Category Archives: Off Broadway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See it before it closes. For tickets and times go to their website:

‘Not About Me’ Coming to Theater for the New City

Theater for the New City,
with the Support of Suite 524,


the World Premiere of NOT ABOUT ME

Not About Me is written & directed by Eduardo Machado (Havana is Waiting, “Hung,” “Magic City”)


The Limited Off-Broadway Engagement Begins Friday, January 13th

Theater for the New City (Crystal Field, Executive Artistic Director), the Pulitzer Prize winning community cultural center that produces over thirty premieres of new American plays each year, is pleased to announce the world premiere of Not About Me, written and directed by acclaimed playwright Eduardo Machado.

Not About Me will begin previews Friday, January 13th with Opening Night set for Wednesday, January 18th (8pm), at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets). This limited Off-Broadway engagement will continue through Sunday, February 5th only. 

The cast features Mateo d’Amato, Michael Domitrovich, Crystal Field, Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Charles Manning, Drew Valins, and Heather Velazquez.

The creative team for Not About Me includes Mark Marcante (scenic design), Sean Ryan (production design), Alex Bartenieff (lighting design), Kelsey Charter (costume design), Bird Rogers (projection design), Emily Irvine (puppet designer/maker), and David Margolin Lawson (sound design). Not About Me will feature original music by Michael Domitrovich.

Not About Me is a memory play that takes audiences on a haunting journey through the mind of a playwright during COVID-19 lock downs. Long buried memories of friends lost to a mysterious “gay” disease come crashing into the present, and he is compelled to examine his artistic and political life in the theater. This play is a bittersweet reflection on how tragedy can unearth pain and laughter and bring back to life the treasures buried in the past.

“During the first summer of the lock down one of my best and dearest friends died of COVID. For the next three years all I could think about was all my friends that died of AIDS when I was in my twenties. COVID-19 brought the end of a certain way of life, as did AIDS in the 1980s. What had been a time of freedom and joy, a time when anything could happen, came crashing to a close, as our own sexuality became our illness. Queer people of a certain age know what this is like. Now, in 2022, the whole world has gotten a taste. We must speak out so the world can change to something better once again,” said Machado.

Eduardo Machado was born in Cuba and came to the United States when he was eight and grew up in Los Angeles. He is the author of over fifty plays, including The Floating Island Plays, Once Removed, Stevie Wants To Play The Blues, A Burning Beach, Havana Is Waiting, The Cook, Mariquitas, Worship, and Celia & Fidel. They have been produced at many major regional theaters, as well as in Europe, South America and Off-Broadway including, among others, The Actors Theater of Louisville, Mark Taper Forum, Seattle Rep, Goodman Theatre, Hartford Stage, Theatre for the New City, Long Wharf Theater, Williamstown Theater Festival, Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Cherry Lane Theater, INTAR, Ensemble Studio Theatre, American Place Theater, and Hampstead Theatre in London.

Mr. Machado’s television credits include Executive Story Editor on Season 2 of the drama “Magic City” (Starz) and two seasons on the HBO’s “Hung.” He has written pilots for Starz, Amazon, and AMC. He wrote and directed the film Exiles in New York, which played at the A.F.I Film Festival, South by Southwest, Santa Barbara Film Festival and Latin American International Film Festival in Havana, Cuba. He has directed numerous plays, including his own works and those of emerging writers. As a director his work has appeared in numerous regional theaters including INTAR, Theater for a New City, EST, Mark Taper Forum, Culture Project, Playwrights Collective, The Company Theater, Cherry Lane Alternative, Flea Theater, Group Theater and the Inner City Cultural Center.

Mr. Machado has taught playwriting at Columbia University (Head of Playwriting 1997 to 2007), NYU Tisch (Head of Playwriting 2007 to 2018), and HB studios since 2020. He also taught at the Public Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Sarah Lawrence College and the Playwrights Center. He has served as an Artistic Associate at The Public, the Flea Theatre/Bat Theatre Company, and The Cherry Lane Alternative. He was playwright-in-residence at The Mark Taper Forum. From 2004 to 2010 he was the Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s INTAR Theatre.

He is the recipient of the Raúl Juliá HOLA Founders Award and the Berrilla Kerr Grant for contribution to American Theater. Other grants and awards include: AT&T: Onstage Grant; National Endowment for the Arts and Theater Communications Group Playwrights In Residence Fellowship at Theater For the New City; Bernice and Barry Stavis Playwright Award from the National Theatre Conference; two Dramalogue Awards, Best Play; three LA Weekly Awards; Theater Communications Group and Pew Charitable Trusts National Theater Artists Residency Playwright In Residence, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, CA; Viva Los Artistas Award from the city of Los Angeles; Ford Foundation Grant; Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Award; three National Endowment For the Arts Playwriting Grants; and National Endowment for the Humanities Youth Grant.

He is a member of the Actors Studio, Ensemble Studio Theater, and an alumnus of New Dramatists. He has served on the boards of TCG, New Dramatists and Theater for the New City.

Two collections of Mr. Machado’s work, The Floating Island Plays and Havana is Waiting and Other Plays, are published by the Theatre Communications Group. His plays are also published by Samuel French. Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home, a food memoir by Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich, was released by Gotham Press.

Not About Me will be presented at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets) from January 13th through February 5th. Performances will be Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees Sundays at 3pm. Opening night is set for January 18th. Tickets are $18, student tickets $10 and may be purchased by calling 212-254-1109 or online at

‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ a Dark, Comedic Must-See at Lincoln Center

Deirdre O'Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
Deirdre O’Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

In Becky Nurse of Salem, Deirdre O’Connell (Tony, Obie, Outer Critics Circle award-winner for Dana H) is luminous. O’Connell portrays Becky Nurse, descendant of Rebecca Nurse who was convicted and hanged as a witch during the Salem witch trials. The actor, incisively shepherded by director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) does a yeowoman’s job in a role that flies high in humor and crashes into tragedy and remorse at the two-act play’s heart-felt and satisfying conclusion.

Written by Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage) the play artfully rides on a meme printed on protest signs during the global Women’s March of 2017, a march which took place the day after former President Donald Trump’s sparsely attended Inaugural celebration. Some of the signs read: “We are the Great, Great, Great Granddaughters of the Witches You Were Not Able to Burn.” Selecting the concept that women have transported themselves from that time to this and achieved prodigious exploits, then have been regressed by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the Republican penchant for misogyny and repression of women’s rights, Ruhl’s play speaks to many issues with currency, vitality and humor.

Running at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, the sardonic comedy investigates how the descendant of Rebecca Nurse has dealt with her haphazard life in Salem, Massachusetts, where she gives tours in the the Museum of Witchcraft, riding the coattails of her famous ancestor’s “cursed” reputation. On another level, Ruhl reveals that women still abandon each other and are abandoned by a culture surreptitiously steeped in patriarchal folkways, that suppress and stifle their growth professionally and individually. That rejection and judgment sets them up to pursue other ways to achieve what they want, some of them illegal and many of them ineffectual, causing them to plunge into a downward spiral, wasting their talents and intelligence.

(L to R): Julian Sanchez, Candy Buckley, Deirdre O'Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
(L to R): Julian Sanchez, Candy Buckley, Deirdre O’Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

Ruhl’s humor, under the clever direction of Taichman, develops into full blown belly laughs as Becky attempts to negotiate the ruins of her angst-ridden life, after telling off her new museum boss Shelby (Tina Benko). Her boss censures her for saying inappropriate epithets and getting carried away with what Shelby believes to be misinformation about “Gallow’s Hill.” Becky swears that the real place where Rebecca Nurse and the other women were hanged is on the spot of the second Dunkin’ Doughnuts farther away from the center of Salem. Shelby calls her down for spreading falsehoods, though clearly, as a non resident, she doesn’t have Becky’s information on the background of Salem.

Becky is the type of individual to be spunky, individualistic, strongly autonomous and not easily given to “obeying” someone she determines to be an inferior, despite her credentials. Though Becky apologizes, this isn’t enough for the arrogant Shelby who summarily fires her without hearing her pleas. It fits in with the plans for having the museum turn a profit without the overhead of salaries. Over ego and presumption, the competitive Shelby upends Becky’s financial security. The job has allowed Becky to support herself, pay her granddaughter Gail’s medical bills and generally get to the next day caring for herself and Gail. Shelby’s cruel firing leaves her with no recourse except to find another job in an area that has seen record unemployment. When Becky is cut out of the only job in town she is qualified for, Stan, who got the job, gives her the card of someone who can help her. She is a a witch.

Becky seeks the only safe place left open to her away from her own backward movement and regression. She goes to Stan’s recommended witch (the hysterical Candy Buckley whose twanging Boston accent is milked for well-placed laughs). Additionally, she also throws herself on the mercy of Bob (Bernard White), a high school sweetheart, now married, who owns a bar. She asks Bob for cash to pay the high-priced witch to end the Rebecca Nurse curse, and other expenses as the play unfolds with conflict upon conflict. Becky must reconcile her worsening problems or end up totally succumbing to the curse of her ancestor which appears to be directing her life toward complete failure and destitution.

(L to R): Deirdre O'Connell, Alicia Crowder in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
(L to R): Deirdre O’Connell, Alicia Crowder in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

Buckley’s Witch and O’Connell’s Becky make nefariously funny bosom buddies in changing the trajectory of Becky’s life since she can’t count on the culture to help her. Ruhl’s themes about women having to come up with ingenious ways to support themselves is clear in Becky’s reliance on witchcraft. The clever, randy spells that the Witch concocts for Becky prove to be effective on Bob who is entranced with his old sweetheart. Bob may be an answer to her financial problems, as men usually are for women who cannot sustain themselves due to a myriad of reasons, including unequal pay and unequal opportunities. The scene where Bob emerges in his underwear dancing to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” as Becky joins him and they have a mild sexual romp is priceless. The scene, the choice of music is superbly directed by Taichman for maximum humorous effect. Both actors carry if off with authenticity and hysterical playfulness.

Unfortunately, when things appear to be going swimmingly for Becky with her new love and revenge on her former boss succeeding when she falls and breaks a limb, the worm turns. The universe which has been bent to the arc of the two women’s magical contrivances upends. During Bob’s love fest with Becky, he collapses and has a heart attack which places him in the hospital. There, Bob has a vision of the Virgin Mary who reminds him of his vows and his marriage and gives him an ultimatum if he wants to live. Thus, he must give up his adulterous relationship with Becky and sell his bar.

Bernard White, Deirdre O'Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
Bernard White, Deirdre O’Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

Meanwhile, Becky, convinced she can use the waxwork of Rebecca Nurse to conduct her own tours on the background of the real Salem witch trials freely goes off the museum’s canned script. She informs an interested group that The Crucible, Miller’s play is filled with inaccuracies. For example Abigail’s age in reality was 11 years old, but Miller, who fantasized about sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, made her older and lusting after John Proctor to satisfy his own fantasies about the celebrity. Becky insists that rather than it be a play about John Proctor’s “virtue” what really happened was 14 women were hanged, something that Miller didn’t portray accurately, nor did he care about. In one of the funniest lines in the play Becky says, “…our country’s whole understanding of the Salem witch trials is based on the feeling–of I want to fuck Marilyn Monroe, but I can’t fuck her.”

At that juncture, an officer interrupts her tour and arrests her because she has been charged with theft. She was caught on tape stealing the lifelike wax figure from the Museum of Witchcraft in order to fulfill the last part of her spell to achieve wholeness and to earn some money in her newly self-created job. But at the point of the arrest, there is a pivot in time magically. The setting regresses to 1692. A crowd (all who judge her in the present-Bob, Witch, Shelby, Gail, Stan) dressed in pilgrim outfits scream, “Lock her up!” Because she dares to question why she is being arrested, she transgresses the laws, an insult to the officer. Act I ends in the throes of her panic and fear as the crowd in pilgrim garb demands, “Lock her up. Kill the witch. Lock her up.”

As the complications arise and boil over by the end of Act I, we have watched the character of Becky become unraveled as she takes more pain pills and makes untenable decisions. Though she is obsessed with wanting to change her life, she has neither the means, the nature, nor the sobriety to find a path which will lead her to success. Everyone except the Witch has turned against her. They can offer no route out of the morass she’s built for herself in her Salem life. And to make matters worse, while she is in jail, Shelby ends up taking care of Gail and applying for custody of her granddaughter. It is both an emotional and psychic blow as Shelby now has the upper hand over every aspect of her life.

 (L to R): Deirdre O'Connell, Candy Buckley in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
(L to R): Deirdre O’Connell, Candy Buckley in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

How Taichman and Ruhl bring Becky to her knees leading to the court trial where she raises herself up to admit responsibility and become accountable for her own actions is the crux of Act II. Vitally, Ruhl brings together thematic elements from 1692 with the present to magnify the issues Ruhl introduced in the beginning. Ruhl intimates that the threads of Becky’s self-destruction are rooted in paternalistic folkways which encourage women to accept victimization and passivity rather than to struggle and fight to empower themselves. Indeed, as Ruhl points out the through line from the 1700s puritanism to the present, such behaviors are culturally learned, generational patterns that are difficult to extricate oneself from. Even Shelby spouts the rhetoric that is most current as a “liberal” but is a hypocrite, incapable of employing the substance of what progressiveness is, women helping women. Instead, Shelby competes and follows what is most damaging to the town, its legacy and future. Her taking in Gail on the surface appears kind but is questionable.

Taichman’s and Ruhl’s vision combines the best of humor, drama and profoundly current concepts. To do this she relies on a superb ensemble with O’Connell, White and Buckley as standouts.

Kudos to the creative team who conveys the settings and provides the chills that leak from the past to the present and back again. Particularly effective are the projections of the black birds symbolizing the occult and perhaps evil spirits at salient points in the play. These are effective thanks to Barbara Samuels lighting and Tal Yarden’s projections. The sets are effectively fluid and mimalistic thanks to Riccardo Hernandez. The costumes designed by Emily Rebholz are eerie enough to remind us of the fearful pilgrims.The waxwork of Rebecca Nurse is sufficiently life-like to imagine her presence being enlivened for a twinkling moment, then vanishing as all things magical are wont to do.

Because of Taichman’s direction, the production translates into masterful performances with high energy, LOL humor and current themes without relying on rhetoric or cant. This is not easy. Taichman, Ruhl, the actors and creative team make this comedic play a must-see. For tickets and times go to their website:

‘Downstate’ a Powerhouse of a Play, With Sterling Performances

(L to R): Francis Guinan, Sally Murphy, Tim Hopper in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Do we ever receive justice for wrongs done to us if the wrongdoer goes to jail and apologizes? Or are we so damaged no justice or forgiveness is possible? In Downstate, Bruce Norris raises such questions and many more in his compelling play superbly directed by Pam MacKinnon currently at Playwrights Horizons.

At the top of the play the reserved Andy (Tim Hopper) and his concerned wife Em (Sally Murphy) sit opposite Fred (Francis Guinan) who is a senior gentleman, disabled in a motorized wheelchair. As they attempt to discuss why Andy has come to visit, Dee (K. Todd Freeman) comes in with a shopping cart with groceries and Gio (Matthew J. Harris) quibbles with him about the money he owes Dee for bananas. Surveying the house and the roommates, only Fred is white, we surmise this living arrangement has been forced. As it turns out, all four roommates including Felix (Eddie Torres) who eventually comes out of his bedroom to make himself breakfast are convicted sex offenders, who wear leg braces so their activities may be monitored.

(L to R): Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzman, Eddie Torres, K. Todd Freeman in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Andy visits Fred with Em to discuss Fred’s predation which happened over thirty years ago, when Andy was twelve and Fred was his piano teacher. Andy tells Fred he ruined his life and he can’t function the way he felt he could have if Fred had left him alone. Norris intimates subterranean clues why Andy has taken the liberty to visit Fred. Though Fred didn’t have to, he agrees to see Andy. In his 40s Andy is not supposed to be anywhere near Fred because Fred has served time and has been convicted and is currently transitioning and living in the half-way house. That Andy seeks Fred out and travels from Chicago to Downstate with his wife to deal with Fred is problematic and portentous.

After Andy and Em finish reading letters of judgment and recrimination they’ve written to Fred which Fred listens to calmly, they both reiterate that Fred is evil. When Em senses Andy is hesitating, she tells him to stop backpedaling and continue with why he’s come to see Fred. It is to get a full admission of what Fred has done to Andy. Fred insists he admitted to all of his actions in court, apologized and was sentenced. As they attempt to continue this discussion, the roommates are attempting to live their lives, get ready for work, make breakfast and use the bathroom. Clearly, the couple are a disruption to Dee, Gio and Felix. Yet, Em and Andy take umbrage at the activities around them interfering with the seriousness of their meeting. It is apparent that the mission they are on obviates the humanity of the other men whom they look down on. In their self-righteous ferocity there is an underlying remoteness and cruelty that Norris reveals in superb dialogue acted exceptionally.

(L to R): K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzman, Eddie Torres Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Indeed, Andy and Em are so absorbed in Andy’s victimization and his wish to fully confront Fred with it, they become annoyed by the interruptions in an environment which Andy admits does not fit his expectations. It is as if in Andy’s imagination, he expects Fred to be a silent robot upon which he can unleash vilification without Fred responding as he sits in an isolated room just to listen to Andy’s rant about him. And ironically, part of that logical diatribe includes Andy telling Fred he has fantasized killing him. Interestingly, Fred responds with humanity and humility. He is apologetic and kindly to Andy which Andy ignores and dismisses. Andy reiterates that he has a right and is not supposed to feel empathy for and forgive Fred. Fred can extend him grace, but he doesn’t have to or want to receive it nor will he bestow it.

Norris does an impeccable job of revealing the humanity of both sides of the equation, especially in indicating that Andy, who is in therapy, has no idea how Fred’s life has been altered by what Fred refers to as his own sickness and deserved punishment. He believes Fred to be a fake. Tim Hopper’s Andy, Francis Guinan’s Fred and Sally Murphy’s Em are sensational in their performances listening acutely to each other and reacting with spot-on authenticity. Indeed, though we feel for Hopper’s Andy, Guinan’s Fred who is unassuming, childlike and kindly pulls us in and encourages our sympathy. When he reveals in a later discussion with Andy in Act II that an outraged fellow prisoner slyly brought in steel toed boots and kicked Fred so that his back was broken and he has to have a colostomy bag and can’t walk, we consider Andy’s “breast-beating” and Fred’s indulging him to be beyond ironic.

Susanna Guzman, Eddie Torres in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

The relationship between Em and Andy as Norris infers, and the actors ingeniously perform with nuance, reveals there are intimacy issues and problems. Thus, Andy’s psychology seeking out Fred is much more complicated than having him sign a reconciliation paper. In Act II the complication is further exposed and we note Andy’s emotional issues which he can’t confront in himself. These allow him to cling to victimization perhaps for another reason. Clearly, Andy and Em are not satisfied with the “justice” Fred has received and by the end of the play we understand that there is more to predation that happens between victims and their predators, than what there is assumed to be. Perhaps, it is not all on the evil and perverted side of the predator. This is tricky ground and Norris navigates it with understanding, forthrightness and intelligence.

After Andy and Em leave in annoyance, PO Ivy (Susanna Guzman in a fine performance) visits. It is here where we begin to understand how the individuals are monitored and hated by the outside community. Also, the problems that they face living in the house are not being addressed by the state, another example that they are a bottom priority. For example, the house needs a broken window and a leaky septic tank repaired. Ivy tells them that they should pay for the repairs themselves. She is too overworked to deal with it. There are more important reasons for her visit. Ivy brings information which indicates the culture’s judgment of sex offenders has mandated increased restrictions on their transportation and mobility. When Dee asks for the particulars, they discover that the routes they must now take are illogical. The point is that the neighborhood opposes their being in the area and petitions constantly for them to leave; the mandate is a sop thrown to the neighborhood.

(L to R): Tim Hopper, Francis Guinan in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Norris also outlines the interactions between the four men. Gio and Felix, who are religious, act superior and reject Dee’s lifestyle as a homosexual. Gio accuses Dee of taking advantage of Fred, who needs help bathing and toileting and pays Dee. Meanwhile, Ivy confronts Gio about his behaviors and he is defensive, insulting and bullying. She has to warn him that she can send him back to prison if he doesn’t shape up. In Ivy’s interactions with Eddie Torres’ Felix, we note her attempt to be even-handed. However, in Guzman’s questioning of Torres’ Felix, again, we feel for both characters. She must do her job and Felix is trying to live his life and at least reach out to his daughter on her birthday. Torres is spot-on in his emotionalism and his broken-hardheartedness. His portrayal is beautifully human and tugs at our hearts.

As a secondary character of great importance, Gio’s co-worker, Effie, has a friend who is a sex offender, so she should know the balancing act that must be taken with offenders. She doesn’t care. Norris uses her character as a catalyst. She has become close to Gio and plays fast and loose with his status as a first time offender found guilty of statutory rape with a minor. Gabi Samels’ Effie is provocative, high wired, a “wise-ass” and loud-mouth, knowledgeable enough about the law to use it with Guzman’s Ivy. Through Ivy and Dee’s response to her, we note her ADHD carelessness and irresponsibility is a train wreck waiting to happen.

(L to R): Eddie Torres (background) K. Todd Freeman (foreground) Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

K. Todd Freeman’s Dee serves as the house master, who on the one hand is aware of everyone’s business, but also watches out for each of the roommates, regarding their rights and responsibilities not to screw it up for each other. Sometimes it is efficacious and other times it backfires. Norris has given Dee the most humorous, witty, intelligent and lovable lines as a former show business person and lover of the arts. Freeman is incredible as the black, senior homosexual, who makes the perfect ironic retort when coming up against bigotry, hypocrisy and cruelty, displayed especially by Gio and Andy. Freeman and Guinan show their prodigious acting talents in establishing the caring, kind relationship between Dee and Fred. In their interactions with Gio and Felix, their performance is nuanced, and Freeman’s ironic delivery as Dee, who uses his humor to lay bare Gio’s arrogance and Andy’s internal psychological fears, is breathtaking.

Norris’s characterizations are beautifully drawn. The playwright enables us to better understand the impact of the hatred and fear leveled by a culture that has little mercy for individuals such as the offenders in Downstate. The humanity that the actors portray in Gio, Fred, Dee and Felix is heartfelt, poignant and tragic. As those on the outside, Andy, Em, Guzman and Gabi Samels are edgy and powerful. All of the characters’ interactions are organic, complex and nuanced. Not enough praise can be given to Pam MacKinnon for shepherding the fine performances of this stark, amazing, forceful ensemble piece.

(L to R): Francis Guinan, K. Todd Freeman in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Norris has set up the action threads in Act I, that he unravels to explode sensationally in Act II. There is no spoiler alert in this review. You will just have to see Downstate to find out the conflict developments between Andy and Fred, Ivy and Felix, and Gio and the catalysts Dee and Effie. The result is cataclysmic and heartbreaking

Kudos to Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, Clint Ramos’ costume design, Adam Silverman’s lighting design, Carolyn Downing’s sound design, which are perfect for the reality and drama that MacKinnon’s vision requires. This gobsmacking production is one to see for its themes of love, humanity and grace, its wonderful performances and ensemble acting, and its overall production design. For tickets and times go to their website:

‘You Will Get Sick’ Linda Lavin is a Breath of Fresh Air

Daniel K. Isaac in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Sometimes the best way to accept the inevitable is to step into the realm of the fantastic and approach the unapproachable through magical thinking and an encouragement toward vacating reality. In You Will Get Sick by Noah Diaz, directed by Sam Pinkleton presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the unnamed characters traverse through unspecified settings and manage their lives of quiet desperation with humor and a sense of camaraderie that comes with a price. The price is avoiding the blinding truth until they are ready to receive it.

Daniel K. Isaac’s character is the emotionally distant, sweet #1, who has a phone conversation with Linda Lavin’s #2 at the top of the play. Initially, I questioned why they speak to each other since money is discussed upfront and it wasn’t clear what the exchange services were. However, when character #2 straightens out how she wants the money delivered, we discover she is an actor, is on a project and above all needs to supplement her finances. Character #1 eventually clarifies the services he pays her for in this absurdist, quirky play whose surreal elements are funny, surprising and metaphoric.

Interestingly, there is an internal war in character #1, which we may identify with at one level or another. He has been in denial about the severity of his illness. The initial service he requires of #2 is to listen to him as he tells her about his condition, so in the telling he can acknowledge what he is going through, confront it and then position himself to tell his sister. At least he knows he is in denial. Blindness related to not admitting the signs of disease when they first appear is a typical reaction, unless one is a hypochondriac, which #1 clearly is not. When we understand what #1 is going through, we consider COVID-19 deniers.The most extreme were on their death beds scorning their nurses and doctors’ COVID diagnosis. These went to their deaths with the peaceful conviction that anything other than COVID was killing them.

(L to R): Linda Lavin, Daniel K. Isaac, Marinda Anderson in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Though #1 isn’t as blind as those individuals, he can’t reconcile his illness. He can’t even admit to himself that his body is falling apart, that his hands are growing numb, that it is becoming harder to walk and impossible not to fall in the shower. His condition is incurable and there has been a diagnosis which we never learn. Yet, as the play progresses, #1 struggles with himself emotionally and must be as detached as possible to begin to comprehend that the plans for his life, his hopes and dreams have been shuttered by the drama that is overtaking his body’s ability to function.

Many youth who are immortal until they aren’t, think that illness is what happens to the old and feeble. However, this doesn’t appear to be Character #1’s thinking…that sickness is for the old. We discover later in the play in a discussion he has with his sister that he is aware that sickness can impact the young and kill them. In fact he took care of his sibling Patrick who was ill, maybe of the same disease, and nursed him until he died. So he is not a callow thirty-something. Clearly, taking care of his brother was a sacrifice of love, but it took its toll on him. In his discussion with his sister, #1 states he doesn’t want her to take care of him, nor does he want aides to help out. Somehow, he will deal with this on his own and allow the illness to take its course. The recognition of the impact of illness on family, since he has had that experience, most probably has overwhelmed him. Denialism and blindness allow one to transition to the truth gradually.

The first step in #1’s plan is to come back from denialism and face reality with someone who is not a relative. To do this and remain less emotionally overwhelmed, he decides to pay someone to listen to him reconcile the fact that he is “sick,” though he never frames it as an illness that is cutting short his life. That is a bridge too far, and one he is not ready to cross. Thus, Lavin’s humorous character #2 becomes the one to take on the impossible burden of listening to him as he describes factually what his body is doing. Character #1’s mind and emotions are so shut down, he can’t discuss this with his co-workers or his sister, just yet. Character #2 will help prepare him for those discussions.

Character #2 is desperate for the money and does odd jobs and takes acting classes so she can become good enough to audition for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Character #2 and #1 are idiosyncratic and pursue their own realities and somehow manage to accept one another’s weirdness with generosity so that what they both wish, they help each other achieve. The actors are superb in making the unusual seem regular with their direct, in the moment authenticity. Importantly, though they are not friends, #1 and #2 help each other feel less alone against the personal trials they face.

(L to R): Daniel K. Isaac, Dario Ladani Sanchez in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Character #1’s connection with character #2 strengthens after he sends her a check which he didn’t sign. That forces a face-to-face meeting which leads to other meetings, the next when he hires character #2 to tell his sister (Character #3 is Marinda Anderson) about his condition. When the three of them meet, Diaz constructs a humorous scene in a restaurant with a crying waiter (Nate Miller) that Pinkleton directs with excellent pacing for humor. After this meeting with his sister we understand the limitations of family and why #1 doesn’t want to bother her about what he is going through.

In addition to his illness, #1 faces another problem. He must escape the monstrous birds that sound like crows, who prey upon and kill the sick. Nate Miller’s character #4 plays a number of parts relating to the bird menace. One is a salesman who sells insurance to protect against the humongous birds. Another is a despondent waiter (he appears in #1’s meeting with his sister) whose mother was taken by a monstrous bird. Thus, on top of having to confront the deterioration of his body, #1 has to beware of these other worldly birds. Interestingly, #2’s attitude toward the bird attacks is sanguine, almost uninterested. She will stay well as an older person and help this thirty-something in his illness. Theirs is an ironic reversal of the natural order of things.

Character #2’s response to Miller’s bird insurance salesman sums up her reaction to most things at this point in her life’s experience. She tells him a choice epithet about where to go. Linda Lavin’s #2 uses epithets as seasonings to make her delectable, unstoppable character more immediate and no nonsense. Lavin, with decades of know-how has fine tuned her rhythm and timing for humor, cleverly waiting for the chortling laughter that always follows her character’s well-placed retorts.

Linda Lavin in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Diaz messages a number of themes with these unusual characters who are fanciful but manage to be endearing because they are so vulnerable. Caregiving, Diaz suggests, sometimes requires allurements like money because family can’t always be counted on to help. Sometimes strangers are better attuned because they are not emotional and there are no problematic bonds. Characters #2 and #1 arrive at a congeniality of quid pro quos. #1 even goes to one of #2’s acting classes where they act out “lion” and “tiger” in a humorous segment which actually takes #1’s mind off his condition and physically helps him. Lavin is not only spry at 85-years old, her “lion” and “tiger” steal the show. Her spot-on performance has her addressing the audience and singing an audition song (for the part of Dorothy) in which she ends up in the wrong register. And after trying it a few times, #2 never gets it right.

For his part Isaac’s #1 handles the absurdist elements with authenticity. When he spits up the hay, symbolic of where he originated from, and representative of his illness, the action is weird and frightening, but believable. He negotiates the straw-man, scarecrow imagery in the later scenes with matter-of-fact acceptance. These segments and his apparent suspension (with special effects) suggesting tropes from The Wizard of Oz, an iconic story whose verities relate to the characterizations in You Will Get Sick, are fascinating to ponder. However, the playwright is a master of the opaque and uncertain, never really pinning down any particular truths apart from the fact expressed in the title and our susceptibility to our mortal state. That he delivers these themes gently with fantastic elements is enough.

Isaac’s character #1 echoes Dorothy’s wish to return home as related to The Wizard of Oz. Lavin’s #2 helps him achieve that wish as #1 helps #2 achieve her goal. At the play’s conclusion we note that the money #2 has received from #1 has allowed her to purchase a gingham dress and red shiny slippers so she can properly audition for the part of Dorothy, a dream she’s had her entire life.

#1 makes it home. For him home is in a field of hay (though wheat might be more metaphorical). There he meets up with his brother Patrick, Character #5 (Dario Ladani Sanchez) who joins him holding a microphone. It is Patrick’s voice we have heard (in voice over) expressing #1’s interior thoughts throughout the play.

At the conclusion we understand the importance of #5 in helping give #1 solace and comfort to keep his emotional turmoil at bay so he can function and find his way to “get back to where he once belonged.” At home in the field with Patrick, #1 is able to breathe freely, away from the noise and the hectic gyrations of city life. There, he seems well and is in his right place. The metaphors settle into a finality at the conclusion. Indeed, the human condition vies between sickness and wellness. As Diaz’s title suggests, humans are mere mortals. There is an immutable inevitably of sickness. During it, if we are fortunate, we will “get back to where we once belonged” (our home and what that means to us).

Kudos to dots (set design) Michael Kross and Alicia Austin (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Lee Kinney (original music and sound design) Daniel Kluger (original music and sound effects) Skylar Fox (magic and illusions) Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design) who bring Diaz’s play and Pinkleton’s vision of it to fruition.

Diaz’s daring, imagistic play is in its World Premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre until 11 December. For tickets and times go to their website

‘A Man of No Importance’ at CSC, a Superb Revival

Jim Parsons (center) and the Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In its second Off Broadway go-round (Lincoln Center in 2002) Terrence McNally’s book and Stephen Flaherty’s music with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics of A Man of No Importance directed and designed by John Doyle, is currently at CSC until 18 of December. The production is Doyle’s unaffecting and warm goodbye as Artistic Director of CSC. The uplifting, poignant musical appropriately reminds us of the vitality of theater, whether it be in an office space or a majestic 1500 seat house on 42nd street. Unlike the titular film A Man of No Importance is based on (1994, starring Albert Finney, written by Barry Devlin, produced by Little Bird) live theater is interactive. The audience spurs on the actors in a kinetic, telepathic bond that is incredibly enjoyable once opening night jitters are put to rest.

The Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

This most probably is what keeps protagonist Alfie, a DIY theater director of Dublin’s St. Imelda’s Church players inspired and engaged, though their performances are reportedly terrible. And it is why he is wickedly devastated when Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) closes down their production of Salome, because it is inappropriate and untoward for a community church theater show, though the story is right out of scripture. Actually, by the end of the production we learn that the butcher, Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), who is one of their amateur troupe, complained to Father Kenny that Salome was tantamount to pornography because he had a small role and that pissed him off.

Jim Parsons, Mare Winningham in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Alfie (portrayed by the likable and heartfelt Jim Parsons) apart from his love and spirit guidance by Oscar Wilde, who encourages him to read poems while at his job as a conductor on a Dublin bus, is a closeted, sensitive gay man. He lives with his domineering sister Lily (the always superb Mare Winningham) in their small apartment, where he keeps a raft of books and tests out his gourmet international recipes on her unadorned, “Irish stew palette.”

The year is 1964 before the cultural revolution, “free love,” mini skirts, The Beatles phenomenon and a relaxation of Catholicism’s strictures that didn’t really happen until decades later. Then, the Republic of Ireland was repressed and oppressed by doctrine that made it look more like the radical, right-wing conservative anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, red state swamp areas of the American South in 2022. Because of such cultural dispossession, Alfie lives in a fantasy world of art, theater and poetry. He remains inspired by his spiritual advisor, fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, as he tries to improve the lives of those around him, whether at his job as a conductor, at home with his sister, or at the church, directing his St. Imelda Players.

A.J. Shively, Jim Parsons (back to camera) in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

When Father Kenny closes down their amateur troupe, Alfie is quite bereft, until the St. Imelda Players decide to perform a play of the events that have brought them to where they are at the finish line in the present (1964) with no winning trophy. But instead of directing them, Alfie will be the star of their play.

Mary Beth Peil and the Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Cleverly, McNally, Flaherty and Ahrens adjusted and adapted the film as a flashback sandwiched by the present. The church players become the Greek chorus who engineer the events of the play, streamlining them into the action that happened at St. Imelda’s before Father Kenny shuttered their company. They sing songs that embody the emotional feeling and turning points of those events. These songs include the conflict between and among the characters, personal confessions and revelations, and the positive message that they gain from what they’ve learned together. They introduce Alfie as their star, then perform the tuneful, ironic opening number, “A Man of No Importance,” in celebration of their beloved friend and director who is their hero, integral to all of their lives. We learn by the conclusion of their musical, that to them, he is a man of great significance.

(L to R): A.J. Shively, Jim Parsons in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Doyle has staged the musical with an approach to DIY theater, reflective of what the St. Imelda Players might effect. The props are cleverly selected, i.e. a drum is used as the bus steering wheel. The actors use minimal furniture to create the environs where the events occur. Chairs suggest the bus that conductor Alfie is on with the driver, the affable and lively Robbie Fay (A.J. Shively, whose “The Streets of Dublin” rocks it). The players become the bus passengers with a new passenger Adele, the lovely voiced Shereen Ahmed catching the attention of Alfie as he quotes from a poem by his spirit mentor Oscar Wilde. By the end of their ride, The St. Imelda Players complete singing the titular “A Man of No Importance.”

As the players give us a tour of Alfie’s life in Dublin, we drop in on him with sister Lily, who is happy to discover that Alfie has found interest in a woman. She sings”Burden of Life” as an answer to her prayers so that perhaps now Alfie can settle down, and she can be free of taking care of him. Mare Winningham is humorous and vibrant as she takes on the role of Lily. A Catholic woman, she and the others in the troupe miss all the cues that her brother just might not be into women. When this finally comes out later, she reassures him in the song “Tell Me Why” that even though he is gay, she loves him anyway and he should have told her.

Jim Parsons, Shereen Ahmed in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Alfie’s interest in Adele is not because her beauty entices him romantically. He thinks she is perfect for the role of Salome. Though she avers and refuses the part initially, Alfie is persuasive and she finally relents. It is his hope to have the handsome Robbie play the part of John the Baptist, perfectly cast to act with Adele. Robbie puts him off and instead invites him to come to the pub (the wonderful “The Streets of Dublin”). Alfie accompanies Robbie and makes a fool of himself singing “Love’s Never Lost” in front of Robbie’s friends. Embarrassed, Alfie leaves, further disturbed at Breton Beret’s (Da’Von T. Moody) interest in him. Additionally, he’s confounded by the “love that dare not speak its name,” a love that he feels for his “Bosie,” as he imagines Robbie to be. (Bosie refers to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover.)

Alfie can only admit this inner conflict as he looks at himself in a mirror encouraged by Oscar Wilde (Thom Sesma). He sings the lyrical “Man in the Mirror” as a way to work through his emotions to achieve self-acceptance. Parsons approaches Alfie’s inner conflict with yearning and honesty, confessing in a dream-state to the persecuted and vilified Oscar Wilde, a man who understands the torment he goes through.

Mare Winningham and Thom Sesma in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Spurred by her discussion with Mr. Carney about Alfie’s weirdness (“Books”), Carney’s insistence that Salome is pornography, and his pressure to marry, which Lily puts off using Alfie as an excuse, Lily makes an attempt as a matchmaker. She invites Adele home for a meal that Alfie has cooked. Afterward, Alfie walks Adele home and as a friend, he gets her to admit she has “someone.” Her tears suggest that there is a reason her boyfriend is not with her. To reassure her Alfie calms her with another beautiful ballad, “Love Who You Love.” As she leaves, Alfie bumps into Breton Beret who propositions him. Alfie wisely restrains himself. His intuition is correct but his unresolved conflict between his shame at being gay and his longing to find someone to be with is a devastation in a Catholic country where being a homosexual is a mortal sin requiring repentance and conversion. Interestingly, he imagines Oscar Wilde encourages him by suggesting that the only way to remove temptation is by giving in to it.

In Doyle’s production the musical is streamlined to eliminate an intermission and keep it as one continuous series of events that move with swiftness, as players would effect their version of what happened, without including every detail. There are fewer players and most of them are incredible musicians that round out the small band tucked away in a second floor balcony against the back wall of the CSC playing area, where the audience abuts on three sides. Thanks to Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations), Caleb Hoyer (music director) Strange Cranium (electronic music design) the music arrangements, Doyle’s staging and the players’ vocal work is gorgeous, and seamlessly, perfectly wrought in configuring the St. Imelda’s Players’ production. Indeed, they are much better than they’ve jokingly been described.

Sheeren Ahmed and the Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

After the turning point (“Love Who You Love” carries the theme) the players reveal that Adele can’t continue with her lines as Salome because the words convict her soul. She can’t act a role where she’s supposed to be innocent and virginal, because in real life, she’s a fallen woman, who had intercourse out of wedlock and now is pregnant. Full of guilt and remorse her punishment is self-torment and humiliation. She must emotionally suffer the rest of her life because abortion is out of the question and the father won’t marry her to make the baby legitimate. The church and the oppressive paternalistic folkways of the culture vilify her with unworthiness and condemnation.

Catholicism hangs over the heads of the characters like a dirge of annihilation and judgment. Adele will have to go home to receive help from her parents to raise the child. Meanwhile, Mr. Carney also uses religious folkways to shut down the play. To add insult to injury, Robbie feels condemned by Alfie when Alfie unwittingly interrupts Robbie and Mrs. Patrick (Jessica Tyler Wright) making love in the bus garage. Feeling the weight of the sin of adultery, Robbie insults Alfie and judges Alfie’s life is without love, an accusation that torments Alfie because he loves Robbie.

Alfie can never reveal this love to him because it would drive Robbie away. Though Alfie has attempted to confess to Father Kenny (“Confession”) he can’t bring himself to reveal his great sin and thus is damned with guilt. As a result of the conflict of loving someone who would never love him, and being accused by that same person as being unloving, Alfie throws caution to the winds. He engages with Breton Beret who has been waiting for the opportunity to make himself look like a real man by beating up a “poof.”

Mare Winningham in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Clearly, the film (1994) was made at a time when the Catholic church was dealing with its own sexual sins which finally came to the fore in the world wide expose of pederasty in the church around 2002. However, the film/musical sets the events back in the 1960s before any of the cultural revolutions took place. Nevertheless, to understand the full force of Catholicism condemnation of homosexuality, check the numbers of gay men who were abused as Alfie is abused by the likes of Breton Beret, or look at the numbers of Catholic gay men committing suicide because they couldn’t reconcile their feelings with their religion. Also, read up on the Republic of Ireland’s approach toward girls who got pregnant out of wedlock in the book Philomena (also a fabulous film with Judi Dench). Or read the stories of the Magdalene Laundries, captured in the film The Magdalene Sisters. The brutality of the paternalistic Catholic folkways winked at male adultery like Robbie’s and swept it under the rug as “boys will be boys.” As for gays or women with babies born out of wedlock, the humiliation, shame and condemnation was a cruelty that destroyed lives.

Jim Parsons in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In the book of the musical McNally is not heavy handed with Catholicism in its iteration at St. Imelda’s community church. The musical has a light touch and religion appears to take a back seat, if we are not aware of the entrenched history of the church and its devastation on its believers. Rather, it is understated with Robbie’s anger at being discovered by Alfie, and Adele’s tears when the father of her child abandons her after he takes what he wants. Alfie gets the worst of it because he is discovered as a homosexual by the police who come to save him from being beaten to death by Beret. But the rub is he can’t press charges for assault because public opinion against “poofs” is more reprehensible than a physical assault. In fact it is intimated that Beret gets backroom laughs and cheers for beating up a homosexual who fell for his enticement.

McNally, Flaherty and Ahren configure the church’s worst folkways to be the sub rosa driving force for all of the humiliation, self-condemnation and torment that makes the conclusion so incredibly vital to A Man of No Importance. Thanks to Doyle, the performers and the creative team’s talents, the conclusion is uplifting and poignant for us today with a message of love and acceptance that is never old. It is the true spirit of Christmas in this “Happy Holidays” season, and in the United States needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops. In its quiet and unassuming way, A Man of No Importance is a trophy winner.

Kudos to Ann Hould-Ward (costume design), Adam Honore (lighting design) and Sun Hee Kil (sound design) and the entire cast and creative team who bring Doyle’s vision to life. The excellent must-see A Man of No Importance is at CSC until 18 December. For tickets and times go to their website:

‘Camp Siegfried,’ a Review of the Second Stage Production

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Did you know that in the 1930s the Nazis ran propaganda summer camps for youngsters, like the one in Yaphank, on Long Island New York and elsewhere across the United States? Camp Siegfried was created by the German-American Bund, led by Fritz Kuhn to sway various Americans to support Germany in its bid to overthrow Communism, Judism and “corrupt” liberalism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Considering that there was a large German immigrant population in the United States, the Nazi Party’s idea of propagandizing United States German citizens toward the benefits of Nazism in support of Hitler’s Germany was a sound one.

Bess Wohl’s titular play about Camp Siegfried falls short of powerfully dramatizing the true nature and danger of such Nazi camps that were pro-Hitler retreats sponsored by German loyalists. Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, a two hander “romance among the Nazis” directed by David Cromer is currently running at 2ndStage with no intermission. Unfortunately, the production lacks dynamism, terror and moment in its attempt to reveal the gradual inculcation of Nazi doctrine in the minds of the protagonists.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Wohl’s attempt not to give too much away proves damaging to the overall impact of the play. What should be directly energized and dramatized in the Nazi Party’s will to dominate, never really comes across. The only time it does is when a speech is proclaimed by She (Lily McInerny’s graduated intensity works well) and only because of the added response to the speech. It becomes the high point because of canned cheering which increases as the venom and hatred increases in She’s speech, spoken in German. (There are no super-titles, so German is an imperative if you want to understand it.) But by the time that speech arrives, so much more could have been done to incisively reveal the sub rosa impact of the brainwashing on the teens that should be terrifying but isn’t. The play’s overall effect lands with a thud as do its themes which are muddled.

This camp and others in New York stoked the fervency for the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden which was protested by those against Hitler’s fascism. The camps were considered egregious and they were shut down. Camp Siegfried’s propagandizing was greater than what Wohl’s play suggests in her attempt to portray the interactions between the teens. This is a missed opportunity especially for us during this time of growing white nationalism in our culture which needs to be called out for its violent hatefulness. Those who proudly display swastikas should not be greeted with smiles and pats on the back. Such acceptance is consent and grows toward hate crimes. And if the symbols of Nazism are understated, or treated as non existent as in Wohl’s play, that is an inconvenient misdirection. Not revealing the typical abundance of signage used by the Nazi Party loyalists in the US camps is questionable and removes the play’s chilling effect.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Hitler and Goebbel’s propaganda was steeped in occult symbolism. The Nazis believed in the power of the Swastika in their flags, insignias, their specially designed uniforms which conveyed “majesty” and fear in their intent to show dominance and preeminence. To suggest subtly how one might be seduced into wickedness without showing the associated “signs” of how that wickedness is conveyed is problematic. This is especially so when Camp Siegfried’s name is used, but the power of Nazi will and their purpose for the camp in this play, appears expositionally without menace until the very end, and as a result, seems random and confused.

The camp is seen through the perspectives of these teens as an OK place where they can have sexual fun, abuse each other verbally and physically and learn “stuff.” That they they are propagandized into one of the greatest, evil political belief systems of 1938 on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland after annexing Austria is momentous. That sense of moment is intentionally mitigated because only part of the story at the camp is conveyed by the teens. For me, that is a weakness in the play’s structure in addition to its dependence, not on dramatic dialogue, but on exposition. Dynamic drama is missing. For example She’s visit to the doctor, if activated with an actual visit instead of as exposition, the weight of the camp’s abuse would be made more powerful by the doctor’s direct comments. Additionally, drama might have been conveyed via a different, more visceral examination of the camp reflected in scenic design and lighting design. Costume design and sound design succeed best at conveying the sinister symbols of Nazism at the camp but only during She’s speech and in He’s costume after he joins her when she is finished.

Johnny Berchtold in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Depending upon the resources one looks up, in 1938 in this camp and others, those at the camp dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Swastika flags were situated next to the American flag. However, since Wohl’s play involves a two character limitation of the nameless He (Johnny Berchtold) and She (Lily McInerny), there are no other “campers” to show this “glory” of Hitler that the camp Nazis uplift. There are no portraits of Hitler, though there supposedly were at the real camp.

We only see the camp exterior. Brett J. Banakis’ scenic design creates the naturalistic set of a hillside and wooden fence-like wall abutting the camp. When He and She put together a platform that is later used for She’s speech, there are no swastikas, pictures or flags draping it, though there is canned cheering. The effects of what the climax of that speech might have been thematically and viscerally are diminished because the key symbolism of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda is absent. A sinister aspect is only suggested in the canned cheering in what sounds like a Nazi rally in 1930s Germany.

In Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, much is expositional; much is ancillary. We hear Hitler and Goebbel’s names mentioned as streets in the camp. We hear that the teens must do the work and if they are injured, they must suffer through it and be strong. She discusses the symbolism of the name Siegfried which she has learned and she tries to learn German. He chops wood for the all night bonfires; no workers from labor unions are allowed as unions were thought to have Jews (a reference He makes). The discriminatory aspects of this are downplayed. As he chops wood they get to know one another and more things are revealed about the camp. For example She reports various girls brag about having sex with specific boys.

Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

That the young men and women are being encouraged to “breed” and create Aryan replicas is unconnected to Nazism and the import of the activity is skewed. In one segment while He masterbates masochistically, She sadistically belittles and demeans him to be worthless. Their activity is disjointed and we are led to believe that their behavior isn’t connected with what the intentioned propaganda of the camp toward young men and women is. In some scenes after they couple, She demonstrates pride in telling He about her pregnancy. Her pregnancy is a lie, learned propaganda and manipulation. Wohl’s He and She fall in line with the learned camp behaviors out of gross inferiority and shyness. However, the characters are shallowly drawn and lack emotional grist. They are not easy to empathize with and thus, their indoctrination has less of an impact on the overall themes and conclusion which ends hollowly.

In the source material Camp Siegfried’s grounds had Nazi and Hitler Youth flags and pictures of Adolf Hitler. Men were photographed in uniforms (Italian Fascist-style blackshirts, SA-style brownshirts and Nazi military uniforms. It is arguable whether it is more frightening to see a sexual relationship between two teenagers budding against a background of Nazi flags whipping in the wind next to American flags, or an absence of them as if they don’t exist. However, in their absence, the danger and horror of what Camp Siegfried symbolized for that time and what its exploration through the teens’ eyes intimates for our time is lessened to the point that one wonders why the titular camp was selected and its purpose downplayed as an artifice. There is no visceral imagery or camp life that is believable and too much exposition gets in the way of the dynamic dramatic.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

When He and She first meet on a back wall of the camp hillside, He tells She about the camp activities which include marching. If the “power” and “glory” of Hitler’s propaganda spectacle was manifest each day with the signage and Swastika flags, without learned revulsion, then Nazification would have drawn He and She in large part through the spectacle of such symbols that the adults at the camp salute to and venerate. But that which was a huge part of the symbolism used to bring unity, awe and fear by the Nazi Party and German loyalists, who use the camp to train future Nazi leaders, is absent. The audience is never allowed in to the camp and what they hear isn’t enough to make a difference because it is never activated or visualized.

The only events actualized concern their sexual relationship, the wood chopping, the platform building and the speech. All should have more than a slim thread of the Nazi connections but they don’t until the last two minutes of the play and only through exposition. Otherwise this would be a typical summer camp (it isn’t). We follow two teens (the actors in their Broadway debut make the best of their roles) and their relationship. She gives a speech with a Nazi salute that reveals her indoctrination. And the purpose of the camp is revealed with her description of what she’s been through to the doctor. We only find that out because she tells He.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Wohl conveys the focus of the camp in a gradual sub rosa way via exposition and He’s behaviors. Unconnected to the other camp members or activities, the action is unclear as to the extent it is unfair and cruel (until at the conclusion She reports how the doctor defined what happened at the camp as a delusion). Likewise, another activity He engages in is archery. But its importance as potential discipline and military training is muted as are all the actions we see the teens undertake. However, in reality camp activities are organized to make future Nazi leaders in the US to run for political office, to unify German Americans, and place them in leadership roles to dominate in coherence with Hitler’s Third Reich.

This is hinted at via exposition and reportage at the end of the play when She reports to He that she went to a doctor outside the camp after He has beaten her badly. When she tells the doctor why she’s so cut up, revealing the camp’s abusive treatment in addition to He’s beating, the doctor (an outsider) tells her, “Anyone can be seduced.” And he follows this with, “Never underestimate your infinite capacity for delusion.” As she reports this to He, the spell is broken. She tells He they were both caught up in the delusion. He doesn’t accept what she says and tells her that Herr Kuhn has invited him to Germany and he will meet the higher ups and join the “worldwide fight.” This important scene with the doctor is reduced to exposition, yet it is what changes her mind about the camp.

Anything that might strike horror for us today is not shown. This seems misguided and changes the thrust of the play, whitewashing it. There is nothing benign about a Nazi Swastika flag next to the American flag which was pictured at the real Camp Siegfried. The play’s camp carries the title, but the substance and meaning are squeezed out of it. Thus, the lure of the propaganda which should be terrifying to us because we know what is behind it, never finds emotional power or effect. The forward movement becomes some teens playing at sex and being adults and searching out each other with a backdrop at a camp that we hear appreciates the Nazi Party, Hitler, teaches German, has all-night rallies and marches. The culmination occurs when She delivers a speech and lifts her hand in the Sieg Heil salute and feels pleased with herself but reverses after her discussion with the doctor.

Lily McInerny Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

It may be horrific to have a Nazi Swastika onstage with other Nazi paraphernalia, but that horror is real and signifies something beyond just the freedom to express it. More might have been done to reveal the iconography of the Nazi party that was propagandizing the teens at the camp since it was such iconography that swelled German pride during that period of time in Germany and during the 1939 Nazi Party rally at Madison Square Garden.

Thus, the play never rises to the dramatic moments of danger and fear that Wohl might have brought to bear during our time that again sees the rise of white nationalism in our country, and on Long Island. There, on Long Island, the KKK, confederate flags and white nationalistic Holocaust Denier T-Shirts have been seen in allegedly patriotic parades and boat regattas supporting Donald Trump, a proponent of White Nationalism (think Nazis) and anti-democratic insurrections. Not to include the symbols or uniforms as they were used at the real Camp Siegfried, when white nationalism threatens our very democratic institutions is problematic.

At the Capitol on January 6th, there are pictures of Holocaust deniers proudly wearing T-shirts proclaiming that 6 million more should have been killed. This occurred during an insurrection that intended to nullify our constitution and install a despotic, white nationalist, who decries not indecency, bigotry, anti-semisitism, racism and hatred, but anyone who criticizes him. This is a time when a known Holocaust denier went to Mar-a-Lago, a few days ago, the place once referred to as the Southern White House. Actions and words carry great meaning.

The Nazis gently referred to and mildly presented in this play via exposition were essentially absent. Especially absent are key symbols of Nazi propaganda that the Nazi Party used for their potent and clever manipulation to sway the minds of Germans. Their non-appearance in the play is definitely a teachable moment. Likewise, the decision to omit these dramatic elements carefully constructed by the Nazi Party to excite and unify, in a play about Nazi allurements, also is a teachable moment. Their absence is silence.

Camp Siegfried runs with no intermission at

‘Evanston Salt Costs Climbing,’ Arbery’s Excellent Play is a Must-See

(L to R): Ken Leung and Jeb Kreager in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

In the microcosm is the macrocosm. This is especially so in the setting Will Arbery presents in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, the sardonic, metaphysical-realistic 95-minute play acutely directed by Danya Taymor, currently at the Signature Theatre presented by The New Group.

A key theme of Arbery’s exceptional work turns on the notion that the larger picture of what is happening resides in the details which human beings have a penchant for ignoring, though it is right before their eyes. Do we see the connections, or are we like the characters in this play, willfully unaware until a catastrophe results and it is too late to do anything about it? Arbery examines these themes in his thought-provoking, stylized work that suggests we cannot escape how we relate to our environment, no matter how much we attempt to obviate it. Indeed, Arbery points out that it is this blindness that has brought us to the brink of self-annihilation. Ironically, even standing on the brink looking down, we can’t manage to do what is needed to confront the human disaster that is unfolding before our eyes.

At the opening of Arbery’s play two truck driver forty-somethings, Peter (the superb Jeb Kreager), and Basil (Ken Leung is his vivacious side-kick), share their morning coffee before they take their rounds spreading salt to safe-guard the roads in and around Evanston, Illinois. We let this information slide away from us without giving it much thought. However, everything in Arbery’s play is profound and the characters’ lives and future are encompassed in the smallest detail of salt spreading. In that detail is reflected the wider invisible world that the characters sense is out there, both under the ground, pushing to break apart the sham infrastructure that cities have built for the purpose of commerce, or in the invisible world that hangs above in the ambient atmosphere pressing down on the characters to confound them and make them despondent.

(L to R): Jeb Kreager, Ken Leung, Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

The world that Arbery’s characters inhabit is representational. The action takes place in the environs of the Evanston “salt dome,” in the truck, and in Maiworm’s home, all staged with superb and symbolic minimalism by Matt Saunders’s scenic design, Isabella Byrd’s lighting design and Mikaal Sulaimon’s sound design. Before Peter and Basil begin their shift, Maiworm, the public works administrator who is their boss (the excellent Quincy Tyler Bernstine), stops in as she does each morning. Maiworm is astute and stays on top of the forward moving trends regarding the Green Movement. She understands the “larger picture” of the changing environmental conditions which impact their jobs and of which Peter and Basil remain unaware. Maiworm attempts to enlighten them by reading an article to them, the gist of which states that the record colder temperatures are requiring record levels of salt use. These are driving up the salt costs.

If we are paying attention, we understand the cause and effect of global warming and weather weirding indicated in this small detail of salt costs. After Maiworm reads the article, Peter says an article should be written about the fun he has with Basil driving in the truck. He doesn’t catch the “devil” in the details. In other words, he never makes the leap that the costs might impact his current job, his hours or salary. He assumes all will remain static in this job he’s had for twenty years.

(L to R): Ken Leung, Jeb Kreager in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Basil, who writes micro-fiction, ignores the underlying significance of the article for another reason. He tells Peter no one wants to read an article about their job because it has no “pull” or interest. The connection between Arbery as a writer and Basil is understated. It is as if Arbery twits himself about the intentional boring context of “salt costs climbing,” knowing that such a subject will not keep the audience engaged. However, Arbery is having us on. That is not what the play is about. And how the playwright cleverly connects this “detail” with its hidden significance making it dynamic and indelibly related to his characters is striking and horrifically revelatory to us.

Basil asks Maiworm about the impact of the increasing salt costs. Arbery reveals why Basil asks the question in the next scenes when we see that he and Maiworm have developed a covert sexual relationship unbeknownst to Peter. Thus, unlike Peter who doesn’t see or care about the symbolism behind the details, Basil is open to Maiworm’s thoughts and most probably encourages the direction of her decisions to feather her own nest and advance in her administrative position which must take into consideration the budget which includes the price of salt. However, on another level, he too misses the significance connecting the dots to climate change and colder weather which will create havoc if the powers that be (including Maiworm), don’t properly plan for it.

In a humorous scene that follows, we understand why Peter loves driving in the truck with Basil. They act silly and ridiculous, sharing “manly” antics as “roadies,” who do their job and maintain a friendly relationship, where they can cut loose and have a free-for all (which mostly entails cursing). Also, during this time Basil and Peter discuss more personal issues. Basil relates the dream he has of his grandmother who has told him, “Don’t let the Lady in Purple come near you.” He states, in the last part of the dream, The Lady in Purple does come near his grandmother, who dies. We intuit that the Purple Lady may be Death.

(L to R): Jeb Kreager, Ken Leung in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

Additionally, Basil discusses that he ends up fusing with the Purple Lady and reverts to a dying little boy as the Purple Lady takes him. This, he tells Peter, happens during a time when cities are freezing and burning. Basil’s description is metaphoric and prescient in its representation of global warming, which he never mentions by name as if it doesn’t exist. By degrees, Arbery reveals how the events Basil describes in the dream come to fruition in his life in a mysterious way that merges phantasmagoria with reality later in the play.

Peter expresses that he is sad and his dreams are surrounding darkness and noise. This reflects Peter’s depression and suicidal thoughts. Basil, who has discussed Peter’s wanting to kill himself and kill his wife is concerned that Peter is in bad shape. Basil tells Maiworm about Peter and she vaguely comments she’ll watch out for him.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (courtesy of Monique Carboni)

The dynamics of the interrelationships complicate as we learn more about Maiworm’s adopted daughter, Jane Jr., who suffers from depression and has suicidal thoughts like Peter. As Jane Jr. Rachel Sachnoff gives a fine, nuanced performance. of the only character who understands the impact of climate change. Maiworm’s concern for Jane Jr. includes trying to direct her interests by getting her to read Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Additionally, Maiworm encourages Jane Jr. to help others by singing to them at the nursing home. To make her feel needed, Maiworm uses Jane Jr. as her confidante. After a nightmare provoked by the suicide of the journalist who wrote the article Maiworm reads to Peter and Basil, Maiworm discusses her anxiety about Evanston. Maiworm tells Jane that she saw the dead rise from under the ground as the journalist fused with them. Then she segues the discussion to heated permeable pavers, the technology to make roads heat up so they can melt ice and snow to eliminate the use of salt and reduce costs.

Like all exceptional playwrights, Arbery reveals the trenchant themes by gradually through their connections. Eventually we learn one aspect why the heated permeable pavers might be a great solution. The salt is incredibly toxic and destructive to wildlife. Salt run-off pollutes the water table creating toxic blooms releasing poisonous chemical compounds and metals that kill animals and people.

Interestingly, this is the first we hear of such a technology, but not the last. We discover much later when Arbery connects the dots that Maiworm, to advance in her position, is part of the program to bring heated permeable pavers to Evanston, unbeknownst to Peter and Basil, whose jobs will become obsolete as a result. However, the implications of this Arbery does not make “visible” until after personal devastation occurs to each of the characters over the course of the three consecutive brutal winters in Illinois when the play takes place.

Arbery boxes in the characters who increasingly become dislocated through sadness and depression, indirectly caused by ignoring the moment of what is happening around them in the environment. Arbery indicates that though they don’t see the larger picture of the apocalyptic effects of climate change, in the unseen realm of the invisible world, it impacts them day and night. Jane Jr. is aware of this. It is mostly the cause of her depression and desire to end her life. She considers her Dad lucky that he died and doesn’t have to experience the impending doom that can be felt everywhere. Maiworm and others go about their lives as if nothing is happening. They live in a denial and that doesn’t quite work because they sense the coming destruction but don’t articulate its connection to what they feel is happening. Articulation is the beginning of recognition.

(L to R): Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Rachel Sachnoff in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (Monique Carboni)

The unseen doom disturbs everyone. Peter’s suicidal thoughts continue and his situation worsens after his wife dies from an accident on the icy roads that didn’t have enough salt on them (presumably because less salt was used to defray costs). Fortunately, his daughter lives and they bond over Dominoes Pizza and watching the truck come to their door, a fun event for the six-year-old. Their relationship is the bright light in the play.

Maiworm’s guilt about Peter’s wife’s death is understated, but her behavior becomes more hyper and the overarching doom she senses increases in her life with Jane Jr. Additionally, the doom is in Basil’s dreams and shows up in his micro-fiction. When he is confronted with his past and inability to deal with it in his present, he is swallowed up (the Purple Lady makes an appearance). Basil joins the other dead in the earth metaphorically and physically fulfilling his nightmares. How Taymor and her team effect this is strange and dislocating, intensifying the play’s foreboding which becomes palpable to the audience.

Maiworm who could understand the impending doom of global warning’s impact on their lives, can only manage to live in the microcosm to fulfill her desire for advancement. She is the most blind and she blindsides others. Palliative measures to correct the dire future with “heated permeable pavers,” are too little too late. Caught up in the details, she ignores the “bigger picture.”

The climax of the encroachment of the unseen (the environment rebelling), upon the characters occurs toward the end of the play where Arbery delivers his key message delivered by a supernatural incarnation of a presence from the past, Jane Jacobs. As Jacobs, Ken Leung arises in black funereal dress. Without his accent he comes across with clear, precise anger and a clarion warning. Jane Jacobs suggests what we must do as human beings to face the oblivion of our own making. See the play; there is no spoiler alert.

Taymor’s direction of the actors is spot-on as they convey the suppressed doom in the tension and growing personal alarm in their dreams and confessions. All of the creative artists majestically bring together Arbery’s and Taymor’s vision of the dire consequence of the environment rebelling as an incarnate “thing.” Saunders, Byrd, Sulaiman and Sarafina Bush’s costume design, help to manifest terror in the atmosphere of the play through the suggestions of mysterious other-worldiness peeking through reality. We “get” the palpable danger human beings have created for themselves with their willful ignorance, negligence and dereliction of duty. That danger drives Maiworm, but because she ignores the signs and can’t translate what she feels into understanding, her obsession is misdirected. Caught up with the pavers for the future, Maiworm forgets to order salt for the present winter and they must hire others to do the job of salting the roads. She is rewarded for her incompetence as her advancement continues up the administrative chain.

The director and her team use at varying intensities darkness, shadows and light to great effect. Additionally, they alternate silence and loud sounds of the truck engines, screeching tires and grating sounds made by the raising and lowering of the warehouse garage doors. They employ storm sounds as well. These help to enhance the ominous atmosphere the characters feel and creates in us a growing dread. Also, the use of lighting and sound suggest the extremes of heat and cold and the eerie, weird quality of the environment as a being which humanity has monstrously shaped by its abuse. As a result of Taymor’s direction, Saunders, Bush, Byrd and Sulaiman’s artistry the nameless stark, terrible becomes real and the playwright’s themes hit home. Their prodigious efforts combined with the actors’ authenticity create memorable live theater that should not be missed.

For tickets and times go to their website

‘Catch as Catch Can’ Review

(L to R): Cindy Cheung, Jon Norman Schneider, Rob Yang in Catch as Catch Can (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In the service of confronting anti-Asian racism and the bias against mental illness, Catch as Catch Can by Mia Chung, directed by Daniel Aukin widely misses. The one-act play at Playwrights Horizons, reignited from a run at The New Ohio Theatre in 2018 complicates structurally and thematically. Unfortunately, the lack of forthright presentation skews the power of the messages and leaves one questioning the characterizations. Instead, one should be questioning the impact of parental conditioning on learned behavior.

Our conditioning is how we abide by family roles, gender, ethnic biases, unless we choose to overcome them. Conditioning importantly impacts our psychological stability. This theme, if clearly presented by the playwright is prescient for us today. However, much was lost in the presentation of this production at Playwrights Horizons until November 20th.

Cindy Cheung, Jon Norman Schneider in Catch as Catch Can (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Three actors fluidly portray six roles which is easy enough. The roles they illuminate are of different ages and genders and there’s the rub. Jon Norman Schneider and Rob Yang at the top of the very long one-act (1 hour 50 minutes), portray mothers Roberta Lavecchia and Theresa Phelan. In subsequent scenes they play their sons Robbie Lavecchia and Tim Phelan. Cindy Cheung portrays father Lon Lavecchia and daughter Daniela Lavecchia.

Rob Yang, Cindy Cheung in Catch as Catch Can (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

What is the point of the actors portraying characters who are cross-gender, cross ages while they, too, belie the ethnicity of their characters (Italian and Irish)? In watching Cindy Cheung portray father Lon Lavecchia, and daughter Daniela Lavecchia, we see how the character has been influenced by her father’s parenting. In watching Jon Norman Schneider portray mother Roberta Lavecchia and son Robbie Lavecchia, we understand the mother’s influence on her son. Likewise, as we watch Rob Yang portray mother Theresa Phelan and son Tim Phelan, we understand how Tim’s nature and behaviors are conditioned and influenced by his mother Theresa. Wouldn’t the dialogue reveal this without all the crosses to bear?

Rob Yang, Cindy Cheung in Catch as Catch Can (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

It took me about 3 minutes to understand that the effeminate mannerisms and strained voices of Jon Norman Schneider as Roberta and Rob Yang as Theresa were stylized to convey the impact of these women on their children. This becomes clearer when we later see the doubling up portrayals of the actors playing the sons, as “chips off the old maternal block.”

The first scene between the two mothers sitting and having tea played more for humor than for authenticity. However, I found myself forced to listen acutely to the dialogue to understand that neighbors Roberta and Theresa are concerned about their sons and that is a point of mutual shared interest. Their sons have been with Korean American women. Roberta is comfortable enough not to disguise her bias against son Robbie’s wife, who he divorced two years prior. On the other hand, Theresa is concerned that her son Tim is going to be engaged to a very pretty Koren American woman who looks “like a doll” and has small hands. We discover later that Tim who has severe emotional issues has been lying to his mother about this woman, perhaps to reassure her he is “normal,” for she can’t accept another way for him to be.

(L to R): Jon Norman Schneider, Rob Yang in Catch as Catch Can (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The playwright has sought to stylize the entire foray into subjects which perhaps should be dealt with honestly rather than to obscure them. However, even in neighborly relationships and in families, so much occurs sub rosa. In all human relationships behavior is obscured. And sometimes we learn more from what is not said than what is. That is one message of the play, it would seem, as an outcropping of the playwright’s intentional doubling and mixing of ages and genders and also including two Asian actors. The question remains, does the mixing of genders, ages and ethnicities elucidate or befuddle? And to what extent does confusion enhance one’s passion in expressing one’s message?

Stripping away the artificial and stylized constructs, the authentic action which is most on point is the preparation for the family reunion. where we have already seen where the food and last names identify ethnicity for the Italian Lavecchias and Irish Phelans. We become engaged as the actors hang the Christmas lights, get the chaffing dishes and organize for the large buffet, that is sprinkled with humor, including the thought that a friend’s vegan teenager will not be eating Mrs. Lavecchia’s wonderful meatballs and sausages. The scene is in the congeniality of the season until a monkey wrench is thrown in when Tim and Daniela go shopping to pick up additional supplies. Tim kisses Daniela, truths are revealed. The moment is incredibly awkward and sets us up for Tim’s later emotional and psychological breakdown. Cheung and Yang do a bang-up job with this scene as a lead in to the strongest part of the play, Tim’s illness.

Jon Norman Schneider in Catch as Catch Can (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The last part of the one-act is the clearest. Tim’s profound depression which he’s been hiding from his mother is acute. Friends also miss it and can really do little to help. In the conversation he has with his mother that moves from response to comment, Yang’s portrayal of mother and son is superb and differentiated. Theresa’s unemotional delivery segues into Tim’s unemotional, opaque monotone that reveals his desolate state. Thus, when Cheung’s Daniela explains that she finds he tried to hang himself in their house where he was staying, we are not surprised. Nor are we surprised at Daniela’s expressed hatred for Theresa who can’t acknowledge what is happening to her son. We have seen Tim’s debilitating depression in action with his mother who doesn’t understand her son.

The subsequent hospital scene where Yang’s Tim acts out against being there to his final scene with Robbie convey the misery and hopelessness of his condition. Yang and Schneider do a wonderful job at this juncture. From benign beginning between the almost silly Theresa and Roberta to the conclusion, Tim’s severe illness finally emerges. We note that the events and conversations have led up to this point as merely the tip of the iceberg below which Tim’s state looms to crash into his mother. He can no longer front with her and they become alienated. Theresa rejects his mental state and perhaps as a distraction appears more concerned about herself. However, Robbie is accepting and loving to Tim. We would like to believe he will be there for him. Yet, in a fade to black the outcome is uncertain, as is with mental illness where the patient doesn’t believe in the efficacy of his own survival.

Rob Yang, Cindy Cheung in Catch as Catch Can (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

With a different directorial approach, the themes might have been brought to bear more powerfully. Unfortunately, with this iteration, there is much that remained muddled. One wonders how the dialogue would stand up if the six characters were not in search of delineated roles melting into a mix of ages and genders. Possibly, if performances were less stylized with speech patterns and mannerisms forcing for laughs, the results would have been more dynamic. Indeed, the parts of the production that were authentic and acted with spot-on immediacy (minus exposition), were standouts. Kudos to the three actors in those sections.

Kudos to the creative team that effected the variety of setting changes including the hospital scene. Likewise, to the fine organization of props and setting for the Christmas celebration. The team includes Matt Saunders (scenic design), Enver Chakartash (costume design), Marika Kent (lighting design), Bray Poor (sound design).

Quiara Alegría Hudes’ ‘My Broken Language’ in a World Premiere at the Signature Theatre

(L to R): Samora la Perdida, Zabryna Guevara, Marilyn Torres in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Quiara Alegría Hudes (2011 Pultizer Prize winner for the play Water By the Spoonful), is widely known for what The New Yorker has described as her “exceptional body of work, at once lyrical and colloquial, playful and spiritual.” She is best known for co-writing (with Lin Manuel-Miranda), the book for the Tony award-winning musical In the Heights. She also wrote the screenplay for the beloved film adaptation of In the Heights, heralded by audiences around the world.

(L to R): Marilyn Torres, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Zabryna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Wanting to keep her family stories from Puerto Rico and Philadelphia alive, in 2021Hudes published her memoir My Broken Language to much acclaim. In it Hudes captured her childhood and teenage years, distilling with sumptuous language and feeling the personalities, ethos, joys and excitement of the amazing women who influenced her life and nurtured her.

Based on her titular memoir, Quiara Alegría Hudes brings My Broken Language to the Signature Theatre with a sterling, vivacious cast who humorously and vibrantly break open Hudes’ memories and bring them to life in their portrayals of Hudes’ strong women. Through the actors’ depictions and Hudes’ fine shepherding of their performances, we understand the love which shaped the artist, who, with poetic insight, invites us to examine their empathy, humanity and humor.

Yani Marin in My Broken Language (Julieta Cervantes)

Hudes directs and writes this adaptation for the stage. She divides it into 7 lyrical movements, which elucidate seminal stages in her life. At the top of the presentation, pianist Ariacne Trujillo-Durand enters and strikes us with an upbeat, celebratory merengue as five actors (who play various iterations of the Author character and her relatives), dance then close with an annunciation of the setting and play’s title. It is 1988 in North Philly where Hudes grew up.

We learn why Hudes begins at this point and ends the arc of her play’s development in a memory which is from this vital time in her life. It is the day when she must acknowledge her womanhood, the day when she first menstruates and finds the scarlet “sin” staining her underwear with brown-red blood.

Daphne Rubin Vega, Samora la Perdida (face obscured), Yani Marin, My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

This momentous event happens after she goes to Six Flags Adventure with her god-like, “in the know,” fabulous older cousins. Zabryna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida, Marilyn Torres take up the cousin roles and activate their identities while Daphne Rubin-Vega narrates the Author character descriptions of events. As they carry on and crack jokes and communicate with truck drivers gesturing widely, Rubin-Vega’s Author character becomes sick with heat and nausea. The rollicking trip is fun for the cousins, but the Author stays alone in the car as the others run to the rides without her.

The Author is suffering from her period, she discovers later. However, the event is symbolic. Her life path is different from theirs. Thus, as they leave her to have fun at the park, she will leave them far behind with her educational exploits and journey to become an artist. However, their voices and ethos remain with her because they, her Abuela and mother are integral to her identity. To reconcile the past with the burgeoning evocation of herself, she writes and gives power to her relatives as she remembers and honors the beauty and glory of who these women are.

Yani Marin (center) the company of My Broken Language (Julieta Cervantes)

When Rubin-Vega’s Author returns home to find she is now a woman, Hudes uses the occasion for humor. Abuela gives her a huge pair of panties and she is comforted with a warm beverage and watches TV. She considers whether she will be as robust and striking as the women cousins who took her to Six Flags. Interestingly, the contrast between the Author’s life and theirs is manifest at the end of the segment. The Author from the present lists the ages and names of those cousins who die before their time. They are stricken with the ills of the barrio, ills which Hudes manages to avoid through her education and the loving guidance of Abuela, her mom and the watchful spirits hovering to protect her immediate family.

My Broken Language follows the arc of Hudes’ development and ends as Zabryna Guevara’s Author character finishes her first play in the advanced playwriting class at Brown University in 2004, when she is twenty-six. In this last movement Guevara’s Author is possessed with a spirit to perform trance-like writing. After she finishes the second act of her play, the Author notes she’s written a word she never intended to put in her play. It is then she recalls a “minor” incident from her past, that had great meaning for her, but which she didn’t realize at the time.

Yani Marin (foreground) Marilyn Torres (background) in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

A few months after the fateful day of her womanhood, she recalls that a scurrilous man on the street pulled her over and whispered a demeaning, paternalistic slur in her ear. The epithet stained the beauty of her female identity and trashed it. The slur reflects how some men objectify and sexualize women to justify abusing them. However, because of the amazing women who guide the Author, as well as her education, and her search to reconcile her identity through her writing, she realizes that she is able to cast off the centuries old label. Influenced by the spirits, she casts off its meaning by using the epithet in her play. It is a unique and triumphant moment that Hudes’ direction and writing memorializes.

Like the first movement, all of the movements reveal significant and symbolic memories from Hudes’ past. The director/playwright focuses on her multi-generational Puerto Rican family, including her Abuela, mother, cousins and herself as Author, as she presents a mash up of monologue, literary text, vibrant music and movement in flashback.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design is functionally minimalistic in its representation of the Author’s house and environs where she grew up in North Philly. These facilely extend to other settings like Hudes’ room at Brown University where she writes her play. The set pieces, for example tile boxes that match the tile flooring, morph to various items, i.e. a car, a bathtub, etc., as the actors imaginatively recreate important events in Hudes’ life that reflect joyful and sad moments, the spirits, and the celebration of their lives in the dance.

Daphne Rubin-Vega (seated), Samora la Perdida (standing), Marilyn Torres (seated), Yani Marin (standing) in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Five actors don the role of the Author. They spin in and out of the various stages of her life in a multiplicity of voices and postures. They represent the Author’s inner voices as she realizes their import in shaping her future and expanding her artistic being.

Ostensibly, the Author character unfolds snatches of Hudes’ memoir in all of it beauty and glory as she strings together unique descriptors that make her experiences and her impressions of her beloved nurturing relatives palpable. Zabryna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Marilyn Torres inhabit the Author character during the various movements. In skirting the margins of many communities, we note that theirs is a language they’ve created as their own, some even without having learned to read. That fact astounds and motivates the Author all the more to devour all literature in a obsession she seeks to fulfill as she reads American and British classics.

When she discovers her relative cannot read, she motivates herself and reads at an advanced level. Her hunger to explore the dominant culture reveals how she intends to escape the barrio as she makes it a point to enumerate family who die young. Having the education and language to use as a vehicle of escape, she returns to her roots. In this adaptation she relays this vital act of memory using a multiplicity of voices and vibes. Ultimately, the beauty of the language Hudes selects brings her Abuela, her mom, her cousins and the spirits into powerful, loving focus.

Yani Marin in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

The production is stylized into narrative that is acted out. The dynamic interactions are less interactive than perhaps one might expect. If Hudes expands each of the seven movements to create consistent, moment-to-moment character dialogue, the power of the inner and outer voices of the Author, represented by the actors/characters, will be strengthened.

Strongest are the music and the celebratory dance. Choreographed by Ebony Williams with music supervision by Alex Lacamoire, the joy and vibrance of Hudes’ past resonates. The actors that inhabit the Author and her various women relatives never drop focus or enthusiasm. They, the music and dance are the electric energy of Hudes’ work. Additionally, her language is soaring. One fully appreciates it by reading her memoir and picking up a copy of the script. It is intense and profound.

Kudos to the creative team including Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Jen Schriever (lighting design), Leah Gelpe (sound design), Ann James (cultural specialist), J. Jared Janas (hair, wig and makeup design).

The World Premiere of My Broken Language, written and directed by Quiara Alegría Hudes, is currently running in residency at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre (at The Pershing Square Signature Center), until November 27th. It is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website:

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