Category Archives: Off Broadway

‘The Cake’ Directed by Lynne Meadow, at Manhattan Theatre Club

Debra Jo Rupp, The Cake, Lynne Meadow, Bekah Brunstetter, MTC

Debra Jo Rupp in ‘The Cake,’ directed by Lynne Meadow, written by Bekah Brunstetter at MTC (Joan Marcus)

The Cake written by Bekah Brunstetter is a deliciously humorous look at love and prejudice with twists that harken back to the Supreme Court ruling which sided in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop which refused to to bake a cake for a gay couple. The setting is not Colorado, however, it is North Carolina, and there is a similar response about baking for a gay couple.

Indeed, one of the themes of The Cake touches upon the current backlash by religious groups against the LGBTQ community and gay marriage. However, by the conclusion the playwright reinforces that love and decency can drive out divisiveness and bigotry, leading to mutual respect among groups with divergent orientations and beliefs.

Della (Debra Jo Rupp) owns her own bakeshop and is a fabulous baker of confections, specialty cakes, cupcakes, cookies and other desserts, all of which she bakes from scratch in her shop in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As she introduces herself with her sunny, sociable and sweet personality, we recognize why she selected this particular business to showcase herself.

Dessert baking is fun. Cakes and confections are feel good, comfort foods in a state that is less concerned about waist-lines and more concerned about family gatherings and get togethers. A cake will satisfy as the crowning glory of any party and Della’s recipes are unique and fabulous.

Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson, Marinda Anderson, 'The Cake,' Bekah Brunstetter, Lynne Meadow

(L to R): Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson, Marinda Anderson in ‘The Cake,’written by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Lynne Meadow for MTC (Joan Marcus)

Furthermore, Della is not timorous about sharing her recipes because most people who ask for them don’t follow them to the exact drop of liquid or sift of dry ingredients. Della affirms that’s why her cakes are so delectable. When she bakes the cakes that she has crafted for greatness, she follows the recipe directions and comes out with beauty every time. She further endears us in this opening sequence when she tells a customer that she is going to be a contestant and compete with others on The Great American Baking Show, the most watched baking show on CBS.

Debra Jo Rupp is a joy to watch, as she takes every line in this opening sequence and makes it her own with spontaneity, authenticity and sincerity, so that we long to taste a piece of her wonderful cake and feel the love vibrating from her. If mom baked and cooked with love, surely Della does the same. She is so affable and winning, we are completely taken in by her hospitality. We forget that she lives in the south, has lived there her whole life and most probably and at the least harbors residual racism and bigotry or at best is in a state of confusion like a good part of the southern United States regarding the LGBTQ community which cannot be reconciled with their religious beliefs.

Debra Jo Rupp, Dan Daily in 'The Cake,' Lynne Meadow, Bekah Brunstetter, MTC

Debra Jo Rupp, Dan Daily in ‘The Cake,’ directed by Lynne Meadow, written by Bekah Brunstetter for MTC (Joan Marcus)

However, the worm turns soon enough when Northerner Macy, a lovely black journalist enters the shop. During the course of the conversation, Macy turns down a taste of Della’s cake and goes into a rant about the food industry putting sugar in everything to addict consumers who are getting so fat that childhood obesity and diabetes are at the highest rates ever in the history of the nation. Immediately, we understand that beneath the lovely bakery confections there is an underlying toxicity and harm to one’s health. Macy has shaken us awake and alerted us that perhaps Della is a bit too sugary for our Northern sensibilities.

When the conversation continues and Della claims she is not concerned about politics but just concerned with her cakes, Macy comments: “Isn’t ambivalence as evil as violence?” Bam! We get the alarming picture. As a typical Southern woman who votes as her husband tells her and doesn’t think about the hypocritical values of Christianity rejecting a woman’s right to choose while obviating all responsibility toward children beyond the fetus stage, Della’s love charms appear to ring hollow. We wonder, where does she stand with her love if not in support of children and her baking?

Macy’s loaded, thematic-laden remark ratchets their communication into an embarrassing stalemate: Della leaves to check on her pineapple upside down cake and Macy oogles the piece of cake Della cut for her to try, but doesn’t touch it. Clearly, Della and Macy are at opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum and never the twain shall meet. Then Jen enters with a wedding binder to visit her mother’s old friend Della and the play launches off into a number of fascinating, complicated directions that stretch Della’s patience and religion, and hurt Jen’s feelings almost to a breaking point.

Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson, 'The Cake,' Bekah Brunstetter, Lynne Meadow, MTC

(L to R): Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson in ‘The Cake,’ written by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Lynne Meadow (Joan Marcus)

However, clarity, understanding and growth come when Jen discusses why she is who she is and how she has come to make the decision to marry Macy and live with her, despite Macy’s father’s censure and opprobrium. When Jen and Macy ask Della to bake their wedding cake for them and attend their party, Della’s husband, in typical “good ole boy” fashion, puts his foot down as the man of the house.

Though Della attempts to get around him, he remains steadfast. Taking her cues from her deep conversation with Jen about being a woman, Della attempts to ignite the fires that once burned in Tim’s heart. Indeed, it is obvious that Jen’s and Macy’s conversations with Della have touched a growth nerve and this in uncovers the flaws in her marriage with Tim.

Della is forced to sift herself and reconfigure a new recipe of care and concern with her husband and her daughter’s friend Jen. It is in her desire to be a good, decent person that we discover where Della’s love and heart is as she works things out with her husband and reconsiders her religious beliefs. Her love which is rooted deep grows toward becoming more open-minded.

The Cake is a compact, well-written, beautifully acted, sensitive play that resonates with vitality for our time. Marinda Anderson as Macy portrays the lucid, flexible and mature womanly partner of the equally sensitive and hopeful, upbeat Jen. As Jen Genevieve Angelson, measures beat for beat Anderson’s well-thought-out depiction.

Marinda Anderson, Genevieve Angelson, 'The Cake,' Bekah Brunstetter, Lynne Meadow, MTC

Marinda Anderson, Genevieve Angelson in ‘The Cake,’ written by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Lynne Meadow (Joan Marcus

Dan Daily as Tim, Della’s husband, is both jarring in his domineering attitude, then later loving and humorous in his sensitivity toward his wife. The section where he reveals the issue that has been undermining his confidence in their relationship is excellent. Debra Jo Rupp’s Della is particularly poignant when she tries to engage with Tim and he is incapable of responding and tells her so. This is a wonderful lay up to the surprisingly humorous event which occurs between them later in the play.

Lynne Meadow’s sterling direction keeps the pacing and the humor alternating in time with the quiet, thoughtful powerful moments. These moments underscore the themes about how to bridge the gaps in our viewpoints when friendships are at stake. The artistic elements and revolving set design serve the importantly intimate scenes between Tim and Della and Jen and Macy. Allowing us to view their relationships, we note there isn’t much difference regarding the couples as they attempt to further their understanding and love of each other. I was particularly heartened by the portrayal of Tim and his love for Della. Whether in straight or gay hearts, love abides with need. And this results in the uplifting and satisfying conclusion of The Cake.

Special kudos to John Lee Beatty for his superb scenic design (too bad there were no real cakes there, but at the bar the night I saw the production, there was a vanilla cake). And kudos to Tom Broecker for Costume Design (the wedding outfits are perfect), Philip S. Rosenberg for Lighting Design, John Gromada for Original Music and Sound Design and Tommy Kurzman for Hair, Wig & Makeup Design.

This is a winning production that you will enjoy. It runs with no intermission for 90 minutes at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage 1 (131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th). For tickets CLICK HERE.

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‘Juno and the Paycock’ by Sean O’Casey at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the O’Casey Season Continues

Ed Malone, Sarah Street, James Russell, Maryann Plunkett, and Ciarán O'Reilly, Irish Repertory Theatre's 2019 production, Juno and the Paycock, Neil Pepe

Ed Malone, Sarah Street, James Russell, Maryann Plunkett, and Ciarán O’Reilly in Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2019 production of ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ directed by Neil Pepe (Carol Rosegg)

Juno and the Paycock, directed by Neil Pepe. is a powerful and trenchant look at the lives and lifestyles of tenement dwellers in Dublin, impacted by the Irish Civil War (June 28, 1922-May 24, 1923). The production is part of The Dublin Trilogy by Sean O’Casey currently featured by the Irish Repertory Theater. O’Casey’s work is populated by singular characters whose flawed humanity rings with truth and tragedy during the birth pangs of a nascent Irish Republic.

Juno Boyle (in a fine, measured performance by Maryann Plunkett) is the long suffering wife of ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle. Ciaran O’Reilly’s spot-on, brilliant “paycock” is humorous, puffed-up and delightfully roguish as well as “haplessly” self-destructive. Both Juno and Captain Jack have managed to carve out an existence for themselves with the help of their daughter Mary (Sarah Street) and their son Johnny (Ed Malone). However, as the play opens we find that they cannot get out from under the dire circumstances fomented by the various stakeholders who fight for and against the evolving movement for independent Irish statehood.

Harry Smith, Sarah Street, Irish Repertory Theatre's 2019 production, Juno and the Paycock, Neil Pepe

Harry Smith, Sarah Street, Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2019 production of ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ directed by Neil Pepe (Carol Rosegg)

Johnny (Ed Malone does an excellent job as the peevish, complaining, guilt-ridden son) has been badly injured during the Easter Rebellion. He attempts to disengage himself from his former comrades with the Old IRA which has been reconstituted and has become more purposefully violent in its thrust to move toward an Ireland completely free from the British. Mary (Street is excellent as the demure, naive, gentle daughter) is out on strike with the trade unionists who protest pay cuts and the general approach of the “Free State government” which is aligned with Britain.

From this motley group of family, the only one who works and keeps the household “running” is the assertive Juno. She waits on the “paycock,” Captain Jack, and puts up with his squandering money on drink. But she warns Captain Jack about his friendship with tenement drinking buddy the ne-er-do-well Joxer (John Keating’s reprobate, hypocrite is absolutely dastardly and the perfect foil for Captain Jack). Joxer’s exploitative and free-loading ways Juno dislikes and runs down to Captain Jack because of his evil influence.

Helping her family and short-changing herself, the saintly Juno soothes Johnny by answering to his every need. For example she gets Johnny a glass of water when he asks for it, though he is capable of doing it himself.

Maryann Plunkett,Ciarán O'Reilly, Irish Repertory Theatre's 2019 production, Juno and the Paycock, Neil Pepe

Maryann Plunkett, Ciarán O’Reilly in Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2019 production of ‘Juno and the Paycock’ (Carol Rosegg)

O’Casey’s characterizations reveal a group of impoverished individuals (mentally and materially). Their hand-to-mouth existence is continually impacted by the turmoil and chaos of a society fractured by civil war and upheaval. When news of the death of one of his former friends reaches the family, Johnny is on edge and “sensitive” rushing into his room, refusing to hear about the details which his sister reads from the paper. We think that he is going through “PTSD,” however, O’Casey develops the seeds of this unrest during the play. Eventually, they blossom into a dark revelation. By the conclusion O’Casey enlightens us so we understand why Johnny carps and whines about Tancred’s death and the chaos of the Civil War happening around them.

For their part, Juno and her “paycock” have achieved a steady routine. Juno harangues Captain Jack and tries to prevent the family from going into the abyss as she encourages her husband to show up for a job and chides him to stop his drinking bouts with Joxer. All is stasis until Mary brings home a gentleman, Charles Bentham (James Russell in an appropriately “high-minded” and slippery portrayal), a teacher. He brings the information that Captain Jack has come into an inheritance that will lift them from poverty. This grand news transforms their spirits. The job that Captain Jack was going to take is now unnecessary and he settles into his role as the preening “paycock,” full time with no recriminating Juno to excoriate him.

Ciarán O'Reilly, John Keating, Neil Pepe, Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock, The Dublin Trilogy, the Sean O'Casey Season

(L to R): Ciarán O’Reilly and John Keating in the 2019 Irish Repertory production of ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ directed by Neil Pepe for the Sean O’Casey Season, The Dublin Trilogy by Sean O’Casey (Carol Rosegg)

Even Johnny seems to be more cheerful as he hopes that they can move away from the area once they receive the money. With this redemption, Mary who has thrown over Jerry Devine (Harry Smith in a softly sweet and heartfelt portrayal) as a boyfriend, becomes enamored of Charles. They become a serious couple with marriage plans. All appears to be rosy with this “dream come true” scenario, and we, who empathized with their rough and tumble former condition are happy that they have in effect “won the lottery” and will not suffer the indignity and wretchedness of poverty any more.

O’Casey has lured us into their hope for a better life, a hope that all of us experience. This very identification with this family makes the conclusion of O’Casey’s work all the more tragic and heart-wrenching.

At the discovery of their inheritance, the family conflicts subside and these personalities expand despite the chaos in the culture. Captain Jack borrows money against his inheritance as does Juno. For a time, they are floating on clouds of joy as they dance and the couples are at peace, with all distemper ending between and among family members.

Terry Donnelly, Ed Malone, John Keating, Ciarán O'Reilly, Maryann Plunkett, James Russell, and Sarah Street, Juno and the Paycock, Irish Repertory Theatre, Neil Pepe

(L to R): Terry Donnelly, Ed Malone, John Keating,Ciarán O’Reilly, Maryann Plunkett, James Russell, and Sarah Street in Irish Rep’s 2019 production of ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ by Sean O’Casey, directed by Neil Pepe (Carol Rosegg)

Yet, a suggestion of darkness floats in when Charles Bentham describes his belief in Theosophy. His comments give rise to the world of spirits who remain unsettled and without peace. Indeed, he suggests those who are sensitive enough to see into the supernatural may recognize a spirit’s misery and displacement from a peaceful state.

During the discussion Johnny’s emotions unravel. He leaves their company and goes into the bedroom. There, he has an encounter with the supernatural and rushes out of the bedroom. Whether this is his overactive imagination or a spirit coming to plague his soul, a warning, or something else, Ed Malone’s Johnny makes this a harrowing experience. Indeed, in this segment O’Casey suggests there is something that Johnny is deathly afraid of, something no one in his family suspects or knows about.

Sarah Street, Ed Malone, Maryann Plunkett, Irish Repertory Theatre's 2019 production, Juno and the Paycock, Neil Pepe

(L to R): Sarah Street, Ed Malone, Maryann Plunkett in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2019 production of ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ directed by Neil Pepe (Carol Rosegg)

But like any uncanny, foreshadowing moment, it is easily forgotten and Johnny’s apprehensions are dispelled when it is proven there is nothing alarming or unusual in the room. All is well. Nevertheless, O’Casey quietly grows the seeds he planted at the outset of the play and the tension increases related to the mystery of Johnny’s past involvement with the “Diehards,” the Old IRA and why he has left them.

This tension is carefully, subtly wrought by Pepe’s staging and his precise shepherding of the actors. Our misgivings are confirmed and the pall of death brought in by Mrs. Tancred’s mourning of her son and his funeral convey the shrouds of darkness and doom that overcome the light-heartedness that the family once felt and manifested in song and dance. Each member of the family is enveloped by disaster and tragedy that was foreshadowed at the beginning of the play when Mary read of the Tancred son’s death. Finally, the abyss which Juno had kept from devouring the family, finally comes to call for each of them.

Sarah Street, Maryann Plunkett, Irish Repertory Thearet's 2019 producction, Juno and the Paycock, Neil Pepe

Maryann Plunkett, Sarah Street in Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2019 production of ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ (Carol Rosegg)

Juno and the Paycock’s stark and tragic human realities of lost lives are realized in this memorable production. It is no wonder that O’Casey was able to write full time after this play was produced at the Abbey Theatre; it is a marvelous work. Our identification with the characters’ downfall is acute and heartfelt. And every foible that threads its way from the beginning in each of the character portraits augments to the point where the civil war in the streets has been manifested internally as a civil war in the lives of each of the family members. For each struggles against their own addictive impulse to destroy themselves in not facing hard realities that can and should be dealt with until it is too late.

O’Casey’s themes about the struggle for survival, lost innocence, the inability to get free of one’s own addictive nature is relayed against the backdrop of war when countrymen fight against countrymen, and those who cannot fight hide and enter into the oblivion of drink. Sadly, the women are left to bury their dead and to mourn, seeking the surcease of sorrow through religion and prayer, which to the men is an inadequate response.

The production shines in the cast’s rendering of O’Casey’s searing portraits of the Dublin tenement-dwellers and their relationships with each other. Included in these not mentioned before are the fine Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Needle Nugent, Una Clancy as Mrs. Tancred and members of the Ensemble (Rory Duffy, Meg Hennessy, Michael Mellamphy).

Special kudos go to the creative artists who effected the themes and intentions of the director through their talents and efforts. These include Charlie Corcoran (Scenic Design), Linda Fisher (Costume Design), David Toser (Costume Design), Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design), Ryan Rumery (Original Music), M. Florian Staab (Sound Design).

Juno and the Paycock runs with one intermission. You can purchase tickets at the Irish Repertory Theatre website by CLICKING HERE.

 

 

‘After’ by Michael McKeever, Directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters

Mia Matthews, Jolie Curtsinger, Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier, Micchael Frederic, After, Joe Brancato, Michael McKeever, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Mia Matthews, Jolie Curtsinger, Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier, Michael Frederic in ‘After,’ written by Michael McKeever, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (John Quilty)

The play After by Michael McKeever superbly, incisively directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters chronicles what happens between two families whose teenage sons, once friends, are involved in a bullying incident. In examining the events before, during and after the incident, the playwright dissects the anatomy of denial, psychological debility and delusion in the lives of each of the parents and their sons. Whether the occurrence may have been avoided is uncertain. However, the play argues that openness and communication should be the linchpins of a family unit. When they are not, the possibilities for self-destruction are endless.

The Campbells and the Beckmans, once friends, meet to discuss a bullying text that Kyle Campbell sent to Matthew Beckman. Julia Campbell’s sister Val (Jolie Curtsinger) is present during the discussion to help strengthen Julia and serve as a mediator, though both Connie and Alan Beckman question the soundness of this.

Julia Campbell (Mia Matthews) is a beautiful woman and everything about her speaks of her desire for perfection, peace and happiness. And if there is a wrinkle in her fine world, she will either straighten it out or justify with logic why the wrinkle doesn’t exist.

Michael Frederic, Mia Matthews, Bill Philips, Denise Cormier, Jolie Curtsinger, After, Joe Brancato, Michael McKeever

(L to R): Michael Frederic, Mia Matthews, Bill Philips, Denise Cormier, Jolie Curtsinger in ‘After,’ written by Michael McKeever, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (John Quilty Photography)

On the other hand Connie Beckman (Denise Cormier) appears to have donned the role of motherhood with a vengeance. Front and center she is a mama bear defending her baby cub and will do whatever she deems necessary to make sure he is safe, regardless of her cub’s wishes. In the opening dialogue between the Beckmans, the playwright establishes that Connie is assertive and confrontational with everyone. Her husband Alan (Bill Phillips) suggests that she must tone down her combativeness if they are to make inroads toward the resolution they desire during this meet up with the Campbells about Kyle’s text to Matthew.

The text “You’re next faggot,” is opaque. Apparently, neither teenager is discussing with their parents what “next” means, who provoked whom, why Matthew is a “faggot,” in Kyle’s eyes, even what Kyle means by “faggot.” Somehow, the vital import of the text is lost in all of the wrangling about Kyle’s punishment and whether this is just a matter of “boys will be boys” shenanigans.

Connie Beckman has not informed Matthew of the visit, not wanting to antagonize her son whom she infers would be furious if he knew. Overshadowing the discussion is the Beckman’s intention to convince the Campbells that the two sons should not be allowed to confront each other again, because the text, from their perspective, is a dangerous threat.

To deflect what happened, Kyle has offered to apologize, though we learn later this does not “come from the heart.” Additionally, Kyle has received a suspension from the principal and it is hoped that the parties involved have made up and all is well. On his part Matthew apparently feels to deal with the event on his own. Like Kyle, Matthew is deflecting and hiding what occurred from his parents, keeping it as a secret between himself and Kyle.

Mia Matthews, Michael Frederic, Bill Phillips, After, Michael MKeever, Joe Brancato

(L to R): Mia Matthews, Michael Frederic, Bill Phillips in ‘After,’ written by Michael McKeever, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (John Quilty Photography)

The Campbells and Beckmans do not have open communication with their sons so that the teenagers feel they can discuss ANYTHING with them or even ask for the help that they need. In fact the only reason why the parents became involved is because Connie broke the privacy rules with her son and checked his phone text messages, then went to the principal. Her actions from a teenagers’ perspective identify her as an over-protective mother who is exacerbating the problem when it should be left between Kyle and Matthew to resolve. Certainly, the Campbells both feel that if Connie had not forced the issue, nothing further would have happened and their sons would be “OK.”

We learn later, the situation is more complicated than both families imagine. The teenagers are duping the parents and principal. Lip service has been given, but the truth has been obfuscated and no one wants to look for it, not even the teenage boys who are unable to deal with their own personal feelings on a rational level to make themselves understood to themselves, let alone others.

Initially, McKeever doesn’t focus on the lack of communication between parents and sons. It only manifests as a reveal by the conclusion of the play. The irony is that the parents don’t see this elephant in the room either. Both couples are on the defensive and willing to blame “the other side,” as opposed to coming to terms with the fact that they do not communicate with their children on the deepest level possible to understand what the text means. Allowed to continue, both sons’ isolation and reluctance to speak to their parents may result in an escalation of events between Kyle and Matthew.

Denise Cormier, Bill Phillips, Michael Frederic, After, Michael Frederic, Michael McKeever, Joe Brancato

(L to R): Denise Cormier, Bill Phillips, Michael Frederic in ‘After,’ written by Michael McKeever, directed by Joe Brancato (John Quilty Photography)

That their blindness about their children belies a flaw within the parents’ psyches gradually becomes apparent. Indeed, the incident between Kyle and Matthew explodes the arrogance each mother has about her ability to parent her child. It also explodes the stereotypic masculine tropes the fathers may embrace since their sons did not feel comfortable enough to discuss the underlying situation with them either. The walls that divide the sons from their parents, and the spouses from each other only expand as the couples attempt to come to a satisfying conclusion, an impossibility as long as the blindness and alienation remains.

The Beckmans argue that the text is a threat, that it is serious and should be dealt with not only by a suspension but by Kyle’s expulsion from the private school which abstains from taking such extreme action for monetary reasons.  To illustrate the point that the texting threat is severe and perception means everything, Alan frightens all in the room with a rifle he takes from the living room wall mounting. Though he proves his point about the nature of a perceived threats’ power, it falls on the Campbell’s deaf ears. Tate Campbell believes that the text is just BS. He minimizes his son’s behavior as does Julia Campbell and both agree if Connie had not taken the text to the principal, Kyle and Matthew would have forgotten about the situation.

As the arc of the play’s development expands and intensifies, revelations about the couples become manifest. In the “During” segment of the play, the circumstances between Julia and Connie appear to improve after Julia shares her difficulties becoming pregnant with Kyle. Both women apologize to each other. Nevertheless, Kyle’s resentment at being suspended and Matthew’s fear about facing Kyle in school have not been dealt with adequately. Neither son expresses his emotions to his parents. The situation explodes with disastrous consequences and at the end of the segment of “During,” a catastrophe occurs which is elucidated in the last segment of the play with irony.

This is a riveting, powerful and timely production. The greatness of the play in its themes, conflicts and revelation of the importance of communication among family members is evident from the outset. The adroit actors carry the tension throughout. Indeed, each actor hits the ball out of the park so that no one character “dominates” the other which would ruin the dynamic and theme that all have a responsibility in the events. This is ensemble work at its best, its most alive.

Jolie Curtsinger, Mia Matthews, After, Michael McKeever, Joe Brancato

(L to R): Jolie Curtsinger, Mia Matthews in ‘After,’ written by Michael McKeever, directed by Joe Brancato (John Quilty Photography)

Brancato’s direction paces the suspense toward the tragic and uplifting conclusion.  And the production values sustain this presentation making for vibrant, “in-the- moment” theater that resonates for us, as thrilling theater should.

With McKeever’s examination of such a situation, we hope to learn from the mistakes of these two families. As the playwright implies, channels of communication must be open. Judgmental, value-laden condemnation should not be the focal point of a parent-child relationship. Ironically, over-protection can damage as can permissiveness and laissez faire parenting styles. However, with teenagers, it is impossible to second guess them. They may damn well do as they please. What then? The parents must deal with what comes “after.”

Kudos to the artistic creatives for their efforts which enhance the production’s themes and provide a supportive milieu for the actors to exercise their craft to perfection. These include Gregory Gale (Costume Designer), William Neal (Original Music/Sound Designer), Brian Prather (Scenic Designer), Martin E. Vreeland (Lighting Designer), Buffy Cardoza (Properties Designer), Max Silverman (Associate Sound Designer).

After is being presented by Penguin Rep Theatre and Inproximity Theatre Company in their New York City Premiere. The production runs 90 minutes with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th Street between Madison and Lexington Ave.) until 14 April. To purchase tickets you may go to the website by CLICKING HERE.

 

‘It Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka’ at Playwrights Horizons, Review

Nike Uche Kadri, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Miriari Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka, Leah C. Gardiner, Tori Sampson

(L to R): Mirirai Sithole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Phumzile Sitole, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Nike Uhe Kadri in ‘If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka,’ at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, written by Tori Sampson (Joan Marcus)

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfuka is a genre hybrid (comedy, musical, fantasy) that boasts sterling music, fine choreography and movement, and elements of the fantastic and supernatural all in the service of monolithic themes and blockbuster issues that woman have been grappling with for centuries, regardless of race or culture. In this world premiere written by Tori Sampson and directed by Leah C. Gardiner, the playwright focuses on cultural  folkways of beauty as a blessing and a curse for the one who is beautiful and also for those who are the “un-beautiful” or average looking. Caveat, there are no “ugly” women or men in the play. However, when one is “the most beautiful of all,” everyone else is ugly.

Every culture has it beauty standards. However, ideals promoted in advertising, the diet industry, the fashion industry, etc., create the values of appearance fascism that render mirrors and scales the vehicles of anathema and self-excoriation for young and old women of every culture. The beauty myth is not a myth but a very real stigma that women must conquer during their lives. Unless the strength of a woman’s soul is built up, self recriminations about appearance fostered by the cultural beauty police (in fashion, advertising, etc.) greatly influence all aspects of womanhood, education, career, and can impact the friends a woman has, who she marries, the society she is accepted in and her ability to float on the currents of lifestyle both virtual and live.

The playwright makes the subject of beauty and the issues it raises front and center the first five minutes of this fanciful/magical-realism styled production with her protagonist Akim (Nike Uche Kadri) who is beautiful and thin and who the girls in her social strata resent because they do not look “as good as she.” The casting for the production is genius because all of the girls are adorable and in fact, the rival of the protagonist could be said to be more attractive, depending upon one’s subjective opinion.

Leah C. Gardiner, Tori Sampson, Playwrights Horizons, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka, Maechi Aharanwa, Jason Bowen, Leland Fowler

(L to R): Maechi Aharanwa, Jason Bowen, Leland Fowler in ‘If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka,’ written by Tori Sampson at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

The arc of the plot development revolves around the interactions of Akim with her ultra protective father (Jason Bowen), her beauty encouraging mother (Maechi Aharanwa) and her school mates who front off on being her friends to entrap and destroy her. These include Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Adama (Mirirai Sithole) and Kaya (Phumzile Sitole). Thrown in to escalate the conflict is the romantic interest Kasim (Leland Fowler) who Massassi and Akim fight over. Rotimi Agbabiaka portrays the Chorus as he narrates and guides the action.

Sampson’s protagonist who has been sheltered by her parents and especially her Dad because he fears her beauty will bring trouble upon her, has few social guideposts to help her recognize those who are truly friendly and those who are plotting against her. Thus, as a series of events unfolds, she is blind to the wickedness of Massassi who instigates her friends to drown Akim in the river. Massassi is motivated by jealousy, insecurity and fear that Akim’s beauty will steal Kasim from her. She reasons if Akim is dead, she will free the world and herself of the daily torment and misery she experiences because Akim exists. Like the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who attempts to kill Snow White, Massassi must eliminate her competition to end her suffering.

Tori Sampson, Leah C. Gardiner, Playwrights Horizons, Phumzile Sitole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Miriarai Sithole, If Pretty Hurst Ugly Must be a Muhfucka

(L to R): Phumzile Sitole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Miriarai Sithole in ‘If Pretty Hurst Ugly Must be a Muhfucka, written by Tori Sampson, directed by Leah C. Gardiner at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus),

The notion that beauty standards provoke evil and harm when women focus on their outer appearance to the exclusion of everything else is an unshakable cultural phenomenon. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia exemplify this harm; the obsession with plastic surgery and appearing youthful, undergoing physical mutilation to leave a good looking corpse at the end of life has become a fantastical reality that all women confront and succumb to or rebel against. One of Simpson’s themes in the play suggests that when individuals so concerned with appearance ignore the very reality of the soul and value of human beings, life itself and the appreciation of life’s wonders dissolve. The person becomes a vapid and empty non-person blown about by the next cultural trend or “beauty” style.

Paramount in the production is the theme that life is more than external appearances. The wholeness of life encompasses the soul, spiritual rebirth and regeneration away and apart from cultural mores that command women adhere to rigid appearance fascism.  In a symbolic musical dance number, Simpson suggests the importance of spirituality to every individual when Akim undergoes a spiritual resurrection that lifts her soul beyond the attention of the physical, empirical world. The true realm of life is not the empirical, material world which one sees with the eyes but what one apprehends in one’s spirit, the invisible world of the supernatural.

Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sithole, Nike Uche Kadri, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka, Tori Sampson, Leah C. Gardiner

(L to R): Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sithole, Nike Uche Kadri, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in ‘If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka,’ directed by Leah C. Gardiner, written by Tori Sampson (Joan Marcus)

With Akim’s transformation, Simpson clarifies that only spiritual regeneration can fill the emptiness and underlying void that attention to external beauty  cannot fulfill. And indeed, by the end of the play, we see that encouragement to develop inner self-love and confidence obviates Massassi’s hellish, obsessive torment for not measuring up to the culture’s appearance fascism. Instead, she defines her own standards of beauty and internalizes them, focusing on her true self.

The production raises intriguing questions about how each of us negotiates cultural folkways that can be destructive if we internalize them and punish ourselves for “falling short.” The themes are powerful and varied. The arc of the play’s development moves from realism to mysticism which may be confusing to some. The conclusion ends with a construct that “all is a dream.” Yes, this is contrived, but Massassi’s dialogue brings the themes and the story together. Indeed, this play is about ideas and human archetypes. I appreciate the playwright’s intent and know the themes to be vital ones.

One caveat about performances. The finest portrayals were by the actors who slowed down, projected and didn’t allow “accents” to get in the way of the playwright’s wonderful meaning. The words are key, the dialogue is king. The audience must understand every word the actors project. This was sadly not the case in this production where the tongues sometimes tripped over the accents garbling the dialogue.

Kudos to the creative artists responsible for scenic design (Louisa Thompson), lighting design (Matt Frey), costume design (Dede Ayite) and original music and sound design (Ian Sot). Without their shining efforts, the production would have been a drab mess. Musicians Rona Siddiqui on percussion and keyboard, and Erikka Walsh on percussion and base were fantastic. Special kudos to choreographer Raja Feather Kelly whose symbolic dance numbers superbly conveyed the playwright’s themes and solidified them. Leah C. Gardiner’s excellent staging brought together the various elements to ingeniously effect this production and make it memorable.

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka runs with no intermission at Playwrights Horizons (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) in an extension until 5 April. For tickets on their website CLICK HERE.

 

‘By the way, Meet Vera Stark’ by Lynn Nottage at The Signature Theatre

By the way Meet Vera Stark, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, Heather Alicia Simms, Pershing Square Signature Center, Kamilah Forbes, Lynn Nottage

(L to R): Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, Heather Alicia Simms in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark’, written by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kamilah Forbes (Joan Marcus)

Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center is a comical/tragic study in black Hollywood’s greats that few recognize because the racism and oppression in the nation was also reflected in Hollywood institutions. Nottage follows the career of black actress Vera Stark across seven decades and examines how she fared while the roles for black women remained static as maids, servants, slaves and menials. The setting is Hollywood, but the time shifts from 1933 (film studio and apartment) to 1973 on Brad Donovan’s Hollywood TV show and 2003 during a Hollywood film colloquium.

We are first introduced to the incomparable Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) in the 1930s when she is young, beautiful, vibrant and naive about launching her career in the movies. Working as a maid for “America’s little sweetie pie” Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), Vera creates her own opportunities and lands the prized role as a maid in a picture starring two of her friends and Gloria Mitchell called The Belle of New Orleans.

Nottage’s characterization of Vera Stark reveals the actor’s assiduous work ethic, her dogged ambition and supreme cleverness at jiving the system and environment she is in. She negotiates helping Gloria Mitchell with everything from her image and wearing the right clothes, to reading lines with her for the audition that Gloria needs to get a plum part which will strengthen her career. It is this audition that Vera hopes to also parlay into a role for herself to eventually rise up the ladder of stardom.

Jessica Frances Dukes, By the way Meet Vera Stark, Lynn Nottage, Kamilah Forbes

Jessica Frances Dukes in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark,’ by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kamilah Forbes (Joan Marcus)

Act I is filled with humor that indicates the sub rosa black culture’s fronting and milking the stereotypes whites have of them behind their backs. Joined by her friend Lottie McBride (the fine Heather Alicia Simms) who also has come to Hollywood and has eaten herself out of house and home to play a mammy slave part to no avail, their playfulness and criticism of their circumstances indicates they are survivors and will hang on until they achieve what they want, though the roles available to them are as slaves, maids and servants.

We meet another “high yellow” black actress Anna Mae Simpkins (the funny Carra Patterson) a quasi friend who is looking to advance herself by dating various directors and other filmmakers and passing herself off as a Brazilian. The interactions between the women and a foreign director are beyond hysterical, and Nottage has fun with turning assumptions about blacks on their head. When the director assumes that all blacks come from a slave background, Vera and Lottie act the parts of the oppressed for him with hysterical precision mugging the stereotypes, convincing the director to give them parts in his film.

Act I presents the backstory of these four women before they achieve artistic greatness in the film The Belle of New Orleans which all of them are cast in. The beauty of this production is how Nottage chronicles the development of Vera Stark. So we actually get to see the film in black and white. And all of the actresses are superb, placed into the film’s reality. On stage and in real life, these women, Lottie, Gloria, Anna Mae and Vera are “larger than life.” However, on film the actresses give the roles they play a resonance and authenticity. We understand why and how (based on the last moments of the film), the film is a great and iconic one in the annals of film history and often the subject of film colloquiums.

After the screening of The Belle of New Orleans, Herb Forrester (Warner Miller) steps out from the curtain and we realize that he has just shown the film at a colloquium in Hollywood. As Forrester proceeds, we hear a disposition about Vera Stark’s identity as a black actress and how she was able to make a life and career for herself despite the demeaning roles black men and women played as slaves, helpers, servants, chauffeurs, etc., reflecting the culture at large. Joined by Carmen Levy-Green (Heather Alicia Simms) and Afua Assata Ejobo (Carra Patterson) we are struck by the cultural ironies as these heady intellectuals play the elites while they dissect Vera Stark and cast her “blackness” in philosophical racial identities that Nottage turns into hysterical objectifications.

Jessica Frances Dukes, By the way Meet Vera Stark, Lynn Nottage, Kamilah Forbes

(L to R): Carra Patterson, Heather Alicia Simms, Warner Miller in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark, directed by Kamilah Forbes, written by Lynn Nottage (Joan Marcus)

The humor as the two women argue about Vera Stark’s identity, gender and racial politics with Forrester, who appears to deal with them in all his glorious paternalism, is just great. Act II brings all the tropes together and the liveliness of the conflict between the black male and the two female guests is superbly done.

Even more superb is the flashback to a tape of the afternoon talk show (a la Merv Griffin style) that stars host Brad Donovan with guest, the great black actress Vera Stark. Forrester plays the taped interview with Vera Stark to reveal what happened to her after she had her Hollywood career that never advanced beyond the cultural stereotypes and roles that the white paternalistic studio heads created for her.

In this taped session which we see live, Jessica Frances Dukes appears more like a version of every starlet who faded irretrievably into old age and alcoholism and speaks with a wobbly voice rather like Katherine Hepburn’s. Every moment of the taping, the diva, Vera Stark is “on.” She sings a bit and entertains with humor another guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Manoel Felciano). All goes swimmingly as Vera gets drunker and drunker until surprise! Donovan trots out Gloria Mitchell so the women have a reunion to discuss The Belle of New Orleans. The difference between how Vera Stark has aged and how Gloria Mitchell has aged is striking and revelatory. Gloria Mitchell who had a career, and the substantial money to take care of her body looks the same. Vera Stark, who has allowed the excesses of alcohol and demeaning parts to overtake her soul, has aged and appears to be a tragic figure.

Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, By the way Meet Vera Stark, Kamilah Forbes, Lynn Nottage

(L to R): Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark,’ (Joan Marcus)

This is a subtle devastation which the host doesn’t appear to “get,” but which Vera Stark finally does. And in an epiphany she relates that she is still enslaved to a role she played decades ago. Now, once again, she must confront Gloria Mitchell and the role of Tilly, though she has gone on to do other parts during her career she perceived she made for herself. Only with this final confrontation, Vera realizes she has allowed the culture to dupe her. And she vows, it is for the last time. Dukes’ Vera is fabulous in this section and the ensemble fields her beautifully.

How Nottage concludes the third segment with Forrester, Levy Green and Ejobo continuing to disagree with each other’s dialectic about Vera Stark is both humorous and sardonic. For they have completely missed the point which we clearly have seen in the segments. Vera Stark was morphed by the circumstances of Hollywood. The rumors of how she ended her life are even more ironic as we listen to the elites discuss a woman they knew very little about. Then Nottage in the last few minutes configures another fabulous revelation that is poignant and beautiful. You will just have to see this wonderful production to appreciate it for yourself.

By the way, Meet Vera Stark runs with one intermission until 10th of March at the Pershing Square Signature Center. You can pick up tickets by CLICKING HERE.

Artistic Creatives: Clint Ramos (Scenic Design) Dede M. Ayite (Costume Design) Matt Frey (Lighting Design) Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Design) KAtherine Freer (Projetion Design) Daniel Kluger (Composer) Mia Neal (Hair and Wig Design)

 

 

”Merrily We Roll Along,’ Strong Performances, an Ebullient, Sleek, Shining Revival at Roundabout

, Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim, Fiasco Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along, Jessie Austrian Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Paul L. offey Manu Narayan, Noah Brody,

The Company of ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ presented by Roundabout Theatre Company and Fiasco Theater. Book by George Furth, Music/
lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Noah Brody (Joan Marcus)

Dramaturgs are most probably familiar with the tribulations of the 1981 version of Merrily We Roll Along, book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, produced by Harold Prince. The musical, based on the titular play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart essentially extols youthful ambitions and  artistic dreams which may become subverted by practical considerations once success and financial security are achieved. The original Furth/Sondheim musical lacked measured focus but was noted by some for its wonderful score. Though the show closed after more previews than performances, it was nominated for awards and won two.

The concepts highlighted by Sondheim’s music and lyrics are timeless and made especially so in their reworked version of Merrily We Roll Along (1994) which grounds the adapted iteration presented by Roundabout and engendered by the sterling efforts of Fiasco Theater. From the superlative, exciting performances by a “gang of six” headed up by the three principals, Jessie Austrian, Manu Narayan and Ben Steinfeld and directed with precision and adroit sensitivity by Noah Brody, this thematically poignant production resoundingly works (rare praise coming from a lukewarm Sondheim fan). I found the energetic pace, incredible plot structure and imaginative set design that paid tribute to theaters of the past (and Sondheim’s work) delightful and funny. Altogether, the artistic design, staging, costumes, sound design, and the ensemble’s superlative acting and singing unfold seamlessly in the service of uniquely structured storytelling that many should appreciate.

Certainly, the sheer number of theatrical props on library bookself-style floor to ceiling walls covering three sides of the stage intrigue. The props, haphazardly arranged appear akin to a “behind-the-scenes” look into symbolic take-aways of the characters’ lives. The theatrical design and tropes  provide a fascinating backdrop to the action, the arc of which spins linchpin events in a reverse chronology from 1980 to 1957. It is a period of time which encompasses seven transitions to the precipitating incident when the three protagonists (Mary-Jessie Austrian, Charley-Manu Narayan, Frank-Ben Steinfeld) first meet on a rooftop that turns out to hold a lasting symbolism for them. The flashbacks to crucial years, highlight the melds and fractures of these immensely talented individuals whose dreams, personalities and synergies help to solidify an artistic fount of creativity. It is from this fountain of creativity and their interlocking aspirations that their successes spring forth.

, Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim, Fiasco Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along, Jessie Austrian Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Paul L. offey Manu Narayan, Noah Brody,

(L to R): Ben Steinfeld, Manu Narayan, Jessie Austrian in ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ Book by George Furth, Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Noah Brody, Fiasco Theater’s production at Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

However, without their symbiotic energies weaving and flowing together, the fountain dries up. As we follow the events backward in time, we note the progression and conclude that the waters that once revived them dissipated as did the joy, hope and vibrance of creative, encouraging friendship. It is this that Frank remembers at the outset of the play and which is the initiating incident of all the scenes that flow back into the past. We shadow Frank as he relives and remembers key times and places that led to his separation from his friends.  The three when we meet them in 1980 are successful and rest on their laurels. However, their greatness which is embedded in their friendship with each other is behind them. It is this tri-parte greatness that Frank (the excellent Ben Steinfeld) seeks in the beginning of Merrily We Roll Along.

And it is this greatness that Frank understands he has lost in an epiphany at the conclusion of the extended flashback which switches back into the present. He knows when his friendship ended with Mary (Austrian is absolutely wonderful) and Charley (Narayan brings down the house with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), that he lost the best part of himself. Whether he makes a determined effort to rekindle his relationship with Mary and Charley to recapture what they had is uncertain and sadly, not even alluded to as the lights dim.

The play’s structure as we chronicle the journey back to their first sparks of friendship is revelatory. When we witness the older individuals and their various partners at the outset of the play, these successful people are “played out,” grossly unspectacular and unoriginal. We do not relate to them, and feel disengaged from Frank’s “matter-of-fact” attitude as he sings “Rich and Happy.” But the song belies the truth and he and others question how they arrived at their aggressive and truly unhappy, unfulfilled state. There is a “movie-like” rewind (a transition which segues into the past), and the characters get to experience what most of us don’t get to see: the pivotal events that cause them to be where they are, when they don’t wish to be there at all.

, Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim, Fiasco Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along, Jessie Austrian Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Paul L. offey Manu Narayan, Noah Brody,

(L to R): Ben Steinfeld, Paul L. Coffey, Brittany Bradford, Emily Young in ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ Book by George Furth, Music/lyrics Stephen Sondheim, directed by Noah Brody, Fiasco Theater’s production at the Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

In the brilliance of the play’s structure we chronicle Frank’s and the other’s flashback to the greatness they lost with various songs (“Like It Was,” “Franklin Shephard, Inc.”, “Old Friends,” “Growing Up,” through to “Our Time”). With the songs and transitional refrain (“Merrily We Roll Along”) taking us to their former times, the characters fill out and become personable individuals with whom we readily identify. Because of the ensemble’s acting skills and the director’s attention to detail, we joy to their humanity and feel ebullient with them, witnessing how they “made it.” However, we realize there is a caveat: success is another type of failure if one allows it to overthrow priorities and values that are based in goodness.

When we finally witness Mary’s, Frank’s and Charley’s serendipitous meet up on the rooftop when they solidify an uncanny unity, we make the connection to their twenty years later selves. Yes, years later they have “grown up.” But they have sacrificed, not their youthfulness, but their hope.  They’ve lost the eternal innocence that initially ignited their artistic ambitions and happiness when they “found” each other.

It was this eternal innocence that synergistically drove them, encouraged them, sustained them through the “hard” years before they achieved success. However, after each becomes successful in their own right, they allowed their friendship to be sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. Their triumph is hollow, their latter-day efforts are uninspired. It is an incredible irony that in “the seeking” is the fun and adventure. With success comes another myriad of torments. And without your friends to hear you out and go through the miseries with you, it is especially painful. So it is for Mary, Charley and Frank.

To round out the acting “gang of six” are Brittany Bradford who portrays Beth, Meg and K.T. Her “Not a Day Goes By,” is just great in its emotional power and resonance. Paul L. Coffey and Emily Young are excellent as foils to each other portraying the producer, husband, actress, divorced and devolved. Carefully they authenticate the specifics of these individuals that confound Mary’s, Charley’s and Frank’s friendships with each other.

, Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim, Fiasco Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along, Jessie Austrian Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Paul L. offey Manu Narayan, Noah Brody

(L to R): Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld, Manu Narayan in ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ Book by George Furth, Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Noah Brody, Fiasco Theater’s production at Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Coffey’s upward development of Joe from failed producer to top of the world success is great (rewinding from the present to the past). Young’s upward development of neophyte actress and wife, who throws over Joe for Frank is excellent. The ebb and flow of success and failure in the marriages and relationships between Frank, Beth, Gussie, Joe characterizes the show business life. Meanwhile, Charley and Mary manage to hang on to their steady state (though Mary never marries). The contrast between the two groups is fascinating. It is clear how the demands of the producing/acting/songwriting lifestyles overthrow stability as these characters swim and tread water in an ever-changing sea of transitions.

Fiasco Theater’s re-imagining of Merrily We Roll Along is sharp, engaging, humorous, heartbreaking. The themes of friendship, regret and loss examined using flashbacks are clearly drawn through the music which is dynamic and exceptional. Sondheim touched upon the ineffability of friendship’s innocence and beauty and used that to drive the show forward into the remembrances of the past. The transitions beginning with the “Big Rewind” are excellent as the “gang of six” “rolls merrily along further into the convoluted turning points that got them to where they are decades later.

Some numbers are riotous, for example Austrian’s transformation into her thinner, unalcoholic self. Her vomiting up the booze “in the rewind” is super smart and hilarious.  “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a song Charley, Beth, Frank and Mary perform at the Downtown Club is fun, and nostalgic for those who remember the Kennedys. The excitement of “It’s a Hit!” sung by Joe, Charley, Frank, Mary and Beth when their show is a success is exuberant and effervescent. And “Old Friends” is just spectacular. emotional and stirring. It is the kindling of the show’s fiery brightness.

, Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim, Fiasco Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along, Jessie Austrian Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Paul L. offey Manu Narayan, Noah Brody,

(L to R): Jessie Austrian, Manu Narayan, Brittany Bradford, Ben Steinfeld in ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ Book by George Furth, Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Fiasco Theater’s production at the Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Most importantly, the cast authentically, magnetically fulfills in their various portrayals what Sondheim and Furth wanted to express: themes about friendship gained and lost, the synergies of creativity, the wonder of manifesting the creative process, and the corruptions that undermine the best of one’s self, for example prizing financial gain above all else.

The production is complex and rich. It should be seen, especially if you saw another version of Merrily We Roll Along. Fiasco Theater’s smashing adaptation is not to be missed. And if you didn’t see an earlier version, be happily enthralled while enjoying the depth of this production which is a clever, profoundly poignant  “every-person” memoir of gaining and losing oneself. Finally, the work is a paean to friendship which in this show starts in the forever and ends up with protagonist Frank and the others staring into the abyss of regret. Is there a warning here in the “Age of Trumpism?”

Special Kudos to all creatives and The Band: Conductor/Piano-Emily Whitaker and these musicians: Giuseppe Fusco, Ansy Francois, Jeremy Miloszewicz, Jami Dauber, Hidayat Honari, Matt Aronoff, Janna Graham. Music Coordinator: Meg Zervoulis; Music Preparation: Conor Keelan.

Merrily We Roll Along runs without an intermission at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street) until 7 April. You can purchase tickets at (212) 392-6308 or at their website by clicking HERE.

‘The Neurology of the Soul,’ Written/Directed by Edward Einhorn, at A.R.T.

Ashley Griffin, The Neurology of the Soul, Edward Einhorn, A.R.T.

Ashley Griffin in Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s ‘The Neurology of the Soul,’written and directed by Edward Einhorn at A.R.T. (Richard Termine)

Without bringing it square and center in his latest work The Neurology of the Soul, a must-see currently at A.R.T., playwright Edward Einhorn thematically relays what Tom Stoppard focused on in his work about neuroscience’s inability to deal with consciousness in The Hard Problem. Indeed, in The Neurology of the Soul Einhorn’s presents a neuroscientist’s search to empirically measure consciousness (love) with brain scans. Einhorn also directs this exceptional play which delivers humor, boundless verve and exciting ideas that on closer inspection are concerning.

Why are neuroscientists, marketers and art gallery owners (representatives of whom Einhorn acquaints us with in the play) assiduously and feverishly working to find the next great “discovery?” The profit motive in all of its sinister, opaque, nullifying effects which bind us to cultural norms that are often destructive to our souls. With an intriguing backdrop linking neuroscience, art, marketing/branding and human relationships, Einhorn raises questions about ethics and justice in his beautifully constructed, dynamic and mind-blowing work.

Untitled Theater Company No. 61, The Neurology of the Soul, Edward Einhorn, Ashley Griffin, Matthew Trumbull, A.R.T.

Ashley Griffin, Matthew Trumbull in Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s, ‘The Neurology of the Soul,’
written and directed by Edward Einhorn at A.R.T. (Richard Termine)

This is Einhorn’s newest play and it is as trenchant as much of his earlier work, perhaps even more so. For by identifying a loving couple’s relationship in the petri dish of our time, then agitating it with other individuals and circumstances, he explores the hideaway crevasses of the human spirit and soul. And he reveals how ultimately, consciousness and feelings of love are beyond the kin of empiricism (quantifiable, material data production) which science clings to with ferocity and an almost paranoid, discriminatory blindness. His exploration is at once humorous and frightening, if one considers the implications of what the art world, marketing and neuroscientists may intend. Each have their own siren songs which Einhorn gently presents to allow us to form our own conclusions. And even if the results are unsettling and uncertain, indeed the considerations are limitless and fascinating. Above all, his play alerts us to be on guard.

Stephen (a superbly developed performance by Matthew Trumbull) a cognitive neuroscientist, works for a university as a researcher. He is obsessed with attempting to chart consciousness, specifically the emotions of love. He is using brain scans (fMRI) to do so. That he employs his wife Amy (Ashley Griffin is equally brilliant in the give and take with Trumbull) as his research subject to gauge her reactions and brain responses to his expressions of love, appears sweet. On deeper inspection, Matthew’s Stephen remains removed and aloof as a researcher in the lab. And hearing his “matter-of-fact” atonal love expressions is humorous. It is antithetical to any expression of emotional love and desire which might arise during the normal course of two people interacting in a more intimate setting. (How Einhorn evolves this character and shepherds Trumbull’s adroit, incisive acting skills to bring him to surprising emotionalism is fabulous! Bravo to both!)

Untitled Theater Company No. 61, Edward Einhorn, Mick O'Brien, The Neurology of the Soul, Edward Einhorn, Mick O'Brief, A.R.T.

Mick O’Brien, Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s ‘The Neurology of the Soul’ written and directed by Edward Einhorn, at A.R.T. (Richard Termine)

Amy, a “failed” artist who signs on for the experiment, for she, too, wants to see how “love” lights up her brain, at the outset appears to be the more sensitive of the two. As Stephen gauges her responses, Amy speaks her feelings and thoughts to the audience and engages us as her confidante. She remains the impassive subject on a research table. We and Stephen can view her on a television screen and Stephen charts her brain responses. Nevertheless, she is two people: the interior and the exterior. For during the scene, when Stephen speaks love phrases to her, Amy’s interior feelings (which she relates to us) and thoughts are very active. Indeed, they are not about him or her love for him, but about the process of being “a subject.”

 

Einhorn’s having Amy speak to the audience is intriguing. Is this foreshadowing how from the outset, the scientific mapping is not only primitive, but is most probably heading in the direction of a complete disconnect? Einhorn surreptitiously sneaks in through Amy’s address/aside to the the audience (a dramatic technique with more than a typically Shakespearean purpose) that the human being is not a machine easily measurable. Nor is a human being easily controllable, manipulated, or understood. Her thoughts are unseen to Stephen, but revealed to us as she flashes back to a time when she modeled nude for art classes. This “disconnect,” is at the crux of the play and provides the action that propels it to the climax (when Amy and Stephen “scream” in recognition of their hurt and what they fear they have lost).

Increasingly, during Stephen’s experimentation of charting love, his love relationship with Amy is impacted. The observation of their love strangely changes it, recalling to mind the “observer effect” in Physics; the observation of a situation or phenomenon impacts and changes it.

Untitled Theater Company No. 61, Edward Einhorn, Mick O'Brien, The Neurology of the Soul, Mick O'Brien, Matthew Trumbull, Ashley Griffin, The Neurology of the Soul, Edward Einhorn, A.R.T.

(L to R): Mick O’Brien, Matthew Trumbull, Ashley Griffin (background) in Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s ‘The Neurology of the Soul,’ written and directed by Edward Einhorn at A.R.T. (Richard Termine)

Immediately, in the next segment Einhorn introduces Mark, the head of a neuromarketing firm who speaks before a “Digital Leadership Convention.”  As Mark, Mick O’Brien is frighteningly believable as the narcissist with an overweening ego convinced of his own perfection and the justice of brainwashing people whom he uses for his own agenda. With clips of older TV advertisements, Mark convinces us how facile it is to manipulate consumers to buy product. Mark brilliantly persuades his audience (us) in the direction of using the expertise of his neuromarketing firm for whatever purpose, for example, selling product or something else. As Mark’s selling segments alternate with the research sessions between Amy and Stephen, the inevitable happens. Mark eventually hires Stephen for a lot of money to conduct research for his firm with the quid pro quo that Stephen can continue his research with Amy.

The delicious irony that Einhorn reveals with Mark’s characterization is that Mark “believes” that by employing visual and aural propaganda and brainwashing techniques, consumers are completely pliable and suggestive. That this is a “belief” or “theory” and not a 100% proven fact is lost on him. There is no uncertainty with him. He is convinced of the reality he creates to lure his listeners (Amy, Stephen, us) and himself.

Ashley Griffin, Mick O'Brien, Yvonne Roen, Edward Einhorn, The Neurology of the Soul Untitled Theater Company No. 61, A.R.T.

Ashley Griffin, Yvonne Roen, Mick O’Brien in Untitled Theater Company’s ‘The Neurology of the Soul,’ written and directed by Edward Einhorn, A.R.T. (Richard Termine)

Though Amy does not trust him initially, Stephen and she relocate to an apartment in New York City. Mark persuades Amy to use her brain scans to create art which will be shown in a gallery he co-owns with his former wife Claire (a fine performance by Yvonne Roen as the congenial art dealer who ameliorates Amy’s misgivings and suspicions about Mark). Altruism doesn’t play into Mark’s “concern” for Amy’s talent or artistry. He convinces her she is lucky meeting him and that his is an opportunity she shouldn’t refuse. When she doesn’t, of course, he profits from the exhibition of her work and insinuates himself into her relationship with Stephen. Additionally, her art and herself become a commodity to be branded and marketed. Amy and her art are objectified, but the price for this process of bringing her brain scans (soul?) into art is worth it she believes. The irony is duly noted and we are reminded that promoters and marketers control how art and people rise and fall as trending commodities.

Ashley Griffin, Mick O'Brien, Edward Einhorn, Untitled Theater Company No. 61, Edward Einhorn

Ashley Griffin, Mick O’Brien, Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s ‘The Neurology of the Soul’ written and directed by Edward Einhorn, A.R.T. (Richard Termine)

The inevitable affair does not occur between Mark and Amy; though how this doesn’t occur is as complicated and uncertain as the wind. Stephen in the process of measuring Amy’s scans convinces himself that he sees in her scans a diminishing love response. And this he interprets to mean that she is falling out of love with him. Ultimately, there is a separation of living arrangements. With all this scientific measuring, belief, assumption, and second guesses encroach. It is a great irony of this play that the characters reveal how unobjective and unscientific they are in typical human fashion.

Despite the persuasive talents of Mark who is convinced of his own invincibility, Amy’s love is for one man only. Once more our faith is restored in what is unknowable, unscientific and spiritual (love). Amy’s art does receive an uplift; about that, as Claire suggested, Mark’s invincibility appears to be correct.

Untitled Theater Company No. 61, The Neurology of the Soul, Edward Einhorn, Ashley Griffin, Matthew Trumbull, A.R.T.

Matthew Trumbull, Ashley Griffin in Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s ‘The Neurology of the Soul’
written and directed by Edward Einhorn, A.R.T. (Richard Termine)

The Neurology of the Soul startles, thrills and absolutely shimmers with light. The themes Einhorn suggests are heady and profound. To what extent must we question the ethics about neuroscientific information in the employ of unscrupulous “neuromarketers” like representative Mark? If science captivates human beings’ unconscious proclivities with the intention of handing over the data to corporate entities who will then use it to brainwash social groups to consume their products, shouldn’t this be regulated? What if such data is turned over to digital companies to manipulate individuals to vote a certain way or support a certain political group over others? Isn’t this injudicious? Undemocratic? Should scientific ethics be left to scientists to self-regulate or independent panels of retired scientists? How do scientists regulate themselves to prevent abuses?

Science removed from philosophy and ethics and morality because those are quaint historic notions is a dangerous “science”. Such science is akin to its own philosophy and belief system which then could be used to justify anything. Without moral and ethical considerations, primitive neuroscience is still in its infancy. But what happens if certain emotions and consciousnesses can be mapped? As for now, the mind is unknown. Consciousness is a “hard problem.” And emotions like love, as Einhorn shows by the conclusion of his play, are beyond measure.

Einhorn’s The Neurology of the Soul is incredibly prescient and current. Think of social media’s use of memes, tropes, visuals and hot button rhetoric pegged to unconscious impulses to manipulate with disastrous results, especially when social groups are being targeted. Regulation is an imperative. But what happens when corporates and other leading social actors resist regulation for their own ends?

All of these themes and many more Einhorn sweepingly covers in this incredible and memorable work, made more exceptional with the production team’s artistry. All these listed are well shepherded by Einhorn’s direction. Kudos to Jim Boutin (Set Designer); Magnus Pind Bjerre (Video Designer); Ramona Ponce (Costume Designer); Jeff Nash (Lighting Designer); Sadah Espii Proctor (Sound Designer); Tiffany Lee (Asst. Video); Eric Mueller (Neurosales Logo) and all who contributed their efforts.

The Neurology of the Soul runs with no intermission until 2nd of March at A.R.T. (53rd between 10th and 11th). For tickets to this amazing production go to the website: Click Here.

 

‘The Price of Thomas Scott’ by Elizabeth Baker, Presented by The Mint Theater Company

The Mint Theater Company, Donald Corren, Tracy Sallows, Emma Geer, Theatre Row, Elizabeth Baker

(L to R):Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren, Emma Geer in ‘The Price of Thomas Scott,’ presented by The Mint Theater (Todd Cerveris)

The Price of Thomas Scott, currently at Theatre Row is an interesting period piece which has at its core central issues about conscience, upholding the values one professes to believe in and sacrificing material well being for spiritual health and soul wholeness. Written by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) the playwright who hailed from a religious family wrote in the early last century about London’s working classes, shop girls, clerks and the ambitiously upwardly mobile.

In focusing a spotlight on their dreams, foibles and mores, Baker entertains with an eye to unraveling key theses about the human condition. Despite fashion and social folkways, if you transplant her characters in a modern prototypical setting, the results would initially appear vastly different, but the similarities in the characters’ issues would be stark and familiar. The reason why is because the moral, ethical and personal questions her characters confront, are issues we also confront at one time or another, if we have a conscience. There’s the rub!

The setting is the back parlor of Thomas Scott’s Draper’s shop (cloth wholesaler, haberdasher) where daughter Annie Scott (the delightful and winning Emma Geer) and son Leonard (the vibrant Nick LaMedica) discuss their ambitions and dreams, all of which require a large amount of money that their father does not have. The Scotts are part of the declining middle class and the children are strivers. However, Thomas Scott’s business is not doing well because his competitors drive down the prices, and the costs, as always, seem to eat into any profits. In short, Scott wishes to sell his business, retire and go to a beautiful place in Wales, something his wife has been longing for as she is tired of city living.

One factor that we note immediately is that this is a religious family and Mr. Scott (Donald Corren’s portrayal is modulated and has none of the self-righteous tone of the “religious”) upholds his beliefs and encourages his family to attend church and eschew all the latest fads and fashions, even attending theater performances. Though he doesn’t view theater as sinful, actually, he characterizes it as immoral (this gets a laugh from the audience). He suggests he can read the about it and that time and money could be spent better with other pursuits.

Jonathan Bank, Elizabeth Baker, The Price of Thomas Scott, Emma Geer, Nick LaMedica

Nick LaMedica, Emma Geer in ‘The Price of Thomas Scott’ by Elizabeth Baker, directed by Jonathan Bank (Todd Cerveris)

After a scene where lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize) and his friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) waltz with Annie and her friend May (Ayana Workman), as brother Leonard plays for them, we understand that the young people wish to break away from the repressed culture in which they live. A waltz seems harmless enough. But we realize from the paranoid and hurried way that they rearrange the furniture which they moved to dance, that Mr. Scott would not be pleased to see them carrying on. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of dancing either. The focal point of his life seems to be church, praying, Bible study and singing religious hymns and he encourages his family to follow his upright example which they do to his face with a few lapses behind his back.

The conflict slowly develops. Mr. Scott fears running down his business to bankruptcy. And the only way out for his and his children’s dreams to come true would be to sell. However, no one is interested. And because of the other sales of neighbors’ business it appears he will not get a particularly good price for his shop. The quandray stresses him and his family who understand the stakes and the potential doom if there is no buyer.

When a buyer appears as a recommendation from elsewhere, Mr. Scott is thrilled as is the family. Following the adjurations of his friend to ask for an excellent price, he holds out for a price which would answer all of the desires of the family. Indeed, money answers all things, a Biblical scripture the play does not allude to. The 500 pound settlement would allow him to retire to Wales with his wife, set his son on a fine career path and pay for his daughter’s dream to go to Paris to learn the latest styles and return to London to employ her craft.

However, there is a fly in the ointment which may prevent their dreams from ever being realized. And the huge fly is Mr. Scott’s values and conscience. He is not enamored of the buyer or his trade.

His wife Ellen (the fine Tracy Sallows) respects him as do his children. However, if he allows his conscience to rule over their happiness, then their dreams and his own will turn to ashes. Unless a buyer shows up that he approves of, he may go bankrupt and have to close the shop without any money to forestall their downward economic decline. He is a religious man. He will have to turn to His God and his conscience for his final decision and after that the outcome which will be “good” or “ill.” When in trouble, rely on miracles!

Elizabeth Baker, Jonathan Bank, The Price of Thomas Scott Donald Corren Mark Kenneth Smaltz

(L to R): Donald Corren, Mark Kenneth Smaltz in ‘The Price of Thomas Scott,’ by Elizabeth Baker, directed by Jonathan Bank (Todd Cerveris)

Mr. Scott’s choices and decisions mirror those conundrums faced by every world leader, every businessman, every head of the household who has control of others’ economic well being. If one is ethical and moral, the choices are actually harder. If one is amoral and believes that it is all right to wipe all competitors and settle for an “I win you lose” result, then there is no problem making the decision, but a huge problem with the result especially if the rule of law is in force. On the other hand morality, ethics and conscience create immense problems and crises. Living by one’s own standards stolidly without hypocrisy is the problem especially if there are temptations. And it is especially the problem if one expects others to live by one’s own standards though theirs may be different. Of course if the standards are high moral ones then it should be clear and the individual should be respected for living up to them. But relativity creeps in depending upon the situation and definition of “high moral standards.”

For example racists believe their discrimination is for the common good and a “high moral standard.” Conservative religious individuals believe the LBGTQ crowd are twisted and sick and should be rejected until they are turned to normal heterosexuality. A head of the household believes he must live by his values though it will impoverish his family and take food out of their mouths. These individuals, if they stick to their beliefs unequivocally, are not hypocrites selling their souls to be accepted by others. They have defined their actions as belief and conviction, though their actions would be described in the culture at large as discriminatory and loathsome. In the case of the head of the household, money and family are less important than his/her conscience. Some might argue that this man should not even have a family if he does not properly take care of them. Questions of ethics, morality and following one’s conscience are invariably complex, as playwright Baker intriguingly points out.

Above all the play is fascinating in the questions it asks. The Mr. Scotts of the world who follow conscience to the exclusion of other reasonable considerations are as extreme as the amoralists whose greed and self-dealing may cause death, misery and devastation. Applying Baker’s questions to a current problem today, might be as follows. To fight against corporate hegemony and abuse of other cultures must one eschew all technology because of its inherent slave footprint to not be a hypocrite or amoralist as well? Can one completely eliminate one’s slave footprint and abide in First World country status knowing that other cultures do without allowing us to “do with?” Thus, living in social modernity carried to this absurd conclusion means living as a hypocrite unlike Mr. Thomas or living as a self-dealing amoralist who ignores the ramifications of his behavior.

Jonathan Bank, The Mint Theater Company, Elizabeth Baker, The Price of Thomas Scott, Emma Geer, Ayana Workman

(L to R) Emma Geer, Ayana Workman in ‘The Price of Thomas Scott,’ by Elizabeth Baker, directed by Jonathan Bank, The Mint Theater Company (Todd Cerveris)

The Price of Thomas Scott brings to life the ethics and morality of “modern” living in exposing the human condition which is as ancient as “Adam and Eve in the “Garden.” And though the play concludes on an upward note with the next generation “resolving” the issues in a lighthearted way, what they do is “in your face” ironic and rebellious by the standards of Mr. Scott. In that rebellion lays the foundation of a greater crisis of the culture which in a decade or so moves into the excesses of “The Roaring Twenties,” eventual crash and great Depression which was effected as a partial response to the reactionary time of prohibition, religious revivalism and strict morality that Mr. Scott embraces. For every action there is a reaction, especially when ethics, morality, hypocrisy and soul selling are at issue.

The production by The Mint Theater Company gives precise attention to the spectacle of theatrical performance and time period which is as always a pleasure to see from the props to the staging. Kudos to Vicki R. Davis (Sets) Hunter Kaczorowski (Costumes) Christian Deangelis (Lights) Jane Shaw Sound & Musical Arrangements) and others which helped to make this a beautifully rendered production. The hats are magnificent and made me wish for a time beyond weddings and funerals when such hats were in vogue. (not really…just the hats)

Special kudos to the director Jonathan Banks and the cast who deliver a measured and authentic view into the past of how individuals like Mr. Scott and his family made hard decisions and stuck by them without taint of hypocrisy or corruption of their own consciences. Would that current day politicos were more like Mr. Scott who quails at selling his soul for Mammon. (The question in the play is, is that what he really is doing or that he believes he is doing?) In light of our president and the actors who surround him in the administration and influencers in foreign lands, Mr. Scott’s problem with (X) appears quaint. So much more the irony of this play being produced now when the problems of selling one’s soul for betraying a nation and its democratic processes are paramount. Bravo, Mint Theater Company!

You can see The Price of Thomas Scott which runs without an intermission at Theater Row (42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenue). The production closes on 23rd March. Click for tickets HERE.

‘Switzerland,’ by Joanna Murray-Smith, Dishing Patricia Highsmith With Murder and a Smile

59E59 Theaters, Dan Foster, Switzerland, Patricia HighSmith, Joanna Murray-Smith, Hudson Stage Company, Peggy J. Scott, Daniel Petzold

Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold in Hudson Stage Company’s NYC Premiere of ‘Switzerland,’ by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Dan Foster at 59E59 Theaters (Rana Faure)

Renowned award winning novelist, essayist and short story writer, Patricia Highsmith isolates herself in Switzerland with views of the gorgeous snow-capped Alps glinting beams of light cheerily toward her house. As her desk and old-fashioned typewriter face opposite the window, we understand the writer is not in Switzerland for a pleasant reprieve from the United States which she often excoriated in newspaper articles and editorials.

No! She is there for another purpose. As we hop on the erratic train ride of her mind over the peaks and valleys of Highsmith’s jagged mental state fueled by alcohol, we discover what that purpose is in the Hudson Stage Company production of Switzerland. Highsmith’s goal emerges from the thrust and parry of her cruel, epithetical witticisms directed at guest Edward Ridgeway’s ineffective, mewling arguments.

From the opening of Switzerland (written by Joanna Murray-Smith) as Highsmith fronts off against Edward Ridgeway and continues until the conclusion, their menacing pas de deux fascinates and thrills. Theirs is a standoff that requires no compromise, just “a winner take all” attitude to finish off the opponent. In her inimical and irrevocable way, Highsmith finally triumphs.

Dan Foster, Joanna Murray-Smith, Hudson Stage Company, Patricia Highsmith, Peggy J. Scott Daniel Petzold

Peggy J. Scott in Hudson Stage Company’s ‘Switzerland,’ by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Dan Foster at 59E59 Theaters (Rana Faure)

Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold’s performance surprises and titillates) has been sent by her publisher who intends for Highsmith (the irascible and cantankerous Peggy J. Scott) to write one more crime novel in the globally successful series about mesmerizing murderer Tom Ripley. Ridgeway employs the typical mundanely unsophisticated patter of an underling sent on an impossible mission to get Highsmith to sign a last contract. Highsmith flays his emotional skin and carves up his pride like a parboiled turkey and dumps the carcass in the toilet as dung. The process is humorous to watch as he sinks further into himself and she blossoms with the sardonic verve of a yellow-jacket wasp tearing at a stink weed flower.

Nevertheless, Ridgeway sustains her sneering barbs about his age, US society and more. He persists and gradually threads together the spot-on phrases and allurements to seduce Highsmith. What initially intrigues Highsmith is that Ridgeway may be psychologically traumatized by the loss of his parents in a car accident. She points out that he must be an orphan for he plays the part of an orphan willing to please. Intrigued and puffed up at her accurate assumptions about him, Highsmith cruelly revels with glee as she penetrates his emotions forcing him to rehash the accident’s how, when and where like a criminal investigator. Her enthusiastic reactions to his morbid retelling are humorous and we become as interested as she about this first appearances milk-toast who seemed to fit in with the furniture until she drew him out.

Patricia Highsmith, Switzerland, Dan Foster, Joanna Murray-Smith, 59E59 Theaters, Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott, Hudson Stage Company

Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott in ‘Switzerland,’at 59E59 Theaters (Rana Faure)

During the course of Ridgeway’s sojourn into this indelicate persuasion to seduce Highsmith to do what for a decade she has chosen not to, we learn of her noxious views and stances which are racist, anti-semitic, and somewhat homophobic, though she herself is admittedly gay. Joanna Murray-Smith paints this dark portrait of the beloved writer’s underbelly which reflects the truth if one reads her fans’ and detractors’ commentary about her personal life. As Ridgeway continues his persuasion, Highsmith gradually is pulled in and accedes after he suggests plot points for the new work. She takes the bait and they contrive together. He stays the night and the scene converts and heads in a completely different direction in the morning. It is then we realize that up is down, black is white and appearances like books cannot be judged by their covers.

What emerges Murray-Smith cleverly twists into high intrigue. The logic of this turning point is exacting and perfect. And the shock of it is succinctly and boldly enacted by Petzold’s adroit, flexible and admirable acting chops. Scott deftly works in concert holding her own with commensurate power and delight. Confronting this plot switch on a switch with hints of magical realism, Highsmith enters into her glory. Her enthusiasm is boundless once more, as if she has been given a new lease on a life that she had grown weary of in its sameness, inane vanities and boredoms.

Patricia Highsmith, Switzerland, 59E59 Theaters, Hudson Stage Company, Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott

Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott, Hudson Stage Company’s ‘Switzerland,’ at 59E59 Theaters (Rana Faure)

Directed by Dan Foster, the staging, the choices of the actors and director in a pacing of revelations shine especially at the beginning and the conclusion of the production. After the “switch” the scenes evolve rapidly. And we are riveted when the music shifts and Petzold’s Ridgeway and Scott’s Highsmith move in a delicious tango with a hints of love and attraction.

There are no spoiler alerts here. You will have to appreciate for yourself the excellent acting and the superb ensemble work of Scott and Petzold who listen, react, nuance and rightly divide their tone to enjoy the fun and humor of the relationship that they create between these characters.

Kudos to the creative team. I thought the music was a particularly fine choice (Garrett Hood is responsible for the Sound Design and Composing). Kudos go to James J. Fenton for his thoughtful set design, to Charlotte Palmer-Lane who creates the Highsmith “look” and Ridgeway’s clothing finesses; and to Andrew Gmoser for apt, suggestive lighting design.

The production in its New York City premiere is a must-see for Highsmith fans and mystery fans. And for those who may have seen a few of Highsmith’s works made into films like the Ripley series, Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock version, 1951) and wacky comedic take-offs like Throw Momma From the Train (Danny DeVito version, 1987), you will appreciate how Murray-Smith generates this fascinating piece which is well-shepherded by Dan Foster and finely rendered by Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold.

Switzerland runs with no intermission (1 hour 30 minutes) at 59E59 Theaters (Fifty-nine East 59th Street) until 3 March. For tickets you may call 59E59 Theaters at 212-753 5959 or go online by CLICKING HERE

‘The Shadow of a Gunman,’ The Sean O’Casey Season at the Irish Repertory Theatre

Ciarán O'Reilly, Una Clancy, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone, James Russell, Meg Hennessy, Irish Repertory Theatre, The Shadow of a Gunman, Ciaran O'Reilly, Sean O'Casey

(L to R): Una Clancy, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone, James Russell, Meg Hennessy in the Irish Rep production of Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’ directed by Ciarán O’Reilly (Carole Rosegg)

Sean O’Casey’s compelling The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the first play of his Dublin Trilogy, has been selected by the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “send off” to introduce their Sean O’Casey Season which has been running from January 30 and will continue through May 25,2019. The first play of the O’Casey Cycle is presented in repertory along with O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars on the Irish Rep’s main stage (132 West 22nd Street).

The plays of the trilogy take place during three pivotal and violent confrontations between Ireland and the United Kingdom: The Irish War of Independence (January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921); The Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) and The Easter Rising (April 24-29, 1916). These wars led to the Republic of Ireland achieving independence from the United Kingdom. However the tribal wounds and ferocious heartbreak and resentments incurred centuries ago that exploded into these wars and ended in an uncertain peace, still abide to this day.

Una Clancy, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone, James Russell, Meg Hennessy, Irish Repertory Theatre, The Shadow of a Gunman, Ciaran O'Reilly, Sean O'Casey

(L to R): James Russell, Michael Mellamphy in Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Shadow of a Gunman,’directed by Ciarán O’Reilly (Carol Rosegg)

The Irish Rep has chosen to celebrate its 30th anniversary by featuring O’Casey’s trilogy which chronicles the impact of dire events on the impoverished tenement dwellers of Dublin who were often the casualties of war. Revisiting the plays remains important for our time because as O’Casey highlights the effects of division and internecine hatreds, he raises questions about the nature of freedom, sacrifice, art, nationalism, Republicanism and more. Always in the background is the price average individuals are “willing” to pay to achieve self-governance and negotiate the political power plays of forces, organizations and governments not readily understandable nor controllable.

The Shadow of a Gunman ably and concisely directed by Ciarán O’Reilly to achieve O’Casey’s maximum intended effect has as its setting Dublin during the Irish War of Independence (see dates above). The largely guerilla warfare campaigns encompassed brutal clashes between the IRA (referred to as the Old IRA today) appointed as the enforcers of Irish Independence, and many former British WWI veterans known as the “Black and Tans.” These British military units were “volunteered” by England to safeguard Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. However, their undisciplined and harsh tactics exacerbated the conflicts so that repeated incidents of bloodshed and devastation were wrecked upon Dublin society by the IRA and the British military.

 Una Clancy,Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone, James Russell, Meg Hennessy, Irish Repertory Theatre, The Shadow of a Gunman, Ciaran O'Reilly, Sean O'Casey

Meg Hennessy and James Russell in the Irish Rep’s production of Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Shadow of a Gunman,’ directed by Ciarán O’Reilly

How the innocent tenement dwellers of Dublin suffer for the price of a freedom and economic independence that largely remains beyond them is brilliantly chronicled by O’Casey. And indeed, through the excellent work of the ensemble and shepherding of the fine performances by Ciarán O’Reilly, we experience the ironic tragicomedy of happenstance and the true terror of being caught between two ranging enemies who do not care who is swept up in the brutality or destroyed.

The comedy resides largely in the human interactions of the residents of a rooming house and how they present themselves as they negotiate their own political positions and participation or lack of interest in effecting a free Ireland. One central irony is that they underestimate the danger of the warfare that surrounds them until it is too late. In their naivete they assume that struggling writer and poet Donal Davoren (James Russell in a sensitive, angst-ridden and nuanced portrayal) is a member of the IRA and the titular “gunman” of the play.

Davoren, who has newly arrived to the boarding house and is the roommate of Seumus Shields (the humorous, hapless and unwitting Michael Mellamphy whose cowardice is recognizable and empathetic) is treated with dignity and great respect by the other residents. Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy renders a feisty, sweet and charming portrait of innocence and bravery) especially finds Donal irresistible for she is enamored of the romantic notions of heroism and courage that gunman fighting for a free Ireland display. Of course, the irony O’Casey delivers in blow after blow by the end of the play dispels everyone’s romantic notions of freedom fighters. And we are reminded that dying for freedom and liberty are propaganda, especially when there is a shortage of brave and courageous souls who are willing to take risks facing off against a loaded gun.

,Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone, James Russell, Meg Hennessy, Irish Repertory Theatre, The Shadow of a Gunman, Ciaran O'Reilly, Sean O'Casey

Terry Donnelly in the Irish Rep production of Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Shadow of a Gunman,’ directed by Ciarán O’Reilly (Carol Rosegg)

O’Casey presents the issues and themes immediately. He introduces the Everyman’s perspective which many of the renters embrace, particularly Mellamphy’s Shields. And the playwright fronts that view against the poet/philosopher’s pacifist view of Donal Davoren whom the renters believe to be with the IRA. The irony, if followed to its absurd conclusion in O’Casey’s plot, rings with horrific truth, considering the results and follow-through of their beliefs about him.

Meanwhile, discounting their attitudes about, yet slyly thinking to capture Minnie’s heart by saying little, to Shields Donal beats his breast and cries of the miseries and pains of being a poet. He rails against the commoners for whom he creates his art to little effect. Through him O’Casey reveals an ironic addendum. For all the angst and pain artists go through to create the beauties of art and literature, the works may or may not assert a place of importance in the hearts of citizens in a time of war. (Is O’Casey perhaps being sardonic about the importance of his own work through this character’s mewlings?)

Director O’Reilly gives attention to each of these characters. In his rendition of Casey’s work, we understand that they represent symbolic types in the human panoply of characters that manifest the cowardice and hypocrisy of those who inhabit every society in the throes of violent revolutionary change.

All of them reveal in one way or another the flaws that contribute to the tragedy that occurs by the play’s end. For example the kowtowing, gossiping Tommy Owens (Ed Malone in a humorous turn) exemplifies the toady and hypocrite who brings on the trouble. The alcoholic and abusive husband Mr. Grigson screams out his position as an “Orangeman” sympathetic to the opposite side. John Keating manages to be sincere in his drunkenness and hysterical to boot. However, we note another side of him when Mr. Grigson and Shields swap stories of their bravery in the face of the British, who in actuality frighten them out of their wits. Only Donal remains silent and renders himself invisible in the face of terror. Though the lying bravado is typically understandable, it is also cringe-worthy. For men should be stronger, should they not? O’Casey smashes this notion by the play’s end with a resounding exclamation point which this production succeeds in spearing through our hearts and minds.

,Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone, James Russell, Meg Hennessy, Irish Repertory Theatre, The Shadow of a Gunman, Ciaran O'Reilly, Sean O'Casey

(L to R): John Keating, Terry Donnelly, Michael Mellamphy in the Irish Reps production of Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Shadow of a Gunman,’ directed by Ciarán O’Reilly Carol Rosegg)

Terry Donnelly as the long-suffering Mrs. Grigson delivers a superbly heartfelt, broken and poignant portrayal that takes us into a tragedy that we will remember long after the lights come up. Most importantly, the second act thrums with rapid pacing, suspense and “edge-of-your-seat” fear. We empathize with the Dubliners throughout the experience O’Reilly and the company put us through as they moment-to-moment envelop us with the emotion and horror of unfolding events in real time.

This immediacy is a vital element of O’Casey’s work and the ensemble and the production team render it superbly. For it is the terrifying experience that delivers our epiphany of what the historic Dubliners went through and what occupying troops in Syria and Yemen put innocents through today. The civilians are gun fodder for wars they have not willingly signed on for. Surely, they do not anticipate their lives threatened and lifestyles destroyed by both sides of the warring factions on streets and in homes where children once played and all was safe and secure. Surely, they do not choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of becoming an escaping refugee or staying to be numbered among the dead or disappeared. It was so in Ireland, then, it is so in wars that dot our planet and fuel defense manufacturers’ profits today.

As O’Casey reveals most acutely in the action conveyed by the actors, designers and director of this production, this is THE TERROR. And as the characters experience the horror, uncertainty and helplessness in the face of the oppression and tyranny from both sides, we experience it as well. The tragedy becomes that all who are present as witnesses become the accountable participants and they must live with the regrets imprinted on their souls until they are washed away, if ever.

Kudos to all in the acting ensemble who contribute to making this a soul-sonorous production. Kudos to the design team: Charlie Corcoran (scenic), Linda Fisher & David Toser (costume) Michael Gottlieb (lighting) Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab (sound) Ryan Rumery (original music).

This is a must-see, especially if you are unfamiliar with Shadow of a Gunman which runs with one intermission. The production is a wonderful introduction to Sean O’Casey and if you have been a forever fan, you will be very pleased.  Additionally, the Irish Rep in celebration of the playwright is conducting free readings, symposiums, lectures, film screenings and music exhibitions. For more information on the Sean O’Casey Cycle and for tickets to the Dublin Trilogy, check the website.

 

 

 

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