Category Archives: Off Broadway

‘The Fears,’ Meditation vs. Inner Chaos, a Review

  Maddie Corman, Mehran Khaghani in 'The Fears' (courtesy of Daniel Rader)
Maddie Corman, Mehran Khaghani in The Fears (courtesy of Daniel Rader)

Where do you go when psychiatric therapy, group therapy, self-medication (alcohol, food, weed, etc.), prescribed medications, and other mainstream therapies don’t help you out of severe depression from psychic trauma and PTSD? You try the Buddhist center in New York City. In The Fears written by Emma Sheanshang, directed by Dan Algrant, currently running on the Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, we are ironically entertained and drawn in to the emotional, traumatized, yet hysterical responses of seven individuals. Each attempts to reconcile their angst and anxiety together in five Buddhist meditative sessions over the course of five weeks.

The Buddhist practice led by Maia (Maddie Corman) follows the striking of the singing bowl, meditation in silence. Then individual members “touch in” and share their miseries, joys, or angers from the previous week. Part of the irony and humor of these sessions is in becoming acquainted with the individual stakeholders Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres), Katie (Jess Gabor), Fiz (Mehran Khaghani), Mark (Carl Hendrick Louis), and Suzanne (Robyn Peterson). Each unique individual is introduced to new member Thea (Kerry Bishé ), who has not received an email about the rules of the sessions and is flying blind. We, along with Thea, learn the quirky rules set up to guide the meditation and group dynamic as it unravels to a turning point during each session.

(L to R): Kerry Bishé, Jess Gabor, Carl Hendrick Louis in The Fears (courtesy of Daniel Rader)

First, there are no apologies necessary for anything one does. Second, no discussion of the past is encouraged. Each of the members must stay “in the room” and in the moment to ground themselves with the here and now of their feelings. Third, no group member can ask questions of other members. Additionally, the group leader guides any member having problems with suggestions, for example to plant a tree (this never occurs), or in one instance, the inner child method–the adult version of the group member speaks to her inner child version– as the rest of the group’s inner children watch and learn.

For example, Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres) is subject to panic attacks and doesn’t do marital discord (conflicts between group members). Anything sets her off and raises her inner pressure. When she spirals upward in a fear, as she flails about her husband’s obliviousness to her panic attack at a christening, the controlled, calm Maia humorously brings her down by reminding her to “breathe,” and “stay in the room.” When these exhortations don’t work, she finally has Big Rosa address her inner child (Little Rosa), via a pillow who stands in for Little Rosa. Maia expertly guides her with questions, as the group members look on approvingly, while Big Rosa tells Little Rosa she’s safe, can go to another room, go for a walk, or go anywhere. Thea has gotten a eyeful as have we, except Thea doesn’t find it as humorous as the audience does.

(L to R): Robyn Peterson, Kerry Bishé, Maddie Corman, Jess Gabor, (back) Natalie Woolams-Torres (front) Carl Hendrick Louis in 'The Fears' (courtesy of Daniel Rader)
(L to R): Robyn Peterson, Kerry Bishé, Maddie Corman, Jess Gabor, (back) Natalie Woolams-Torres (front) Carl Hendrick Louis in The Fears (courtesy of Daniel Rader)

The various members “touch in” after Rosa comes down from her attack. Katie “took a shower.” It’s apparently a big step for her because the others cheer her improvement. Fiz discusses that his sister dared to invite him to her wedding. Group members know he has issues with his parents. His father raped him as a tween, and when he told his mother, she refused to believe it and had him put in juvenile detention. His wounds are still raw, though he has been “healing.” Nevertheless, when Suzanne suggests that his sister’s invitation is a positive move, he blows up and asks if Suzanne is insane, a touchy question because all of them are off the charts from their traumas.

Also a sex abuse survivor, Suzanne attempts to defend herself. The interchange escalates humorously. Peterson’s Suzanne and Khaghani’s Fiz are invested in their emotions, and it’s crucial that the actors sustain the right balance of tone, sincerity and timing. or the scene could be deadly and fall flat. However, with apt direction and superb acting, the result is hilarity with no small thanks to Algrant, who knows how to make this hybrid dramedy pop. Additionally, the dialogue is choice with one-liners built in so that the actors (Khaghani is a comedian), cleverly measure the dead-on delivery.

Robyn Peterson, Mehran Khaghani in 'The Fears' (courtesy of Daniel Rader)
Robyn Peterson, Mehran Khaghani in The Fears (courtesy of Daniel Rader)

The heated exchange between Fiz and Suzanne prompts Maia to intervene and call “weather on the ones.” Gauging the “emotional atmosphere” each is feeling, the group members weigh in with “misunderstood,” “fear,” “anger,” etc., and the brewing storm subsides as they stay “in the room in real time,” and don’t nurture hurts from the past.

Sheanshang raises the emotional stakes higher when Thea tries to describe how Alexander the Great is responsible for a traumatic attack that happened to her. Initially, no one gets it and there’s confusion, until later in the play she describes the incident that terrorized her. The playwright’s clever script is both poignant and funny. She has pared down the lines yet has given enough backstory with the individuals to supply an inherent humor as they briefly describe the traumatic event which they are suppressed from discussing when the session gets underway, but not before.

The playwright thematically reminds us that humanity is boiling over with trauma and oftentimes, takes itself too seriously. However, the trauma cannot be suppressed because it is devastating; finding humor and having a gallows laugh about it is paramount. Interestingly, watching the group members surf the waves of their watery emotions, and explode despite Maia’s attempts to keep the ship on an even kee,l reveals the irony in attempting to control the chaos with “Buddhist” practice, which is a 20th century, Western appropriation of an Eastern religion, which requires an entirely different mind-set.

The religion has existed for thousands of years and its “practice,” through the Western lens and mind has been twerked. The practitioners ignore that it has been superimposed over Western, cultural psychoses and promulgated by various gurus (one of whom we later discover was a sex predator himself). Sheanshag twits the sessions and exposes the West’s arrogance and privilege in its appropriation. Her dialogue and Algrant’s direction land the play with the right tonal balance, which makes for a profound, yet comedic production. Incisively, it reveals the desperation of each of the characters, especially Maia, to find some modicum of peace, that the culture and society do not readily offer.

(L to R): Natalie Woolamis-Torres, Maddie Corman in 'The Fears' (courtesy of Daniel Rader)
(L to R): Natalie Woolamis-Torres, Maddie Corman in The Fears (courtesy of Daniel Rader)

The actors are superb, and as they erupt with emotion, Dan Algrant has them work seamlessly in tandem with impeccable timing for maximum humor. Sheanshang has crafted the characters with such specificity, and uniqueness, we understand how they have become practiced to trust in Maia’s cues and guidance so that they follow it like herded cows. The only one who doesn’t get it is the outlier-newcomer Thea, who “didn’t get the email,” and thus, is introduced to the “rules” in real time as we are. This element keeps us engaged and provides vitality and surprise about what will happen next.

As group leader, Maia’s response to various members as she guides them, is a non-response of “Mmmmm,” which becomes loaded with meaning after we follow various characters’ issues. As the play progresses in humor and sobriety, we discover that each of the group members have experienced sexual abuse which has traumatized them, so that they rely on each other for comfort and the camaraderie of understanding. However, they aren’t allowed to discuss the specifics of the abuse because it happened in the past, and they must remain in the present. Because of the active dynamic going on in the sessions, we don’t miss learning about their past. It is enough to understand that their wounds spill into the presen,t regardless of how hard they try to “Mmmmm.”

Maddie Corman in 'The Fears' (courtesy of Daniel Rader)
Maddie Corman in The Fears (courtesy of Daniel Rader)

How each of the group members relates to the others remains funny and toward the end of the play becomes volatile. The techniques that Maia uses are successful only in so far that group members believe them to be. However, Thea reveals a few secrets and asks questions which throw a monkey wrench into their “smooth” sessions. And when Katie, who the others believe has joined a satanic cult, leaves after an emotional outburst, it sets the rest of the group members at each others throats. Even Maia who has the “air” of a female yogi, loses control of them and herself in a chaotic epiphany. After her outburst, she is forced to confront herself with the groups’ encouragement, as she reveal a truth she has suppressed to delude herself “nothing happened.”

The success of Sheanshang’s work is in its twists and moment-to-moment “presence” which the actors keep alive and bubbling. All of them have been beautifully shepherded into a believable ensemble of traumatics, which can be set off at any time. And, they are. The secrets revealed by Thea, Maia and Katie cause the group to go off the rails, until Maia is encouraged to hold a session which brings them and the audience back down to earth for a fitting conclusion. The necessity of restoring calm succeeds. As her depth of feeling reaches out and encourages healing, the audience members join in as well. The conclusion is poignant and the theme that every person faces their own PTSD events in their lives becomes clear. Ironically, as much as each of us would like to “get better,” and “be healed,” in an ironic comment, Thea says, “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.”

Mehran Khaghani in 'The Fears' (courtesy of Daniel Rader)
Mehran Khaghani in The Fears (courtesy of Daniel Rader)

The quote from Samuel Beckett is the play’s principle theme. Knowing that human beings can’t escape having been shaped by horrors in their past, they are grateful for moments of shared peace which bring them outside of their emotional chaos. And in that peace they may find renewed purpose, as they acknowledge it is enough to bring power to reconcile such events with the help of others.

Kudos Jo Winiarski’s scenic design, David Robinson’s costume design (Maia’s and Goth Katie are particularly interesting), Jane Shaw’s sound design, Jeff Croiter’s lighting design, and Jimmy Goode’s wig, hair and make-up design (especially for Maia and Katie). The Fears presented by Steven Soderbergh (Academy Award winner for the film Traffic), is performed without an intermission. For tickets go to their website:

‘How to Defend Yourself’ at New York Theatre Workshop

(L to R): Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, Amaya Braganza in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, Amaya Braganza in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In this decade of sexual extremes on a continuum from paranoia, political correctness, libertine licentiousness, the billion dollar pornography industry and casual permissiveness, one in four women is violated, sexually assaulted or physically/emotionally abused. As a strategic defense #metoo has been appropriately employed culturally, but it also has been wrongfully magnified as a double-edged sword of vengeance. In Liliana Padilla’s play How to Defend Yourself, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, following a successful 2020 run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, Padilla confronts important issues about personal safety both emotional and physical. Incisively co-directed by the exceptional Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla and Steph Paul, the hybrid comedy drama explores consent and the litigated definitions of rape and harassment, which shift based upon geographical location, accuser and victim.

With the setting as a torpid and tumultuous college campus, when individuals are beginning to define their goals, dreams and intentions, sexuality and choices remain fluid. A decision to be with someone can lead to devastation, especially around stimulants, alcohol and drugs at a testosterone-fueled frat party, where young women are pressured to compromise themselves. At the top of the play we are introduced to women in a self-defense class started by college junior Brandi (Talia Ryder). The confident, black belt, with social media videos of herself disarming a bully with a gun, is a self-appointed, self-defense instructor. Brandi decides to teach students the ways to protect themselves, after sorority sister Susannah is raped and hospitalized. The assault happened at a frat party.

(L to R): Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza, Sebastian Delascasas, Gabriela Ortega in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza, Sebastian Delascasas, Gabriela Ortega in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Much of the enjoyment of Padilla’s play is becoming acquainted with the buoyant women and two young men in the class. They reveal their humorous attitudes as they attempt to navigate a culture whose roiling currents are being defined from moment to moment, often dislocating both men and women. All genders of that age group may be easily overcome by intimate circumstances, which they assume they have control over but don’t.

Brandi, whose self-assurance, determination to do good and organized, talented, physical skills, not only looks dancer-fit, but is also lovely. Admired and accepted by her peers, she is a member of a hot sorority and has the cache to hold self-defense sessions. These attract a few neophytes who are there to learn self-defense. Some are there for other reasons.

Brandi runs her sessions circumspectly with precision. She expects her peers to evolve toward her confidence level, so they understand that “anything can be used as a weapon,” and primarily, “their own bodies are weapons.” Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez), joins her BFF for moral support and fun, but she lacks Brandi’s skill set. Kara assists Brandi with chatter and chalkboard drawings in the college gym space (finely designed by You-Shin Chen), where Brandi holds classes.

 (L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Ariana Mahallati in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Ariana Mahallati in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Two students, who drift in anxious to get started, arrive before Brandi. We learn that freshman Diana is obsessed about defending herself against guns. Her BFF Mojdeh follows fast in her orbit. Humorous and sociable Diana ((Gabriela Ortega at the top of her game), and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati), are primarily there to get closer to Brandi, who is a Zeta Chi, the sorority they would like to rush. It escapes them that the group think atmosphere of sororities and fraternities are precisely the communities that can be toxic and abusive. However, Mojdeh craves being identified as “cool.” She seeks the hot, popular individuals to ride their coattails and achieve acceptance. For her, this is the fastest way to self-love. On the other hand, Diana appears to be self-content, and is humorous in how she fetishizes guns to the point where by the the end of the play, she indulges her passion.

The last young woman to join Brandi’s sessions is Nikki (Amaya Braganza). Her entrance provokes laughter because she appears super shy, hesitant and awkward. Throughout, she is mysterious and reticent, until the conversation opens up, and she admits she gave a “blow job” to a guy in a gasoline station. When Brandi and Kara attempt to kindly excuse her humiliating, crass behavior as a mistake, she states that she was fine with it, and it was her idea. Whether she is lying or fronting is difficult to surmise. Hiding behind “it’s OK,” is oftentimes the default response because it is too messy to get into, who is responsible, who is to blame and what forced sex means.

 (L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Sarah Marie Rodriguez in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Sarah Marie Rodriguez in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Kara indirectly insults Nikki by stating that she also has made such “mistakes.” Nikki is nonplussed, revealing the differences in attitudes between the two young women. Clearly, the circumstances around sexual behavior are extremely complex and not easily understood. Subsequently, Padilla’s characters veer off topic into personal discussions about what forms of touching make them uncomfortable, and what physical boundaries work.

The play reveals that the idea of self-defense encompasses more than just a physical way of being. Young men and women are at sea with regard to “growing up” with a sexual identity that is forced upon them by the culture and their friends. Oftentimes, as Jayson Lee’s Eggo suggests, they are clueless about what is the right or wrong way to conduct themselves, have relationships and fall in love. Sexuality isn’t necessarily the main ingredient that holds people together.

To add substance to the mix, Padilla includes the male perspective, having Brandi invite two fraternity brothers, Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) and Eggo (Jayson Lee). They are “down” with #metoo and are supportive of Susannah during her recuperation and rehabilitation from the stress of her assault. To add to the complexity, their fraternity brother has been criminally charged which has put the entire fraternity on “high alert.” To distinguish themselves from the “sexual abuser types” roaming their campus, Andy and Eggo hysterically ply their sanctimonious “we support women” front, the moment they enter the room and introduce themselves. Years in prison hovers over the head of their fraternity brother, and they are “running scared” that any of their behaviors might be interpreted as predatory. Their loud, moralistic approach toward women is “over-the-top,” and we expect they will marching in the next women’s protest to encourage female empowerment.

(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Ariana Mahallati, Jayson Lee, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Amaya Braganza, Gabriela Ortega Talia Ryder in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Ariana Mahallati, Jayson Lee, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Amaya Braganza, Gabriela Ortega, Talia Ryder in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Padilla’s themes are not lost on us. Sexualized images and behaviors, part of the landscape of American culture in the entertainment industry and fashion industry, were shattered by #metoo. The nascent revolution that sprang up after the Harvey Weinstein debacle shuttered a billion dollar company and gave pseudo power to women for a time, only in the parts of the country which are not Republican and are “woke.” In other areas, the men act as they please, and the women go along with it, especially if they are proving they are not “socialist lefties.”

In the play, the characters are diverse: three persons of color, a Mexican-American, an Iranian-American and two whites. They are stuck with having to deal with “woke” culture, especially after the campus assault. Importantly, there is a discussion in the middle of the play about what consent means. Additionally, the question about having to always check with a partner about boundaries is raised. Kara blows up the discussion with her suggestion that there is nothing wrong with wanting S and M sex. To avoid the confusing topic, which adds another complex component about individual sexual behavior, Brandi calls her out for being inappropriate.

Clearly, Kara has issues with alcohol and wanting to be hurt. This hints at her subterranean troubles that are never revealed. We note such problems, when she doesn’t join in the physical sessions because she got “wasted” the previous evening. On the other hand, she isn’t embarrassed about sharing her enjoyment of rough sex. Apparently, she also enjoys the shock value of telling others about herself, though it is counterproductive to her BFF’s purpose in holding the class. From this turning point onward, the situations in the self-defense class run off the rails.

(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Talia Ryder, Ariana Mahallati in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Talia Ryder, Ariana Mahallati in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The most interesting segments of the production are the self-defense moves that Brandi teaches (well choreographed by Steph Paul, movement director), and the physical fight routines they accomplish together (at the guidance of Rocio Mendez). Late in the play there is a fight that breaks out between Diana and Kara that is well staged. The fight exemplifies that ego, charm and pride are competitive forces that stir up internal problems within the young women. These spill out in violence. Between Diana and Kara, there exists an intuitive impulse to dislike each other. That disgust eventually dissipates after Diana smashes the provocative Kara in the face, ironically proving that Kara does seek physical abuse.

The staging for the defense practice scenes works seamlessly and is powerful and exciting to watch. The movements are pitched to music, which pumps up the characters and reveals they are gaining confidence about themselves. Additionally, when Brandi suggests they pair off to practice techniques, for example, how to break an attacker’s wrist grip, the results are simultaneously wrought and the overlapping dialogue and action make for fascinating comparisons.

There are surprising turns throughout. Diana and Mojdeh discover things about each other that set their relationship on a different path so that they can’t be close anymore. Kara and Brandi have a disagreement about Susannah, and Andy reveals a secret to Eggo that he has been harboring since the attack on Susannah. This upsets them and dislocates their sense of well being even more. When Andy asks what he should do, Eggo is at a loss. We understand there are no easy answers with regard to human sexuality and situations worsen as a result of “not knowing what to do.” Finally, after a number of sessions where Brandi’s “students” have progressed, and she feels she has made inroads into helping them feel safer, Nikki upends her assumptions and disturbs everyone with an event that she describes.

Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The thematic conclusion moves through flashbacks in the characters’ stages of adolescence. The directors show the individuals at three parties during their teen years, which move backward in time to a birthday party when they were in elementary school. The parties reveal the wildness from the drinking and sexual exploration when they were in high school. In the last party they end up in the sweet innocence of their elementary school days. The contrast of how they seek sexual experience that emerged from a time of innocence is stark and mind blowing.

For the rapid set changes You-Shin Chen, Stacey Derosier lighting designer, Izumi Inaba costume design and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design create a frenetic party atmosphere. And the lovely tableau at the end reveals that the progression of their identities has sprung from love, security, family and well being. One might think that these create an assured line of defense to thwart any attack that might ever happen.

However, Padillia posits that security is never guaranteed. Though we may use our bodies as weapons, or learn self-defense, random and not so random acts of violence happen in a culture that uplifts violence. Diana feels forced to arm herself with a licensed gun as an answer to that violence. Tragically, the subtext of her statement about guns plays out daily in our society, revealing the play’s devastating currency. Its themes about our physical and psychic vulnerability in an arbitrary and violent world resonate with power.

Co-directors Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla & Steph Paul are responsible for the strengths of the production, especially its staging and thematic depth. Their vision about the questions the play raises leaves us with even more questions and no clear answers. The actors are uniformly excellent and the physicality and staging of the various defense sessions make one want to get up and join the cast to try out all the moves.

How to Defend Yourself is a humorous, weighty production, whose trenchant themes give us pause, thanks to the vision and talent of its creatives. For tickets and times go to their website

‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy’ Keen Company’s Revival of Lynn Nottage is a Must-See

(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Certantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Certantes)

From the excellent selection of music that fills the auditorium before Crumbs From the Table of Joy begins, to Ernestine Crump’s (Shanel Bailey) summation of the future after the roiling events with her family subsides, the Keen Company’s fine revival of Nottage’s play endears us. The playwright’s simplicity focuses on the hardships and relationship dynamics of a single father and two teenage daughters, migrating from the Jim Crow South to a Brooklyn recovering from the vagaries of WW II. Directed by Colette Robert, the heartfelt, lyrical production runs with one intermission at Theatre Row until April 1. It is a must-see for its superb performances and incisive, sensitive and coherent direction.

Ernestine is our guide through the year-long experiences negotiating her mom’s death and the family trials without their beloved mother to seamlessly make their lives easier. Their mom is intensely missed by all, especially Godfrey Crump (Jason Bowen) who yearns for companionship and tries to suppress his grief by joining up with Father Divine’s Peace Mission fellowship. Ernestine’s poetic recollections of the grieving time and the year of transformation, reveal a witty, talented raconteur. Wise beyond her years, she makes the audience her confidante to reveal the frightening, unfamiliar city and “romantic Parisian apartment” which sister Ermina (Malika Samuel) calls ugly. Occasionally, she calls up in her imagination scenes as she’d like her life to be, which the actors show with humorous results. Then the unfortunate reality encroaches, and what she wishes dissolves to what is.

 (L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey Jason Bowen in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Certantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey Jason Bowen in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Certantes)

The family are fishes out of water in an alien environment that never seems welcoming. The Brooklyn schools put Ermina in a lower grade. The students ridicule their country braids and home made dresses sewn with love. Generally they are treated with disdain and indifference. Surrounded by Jewish neighbors who remain aloof in their whiteness, they dp become friendly with upstairs neighbors who ask them to be their Shabbos goys.

They envy the elderly Levys, who seem joyful and full of laughter as they listen to radio and watch their TV programs. On the other hand Godfrey denies Ernestine and Ermina any entertainments on Sundays. Godfrey is an adherent of Father Divine’s principles which require sobriety and living abstemiously with few pleasures except Father Divine’s holy word. Thus, Ernestine’s misery is acute. but she overcomes her upset through humor and irony. Nottage bonds us to her heroine because of her alertly sage descriptions and authenticity, which never devolves into self pity. To support her dad and sister whom she loves, she keeps her own counsel and studies hard to finish high school. A senior she becomes engrossed with making her graduation dress by hand, working her seamstress skills. Hers will be the celebration of the first family member to receive a diploma.

(L to R): Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

While Ernestine applies herself in school, Ermina, who is 15-years old, fights her way into the social set and eventually becomes interested in boys. To establish that she won’t take sass from anyone, Ermina has her first successful fight and brings home the spoils of war in her pockets: a handful of greasy relaxed hair and a piece of grey cashmere sweater.

For his part their dad weeps, works nights at his job at the bakery, and loyally follows Father Divine. He counts on the minister to help him heal from the agonizing loss of his wife. Ernestine tells us that Father Divine has so enamored Godfrey that to be closer to him, he moved them to New York where he mistakenly thinks Father Divine lives because of a return address on the newsletter he receives as a subscriber. Their dad believes Divine’s “wisdom” is from God and he adheres to Divine’s principles to live cleanly, without alcohol or dancing or drugs, and be as devoted as a monk with celibacy as a badge of honor. Ernestine quips that this behavior is embraced by Godfrey, who never went to church or tipped his hat to a lady before they moved to Brooklyn. As for the other behaviors she doesn’t mention, we assume he did them all before their mother died.

(L to R): Shanel Bailey, Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Sharina Martin in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Shanel Bailey, Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Sharina Martin in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

Their home life revolves around Father Divine as their father attempts to become more spiritual and understand as much as possible under Divine’s tutelage which he seeks as he writes letters to him asking God’s advice to traverse this rough time in a bigoted environment of white people. That it was worse in the South doesn’t quite register and Nottage doesn’t make it a point. What she does indicate is that Godfrey doesn’t note the differences. For her part Ernestine appreciates that she is able to sit between two white girls touching shoulders in a movie theater, where this is not possible in a Jim Crow South which we infer from her excitement and enthusiasm. Also, she and Ermina like their nice neighbors upstairs who give them quarters for turning on the lights and the TV which they sometimes get to watch. However, to Godfrey, “white people” are a universal stereotype to be avoided and mumbled about.

Ironically, Ernestine points out his hypocrisy about selective criticism. He accepts Father Divine’s choice of a white wife to be another perfection of Godliness. Ernestine, who distrusts Father Divine, points out the difference between the God-like, elite Divine’s privilege to have a white wife, yet criticize white people to his Black followers. Meanwhile, her dad is just a poor Black man who sucks up a few crumbs from under the table of his life, which appears a drudgery especially with no woman at his side.

(L to R): Sharina Martin, Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Sharina Martin, Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

Enter Lily Ann Green (Sharina Martin) their mom’s deceased sister, who blows in unannounced, with values contrary to Father Divine/Godfrey and behaviors which upset Godfrey and put him on edge. Ernestine is thrilled she is there, even though Lily crashes with them, is completely self-absorbed and pushes her communistic beliefs wherever she goes,which is why she can’t hold a job. Interestingly, Nottage floats the two disparate philosophies which were to bring salvation to the Black society in America in the 1950s as sold and marketed by both: religion and the communist party.

Both preachers and communist leaders embraced the African American cause and, at their most egregious, exploited it for their own use. When Ernestine uses communist ideas in an essay that she hears Lily spout (this was during Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare) her teacher is in an uproar. Likewise, Lily Ann ends up compromising Godfrey’s situation at work. Ernestine is forced to apologize as is Godfrey, who argues with Lily about not pushing communism vociferously to his daughters and others. He believes she is only making trouble. Though Lily Ann is interested in Godfrey and makes a play for him, he rejects her because he doesn’t agree with her politics and she dislikes Father Divine.

(L to R): Sharina Martin, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Sharina Martin, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

When the circumstances between them explode, Godfrey takes off a few from the family in frustration. During this respite, he meets Gerte Schulte (Natalia Payne) who emigrated from Germany after the war. Like Godfrey she is desperate for companionship and looking for someone to take care of her. Godfrey opens his heart and shares his circumstances. When he discusses Father Divine, she is receptive and together they seem to meld because of Gerte’s flexibility and charm. She is the antithesis of Lily Ann’s loose lifestyle, political determinism and stubbornness in having the upper hand with men.

Where Lily Ann is a catalyst and mentor for Ernestine and Ermina, Gerte becomes the catalyst to change their lives and split them apart. Nottage leaps her play’s action quickly forward when Godfrey brings Gerte home to introduce her to his daughters and Lily Ann. With her seductive, sweet charms, Gerte ingratiates herself into Godfrey’s life, moving herself from girlfriend to wife in a matter of a few days. The siblings are shocked as is Lily Ann. Godfrey expects all of them to live together and accept Gerte as his new wife. The results are not only humorous, they are necessary for Ernestine’s and Godfrey’s growth, as well as Lily Ann’s movement away from the dream of settling down with her sister’s husband.

 (L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey, Natalia Payne, Jason Bowen in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey, Natalia Payne, Jason Bowen in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

As Ernestine Crump, Shanel Bailey is a phenomenon. Her narration is on-point, sensitive, nuanced and heartbreaking, especially at the end when she discusses what happens to each of the family members. Mindful of the narrative’s lovely poetic phrases, Bailey travels forward in character portraying Ernestine’s feelings in active dialogue with her dad, Lily Ann and Gerte, then seamlessly transfers to narrating her ironic perspective of them with grace. Bailey is winning and the production which hinges on her broad acting talents is strengthened with her brilliance of authenticity.

Though all of the ensemble shines, held together through Robert’s fine direction, another standout is Natalia Payne’s Gerte. Her accent is near perfect as a a German swanning through English. Payne makes Gerte likeable in her color blindness and utter humanity, as she forges a path for herself after the war. Though Nottage doesn’t fill in much of her backstory, we see she is a charming operator with resilience and an ability to read and understand situations, a survivalist. She and Godfrey end up with each other as a mutual benefit and by the end of the play, they move toward the intimacy and companionship they seek and need.

Malika Samuel’s Ermina is a breath of joyful fresh air. Her role is an addendum. It is a shame that she doesn’t have more dialogue for her funny, bright personality is winsome and the relationship Samuel and Bailey effect together rings with authenticity.

Natalia Payne in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
Natalia Payne in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

Nottage’s mouthpiece for her ideas, Lily Ann, is the most difficult of the characters to like because underneath her rhetoric, she is the most evasive. Though we attempt to infer the subtext of her character, Nottage doesn’t give us much to go on past what she stands for and says she believes in. However, her actions speak louder than her words and when Ernestine attempts to find the Harlem location of the communist party, the address that Lily Ann gives her doesn’t ring true. As Lily Ann, Sharina Martin is tough, manipulative, seductive and open-hearted with the sisters. She also layers Lily Ann’s personality so that we are wary that she is fronting and not delivering the truth to the family as she should be.

Jason Bowen’s Godfrey is spot-on believable and inhabits the role of the father desperate for answers in a world whose corrupt values make no sense except to be an incalculable frustration. His faith in Father Divine is believable to the point where we want Divine to be real. If he is duping Godfrey, who is vulnerable and heartbroken, it is a bitter and enraging Black on Black exploitation, skirting criminality. Because we empathize with Bowen’s Godfrey, we want the best for him. As Ernestine does we question his weak desperation falling for Gerte and marrying her so quickly. However, both are so needy. In the last scene Ernestine notes that Godfrey’s celibacy ends when Gerte and he make up after fighting. Bowen and Natalia Payne convey a roller coaster of emotions in their last scene together.

Kudos to the Keen Company’s creative team who bring together Colette Robert’s vision of the other 1950s America and how to prosper in spite of it. Creatives include Brendan Gonzales Boston’s spare, functional period scenic design, Johanna Pan’s costume design, Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting design, Broken Chord’s sound design and Nikiya Mathis’ wig design.

Crumbs from the Table of Joy continues until April 1 at Theatre Row. For tickets go to their website:

‘Elyria,’ by Deepa Purohit, a Gujarati Diaspora in Ohio, Review

 Nilanjana Bose, Gulshan Mia in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
Nilanjana Bose, Gulshan Mia in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

The gorgeously vibrant sarees and salwar kameez take center stage as the characters spin and move exotically to traditional garba music. This is a festival celebration by Gujarati diasporans and other Indians who have found their way to Elyria, Ohio by 1982, the setting of the the titular play by Deepa Purohit. Currently in its World Premere at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off Broadway Linda Gross Theater until March 19th, Elyria is incisively directed by Awoye Timpo and runs with one intermission. .

At its most powerful, Elyria captures the cultural nuances and shifting values gradually shaping the diasporans as they migrate from Kenya to London to Elyria. Through stylization and minimal, almost expressionistic set design, the play’s central tenet, how the past shakes itself into the present, unfolds in the imaginations of the characters, as they visualize their past interactions in flashbacks, which inform and drive their present behaviors.

 (L to R): Mohit Gautam, Omar Shafiuzzaman in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
(L to R): Mohit Gautam, Omar Shafiuzzaman in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Elyria never descends completely into a melodrama of a threesome gone awry. This is because of the director’s elusive suggestion of the principals’ younger versions of themselves, portrayed by Mahima Saigal, Avanthika Srinivasan and Sanskar Agarwal, in flashbacks symbolically staged with accompanying music. The wistful compositions by Neel Murgai convey timber and moment. They are especially effective in the first act and in the flashbacks. For it is the nuance and surrealism of the past which lift Elyria beyond the mundane. As a result the evocative scenes present a dream-state atmosphere, like a series of meditations through which we intuit that Dhatta (Gulshan Mia) and Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose) make peace with themselves and each other by the play’s end.

Into the celebration of dance and happy festivities, Vasanta emerges on the dance floor to confront Dhatta and briefly move with her as they share awkward, stilted greetings. We anticipate from their encounter that they have known each other in another time and place, as it turns out when they were growing up together in Kenya. Though the contrast between the two women is not apparent initially, after they have additional encounters, we learn that Dhatta comes from an upper class strata of Gujarati society and Vasanta comes from a family with little means. As the play gradually unfolds, we learn that traditional cultural folkways bleed into the relationships and interactions of the characters, defining their social positions, identities and behaviors.

(L to R): Nilanjana Bose, Sanjit De Silva, Mahima Saigal Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in 'Elyria' (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
(L to R): Nilanjana Bose, Sanjit De Silva, Mahima Saigal Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Without slamming rhetorical intrusions into the love triangle which developed elsewhere and ended after Dhatta married Charu (Bhavesh Patel) the playwright gradually reveals the surreptitious bonds among the characters, using Vasanta as the catalyst. Though she promised she wouldn’t, Vasanta follows Dhatta and Charu all the way to Elyria to confront them about Rohan (Mohit Gautam) who is the child of Vasanta and Charu’s love relationship. Dhatta has told Rohan that she is not his birth mother, but she is his mother forever. Rohan tells his college friend Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman) that he plans to locate his birth parents after he and Hassanali graduate from college. Hassanali, a self-proclaimed computer genius, promises that he will help Rohan locate them on the “Interweb.”

Two ironies immediately present themselves. Rohan and Hassanali will be searching globally on the nascent and clunky forerunner of the internet whose communication protocols were not yet standardized (the internet was born in 1983). Ironically, Rohan’s birth parents are in his backyard and he could know them if someone would just “spill the beans.” However, revealing the secret is a monumental endeavor for the one carrying it, a happening more far flung then landing a spaceship on Neptune.

But even mountains move and an upset Vasanta finds the means financially with her hairdresser skills to make it to Elyria, supporting charming, con man husband Shiv (Sanjit De Silva) to proclaim her truth and see her grown-up child. Thus, the forward momentum of Purohit’s delicate unfolding plot complication unravels and destroys Dhatta’s world.

 Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

The secret is not revealed to Rohan during the play. Rohan believes that he was adopted by both Charu and Dhatta. It is his misfortune that he never receives the information that Charu is his real father with his mother’s childhood friend Vasanta as his birth mother. Dhatta is responsible for sharing the information that she promised Vasanta she would share. She doesn’t because she can’t; she is afraid. She knows that Charu loved Vasanta more, but until she begins to reconcile her past younger self with her older self’s experience, she can’t confront her husband about that love or the child it produced. The play is the revelation of the truth about Rohan and how it has impacted the characters and their love of themselves. Until they confront the truth, the guilt and self-loathing they’ve experienced keeping secrets from each other fester inside their souls and psyches.

At the heart of the complications, emotional problems and self-revulsion that each of the characters feel, are Indian cultural folkways. These (arranged marriages, economic status, paternalism) have oppressed both Vasanta and Dhatta and have damned Charu to a life of remote isolation from his son and his wife, as he perfunctorily performs his role as a father and husband. Indeed, Dhatta has devoted all of her love to Rohan and has unconsciously closed out Charu. He accuses her of foiling their marriage and giving all her attention to Rohan in a dynamic scene where Dhatta finally is able to tell him she knows about Vasanta. Admitting that she has raised up his son from a woman he still loves clears the air. On the other hand the truth heaps recriminations on Charu for clearly Dhatta is the better person, despite his accusations that accepting Rohan and raising him as her own son has negatively impacted their marriage.

Gulshan Mia, Mohit Gautam in 'Elyria' (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
Gulshan Mia, Mohit Gautam in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Eventually, we discover their past and the traditions that bound them and still bind them making Charu culpable in what has happened. Years before Elyria and his marriage to Dhatta, Charu and Vasanta were lovers. However, their future marriage was doomed by her parent’s financial status and inability to pay the high dowry price required. Thus, Charu must marry someone financially well-off, in an economically viable arranged marriage of which his parents and Dhatta’s parents approve. Vasanta keeps secret her pregnancy and when Rohan is born, she delivers her son to Dhatta, keeping the baby with at least one birth parent, that is, if Dhatta agrees to the secrecy, which Vasanta eventually wants to be divulged to everyone.

Of course human beings don’t keep their promises, as we learn from the brief conversations between Bose’s Vasanta and Mia’s Dhatta. Dhatta never tells Charu she knows about his love for Vasanta. In the complication of generously swallowing dishonor and raising her husband’s former lover’s child, the secret lays dormant and calcifies her marriage and relationship with Charu. Interestingly, they aren’t able to have another child. To what extent this is because of the burden of secrets that Dhatta carries is unclear. However, when Vasanta’s stalks Dhatta and Charu to Elyria, she, too, breaks the promise that she would never pursue them or interfere in their marriage. Spending the time and money to hunt them down, then dragging along her unsuspecting, career failed husband Shiv to Elyria, we recognize how high the stakes are for her to reconcile with her son and former lover.

(L to R): Bhavesh Patel, Mohit Gautam in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Both women must receive satisfaction; one to remain in darkness, the other to expose Rohan to the light. The result is devastaing and wonderful. The upheaval at the top of the play which sets in motion a dynamic that could have unfolded in a more forceful way is not the intent of Purohit’s subtle, delicate work, which meanders and flows until a final truth emerges on the brink of revelation. Who will be the first to bravely speak it out?

There are many themes in Elyria. One is an indictment of the mores whose strictures create problems for families, binding individual in fear. Charu is a traditional, conservative man who refuses to marry Vasanta though he loves her. He chooses to stay with his parent’s ways, hurting himself and all involved. Adhering to these folkways threatens to derail Rohan’s circumstances in the future because Charu wants Rohan to marry a woman of economic means, matching if not exceeding his own lifestyle as a surgeon. In one scene Charu attempts to steer Rohan toward beginning to get serious about meeting a girl he will marry. However, in his interactions with Hassanali, we discover Rohan is attracted to men. Unless the family is truthful and frees itself from such bondages, more trouble, pain and sorrow will follow them.

Kudos to Elyria‘s creative team which includes Parijat Desai (choreography) Jason Ardizzone-West (sets) Sarita Fellows (costumes) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lighting) Amatus Karim-Ali (sound) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (projections) Nikiya Mathis (hair design) Neel Murgai (compositions). Praise to the ensemble, who are vibrant and on-point, and the director whose vision brings Purohit’s work to life and endears us to her characters’ movement toward reconciliation.

For tickets go to the Atlantic Theater Company website

‘The Trees,’ Agnes Borinsky’s Fantasy of Stasis, a Review

Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

The abstract white, platformed set design (Parker Lutz) appears stark and majestic with arched rectangular pillars proscribing a curvilinear playing area center and downstage. The set is a symbolic representation of a park, interestingly absent any greenery. It’s a fine space to present a metaphoric fantasy like Agnes Borinsky’s The Trees, directed by Tina Satter, currently at Playwrights Horizons.

The Trees opens with the possibilities of a unique, mysterious conflict, and ends in medias res, as Borinsky mines the central conceit adding various layers and meandering back and forth with no seeming resolution, though there is one that is abstract and philosophical. As the playwright suggests she is wont to do, The Trees avoids a developed plot. It concerns the logistics of arranging the movement of players and supplies around the static protagonists whose human condition changes at the top of the play.

(L to R): Danusia Trevino, Crystal Dickinson in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry
(L to R): Danusia Trevino, Crystal Dickinson in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry

Brother David (Jess Barbagallo) and sister Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) who is visiting from Seattle, return home from a party playfully drunk. Appreciative of the night’s beauty and environs, they decide to stay outside and spend some enjoyable time in the park adjacent to their family home, which they’ve inherited from their father, who recently died. Overnight, a cataclysm occurs without rhyme or reason that neither we nor the characters are a party to. It involves a mega change that defies description.

Absurdly, David and Sheila awake the next morning in horrified shock to find themselves rooted to the soil, their feet immobilized and frozen in place. Theirs is an unexplained miraculous transmogrification from flesh to plant matter, though they retain cellular structures of both humans and trees. They refer to their tree selves as humans and identify as humans, however, physically in defiance of reality, they are also trees.

    (L to R): Max Gordon Moore, Ray Anthony Thomas, Crystal Dickinson in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
(L to R): Max Gordon Moore, Ray Anthony Thomas, Crystal Dickinson in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

In this hyper-state of existence, the siblings learn to overcome the conflict of former identities abutting their new beings. Gradually, their consciousness expands. They accept their new lives, but cannot move nor take care of their past identities, activities and relationships. For Sheila this means having to give up her life and work in Seattle. For David this entails perhaps never having sex again. Sheila reveals a nature that is flexible, accepts, goes with the flow, makes the best and follows all the cliches people use in life when there is nothing they can do to change things. However, David resists and is not happy with “what is.” In fact after David’s transformation, his old lover Jared (Sean Donovan) throws him over for someone else, though they still remain friends and Jared joins the community which sprouts up to nurture and care for Sheila and David. David learns to accept, but he always complains and resists before he settles into the status quo.

The playwright asks us to suspend our disbelief by suggesting anything is possible in her her fairy tale. In the twinkling of a few hours worlds can come and go, consciousnesses can be raised and a new perspective and ethos might be a pleasant, happy experience that exists in and of itself for the purpose of whimsy, if we are open-minded. Indeed and perhaps.

This appears to be one of Borinsky’s themes in The Trees. The circumstances are because they are and exist despite all defiance to science and logic. For that reason alone, The Trees is worthy of presentation. Understanding it as an allegory of human experience and the human condition, one is able to translate the metaphors and reactions of the protagonists to the unusual, whether in the play’s instance they have turned into a tree or in another instance, someone has been turned into deteriorating flesh through disease, drugs and their side effects.

(L to R): Jess Barbagallo, Sean Donovan in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
(L to R): Jess Barbagallo, Sean Donovan in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

Acutely directed by Tina Satter, who shepherds the actors, all do a yeoman’s job with the fantastic elements and fluid happenings that take place representationally over a seven year period. This is especially so of Crystal Dickinson and Jess Barbagallo, who make sense of the absurd, as we watch how Sheila and David confront their new genetic transformation.

Fortunately, when word gets around, friends help the tree/humans with food and other necessities. No logical sensibility is relayed as to why they need human food, why they need clothing, etc. They are immobilized in the trans-state of human/tree and achieve a status quo state of being in the park, where events transpire around them, where people enter and join them in community, while they are stuck and going nowhere. All seamlessly coheres as the thrust of Borinsky’s conceit. With these friends, neighbors and strangers, David and Sheila might live forever. Certainly, trees can live longer than human beings, if their environment is not undone by commercialization, fire and development. These possible undoings do threaten David and Sheila’s community as we see later in the play.

The fairy-tale elements of The Trees are heavily fantastical and provide some of the humor and most of the conundrum of illogical occurrences as David and Sheila grow a network of friends, who appreciate how they have embraced a back to nature, celebration of the earth lifestyle as tree/humans.

 Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

Those who visit feel an affinity to the siblings and become friends. These include Julian (Nile Harris) who makes a documentary on the siblings and Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli) who saves David and Sheila’s grandmother from a fire. As their Grandmother, Danusia Trevino speaks the entire role in Polish and references the mystical elements of David and Sheila’s “back to nature” movement as an inherent part of their ancestry. Others include Norm (Ray Anthony Thomas) a gay man cruising in the park, and importantly, Saul (Max Gordon Moore) a rabbi who believes in the miracle of their transformation by God and eventually marries Sheila and has Ezra (Xander Fenyes) with her. Lastly are friend Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto) and Sheryl (Marcia Debonis) a member of the Rabbi’s former congregation, whose heartfelt description of her Dad quickens Sheila in remembrance of her father.

The interesting villain who actually joins the community of friends begins as Vendor (Sam Breslin Wright). He hawks chips, pretzels and water to park visitors. As Wright’s Vendor ingratiates himself to the community eventually, he presents plans which would protect their human/tree status. Ironically, as quickly as they morphed into trees, he becomes the developer whose thrust is to build a mall in the park that will house David and Sheila. When the community that initially accepted the Vendor’s plans come to the final decision about the mall, there is another magnificent change. Sheila, David and their community decide that they don’t want a mall in the park. They want the park to remain undeveloped.

In a superb rant decrying how their decision is disloyal and has caused him time and money (he has been giving them checks for their support) Wright’s Vendor expertly magnifies all the hope and despair of progress and the destruction of land and environment for a questionable result.

Gordon Moore, Crystal Dickinson in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
Max Gordon Moore, Crystal Dickinson in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

The community and specifically David and Sheila have lost his friendship which Sheila is sanguine about, a reflection of her nature. She has been flexible about all that life and the situation has thrown at them. When David questions what will happen, Borinsky’s main theme comes to the fore. Love and community have been sustained by their transformation into trees, as they have provided an ecosystem that gives and receives, is nurtured and has nurtured. David counters that a mall will destroy what they’ve built with love. However, Sheila reminds him that nothing is certain. Truly, when they unwittingly began their fantastical adventure, goodness and love abounded from it because they accepted it instead of calling up woodcutters to chop off their legs.

Though at times the play appears illogical, the characterizations as uneven as some of them are give the play a quirky and exotic rhythm. In appearing to go “nowhere” the playwright takes her characters to an open ended conclusion which emphasizes love, community and the inability to know much of anything in the vast future which can turn on a dime overnight. Sometimes, even when malls are being scheduled to be built, they never materialize. And that’s a good thing, especially if the love of the surrounding community has petitioned their demise.

Kudos to the creative team which includes Parker Lutz (scenic design) Enver Chakartash (costume design) Thomas Dunn (lighting design) Tei Blow (sound design) Amanda Villalobos (puppet designer) and Nazareth Hassan (original music). The Trees runs until March 19th. For tickets go to their website

‘A Bright New Boise’ by Samuel D. Hunter, Sardonic, Devastating and Profound, a Review

Eva Kaminsky, Peter Mark Kendall in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Eva Kaminsky, Peter Mark Kendall in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In A Bright New Boise, Samuel D. Hunter’s sardonic, dark play about events that take take place in a Hobby Lobby break room, the award-winning playwright (A Bright New Boise, The Whale) acquaints us with characters that may be more alien to our cultural beliefs and economic well being than individuals we might converse with in another country. Acutely directed by Oliver Butler and currently running in its Off Broadway Premiere at the Signature Theatre until March 12th, Hunter and Butler reveal a sometimes funny but mostly tragic, portrait, and a cross-section of another America reflected in the 90 minute play’s characterizations, plot and themes.

Hunter opens the play with protagonist Will (the superb Peter Mark Kendall) who, facing the audience, stands at the side of the road, eyes closed, concentrating. Then, he says one word as if to call into existence, time and place, “something.” Four times he says, “Now.” By the play’s conclusion, we understand his cryptic pronouncement which produces only a vast emptiness and “never works.”

eter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Peter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In the second scene we meet the feisty, hyper-organized, store manager Pauline, portrayed by the excellent and humorously volatile Eva Kaminsky. Pauline interviews Will for a sales position in the break room at Hobby Lobby, Boise which in 2010 (the setting) is owned by an Evangelical CEO who runs the company as a Christian organization. During the interview Pauline makes Hobby Lobby’s conservatism clear when she reminds Will, “no unions,” explaining that a Hobby Lobby in Kansas was shut down when employees tried to unionize. The economy is struggling, there is little opportunity for those without a college education and the big box stores like Hobby Lobby are the expansive grand employers of the moment. Thus, the minimum wage that Will readily accepts (under $8.00 an hour) is the best for his circumstances and is an offer he dare not refuse for a reason more important than financial. This, we learn with the introduction of another character in the break room, taciturn teenager Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio).

Will’s apparent emotional dislocation is made clear in Kendall’s superb performance. From his evasive and contradictory responses to Pauline’s questions, we understand he needs money and appears to be in unusual life circumstances because he is unable to give her a reference or emergency contact. However, he is hired so that Pauline can continue to run her “tight ship.” He begins to socially settle in by striking up a conversation about music with Alex who is taking his break and wishes not to be disturbed.

(L to R): Angus O'Brien, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Peter Mark Kendall in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Angus O’Brien, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Peter Mark Kendall in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Hunter immediately establishes Will’s additional intentions and enjoins the main conceit of the play, “abandonment” and “loss,” setting in motion the conflicts with a shocking surprise. Spoiler Alert: Will announces he is Alex’s father and he proclaims that Alex was named after him so his real name is also Will. Fortunately, Pauline returns and interrupts Will’s announcement. Simultaneously, the TV whose satellite glitches vie between graphic surgeries and monotonous conversations between two Hobby Lobby male employees, snaps back to the Hobby Lobby’s conversational monotony about how to sell products. And a disturbed Alex walks out as Pauline tries to make a joke most Americans would understand, if they have been culturally plugged in for the last two decades.

However, Will doesn’t get the joke or the celebrity associated with it, and even if he did, Kendall’s Will appears overwhelmed about introducing himself to his son. He could care less about Pauline’s attempt to make him feel comfortable and appears lost in his thoughts about how he will negotiate and respond to the brutal questions from Alex that are sure to come.

(L to R): Eva Kaminsky, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Peter Mark Kendall in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Eva Kaminsky, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Peter Mark Kendall in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Will’s deadened reaction is another clue that ties in to Hunter’s characterization of a hapless, unsound father, whose adopted son he has desperately sought out by getting a job at a Hobby Lobby, instead of using another means to contact him that is less traumatizing. From this first turning point of many, the revelations between and among characters spin out as surprises continue in a grotesque emotional and psychological maze that Alex, Leroy, Alex’s brother (Angus O’Brien) and employee Anna (Anna Baryshnikov) inhabit in the coldly remote, depersonalized break room of the Boise, Idaho Hobby Lobby. The sterile, severely lit space is perfectly ironic as a symbolic setting where they attempt to go to relieve the stress of their job, but end up frantically confronting a hellish swamp filled with regrets from their past. The result exacerbates the demeaned alienation of each of the characters who have lost their way and whose religion is unable to help and in fact makes things worse.

By degrees we learn the backstory of Alex and Will. Instead of clarifying toward comfort in a way to salve emotional hurts, by degrees Alex with stress and strain in his questions puts together the puzzle why Will has come to establish a relationship with him. Eventually, after Will reveals the truth of where he lives, the joy his church gave him and the events which transpired there, Alex appears to forgive him and defend him to his brother Leroy who fears Will has another motive for wanting to see Alex. In a secondary plot to enhance the characterizations, Anna and Will stumble upon each other in a darkened break room after hours, which seems even more sinister (the TV is still on vying between blood and guts and boring Hobby Lobby guys).

Peter Mark Kendall, Anna Baryshnikov in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Peter Mark Kendall, Anna Baryshnikov in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Anna sneaks her way in beyond closing hours by hiding in various sections of the huge store unnoticed. We learn she does this to avoid her father and brother’s criticism of her always reading and we get the sense that she is a misfit without a medium to feel comfortable in until she has a few conversations with Will whom she likes. Will is homeless; we eventually learn why and what happened to him. Furthermore, he is afraid to sleep in his car.

(L to R): Angus O'Brien, Eva Kaminsky, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Peter Mark Kendall, Anna Baryshnikov in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Angus O’Brien, Eva Kaminsky, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Peter Mark Kendall, Anna Baryshnikov in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Their conversation gives occasion for Will to read parts of his Evangelical “End Times” blog to her, which he intends to make into a novel. Anna is taken up with the notion she has met a writer whose work she likes and she encourages him. It is then we understand the extent of his beliefs and his hope of being taken up in the Rapture (often used as a fund raising tactic by Evangelical Mega Churches) away from the wicked hell that has been perpetrated in the culture and on the earth by sinners who must be saved or perish in damnation. We also understand that he feels he has a purpose in converting people before it’s too late. He tells Alex he has to believe in God because the alternative is terrible. He would have to look at himself as an utter failure as a father, whose triumph is working in Hobby Lobby, while he lives in his car. Will tells Alex, “There are greater things in life. There have to be.”

Will gradually works his way into Alex’s world by asking to hear the song Alex wrote with his friend. He praises some of Alex’s poetry. However, Leroy is incensed about Will after he reads articles about Will’s former church and especially after Alex appears to favor Will over his adoptive family and tells Leroy he is changing his life plans. Leroy lashes out in revenge against Will after Pauline affirmed that it doesn’t matter what people’s personal beliefs are, as long as they are on time and do their jobs. However, Leroy involves Hobby Lobby in his revenge, making it impossible for Will to work there. Leroy and Will’s conflict has broken Pauline’s rule to maintain order as the status quo. After working for four years to make the store profitable and organized, she will not allow their conflict to drag it into the chaos that Will has brought with his presence. (Eva Kaminsky’s affirmation speech about Pauline’s taking the store to profitability earlier in the play is corporately magisterial and humorous.) Thus, Will, the last to be hired will be the first to be fired, aside from the fact that Alex and Leroy’s talents make them indispensable.

(L to R): Peter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Peter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

How events further evolve are both surprising and expected. However, when Leroy confronts Will about Alex, the result is uncertain and unpredictable. Hunter’s writing is freshly wrought and organic. The characters are well-crafted and their motley and unique differences meld well with each other for maximum tension, which abides throughout. By the conclusion Hunter ties Will’s injunction to God, “Now,” and explores another reason why Will seeks out Alex for comfort in a relationship that is not destined to grow closer or even continue unless Will makes a decision to change.

The play is wonderful on many levels. Hunter allows us to get under Will’s skin and into his soul which is both horrifying and sadly authentically truthful if one has been around certain Evangelical sects for more than a few days. Importantly, though we might not be able to put ourselves in Will’s shoes, Kendall portrays Will with empathy and pathos thanks to Butler’s incisive direction. Thus, we can understand his emotional guilt and torment and his desire to be a better person, the point of his religious journey, which becomes sidelined. The relationships Hunter establishes are woven with heightened drama. Alex feels a misfit and is emotionally traumatized by Will moving on a roller coaster of emotions through to the play’s conclusion. That Will doesn’t consider another way to get in touch with Alex speaks to his inner turmoil and disregard for Alex’s feelings and response. However, Will’s need to see Alex is urgent and has to do with the “Now” that is the final puzzle piece that unfolds in the flashback at the very end.

(L to R): Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Angus O'Brien, Eva Kaminsky, Peter Mark Kendall, Anna Baryshnikov in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Angus O’Brien, Eva Kaminsky, Peter Mark Kendall, Anna Baryshnikov in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The terrific and terrifying set design by Wilson Chin and jarring fluorescent lighting and vibrant neon lighting in the road scenes by Jen Schriever are evocative and symbolic. That the appliances (i.e. microwave, VCR, etc.) barely function and little attention is given to popping up the color to make a unique, interesting or warm environment speaks volumes about Hobby Lobby, the employees and Pauline who is the epitome of the loyal, harried worker bee manager. The break room set, props and lighting reference the respect that the corporate officials have for their employees in a nullifying environment that is neither challenging, purposeful or life affirming. Hunter conveys the sense of Big Brother when Eva explains to Will as a blind, deaf and dumb team player that it’s a “pretty great company” that knows how to run a business, because everything is “hooked up to the corporate office.” Then, she cheerfully states, “We can’t even turn the air conditioning on without calling Oklahoma.”

The Hobby Lobby envisioned by the director and playwright and what fuels it, also reflects the nature of the commercial culture that creates consumer robots whose function least of all is a purposefully human one. That Will, Alex and Leroy refer to a job there as something loathsome by which to define oneself is further irony because the store is incredibly profitable, if money is its Christian measure of success as the prosperity gospel likes to portray. That Will has accepted religious rhetoric as his mantle and believes the world needs to be destroyed becomes particularly sardonic considering Hobby Lobby’s function and value system as a Christian organization with tenets about love, forgiveness and acceptance.

R): Peter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio in 'A Bright New Boise' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Peter Mark Kendall, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio in A Bright New Boise (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Another of the themes of the play is manifest in the characterization of these conservative Christians who are devout, yet are incapable of applying the tenets of the religion to their lives to achieve peace and fulfillment. Along with the themes of abandonment, isolation, and purposelessness that nullifies comes the important irony that Hunter relates at a time (2010) before the religious political movement grew into what it is today in 2023 in the culture wars, book bannings and civil rights curtailments. The hypocrisy, spiritual unhappiness and emptiness tied to a culture that is broken and breaks those who live in it to seek other ways to escape (through the belief of the Rapture) Hunter’s ironic play underscores. The play was humorously prescient then, more frightening now. A Bright New Boise is an ironic expose of the worst of Christian sects’ hold on the minds of those like Will and others.

Kudos to the creative team not mentioned before which include April M. Hickman (costume design) Christopher Darbassie (sound design) Stefania Bulbarella (projection and video design). This is one to see especially for the ensemble work, the fine performances and direction that teased out the actors’ efforts to be spot-on authentic. The creatives did a smashing job to fulfill the director’s vision of A Bright New Boise. For tickets go to their website.

‘The Seagull/Woodstock, NY’ Review

Posey, Daniel Oreskes, David Cale in 'The Seagull/Woodstock, NY' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
(L to R): Ato Essandoh, Parker Posey, Daniel Oreskes, David Cale in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is a favorite that receives productions and has been made into films, an opera and ballet performed all over the world. Some productions (with Ian McKellen at BAM in 2007) have been absolutely brilliant. What’s not to love about Chekhov with his dynamic and ironic character interactions, sardonic humor, enthralling conflicts that unspool gradually, then conclude with an ending that explodes and carries with it devastation and heartbreak. These elements cemented in Chekhov’s work since its initial production in 1896 represent what Chekhov himself described as a comedy.

ari Nef, Patrick Foley in 'The Seagull/Woodstock, NY' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Hari Nef, Patrick Foley in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Thomas Bradshaw, an obvious lover of Chekov’s The Seagull, has updated and adapted Chekhov’s work in the world premiere The Seagull/Woodstock, NY presented by The New Group. The playwright, who has previously worked with director Scott Elliott (Intimacy, Burning) has configured the characterizations, entertainment industry tropes, humor and setting in the hope of capturing Chekhov’s timelessness to more acutely evoke our time with trenchant dark ironies that are laughable. As he slants the humor and pops up the sexuality, which Chekhov largely kept on a subterranean level, Bradshaw has added another dimension to view the themes of one of Chekhov’s finest plays. Directed by Scott Elliott with a cast that boasts Parker Posey, Hari Nef, David Cale, Nat Wolff, Aleyse Shannon and Ato Essandoh as the principal cast, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, at the Pershing Square Signature Theater has been extended to April 9th.

(L to R): Parker Posey, Nat Wolff, Daniel Oreskes in 'The Seagull/Woodstock, NY' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
(L to R): Parker Posey, Nat Wolff, Daniel Oreskes in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

The play’s action takes place in a bucolic area in the Hudson Valley. Woodstock is the convenient “home away from home” of celebrities who live, work and fly between Los Angeles and Manhattan, and who feel they need to take a break between jobs, or just take a break from the stress of performance and helter skelter pressures and BS of the industry. The house where they retreat to is peopled by the family, caretakers, guests and a neighbor. The individuals are based on Chekhov’s characters, brother Soron, sister, actress Arkadina and son Constantine, who Bradshaw has renamed Samuel (David Cale) Irene (Parker Posey) and Kevin (Nat Wolff). Chekhov’s Trigoren, Arkadina’s lover, Bradshaw renames William, who is portrayed by Ato Essandoh. Nina, whose Chekhov name Bradshaw keeps is portrayed by Aleyse Shannon. Chekhov’s Masha becomes Bradshaw’s Sasha (Hari Nef).

In his update Bradshaw streamlines some of Chekhov’s dialogue and upturns the emphasis of conversation into the trivial without Chekhov’s character elucidation, as he spins these individuals into his own vision. The cuts truncate the depth of the characters, making them more shallow without resonance or humanity with which we might identify on a deeper level. However, that is Bradshaw’s point in relaying who they are and how they are a product of the noxious culture and the times we live in, unable to escape or rectify their being.

(Ato Essandoh, Aleyse Shannon in 'The Seagull/Woodstock, NY' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
(Ato Essandoh, Aleyse Shannon in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

For example the initial opening conversation between Samuel (David Cale) and Kevin (Nat Wolff) loses the feeling of the protective bond between uncle and nephew scored with nuance and fine notes in Chekhov’s Seagull. Additionally, in their discussion of actress Irene, Kevin’s criticism of his mother emphasizes her faults and superficiality. In the Chekhovian version, the son expresses his feelings of inferiority in the company of the artists at his mother’s gatherings. Because of the son’s admissions we immediately understand his inner weakness and hopelessness, feelings which set up the rationale for his devastation of Nina’s abandonment and his suicide attempts later in the play.

Chekhov’s characterization of the actress and mother is tremendously subtle and cleverly humorous. Bradshaw’s iteration of the celebrity actress, her lover, the ingenue Nina and Irene’s brother become lost in the eager translation into comedy without the emotional grist and grief which fuels the humorous ironies of human frailty. Again, as we watch Bradshaw’s points about these individuals which reflect our modern selves, we laugh not with them ruefully, but at them for their obnoxiousness and blind hypocrisy.

David Cale, Parker Posey in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
David Cale, Parker Posey in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Such points appear to be inconsequential and minor, however, the overall impact of Bradshaw’s characterizations makes them appear to be stereotypes of artificiality rather than individuals who are believably sensitive, vulnerable and hypocritical so that we care about them, yet find humor in their bleakness. Irene adds up to a figure of sometime cartoonish arrogance and pomposity without the sagacity and nobility of Chekhov’s Arkadina, who nevertheless is intentionally “oblivious” to herself out of desperation, hiding behind her facade, which on another level reveals a tragic individual. The same may be said for the characters of William and Nina who deliver the forward momentum of the work in their relationship that symbolically and sexually culminates in a bathtub on the stage where Nina previously masturbated as a key element of Kevin’s play. Their characters remain artificial and shallow, and the play’s conclusion and Nina’s collapse follows flatly without the drama and moment so ironically spun out in Chekhov’s Seagull.

(L to R): Daniel Oreskes, Ato Essandoh, Parker Posey, Amy Stiller, Hari Nef in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
(L to R): Daniel Oreskes, Ato Essandoh, Parker Posey, Amy Stiller, Hari Nef in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Indeed, the meaning of Bradshaw’s work is clear. There has been a diminution of artistic greatness and sensibility, moment and nobility in our cultural ethos, which makes these players as inconsequential and LOL as he has drawn them. They are caricatures who wallow in artificiality and purposelessness, not of their own making. They have been caught up in the tide of the times and the vapid culture they seek to be celebrated in. That some of the actors push for laughs which don’t appear to come from organic, moment-to-moment portrayals makes complete sense. Theirs is a high-wire act and anything is up for grabs. Whatever laughter can be teased out, must be attempted. That is who these people are in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY.

Though the actors (especially Posey who portrays Irene with the similitude of other pompous, self-satisfied characters we’ve come to associate her with) attempt to get past the linearity of Bradshaw’s update, they sometimes become stuck, hampered by the staging, the playing area and direction whose action perhaps might have alternated between stage left and stage right (the audience is on three sides). Most of the action and conversation (facing the upstage curtain where Kevin puts on his play in the first act) takes place stage right. Since the set is minimalist and stylized with rugs, chairs and other props forming the indoor and outdoor spaces, the stage design might have been more fluid so that the various conversations were centralized. Unfortunately, some of the dialogue became swallowed up and the actors didn’t project to accommodate for the staging.

(L to R): Ato Essandoh, Nat Wolff in 'The Seagull/Woodstock, NY' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
(L to R): Ato Essandoh, Nat Wolff in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Only Nat Wolff’s portrayal of Kevin rang the most real and authentic. However, this is in keeping with the overall conceit that the playwright and director are conveying. Wolff doesn’t push for laughs and his portrayal of Kevin’s intentions are spot on. As a contrast with the other characters, he is a standout and again, this appears to be Bradshaw’s laden message. Kevin is driven to suicide by the situation, his mother, William’s remote selfishness and Nina’s devastation which she has brought upon herself. He is happier to be away from them. And perhaps Irene will be relieved, after all is said and done, that he has finally succeeded to end his misery. As Bradshaw has drawn her and as the director and Posey have characterized her, Irene has an incredible penchant for obliviousness.

Nat Wolff, Aleyse Shannon in 'The Seagull/Woodstock, NY' (courtesy of Monique Carboni)
Nat Wolff, Aleyse Shannon in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

At times the production is uneven and the tone is muddled. At its worst The Seagull/Woodstock, NY is a send up of Chekhov’s The Seagull that doesn’t quite make it. At its finest Bradshaw, Elliott and the ensemble reveal the times we live in are destroying us as we attempt to escape but can find no release nor sanctuary from out own artificiality and meaninglessness, as particularly evidenced in the characters of Irene, William and Nina. Only Kevin appears to have true intentions for his art but is stymied by the crassness of those considered to be exceptional but are mediocre. As in all great artistic achievement, only time is the arbiter of true genius. Perhaps Kevin’s time for recognition will come long after Nina, Irene and William are dead.

The creative team for The Seagull/Woodstock, NY includes Derek McLane (scenic design) Qween Jean (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design) UnkleDave’s Fight-House (fight and intimacy director). For tickets and times go to the website

‘The Wanderers,’ Complex, Stylized, Engrossing Theater

Lucy Freyer, Dave Klasko in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Lucy Freyer, Dave Klasko in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Alternating seemingly disparate lives, two couples actually reveal a similar arc of development, from marriage to divorce in Ann Ziegler’s humorous, cleverly crafted The Wanderers, an exploration of how individuals create their own deceptions, live by them then shatter them, experiencing a fragmentation of self from which they never recover. Acutely directed by Barry Edelstein, and currently enjoying its New York City premiere at Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Ziegler’s play runs for 95 minutes with no intermission. Because of its popularity, it has been extended until 2nd April.

Anna Ziedler employs artifice of time and place to gradually promote the revelation of lives lived in quiet desperation and loss, unrealized until trigger moments of clarity occur. Ziegler’s play is ambitious. In it she presents complex, interwoven stories of culture clashes, identities in crises, and the search for happiness when its dream is an illusion created by self-deceptions. She accomplishes this storytelling of two interrelated couples allowing the audience to merge the pieces of the puzzle by the conclusion of this wonderful and gutsy play.

Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Ziegler introduces us to the central character Sophie (Sarah Cooper) who makes her announcement in present time, circa 2017, that she is divorcing her husband Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas), whom she has known since she was a teenager. From this point on the play unfolds as a series of flashbacks of the two couples’ conversations. These occur in eight thematic scenes as pointed revelations in sequence, beginning with Abe’s parents Esther (Lucy Freyer) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko). Their conversations Ziegler carefully sculpts to contrast and abut Sophie’s and Abe’s interactions. To comprehend how the characters and their discussions are related, Ziegler keeps us focused on every word of dialogue, some of which is poetic and lovely. In other segments the dialogue is profound and richly thematic about identity, personal yearnings and self-revelation, especially in the scenes between Abe and Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes).

After Sophie introduces the profound metric of separation and divorce in her long marriage with Abe, Ziegler switches to another marriage which appears unrelated but is not. Esther and Schumuli (spoiler alert-Ziegler gradually reveals them to be Abe’s parents), are Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect. When we meet them, their arranged marriage has just been performed. In a sweet, intimate repartee, they discuss how to begin the consummation of their union. Clearly, Schmuli is the naive one and Esther is forthright, adventurous and maverick, having read books on sex which Schmuli has not. The passive, accepting, dutiful wife Esther doesn’t appear to be in this brief interchange. It is Schmuli who is gentle, hesitant and sweetly anticipating something which he is clueless about.

With just a few defining details, the characterizations of Esther and Schmuli, incisively, sensitively portrayed by Freyer and Klasko, have been set by Ziegler. By the end of the threads of their interactions, which move for nine years through chronologically ordered vignettes that alternate in a revelatory puzzle with Sophie’s and Abe’s interactions, we discover just how rebellious Esther is. Not content with being a house frau with little of her own autonomy and authority to establish a career for herself, we learn that events push her to disavow her identify as a woman who must bow to the paternalistic culture fostered upon women of their sect. After she visits a friend in Albany (spoiler alert-her friend is Sophie’s mom), Esther learns that she can control her own body with birth control pills. After the momentous, life-changing birth of their son Abe, who Esther names “Abe” with great authority, contravening religious ritual, she tells Schmuli she wants no more children.

Eddie Kaye Thomas, Katie Holmes in 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Eddie Kaye Thomas, Katie Holmes in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

That Esther is forging out a life beyond the boundaries of their sect and her marriage only is strengthened when her father-in-law prevents her from seeing her daughters. He takes them to live in a household where she will not influence them against their religion. Schumli opposes her taking the pill and “slips” telling his father what Esther told him. It is a severe violation of the sect, whose intentions are to “increase and multiply.” Rather than to subject baby Abe to a life of religious bondage composed of ritual after ritual and still unable to see her daughters, Esther moves out of the neighborhood to raise her son Abe by herself. It is the equivalent of a divorce, though nothing occurs officially. Esther leaves convinced that the “grass is greener,” and she will live a much more fulfilled life out from under the paternalistic oppression of a religion and sect she disagrees with.

Esther and Schumuli’s crises points are revealed in Ziegler’s beautifully crafted dialogue. However, we don’t understand the final revelations and the profound impact of Esther and Schumuli’s crises on Abe and Sophie until the conclusion. That the play gyrates back and forth between the two couples, who mesmerize us to keep track of the details, is part of the enjoyment in solving the mystery which eventually crystallizes. And like the mysteries of lives explored, Ziegler throws in twists and curves, and with artifice, masks them over to create the surprises that happen.

Ziegler uses a conceit to manifest and uncover the hidden elements in the marriage of Sophie and Abe that dovetail with elements of Abe’s parent’s arranged marriage. In both marriages there are external and internal prison bars that keep the individuals from achieving happiness, fulfillment and peace individually and as couples. The conceit comes in the form of celebrity Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes), the character Ziegler uses to manifest the truths that both Sophie and Abe are avoiding in their marriage, their relationship with each other and with themselves.

Abe, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and success in his field, attends a reading where beautiful, luminous, entertainment star Julie Cheever is present. When Holmes’ Cheever replies to his email, they strike up an intimate and heartfelt conversation and Abe becomes so engrossed with writing to her, Sophie notices that he neglects his own children and their relationship.

Katie Holmes,  Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Katie Holmes, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Abe’s and Julia’s email conversations are acted out live by Eddie Kaye Thomas and Katie Holmes. Both actors are excellent and spot-on authentic. The emails are enlivened so that it is as if Julia Cheever is present with Abe, who is over the moon that someone of her celebrity, beauty and intelligence is complimenting him about his work, and inspiring him to discuss his parents and his upbringing. Indeed, Ziegler’s construct supplements Abe’s discussions with Sophie. What is revealed melds and substantiates the revelatory conversations of Esther and Schmuli, though these happened long before Abe was born. Because only Esther raised him, Abe never had an understanding of his father, nor the religion that would have given him power as a man. Raised outside of it without a father role model, he is lost. Though Esther encouraged his love of words and his wonderful success as a writer, as did Sophie, there are gaps in his soul, and his life’s vision is myopic.

As Julia’s and Abe’s online relationship strengthens, eventually Abe wishes to meet her. However, this is not to be. After his father dies, his discussions with Cheever eventually lead to a revelation that is devastating for both Abe and Sophie.

Ziegler’s thematically structured scenes featuring the couples, first appearing disparate, are eventually conjoined. However, unless you read the script, think about the play at length or see it a few times, it is easy to miss the importance of what is happening as a precursor to Schmuli’s death, or understand why Abe decides to re-write and fictionalize how his father died to make his death more beautiful and moving.

Katie Holmes, Eddie Kaye Thomas in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of 'The Wanderers' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Katie Holmes, Eddie Kaye Thomas in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Zielgler’s play is fluid and slips in and out of present and past ,which appear to be concurrent, though they are not. The artifice evokes aspects of consciousness and spirituality that are opaque. Because of the conceit that Ziegler has chosen to use as a vehicle to uncover the mysterious elements of her characters and their lives, the scenes suggest linearity, but for the sake of mystery, they are profound and labyrinthine. Like all flashbacks, the scenes occur as a result of memory. Clearly, the characters nuance the events.

Well acted, the director has finely shepherded this as an ensemble piece, though only the married couples interact with each other. Yet, we feel we know them, know their agony and brilliance which surprise us in their final revelations.

Kudos to Marion Williams for the stylized spare set whose backdrop is populated by pages of books which encompass the great expanse of reading that the characters have accomplished in their lives. A table and some chairs are used to evoke a bedroom and other spaces. And of course there are piles of actual books, almost an anachronism in a digital age. Kudos to other creatives who completed the director’s vision for Ziegler’s play. These include David Israel Reynoso (costume design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), Jane Shaw (original music & sound design), and Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design).

The Wanderers is thought-provoking, symbolic and most strongly felt when the superb actors are authentic and in the moment, inhabiting the characters and making them alive. This play has proven itself a must-see by audience word of mouth, for it has garnered an extension. To purchase tickets go to their website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deftly, Quinn relates some of these to our assumptions about free speech and voicing what we think to political leaders, celebrities and those with power. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates made this ultimately possible and we have run away with the opportunity “mouthing off” online anonymously with impunity. Imagine a peasant (which we are in the classist sense) “mouthing off” to a King! It would never have been tolerated. We live in a time of incredible privilege with our rights, though we are delinquent on responsibilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets and times go to the website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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