Category Archives: Off Broadway
Maz and Bricks by Eva O’Connor takes place on a tram, and on the streets of Dublin over two days in 2017. Its setting is monumental because at this time, the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland was at its height. Because of the popular support, reflected in the protests to repeal the amendment which banned abortion, the amendment was repealed in 2018, and a women’s right to make decisions about her own body was solidified under the law.
During the campaign, Maz, who is on her way to a massive protest in Dublin to repeal the constitutional abortion ban, meets Bricks. Their initial meeting filled with conflict and humorous, verbal smackdowns becomes the linchpin that changes both of their lives.
The production presented by Fishamble, The New Play Company, won an Olivier Award and is in its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters, as part of Origin’s 1st Irish. Experiencing the 80 minute production which has no intermission, a minimal, spare set and fine staging, one can understand why it is an award-winner. First, it is directed with precision and sensitivity by Jim Culleton. Secondly, O’Connor’s titular characterizations lure us with their vitality, and surprise us with their raw likeability. The play is well crafted with continually dynamic interchanges by the characters and an unadorned, satisfying, character-driven plot development, with powerful themes that hold currency for our times.
Thanks to the superb performances by Eva O’Connor (playwright) who also performs Maz, and Ciaran O’Brien as Bricks, we are led on a journey that moves deeper into the minds and hearts of these individuals, as they become acquainted, gain interest in each other, bounce apart, then couple together in mutual respect and caring. By the conclusion of the production we note how “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last sound of the trumpet,” individuals can open up and help each other reach a place of authenticity and healing, that they did not realize they could reach in themselves alone.
Upon first meeting Maz and Bricks, we are struck by Bricks’ over-confidence, braggadocio and utterly loutish behavior during a phone conversation on a tram, which one needs ear plugs to ignore. When Maz calls Bricks out for his “wildly inappropriate behavior,” and reveals that she is finishing a placard about a nineteen-year-old who died because she couldn’t get a legal abortion, Bricks recoups himself, twits her and tries to smooth over Maz’s attitude by sharing details about his life. After this meeting where he discovers her name and tells her his, the characters, in open monologues to the audience, share their perspectives about the meeting and then describe the next steps as they make their way through their day’s events. Maz goes to the protest; Bricks goes to Lara’s (his X partner) to pick up Yas, his daughter, to take her to the zoo.
The monologues are in rhymes which rhythmically play out with vibrance and power, adding interest and keeping the audience focused at their novelty. Bricks describes how Lara prevents him from his seeing their daughter because she heard about his untoward behavior with her cousin. Bricks’ forthright manner, as he eventually tells the truth to Maz, is a turning point. The playwright exacts a shift in Bricks’ characterization from the lout to the individual underneath the mask. We note his vulnerability, insecurity and upset at not being allowed to be with his daughter, whom he loves. We understand that the cousin may have set him up, so that Lara might punish him using Yas, a cruel action. Desolate, Bricks ends up at the protest. He is just in time to stop Maz from getting into trouble throwing stones at the anti-abortion protesters.
As they thrust and parry, with jibes and humor, O’Connor evolves the dialogue between these two flawed individuals. She heightens the monologues in a unique way so that the characters step away from the action, and with thoughtful, sometimes philosophical commentary, bring themselves to the next step in their relationship with each other. This is a clever device the playwright employs. It gives us the benefit of the characters’ inner thoughts to reveal their personalities and how their feelings relate to their resultant outer actions.
Thus, by degrees, we note the mystery of how Maz and Bricks, who appeared so antithetical to each other at the outset, find common ground with which to understand each other. They demonstrate that “opposites attract,” as Bricks indicates in his interest in Maz, who is unlike anyone he has ever known. However, once they find the raw and authentic centers of each other’s emotions, they realize they are not that different in their humanity and impulses toward decency.
The characters evolve in their relationship as they hang out with each other and spend the day. O’Connor uses their first interaction on the tram as a thematic prelude on a number of levels. She suggests that it is possible to compromise with others about political views, if one is open-minded and hopeful. That Bricks has an ulterior motive, turns into something deeper as Bricks tells us when he stops Maz’s stone throwing. He intuits that his interference, may lead to something between them. If not, he will crash and burn in humiliation. It is a risk he is willing to take.
O’Connor’s characters grow more likeable in their interest and acceptance of each other, driven by acute direction and nuanced, spot-on performances by the actors. We believe that Maz and Bricks might care for each other in a world that is chaotic and filled with pain for them, as we later learn. However, in spite of the problems and turmoil that they must confront and do confront with each other’s help, theirs is a relationship worth saving and deepening.
In its conclusion Maz and Bricks is refreshing, satisfying and real. O’Connor presents themes about prejudice, open-mindedness, truthfulness and human dignity in respecting one another’s viewpoint and in “standing in another’s shoes.” It is a behavior that we sorely need to reflect upon and practice in the current, divisive, political climate in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.
Kudos to the creative team: Maree Kearns (set and costume design) Sinéad McKenna (lighting designer) Carl Kennedy (sound designer) who, with director Jim Culleton and the actors, have made this a must-see production. Maz and Bricks runs until 23 February at 59E59 Theaters, Theater B. This is one you won’t want to miss. For tickets and times, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Greater Clements, by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Davis McCallum spotlights a dying town whose end comes “not with a bang, but with a whimper,” especially for those who have invested their sweat in its history to make a life there, however, insignificant and invisible. The production stars Judith Ivey as stalwart Maggie, whose emotional range is delivered with power and grist. The superb Edmund Donovan is her outlier son who is doomed to confront his psychological illness without the tools to manage himself successfully. Greater Clements reveals lives lived in quiet desperation before they fizzle out or implode in despair, while looking for for an exit from soul pain which never comes.
The play opens in darkness, thousands of feet below ground as a miner (we discover this is Joe-Edmund Donovan-who once gave mine tours) in his gear with one bright headlamp speaks about the Dodson Mine and a mining catastrophe in 1972. It was then his grandfather burned alive and a total of 81 men lost their lives. Immediately, in the darkness, we have a sense of foreboding, of a doomsday trajectory of the town and its people.
The scene shifts from the mine shaft to the bi-level set (Dane Laffrey’s creation) via an elevator that rises and falls to expose Maggie’s museum and mining tour office and bedroom in a later act. The elevator set is a neat contrivance, but it is view obstructing and unwieldy, notwithstanding the symbolism conveyed of the oppressive, confining and dangerous conditions the townspeople and miners lived with all of their lives.
Clements, a defunct mining center of Idaho whose largest mine closed 12 years before the setting of 2017, represents an every-town of the once booming industrial west before Reagan’s outsourcing, recent automation and current energy technologies siphoned off jobs, factories and hope. With no inspiration to transfer its prosperity toward tourism, or developing other resources, Clements has been “decommissioned” as a functioning town.
Ironically, in a sort of self-immolation memorial, to keep away wealthy elites from other states who might take over and bring back the rosy bloom in its cheeks, town officials have voted to unincorporate Clements and remove all municipal services. The thought comes off as follows. “If we can’t make a go of it, we’ll do everything in our power to prevent you from trying. You want to try? Start from scratch!” The last indignity has been to deliver the town to the darkness from whence it came, as they turn off the juice to power the street lights and one, lone stoplight that once allowed a bustling downtown crowd to cross the street in safety.
The concept of removing Clements from the historical record, exemplifies a number of Hunter’s themes about such mid-west devastation since Reaganomics, which has been exacerbated with tax cuts to the wealthy, moving right up to today, while leaving places like Clements in the dust. The town, like many other areas in Red States, became mired in the past and never got out from under its own debris to prepare for a viable future. Rather than to be forward thinking, even after the mine shut downs, town fathers chose oblivion masochistically, like the places that sprung up during the gold rush, then dissolved into ghost towns, when the rich veins of ore dried up.
Maggie, who has kept the town’s history alive with her museum and her mine tours, has been forced to close down, in effect, removing Clements from historical significance and obviating its residents’ lives from remembrance. The retrenchment and immaturity of the attitudes of the town fathers, reflected by their choice to unincorporate, reveals the same rage, powerlessness and victimization that propels one into self-damaging choices.
Hunter subtly references the self-destructive attitudes of the Red States’ populace, like those in this Idaho town, that most probably put someone like Trump in power, believing he would keep his promise, perhaps to add “industrial” jobs to the economy; a canard. It is one of the ironies that Hunter slips in quietly that pervades throughout, as we watch the disintegration of the town and the lives that once made it a community and held it together. Clements has blown itself off the map rather than to persist. This of course leaves residents like Maggie no choice but to escape to restore their dignity to “make it to the next day.” We learn later of Maggie’s abyss of despair for she, too, voted with the town fathers in vengeance, almost as an unthinking afterthought.
The idea of being disconnected (unincorporated) from the future and each other is a theme which plays out in the relationships between and among the characters. Maggie, the sheriff (Andrew Garman) and her nosy neighbor Olivia (Megan Bartle) are among the individuals remaining who keep up an acquaintanceship, but do not go beyond the surface to discuss, at depth, issues related to the town’s death or their own aching problems. Maggie refuses to discuss much with Olivia, and when she is backed in a corner about her resentment about wealthy people buying up property, she finally reveals she hates the mine that killed her father and paid him low wages. That she is conflicted is an under statement. Her mine tours and “keeper of the flame” museum has put bread on her table. Indeed, her inner conflicts and regrets are many, and her lack of introspection about herself is the flaw which causes the final destruction for the family.
As the foil and main driver of the action, Joe, Maggie’s twenty-seven-year-old son is the one who will inherit Maggie’s and the town’s legacy. Maggie has brought him back to stay with her because she cannot let go. She feels alone and responsible for his well-being, since he ran off and was barely caring for himself in another state. Years before, when the mine closed, Maggie’s husband left her to run off with a gay man. She was forced to raise Joe alone which has been a tremendous burden that Joe reminds her of cannily and apologetically at various points throughout the play.
Joe has psychological debilities. He socially functions as a 15 year old, and in the past often got into trouble. As Joe attempts to communicate with his mother and reach some sort of settlement upon his return, we note their sturm and drang. It is apparent in Act III, during a heart to heart between them, that Joe has taken stock of himself and his situation with his mother, and indeed, is more knowledgeable than she. As the “fall guy” prodded by the sheriff, Olivia and his mother, and manipulated by Kel (Haley Sakamoto) who, herself, is a psychological mess, one can see the consequences of the impact of their own small-town behaviors which lead him on an unstoppable crash course toward an end zone for the opposite team.
Their mother/son relationship is the most gripping element of Greater Clements. Developing their character’s stresses and their attempt to communicate, despite their inner depression and hopelessness, becomes the linchpin of the drama and a tour de force between Ivey and Donovan. They are magnificent in these roles. Their emotional authenticity is spot-on. Maggie’s abject blindness about herself, and Joe’s self-awareness are heart-wrenching as we hope for them, yet know they do not really hope for themselves or each other. This is reflected throughout the play in its symbols (i.e. Joe’s grandfather’s watch which Joe prizes). The watch was pulled off the grandfather’s incinerated body after the mine catastrophe. The watch makes it through the Pacific Theater WW II and the mine’s fiery flames, but its crystal cracks when Maggie knocks it from its place on a shelf, out of nervous carelessness.
As Maggie is one of the last to leave Clements, she reaches out to a far light at the end of the tunnel for Joe and herself. She contacts a high school love, Billy (Ken Narasaki) with whom she tangentially maintained a relationship for the past fifty years. Billy and Kel, his granddaughter stay with Maggie and Joe. Problems develop which we intuit, but which Maggie in her rush to reformulate her relationship with Billy ignores until too late. An explanation for her fervor is revealed. Their love was banned by her father because of Billy’s ethnicity (Japanese American) and her father’s sensitivity to fighting the Japanese during WW II. Though Billy has cancer, he remains hopeful having conquered the disease the first time. Maggie remains nonplussed, and believes his well-meaning, cheerfulness. She is anxious to have some happiness in life which Billy will give her.
Hunter and Ivey again highlight Maggie’s underlying flaws. Disconnected with herself and perhaps not fully working through despair at never really living life for herself, but living to nurse others, once again, Maggie appears to be doubling the load, not only having to care for Joe, but for Billy as well. This, despite Billy’s claims that he cares for her and doesn’t need a nurse. Regardless, because Maggie appears addicted to hardship, the likelihood that she will be involved in Billy’s care and troubles with Patrick, his alcoholic son, is great.
Ironically, it is Joe who questions her motive why she brought him back to a dead-end situation. Is Maggie like many women of her age and economic status, too afraid to strike out on her own, freely, to take care only of herself? Or is she comforted to feeling the only true purpose of her life is that of a nurturer who takes care of others, and when trouble comes, makes a botch of it? Hunter’s characterizations of Maggie and Joe are richly drawn, fueled by the fine performances. Billy and Kel serve as doorstops which open and close varying events. Joe’s developing closeness with Kel which ends in a backfire when she importunes him to take her down the mine shaft where they shouldn’t be, and then he later keeps secret her walk by herself, ends in further conflict and recrimination. Joe is picked on by the sheriff, Billy, Olivia and Maggie like a flock of chickens pecking at a bloodspot. He can’t please them, thus, he can’t please himself. All he can do is agree with them and apologize.
Billy and Maggie’s alone-time discussions reveal the red-neck prejudice of the area with residues still present against “the other.” Nearby is the Japanese-American internment camp which once housed Japanese Americans during WWII. In another irony of the play, now, Minidoka War Relocation Center is a National Historic Site accepting numerous visitors each year. Clements, once the largest mine center in the country, with a grand historic past, no longer exists except in its abandonment.
Hunter’s tone throughout portends disaster. The flaws of Maggie’s blindness plummet the characters into the rather long play’s tragic end. The rising and falling set that recedes into the darkness of the mine, and Maggie’s attempts to retrieve a former love that will most probably end in her despair, nursing him to his death, is a reality that she is shocked into realizing. Indeed, nothing can prosper in this place, which has willfully refused to enter the 21st century. Maggie should have left long ago. But that would require self-knowledge, the desire to free herself from her own enslavement and to hope for a better future. Hunter capstones the characters and rural America as he sees them and indeed, he points to the self-destruction and hopelessness that infuses them. It’s a warning we in the cities should not take lightly and which resonates at the conclusion, that all will not be “fine.”
Noted are Kaye Voyce (costumes) Yi Zhao (lighting) Fitz Patton (original music and sound). Greater Clements fills the heart and mind with its richness. It runs two hours, 55 minutes with two intermissions at The Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center until 19th January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
It’s 1982 Dublin, Republic of Ireland. The country is in a recession and there is no work anywhere. Those with mobility and ambition leave for London and the United States, while the Conors led by out-of-work architect Dad (Robert is played by Billy Carter) and his family exhaust their savings and downsize their lifestyles. The circumstances create drama for the lives of the struggling family of five in writer/director John Carney’s vibrant if thinly drawn theatrical adaptation of his 2016 film Sing Street currently enjoying its run at New York Theatre Workshop until 26 January.
Based on Carney’s film, the comedy/musical with dramatic elements is directed by Tony Award winning Rebecca Taichman (for Indecent 2017) with book by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Gary Clark and John Carney and choreography by Sonya Tayeh. The original story is by John Carney and Simon Carmody.
Sing Street has additional songs (others from the film have been pared) with selections from iconic tunes from New Wave and pop groups including songs by Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, Japan and others. And there are original songs, some of them from the movie, co-written by John Carney and Gary Clark (former lead of Scottish band Danny Wilson from the late 1980s).
Enamored by Carney’s film Taichman was inspired to adapt the film for the stage. She pursued the project, meeting Carney in London where additional conversations and meetings resulted in Enda Walsh writing a first draft of a libretto using the score from the film. The project evolved. There were more creative meetings and additional work periods and a refining of book and music with extensive development at New York Theatre Workshop that incorporated movement.
Considering that Carney and Walsh had brought together a theatrical adaptation of Tony Award Winning Once (from Carney’s 2007 film Once) beginning Off Broadway at NYTW (2011) and shifting to Broadway in 2012 (garnering 8 Tonys and other theater awards), the creative team appears golden. Will Sing Street follow the same trajectory as Once to land on Broadway when it is ready? Its incubation at NYTW looks to be moving it in the right direction.
As in Once, the actors are talented musicians/singers. They play a wide variety of instruments to make up the band that teenage Conor (Brenock O’Connor) seamlessly puts together to impress and lure Raphina (Zara Devlin), who presents herself as a “model.” Impressed, smitten by her look and demeanor, Conor invites her to appear in music video with his band. Conor’s pitch is a stretch for he has no band and most probably Raphina who has dropped out of school to “become” a model is laying it on “thick” as well. But no matter; the die is cast, and the intrigue is on. Both have made each other the inspirational backboard upon which to encourage and solidify their dreams and hopes.
Since Conor’s family’s fortunes have spiraled downward, he must attend the reasonably tuitioned state-run Christian Brothers school on Synge Street (named after John Millington Synge the poet, playwright, prose writer, political radical and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre). That Conor decides to turn a curse into a blessing by morphing the name of “Synge” to “Sing” as part of the title of his band is his ingenious, if not ironic touch, because the venue where he must attend school is anything but desirable, initially. Nevertheless, as one of the many themes of the production, Conor pushes himself to the top of a coal heap and turns coal into diamonds withstanding the pressure he undergoes in the school and on this street.
The new environs are a far cry from Conor’s Tony elite Jesuit school where he fit in and did well. The headmaster of Christian Brothers, Brother Baxter (Martin Moran) is a martinet who challenges Conor at every turn, even to censuring him for defying the regulation color of his shoes (they must be black). Conor doesn’t have the money for new ones, but if he did, he would most probably spend it on something more uplifting and useful.
Their disagreements and Baxter’s unexplained wrath grow into a peaked conflict which could be deepened beyond Baxter’s one-sided characterization. He is, rather a stereotypical, cleric “bad-guy,” antagonist to Conor’s angelic-faced, innocent whom we root for unquestioningly because he’s heading up a boy-band with grand ambitions. What’s not to love about Conor? What’s not to dislike about Brother Baxter? Complexity is wanted.
Conor is also at odds with some outliers in the school community who bully him and beat him up, i.e. Barry (Johnny Newcomb) whom we discover to be gay and hiding under machismo thuggishness. Classically, his warped background and lack of self-knowledge or acceptance about who he is provokes his bellicosity. Walsh and Carney reveal his vulnerability in his scenes with Sandra (the superb Anne L. Nathan) rounding out his character and revealing his development.
Interestingly, it is the adversity reflected in the change of schools that forces Conor to rise to the occasion guided by his college-drop-out brother Brendan (the sensational Gus Halper) to establish his band (the most entertaining and delightful part of Act I). In the process of tackling obstacles to bring together clever and talented Eamon (Sam Poon) Kevin (Gian Perez) Larry (Jakeim Hart) Gary (Brendan C. Callahan) and Darren (Max William Bartos) Conor gains confidence and shares his enthusiasm and confidence with his band members. The feelings are mutual. This bravado helps him in a face-off with Barry and eventually inspires him to stand up to Baxter’s niggling injustices. The climax of their conflict comes in Act II, after Baxter gives Conor and his “Sing Street Band” permission to enter The Inner-City Dublin School Band Contest, then sadistically punishes Conor by retracting his permission. Conor and the Band’s response is joyous.
Underscored throughout is Conor’s growing love relationship with Raphina, despite her threat to be pulled away to London by her boyfriend, and Conor’s deteriorating family situation as his father splits with his mother Penny (Amy Warren). Penny moves out to fulfill an affair with her boss. Conor’s sister Anne (Skyler Volpe) and older brother Brendan who himself needs a resurrection into a new person since he can’t move himself to leave the house, are Conor’s support group. The scene where the family situation blows up rings with authenticity and we are happy as is Brendan (Halper’s song at the finale is just terrific) that Conor is able to break away and leave with Raphina, enriched and enlivened by what he has accomplished on Synge Street, with “Sing Street.” Conor truly has reversed his fortunes and spun out a golden path for himself.
The music and performances are steady, effervescent and fun; it is a joy to be returned to the 1980s era which was nothing short of vibrant. We are in a different environment with a projection of the Irish Sea beckoning in the background, the waters flowing at the conclusion of the production. The band’s movements/song performances are right-on and glorious, and it is a rally to watch O’Connor’s Conor work his magic with confidence spurred on by Halper’s Gus who is gobsmacking in the role as Conor’s caring older brother.
The love relationship that develops between Raphina and Conor is convincing; though indeed we wonder how much of Raphina’s riffs to Conor are a complete front job. What does the future have to offer for a female drop out who comes from a troubled family life? Love from someone as appealing, dynamic and ambitious as Conor is a miraculous gift. She would be a fool to spurn him.
In its verve, positive themes, joyful celebration of 1980s music and triumph over a time of doldrums in Dublin, Sing Street is illustrious and welcoming. Kudos to the creative team who helped the production morph from screen to stage. These include: Martin Lowe (music supervisor, orchestration & arrangements) Bob Crowley (scenic & costume design) Christopher Akerlind (lighting design) Darron I. West (co-sound design) Charles Coes (co-sound design) J. Jared Janas (hair & makeup design) Fred Lassen (music director).
Sing Street is running at NYTW until 26th of January. See it for its music, performances and overall joie de vivre. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘London Assurance’ directed by Charlotte Moore at The Irish Repertory Theatre, a Rollicking Christmas Treat
London Assurance, the vibrant farce by Dion Boucicault, directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Rep is the perfect production for the Christmas season to keep the cheer bright. The acting is superb, the pacing of high jinx is acutely shepherded by Moore. Altogether, there is everything to like and enjoy and nothing to find fault with in this production which runs until 26 January.
A mix between a drawing room comedy and slapstick without the physicality but oodles of wordplay, Boucicault’s London Assurance also satirizes stock character types, social classes and the notions of marriage for convenience which were beginning to be blown away by the idea of love matches, at the time the play takes place Christmastime, 1841.
The action begins when dissolute Charles Courtly (Ian Holcomb) arrives with his friend Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino) in the morning hours after a night of hard drinking and partying. Charles lives with his father Sir Harcourt Courtly (Colin McPhillamy is perfection as the fop who is easily duped by his own puffery). Courtly believes his son to be the innocent, demure, hard-working student who eschews gambling and drinking. Charles is the antithesis. Servant Cool (Elliot Joseph) lies to protect Charles.
After Dazzle and Cool carry Charles off in a drunken stupor, Sir Courtly enters in his dressing gown wishing for his breakfast. Courtly reminds Cool of the recent most important events of his life. He and his friend Max Harkaway (the fine Brian Keane) have arranged for the elderly Courtly’s marriage to Max’s young, beautiful niece Grace (Caroline Strang) in exchange for an obviation of debts, and her dowry. If Courtly or Grace nullifies the arrangement, Grace’s money will be Charles’ inheritance.
The arc of development involves the foiling of Courtly’s plans when all visit Max’ country estate in Gloucestershire where Courtly is supposed to finalize his engagement to Grace. Max has invited Dazzle and of course Dazzle brings along Charles for the adventure and fun the visit promises to be, though Sir Courtly doesn’t realize that Charles has joined the party. At Max’ estate, Grace meets a disguised Charles who poses as Augustus Hamilton to dupe his father who believes him to be home studying. Both Holcomb and McPhillamy pull off the bad disguise non-recognition and Sir Courtly’s dubious response to his son’s “lookalike” with great humor.
Charles, ever the playboy, flirts with Grace unaware that she is his future mother. For her part Grace is sanguine about marrying Sir Courtly, but falls in a hot love with Charles. What are they to do? How can they put off Sir Courtly and Uncle Max Harkaway and effect their marriage to each other? By this point in the plot the playwright has drawn us in for Sir Courtly is no particular catch and to American audiences today, the idea of a woman having to drop her dowry in the lap of an elderly gentleman in order to survive is almost unthinkable, especially when the marriage has been arranged for her.
In the succeeding scenes we meet the lovely friends of Max, Lady Gay Spanker (the wonderfully comedic Rachel Pickup) and her ancient-looking husband Adolphus Spanker (Robert Zukerman draws many laughs with his outrage about his wife leaving him) who is vital, spry and a force of nature that Lady Gay Spanker loves as her protector. However, when Charles beseeches Lady Gay for her help to dissuade his father from sealing “the deal” with Max for Grace, Lady Gay thinks of a humorous idea to break up plans of Sir Courtly’s marriage.
In great good fun she seduces the pompous Sir Courtly to fall in love with her behind her husband’s and Grace’s back. Sir Courtly who believes himself to be twenty years younger and on the cutting edge of fashion, is tricked by Lady Gay. He rushes after her to win her kisses and affection. Of course, when Spanker hears that his wife may separate from him, his reaction is hysterical. Meanwhile, Lady Gay is having the time of her life in harmless fun to help out two young lovers who doubt each other’s love. The complications rise and Lady Gay works her miracle for a good cause, until…
This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see this humorous LOL production to appreciate how the playwright adds complex and humorous twists to the relationships and magnifies mishaps and errors raising the stakes and jokes to a delightful climax with a duel.
Charlotte Moore’s sense of comedic timing, what does and doesn’t work has been engineered to a fine froth so that the actors appear to be these authentic, vivacious, funny individuals. I cannot imagine Colin McPhillamy, Ian Holcomb, Rachel Pickup, Robert Zukerman, Caroline Strang, Evan Zes (the funny conniving lawyer) Brian Keane, Craig Wesley Divino, Elliot Joseph and Meg Hennessy sounding and behaving any differently in real life than they do onstage. Their performances are stunning. Their timing is spot-on.
Interestingly, the cast has managed to portray their characters so that they are not “the types” they appear to be, but are funny because their traits are humorous. Evan Zes as the “sneaky, obtrusive” lawyer Mark Meddle dismissed by Meg Hennessy’s “go-to-girl” Pert, with the accusation of “slander” is an example. In the hands of these actors this is accomplished with seamless effort. Additionally, the actors handle the asides to the audience with an easy, intimate confessional tone that enhances the comedy. Finally, we enjoy the foibles of each character whom the actors have invested in with their perceptive, canny skills.
The sets sparkle with beauty and apparent luxury thanks to James Noone’s scenic design. The interiors are befitting of what one would expect of Sir Courtly’s and Max’s residences. Likewise, Sara Jean Tosetti’s costume design and Robert-Charles Vallance’s hair designs authenticate the period and social status of the characters with excellence. Lady Gay’s purples (I loved her costumes that reflected her expansive, lively character) matched with a lighter shade of purple for her husband’s cravat (?). As a couple they reflected a refined, spiffy, fascinating dynamic. Indeed the creative team’s techniques and strategies inspired by Charlotte Moore’s vision for the production were not overblown, but were “a Goldilocks.” Rounding out the team are Michael Gottlieb’s lighting desgin and M. Florian Staab’s sound design. The music was lighthearted and chosen for the splendid mood of the production.
Once again Irish Repertory Theatre proves its stalwart magnificence for the season with this marvelous comedy that Charlotte Moore, the ensemble and creative team have imbued with their joie de vivre and experience. If you don’t see it, you will have missed a special production. London Assurance runs with one intermission until 26 January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
One November Yankee the comedy written and directed by Joshua Ravetch sports an intriguing structure. The play is four scenes: a flashback and a flash forward framed by beginning and ending scenes between a brother and sister that take place at MOMA. This is where art curator Maggie and modern artist Ralph are putting the finishing touches on Ralph’s art installation. The play is about siblings, different pairs in each of the scenes played by Stefanie Powers and Harry Hamlin. Each pair of siblings with a combination of love and rancor face-off against each other with humor, with pathos. Eventually, they resolve their differences. With one pair the resolution has an unusual twist.
As the production opens Maggie and Ralph argue about Ralph’s art work. Maggie avers with sarcasm and witticisms about what the project stands for and what it is. In the center of the presentation area is a “tangled mangle of debris,” that appears to be a yellow Piper Cub that has crashed in the woods. We later discover the installation has a basis in truth. Ralph has entitled his piece “Crumpled Plane,” to exemplify his social criticism of a “Civilization in Ruin.” Maggie, who has helped to bring money in to fund the project is not “thrilled” with Ralph’s work.
The quippy thrust and parry of their argument is well-crafted with bits of irony. Harry Hamlin who is Ralph, and Stefanie Powers as Maggie carry off the coolness and chic of these well-healed characters with fine-tuned humor and aplomb. What becomes intriguing are the references and through-lines Ravetch establishes about the three different brother/sister relationships. These are picked up in the next scenes (a flashback, and flashforward to the present) and are cleverly related as we watch how the sibling pairs collaborate to make the best of difficult situations.
In the initial play frame Ravetch introduces the metaphor and thread of flight. Maggie describes how she is forced to fly Jet Blue coach (something which she never does) to get to New York and be present for Ralph’s exhibition. Is it a premonition of what she will be able to afford when Ralph’s exhibition doesn’t get off the ground? Perhaps. After being diverted to Philly because of bad weather, Maggie’s only recourse is to fly on a puddle jumper to Vermont where she must take a Greyhound to NYC. The puddle jumper thread hits home when she confronts her brother’s art installation, a smashed yellow puddle jumper with a forest behind it. This crashed plane symbolizes the possibility of another “crash,” the crush of negative critical reviews of Ralph’s art installation which may lead to the loss of Maggie’s job and the end of her career.
During the course of Ralph’s attempt to defend his work against Maggie’s jibes, he references their relationship to the one of the brother and sister who went missing after the plane crash he’s attempting to effect through art. This crash and the other hundreds of plane crashes which occur over the U.S. and which he represents with this artistic endeavor, complete with videos of the Wright Brothers, “flying machines” of old, and the journey of the yellow Piper Cub has great meaning for him. His art mimic’s life’s art, and as in much of the play is a facsimile to what has happened and will happen.
Ralph explains that his exhibit symbolizes how the expected “glorious” future which began with the Wright Brothers and promised “flying cars,” convenient monorails in suburban settings and an end to traffic jams has devolved into the decline and a “Civilization in Ruin.” What “began at Kitty Hawk, ends here in this room,” he suggests. That this is an overblown, self-important, humorous notion which Hamlin as Ralph delivers as a serious pronouncement is ironic as Power’s Maggie calls him on it. She responds to this and his defense of his work with sarcasm. Eventually she lands on the subject of her birthday which she spent alone without him because he forgot, another possible reason why she is so edgy.
Obviously, this brother and sister vie between being close as siblings and rancorous as rivals. The scene ends with Ralph playing the video of the Yellow Piper Cub’s journey as Maggie reads the article about the brother and sister lost in the mountains of New Hampshire five years prior. As the plane on the video flies into the flashback, Ravetch unspools what happened to the next brother and sister pair as they attempt to negotiate their downed plane that appears the same as Ralph’s artwork.
In the next scene Powers and Hamlin play Margo and Harry who sport different demographics than the first couple revealed in their dress, manner, hair and speech patterns. Both sets of siblings, however, are Jews and the humor connected with this gets a laugh, with the fine pacing and dead pan delivery by Hamlin and Powers. We discover that it is Margo’s carelessness that has brought about the crash which becomes more dire as time progresses for they are unequipped for the cold with no provisions and no functioning radio communications or beacon to signal where they are. Furthermore, Harry is injured and cannot walk out of the woods.
The second pair of siblings relate bits and pieces of their life and annoyances they’ve had with each other as they attempt to figure out what to do, for example, whether to wait for rescue or attempt to save themselves. References that Maggie and Ralph made in the framed scene five years later are eerily appropriate and tie in to the interactions of Margo and Harry. The space/time continuum melds somehow with the plane crash and the playwright suggests that each male/female sibling relationship has commonalities in a family dynamic that is relatable and empathetic. Ravetch is playful in drawing the similitude of characterizations. However, as the parallels and detail threads coincide, there is also a haunting and poignant tenor that we are seeing something profound in all of humanity.
One overriding question remains. Did Ralph decide to create his artwork of a disaster which occurred to Harry and Margo because of some ethereal reason? Why has his imagination been so stirred? As we leave the second set of siblings facing the dark and cold, we are left with Margo’s indecision to stay or leave to find rescuers. The scene ends as they sing a song from the past to comfort each other as the evening of cold closes in.
The third scene flashes forward to the setting of the plane crash in present time, the same month as the Ralph’s art opening which has been inspired by Margo and Harry. In this scene part of the mystery is solved by hikers Mia and Ronnie, again portrayed by Powers and Hamlin, who stumble upon the crash. These siblings, too, parry and thrust and yield prickly comments, merging discussions of the past issues as they search the area and find clues to what happened to the passengers. Again, Ravetch conveys similar elements and threads from the previous scenes and drops them in the Mia and Ronnie scene weaving a fabric of relationships. Mia and Ronnie discover what is left of one of the siblings, whose body is now a skeleton. Of course they must alert the authorities to see what happened to the other sibling
The scene shifts once more to MOMA. Maggie and Ralph capstone their relationship, face the music and the former reading of the plane crash segues into Maggie reading aloud a critical review which is priceless. The last tie in is to the real crash site which is evocative and the final mystery about the missing sibling.
The fun of the production is watching how Powers and Hamlin portray with lightheartedness and authenticity three sets of siblings during the backdrop of dealing with “One November Yankee,” the name of the Piper Cub. As it turns out, the title of the plane, too, is symbolic. The set design by Dana Moran Williams is ambitious and Kate Bergh’s costume design suggests the differences among the siblings. Lighting design by Scott Cocchiaro and sound design by Lucas Campbell help to execute Ravetch’s vision for the production.
One November Yankee is 90 minutes with no intermission. It runs at 59E59 Theaters through 29th of December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Iconic Madame Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winner in the fields of chemistry and physics, was told by the committee awarding her prize the second time that she shouldn’t show up in person to receive it. She was having “women’s troubles,” we learn in Lauren Gunderson’s The Half-Life of Marie Curie, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. The play is a profound and humorous evocation of the close friendship between Marie Curie (the magnificent, in-the-moment Francesca Faridany) and Hertha Ayrton (the equally magnificent, always present Kate Mulgrew). Ayrton, the British engineer, mathematician, physicist and inventor, was a suffragette and a celebrated genius in her own right. She paired as the perfect friend to Curie and helped her when Curie was at a nadir in her life.
Gunderson’s play whose setting is in Paris and England, reinforces the importance of women’s preeimence in the cultural flow of ideas in every field of endeavor. Furthermore, it highlights how folkways about women’s relegation to second class citizenship was a socially defeating, nihilistic ethic for the advancement of women and especially for the advancement of men. Gunderson reveals how Curie triumphed over the most antiquated of mores, especially after she loses the security and probity of her husband status in society after his death.
In her collaboration with husband Pierre both made ground-breaking discoveries identifying and naming polonium (after her native Poland) and radium. They coined the word “radioactivity,” to list a few of their accomplishments together. Curie’s work even after Pierre died established for all time that a women’s place was not behind the scenes as the little housewife, but could be in the forefront of the evolving scientific age. Curie, then and now, as is Ayrton, a beacon for all of us.
The Curies with Henri Becquerel received the Nobel Prize for their research on the “radiation phenomenon,” a prize hard won for Curie who was not nominated until a committee member and advocate for women scientists made a complaint to have her name added. Not only was Curie the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she is the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice. And she is the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different fields, a feat no man or women after her has managed to accomplish. One shudders to think about the women who are being kept down by males and the internalization of this oppression by women as right and true. And this is advocated by men who cannot brook a female in leadership positions due to their own internal frailties and insecurities.
How life on this planet might have been very different if women were allowed parity in the professions for the betterment of society is anyone’s guess. After seeing Gunderson’s work and witnessing the dynamic she crafts between these two genius friends, one comes away encouraged, regardless of whether one is male or female. For a major theme is understanding the great and vital necessity of establishing collaborative efforts and parity between the sexes. As a detriment to all, the elevation of one to the suppression of the other, is a noxious practice which has been attempted with a political vengeance in our culture in the last three years. Such retrograde actions only result in horrific damage for both sexes, especially the elites who depend upon the “little people’s” consumerism. It must stop and Gunderson’s celebration of these two women as an exemplar in our culture and other influencers insure that it will, hopefully sooner than later.
Gunderson highlights these themes about gender parity opening her play at a crucial point in the life of Marie Curie after Pierre’s death. Curie might have succumbed to her “women’s troubles,” if not for the encouragement and intervention of Hertha Ayrton. Hertha offers Marie an infusion of love and affirmation of their friendship, as well as a refuge at her seaside home in England, where Marie may recuperate from her physical ailments and emotionally resurrect from the trauma of scandal.
The “troubles,” Gunderson relates during Ayrton’s exhortations to Curie to remain firm and solid to weather the scandal of Curie’s affair with married Paul Langevin, Pierre’s student and fellow scientist. The playwright subtly and with dynamism forms the arguments between the two women, one cowering, humiliated in despair, the other, a proud, indomitable scientist and suffragette strengthening her friend. During their back and forth thrust and parry, we discover important details. The dialogue is sage, clever, poetic, humorous with little exposition, all in the service of defining the wonderful, well-drawn characters most beautifully acted by Faridany and Mulgrew. The writing exemplifies how these women portray their care for each other acutely, as they take us into their relationship. As a witness to this, we are grateful to be watching and listening to their elucidating adages and poetic wisdom.
What has happened to Curie in light of her contributions to science can only be described as monstrous. Mrs. Langevin, suspecting that her husband was in a “love nest” with Curie, works to expose and destroy her. She hires an investigator who breaks into their apartment and finds incriminating love letters which prove their adultery and are subsequently leaked to the papers. The press engages in a smear campaign portraying Curie as a home wrecker and a seductive Jew (she wasn’t Jewish) as they feed into the xenophobia and anti-semitism of the time. In keeping with entrenched folkways, the papers portray Mrs. Langevin as the innocent, ill-treated victim of their betrayal. The real truth is somewhere in between as Paul Langevin actually improves his stature as Curie’s lover. We never discover his relationship with his wife and he comes off as the cavalier and romantic rogue whose “wife salvages hearth and home” belying her malevolence toward Curie.
Curie introduces herself to us paralleling her life to radioactivity. We hear lovely music then sounds of what will be identified as a demonstration. When Ayrton enters her apartment, she finds Curie in great despair. She and her children are held hostage in their apartment by the angry mob protesting in the streets demanding Curie’s censure for her whoredoms.
Ayrton makes her grand entrance with humor and vitality and gradually helps to stiffen Curie’s resolve not to allow the scandal and vituperations of the press to completely overwhelm her into depression and career death. During the course of the humorous back and forth, we discover how Curie’s life has been upended, her career and work halted, her daughters harmed by the nefarious publicity in which Mrs. Langevin is happily vindicated and justice applied through malign falsehoods. The fact that Mrs. Langevin, “the woman scorned” goes after her rival publicly when her husband is equally responsible and deserves as much of the public ire as Curie, is a sad fact of the cultural folkways. Either way, women lose. Certainly Mrs. Langevin needs the financial support of her husband. Thus, she attacks Curie the one who endangers her home manipulating cultural mores. Ironically, Langevin rather “has his cake and eats it too.” (We discover later his wife is pregnant.)
The gender conflicts Gunderson alludes to stem from the oppression of the patriarchy which controls every institution, and whose tentacles of power stretch globally. The double standards allowing men every freedom and women every restriction, especially with regard to sexual openness, Gunderson, through the voice of the ironic Ayrton lays bare. Enforced is the underlying truth that women, like children, must be silent, demure, passive, and above all, unemotional. Ayrton reinforces that this oppression must be undone with laws giving women the vote and ability to speak and stand for themselves autonomously for the greater good of society.
Ayrton quips about how the culture deals differently with men when they have affairs. Men are lauded, encouraged for their virility. Women are character assassinated, labeled sluts, etc., especially when the man is younger. That Curie’s career is put on hold and she is stripped of almost everything including a place where she and her daughters can live in unmolested peace is a testament to the abysmal place of in the culture who are given no consideration. They are invisible, shunted to a no-where-land, chosen after last place, while men are foremost.
The clarity of the injustices of gender inequality are saliently pinpointed in Gunderson’s examination of Curie and Ayrton’s heroism. Their concerted efforts to combat the public’s outrage are admirable. Despite warnings to the contrary, Curie attends the Nobel ceremony, accepts her prize and makes a cogent speech all of which takes great effort. And that was just the beginning of the next chapter in the lives of both women, who worked together to help the soldiers with their discoveries during WW I, accumulating more intrepid achievements that would make anyone’s head spin.
This last chapter in their lives is poetically and poignantly rendered by Faridany and Mulgrew guided by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. The actors bring Gunerson’s words to life with radiance and potency so that these women become our endearing mentors. They reveal what is possible if one persists and stands against males in power who conduct smear campaigns and proclaim women have no place in their world. This is the great and irrevocable lie of fear and obstruction which cannot and will not stand. Like truth, parity, collaboration and the freedom to choose one’s own destiny before God is an inevitability that will increase for women encouraging them to shine their light so that others can see.
This is a sterling production which is so well-crafted and portrayed by the actors it is not to be missed. See it before it closes on 22nd December. The Half-Life of Marie Curie with excellently conceived scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Amith handrashaker and sound design by Darron L. West is at Minetta Lane Theatre (Minetta Lane off 6th Avenue). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta, directed by Michael Wilson currently in revival at The Signature Theatre is one of Foote’s homely plays exploring loss, alienation and quiet reconciliations. Kristine Nielsen stars as demure, sheltered housewife Lily Dale Kidder in an uncharacteristic turn away from the high comedy of Taylor Mac’s Gary (it’s a blossoming). Aidan Quinn is her husband, wholesale grocer Will Kidder whose security and success is upended in the twinkling of an eye by the end of the play’s first scene. With these prototypical characterizations, whose actor portrayals are shepherded with sensitivity by Wilson, Foote treats us to a slice of suburban Americana in a representative middle upper class dynamic as a couple confronts the unspoken and faces the unspeakable with poignancy and primacy to move together into the winter of their lives.
Foote opens the play at Will Kidder’s office where we identify Will’s assurance, ambition and success in his discussions with Tom Jackson (Dan Bittner) his assistant and underling in the company. It is an incredible irony and stroke out of left field that boss Ted Cleveland Jr. (Devon Abner) has appointed Tom to replace Kidder whom he fires because he is, in effect, “over the hill” and unaware of the new trends. However, during Tom’s friendly discussion with Kidder when we learn Will has built a new, expensive house perhaps to keep his wife busy and away from thoughts about their son who drowned, Tom is sanguine about his new position and Kidder’s impending doom. To his face he acts the innocent and only until Ted Cleveland Jr. tells Kidder he is fired and that Tom replaced him does the shock wear off and we realize Tom’s surreptitious nature.
Foote, the actors and Wilson allow us to think the opening is just an expositional scene, when in fact the playwright is laying down tracks to steamroll over his protagonists by its end and throughout the play. Inherent in the first scene we note the main themes of the play and character flaws: secrecy, disconnectedness, dishonesty, underhandedness, blindness, pride, insecurity and wobbly integrity.
Quinn’s Kidder takes the news badly and provokes Cleveland Jr. to waive his three month severance because of his blustery, boastful comments about starting his own company. Quinn is superb in revealing the bombastic as well as quieter moments of the character. Indeed, Kidder’s frustration and annoyance that his life and career are taking a dive into the toilet and his life’s work has been abruptly shortened is portrayed with heartfelt, spot-on authenticity by Quinn.
The themes become magnified in the next scenes. Rather than confide in Lily Dale about his firing the moment he steps in the door, he hides the truth from her and attempts to face the trial of coming up with the money for the house and other expenses alone. Repeatedly, the couple reveal that they have lived “quiet lives of their own desperation” without confiding in each other. The excuse is that they do not want to upset each other, however, in their lies of omission, they upset themselves more and make huge mistakes which increase the pressure under which they live, pressure which results in Will’s deteriorating heart.
In the midst of this excitement are phone calls. It’s the young man from Atlanta who was the roommate of their deceased son Bill. Throughout the play, he is unnamed and remains a ghostly presence shading them with possible portents about their son’s life. Indeed, by not giving this momentous presence a name or face (he never materializes) he becomes a symbol of menace, of the lie that destroys quietly, of the deception that kills, of the unrevealed mystery that eats away at one’s soul from inside out. Unless and until Will and Lily Dale together deal with “the young man from Atlanta,” both protagonists will self-destruct. It is how they confront this spectre and what he is that propels the marvelous, tricky development of the play.
It is in the first scene that we are apprised of this “young man” in a phone call to Will’s office. Will refuses to speak to him. We sense there is an occult meaning as he calls again and then must be turned away. Foote keeps his mysterious presence looming in the background. Who is he, what does he want and why does he keep calling? Eventually, the material answers give clues to the play’s deeper meanings.
As the conflict progresses and Lily Dale and Will stop speaking to each other we discover clues that Lily Dale and Will reveal almost prying out the truth from themselves for fear that hearing it they will break down. Quinn and Nielsen work together beautifully at the gradual exposure of the light as the dawn breaks in their souls. Fortunately, the light breaks on them at different intervals and doesn’t completely overcome them, though Quinn’s performance yields that Will hangs on the edge of darkness. He may collapse and die on Lily Dale. But Foote’s intention is not more tragedy, it is deliverance in the quiet moments when still, small voices murmur in the dark hours of waiting for the dawn.
Because this couple are there for each other in their weakest moments, we understand that though their marriage has had sustained rough patches through the seasons, the most devastating one being the loss of their son and the occluded reason why he died, they do have each other. And it is to each other by the end of the play, they turn for hope and solace as they accept what they cannot change and not regret too much that they weren’t on top of themselves and their own blindness sooner.
Rounding out the characters are Lily Dale’s stepfather Pete Davenport and his grandnephew Carson. As Pete, Stephen Payne gives a fine, humorous and measured portrayal of one who appears to be kindly and steady if not too discerning. Davenport stays with Lily and Will. In a particularly well suited scene that drew great chuckles from an audience who understood and had been there, the couple hits up Pete for money separately then together in an attempt to raise the funds to start Will in his own business. Davenport is cheerful and openhanded, but eventually, the fund raising plot explodes when Will goes to the banks and is refused loans. Left and right doors shut in his face and the money that Lily Dale had in her savings has been mysteriously depleted, though Will appears to have given her everything she needs for the new house.
The mystery of this continues until the truth spurts out from guilty consciences and we discover almost everything that has been hidden. As in life, though, there are some secrets only those who kept them know the answers to. However, it is Carson who unwraps the package of assumptions, lies of omission, hidden secrets and deceptions with his cheerful, unassuming presence which ironically also carries with it a hidden and secret component.
Carson (Jon Orsini) appears innocent and charming. But the intrigue and conflict increases when Carson reveals he knew Bill’s roommate, the young man from Atlanta who keeps calling the house and upsetting Will and Lily Dale. Carson identifies negative elements about the lying character of Bill’s roommate. Afterward, continued revelations come fast and furious from Will who discovered he was taking money from Bill. He finally reveals this to Lily Dale to chide her to stay away from the young man. The deceptions, the manipulated lures of Bill’s roommate who Lily Dale sees as a lifeline to her dead son continue, until finally the couple confront what in 1950 Houston, Texas was unmentionable, if unthinkable.
As one who helps Lily Dale eventually get to that confrontation, there is the former housekeeper who took care of Lily Dale when she was younger. The dignified, lovely, elderly, black Etta Doris (Pat Bowie) is ushered into the new home by their efficient housekeeper Clara (Harriet D. Foy). Etta Doris is a symbolic character, and she comes with an ironic reckoning. In her elderly, lame condition she feels an imperative to see Lily Dale. She walks a great length to their new home after the bus can only take her so far. Etta Doris comments on the loveliness of the home, and then expresses her condolences on the loss of Bill whom she remembered when he was a child. It is this connection from the past that has an impact on Lily Dale and it is Etta Doris’ unction of her faith and good will that brings to bear a greater truth on Lily Dale, though it is not immediately apparent.
In including Clara and Etta Doris as a reference to another class that was an integral part of the well being of Houston’s elite, Etta Doris is a loving and authentic individual who does not restrain herself from showing her care and concern for Lily Dale. That it is she that offers Lily Dale a remembered affection from the past is one of the vital breakthroughs in the play. With her quiet, vital being, Etta Doris brings that which strengthens Lily Dale to face the truths that Will confronts her with by the play’s end. In that confrontation, Lily Dale and Will must cling to each other and resolve to live with the hurt and pain of their own imperfections. And they must hope that their shared truth will continue to reconcile them to each other and make them stronger, more loving, connected individuals.
The Young Man From Atlanta thanks to its strong ensemble work and fine direction by Michael Wilson resonates as a play of great humanity and truth that is deserving of its Pulitzer. With Jeff Cowie’s scenic design, Van Broughton Ramsey’s costume design, David Lander’s lighting design and John Gromada’s sound design and original music, Wilson’s vision is realized.
The production will be at the Pershing Square Signature Center until 15 December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘A Bright Room Called Day’ at The Public, Tony Kushner’s Haunting Spectres Thread Through Hitler’s Berlin, Reagan’s 1980s and Trumpism
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day directed by Oskar Eustis, currently at The Public until 15 December (unless it receives another extension which it should) reflects upon humanity confronting evil that on a number of levels appears unstoppable and irrevocable. Throughout the main action and play within a play, Kushner makes clear that those who recognize evil’s force and preeminence, often are too afraid to lay down their lives to fight, though fighting is the action needed to stop wickedness in political, social and economic institutions not constrained by the rule of law.
The play uses at is jumping off point political and social issues undermining the Weimar Republic in Berlin. The setting encompasses events one year prior to the “Eve of Destruction,” when Hindenburg acceded to Hitler’s government take-over after which Hitler evicted parliamentary, constitutional democracy from the minds, hearts and souls of the German people. Kushner examines the parallels of that time with our culture during Reaganism and Trumpism.
The questions he raises are pointed. Some might argue that from the 1980s to now, the decline in our democratic processes and the public’s response appear similar to the public’s response to precursor events in Germany 1933. A Bright Room Called Day relates Berlin, Germany 1933 to 1985 Reaganism devolving to the time of Trump. These three settings represent a turning point when the crisis of the period might have shifted in another direction if good citizens acted differently, affirming the adage, “evil flourishes when good men and women do nothing.” In this play Kushner examines the “What if?” Couldn’t citizens have halted the terrifying dissolution of democracy? Couldn’t they have liquidated Hitler’s fascist dictatorship before he even attempted to manifest his warped vision of the Third Reich’s reign for 1000 years?
The community of individuals we meet at the outset of the play who pop in and out of Agnes Eggling’s (Nikki M. James) lovely apartment are members of the political, liberal left, a combination of artists and activists who are/were at one point communists, socialists, progressives and union activists, one of whom is a homosexual (played by the exquisite, always present Michael Urie). All of these will be consigned to Hitler’s enemies’ list if they remain in Berlin. If captured, they will be deported as state enemies and undesirables and murdered when Hitler constructs and augments his network of slave labor and extermination camps to implement his “Final Solution.”
Kushner’s work which was excoriated when it first premiered in the 1980s has been given an uplift with an additional character, and dialogue tweaking to reference the current siege of Trumpism on our democracy. Kushner posits that our times manifest “inklings” similar to those employed by fascists and Reagan’s corrupt conservatives who sent the nation on a downhill slide which Trump appears to be pitching over the edge into oblivion unless we do something. By drawing comparisons, we are forced to reflect upon the upheaval in our democratic institutions as the political, economic and social divisiveness spurred by Trumpism augments.
Kushner interjects his own commentary as a playwright and interrupts the action during which he actively engages his audience as a silent character whose consciousness he manipulates. Through identification with the people and events in Germany, we, like they, become like the frog that is placed in a pot of cold water. As the heat is turned up to the boiling point, if the frog is alert, he can escape before boiling to death. But he must realize immediately what is happening, so he will not be too lamed to escape. By degrees the audience realizes that they are in a crucible like Kushner’s characters under which a fiery truth blazes. To that truth Kushner posits one must recognize it, or its heat and pressure will pitch one into a death-state of paralysis like Agnes’.
The play’s new character is Xillah. Xillah represents Kushner’s perspectives as a citizen playwright who comments on his play and the policies of Reaganism and Trumpism. Playwright Xillah engages with Zillah his indefinable character whom he’s written into the 1980s. Zillah complains to Xillah about her function in the play. She importunes him for a viable role and purpose. She wishes to step beyond ranting about the emotional paralysis of character Agnes. Watching Agnes frustrates Zillah, for Agnes does little but quiver in fear at the ever-worsening events in Berlin. It is her fears which manifest nightmare presences (Die Älte-the Old One, in a wonderful portrayal by Estelle Parsons) who haunt her and drive her into soul paralysis which will lead to her death under Hitler’s regime.
Xillah, a character in the play framing the Berlin events is portrayed with humorous vitality by Jonathan Hadary. His character criticizes the activities by the cults of Reagan and Trump. He sardonically characterizes Reagan’s presidency and Trump’s “monolithic” personage with abandon in a stream of hysterical epithets that are right-on. Both Xillah and Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry is Hadary’s counterpart in a feeling portrayal) comment on the dynamic of the Berlin characters which Xillah (as Kushner) has created. They watch as Agnes, Paulinka (the superb Grace Gummer) Baz ( Michael Urie) Husz (Michael Esper) Gotchling (Linda Emond) and comrades Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) and Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke) grow morose and desperate, experiencing the dissolution of the German Republic into fascism. They palpably encounter the manifested evil of the time in the form of Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis humorously intrigues in his portrayal). He is the Devil, whose darkness overtakes Germany as Hitler ushers himself into the government and eradicates any goodness that went before.
Kushner’s characters argue about communism, socialism, democratic socialism and the state of affairs. Their discussions fuel their waning activism and encourage impassivity with a few exceptions, for example, Gotchling (Linda Emond) who is continually putting up posters which are torn down continually. We empathize with the Berliners as they react to the brutalities and street fighting, Hindenberg’s ending the government and the Reichstag fire which Hitler blamed on the communists to ban the party, arrest the leaders (his enemies) and consolidate his power base.
The characters react emotionally with disgust and outrage but their impulses to act are largely stymied by fear. They will not move beyond marches and protests that the Brown Shirts help to render bloody and ineffective. And when back room deals are made to put Hitler in power, they become powerless. Like many they appear to believe the propaganda rallies that show support for Hitler, though initially these are largely staged until the rallies gain in momentum and many join Hitler’s party.
The historical events are chronicled with vitality. The characters reveal poignant moments expressing the mood and tenor of the like-minded populace. Baz relates a story of a man’s suicide and his imagined wish to take one of the oranges, he, Baz, has purchased and give it to the dead man as a comfort. Of course, Baz never gives him the orange, but he imagines having done it, ironically comforting himself as the man is beyond being comforted. For Baz it is a horror seeing the dead man’s body pooling blood around it. Baz identifies the cause of the man’s suicide as the despair and immobility to stop the terrible events in Berlin. The suicide rocks Baz to the core. We align the man’s suicide with Baz’s suicide attempt which he stops himself from committing when instead, he has a sexual encounter. Baz’s choice is ironic and the impact of the suicide he witnessed in the streets is nullified by sexual distraction. As Baz, Urie delivers another incredible story later on which sets one reeling. Again, when Baz could take a stand, he chooses not to. Throughout, Urie’s performance is spot on amazing.
In the “intervening” frame play, Zillah attempts to persuade Xillah to write her with character powers that transcend time and space and go back to the past to warn Agnes of the danger of embracing fear and doing nothing. Zillah is upset that Agnes is so overcome, she is zombie-like. One of the humorous parallels is that Xillah, too, is at an impasse (like Agnes) only it is about the direction of this play and how to make it more vital so that it will have a resounding impact on the audience and get them to act. But he is filled with doubts about the function of plays. Also, he fears tampering with what he has already written. Indeed, he could make his play into a worse failure. His quandary is humorous.
Kushner, the frame (the present and 1980s) around which houses his Berlin character dynamic has Xillah remind Zillah of a number of important details, in addition to the chronological events of Hitler’s takeover. As Xillah parallels the then with the now, he affirms that friends living against the backdrop of Trumpism suggested he revisit The Bright Room Called Day because it is prescient and current. Xillah wrangles how best to show the similarities and complains that the characterization of Zillah doesn’t work. However, the character very much integrates the parallels. She criticizes inaction when a nation’s political/social structure disintegrates because the populace becomes overwhelmed and doesn’t act, becoming paralyzed as Agnes is paralyzed. The question remains: how does one move out of paralysis and take effective action which will change things for the better?
The threads of alignment that Kushner makes with Germany that mirror our present are thematically chilling. Xillah reminds Zillah that the Weimar Republic had a constitution like the U.S. but their constitution didn’t save them against Hitler who abolished it. With the constitution gone, Hitler and his underlings and judiciary created laws to further Hitler’s occult mythic vision (the Master Race). And with his own race laws, he legalized the genocide of millions. Of course, Kushner highlights the turning point when death and destruction could have been prevented during the events of 1932-33. But those who saw, like Agnes and her friends, chose to do nothing. Eventually, like the frog slow boiled in the pot, the only thing they can do is escape. If they, as Agnes did, stay, they will be killed or swallowed up like Paulinka to join Hitler’s Third Reich “support group” of murderous maniacal, psychotic, evil accomplices. A different type of death, certainly more horrific and self-recriminating.
Xillah muses about changing the play and warns Zillah that Agnes can’t hear her: she is dead as the past is dead. Zillah continues to beg Xillah. The dialogue that Kushner has written between them is humorous and reminiscent of the “Theater of the Absurd” genre and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, where the playwrights tweak dramatic conventions. This is done to expand audience consciousness. Such creative license demands being available to “thinking outside of the box.” It also leads to the audience having to follow a play’s absurdities which can be as confounding as the illogical, dire thrusts of fascism, Reaganism, Trumpism.
The absurdist feeling becomes that one has been caught up watching oneself as a part of the larger picture which one deludes themselves into believing they can control. In fact the “author” of our lives is not one we’ve necessarily chosen or know. At least Zillah knows her progenitor and argues with him and finally convinces Xillah to lift space/time constraints so that Agnes hears and speaks to her.
This section gives rise to a number of themes in this work that is dense with brilliance. Before Zillah connects with Agnes, we note that Agnes’s spirit atrophies and dies because her fear incapacitates her. Even if Zillah could break through the time barrier and move from the 1980s to 1933, Agnes’s routine of embracing fear and inaction has warped and destroyed any life in her. Life is movement, action, vitality. Doing something, anything (even escaping) would be better than just withering away. The irony of the play is the melding of the frame play into the Berlin story by Kushner/Xillah. He finally allows Zillah to warn Agnes to leave because she is doomed. Though it is not mentioned, we understand that those who did leave Germany early on did manage to save themselves while millions were swept up in genocide and Hitler’s war machine.
Agnes’ reply to Zillah is not what we expect. It is mind-numbing, a warning to Zillah and us about our own time. It has the effect of a final incredible bomb blast that whimpers and fades. The full-on irony is as Agnes exhorts her/us, we hear, but it doesn’t register, it doesn’t matter. Thematically, Kushner suggests that we are plagued by the same inabilities, insufficiencies and cowardice that Husz ranted about in an earlier magnificent scene. Time inevitably doesn’t matter as we are like Agnes. Paralyzed, immobilized by discussion doing little to save ourselves. We must act! But how? To do what? And so it goes.
Kushner’s play should be revisted and it is a credit to The Public and Oskar Eustis for bringing it back in this unsettling, frustrating iteration. The parallels with each time period, whether we deign to acknowledge them or not, are striking. The threads which indict us about our alienation and powerlessness are spectres which should prick us to the marrow of our bones.
Indeed, in our time as we watch the separation of powers (executive, legislative, judiciary) illegally devoured by the Trumpist Party with the DOJ stomping down its own institution (i.e. the Inspector General’s Report exonerating FBI officials whom the WH has slandered and insulted) and mischaracterizing the Mueller Report, such “above the law conduct” to loyally support the WH is frightening and dangerous. Additionally, in our time, we note how the Trumpist Party encourages law breaking of fired officials (lawyers and others) to defy congressional subpoenas tantamount to obstruction of justice. And currently, high ranking members of the Trumpist Party in the House of Representatives refuse to listen to non partisan congressional testimony which implicates the White House in potential bribery of a foreign leader, withholding appropriate congressional military aid in exchange for a political smear of the White House’s opponent. In other words, they refuse to uphold their constitutional oath of office and do their job, instead uplifting the “dear” leader’s loyalty pledge to support him in his criminality.
These are high crimes and misdemeanors to add to a long list of acts which we need whistleblowers to come out and speak about: Trumpist bribery of foreign leaders, quid pro quos, his acting above the law, his incurring human rights violations, overthrowing military law, and Trump’s blatant importuning of foreign nations and adversaries to help him overthrow our election processes with smear campaigns against his opponents, the indefensible practice he used to win the 2016 election.
Such lawless behavior in an executive that easily vitiates the separation of powers, and bullies, insults and retaliates against anyone who would attempt to point out his law violations recalls behaviors of fledgling dictatorships. Such dictatorships grow. They make laws into what are solely “good” for the dictator/autocrat as they obviate what is good for the rest of the body politic. And if one counters with opposition? That autocrat will bully, intimidate, censure, retaliate and eventually when no one stops them, kill or destroy any opponents using what it can get away with, first character assassination, then jail, then well placed convenient suicides (check the google article about Deustche Bank’s suicides) then murder.
One may argue that Kushner’s alignment of the present U.S. “leadership” with Germany’s situation in 1932-33 is extreme and overblown. Really? And indeed, if the play “doesn’t work,” are the themes and presentments just too horrible to contemplate? Are we, like Agnes, too overcome, too PTSDed by the WH’s horrific acts to consider that we have already lost our constitution and democracy to an overweening, unlawful executive branch whose party refuses to adhere to constitutional checks and balances?
Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day raises so many parallels, similar threads and questions, that it should be seen. It should be seen not only for the superb performances, but for the humor, for the pith, the juicy pulp of the orange that is being offered as a comfort. And it should be seen as the bright bit of light in the sky before the darkness closes in and we can no longer see clearly fact from fiction. While there is that bit of light, we must discern conflicting alternative narratives from the propaganda that would occlude our minds, souls and hearts and propel us away from human decency and love for each other as citizens of a nation worthy of its ideals.
Kudos to David Rockwell (scenic design) Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows (co-costume design) John Torres (lighting design) BRay Poor (sound design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair, wig, makeup design) Thomas Shall (fight director). A Bright Room Called Day runs with one intermission at The Public Theater until 15 of December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
David Henry Hwang’s awards and honors are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say he won the Tony Award, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Critics Award for M. Butterfly (1988). He is a prodigious author, playwright, librettist and screenwriter who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times. With Soft Power, directed by Leigh Silverman, Hwang has crafted a mesmerizing production. Soft Power is a genre hybrid, a musical-fantasy-farce within a satire-comedy with autobiographical overtones. Primarily, the musical within a play concerns Chinese/American custom disparities, U.S./China relations and events around the U.S. 2016 election and afterward. To my mind it is Hwang’s finest theatrical production to date.
I saw a number of his works including the original production of M. Butterfly (1988) and the revival (2017), productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Dance and the Railroad-2013, Golden Child-2013, Kung Fu-2014) and an Off Off Broadway production of Yellow Face in 2009. I saw Chinglish on Broadway (2011) twice.
For Soft Power, Hwang wrote the lyrics, with Jeanine Tesori composing the music and additional lyrics. With choreography by Sam Pinkleton and a large Asian cast, Leigh Silverman, a long time collaborator with Hwang, shepherded the creatives and ensemble with sensitivity. Her adroit mastery pushing the envelope to achieve the right balance of comedy, irony, satire, humor, musical-fantasy-farce and stark reality to elucidate Hwang’s varied themes is a prime achievement of this production.
Hwang’s themes in this play/musical are on steroids to his credit. One should see this production a number of times; it is replete with concepts to think about including these: the U.S. is considered a dangerous country and visitors from abroad are warned of the mass shootings and white nationalist terrorist attacks. Among other concepts Hwang confronts with irony in the musical-fantasy sequence are the proliferation of guns. There is a sardonically funny song the Veep sings with the ensemble, “Good Guy With a Gun.” Hwang highlights the increasing bigoted, racist, xenophobic attacks on those who are not “white and right.” And he ironically underscores China’s move toward westernization with the U.S. creep into autocracy under an unnamed (Hwang will not dignify his name, again to his credit) lawless president and the culture his lawlessness promotes.
Another important theme the entire play and the musical presents is what it is to be an American who lives in a democracy whose constitution guarantees the freedoms it does and most especially the right of every citizen to vote. In the musical-fantasy sequence and even in the play that frames the musical, Hwang’s protagonists go head to head arguing the benefits of freedom and democracy vs. China’s autocracy and selection of leaders. Throughout, the playwright zeroes in on what it is like to be a Chinese-American in a nation that had deep xenophobic roots and anti-immigrant sentiment that since the last election have surfaced and would continue to grow into a poisonous tree overshadowing constitutional freedoms unless the equivalent of weed killer in the form of love dissolves it at the root!
The opening scene of the play is autobiographical. DHH is on the street with groceries in front of his home, right before he was stabbed in his neck and nearly died. Played by Francis Jue who is nuanced, innocent, astutely honest, funny and sings with gorgeous resonance and power, DHH questions whether he will be “able to live in the country anymore.” Then the scene quickly shifts. Hwang cleverly dislocates us in time and we follow along to the next scene unaware of what will happen to him and the import of his comment.
In the next scene DHH meets with Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora is near perfect as the debonair, well-meaning, sophisticated, musical lead-Chinese style) head of the North American Division of Dragon Entertainment based in Shanghai. Xūe Xíng presents the “soft power” idea to commission DHH to write a musical based on a film with a hysterical title roughly translated, “Stick With Your Mistake.” Xūe Xíng tells the dubious DHH that because he is a renowned and successful Chinese American playwright, he would be the perfect candidate to write a musical that will open the Dragon Palace in Shanghai when it is finished. But when Xūe Xíng tells him what the film is about, DHH disagrees with the ending based on cultural American values. The film is about a couple who love other people and desire to split up; following Chinese mores, they remain together. We discover later that this film is “close” to Xūe Xíng’s heart, though the Chinese populace is changing and may find the ending “old-fashioned” as DHH suggests.
DHH must leave because he is off to see The King and I then meet Hillary Clinton at a presidential candidate reception. He invites Xūe Xíng to go with him and the married Xūe Xíng brings his lover Zoe Samuels (Alyse Alan Louis). Louis also plays Hillary Clinton in the musical-fantasy sequences and is hysterical when she sings as Hillary the “Song of The Campaign Trail” and then in full throated, uplifted glory, the smashing “Democracy.” She is sensational.
In this scene between DHH and Xūe Xíng and then with Zoe, Hwang establishes many of the humorous tropes that will follow throughout the play. The playwright references differences between Chinese culture and American culture regarding politics and election of leaders. The dialogue reveals the differences in understanding and behavior. And there is the usual mangling of the Chinese language by Americans which is humorous, especially as DHH doesn’t know how to speak his Dad’s and mom’s birth language because he was born in the U.S.
For the Chinese, duty and obligation are paramount. For Americans following one’s heart is paramount. Chinese rarely show emotion; Americans as a group show emotions and allow their feelings to be expressed. Also, during this exchange we see the exemplification of China’s concept of “soft power“ in what Xūe Xíng hopes to accomplish with Chinese-American DHH. DHH will be perfect to write a smash hit for the Chinese in a cross cultural exchange. Humorously, Xūe Xíng references Lion King and Mama Mia, but since they will be seeing The King and I before meeting Hillary, Xūe Xíng hopes DHH will write that type of musical hit for China. Considering the elements of colonialism, DHH ironically points out the problems with the Rogers and Hammerstein II musical as something he would not want to write.
When Xūe Xíng suggests that China be in the position of the colonial power (the “I”) schooling the “King” (the U.S.) the implication is absolutely hysterical. Xūe Xíng’s sardonic riff about the U.S. barbaric Asian war policies abroad (with Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, China) and at home (the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment during WWII) needing to be refined toward civility (as the teacher schools the King and the children in The King and I) is priceless. Also, the concept of China being the advanced and the U.S. being the inferior (it is happening as I write this thanks to the current U.S. president’s policies from Climate Change to tariffs) is not only funny it is incredibly ironic.
Hwang riffs on himself with humor as character DHH responds ironically about his plays-they are not quite in the same vein as Lion King, nor is his idea of a smash musical being “Sticking With Your Mistake.” But it is at this juncture we understand the underlying premise of China’s initiative to curry favor with globalists by “leveraging their cultural assets and spending large sums of money” to create initiatives in the arts, etc. This is how to influence, how to find an acceptable way into other countries’ minds and hearts. When DHH suggests that such a film may not be what the younger Chinese want that they are modernizing toward America, Xūe Xíng suggests that America may become more like China. Hwang’s portentous meaning cannot be understated.
The scene shifts again and DHH’s America is falling apart; Hillary lost. DHH argues with Xūe Xíng about the efficacy of everyone having the right to vote and electing the most qualified candidate in the popular vote and losing in the electoral college which Xūe Xíng finds appalling and illogical. It is a humorously frustrating exchange. The scene shifts; DHH is alone in front of his home in Brooklyn. Xūe Xíng has rubbed his point in about the election in the U.S. DHH questions how he can remain in a country that “voted for a guy that doesn’t believe we belong here,” and remain in a country to be nothing more than “supporting characters in someone else’s story.”
It is then Hwang brings us full circle out from the flashback into the opening scene of the play. As he ruminates about being a second class citizen as a Chinese American in the U.S., something happens that confirms his estimation, but it is beyond expectation. Reality slams into him and us. DHH as David Henry Hwang is stabbed by some white guy. Luckily, he yells in UNACCENTED ENGLISH, “WTF!” and the attacker runs away. As DHH applies pressure to the wound as per the Boy Scout instructions he learned as a kid, he walks toward the hospital and just before losing consciousness and fainting, he hears violins. And the musical-fantasy-satire emerges with chorus, dancing, orchestra and more as DHH hovers between life and death in what is a also a metaphoric rendering of his identity as a Chinese American.
Act One of the musical begins as DHH’s dream. The previous action repeats but with intensified be-spectacled musical numbers sung by Asian actors in white face. In another sardonic twist we are back in time at the beginning of Xūe Xíng’s story revealed from his perspective about his time in the U.S. After he says goodbye to his daughter (Kendyl Ito) who warns him about going to the dangerous country (“Dutiful”) he lands at Kennedy airport (“Welcome to America”) in what Hwang describes as a “deeply militarized, religious fundamentalist, violent society.” Hwang’s focus on Xūe Xíng’s perspective reveals what it is like for a foreign traveler nearly getting defrauded. However, Xūe Xíng, the hero, humorously turns the situation around by hiring a body guard Bobby Bob (the funny Austin Ku) who is always in the shadows to protect him. After all, this is a positive musical.
In this segment, DHH again converses with Xūe Xíng about the play he might write, and they go to meet Hillary (“I’m With Her,” ). In Hwang’s roiling unconsciousness he dreams Xūe Xíng and Hillary bond together as Xūe attempts to teach her his name (“It Just Takes Time”). They satirize the reverse of the relationship in “The King and I” with Hillary in the barbaric country position and Xūe Xíng as the “I.” The scene is sardonic, considering the idealized players; Alyse Alan Louis is an exuberant Hillary (she looks like Chelsea) and Conrad Ricamora is the civil, gentlemanly, Asian leading man. The satire and irony here are profound as they dance a waltz referencing, The King and I.
As the election results are tabulated, the song “Election Night” is sung by the Chief Justice (the very funny Jon Hoche) and the ensemble. They sing a LOL description of the American election process and the dire Electoral College. But at the announcement that the “guy who hates China” won, white nationalists storm the building and in the process DHH is stabbed. In a dramatic duet (“I Am”) beautifully sung by DHH (Ju) and Xūe Xíng (Ricamora) DHH realizes he has been a fake, neither Chinese, nor American in a full blown identity crisis. With Xūe Xíng’s encouragement, he affirms he is one whole not separate and distinct cultures. That viewpoint is one of love. Holding the bleeding DHH, Xūe Xíng counsels himself to the Chinese way of not showing feeling or emotion. As he faints, DHH states “Democracy has broken my heart.” The angry white nationalist mob marches with tiki torches, guns and bats. Xūe Xíng poignantly questions, “What is this America? Why do I cry for America?” as Act I chillingly ends with an emotional and heart-wrenching flourish.
Soft Power as a musical is maverick. It is revolutionary theater breaking genre molds. It diverges in the arc of development which swings like a pendulum including flashback, framing of the main story of DHH’s stabbing and his interactions and impact on Xūe Xíng and vice-versa. The action in the musical loops back revealing the story focusing more on Xūe Xíng’s perspective and the quasi love story between him and Hillary which could be read as symbolic of two countries brought together by love. Of course in DHH’s dream to recovery, there is the realistic component, but the musical is fantastic truth; in it DHH has supplanted Zoe with Hillary.
Additionally, in another amazing twist of the plot and in full on irony in a theater of the absurdist style, Act Two begins with a commentary interlude as a panel sits to discuss the impact of Soft Power fifty years later. Hwang’s panel comments on DHH’s stabbing as a “secondary character” and they argue about the form of the musical being developed in China by Xūe Xíng as “spoken and sung drama.” One expert states there are no American artists, only native craftspeople.
In this brief scene, we as audience members have been shifted via sci-fi to the future. We get to view the play in a retrospective as Hwang comments on himself ironically. The experts (one who specializes in second-world nations-that is what America has become) argues with an American expert, Adjunct Professor of American Folklore at Columbia University about the genre. The Professor argues that some of the New York entertainments were sophisticated: “One of the most popular was entirely about cats.” Clearly, Hwang gets to dish on Broadway’s tourist fare which rankles New Yorkers especially at the holidays. The Chinese refer to these American shows by “a second-world nation” as “regional folk art” which the Chinese as a first world nation elevated. The ironies are telling.
Sadly, their discussion of why DHH was stabbed is Hwang’s factual indictment of white supremacy which his experts fifty years later also refer to as a “random act of violence.” Hwang’s theme of the U.S. as a dangerous country for a traveler is brought to bear for all Americans, especially the politician who would refuse to bring the gun legislation that has been passed in the House to the floor of the Senate.
In reality, David Henry Wang was stabbed before the 2016 election. The violent undercurrents in this nation have been there in each century. America as fantasy-land of the golden dream has many caveats, one of them gun violence, the other xenophobia. These two have been merged into companions by the current president whose rhetoric has exacerbated the violence. Hwang uses the musical to unleash the satire about the election, guns, etc., because when all has been said, satire hits the target most memorably and is unforgettable.
The musical resumes and ends with Hillary overcoming her losing blues and upholding “Democracy,” perhaps the finest song in the show. DHH awakens and the ensemble joins him in singing the reprise of “Democracy,” which is beyond uplifting for not only Americans but for those remaining democracies in the world. Finally, DHH encapsulates what the citizens of this nation believe, “good fortune will follow; if we somehow survive in America.”
Kudos to all creatives involved Clint Ramos (scenic design) Anita Yavich (costume design) Mark Barton (lighting design) Kai Harada (sound design) Bart Fasbender (sound effects design) Bryce Cutler (video design) Tom Watson (hair, wig and makeup design) Lillis Meeh (special effects) Danny Troob (orchestrations) with John Clancy (dance music arrangement/additional orchestrations), Larry Hochman (additional orchestrations) Antoine Silverman (music contractor) Chris Fenwick (music supervisor/music director).
Currently playing at the Public Theater until 17th November, Soft Power is sold out after a number of extensions. Someone may donate their tickets to the Public, so check the theater in the remaining days. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until Soft Power goes to Broadway which it must. The show is astonishing. David Henry Hwang has exceeded even himself and it would be a shame if more people didn’t see it, especially this next year before the 2020 elections. In its hope, its simplicity and complexity, its truth, its charity, it is what we need right now and for as long as we are able to maintain our democratic republic.
The New Group’s presentation of Cyrano in a musical adaptation by Erica Schmidt of the iconic Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand really soars with the entrance of Peter Dinklage as Cyrano stationed in the darkened audience, bellowing out witty insults to the actor, Montgomery played by Scott Stangland. As Dinklage spirits himself into the light he signifies he is the driving force of the play’s action. His casting as Cyrano is spot-on. For Cyrano is a genius with poetry and epithets and is a charismatic, charming and ferocious swordsman, clever in besting all foes in every situation. Indeed, in his genius, he is similar to Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant, good-hearted warrior in the smashing series Game of Thrones for which Dinklage garnered four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
Intuiting divine intelligence and rapier wit, Dinklage’s Cyrano shines throughout the production. He is riveting and I say this not having watched Game of Thrones avidly as many of the others in the audience most probably had done, mourning its conclusion this year. That said, the role of Cyrano de Bergerac even in a version without music, Dinklage most certainly would have triumphed in, with or without the humongous nose attachment. In this version he looks attractively normal. However, when reference is made to his nose, he responds with a subtle gesture invoking his height and we understand he is twitting himself and in this instance demeaning the disdainful and villainous De Guiche (the superb Ritchie Coster).
Dinklage is an actor’s actor so he brings thoughtfulness and grist to each and every character he undertakes. The gesture invoking his height is enough; the obviously fake prosthetic nose is unnecessary.
Jumping to an immediate conclusion it would appear to be a shame that a good deal of the poetic beauty, humor and grace of Rostand’s Cyrano speeches (which Dinklage would have delivered with thrilling verve, power and panache) have vanished. They have been supplanted by soulful melodies that sound similar with a few exceptions. The music changes the mood and tenor of Cyrano de Bergerac into Cyrano which Rostand fans may find difficult getting used to. No matter, there is enough to provide interest in this version which is filled with symbolism and irony, even to the point where Cyrano shades most everyone except his friend Le Bret and Schmidt alludes to this at the outset when Cyrano speaks in the darkened audience.
This version has a somberness not necessarily found in other versions of Cyrano de Bergerac. The character’s hearbreak is also more manifest as is Roxanne’s sorrow at the conclusion. Even the music picks up the darker tones, so a revision of understanding is necessary for this version. Cyrano, Christian and Roxanne are more tragic victims whose choices are made rashly and come to haunt them after they are made.
Nevertheless, this Cyrano is inspired by the older play via its plot twists and masking of identities. The arc of development is also similar and the addition of musical numbers elucidate the characterizations and love themes. For example the opening number sung by Jasmine Cephas Jones’ Roxanne “Someone to Say” is particularly lovely and tuneful. The melody’s themes of love are reprised by Christian (Blake Jenner) who wants what Roxanne wants. After he meets Cyrano who befriends him as per Roxanne’s wishes, their union is guaranteed; Cyrano is a man of his word and a man of action who can get things done. Thus, they plot to woo Roxanne with his looks and Cyrano’s intellect and passionate heart for her…masked by his poetic words.
In their exchange, Cyrano will make Christian “eloquent, and Christian will make Cyrano “handsome.” For the love of Roxanne, two men will make up a whole, adorable and perfect man. Hence, we are reminded of another of the play’s themes: no one man has everything a woman wants or needs. And if he looks that perfect, percentages are he isn’t and something is up!
The music is by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner and the lyrics are by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser. Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner are members of the Grammy Award-winning band The National and Matt Berninger is the group’s singer/songwriter. Their score is ambitious and for those who enjoy their music, Cyrano will resound and the machinations of love, intrigue, humor and irony, with Dinklage as Cyrano and Jones as Roxanne (in Hamilton she played the mistress who lures Hamilton into a blackmail scheme) will just be icing on the deliciouss cake.
This quasi “modernized,” Cyrano iteration shows the arc of the plot development moving the story of Cyrano, Roxanne and Christian along the shores of romantic tragedy with love realized too late at the foot of death and sorrow. The themes of exceptionalism, the contrast of the beauty of the soul vs. the superficiality and vapidity of prizing outer appearance ride high in Schmidt’s rendering. And irony underscores the relationships between Roxanne and Christian, and Cyrano and everyone else, as he slips in and out of the shadows, stirring the action while all along hiding his true feelings, like a grand master pulling everyone’s strings.
With scenic design by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin, we are transported to locations that enhance the action’s through-line: the theater, the pastry shop, Roxanne’s wisteria-laden balcony (beautifully rendered) the battlefield (with accompanying thunderous fire and flashes of distant cannonade) and finally the nunnery. Each are suggested with a simplicity of design. Also they are enhanced with acutely appropriate and well -thought out props and effects (snow, leaves, etc.) accompanied by sound effects (Dan Moses Schreier).
The back wall with what look like hundreds of words is a nice thematic touch as are other elements of spectacle superbly coordinated to emphasize emotional poignance. For example, during the pastry shop scene, the actors perform balletic movements as they work with flour, dough, mixing, then shaping their rolls and pastries. This is fine choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman as Cyrano sings the haunting ” Need for Nothing.” The combined effect among the bakers, and Cyrano and his friend Le Bret (Josh A. Dawson) ratchets up the mood and further draws us to empathize with Cyrano’s situation with Roxanne and his elevated character in not needing material things. Again, what this production beautifully manifests in its design elements reflects Cyrano’s character as anti-materialistic, filled with faith and hope in the power of words and the unseen spiritual realm of faith and hope.
For those unfamiliar with the dynamics of plot and characterization of Cyrano de Bergerac, they will appreciate the twists of fate and the evolution of Christian’s character as well as the emotional strength and magnanimity of Cyrano as he helps a rival succeed in love while he restrains his own feelings. It is an act of pure goodness and sacrifice that Roxanne only realizes at the conclusion when she understands that in grieving Christian, it was Cyrano’s soul she loves.
The ending of this version of Cyrano in being heavy-handed removes the life-blood of feeling that could be experienced when Cyrano dies. Roxanne’s crying out with too late tears becomes maudlin and melodramatic. In the original version and a few later iterations, Cyrano de Bergerac is in bed and dying of a hidden head wound. Conquering the pain and his fading strength, he cheerfully tries to rally hope with Roxanne by his bedside. She has realized his love for her and expresses her love to him. Cyrano sees in the distance his old and most ancient of enemies that he’s fought all his life. He draws his sword once more to fight and flails at the reprobates all of us encounter and must overcome in life-“falsehood,” “prejudice” and “compromise.” When his sword drops from his grip as he dies, Roxanne covers his face with kisses.
This ending of Cyrano haplessly fighting these wicked spirits resonates for us especially today. Is it a missed opportunity NOT to conclude with the ancient evils Cyrano battled throughout his life and to his end, evils timeless and modern: “falsehood, prejudice, compromise”? To my mind, yes.
Despite the conclusion I enjoyed this intriguing and effort-filled musical of Cyrano for its performances, the choreography and movement (the battle scenes are unusual and excellent) and the risks taken by the writer/director and the Dessners, Matt Berninger and Carin Besser to form a new approach toward a timeless play.
Finally, kudos to the creatives who made Cyrano come thrillingly alive: Christine Jones and Amy Rubin (scenic design) Tom Broecker (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) Tommy Kurzman (hair, wig and make-up design) Ted Arthur (music direction) Kristy Norter (music coordinator) Mary-Mitchell Campbell (music supervision and arrangements). Bravo to all!
A developmental production of Cyrano was presented by Goodspeed Musicals in August 2018. This version in its New York premiere runs with one intermission at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 East 15th St.) until 22 December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.