Category Archives: Off Broadway
Colin Quinn is above all a social critic who strips away our lifestyles down to their humorous, bare bones ridiculousness. Having mastered the art of the quirky ironist Quinn, has previously cycled through six successful solo shows, two on Broadway (An Irish Wake and Long Story Short) and the rest off Broadway. His most recent Red State Blue State explored the depths of the political divide with his wit and wisdom to take no prisoners. In his seventh one-man show Colin Quinn: Small Talk, Quinn gives a fond farewell to the dying art of “small talk,” otherwise known as blather, chit chat, idle conversation. The show runs 1 hour 10 minutes through Feb. 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan.
Directed by James Fauvell, written and performed by Colin Quinn, Small Talk manifests Quinn’s signature style which includes lightening delivery that ranges over subjects that branch out, circle around and mount with one-liners that crescendo to the next subject. Initially, Quinn illustrates clever examples of “small talk” and reveals how it functions to keep people sane, rational and polite with each other as the fine lubricant of a thriving civil society. During the LOL set up Quinn’s examples zero in on manners and sociability, blathering when one is with strangers waiting on line, in an elevator, at a party, and other various and sundry spaces and places when people are forced to be together, are feeling uncomfortable and pressed to end the silence of unfamiliarity.
Quinn references our illustrious past and appropriate social tactic used when charged with needing to “break the ice” in an uncomfort zone. Launch into a discussion about the weather. Once belittled precisely because “the weather” was always an apparent effort to stave off the humiliation of unsociable silence, Quinn insists in our day of internet and social media insult and rudeness, the pandemic’s forced isolation and social distancing and insularity, more than ever “small talk” is an imperative. It is a connection to kindness that our children need to learn. Friendly chit chat has been cut short by our hand held devices and redirection inward with mobile phones and air pods.
Even self-checkout has decreased our affability as we avoid having to wait on lines and rush in and out of grocery stores, another result of the pandemic. Quarantining, social distancing and fearing elevator rides where even a “Hello” was initially dangerous, especially if the speaker was maskless, all contributed to small talk “destruction.” Quinn calculates that small talk has decreased by 87%, a problem that he intimates has decreased our humanity and graciousness with each other.
Quinn ironically suggests children should be taught chit chat as a talent to develop along with personality or they’ll become social introverts and isolates. Without such casual sociabilities, misanthropy runs rampant. Indeed, misanthropy is a tonal hallmark of social media (algorithms ping on controversy, argument and insult increasing a platform’s profitability). Quinn’ humorous insistence that we bring “small talk” back along with agreeability which everyone appreciates rather than argument, negativity and complaint. This may help to diffuse the rancor whipped up by the news media and increased outrageousness by political parties topping themselves. As an encouragement he affirms that there is a direct correlation between saying “Yes,” with higher salaries. (This also got a huge laugh.)
Throughout the evening Quinn moves scattershot in and out of various subjects. He leads from one to the other in a domino effect cascading out into humorous observations about “personality” and our current presumptions about expressing our opinions on social media though no one cares. He briefly lands upon various personages from history (i.e. Adam and Eve, Socrates, Attila the Hun, King George of England circa the 1800s to name a few). He hysterically drops rapid-fire one liners aligning them to his topics.
He relates some of these to our assumptions about free speech and voicing what we think to political leaders, celebrities and those with power. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates made this ultimately possible and we have run away with the opportunity “mouthing off” online anonymously with impunity. Imagine a peasant (which we are in the classist sense) “mouthing off” to a King! We live in a time of incredible privilege with our rights, though we are delinquent on responsibilities.
However, the manifest concept is that online everyone has the right to their opinion, even if it doesn’t make sense, is outlandish and has no facts backing it up. Social media has harmed the civil affability and humanity of our society. It reveals impairment. Quinn suggests: “If you post more than five times a day, you should be in a 72-hour psychiatric hold. (This brought a huge laugh.)
The one thing we do have going for us as a country are our social constructs built on charm, talk and salesmanship, in other words, our inauthenticity. Quinn suggests fakery is our fine export and he intimates that we don’t want to see people being their “real selves.” This conjures up images of the unwashed, ungroomed, utterly nasty and debased, untoward person. Appearance and personality are our “coin of the realm.” To ditch these and the massaging aspect of “small talk” for the “real person” is NOT appealing.
The production sports a clever backdrop that suggests a blackboard upon which chalk drawings of the topics to be discussed casts Quinn as our instructor in the fine art of verbal social graces to equip us for the future. However, never was a teacher funnier.The blackboard (scenic design by Zoë Hurwitz) and otherwise bare stage are appropriate grist for his stand-up comedy club approach.
Quinn mentions death’s inevitability. After quips and one-liners, he drops in that he had a near fatal heart attack. However, he is verbally fleet-footed and never gets more personal than that tip of the iceberg. At some point in the flurry of comedy he shares a humorous remembrance involving chit chat and Norm McDonald his buddy from SNL who died in 2021. The story involves McDonald riffing on Quinn and using off-handed banter to relax the group they were with. Quinn as the brunt of the joke was a great “ice-breaker.”
Quinn skirts the edges of politics in this show. It is a topic counter to his intent which is more about bringing people together and returning them to their humane roots. Thus, what’s a little kindness with others evidenced by some choice banter? Quinn makes excellent points about diffusing the impolitic divides that have sprung up over the years with niceties and small talk. Clearly, the January 27, Friday night audience appreciated his intent and comedic observations with chortles and belly laughs.
Kudos to other creatives Amina Alexander (lighting design) and Margaret Montagna (sound design). If you are a fan of Colin Quinn you don’t want to miss Colin Quinn: Small Talk. If you are not, take the plunge and enjoy. You’ll be glad you did.
For tickets and times go to the website: https://www.colinquinnshow.com/
Contagion converts human bodies into weapons. The “gay disease,” an early name for the AIDS pandemic, burgeoned in the time of President Ronald Reagan, who initially did nothing to even acknowledge it existed. Likewise, COVID-19 which began in the time of an even more derelict Republican president, unfolded as a ubiquitous horror which could impact all mortal flesh because it was easily contracted in the air. For gay men who had been traumatized by the AIDS crisis, COVID-19 was a PTSD slap in the face, a double whammy. How does one reconcile the remembrances of friends who died of AIDS with the current COVID plague that still roams and kills older friends or those who have HIV autoimmune vulnerabilities or co-morbidities?
Insightful playwrights like Eduardo Machado, who have lived through both plagues, reconcile their emotions by writing. Machado’s latest play Not About Me, currently running at Theater for the New City until February 5th is an evocative, quasi, avant-garde, memory play which references an alignment between both plagues. As a result it raises trenchant questions which we must consider and confront as a culture or doom ourselves to greater catastrophes.
Machado, a gay Cuban-American playwright who lived through the AIDS crises, found himself slammed with memories from that time, while negotiating COVID-19 quarantines, masking and isolation. Moving through the present crises, during these plague years, he recalled images of friends and events from “the first crises of his generation.” Themes about death and dying, isolation, loneliness and the desperate need for real, human connection resurfaced from that time in the early 1980s. These recollections linked with the present time almost four decades later.
Inspired to write about these themes, his friendships and companionable ideas, Machado’s Not About Me, which he also directs, takes place when the “gay disease” evilly blossomed. He evokes that time with music and sound (David Margolin Lawson) original music (Michael Domitrovich) minimalist sets (Mark Marcante) props (Lytza Colon) lighting (Alex Bartenieff) puppet designer/maker (Emily Irvine) and costumes (Kelsey Charter). At the back of the playing area hangs a neutral colored backdrop, upon which atmospheric film clips at various junctures are projected (Bird Rogers). These clips, which Machado also directed, convey cultural memes in their grainy, stylized, “period” ambience. One clip of figures costumed and made up for the Halloween Day Parade in the Village is particularly intriguing. It portends a magnificent irony. A “hedonistic,” colorful and carefree, gay lifestyle was gradually being smashed to bits with the ugliness of Kaposi sarcoma lesions and withering physical symptoms of AIDS. Two of Eduardo’s friends begin to manifest symptoms before the plague has a name.
The main character, whose gay friends call Ed (a point of friendly sub rosa bigotry) is the playwright’s avatar/alter ego, Eduardo portrayed by Mateo d’Amato. COVID-19 has compelled Eduardo to relate what he went through in the 1980s from the current perspective of COVID’s horrors. Thus, d’Amato’s Eduardo filters two plagues through his psyche as the unreliable narrator, who directly addresses the audience, then dramatically activates his memories with a picaresque, hybrid play with characters inspired by his friends and two actresses. Eduardo addresses the audience at the beginning of the play, during the play and most importantly at the conclusion, when he importunes the audience and evokes an estranged friend from that time, Tommy (Charles Manning) who may still be alive (despite COVID) and present in the audience.
D’Amato’s Eduardo recalls certain events and exchanges with gay friends in New York City via selective memory, a clue to the main character and themes. In the opening address Eduardo stops himself three times and redirects his narrative. Is there something he wishes to disguise or hide, or is this a dramatic artifice? The gaps in the play indicate that Eduardo’s personality and the image of himself he wishes to convey perhaps reveal a skewed remembrance. What results includes a mash of emotions and encounters in a wild and sometimes unflattering portrait of a bi-sexual who fronts and manipulates his gay friends and most probably his wife Harriet, who never appears onstage. He appears most sincere and authentic when he desperately reaches out for comfort from two gay friends, and when he reveals his fear and insecurity to female actress friend Marjorie (Sharon Ullrich covered for Crystal Field when I saw the play). Marjorie knows he is gay.
Eduardo continually shifts in antic behavior, especially when he is doing drugs. He appears to be a flaunting egotist, shy, reticent, mercurial and effusive with various gay friends. Then he shape-shifts to wily confidence, compliments and expressed “love” with actress friend Donna (Heather Velasquez). In short he is an actor in his real life and an enigma at times to himself. He has learned to “front” because of his Cuban heritage which his gay friends ignore and attempt to suppress when they are clubbing. His center does not hold well, especially when he uses drugs. Eduardo’s fleeting, sincere moments waver, and he appears most real with Marjorie and at times with Gerald (Michael Domitrovich) and Tommy (Charles Manning). And he seems most persuasively authentic when he addresses the audience, just before the lights dim at the conclusion.
This bold play is a discomforting landscape of Eduardo’s ambivalences searching for love, feeling lost and found and lost, as he yearns for a relationship with someone who can fill the void and make him feel less alone. Why he has not found this with his wife Harriet is revealed in a discussion with friend Marjorie who mentions that she noted Harriet does all the talking when they were together. He is not free with Harriet who dominates, though he has so much to offer. Ironically, this admixture of confused emotions and scattershot behavior fueled by Eduardo’s use of drugs runs rampant under the hovering cloud of the “gay disease,” which creates a great disconnect and human isolation for both the straight and gay society.
Tragically, the playwright reveals that it is a time when innocents, who did not understand what was looming, marched into the fire without safeguards because there were none. Many died before the medical profession woke up and began to identify what “the disease” was about. If this sounds familiar, parallels with the current plague subtly dot Not About Me. Both diseases have a similar ethos. We are still experiencing both. Thankfully, there are medicines and vaccines which can mitigate death, but not always.
After d’Amato’s Eduardo gives his initial opening salvo, the play seamlessly moves to abundant flashbacks as Eduardo relives in his memory his experiences as a bi-sexual among gay friends and actresses Donna and Marjorie in this time when he was an actor and emerging playwright. Marjorie is an actress of renown with whom he rehearses a Tennessee Williams one act out in LA where Eduardo lives with Harriet, who is at least two decades older. Marjorie (Sharon Ullrich gives a heartfelt, touching performance) and Eduardo have a close friendship. She confides that she is dying of cancer and she will help him perfect his acting skills. In exchange, he will give her a sense of purpose and help her sustain the time she has left as they rehearse, then present the one-act at Ensemble Studio Theatre (LA).
Eduardo confesses that he is afraid of dying and doesn’t want to lose her. It is ironic that she is there for him at a critical point in his life as a preview for what will come with the death of friends. As they rehearse, to become closer to the character he is playing, she suggests he think of a time when he was lost.
Eduardo’s reverie opens up and he steps seamlessly into a gay bar in New York City when he was on Ecstasy and dancing with his friends. Though he is a professed bi-sexual and holds up his wife Harriet as a badge of honor, he is entranced by his gay friends and on the “down-low.” He especially is lost in desire for a beautiful director who wishes to direct a play of his.
The gay friends include the caustic, jealous Frank (Ellis Charles Hoffmeister gives a humorous, edgy portrayal) the kindhearted, sweet Tommy (Charles Manning is spot-on) and Paul (Drew Valins is a quiet, sensitive buffer in the group). Paul is the one who alerts them to the “gay disease” and first identifies he has has “it.” Tommy and Frank also lust after the gay director Gerald (Michael Domitrovich, who co-wrote Tastes like Cuba with Machado). As they watch Gerald looking at Eduardo as he dances by himself, they become jealous when he joins Eduardo. Both Gerald and Eduardo feel “something” for each other and Gerald’s beauty unsettles him as does his kiss which humiliates Eduardo initially.
Clearly, the Ecstasy which is supposed to acclimate him to the gay bar makes him frenetic. Though Gerald proposes a future “date” of intimacy for them, it never pans out. In the interim, Gerald finds out he has the “unnamed” disease. Though Eduardo attempts intimacy, desperate to make a connection based on love, Gerald shows Eduardo the Kaposi sarcoma and pushes him away telling Eduardo he must “live” and continue working his art. Gerald doesn’t want to kill him. This is the first death knell of the play. It is chilling and tragic.
Additional flashbacks shift between Eduardo’s rehearsal with Marjorie in LA and his encounters with Donna (Heather Velasquez) who he cast in his play which she must later turn down. His relationships with Marjorie and Donna evolve as Eduardo’s ambivalence about his sexuality intensifies and rumors of the “gay disease” grow. His confused emotions turn into a confluence of attractions and “love” for Gerald and Donna. However, as with Gerald, his intimacy with Donna is never meant to be. Though he and Donna discuss a permanent relationship and divorcing their partners, by this point “the gay disease” is moving through the gay population with a vengeance and straight people are rumored to have it. Paul and Gerald are sick. We experience a growing dread because we know the dire consequences, though Frank boldly asserts, “I’m going to live my life.”
When Marjorie dies, Eduardo’s center collapses. He throws himself at his gay friends and tries to initiate intimacy to stave off his aloneness. However, when Frank and Tommy “fight” for him, interestingly, Tommy insists he will be with Eduardo. Frank, who is clear-eyed, accuses Tommy of being with Eduardo to protect him from AIDS, which at this point, they both have, though they don’t admit it. As Frank leaves in jealousy and disgust, Eduardo seeks comfort in Tommy’s embrace. Tommy makes sure they engage in “safe sex.” Though Tommy attempts to have Eduardo commit to him when he is in New York, Eduardo is a chameleon and he must be in the driver’s seat as his career takes off.
After his intimacy with Tommy and his last visit with Gerald who is dying of AIDS (d’Amato’s and Domitrovich’s powerful scene is beautifully wrought) Gerald dies and the rumor goes around that the AZT experimental drug they gave Gerald actually hastened his death. Gerald’s forever absence is an emotional devastation. Eduardo’s notions about bi-sexuality end in gay authenticity. When he shares that he can’t be with Donna and that he is gay, she takes him to an evangelical meeting to pray and exorcise the “gay” out of them. The scene is hysterical. The ensemble in masks becomes the aroused prayer warriors and Donna (Velasquez is LOL believable and funny) “shakes, rattles and rolls” releasing her “lesbianism.” She, too, is bi-sexual. When the same preacher (Domitrovich) exorcises the “gay” from Eduardo, Eduardo fakes it, then reveals he faked it. This blows up Donna’s plans for their divorces and marriage to each other. Outraged, Donna throws up her hands in a cross and tells the Eduardo “devil” to get away from her. Eduardo states to the audience that he never saw her again except in films which she swore she would never do again. He is thankful the exorcism didn’t work. (So much for gay conversion which was rampant at that time.)
There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see the play to discover the direction d’Amato’s Eduardo takes with friends who are still alive and what his injunction is to the audience at the conclusion.
Mateo d’Amato with antic enthusiasm and “dramatic” verve that covers over a brooding loneliness, isolation and emotional pain, persuasively shows that the Latino Eduardo is hiding in plain sight. Lightning glimpses of the depths of his despair flash then vanish as the Ed persona takes over to dazzle, annoy, make jealous, provoke and boast about his exploits. Of all his gay “friends” Tommy appears to understand him best: understand his protests he is “bi-sexual,” understand his aloneness. It is Tommy who empathizes with him and loves him when he needs it most, though ultimately, he knows they are just friends.
One of the most important take-aways from the bold and profound Not About Me is we must and should remember and learn from the past. And if it is not in the DNA of some to learn and change and be better, then perhaps as some did then and still do now, go ahead and ignore the warnings, like Frank. Frank understands that regardless, he will live and he will die and it is best to live as he wishes and accept the consequences of his choices. However, underneath it all, we never find out if Frank goes ahead and intentionally infects others without “safe sex,” knowing he has AIDS. Unlike Frank, Tommy will not. Later in the play we understand after another event, Tommy is an incredible friend worth keeping.
For his part d’Amato’s Eduardo always plays it safe with a healthy fear of death and dying and solipsism. Certainly, the characters in Not About Me, who don’t make it are the innocent victims, not understanding what they were up against, until it was too late. For those who have been warned in our current time and don’t believe the consequences or ignore them not caring that they may infect others, the same cannot be said if they willfully, politically flaunt contagion and their contagiousness.
Machado’s play appears to be a labor of love seasoned with doses of self-revelation that filters youth through the wisdom of remembrance and understanding. It explores past foibles and “warts” through an opaque lens of forgiveness, through which one might emerge cleansed or guiltier than ever that one is spilling “truth,” yet hiding in plain sight. (Though Machado borrows from his life to make assertions, the play is a fiction.) Throughout, the playwright brings us to the present day, always with these questions. What has been learned? Are we as a culture any wiser? Is Eduardo the avatar any wiser after sharing his reflections, pain and emotions? Or are we evolving into a greater muck with “one foot on a banana peel,” as we attempt to race forward to forget? The play brings these and other questions to the fore in its tragicomedy and ironies.
Not About Me is a must-see for its hybrid genre, its re-imagined collage of truths and realities about a “distant time.” It is notable for its acute and interesting performances and fine ensemble work. The high points shine with black comedy and a sardonic tone. Even more notable are its gripping moments of drama in its portrayals of individuals who have died and now live as flashes of light and darkness and evanesce, once the play is over and the audience applauds the actors.
For those too young to remember that time, and for those who do remember recoiling at the “gay disease,” the playwright conveys what it must have felt like for his gay friends and himself, who endured and suffered as they watched others cycle through symptoms, feared death, tried to live, stopped thinking, and tried to move past heartbreak via drugs or escapism or love as they hoped that things would get better. They eventually did get better, until the whole world shut down in quarantine and “resurrected” over one million, two hundred thousand dead (Worldometer) in the U.S. Our three-year COVID anniversary is coming up in March for the shutdown, though COVID was in the culture long before that, as noted by former President Donald Trump in Bob Woodward’s Rage.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the playwright is a friend whose classes I have enjoyed. Thus, this review has been one of the most difficult tasks as a reviewer and Drama Desk voter. That said, I highly recommend the play, especially for the younger generations, both straight and LGBTQ, who don’t even worry about AIDS contagion, thanks to Machado’s generation that went before them. For tickets and times go to Theater for the New City’s website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/
In Des Moines by award winning writer Denis Johnson nothing vital seems to happen during the time Dan, his wife Marta, their grandson Jimmy, Father Michael and Mrs. Drinkwater get smashing drunk and have a wild party in Dan and Marta’s modest second floor apartment in Des Moines, Iowa. Yet, in the 12 hours they spend together, much does happen. Connections are made, personal revelations are expressed and in each individual’s life, as a result of the dynamic interactions that take place, all experience a shift. For some it’s in perspective. For others the change is behavioral. However, in this deceptively “small” but mighty play, Johnson reveals the importance of listening to others’ faint soul cries and helping them relax into a zaniness that soothes.
At the play’s outset for a moment all is blackness. We hear a deafening roar, a loud cacophony of noise, a piercing, grating, rolling thunderous sound like a ripping away of the earth’s atmosphere as if a bomb had been dropped. We ask what is happening and what does that sound mean?
The lights come up on cab driver, husband Dan who has come home from work. He hits upon what the sound might be as he discusses with wife Marta that Mrs. Drinkwater, the wife of a man who died in a recent plane crash, has sought him out to ask him questions. Dan was one of the last people to speak to Mr. Drinkwater, when he took him to the airport, before he got in the plane that crashed in an embankment, killing everyone onboard. Thus, we put together the roaring sound at the top of the play with the plane engines roaring before the crash.
By the end of the play we are no closer to understanding the symbolism, though it is repeated during a blackout between scenes after a raucous party. Perhaps it symbolizes the “veil being rent,” what must happen in human consciousness to allow enlightenment and an awakening to flood the psyche with new understanding. Though Johnson makes references to being awakened and made aware, these concepts are fleeting, and unexplained.
This is one of the joys of Des Moines in which Johnson seems to suggest that human existence in its greatest depth is about understanding, empathy and the bridge of consciousness between and among people in the realms of their own experience. All of these elements at one point or another Johnson touches upon in each of his characterizations, portrayed by prodigious actors, who are incisively directed by Arin Arbus.
During Dan’s discussion with Marta, we understand that he is startled that Mrs. Drinkwater would seek him out to ask him questions about her dead husband. It is as if she looks for anything to bring her comfort through the trauma she’s experiencing from her partner’s strange death in a shocking, rare accident. During Dan’s discussion, the playwright raises questions about the fragility of life and the permanence of death. The conundrum of dying in life daily, momentarily looms, then vaporizes as Dan jumps to raw reality. He tells Marta how medical examiners attempt to identify the smashed bodies picked up at the crash site. From what he’s learned from Mrs. Drinkwater, the next of kin are asked to think about looking for one identifying feature of their loved one and not look at or imagine the entire body. Immediately, one’s loved one is reduced to one feature to better help the coroners during the cold and alienating identification process. This is another startling crash of death’s finality which shakes Dan.
Arliss Howard who portrays Dan with an organic realism and authenticity relays Dan’s concern about Mrs. Drinkwater. She is Black and Mr. Drinkwater was a prominent Black lawyer. Seeking information, Mrs. Drinkwater has shown up at the car garage daily to joggle Dan’s memory until he finally pictures her husband and remembers snatches of conversation they had in the cab before Dan dropped him off at the airport. Thus, an ancillary, “meaningless” conversation carries with it great moment for Mrs. Drinkwater and for Dan in light of the catastrophe of Mr. Drinkwater’s irrational and sudden death. Indeed, we are reminded if it happened to him, death will happen to us. Momento mori. Mortality is a hard fact Dan nor Mrs. Drinkwater can’t seem to negotiate, nor can Marta as we discover in her interaction with Father Michael when the priest visits.
Johanna Day as Marta is perfect as Dan’s patient, dutiful partner, who listens to Dan’s concern and gets the importance of this last conversation with the husband. Also, it isn’t unusual to her that Mrs. Drinkwater wants to know everything Dan can remember. We learn later that Dan and Marta, too, have suffered a sudden loss of a loved one. Thus, Mrs. Drinkwater’s endless questioning makes weird sense and reveals the pain and hurt she obviously experiences. It is a shared hurt for Dan and Marta, which we note later in Marta’s fleeting few words which vaporize into thin air, not belabored because the pain of loss has settled into the characters’ ethos, becoming a part of their consciousness.
From their interchange in the kitchen, we note that Dan’s and Marta’s is a close relationship. This closeness bears up throughout the play. They appear to be a typical, married, older couple who have lived together for years. However, on closer inspection, there is nothing typical about them. There is a profound comfort to their relationship that reveals a tight bond that connects them beyond understanding. This closeness especially manifests in their drinking, carousing, acceptance and love of their transgender grandson, who lives with them and who is wheelchair bound. They are also bonded together having experienced pain, loss and tragedy.
The character dynamics take off when Father Michael (the superb Michael Shannon) visits. Denis Johnson has set up Father’s Michael character by having Dan discuss with Marta that he saw Father Michael wearing make-up in front of a gay bar. Ironically, Dan mentions that he won’t feel so inferior or insecure at Confession knowing that Father Michael is less than perfect and most probably is gay. His response is all about forgiveness and an absence of judgment. And it is clear that this has now become a two way street of forgiveness and acceptance.
Marta has asked Father Michael to come over to receive comfort and perhaps prayer as she tells Dan that the doctors only gave her two to four months to live because the cancer has spread throughout her body. The only comfort Father Michael gives is his honesty in saying that death is a mystery and one can’t say much about it. However, the most accurate and hopeful comment he tells her is that the doctors don’t know everything. In other words their prognosis may be wrong. Father Michael ends any further discussion of Marta’s cancer and shifts to another topic abruptly which is humorous. Then the action gyrates so that Dan and Marta decide to pick up some beers as if the dire conversation never happened nor should happen. Dan and Marta promise to come back, leaving Father Michael with Jimmy (Hari Nef) in a blonde wig, rhinestone boots, make-up and wheelchair.
Jimmy who has been crippled by a doctor during the sex change operation appears to take this in stride. However, we discover what is motivating Jimmy’s apparent calm later in the play, the hope of walking again. The scene between Nef’s Jimmy and Shannon’s Father Michael is wonderfully acted, free and spot-on quirky. Jimmy tells Father Michael that he heard his parents discussing that Father Michael wears make-up. Father Michael is honest. Jimmy suggests that Father Michael allow him to be his make-up artist. Though Father Michael prefers putting on his own make up, with good will, he lets Jimmy add lipstick, rouge and eye-shadow to his face. The two bond during this amazing scene because the actors are “in the moment” superb.
As Jimmy, Hari Nef is adorably believable without pushing any of “behaviors” to get a laugh. Shannon’s prodigious versatility as an actor has him portray cruel thugs (Bullet Train) and Elvis (Elvis and Nixon) to name a few of his screen roles. As Father Michael he is organic, hysterical and profound. He negotiates the whimsical and empathetic priest with an uncanny and otherworldly aspect. Shannon’s delivery of Father Michael’s most philosophical and trenchant lines is sheer perfection in their tossed away thoughtfulness. It is as if Shannon’s Father peers into another realm, expresses what he sees, then retracts from it like nothing extraordinary has happened, though it has.
To round out the gathering Mrs. Drinkwater (the heartfelt Heather Alicia Simms) shows up looking for the gold wedding band that she gave Dan and forgot to take back. Dan and Marta have not returned with the beers, so Father Shannon and Jimmy introduce themselves and Mrs. Drinkwater tells them that her husband was killed in the plane crash. Abruptly, Father Michael announces that they need to have drinks and specifically, depth chargers (shots dropped in a mug of beer). At this point, the wild party begins and when Dan and Marta return with more beer, the events revolve upside down and sideways as each takes their turn at Karaoke and “lets it all hang out.” Kudos to Hari Nef, Michael Shannon and Heather Alicia Simms for their passionate renditions of their solo numbers.
The fun is in watching the actors enjoy themselves to the hilt and in the process, convey the loneliness and angst each of the characters personally experiences. We appreciate the drunken camaraderie and comfort they share. It is better than that of “old friends” who know “too much” of their pain and torment. Nevertheless, they have just enough information about each other. They understand that they all are imperfect and have experienced loss, uncertainty, confusion. They have been tossed about by life’s seemingly random trials, forced to assign their own meaning to the haphazard and horrible events. Theirs is the sticky understanding that they can help each other through their personal crises that none of them can specifically explain because it can’t be articulated. All they can do is state concrete facts about conditions. But underneath are miles of subsurface emotions, psychic damage, pain, fear, sorrow.
The hope is that they are alive with the determination to keep on “truckin’,” as they receive solace in understanding the ubiquity of their absurd-life-in-death condition. They, like all human beings, roll a metaphoric boulder up a hill, knowing at the top they will slip and fall to the bottom. Then, they will have to do it again and again does Sisyphus of Greek mythology.
For Dan and Marta, the loss of their daughter who overdosed is most acutely felt, a fact they mention then drop. For Mrs. Drinkwater, the loss of her husband has dislocated her and upended her identity about herself. Who is she now and how does she define herself without him? For Nef’s Jimmy, the paralysis is devastating, but it may not be permanent. At one point when Jimmy is alcohol buzzed, he stands up and proclaims that he, “will walk again.” Lastly, Father Michael is negotiating his physical person, his celibacy, his marriage to Mr. Drinkwater (a mysterious notion) and his straddling the otherworldly realms of consciousness and spirit.
Johnson’s play cannot easily be pinned down in its hybrid, comedic absurdism and avant garde elusiveness. It zips along with unlikely and surprising twists with every character dynamic and every character expose. Its strong spiritual themes about life, the afterlife, consciousness and no boundaries between and among these realities, are thought-provoking. The ensemble’s acting is top-notch and their team work reaches a high-point when each performs their solos while the others move into themselves, all creating an exceptional, flowing dance.
Arin Arbus has staged the wildness so that it is zany yet meaningful with the help of Byron Easley (choreographer). Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, Qween Jean’s costume design, Scott Zielinski lighting design and Mikaal Sulaiman’s original music and sound design effectively capture the director’s vision and enhance Johnson’s themes about human nature, pain and seeking to escape from it with like-minded others through alcohol or just letting go. In this production, which emphasizes humanity, forgiveness, understanding and empathy, we realize the isolation of individuality and the commonality of emotions whether joyful or sorrowful, that often prompt escapism to crazy, if only for a moment in an eternity of time.
This is one to see. It ends January 8 and runs with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.tfana.org/current-season/des-moines/overview
Irish Repertory Theatre’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales by the brilliant Dylan Thomas, adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore hits the spot for Christmas loveliness and grace. An old-time favorite of Irish Repertory Theatre, this is the sixth version they have produced since their first adaptation in 2002 of A Celtic Christmas. Thanks to Charlotte Moore’s prodigious dramatic talents this is one of the most heartwarming, elegant and memorable of versions and I’ve seen a few. Perhaps it is because of its simplicity as a chamber musical, which features poignant songs written by Charlotte Moore, and the favorite traditional carols of the season, one receives a new appreciation of Christmas. Its vitality in bringing together a community that greatly longs to erase thoughts of separation that have characterized the past few years, cannot be underestimated.
For this production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the stage is flanked with tall, stalwart looking Christmas trees uniformly lit against a mirrored background which adds to the stage width and depth, thanks to John Lee Beatty’s set design. There are even large presents tucked away in a back corner on the left side of the stage continuation. The light reflections, and nuanced lighting (Michael Gottlieb) softly enhance the six singers. These include Kerry Conte, Ali Ewoldt, Jay Aubrey Jones, Kylie Kuioka, Ashley Robinson and Reed Lancaster, who was covering for Dan Macke the night I saw the production.
The trees in their arrangement are an excellent choice not only for their placement but for their symbolism representative of Christ and Christianity. The fir tree was widely adopted during the Victorian Age after a picture of Queen Victoria, German Prince Albert and their family appeared in Illustrated London News. Queen Victoria was so popular that the public became enamored of the royal family standing around the decorated, tall, fir tree. They clamored to make it fashionable, cutting down their own trees or purchasing them from vendors after demanding them. Certainly, the historic Christmas captured by Thomas’ gorgeously poetic language seems best ringing out the holiday season with the trees as a evergreen, mythic backdrop.
The music supervision by John Bell and music direction by David Hancock Turner are impeccable. I particularly enjoyed the carols I hadn’t heard in a long while, the traditional ones like “A-Soaling” (Hey, Ho, Nobody Home), “I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas” and the humorous “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake.” There are songs sung in Welsh “Tawel Nos” (“Silent Night”) which moves to a beautiful segue of “O Holy Night.” And I was surprised to discover that “Deck the Halls,” All Through the Night” and “Suo Gan” are traditional Welsh songs.
I felt an otherworldly appreciation of the carols and live music and singing arranged with thoughtfulness and joy. Thoma’s clever and poignant remembrances narrated with every attention to his incredible wordcraft by the ensemble remind us of a romantic past that we all long for. I am so sick and tired of the canned, artificial music signaling commercialism and grasping greed as it pipes over the loudspeakers of big box stores and various establishments. I do hope this chamber musical was recorded. Its one-of-a-kind exceptionalism in its celebration of a historic time before cell phones, mass media, television and the complications of what at times seems like overwhelming chaos, is bar none.
What was another pleasant surprise were the songs “Take My Hand, Tomorrow’s Christmas,” “Open Your Eyes,” and “Walking in the Snow.” The music and lyrics are Charlotte Moore’s and they appropriately threaded throughout the 75 minute presentation among Thomas’ memories that speak of childhood innocence, frankness (in his recall of the quirky aunts and uncles) and sense of security and safety embraced by a loving family. His work is a milestone and thankfully Irish Repertory Theatre has shared its immutable glory with us, reminding us of family, friends, love, community, history and the meaning of such vital themes that strengthen our lives.
David Toser’s costume design are befitting of the fashionable stylishness of a lovely holiday party where everyone is shining in their finery like their own decorated Christmas trees. In this “never to be forgotten day at the end of the unremembered year” Thomas’ snowy Christmas Day in Wales at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a stunner whose nostalgia is all the more affecting now that Christmas has passed.
See it before it closes. For tickets and times go to their website: https://irishrep.org/show/2022-2023-season/a-childs-christmas-in-wales-4/
Theater for the New City,
with the Support of Suite 524,
the World Premiere of NOT ABOUT ME
Not About Me is written & directed by Eduardo Machado (Havana is Waiting, “Hung,” “Magic City”)
The Limited Off-Broadway Engagement Begins Friday, January 13th
Theater for the New City (Crystal Field, Executive Artistic Director), the Pulitzer Prize winning community cultural center that produces over thirty premieres of new American plays each year, is pleased to announce the world premiere of Not About Me, written and directed by acclaimed playwright Eduardo Machado.
Not About Me will begin previews Friday, January 13th with Opening Night set for Wednesday, January 18th (8pm), at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets). This limited Off-Broadway engagement will continue through Sunday, February 5th only.
The cast features Mateo d’Amato, Michael Domitrovich, Crystal Field, Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Charles Manning, Drew Valins, and Heather Velazquez.
The creative team for Not About Me includes Mark Marcante (scenic design), Sean Ryan (production design), Alex Bartenieff (lighting design), Kelsey Charter (costume design), Bird Rogers (projection design), Emily Irvine (puppet designer/maker), and David Margolin Lawson (sound design). Not About Me will feature original music by Michael Domitrovich.
Not About Me is a memory play that takes audiences on a haunting journey through the mind of a playwright during COVID-19 lock downs. Long buried memories of friends lost to a mysterious “gay” disease come crashing into the present, and he is compelled to examine his artistic and political life in the theater. This play is a bittersweet reflection on how tragedy can unearth pain and laughter and bring back to life the treasures buried in the past.
“During the first summer of the lock down one of my best and dearest friends died of COVID. For the next three years all I could think about was all my friends that died of AIDS when I was in my twenties. COVID-19 brought the end of a certain way of life, as did AIDS in the 1980s. What had been a time of freedom and joy, a time when anything could happen, came crashing to a close, as our own sexuality became our illness. Queer people of a certain age know what this is like. Now, in 2022, the whole world has gotten a taste. We must speak out so the world can change to something better once again,” said Machado.
Eduardo Machado was born in Cuba and came to the United States when he was eight and grew up in Los Angeles. He is the author of over fifty plays, including The Floating Island Plays, Once Removed, Stevie Wants To Play The Blues, A Burning Beach, Havana Is Waiting, The Cook, Mariquitas, Worship, and Celia & Fidel. They have been produced at many major regional theaters, as well as in Europe, South America and Off-Broadway including, among others, The Actors Theater of Louisville, Mark Taper Forum, Seattle Rep, Goodman Theatre, Hartford Stage, Theatre for the New City, Long Wharf Theater, Williamstown Theater Festival, Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Cherry Lane Theater, INTAR, Ensemble Studio Theatre, American Place Theater, and Hampstead Theatre in London.
Mr. Machado’s television credits include Executive Story Editor on Season 2 of the drama “Magic City” (Starz) and two seasons on the HBO’s “Hung.” He has written pilots for Starz, Amazon, and AMC. He wrote and directed the film Exiles in New York, which played at the A.F.I Film Festival, South by Southwest, Santa Barbara Film Festival and Latin American International Film Festival in Havana, Cuba. He has directed numerous plays, including his own works and those of emerging writers. As a director his work has appeared in numerous regional theaters including INTAR, Theater for a New City, EST, Mark Taper Forum, Culture Project, Playwrights Collective, The Company Theater, Cherry Lane Alternative, Flea Theater, Group Theater and the Inner City Cultural Center.
Mr. Machado has taught playwriting at Columbia University (Head of Playwriting 1997 to 2007), NYU Tisch (Head of Playwriting 2007 to 2018), and HB studios since 2020. He also taught at the Public Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Sarah Lawrence College and the Playwrights Center. He has served as an Artistic Associate at The Public, the Flea Theatre/Bat Theatre Company, and The Cherry Lane Alternative. He was playwright-in-residence at The Mark Taper Forum. From 2004 to 2010 he was the Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s INTAR Theatre.
He is the recipient of the Raúl Juliá HOLA Founders Award and the Berrilla Kerr Grant for contribution to American Theater. Other grants and awards include: AT&T: Onstage Grant; National Endowment for the Arts and Theater Communications Group Playwrights In Residence Fellowship at Theater For the New City; Bernice and Barry Stavis Playwright Award from the National Theatre Conference; two Dramalogue Awards, Best Play; three LA Weekly Awards; Theater Communications Group and Pew Charitable Trusts National Theater Artists Residency Playwright In Residence, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, CA; Viva Los Artistas Award from the city of Los Angeles; Ford Foundation Grant; Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Award; three National Endowment For the Arts Playwriting Grants; and National Endowment for the Humanities Youth Grant.
He is a member of the Actors Studio, Ensemble Studio Theater, and an alumnus of New Dramatists. He has served on the boards of TCG, New Dramatists and Theater for the New City.
Two collections of Mr. Machado’s work, The Floating Island Plays and Havana is Waiting and Other Plays, are published by the Theatre Communications Group. His plays are also published by Samuel French. Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home, a food memoir by Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich, was released by Gotham Press.
Not About Me will be presented at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets) from January 13th through February 5th. Performances will be Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees Sundays at 3pm. Opening night is set for January 18th. Tickets are $18, student tickets $10 and may be purchased by calling 212-254-1109 or online at https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/not-about-me/
In Becky Nurse of Salem, Deirdre O’Connell (Tony, Obie, Outer Critics Circle award-winner for Dana H) is luminous. O’Connell portrays Becky Nurse, descendant of Rebecca Nurse who was convicted and hanged as a witch during the Salem witch trials. The actor, incisively shepherded by director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) does a yeowoman’s job in a role that flies high in humor and crashes into tragedy and remorse at the two-act play’s heart-felt and satisfying conclusion.
Written by Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage) the play artfully rides on a meme printed on protest signs during the global Women’s March of 2017, a march which took place the day after former President Donald Trump’s sparsely attended Inaugural celebration. Some of the signs read: “We are the Great, Great, Great Granddaughters of the Witches You Were Not Able to Burn.” Selecting the concept that women have transported themselves from that time to this and achieved prodigious exploits, then have been regressed by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the Republican penchant for misogyny and repression of women’s rights, Ruhl’s play speaks to many issues with currency, vitality and humor.
Running at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, the sardonic comedy investigates how the descendant of Rebecca Nurse has dealt with her haphazard life in Salem, Massachusetts, where she gives tours in the the Museum of Witchcraft, riding the coattails of her famous ancestor’s “cursed” reputation. On another level, Ruhl reveals that women still abandon each other and are abandoned by a culture surreptitiously steeped in patriarchal folkways, that suppress and stifle their growth professionally and individually. That rejection and judgment sets them up to pursue other ways to achieve what they want, some of them illegal and many of them ineffectual, causing them to plunge into a downward spiral, wasting their talents and intelligence.
Ruhl’s humor, under the clever direction of Taichman, develops into full blown belly laughs as Becky attempts to negotiate the ruins of her angst-ridden life, after telling off her new museum boss Shelby (Tina Benko). Her boss censures her for saying inappropriate epithets and getting carried away with what Shelby believes to be misinformation about “Gallow’s Hill.” Becky swears that the real place where Rebecca Nurse and the other women were hanged is on the spot of the second Dunkin’ Doughnuts farther away from the center of Salem. Shelby calls her down for spreading falsehoods, though clearly, as a non resident, she doesn’t have Becky’s information on the background of Salem.
Becky is the type of individual to be spunky, individualistic, strongly autonomous and not easily given to “obeying” someone she determines to be an inferior, despite her credentials. Though Becky apologizes, this isn’t enough for the arrogant Shelby who summarily fires her without hearing her pleas. It fits in with the plans for having the museum turn a profit without the overhead of salaries. Over ego and presumption, the competitive Shelby upends Becky’s financial security. The job has allowed Becky to support herself, pay her granddaughter Gail’s medical bills and generally get to the next day caring for herself and Gail. Shelby’s cruel firing leaves her with no recourse except to find another job in an area that has seen record unemployment. When Becky is cut out of the only job in town she is qualified for, Stan, who got the job, gives her the card of someone who can help her. She is a a witch.
Becky seeks the only safe place left open to her away from her own backward movement and regression. She goes to Stan’s recommended witch (the hysterical Candy Buckley whose twanging Boston accent is milked for well-placed laughs). Additionally, she also throws herself on the mercy of Bob (Bernard White), a high school sweetheart, now married, who owns a bar. She asks Bob for cash to pay the high-priced witch to end the Rebecca Nurse curse, and other expenses as the play unfolds with conflict upon conflict. Becky must reconcile her worsening problems or end up totally succumbing to the curse of her ancestor which appears to be directing her life toward complete failure and destitution.
Buckley’s Witch and O’Connell’s Becky make nefariously funny bosom buddies in changing the trajectory of Becky’s life since she can’t count on the culture to help her. Ruhl’s themes about women having to come up with ingenious ways to support themselves is clear in Becky’s reliance on witchcraft. The clever, randy spells that the Witch concocts for Becky prove to be effective on Bob who is entranced with his old sweetheart. Bob may be an answer to her financial problems, as men usually are for women who cannot sustain themselves due to a myriad of reasons, including unequal pay and unequal opportunities. The scene where Bob emerges in his underwear dancing to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” as Becky joins him and they have a mild sexual romp is priceless. The scene, the choice of music is superbly directed by Taichman for maximum humorous effect. Both actors carry if off with authenticity and hysterical playfulness.
Unfortunately, when things appear to be going swimmingly for Becky with her new love and revenge on her former boss succeeding when she falls and breaks a limb, the worm turns. The universe which has been bent to the arc of the two women’s magical contrivances upends. During Bob’s love fest with Becky, he collapses and has a heart attack which places him in the hospital. There, Bob has a vision of the Virgin Mary who reminds him of his vows and his marriage and gives him an ultimatum if he wants to live. Thus, he must give up his adulterous relationship with Becky and sell his bar.
Meanwhile, Becky, convinced she can use the waxwork of Rebecca Nurse to conduct her own tours on the background of the real Salem witch trials freely goes off the museum’s canned script. She informs an interested group that The Crucible, Miller’s play is filled with inaccuracies. For example Abigail’s age in reality was 11 years old, but Miller, who fantasized about sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, made her older and lusting after John Proctor to satisfy his own fantasies about the celebrity. Becky insists that rather than it be a play about John Proctor’s “virtue” what really happened was 14 women were hanged, something that Miller didn’t portray accurately, nor did he care about. In one of the funniest lines in the play Becky says, “…our country’s whole understanding of the Salem witch trials is based on the feeling–of I want to fuck Marilyn Monroe, but I can’t fuck her.”
At that juncture, an officer interrupts her tour and arrests her because she has been charged with theft. She was caught on tape stealing the lifelike wax figure from the Museum of Witchcraft in order to fulfill the last part of her spell to achieve wholeness and to earn some money in her newly self-created job. But at the point of the arrest, there is a pivot in time magically. The setting regresses to 1692. A crowd (all who judge her in the present-Bob, Witch, Shelby, Gail, Stan) dressed in pilgrim outfits scream, “Lock her up!” Because she dares to question why she is being arrested, she transgresses the laws, an insult to the officer. Act I ends in the throes of her panic and fear as the crowd in pilgrim garb demands, “Lock her up. Kill the witch. Lock her up.”
As the complications arise and boil over by the end of Act I, we have watched the character of Becky become unraveled as she takes more pain pills and makes untenable decisions. Though she is obsessed with wanting to change her life, she has neither the means, the nature, nor the sobriety to find a path which will lead her to success. Everyone except the Witch has turned against her. They can offer no route out of the morass she’s built for herself in her Salem life. And to make matters worse, while she is in jail, Shelby ends up taking care of Gail and applying for custody of her granddaughter. It is both an emotional and psychic blow as Shelby now has the upper hand over every aspect of her life.
How Taichman and Ruhl bring Becky to her knees leading to the court trial where she raises herself up to admit responsibility and become accountable for her own actions is the crux of Act II. Vitally, Ruhl brings together thematic elements from 1692 with the present to magnify the issues Ruhl introduced in the beginning. Ruhl intimates that the threads of Becky’s self-destruction are rooted in paternalistic folkways which encourage women to accept victimization and passivity rather than to struggle and fight to empower themselves. Indeed, as Ruhl points out the through line from the 1700s puritanism to the present, such behaviors are culturally learned, generational patterns that are difficult to extricate oneself from. Even Shelby spouts the rhetoric that is most current as a “liberal” but is a hypocrite, incapable of employing the substance of what progressiveness is, women helping women. Instead, Shelby competes and follows what is most damaging to the town, its legacy and future. Her taking in Gail on the surface appears kind but is questionable.
Taichman’s and Ruhl’s vision combines the best of humor, drama and profoundly current concepts. To do this she relies on a superb ensemble with O’Connell, White and Buckley as standouts.
Kudos to the creative team who conveys the settings and provides the chills that leak from the past to the present and back again. Particularly effective are the projections of the black birds symbolizing the occult and perhaps evil spirits at salient points in the play. These are effective thanks to Barbara Samuels lighting and Tal Yarden’s projections. The sets are effectively fluid and mimalistic thanks to Riccardo Hernandez. The costumes designed by Emily Rebholz are eerie enough to remind us of the fearful pilgrims.The waxwork of Rebecca Nurse is sufficiently life-like to imagine her presence being enlivened for a twinkling moment, then vanishing as all things magical are wont to do.
Because of Taichman’s direction, the production translates into masterful performances with high energy, LOL humor and current themes without relying on rhetoric or cant. This is not easy. Taichman, Ruhl, the actors and creative team make this comedic play a must-see. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/becky-nurse-salem/
Do we ever receive justice for wrongs done to us if the wrongdoer goes to jail and apologizes? Or are we so damaged no justice or forgiveness is possible? In Downstate, Bruce Norris raises such questions and many more in his compelling play superbly directed by Pam MacKinnon currently at Playwrights Horizons.
At the top of the play the reserved Andy (Tim Hopper) and his concerned wife Em (Sally Murphy) sit opposite Fred (Francis Guinan) who is a senior gentleman, disabled in a motorized wheelchair. As they attempt to discuss why Andy has come to visit, Dee (K. Todd Freeman) comes in with a shopping cart with groceries and Gio (Matthew J. Harris) quibbles with him about the money he owes Dee for bananas. Surveying the house and the roommates, only Fred is white, we surmise this living arrangement has been forced. As it turns out, all four roommates including Felix (Eddie Torres) who eventually comes out of his bedroom to make himself breakfast are convicted sex offenders, who wear leg braces so their activities may be monitored.
Andy visits Fred with Em to discuss Fred’s predation which happened over thirty years ago, when Andy was twelve and Fred was his piano teacher. Andy tells Fred he ruined his life and he can’t function the way he felt he could have if Fred had left him alone. Norris intimates subterranean clues why Andy has taken the liberty to visit Fred. Though Fred didn’t have to, he agrees to see Andy. In his 40s Andy is not supposed to be anywhere near Fred because Fred has served time and has been convicted and is currently transitioning and living in the half-way house. That Andy seeks Fred out and travels from Chicago to Downstate with his wife to deal with Fred is problematic and portentous.
After Andy and Em finish reading letters of judgment and recrimination they’ve written to Fred which Fred listens to calmly, they both reiterate that Fred is evil. When Em senses Andy is hesitating, she tells him to stop backpedaling and continue with why he’s come to see Fred. It is to get a full admission of what Fred has done to Andy. Fred insists he admitted to all of his actions in court, apologized and was sentenced. As they attempt to continue this discussion, the roommates are attempting to live their lives, get ready for work, make breakfast and use the bathroom. Clearly, the couple are a disruption to Dee, Gio and Felix. Yet, Em and Andy take umbrage at the activities around them interfering with the seriousness of their meeting. It is apparent that the mission they are on obviates the humanity of the other men whom they look down on. In their self-righteous ferocity there is an underlying remoteness and cruelty that Norris reveals in superb dialogue acted exceptionally.
Indeed, Andy and Em are so absorbed in Andy’s victimization and his wish to fully confront Fred with it, they become annoyed by the interruptions in an environment which Andy admits does not fit his expectations. It is as if in Andy’s imagination, he expects Fred to be a silent robot upon which he can unleash vilification without Fred responding as he sits in an isolated room just to listen to Andy’s rant about him. And ironically, part of that logical diatribe includes Andy telling Fred he has fantasized killing him. Interestingly, Fred responds with humanity and humility. He is apologetic and kindly to Andy which Andy ignores and dismisses. Andy reiterates that he has a right and is not supposed to feel empathy for and forgive Fred. Fred can extend him grace, but he doesn’t have to or want to receive it nor will he bestow it.
Norris does an impeccable job of revealing the humanity of both sides of the equation, especially in indicating that Andy, who is in therapy, has no idea how Fred’s life has been altered by what Fred refers to as his own sickness and deserved punishment. He believes Fred to be a fake. Tim Hopper’s Andy, Francis Guinan’s Fred and Sally Murphy’s Em are sensational in their performances listening acutely to each other and reacting with spot-on authenticity. Indeed, though we feel for Hopper’s Andy, Guinan’s Fred who is unassuming, childlike and kindly pulls us in and encourages our sympathy. When he reveals in a later discussion with Andy in Act II that an outraged fellow prisoner slyly brought in steel toed boots and kicked Fred so that his back was broken and he has to have a colostomy bag and can’t walk, we consider Andy’s “breast-beating” and Fred’s indulging him to be beyond ironic.
The relationship between Em and Andy as Norris infers, and the actors ingeniously perform with nuance, reveals there are intimacy issues and problems. Thus, Andy’s psychology seeking out Fred is much more complicated than having him sign a reconciliation paper. In Act II the complication is further exposed and we note Andy’s emotional issues which he can’t confront in himself. These allow him to cling to victimization perhaps for another reason. Clearly, Andy and Em are not satisfied with the “justice” Fred has received and by the end of the play we understand that there is more to predation that happens between victims and their predators, than what there is assumed to be. Perhaps, it is not all on the evil and perverted side of the predator. This is tricky ground and Norris navigates it with understanding, forthrightness and intelligence.
After Andy and Em leave in annoyance, PO Ivy (Susanna Guzman in a fine performance) visits. It is here where we begin to understand how the individuals are monitored and hated by the outside community. Also, the problems that they face living in the house are not being addressed by the state, another example that they are a bottom priority. For example, the house needs a broken window and a leaky septic tank repaired. Ivy tells them that they should pay for the repairs themselves. She is too overworked to deal with it. There are more important reasons for her visit. Ivy brings information which indicates the culture’s judgment of sex offenders has mandated increased restrictions on their transportation and mobility. When Dee asks for the particulars, they discover that the routes they must now take are illogical. The point is that the neighborhood opposes their being in the area and petitions constantly for them to leave; the mandate is a sop thrown to the neighborhood.
Norris also outlines the interactions between the four men. Gio and Felix, who are religious, act superior and reject Dee’s lifestyle as a homosexual. Gio accuses Dee of taking advantage of Fred, who needs help bathing and toileting and pays Dee. Meanwhile, Ivy confronts Gio about his behaviors and he is defensive, insulting and bullying. She has to warn him that she can send him back to prison if he doesn’t shape up. In Ivy’s interactions with Eddie Torres’ Felix, we note her attempt to be even-handed. However, in Guzman’s questioning of Torres’ Felix, again, we feel for both characters. She must do her job and Felix is trying to live his life and at least reach out to his daughter on her birthday. Torres is spot-on in his emotionalism and his broken-hardheartedness. His portrayal is beautifully human and tugs at our hearts.
As a secondary character of great importance, Gio’s co-worker, Effie, has a friend who is a sex offender, so she should know the balancing act that must be taken with offenders. She doesn’t care. Norris uses her character as a catalyst. She has become close to Gio and plays fast and loose with his status as a first time offender found guilty of statutory rape with a minor. Gabi Samels’ Effie is provocative, high wired, a “wise-ass” and loud-mouth, knowledgeable enough about the law to use it with Guzman’s Ivy. Through Ivy and Dee’s response to her, we note her ADHD carelessness and irresponsibility is a train wreck waiting to happen.
K. Todd Freeman’s Dee serves as the house master, who on the one hand is aware of everyone’s business, but also watches out for each of the roommates, regarding their rights and responsibilities not to screw it up for each other. Sometimes it is efficacious and other times it backfires. Norris has given Dee the most humorous, witty, intelligent and lovable lines as a former show business person and lover of the arts. Freeman is incredible as the black, senior homosexual, who makes the perfect ironic retort when coming up against bigotry, hypocrisy and cruelty, displayed especially by Gio and Andy. Freeman and Guinan show their prodigious acting talents in establishing the caring, kind relationship between Dee and Fred. In their interactions with Gio and Felix, their performance is nuanced, and Freeman’s ironic delivery as Dee, who uses his humor to lay bare Gio’s arrogance and Andy’s internal psychological fears, is breathtaking.
Norris’s characterizations are beautifully drawn. The playwright enables us to better understand the impact of the hatred and fear leveled by a culture that has little mercy for individuals such as the offenders in Downstate. The humanity that the actors portray in Gio, Fred, Dee and Felix is heartfelt, poignant and tragic. As those on the outside, Andy, Em, Guzman and Gabi Samels are edgy and powerful. All of the characters’ interactions are organic, complex and nuanced. Not enough praise can be given to Pam MacKinnon for shepherding the fine performances of this stark, amazing, forceful ensemble piece.
Norris has set up the action threads in Act I, that he unravels to explode sensationally in Act II. There is no spoiler alert in this review. You will just have to see Downstate to find out the conflict developments between Andy and Fred, Ivy and Felix, and Gio and the catalysts Dee and Effie. The result is cataclysmic and heartbreaking
Kudos to Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, Clint Ramos’ costume design, Adam Silverman’s lighting design, Carolyn Downing’s sound design, which are perfect for the reality and drama that MacKinnon’s vision requires. This gobsmacking production is one to see for its themes of love, humanity and grace, its wonderful performances and ensemble acting, and its overall production design. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/downstate2223/
Sometimes the best way to accept the inevitable is to step into the realm of the fantastic and approach the unapproachable through magical thinking and an encouragement toward vacating reality. In You Will Get Sick by Noah Diaz, directed by Sam Pinkleton presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the unnamed characters traverse through unspecified settings and manage their lives of quiet desperation with humor and a sense of camaraderie that comes with a price. The price is avoiding the blinding truth until they are ready to receive it.
Daniel K. Isaac’s character is the emotionally distant, sweet #1, who has a phone conversation with Linda Lavin’s #2 at the top of the play. Initially, I questioned why they speak to each other since money is discussed upfront and it wasn’t clear what the exchange services were. However, when character #2 straightens out how she wants the money delivered, we discover she is an actor, is on a project and above all needs to supplement her finances. Character #1 eventually clarifies the services he pays her for in this absurdist, quirky play whose surreal elements are funny, surprising and metaphoric.
Interestingly, there is an internal war in character #1, which we may identify with at one level or another. He has been in denial about the severity of his illness. The initial service he requires of #2 is to listen to him as he tells her about his condition, so in the telling he can acknowledge what he is going through, confront it and then position himself to tell his sister. At least he knows he is in denial. Blindness related to not admitting the signs of disease when they first appear is a typical reaction, unless one is a hypochondriac, which #1 clearly is not. When we understand what #1 is going through, we consider COVID-19 deniers.The most extreme were on their death beds scorning their nurses and doctors’ COVID diagnosis. These went to their deaths with the peaceful conviction that anything other than COVID was killing them.
Though #1 isn’t as blind as those individuals, he can’t reconcile his illness. He can’t even admit to himself that his body is falling apart, that his hands are growing numb, that it is becoming harder to walk and impossible not to fall in the shower. His condition is incurable and there has been a diagnosis which we never learn. Yet, as the play progresses, #1 struggles with himself emotionally and must be as detached as possible to begin to comprehend that the plans for his life, his hopes and dreams have been shuttered by the drama that is overtaking his body’s ability to function.
Many youth who are immortal until they aren’t, think that illness is what happens to the old and feeble. However, this doesn’t appear to be Character #1’s thinking…that sickness is for the old. We discover later in the play in a discussion he has with his sister that he is aware that sickness can impact the young and kill them. In fact he took care of his sibling Patrick who was ill, maybe of the same disease, and nursed him until he died. So he is not a callow thirty-something. Clearly, taking care of his brother was a sacrifice of love, but it took its toll on him. In his discussion with his sister, #1 states he doesn’t want her to take care of him, nor does he want aides to help out. Somehow, he will deal with this on his own and allow the illness to take its course. The recognition of the impact of illness on family, since he has had that experience, most probably has overwhelmed him. Denialism and blindness allow one to transition to the truth gradually.
The first step in #1’s plan is to come back from denialism and face reality with someone who is not a relative. To do this and remain less emotionally overwhelmed, he decides to pay someone to listen to him reconcile the fact that he is “sick,” though he never frames it as an illness that is cutting short his life. That is a bridge too far, and one he is not ready to cross. Thus, Lavin’s humorous character #2 becomes the one to take on the impossible burden of listening to him as he describes factually what his body is doing. Character #1’s mind and emotions are so shut down, he can’t discuss this with his co-workers or his sister, just yet. Character #2 will help prepare him for those discussions.
Character #2 is desperate for the money and does odd jobs and takes acting classes so she can become good enough to audition for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Character #2 and #1 are idiosyncratic and pursue their own realities and somehow manage to accept one another’s weirdness with generosity so that what they both wish, they help each other achieve. The actors are superb in making the unusual seem regular with their direct, in the moment authenticity. Importantly, though they are not friends, #1 and #2 help each other feel less alone against the personal trials they face.
Character #1’s connection with character #2 strengthens after he sends her a check which he didn’t sign. That forces a face-to-face meeting which leads to other meetings, the next when he hires character #2 to tell his sister (Character #3 is Marinda Anderson) about his condition. When the three of them meet, Diaz constructs a humorous scene in a restaurant with a crying waiter (Nate Miller) that Pinkleton directs with excellent pacing for humor. After this meeting with his sister we understand the limitations of family and why #1 doesn’t want to bother her about what he is going through.
In addition to his illness, #1 faces another problem. He must escape the monstrous birds that sound like crows, who prey upon and kill the sick. Nate Miller’s character #4 plays a number of parts relating to the bird menace. One is a salesman who sells insurance to protect against the humongous birds. Another is a despondent waiter (he appears in #1’s meeting with his sister) whose mother was taken by a monstrous bird. Thus, on top of having to confront the deterioration of his body, #1 has to beware of these other worldly birds. Interestingly, #2’s attitude toward the bird attacks is sanguine, almost uninterested. She will stay well as an older person and help this thirty-something in his illness. Theirs is an ironic reversal of the natural order of things.
Character #2’s response to Miller’s bird insurance salesman sums up her reaction to most things at this point in her life’s experience. She tells him a choice epithet about where to go. Linda Lavin’s #2 uses epithets as seasonings to make her delectable, unstoppable character more immediate and no nonsense. Lavin, with decades of know-how has fine tuned her rhythm and timing for humor, cleverly waiting for the chortling laughter that always follows her character’s well-placed retorts.
Diaz messages a number of themes with these unusual characters who are fanciful but manage to be endearing because they are so vulnerable. Caregiving, Diaz suggests, sometimes requires allurements like money because family can’t always be counted on to help. Sometimes strangers are better attuned because they are not emotional and there are no problematic bonds. Characters #2 and #1 arrive at a congeniality of quid pro quos. #1 even goes to one of #2’s acting classes where they act out “lion” and “tiger” in a humorous segment which actually takes #1’s mind off his condition and physically helps him. Lavin is not only spry at 85-years old, her “lion” and “tiger” steal the show. Her spot-on performance has her addressing the audience and singing an audition song (for the part of Dorothy) in which she ends up in the wrong register. And after trying it a few times, #2 never gets it right.
For his part Isaac’s #1 handles the absurdist elements with authenticity. When he spits up the hay, symbolic of where he originated from, and representative of his illness, the action is weird and frightening, but believable. He negotiates the straw-man, scarecrow imagery in the later scenes with matter-of-fact acceptance. These segments and his apparent suspension (with special effects) suggesting tropes from The Wizard of Oz, an iconic story whose verities relate to the characterizations in You Will Get Sick, are fascinating to ponder. However, the playwright is a master of the opaque and uncertain, never really pinning down any particular truths apart from the fact expressed in the title and our susceptibility to our mortal state. That he delivers these themes gently with fantastic elements is enough.
Isaac’s character #1 echoes Dorothy’s wish to return home as related to The Wizard of Oz. Lavin’s #2 helps him achieve that wish as #1 helps #2 achieve her goal. At the play’s conclusion we note that the money #2 has received from #1 has allowed her to purchase a gingham dress and red shiny slippers so she can properly audition for the part of Dorothy, a dream she’s had her entire life.
#1 makes it home. For him home is in a field of hay (though wheat might be more metaphorical). There he meets up with his brother Patrick, Character #5 (Dario Ladani Sanchez) who joins him holding a microphone. It is Patrick’s voice we have heard (in voice over) expressing #1’s interior thoughts throughout the play.
At the conclusion we understand the importance of #5 in helping give #1 solace and comfort to keep his emotional turmoil at bay so he can function and find his way to “get back to where he once belonged.” At home in the field with Patrick, #1 is able to breathe freely, away from the noise and the hectic gyrations of city life. There, he seems well and is in his right place. The metaphors settle into a finality at the conclusion. Indeed, the human condition vies between sickness and wellness. As Diaz’s title suggests, humans are mere mortals. There is an immutable inevitably of sickness. During it, if we are fortunate, we will “get back to where we once belonged” (our home and what that means to us).
Kudos to dots (set design) Michael Kross and Alicia Austin (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Lee Kinney (original music and sound design) Daniel Kluger (original music and sound effects) Skylar Fox (magic and illusions) Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design) who bring Diaz’s play and Pinkleton’s vision of it to fruition.
Diaz’s daring, imagistic play is in its World Premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre until 11 December. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/you-will-get-sick/performances
In its second Off Broadway go-round (Lincoln Center in 2002) Terrence McNally’s book and Stephen Flaherty’s music with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics of A Man of No Importance directed and designed by John Doyle, is currently at CSC until 18 of December. The production is Doyle’s unaffecting and warm goodbye as Artistic Director of CSC. The uplifting, poignant musical appropriately reminds us of the vitality of theater, whether it be in an office space or a majestic 1500 seat house on 42nd street. Unlike the titular film A Man of No Importance is based on (1994, starring Albert Finney, written by Barry Devlin, produced by Little Bird) live theater is interactive. The audience spurs on the actors in a kinetic, telepathic bond that is incredibly enjoyable once opening night jitters are put to rest.
This most probably is what keeps protagonist Alfie, a DIY theater director of Dublin’s St. Imelda’s Church players inspired and engaged, though their performances are reportedly terrible. And it is why he is wickedly devastated when Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) closes down their production of Salome, because it is inappropriate and untoward for a community church theater show, though the story is right out of scripture. Actually, by the end of the production we learn that the butcher, Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), who is one of their amateur troupe, complained to Father Kenny that Salome was tantamount to pornography because he had a small role and that pissed him off.
Alfie (portrayed by the likable and heartfelt Jim Parsons) apart from his love and spirit guidance by Oscar Wilde, who encourages him to read poems while at his job as a conductor on a Dublin bus, is a closeted, sensitive gay man. He lives with his domineering sister Lily (the always superb Mare Winningham) in their small apartment, where he keeps a raft of books and tests out his gourmet international recipes on her unadorned, “Irish stew palette.”
The year is 1964 before the cultural revolution, “free love,” mini skirts, The Beatles phenomenon and a relaxation of Catholicism’s strictures that didn’t really happen until decades later. Then, the Republic of Ireland was repressed and oppressed by doctrine that made it look more like the radical, right-wing conservative anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, red state swamp areas of the American South in 2022. Because of such cultural dispossession, Alfie lives in a fantasy world of art, theater and poetry. He remains inspired by his spiritual advisor, fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, as he tries to improve the lives of those around him, whether at his job as a conductor, at home with his sister, or at the church, directing his St. Imelda Players.
When Father Kenny closes down their amateur troupe, Alfie is quite bereft, until the St. Imelda Players decide to perform a play of the events that have brought them to where they are at the finish line in the present (1964) with no winning trophy. But instead of directing them, Alfie will be the star of their play.
Cleverly, McNally, Flaherty and Ahrens adjusted and adapted the film as a flashback sandwiched by the present. The church players become the Greek chorus who engineer the events of the play, streamlining them into the action that happened at St. Imelda’s before Father Kenny shuttered their company. They sing songs that embody the emotional feeling and turning points of those events. These songs include the conflict between and among the characters, personal confessions and revelations, and the positive message that they gain from what they’ve learned together. They introduce Alfie as their star, then perform the tuneful, ironic opening number, “A Man of No Importance,” in celebration of their beloved friend and director who is their hero, integral to all of their lives. We learn by the conclusion of their musical, that to them, he is a man of great significance.
Doyle has staged the musical with an approach to DIY theater, reflective of what the St. Imelda Players might effect. The props are cleverly selected, i.e. a drum is used as the bus steering wheel. The actors use minimal furniture to create the environs where the events occur. Chairs suggest the bus that conductor Alfie is on with the driver, the affable and lively Robbie Fay (A.J. Shively, whose “The Streets of Dublin” rocks it). The players become the bus passengers with a new passenger Adele, the lovely voiced Shereen Ahmed catching the attention of Alfie as he quotes from a poem by his spirit mentor Oscar Wilde. By the end of their ride, The St. Imelda Players complete singing the titular “A Man of No Importance.”
As the players give us a tour of Alfie’s life in Dublin, we drop in on him with sister Lily, who is happy to discover that Alfie has found interest in a woman. She sings”Burden of Life” as an answer to her prayers so that perhaps now Alfie can settle down, and she can be free of taking care of him. Mare Winningham is humorous and vibrant as she takes on the role of Lily. A Catholic woman, she and the others in the troupe miss all the cues that her brother just might not be into women. When this finally comes out later, she reassures him in the song “Tell Me Why” that even though he is gay, she loves him anyway and he should have told her.
Alfie’s interest in Adele is not because her beauty entices him romantically. He thinks she is perfect for the role of Salome. Though she avers and refuses the part initially, Alfie is persuasive and she finally relents. It is his hope to have the handsome Robbie play the part of John the Baptist, perfectly cast to act with Adele. Robbie puts him off and instead invites him to come to the pub (the wonderful “The Streets of Dublin”). Alfie accompanies Robbie and makes a fool of himself singing “Love’s Never Lost” in front of Robbie’s friends. Embarrassed, Alfie leaves, further disturbed at Breton Beret’s (Da’Von T. Moody) interest in him. Additionally, he’s confounded by the “love that dare not speak its name,” a love that he feels for his “Bosie,” as he imagines Robbie to be. (Bosie refers to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover.)
Alfie can only admit this inner conflict as he looks at himself in a mirror encouraged by Oscar Wilde (Thom Sesma). He sings the lyrical “Man in the Mirror” as a way to work through his emotions to achieve self-acceptance. Parsons approaches Alfie’s inner conflict with yearning and honesty, confessing in a dream-state to the persecuted and vilified Oscar Wilde, a man who understands the torment he goes through.
Spurred by her discussion with Mr. Carney about Alfie’s weirdness (“Books”), Carney’s insistence that Salome is pornography, and his pressure to marry, which Lily puts off using Alfie as an excuse, Lily makes an attempt as a matchmaker. She invites Adele home for a meal that Alfie has cooked. Afterward, Alfie walks Adele home and as a friend, he gets her to admit she has “someone.” Her tears suggest that there is a reason her boyfriend is not with her. To reassure her Alfie calms her with another beautiful ballad, “Love Who You Love.” As she leaves, Alfie bumps into Breton Beret who propositions him. Alfie wisely restrains himself. His intuition is correct but his unresolved conflict between his shame at being gay and his longing to find someone to be with is a devastation in a Catholic country where being a homosexual is a mortal sin requiring repentance and conversion. Interestingly, he imagines Oscar Wilde encourages him by suggesting that the only way to remove temptation is by giving in to it.
In Doyle’s production the musical is streamlined to eliminate an intermission and keep it as one continuous series of events that move with swiftness, as players would effect their version of what happened, without including every detail. There are fewer players and most of them are incredible musicians that round out the small band tucked away in a second floor balcony against the back wall of the CSC playing area, where the audience abuts on three sides. Thanks to Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations), Caleb Hoyer (music director) Strange Cranium (electronic music design) the music arrangements, Doyle’s staging and the players’ vocal work is gorgeous, and seamlessly, perfectly wrought in configuring the St. Imelda’s Players’ production. Indeed, they are much better than they’ve jokingly been described.
After the turning point (“Love Who You Love” carries the theme) the players reveal that Adele can’t continue with her lines as Salome because the words convict her soul. She can’t act a role where she’s supposed to be innocent and virginal, because in real life, she’s a fallen woman, who had intercourse out of wedlock and now is pregnant. Full of guilt and remorse her punishment is self-torment and humiliation. She must emotionally suffer the rest of her life because abortion is out of the question and the father won’t marry her to make the baby legitimate. The church and the oppressive paternalistic folkways of the culture vilify her with unworthiness and condemnation.
Catholicism hangs over the heads of the characters like a dirge of annihilation and judgment. Adele will have to go home to receive help from her parents to raise the child. Meanwhile, Mr. Carney also uses religious folkways to shut down the play. To add insult to injury, Robbie feels condemned by Alfie when Alfie unwittingly interrupts Robbie and Mrs. Patrick (Jessica Tyler Wright) making love in the bus garage. Feeling the weight of the sin of adultery, Robbie insults Alfie and judges Alfie’s life is without love, an accusation that torments Alfie because he loves Robbie.
Alfie can never reveal this love to him because it would drive Robbie away. Though Alfie has attempted to confess to Father Kenny (“Confession”) he can’t bring himself to reveal his great sin and thus is damned with guilt. As a result of the conflict of loving someone who would never love him, and being accused by that same person as being unloving, Alfie throws caution to the winds. He engages with Breton Beret who has been waiting for the opportunity to make himself look like a real man by beating up a “poof.”
Clearly, the film (1994) was made at a time when the Catholic church was dealing with its own sexual sins which finally came to the fore in the world wide expose of pederasty in the church around 2002. However, the film/musical sets the events back in the 1960s before any of the cultural revolutions took place. Nevertheless, to understand the full force of Catholicism condemnation of homosexuality, check the numbers of gay men who were abused as Alfie is abused by the likes of Breton Beret, or look at the numbers of Catholic gay men committing suicide because they couldn’t reconcile their feelings with their religion. Also, read up on the Republic of Ireland’s approach toward girls who got pregnant out of wedlock in the book Philomena (also a fabulous film with Judi Dench). Or read the stories of the Magdalene Laundries, captured in the film The Magdalene Sisters. The brutality of the paternalistic Catholic folkways winked at male adultery like Robbie’s and swept it under the rug as “boys will be boys.” As for gays or women with babies born out of wedlock, the humiliation, shame and condemnation was a cruelty that destroyed lives.
In the book of the musical McNally is not heavy handed with Catholicism in its iteration at St. Imelda’s community church. The musical has a light touch and religion appears to take a back seat, if we are not aware of the entrenched history of the church and its devastation on its believers. Rather, it is understated with Robbie’s anger at being discovered by Alfie, and Adele’s tears when the father of her child abandons her after he takes what he wants. Alfie gets the worst of it because he is discovered as a homosexual by the police who come to save him from being beaten to death by Beret. But the rub is he can’t press charges for assault because public opinion against “poofs” is more reprehensible than a physical assault. In fact it is intimated that Beret gets backroom laughs and cheers for beating up a homosexual who fell for his enticement.
McNally, Flaherty and Ahren configure the church’s worst folkways to be the sub rosa driving force for all of the humiliation, self-condemnation and torment that makes the conclusion so incredibly vital to A Man of No Importance. Thanks to Doyle, the performers and the creative team’s talents, the conclusion is uplifting and poignant for us today with a message of love and acceptance that is never old. It is the true spirit of Christmas in this “Happy Holidays” season, and in the United States needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops. In its quiet and unassuming way, A Man of No Importance is a trophy winner.
Kudos to Ann Hould-Ward (costume design), Adam Honore (lighting design) and Sun Hee Kil (sound design) and the entire cast and creative team who bring Doyle’s vision to life. The excellent must-see A Man of No Importance is at CSC until 18 December. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.classicstage.org/current-season/a-man-of-no-importance
Did you know that in the 1930s the Nazis ran propaganda summer camps for youngsters, like the one in Yaphank, on Long Island New York and elsewhere across the United States? Camp Siegfried was created by the German-American Bund, led by Fritz Kuhn to sway various Americans to support Germany in its bid to overthrow Communism, Judism and “corrupt” liberalism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Considering that there was a large German immigrant population in the United States, the Nazi Party’s idea of propagandizing United States German citizens toward the benefits of Nazism in support of Hitler’s Germany was a sound one.
Bess Wohl’s titular play about Camp Siegfried falls short of powerfully dramatizing the true nature and danger of such Nazi camps that were pro-Hitler retreats sponsored by German loyalists. Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, a two hander “romance among the Nazis” directed by David Cromer is currently running at 2ndStage with no intermission. Unfortunately, the production lacks dynamism, terror and moment in its attempt to reveal the gradual inculcation of Nazi doctrine in the minds of the protagonists.
Wohl’s attempt not to give too much away proves damaging to the overall impact of the play. What should be directly energized and dramatized in the Nazi Party’s will to dominate, never really comes across. The only time it does is when a speech is proclaimed by She (Lily McInerny’s graduated intensity works well) and only because of the added response to the speech. It becomes the high point because of canned cheering which increases as the venom and hatred increases in She’s speech, spoken in German. (There are no super-titles, so German is an imperative if you want to understand it.) But by the time that speech arrives, so much more could have been done to incisively reveal the sub rosa impact of the brainwashing on the teens that should be terrifying but isn’t. The play’s overall effect lands with a thud as do its themes which are muddled.
This camp and others in New York stoked the fervency for the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden which was protested by those against Hitler’s fascism. The camps were considered egregious and they were shut down. Camp Siegfried’s propagandizing was greater than what Wohl’s play suggests in her attempt to portray the interactions between the teens. This is a missed opportunity especially for us during this time of growing white nationalism in our culture which needs to be called out for its violent hatefulness. Those who proudly display swastikas should not be greeted with smiles and pats on the back. Such acceptance is consent and grows toward hate crimes. And if the symbols of Nazism are understated, or treated as non existent as in Wohl’s play, that is an inconvenient misdirection. Not revealing the typical abundance of signage used by the Nazi Party loyalists in the US camps is questionable and removes the play’s chilling effect.
Hitler and Goebbel’s propaganda was steeped in occult symbolism. The Nazis believed in the power of the Swastika in their flags, insignias, their specially designed uniforms which conveyed “majesty” and fear in their intent to show dominance and preeminence. To suggest subtly how one might be seduced into wickedness without showing the associated “signs” of how that wickedness is conveyed is problematic. This is especially so when Camp Siegfried’s name is used, but the power of Nazi will and their purpose for the camp in this play, appears expositionally without menace until the very end, and as a result, seems random and confused.
The camp is seen through the perspectives of these teens as an OK place where they can have sexual fun, abuse each other verbally and physically and learn “stuff.” That they they are propagandized into one of the greatest, evil political belief systems of 1938 on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland after annexing Austria is momentous. That sense of moment is intentionally mitigated because only part of the story at the camp is conveyed by the teens. For me, that is a weakness in the play’s structure in addition to its dependence, not on dramatic dialogue, but on exposition. Dynamic drama is missing. For example She’s visit to the doctor, if activated with an actual visit instead of as exposition, the weight of the camp’s abuse would be made more powerful by the doctor’s direct comments. Additionally, drama might have been conveyed via a different, more visceral examination of the camp reflected in scenic design and lighting design. Costume design and sound design succeed best at conveying the sinister symbols of Nazism at the camp but only during She’s speech and in He’s costume after he joins her when she is finished.
Depending upon the resources one looks up, in 1938 in this camp and others, those at the camp dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Swastika flags were situated next to the American flag. However, since Wohl’s play involves a two character limitation of the nameless He (Johnny Berchtold) and She (Lily McInerny), there are no other “campers” to show this “glory” of Hitler that the camp Nazis uplift. There are no portraits of Hitler, though there supposedly were at the real camp.
We only see the camp exterior. Brett J. Banakis’ scenic design creates the naturalistic set of a hillside and wooden fence-like wall abutting the camp. When He and She put together a platform that is later used for She’s speech, there are no swastikas, pictures or flags draping it, though there is canned cheering. The effects of what the climax of that speech might have been thematically and viscerally are diminished because the key symbolism of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda is absent. A sinister aspect is only suggested in the canned cheering in what sounds like a Nazi rally in 1930s Germany.
In Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, much is expositional; much is ancillary. We hear Hitler and Goebbel’s names mentioned as streets in the camp. We hear that the teens must do the work and if they are injured, they must suffer through it and be strong. She discusses the symbolism of the name Siegfried which she has learned and she tries to learn German. He chops wood for the all night bonfires; no workers from labor unions are allowed as unions were thought to have Jews (a reference He makes). The discriminatory aspects of this are downplayed. As he chops wood they get to know one another and more things are revealed about the camp. For example She reports various girls brag about having sex with specific boys.
That the young men and women are being encouraged to “breed” and create Aryan replicas is unconnected to Nazism and the import of the activity is skewed. In one segment while He masterbates masochistically, She sadistically belittles and demeans him to be worthless. Their activity is disjointed and we are led to believe that their behavior isn’t connected with what the intentioned propaganda of the camp toward young men and women is. In some scenes after they couple, She demonstrates pride in telling He about her pregnancy. Her pregnancy is a lie, learned propaganda and manipulation. Wohl’s He and She fall in line with the learned camp behaviors out of gross inferiority and shyness. However, the characters are shallowly drawn and lack emotional grist. They are not easy to empathize with and thus, their indoctrination has less of an impact on the overall themes and conclusion which ends hollowly.
In the source material Camp Siegfried’s grounds had Nazi and Hitler Youth flags and pictures of Adolf Hitler. Men were photographed in uniforms (Italian Fascist-style blackshirts, SA-style brownshirts and Nazi military uniforms. It is arguable whether it is more frightening to see a sexual relationship between two teenagers budding against a background of Nazi flags whipping in the wind next to American flags, or an absence of them as if they don’t exist. However, in their absence, the danger and horror of what Camp Siegfried symbolized for that time and what its exploration through the teens’ eyes intimates for our time is lessened to the point that one wonders why the titular camp was selected and its purpose downplayed as an artifice. There is no visceral imagery or camp life that is believable and too much exposition gets in the way of the dynamic dramatic.
When He and She first meet on a back wall of the camp hillside, He tells She about the camp activities which include marching. If the “power” and “glory” of Hitler’s propaganda spectacle was manifest each day with the signage and Swastika flags, without learned revulsion, then Nazification would have drawn He and She in large part through the spectacle of such symbols that the adults at the camp salute to and venerate. But that which was a huge part of the symbolism used to bring unity, awe and fear by the Nazi Party and German loyalists, who use the camp to train future Nazi leaders, is absent. The audience is never allowed in to the camp and what they hear isn’t enough to make a difference because it is never activated or visualized.
The only events actualized concern their sexual relationship, the wood chopping, the platform building and the speech. All should have more than a slim thread of the Nazi connections but they don’t until the last two minutes of the play and only through exposition. Otherwise this would be a typical summer camp (it isn’t). We follow two teens (the actors in their Broadway debut make the best of their roles) and their relationship. She gives a speech with a Nazi salute that reveals her indoctrination. And the purpose of the camp is revealed with her description of what she’s been through to the doctor. We only find that out because she tells He.
Wohl conveys the focus of the camp in a gradual sub rosa way via exposition and He’s behaviors. Unconnected to the other camp members or activities, the action is unclear as to the extent it is unfair and cruel (until at the conclusion She reports how the doctor defined what happened at the camp as a delusion). Likewise, another activity He engages in is archery. But its importance as potential discipline and military training is muted as are all the actions we see the teens undertake. However, in reality camp activities are organized to make future Nazi leaders in the US to run for political office, to unify German Americans, and place them in leadership roles to dominate in coherence with Hitler’s Third Reich.
This is hinted at via exposition and reportage at the end of the play when She reports to He that she went to a doctor outside the camp after He has beaten her badly. When she tells the doctor why she’s so cut up, revealing the camp’s abusive treatment in addition to He’s beating, the doctor (an outsider) tells her, “Anyone can be seduced.” And he follows this with, “Never underestimate your infinite capacity for delusion.” As she reports this to He, the spell is broken. She tells He they were both caught up in the delusion. He doesn’t accept what she says and tells her that Herr Kuhn has invited him to Germany and he will meet the higher ups and join the “worldwide fight.” This important scene with the doctor is reduced to exposition, yet it is what changes her mind about the camp.
Anything that might strike horror for us today is not shown. This seems misguided and changes the thrust of the play, whitewashing it. There is nothing benign about a Nazi Swastika flag next to the American flag which was pictured at the real Camp Siegfried. The play’s camp carries the title, but the substance and meaning are squeezed out of it. Thus, the lure of the propaganda which should be terrifying to us because we know what is behind it, never finds emotional power or effect. The forward movement becomes some teens playing at sex and being adults and searching out each other with a backdrop at a camp that we hear appreciates the Nazi Party, Hitler, teaches German, has all-night rallies and marches. The culmination occurs when She delivers a speech and lifts her hand in the Sieg Heil salute and feels pleased with herself but reverses after her discussion with the doctor.
It may be horrific to have a Nazi Swastika onstage with other Nazi paraphernalia, but that horror is real and signifies something beyond just the freedom to express it. More might have been done to reveal the iconography of the Nazi party that was propagandizing the teens at the camp since it was such iconography that swelled German pride during that period of time in Germany and during the 1939 Nazi Party rally at Madison Square Garden.
Thus, the play never rises to the dramatic moments of danger and fear that Wohl might have brought to bear during our time that again sees the rise of white nationalism in our country, and on Long Island. There, on Long Island, the KKK, confederate flags and white nationalistic Holocaust Denier T-Shirts have been seen in allegedly patriotic parades and boat regattas supporting Donald Trump, a proponent of White Nationalism (think Nazis) and anti-democratic insurrections. Not to include the symbols or uniforms as they were used at the real Camp Siegfried, when white nationalism threatens our very democratic institutions is problematic.
At the Capitol on January 6th, there are pictures of Holocaust deniers proudly wearing T-shirts proclaiming that 6 million more should have been killed. This occurred during an insurrection that intended to nullify our constitution and install a despotic, white nationalist, who decries not indecency, bigotry, anti-semisitism, racism and hatred, but anyone who criticizes him. This is a time when a known Holocaust denier went to Mar-a-Lago, a few days ago, the place once referred to as the Southern White House. Actions and words carry great meaning.
The Nazis gently referred to and mildly presented in this play via exposition were essentially absent. Especially absent are key symbols of Nazi propaganda that the Nazi Party used for their potent and clever manipulation to sway the minds of Germans. Their non-appearance in the play is definitely a teachable moment. Likewise, the decision to omit these dramatic elements carefully constructed by the Nazi Party to excite and unify, in a play about Nazi allurements, also is a teachable moment. Their absence is silence.
Camp Siegfried runs with no intermission at https://cart.2st.com/events