of forward momentum.

Jackson’s Doaker and Danielle Brooks’ Berniece superbly translate the importance of this magical object with nuance and power that gives rise to our understanding why the ancestral spirits are hovering in the piano’s majesty in a battle that becomes otherworldly between the Sutter and the Charles family. It is a battle which has been continuing revealed at the top of the play with Boy Willie’s excited, impassioned entrance and reflected in Beowulf Boritt’s incredible set of Doaker’s simple four room house whose spare roof timbers exposed to the sky appear to be split and separating.

Indeed, the Charles family is a house divided by disagreement, disharmony and mourning tied in and caused by the racial discrimination, and inequitable economic opportunities intended to keep African Americans entrenched in poverty and peonage. To be free of Sutter oppression the Charles family must move away from the Sutters’ (symbolic of white racists) murderous, thieving behaviors, exploitive folkways and lack of empathy for others. They must free themselves from materialism, selfishness and criminality that has destroyed their humanity, as Brook’s Berniece expresses in her indictment of the men in her immediate family, including her dead husband Crawley.

 The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Boy Willie’s presence at this point in time after Sutter is found at the bottom of a well is intriguing. Has Sutter’s wicked ghost driven him up to trouble Berniece about the piano despite its legacy? Or does he just want to make a better life for himself as he suggests? Berniece believes he pushed Sutter to his death, knowing the Sutter land would be put up for sale. Though Washington’s Boy Willie makes a convincing argument that he is not a murderer and Pott’s colorful Wining Boy suggests it’s the vengeful “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog” that caused Sutter’s fall to his death, Berniece is not convinced. Boy Willie’s presence has brought confusion and turmoil, exceptionally rendered by Washington’s Boy Willie, who appears so impassioned about selling the piano, he acts like a man possessed.

Additionally, Boy Willie’s obviation of the importance of the piano as their family legacy is answered with his apology to Berniece as if that is enough because he will sell it regardless. That answer isn’t enough for her. However, Boy Willie insists forcefully almost manically that he will use the land and make something with it, even though the deal is by word of mouth and could be another bamboozle by the Sutter family as Uncle Wining Boy suggests.

Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

That the ghost of Sutter appears to members of the family around the same time that Boy Willie appears is more than a coincidence. That Boy Willie is the only one who doesn’t see the ghost is also more than a coincidence. Berniece, Doaker, Maretha and Wining Boy see the ghost who has been manifesting on the second floor above where Boritt’s roof timbers separate, threatening with well-paced grinding sounds (Scott Lehrer) to split the house up and fragment it completely.

Why doesn’t Boy Willie see Sutter’s ghost? Has Boy Willie become an instrument of the Sutter family, influenced/possessed by Sutter’s ghost to continue the tradition of theft, exploitation and bloodshed (the chains of slavery days) luring Boy Willie with the dream of being “his own boss?” The longer Boy Willie stays to sell a truck load of watermelons, the more the arguing and airing of grievances continues, intermingled with wonderful songs they sing, the first led by Jackson’s Doaker and the last by Potts’ Wining Boy who made a profitable living which he couldn’t sustain playing piano and cutting a few records.

However, nothing will ameliorate Boy Willie’s lust for the money the piano will bring. Finally, when push comes to shove, Berniece and Doaker do take out their guns ready to shoot Boy Willie if he and his friend Lymon (Doron JePaul Mitchell when I saw the show) remove the piano.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Brooks’ Berniece is so fervent that we believe she will shoot her brother to protect her ancestors’ legacy whose symbolism and spiritual strength she has embraced during Boy Willie’s importuning her to give it up. Washington’s Boy Willie is every inch her equal, stoked by the Sutter relative with the lure of land and his own ambition, like the Biblical Esau, willing to sell his birthright without any guarantees. Brooks and Washington are perfect foils and deliver amazing performances. Jackson’s Doaker and Pott’s Uncle Wining Boy present the stabilizing, humorous counterbalance to the frenzied brother and sister. If not for Wining Boy’s playing the piano at that heightened moment when Berniece has the gun, she would shoot Boy Willie, and Sutter’s ghost would have triumphed, completely destroying the family. Jackson’s direction and the timing of Potts and Samuel L. Jackson’s interference and distractions round out the incredible drama that moves toward the last scene of the play.

It is then that all the characters acknowledge the ghost of Sutter’s presence in the grinding sound of the house being pulled asunder by the warring spirits which also represent the values which the families prize. These are the values which Boy Willie must decide on. Should he be like the Sutters or raise up his own family’s legacy as Doaker has learned to do as a trainman and as Berniece has done steadfastly living one day at a time? Does Boy Willie have the resolve to shake off destructive forces and slowly carve out a life for himself with a lasting peace? At the top of the play Washington’s Boy Willie is so possessed by the Sutter’s offer and righting the past exploitation of his family, he can’t wait to follow them down the same pathways. However, Washington’s Boy Willie does change and is redirected.

(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Encouraged by everyone who feels the presence of Sutter’s ghost, preacher Avery (Trai Byers-another superb performance) who Berniece has been seeing, attempts to cast out the pernicious Sutter. He fails. Only Berniece calling on the help of her ancestors’ spirits who assist in the spiritual battle overcomes the ghost of Sutter’s presence and hold over their family. As she sings and plays the piano, on the second floor we watch the impact of her prayers and the Charles family’s spirits on Boy Willie as Washington manifests the struggle with Sutter’s ghost. As his body arches over then releases, we note that Sutter’s ghost, its tormenting lures that possessed Boy Willie leave. The two siblings are finally in agreement with Doaker and Wining Boy that what Sutter represents has no place in their family. As it leaves Boy Willie, miraculously, the house is made whole. With a grinding sound and the final sighting and restitution of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog (you have to see the play to understand what happens) the separated timbers rejoin. It’s an incredible effect and magnificent, symbolic realization of Wilson’s immutable themes, about family unity in reconciliation with the past to move forward, thanks to the creative team, wonderful actors and Jackson’s direction.

Jackson’s staging and use of special effects (Jeff’s Sugg’s projection design, Lehrer’s sound design, Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, Boritt’s fabulous set) convey Boy Willie’s struggle, exorcism and redemption from the tradition of oppression, bloodshed and materialistic selfishness that have corrupted the Sutters and work to corrupt him and completely divide his family. He is only able to gain strength to be released when Brooks’ Berniece accepts how the legacy of past can be turned into a positive future by becoming the conduit of the ancestral spirits. It is their beauty, sanctity and strength that rise up to lead her, Maretha and the others forward, if they allow themselves to be led.

Boy Willie and Berniece join hands in unity. His demeanor transforms into calmness. He no longer wants to sell the piano, understanding that his family history and his identity are in unity. With the house returned to wholeness, the wicked impulses will no more occlude the lives of Berniece, Boy Willie and the others. Now they can move forward and carve their own history in the reality of their lives.

Throughout Wilson raises questions whether Boy Willie got revenge on Sutter for having his father burned alive and the question of whether he killed him to get the land in an ironic triumph. Another question is whether the Sutters are serious about selling the land to Boy Willie given the history between the two families. In the production these questions are emphasized by director Jackson’s vision of the themes and characterizations of this complicated work brought to a phenomenal apotheosis at the conclusion. However, as in life, ambuity is the spice that keeps us enthralled along with the chilling presence of the supernatural hovering.

This is a one of a kind production that exceptionally realizes August Wilson’s intent with every fiber of the artists’ prodigious efforts. I have nothing but praise for what they have done and will do for the run of the play.

For tickets and times to see this living masterpiece go to their website: https://pianolessonplay.com/

‘Ohio State Murders,’ Audra McDonald’s Performance is Stunning in This Exceptional Production

Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

For her first Broadway outing Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders has been launched by six-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald into the heavens, and into history with a magnificent, complexly wrought and richly emotional performance. The taut, concise drama about racism, sexism, emotional devastation and the ability to triumph with quiet resolution is directed by Kenny Leon and currently runs at the James Earl Jones Theatre until 12 February. It is a must-see for McDonald’s measured, brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Suzanne Alexander, who tells the story of budding writer Suzanne, in a surreally configured narrative that blends time frames and requires astute listening and thinking, as it enthralls and surprises.

This type of work is typical of Kennedy whose 1964 Funnyhouse of a Negro won an Obie Award. That was the first of many accolades for a woman who writes in multiple genres and whose dramas evoke avant garde presentations and lyrically poetic narratives that are haunting and stylistically striking. As one who explores race in America and has contributed to literature, poetry and drama expressing the Black woman’s experience without rhetoric, but with illuminating, symbolic, word crafting power, Kennedy has been included in the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2022 she received the Gold Medal for Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Gold Medal for Drama is awarded every six years and is not bestowed lightly; only 16 individuals including Eugene O’Neill have been so honored.

Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

This production of Ohio State Murders remains true to Kennedy’s wistful, understated approach to the dramatic, moving along an arc of alternating emotional revelation and suppression in the expose of her characters and their traumatic experiences. Leon and McDonald have teased out a 75 minute production with no intermission, intricate and profound, as Kennedy references and parallels other works of literature to carry glimpses of her characters’ complexity without clearly delineating the specifics of their behaviors. In the play much is suggested, little is clarified. Toward the unwired conclusion we find out a brief description of how the murders occurred and by whom. The details and the motivations are distilled in a few sentences with a crashing blow.

Much is opaque, laden with sub rosa emotion, depression, heartbreak and quiet reflection couched in remembrances. The most crucial matters are obviated. The intimacy between the two principals which may or may not be glorious or tragic is invisible. That is Kennedy’s astounding feat. Much is left to our imaginations. We can only surmise how, when and where Suzanne and Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham in a rich, understated and austere portrayal) who becomes “Bobby” got together and coupled when Suzanne supposedly visited his house. Their relationship mirrors that of the characters in Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It is this novel which first brings the professor and student together in mutual admiration over a brilliant paper Suzanne writes and he praises.

Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

What is mesmerizing and phenomenal about Kennedy’s work is how and why McDonald’s Suzanne follows a process of revelation not with a linear, chronological storytelling structure, but with an uncertain, in the moment remembering. McDonald moves “through a glass darkly,” unraveling recollections, as her character carefully unspools what happened, sees it anew as it unfolds in her memory, then responds to the old and new emotions the recalled memories create.

Audra McDonald is extraordinary as Suzanne Alexander, who has returned to her alma mater to discuss her own writing which has been published and about which there are questions concerning the choice of her violent images. The frame of Suzanne’s lecture is in the present and begins and ends the play. By the conclusion Suzanne has answered the questions. Kennedy’s circuitous narrative winds through flashback as Suzanne relates her experiences at Ohio State when she was a freshman and her movements were dictated by the bigotry that impacted her life there.

In the flashback McDonald’s Suzanne leaps into the difficult task of familiarizing us with the campus and environs, the discrimination, her dorm, roommate Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson) and others (portrayed by Lizan Mitchell and Mister Fitzgerald), all vital to understanding Suzanne’s story about the violence in her writing. Importantly, McDonald’s Suzanne begins with what is most personal to her, the new world she discovers in her English classes. These are taught by Robert Hampshire, (the astonishing Bryce Pinkham) a professor new to the college. Reading in wonder and listening to his lectures, Suzanne’s fascination with literature, writing and criticism blossoms under his tutelage.

Within the main flashback Kennedy moves forward and backward, not allowing time to delineate what happened, but rather allowing Suzanne’s emotional memories to lead her storytelling. After authorities expel her from Ohio State, she lives with her Aunt and then returns with her babies to work and live with a family friend in the hope of finishing her education. During this recollection she refers to the time when she lived in the dorm and was disdained by the other girls.

Mister Fitzgerald, Audra McDonald, in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

Kennedy anchors the sequence of events in time by using the names of individuals Suzanne meets. For example when she returns after she has been expelled, she meets David (Mister Fitzgerald) who she dates and eventually marries after the Ohio State murders. What keeps us engrossed is how Suzanne fluidly merges time fragments within the years she was at the college. She digresses and jumps in memory as she retells the story, as if escaping from emotion in a repressive flash forward, until she can resume her composure. At the conclusion, Suzanne references the murders of her babies.

Thus, with acute, truncated description that is both poetic and imagistic, McDonald’s Suzanne slowly breaks our hearts. McDonald elucidates every word, every phrase, imbuing it with Suzanne’s particular, rich meaning. Though the character is psychologically blinded and perhaps refuses to initially accept who the killer of her babies might be, there is the uncertainty that she may know all along, but is loathe to admit it to her self, because it is incredibly painful. At the conclusion when she reveals the murderer’s identity and events surrounding both murders, she is remote and cold, as is the snow falling behind outside the crevasse. At that segment McDonald’s unemotional rendering triggers our imaginations. In a flash we understand the what and why. We receive the knowledge as a gut-wrenching blow. Fear has encouraged the murderer in a culture whose violence and racism bathes its citizens in hatred.

When McDonald’s Suzanne Alexander brings us back to the present as she pulls us up with her from the recesses of her memory, we are shocked again. We have been gripped and enthralled, swept up in the events of tragedy and sorrow, senseless violence and loss. The question of why bloody imagery is in Suzanne’s writing has been answered. But many more questions have been raised. For example, in an environment of learning and erudition, how is the murder of innocents possible? Isn’t education supposed to help individuals transcend impulses that are hateful and violent? Kennedy’s themes are horrifically current, underscored by mass shootings in Ulvade, Texas and other schools and colleges across the nation since this play was written (1992). At the heart of such murdering is racism, white domestic terrorism, bigotry, hatred, inhumanity.

The other players appear briefly to enhance Suzanne’s remembrances. Pinkham’s precisely carved professor Hampshire reveals all the clues to his nature and future actions in the passages he reads to his classes from the Hardy novel, then Beowuf and in references to King Arthur and the symbol of the “abyss” he discusses in two lectures Suzanne attends. All, he delivers tellingly with increasing foreboding. Indeed, the passages are revelatory of what he is experiencing symbolically in his soul and psyche. When Suzanne describes his physical presence during the last lecture, when she states he is looking weaker than he did when he taught his English classes, it is a clue. Pinkham’s Hampshire is superbly portrayed with intimations of the quiet, profound and troubled depths of the character’s inner state of mind.

(L to R): Audra McDonald, Lizan Mitchell, Mister Fitzgerald in Ohio State Murders, by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

Importantly, Kennedy, through Suzanne’s revelations about the university when she was a freshman, indicates the racism of the student body as well as the bigotry of the officials and faculty, which Black students like Suzanne and Iris must overcome. There is nothing overt. There are no insults and epithets. All is equivocal, but Suzanne feels the hatred and the injustice regarding unequal opportunities.

For example it is assumed that she cannot “handle” the literature classes and must go through trial classes to judge whether she is capable of advanced work as an English major. When she tells professor Hampshire, he insists that this shouldn’t be happening. Nevertheless, he has no power to change her circumstances, though he has supported and encouraged her writing. The college’s bigotry is entrenched, as she and other Black women are discouraged in their studies and forced out surreptitiously so that they cannot complain or protest.

Kenny Leon’s vision complements Kennedy’s play. It is imagistic, minimalistic and surreal, thanks to Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design, Jeff Sugg’s projection design, Allen Lee Hughes lighting design and Justin Ellington’s sound design. At the top of the play there are two worlds. We see black and white projections of of WWII and the aftermath through a v-shaped crevasse that divides the outside culture and the interior of the college in the library symbolized by faux book cases. These are suspended in the air and move around symbolically following what Suzanne discusses and describes.

(L to R): Audra McDonald, Abigail Stephenson in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

The books are a persistent irony and heavy with meaning. They sometimes serve as a backdrop for projections, for example to label areas of the campus. On the one hand they represent a lure to Suzanne who venerates literature. They suggest the amalgam of learning that is supposed to educate and improve the culture and society. However, the bigoted keepers of knowledge in their “ivory” towers use them as weapons of exclusion and inhumanity, psychologically and emotionally, harming Blacks and others who are not white or who are considered inferior. Leon’s vision and the artistic team’s infusion of this symbolism throughout the play are superb.

In the instance of the one individual who appreciates Suzanne’s writing, the situation becomes twisted and that too, becomes weaponized against her. However, that she has been invited back to her alma mater all those years later to discuss her writing indicates the strength of her character to overcome the incredible suffering she endured. At the conclusion of her talk in the present she reveals her inner power to leap over the obstacles the bigoted college officials put before her. Her return so many years later is indeed a triumph.

Leon and the creative team take the symbolism of rejection, isolation, emotional coldness and inhumanity and bring it from the outdoors to the indoors. Beyond the crevasse in the wintertime environment, the snow falls during Suzanne’s description of events. Eventually, by the end of the play, the exterior and interior merge. The violence we saw at the top of the play in pictures of the War and its aftermath has spread to Ohio State. The snow falls indoors. Finally, Suzanne Alexander is able to publicly speak of it openly and honestly after discovering there was a cover-up of the truth that even her father agreed to out of shame and humiliation.

Ohio State Murders is a historic event that should not be missed. When you see it, listen for the interview of Adrienne Kennedy before the play begins as the audience is seated. She discusses her education at Ohio State and the attitudes of the faculty and college staff. Life informs art as is the case with Adrienne Kennedy’s wonderful avant garde play and this magnificent production.

For tickets and times to to their website: https://ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com/

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