‘Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories’ at The Mint Theatre, Two Masters’ Perspectives of Love, Adapted by Miles Malleson
“One of the most diversified talents in the British theatre,” Miles Malleson (1888-1969) was enamored of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, who had formed a bond in the latter years of their lives; Chekhov, the younger pre-deceased Tolstoy, the elder by six years–Tolstoy died in 1910. Admiration of these two great Russian writers inspired Malleson to create theatrical adaptations of short stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov. From Tolstoy’s parable “What Men Live By” Malleson adapted Michael. From Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” Malleson configured The Artist.
The Mint Theatre Company has featured Malleson’s plays before (i.e. Unfaithfully Yours) considering Malleson to be a playwright worthy of recalling to our social theatrical remembrance. In the first offering of the season, The Mint has coupled the British playwright’s dramatic adaptations of Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s one acts because their themes relate to love. In The Artist, directed by Jonathan Banks, Chekhov via Malleson ironically presents romantic love that never has the opportunity to blossom and rejuvenate, but is cut off before its time. In Michael directed by Jane Shaw, Tolstoy via Malleson uncovers truths related to the nature and power of agape love. The Mint Theatre Company’s production of Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories is currently at Theatre Row.
Presenting The Artist and Michael back-to-back offers the audience the opportunity to examine how each of the plays evokes themes about love, spirituality, redemption and revelation. Additionally, one identifies the contrasting social classes represented by the setting and characters of each one act. Each play identifies the perspective of the writers who were interested about what was accessible to the Russian social classes. Tolstoy, a nobleman often wrote about the worthiness of the lower classes who are represented by the characters in Michael. On the other hand Chekhov, whose grandfather was a serf, centered his greatest works on Russian gentry on the brink of an era of change (The Russian Revolution).
In keeping with Chekhov’s proclivities, The Artist takes place on a Russian estate run by a fine, elevated family of women who are intellectual and well regarded. These include the Mother (Katie Firth) and her two daughters. The elder daughter is the teacher Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) who is heavily involved with helping improve the status of the peasants. The youngest is the teenage dreamer Genya (Anna Lentz). An artist Nicov (portrayed by Alexander Sokovikov) visits often and the play opens as he paints his landscape while he interacts with Genya who listens to his philosophical justification of the importance of art over social reformation of the peasant class. Nicov and Lidia who represent antithetical views, argue continually. Thus, Nicov finds Genya’s unformed, youthful attentiveness an entrancement over Lidia’s disparagement of the useless function of Nicov’s art.
The characterizations of Nicov and Genya are reminiscent of Chekhov’s characters from his full-length plays, absent the conflict and tensions inherent in Chekhov’s full formed works. Malleson’s characterizations in The Artist are lukewarm and superficial. There is little heat and light as their should be when Nicov argues with Lidia to set up the drama and tension when he expresses his justifications to a sympathetic Genya with whom he falls in love and who returns his love.
The low-key tension and conflict of Malleson’s characterization is not helped by the lackluster performances. The spark of fire between Genya and Nicov that prompts the sardonic ending and Nicov’s felt and empathetic loss is missing. Nicov’s rant as delivered by Sokovikov is telling; Sokovikov does much of the heavy lifting with authentic responses from Katie Firth. Brittany Anikka Liu as the caring and forceful teacher/reformer in conflict with Nicov should be brighter, more ironic. Their interplay could even be darkly humorous. However, the love between Genya and Nicov is not believable. Thus, the impact of the Chekhovian sardonic ending is rendered impotent.
Michael directed by Sound Designer Jane Shaw, making her directorial debut, employs more fluid light and music as the setting reverts to a peasant’s hut and the characters sing. The backdrop shifts. In The Artist, it is a painted tree filled with autumn leaves, signifying the season and symbolism of Nicov’s waning years. In Michael the design becomes the long, intricate white roots (interestingly lighting by Matthew Richards) of the tree. The symbolism of the lower classes is perhaps being suggested. It is the underclass (the tree’s roots) that supports and is the lifeblood of the middle and upper classes (the trunk, branches, leaves). Without the roots of the peasant class from which all humanity has derived, the upper classes can’t be sustained.
In Michael, the conflict arises when a homeless beggar (Malik Reed) is brought in by Simon (J. Paul Nicholas) and the wife (Katie Firth) must decide whether he should stay or be thrown out because they have barely enough for themselves and Aniuska (Vinie Burrows). The decision is made to let him stay. The scene shifts to a year later. We see the family is being sustained by Michael, the beggar who does not speak because he works as a cobbler for the peasant family. When a Russian Nobleman (Alexander Sokovikov) arrives and requires boots, the circumstances change. Michael makes a mistake with the boots, but it turns out to be a prescient action. That evening his learning is complete and finally Michael reveals who he is, why he is there and what he has learned about pity and empathy which is agape love. It is what we should live by.
The performances in Michael adhered more completely. Reed’s performance was soundly delivered undergirded by the ensemble. Malleson’s adaptation of the Tolstoy short story provided more dramatic tension and mystery. The staging and props added interest to engage the audience more completely, along with Oana Botez’s variable costuming, i.e. the nobleman’s coat and hat contrasted with the peasants’ outfits.
The pairing of the two one acts by the Russian writers who were contemporaries via Malleson is an enlightened decision if imperfectly rendered. It is the landed gentry in The Artist who remain unfulfilled by love, in effect harming the artist. They deprive him of rejuvenating love, and negatively impact his purpose to bring uplifting pleasure with his art. In Michael, the affirmation of the goodness of the peasant class (a Christian precept in the Beatitudes) is brought to them by Michael. He shares with them the wisdom that they have received through empathy/pity. It is the vitality of agape love that will sustain them.
In contrasting the two classes, the landed gentry is much worse off than the peasant class, a notion that Nicov suggests to Lidia to no avail. Lidia is convinced that (as in later years during the didactic polemic of the revolution) reform is imperative, art is useless. Meanwhile, the reforms and revolutions as they came did great harm which persists (one might argue) to this day. On the other hand making art is a necessity for the middle and upper classes to help them understand empathy and love, something the blessed poor, according to Tolstoy, are ready to receive and do take in as,the very potency which sustains them.
Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories runs until 14th March at Theatre Row (42nd Street). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Listed are the creative team: Roger Hanna (sets) Oana Botez (costumes) Matthew Richards (lights) Jane Shaw (original music and sound) Natalie carney (props).
What happens when Jewish orthodoxy and strict mores find intermarriage with someone of another faith verboten? Depending upon the orthodoxy of the Jewish community, this may be a serious issue. Cleverly, Cary Gitter, under the superb direction of Joe Brancato, keeps the difficult elements of love between a single Catholic woman and divorced, Orthodox Jewish man at bay in the lively, well-paced, delightful The Sabbath Girl currently at 59E59 Theaters. The production presented in its New York City premiere by Penguin Rep Theatre runs a slim 85 minutes with no intermission.
The romantic comedy’s tone and tenor skirts the dramatic in the opening scene when Nonna (portrayed exquisitely by Angelina Fiordellisi) visits with her beloved granddaughter Angie (the adorable Lauren Annunziata). Nonna checks on Angie to see how she is adjusting to her new apartment. In the process as is her custom, she chides Angie about not being in a love relationship. Angie assures Nonna she is a “modern woman,” perhaps a bit of a feminist. And she insists she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. She has her budding career, which encompasses her waking moments and keeps her busy. We note that Angie is ambitious, industrious and smart, especially since she intends to translate her success into even greater achievements.
Thus begins the theme of traditionalism vs. modernism framed by familial relationships. Gitter expands the themes around this conflict during the course of the play. With humor and irony, she drives the arc of the plot neatly and swiftly to a satisfying resolution.
An additional conflict in Angie’s life centers around the men she encounters as potential love interests. Throughout the play, when her Nonna visits to examine how her “love life” is going, Angie sweetly dismisses Nonna’s “traditionalist” suggestions about falling in love with the “right person” and hearing the “music of love” in her soul. Angie’s feminist bent is to negotiate and affirm her own definitions of what affection, love and marriage might be for her life. Gitter’s characterization of Angie also includes that she is rebounding from a failed relationship where her former boyfriend lied and cheated on her. In other words if she will become involved with someone, he will have to convince her he is unlike the cad she was with.
The first man she encounters is Seth (Jeremy Rishe) an Orthodox Jewish gentleman who discovers his former Shabbos goy has moved and Angie is now his neighbor. A Shabbos goy is a Yiddish term for a non Jew who is asked by Jews to perform actions that are forbidden to them on Saturday, the Sabbath, i.e. turning on lights, electrical devices, etc.. Seth explains to Angie that his other neighbor was his regular Shabbos goy. Since Angie is his new neighbor, he asks her to turn on his air conditioning. They share a few insights and he leaves. However, Seth, who, too, is recovering from a bad relationship can’t get Angie out of his mind.
For her part Angie is uninterested in Seth because there is someone else on her horizon with whom she has art in common. This man is the awesome and cool Blake (Ty Molbak) an artist that Angie wishes to exhibit in her gallery, but who is holding out for the best offers from galleries in the city. Blake wears dark glasses to fuel his image. He manipulates Angie and claims that she will have to “woo” him before he exhibits in the gallery.
Nonna, like a fairy godmother who is gentle, funny and sweet, guides Angie and encourages her against Blake and toward Seth. Of course our own weaknesses sometimes lead us to be enamored of individuals who will hurt us, and reject others for whom we are well- suited. Angie is initially attracted to Blake and assesses that Seth is not her type and his religion is a barrier which she is not interested in climbing over.
How the playwright turns these developments on their head becomes the focal point in the action, with complications added by Rachel (Lauren Singerman) Seth’s sister after Angie begins to return Seth’s interest in her. Rachel is another aspect and voice of traditionalism. But unlike Nonna, hers is predicated not on love, but on fear. On the one hand, she wants her brother to move on with life after his divorce and dismiss the recriminations he feels against his parents who forced a marriage on him that he lacked the courage to prevent. Yet, traditionally, she believes Seth should be with a nice, safe, Orthodox Jewish girl, and she has the right woman for him. Furthermore, Rachel’s interference in her brother’s life is rather witchy. She discourages his interest in Angie and encourages him to return to his community in Riverdale that he moved away from prompted by the negativity and depression of his divorce.
Another complication is Blake’s facade of unreality. It masks his troubled nature and his doubts about where he is going with his art. Ultimately, when he is unmasked, his artistic ambivalence and his relationship with another woman deep six his moving forward with Angie as a love interest and as an exhibiting artist. It appears that despite Nonna’s good will, cheerfulness and her advice to Angie about hearing the music of love, her granddaughter is going to be alone. Indeed, both Seth and Blake turn away from her.
This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see this endearing romantic comedy to discover how Gitter resolves the conflicts and discovers answers for those who are bound by traditions whether self-imposed or externally imposed by cultural mores that perhaps are less stringent than one might imagine. One has only to test the boundaries of love to understand whether such external mores enhance living as they are supposed to, or nullify it which runs counter to love. Also, one must reject the traditionalism of believing if love failed once, it will fail again because one is incapable of finding it. Sometimes, love arrives in the most surprising ways.
The ensemble brings home the laughter seamlessly and the jokes centered about being Jewish and Jewish men are particularly hysterical. For the staging (set design by Christopher and Justin Swader) boxes are employed to suggest Angie’s apartment, Seth and Rachel’s Knish shop, the gallery and more. The presentation is supplemented by apt video projections and music between various scene changes in an interesting, fanciful way. The props that serve to key in changes in the development of Angie’s relationship with Seth and Blake are well appointed and symbolic.
Gitter’s themes about love transcending internal and external traditions are important reminders in this social time of divides: progressive vs. reactionary. By the end of the play, Angie learns that Nonna was more progressive than Angie thought she was because of Angie’s inflexibility about relaxing her perceptions of men. Likewise, Rachel is taught a lesson by her brother and learns to relax her own inflexibility as Seth begins to hope his life will turn away from despair.
Kudos to the creative team who brought Brancato’s vision of Gitter’s humorous play to the stage: Christopher & Justin Swader (scenic designers) Gregory Gale (costume designer) Todd O. Wren (lighting designer) Matt Otto (original music/sound designer) Yana Birÿkova (projection designer) Buffy Cardoza (properties).
The Sabbath Girl is just what is needed to brighten our hearts and spirits during the doldrums of February. You may see The Sabbath Girl at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th St. between Madison and Park) before it closes on 8th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice based on the Columbia Pictures film written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, with music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green is a lightly satiric, musical comedy, with mellow, soulful music. The production, like its titular film counterpart, hearkens back to an easier time before AIDS, STDS, the debacle of the Viet Nam War and the cultural stresses afterward, when the country faced chaotic divisiveness that was not easily answered by later political administrations.
Directed by Scott Elliott, the production is a delight with adorable actors portraying the thirty-something married couples Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Bob (Joél Pérez), Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) who try to redefine themselves according to the hot pants, younger generational trends which tout the rejection of binding sexual mores and strictures.
This was the time of open marriages, when free love was being embraced as revelational. Various generations either looked askance in horror or savored the sex with hallucinogens and weed. So instead of rotting in aging and being left behind, Bob and Carol take a break from the kids, go to a New Age type resort, and embrace the “new” concepts of this inner freedom and tranquility.
Bob and Carol begin the arc of the story development and conflicts after they return from their growth experience at the retreat (like Esalen) led by the director (who is also the band leader) portrayed by Suzanne Vega. The experience “opens” them up to a new world of freedom using the techniques we have all come to know today (meditation, primal screams, intense feeling expressions, etc.).
They return home believing that the experience translates into their daily lives by allowing them to understand their values, their “ethos,” and their capacity to break away into new experiences. Of course one of the most important is extending the boundaries of their marriage and expanding themselves to include acceptance of their partner’s actions whatever they may be. Bob initiates this extension by having sex, in an unfaithful act, which surprisingly Carol accepts and answers with one of her own. Both affirm, “It was just sex, not love.”
For Ted and Alice who essentially watch and don’t indulge, their learning is vicarious, but they can’t move beyond the boundaries of their own morals and sensibility of love. They judgmentally remain within the strictures of their marriage vows and monogamy. The contrast between the two couples is telling: here are the liberals and the conservatives. But beneath each conservative heart is the quest to be liberal. And in this production, it is no less so.
As you watch the events unfold and empathize with the characters along their journeys of self-discovery, you can’t help but fall a bit in love with them. They are so cute in their questioning searches as they soldier on to their discoveries with quasi-comical seriousness. Watching liberal couple Bob and Carol explore the outer limits of love and marriage, extramarital affairs, infidelity, sexuality and enlightened contrast between love and sex, we are along for their ride because it is neither shocking nor lustful, nor pornographic. It just is.
Considering what has transpired between then (1969) and now, the perniciousness of sexual plagues and wildness of Studio 54 that gave rise to them, which followed the “free love” generation, by comparison, these couples are sweet neophytes. The production mirrors this laid-back pleasantness in mood and tone delivered by Sheik’s balancing music, sung with fluidity, smoothness and grace by Grammy winner Suzanne Vega, and with melodic lyricism by the ensemble.
The characters’ “new” sexual endeavors infuse the production with the mild raciness of the 1969 film. The original which spawned a later TV show was a comedy satire about the cultural mores transformation. A success at the box office, it did have Oscar-winning nominations for the actors who played Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).
Overall, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a retrospective and homage to the the culture and class who merely dipped lightly in with their toes as they approached the swirling currents of social change. They accomplished just enough to stimulate themselves, then slid back into their comfort zones measuring their lives with coffee spoons as they dabbled with introspection.
Sheik’s music and the ironic Suzanne Vega as band leader, “mistress of ceremonies” reintroduce for our time a derivation of pop’s easy listening. As the overarching guiding light of threaded musical commentary, Suzanne Vega’s lilting, sensuous voice reveals these four characters as she editorializes their journey beginning with Bob and Carol’s stay at the retreat and their “enlightened” return when they share their enlivening experiences with their conservative friends Ted and Alice.
But as the bonds between the couples loosen, the audience becomes intrigued. Ted and Alice warm up to their friends’ “exploits.” Bob and Carol appear sophisticated, cool and free in their “open” marriage. The men and women separately sing about and discuss their sexuality and their spouses which leads each to consider their lives with their partners. The songs eventually reveal that each couple is inspired to reaffirm their love for each other.
But we know what’s coming: “monkey see, monkey do”! Humorously, the two couples push the envelope by spending a night together in the bedroom with interesting results. Ultimately, they discover the vitality of loving one individual with intimacy and true spiritual bonding which can only happen when each member of the couple reveals that they are vulnerable and need help to receive the intimacy and beauty of love from their spouse.
The production works on many levels and is just what is needed at this time and place in a tumultuous social and political fabric that is too frightening to contemplate and whose nightly news and snarky, edgy, social and cultural reports are the antithesis of entertainment. Thus, the concept of “the open marriage” which Bob and Carol investigate with Ted and Alice with the quips and satiric jokes laced in with clever writing by Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book becomes a relief.
There is no heavy lifting here, nothing more profound and mysterious than how and why we fall in love with each other which is a wonderful “thing” to contemplate. It is this that engages us and immerses us with this throwback to another time. And as we contemplate and review this historical retrospective of the social and cultural mores of that time, we also enjoy the costumes and the California dreaming liquidity of the music so we are able to ride on the waves of the production’s serenity.
The ensemble and director have established the right tenor for the comedic elements. And Sheik’s music is subtly, appropriately emotional as the characters search themselves and each other to understand the mysteries of love.
Special kudos to Kelly Devine’s musical staging and to the following creatives: Derek McLane (scenic design) Jeff Mahshie (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Jessica Paz (sound design). Additional kudos to Duncan Sheik for the orchestrations, Jason Hart for music supervision, vocal arrangements and additional orchestrations and Antoine Silverman for music coordination.
The New Group’s presentation of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice runs with no intermission until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
How does one survive in New York City without being subsidized by one’s parents while making a modest income to pay the rent on a 300 square foot studio that is half of one’s income? One has housemates. That way one can afford a larger space at a reduced cost and actually be able to enjoy a finer lifestyle. There are problems, though. As the human numbers augument to share the space, conflicts arise as each must accommodate and subvert their own idiosyncrasies and proclivities to compromise with their housemates, especially when sharing the common areas (kitchen, bathroom, etc.). In the mix and melding of personalities who live together, what can result may be funny, dramatic or challenging, but it is never dull. And for some it sure beats living ALONE!
Lily Akerman’s World Premiere comedy The Commons, presented by The Hearth and directed by Emma Miller, explores what happens when particular housemates attempt to survive in an environment of diminishing resources and increasingly complex habitats with limited space. In the play we note how the living situation becomes pressurized and the individuals become stressed by the mundane ordinary. Miniscule issues balloon to paramount proportion when housemates attempt to share responsibilities though there is no one in the lead and all must decide by gaining consensus. Housemates must “take up the slack” for each other, set rules, then hold each other accountable when there are violations. Something as simple as doing the dishes or making bread takes on significant heft and can cause hurt feelings and oppressed wills, unless individuals have the maturity and equanimity to reach viable agreements.
Akerman examines four characters Robyn (Ben Newman) Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) Dee (Julia Greer) and Cliff (Ben Katz) and sets them interacting with and against each other as they confront homely situations like cleaning, dish washing, making bread and struggling against a mouse invasion. Akerman adds a fifth character, Anna (Olivia Abiassi) who is a romantic interest for Cliff. Anna’s brief visit convolutes the mix of personalities who already strain to get along. None of the housemates are friends, so it becomes an unusual occasion when they decide to go out to a bar together and in another segment let loose and dance their stress away.
The vitality and comedy of the production resides in the fine acting of the ensemble who make the most seemingly ridiculous superficialities (a dirty stovetop burner) of mega importance with authenticity, as if the issue was a matter of “life and death.” The humor of dealing with a mouse that had to be killed and the tragedy of the creature losing its life as memorialized by Janira (Koshatefeh does a wonderful job with this comedic bit) is marvelous.
As we chortle at the characters having to deal with their particular angst at the problem of living with others, we can’t help but note that their embroilios are telling. The common areas are the centers which carry the stress when a particular housemate like Cliff or Janira don’t act with accountability to the “whole.” As housemates attempt to resolve the issues the comedy rises and we identify with how humans act and react with guilt, excuses, judgment, subterfuge and inner upset as they attempt to manipulate the situation to their own satisfaction. Also, the philosophical approaches of each of the housemates become superimposed on the living situation for each. This is especially ironic as Robyn expresses his opinion that living with housemates communally is healthier than couples living and raising their family in isolation.
Aikerman’s play however, is about much more than the characters attempting to work out their living arrangements with compromises, meetings and rules enforcements. It is a metaphor for how we adjust to others “living on top of us” as sources and space diminish and we must decide whether we should open our borders or close them, accept refugees to forestall the humanitarian crisis or let them perish or ignore those who have been victimized by their own birth in third world countries. The Commons in microcosm is representative of the macrocosm. Behind the comedy bits and vignettes involving each of the characters in the hot seat, is the presentation of larger themes that Akerman highlights for all of us, whether we live in crowded cities with sparse affordable housing or less densely populated rural areas that hold few opportunities.
Some of these questions follow on a symbolic level: In the looming portent of climate change relocation, how will populations accommodate each other as refugees move from areas of devastation? How will dwindling resources prompted by global warming and weather weirding impact societies, turning the haves against the have nots who knock at their doors for help? Will cultures readily share or will there be genocide of ethnic groups? Do ethics and morality abide if leaders ignore human standards of right and wrong and replace them with money and power as the enforcement of decision making? Will everyone benefit if cultures shift to a “might is right” ethos or is that one more way of introducing self-destruction into the parameters of global reorganization necessitated by climate chaos which is already manifesting?
The Commons at its funniest reveals the base responses and reactions of housemates accused of their mistakes which are funny because they are exaggerated. But what becomes obvious is the dynamic of accountability. The housemates are accountable and responsible to each other. Selfishness no longer cuts it when one’s dishes are always left clogging up the sink and one is gobbling down another’s food because he or she forgot to go shopping. The results are humorous. But the underbelly of this is dark. In order to survive and thrive, we must live with each other and be responsible for our own actions as we contribute to the goodness of everyone else. Only by doing that do we all make our lives purposeful and valuable.
To fully appreciate Akerman’s larger themes, one must lift The Commons above the characters’ petty details to note the moral treatises underneath. Like the housemates who adjust to each other and hold each other accountable for their actions and “pull together,” so must we as nations globally do our part as contributors to each others’ greater good. Shirking our responsibility through science denial, moral and ethical turpitude, and negligence will only come back to haunt us in the end.
Kudos to the creative design team with scenic design by Emma Finckel, costume design by Dara Affholter, lighting design by Victoria Bain and sound design by Caroline Eng. The Commons runs with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 23rd February. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘Grand Horizons,’ a Ferociously Funny Vision of Senior Redefinition, Starring Jane Alexander and James Cromwell
At last! There’s a new and improved perspective of “seniorhood” that doesn’t include steps up the ladder of infirmity and dementia: from independent living to the “Rose Court,” from memory care to the palliative slip-away into Hospice. Indeed, as we appreciate and glory over the vibrant humor and comedic power of situation and characters in Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, we learn a thing or two about “old folks” and “the younger generation” in this rollicking yet profound play.
First, age is attitude. Second, the older one becomes, the more one must think outside of the box, especially out of the type found in replicated, independent living housing. Third, the closer one gets to the “end,” the more one should “rage against the dying of the light.” Fourth, one can experience in one’s later years a vision of life that is freeing, one that destroys the cages we created our entire lives: for they are a mere facsimile of living. Indeed, contrary to seniors who settle for the cardboard, cookie-cutter artificiality of existence in vegetative, pre-fabricated places like Grand Horizons, Wohl reveals that it is possible to make life-affirming changes even at the age of 80 years-old as does her protagonist, Nancy, the amazing Jane Alexander.
The playwright’s brilliant script is cleverly paced by Leigh Silverman’s precise direction of the superb ensemble. Masters of the comedy of real, of humor springing from grounded, soulful authenticity, the actors led by Jane Alexander and James Crowmwell pop the quips, jokes, one-liners, twists and turns of phrase and mood to keep the audience laughter rolling in waves of joy. Wohl’s well-crafted writing absolutely sings with comedic grace and profound themes, sharply channeled by Silverman. These include the importance of breaking through the stereotypical concepts of aging, family, parenting, marriage, love, intimacy, individuality and autonomy.
The play’s situation is common enough. Nancy and Bill, a “typical,” retired, fifty-year married couple have taken the next steps toward their journey’s end by moving into an independent senior living community. Is it the replication of row after row of modestly, flimsily built homes in a vast similitude (Bryce Cutler’s projection design) that sets off Nancy? Or perhaps what triggers her is the whitewashed, pleasant kitchen/dining nook/living room interior of “peaceful” uniformity (Clint Ramos’ set design) though it is festooned by artificial greenery.
We learn later in a profound and symbolic irony, that the lovely plants don’t even have the opportunity to die bio-dynamically as a result of Nancy’s over or under watering. They just go on and on and on in lifeless “eternity.” Nancy’s eyes open to their fake permanence later in the play, after she has confronted herself, her children and Bill with the truth. Her ironic comment about their artificiality has to do with the realizations of her own growth.
The vast sterility of this community is only heightened by the play’s opening of Nancy’s and Bill’s dinner that is choreographed to reveal a mutually synchronized preparation that they execute silently with near robotic precision. Well, enough is enough in this perfect haven of deadness. I could hear Nancy’s thoughts as she looked at Bill as they, with synced movements in unison, took out their napkins, then began to drink and eat. What more could anyone their age wish want? They appear to have it all. But is this the exuberance of life we wish for?
At this point Alexander’s Nancy lets the desires of her heart explode from her lips and the train moves onto the express track and doesn’t stop until she achieves what she wants, sort of, by the play’s end. Jane Alexander’s delivery of the opening lines of conflict are spot-on humorous and ominous: “I think I want a divorce.”
The excitement of what Nancy envisions to be on her grand horizon for the future is in imagining its open-ended possibilities, even if it is merely sitting in a restaurant and enjoying a meal by herself. Clearly, she wants no more imprisonment by the chains of coupling. She wants to know her own power, strength and autonomy apart from defining herself as Bill’s wife. As the play progresses, we discover she has already established her autonomy away from her family, though she has kept it secret. Interestingly, perhaps as a long awaited response, Bill is striking out on his own in this senior community by taking stand up comedy classes and enjoying a relationship with Carla (Priscilla Lopez). We learn later that this may be his response to what he has known all along of Nancy’s secrets.
As these details are gradually revealed we enjoy watching the incredulous sons, Brian (the wonderfully funny Michael Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie is the harried lawyer control freak who can’t relax). Both are shattered by the announcement of the divorce. Ironically, they don’t want their parents to leave their comfortable “mom” and “dad” roles to be individuals, redefining who they want to be. They want stasis, not for their parents’ happiness but for their own comfort and assurance. Brian’s and Ben’s perceptions of their parents living apart from each other are at odds with their parents’ expectations. For Nancy and Bill divorce will be a positive experience. The sons cannot wrap their heads around this, especially that Nancy is planning to live in an Air Bnb. Their mom in an Air BnB: a horror!
Wohl takes advantage of this set-up in a refreshing way. In an ironic reversal, with the help of Jess (Ashley Park) Ben’s wife, Brian and Ben don the parental roles. They attempt to gauge what has recently happened, as they try to square away what mom and dad must do to resurrect the bloom on their long-dead marriage. Their failed attempts are humorous. Adroitly, the actors bounce off each of their characters’ stress-filled emotions with peppery dynamism and wit.
Brian’s neediness is easily identifiable throughout and is integral to his character as a theater teacher who creates 200 characters in The Crucible so “no kid will be left behind to feel left out.” It is Brian who is so dislocated by his parents’ future divorce, he worries about where he will spend Thanksgiving which is six months away. His sensitivity exceeds his parents’ emotionalism. The dichotomy is hysterical, yet heartfelt.
Ben’s eczema flares as he attempts to take control of where each of his parents will live. And then there is Jess providing the counseling so Nancy and Bill can return to their once affectionate times with each other. With Ben and Brian looking on with hope at Jess’ powers, the results that follow are riotous. As their visit with Bill and Nancy to persuade them not to divorce lengthens, Jess begins to look at her relationship with Ben differently as he reverts to Bill and Nancy’s son. Where has her husband gone or is this just hormones because she is pregnant?
The resistance of the younger generation to the divorce is a powerful obstacle which the parents find impossible to answer to their children’s’ satisfaction. It provides conflicts among the characters from which Wohl tweaks and teases thematic tropes. What are the phases and stages of our lives? How do we define them apart from cultural stereotypes and familiar roles that appear to offer comfort, but are actually binding and nullifying? What price do we pay to create our families and sacrifice for children with expectations that are unreasonable, or worse, false? From parenting to aging, no one can provide a guideline for what to do that will resonate completely with our individual lives. Every family, every person in that family is different. We fail, but perhaps it is worth it because we learn and if we are open to it, we heal.
Nancy’s desire for a divorce sets the entire family roiling except for Bill, who appears to remain calm. Of course Wohl is always pushing the envelope to get the maximum surprise and intrigue from her characters, who remain interesting and intensely human.
The audience’s gales of laughter organically spring from Nancy’s revelations that she has pursued her desires and dreams despite the intrusions of raising her two sons and making a home for her husband Bill. Indeed, the mother they believed she was, is not who she presented herself to be. She had another love. And when she expresses the importance of her closeness and intimacy with this lover to Brian (Urie brings down the house with his responses to her sexual descriptions) in the hope of explaining why she is leaving Bill, he cannot cope with understanding that his mother is perhaps a woman first.
This is something many children have difficulty with unless the parents, with good will and flexibility, help them to understand love, sexuality and intimacy. Bill and Nancy never considered going into these discussions with Brian and Ben because they never went there with each other. It is a telling irony that catches up with all of them at this juncture.
Clearly, Nancy runs deep as does Bill, who is a cypher that Wohl reveals by the conclusion, when we learn that both Bill and Nancy have kept intimacies and secrets to themselves. Yet, they do love one another. The humor and pathos come when we note how difficult it is for Ben and Brian to understand their parent’s particularities when they believed the packaged family meme that “togetherness is happiness.” That meme when they admit it, satisfied none of them, least of all their parents.
All of this eventually tumbles out after Brian, Ben and Jess visit, stay and don’t leave until Bill and Nancy politely tell them to go and reassure them that they are going to be all right. By the end of the play, Wohl opens the door to hope. Even if they live apart, maybe Bill and Nancy can begin to see each other outside of the roles that threatened to box them in “til death did them part.”
Grand Horizons is a mixture of uproarious fun and thoughtful poignance. Shepherded by Leigh Silverman’s vision the actors deliver, with sterling performances by Alexander and Cromwell and with high marks for McKenzie, Urie, Park and in secondary roles as Tommy (Maulik Pancholy) and Carla (Priscilla Lopez). Additional kudos to the creative team: Clint Ramos (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) Jen Schriever (lighting design) Palmer Hefferan (sound design) Bryce Cutler (production design).
When the Negro Ensemble Company presented Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play in its Off Broadway premiere in 1981, the production garnered a number of theater awards and Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. Norman Jewison directed the film version retitled A Soldier’s Story in 1984 where it was nominated for numerous awards. It has been produced in two revivals Off Broadway in subsequent decades. At last Fuller’s searing, profound work about race prejudice internalized has received its premiere on Broadway, thirty-nine years later. It is currently running at American Airlines Theatre.
With exceptional direction by the amazing Kenny Leon (Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in the Park 2019) and sterling ensemble work headed up with masterful performances by David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, A Soldier’s Play has come to Broadway with vibrant force and vigor. The dramatic arc of development revolves around solving a murder mystery. The body of Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier portrays the unlikable, brutal, tragic Sergeant) is found with two bullet holes. The murder case is solved through flashbacks of scenes during the testimony of witnesses, narration and scenes unfolding in the present day 1944, Fort Neal, Louisiana.
Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell in a fine performance) and his superiors take precautions with the men of Waters’ platoon Company B, 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company. They fear that Waters’ men may engage in revenge killings against red necks in the area of Fort Neal, Louisiana. It is not clear at the outset, but Waters may have been lynched by the KKK or good ole boys who intend to keep blacks bowing and scraping. Until his murder is investigated, and more is discovered about what may have happened, Waters’ men are guarded by MPs who surround their barracks so that none of them get entangled with white townspeople. Private Hensen suggests that the Klan killed Waters because lynchings have been happening since he arrived at Fort Neal. But he may have been murdered by white officers in a racial killing. As a result, commanding officers on the base have given the case a “low priority status,” and are ready to sweep all they discover under the rug.
The consideration makes sense in 1944 during WW II. At the Fort Neal and on every base in the U.S. military, black and white soldiers are segregated in their living quarters, platoons and companies. Service in the military is as discriminatory as the “separate but equal” oppressions of the Jim Crow South. In the day to day operations, the black companies are detailed with doing the scut work and menial assignments in order to confirm that they are the inferior race. Indeed, the men have not yet been sent to Europe to fight. This is another racist assumption that they cannot be trusted, but fit the stereotypic mischaracterization of blacks being lazy, shiftless, mentally slow and cowardly.
Fuller’s play focuses on the nullifying effects of racism as blacks attempt to rise in a culture that oppresses them, and counter-productively rejects or ignores their gifts and contributions. Using the lens of the past during WWII and the backdrop of segregation in the military, Fuller brilliantly emphasizes the psychological impacts of racism which creates annihilating divisions not only between blacks and whites, but especially between blacks and blacks. An inferred theme is that as the fascist Nazis did for Germany, these behaviors also, are incredibly destructive to “the master race.”
Fuller’s play reveals a richness of themes, characterizations and conflicts that timelessly reflect great currency for us today with underlying institutional racism and the increasing evidence of racism unleashed by the White House. Fuller also digs deeply into the black on black abuse and crime that evidences the internalization of white oppression and denigrating values and attitudes that blacks unconsciously accept as they seek to redefine themselves culturally apart from the mordant ethics of white culture.
Leon, highlights these themes with his superb direction and vision of Fuller’s play. His is a fascinating and nuanced iteration that includes symbolism and foreshadowing manifested by Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design and the music rendered in song by the on-point cast, elucidated by the excellent sound design of Dan Moses Schreier. At appropriate junctures in the production, beginning from the outset, Leon has the soldiers in Company B sing. We come to understand later that they are mourning one of their own. The music ties them together in a unity that cannot be breached by the racist white officers.
However, this unity must be breached by Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) a lawyer assigned to the 343 Military Police Corp Unit, if he is to discover who murdered Waters. In a devastatingly powerful, psychologically sensitive and heartfelt performance, Underwood introduces us to the racial dynamic he must confront as he analyzes the situation with objective tolerance, restraint and courage. It is an irony that in Davenport’s encounters with white officers, who would abuse his rank and his education, he stands his own ground with dignity and grace, employing the full force of his culture’s weapons (including a rumor that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is behind the investigation). No publicity is good publicity; if the case, which has been given low priority, is not handled properly, it could embarrass the military in a time of war.
Davenport, who is a maverick outlier, confounds the racist military officers who don’t know what to do with him and how to behave around him. He is a confident, self-realized, unbowed black man who is educationally superior to them, having achieved a law degree in addition to four years of college. Davenport’s talking “like a white man” and his staid nature and inner power particularly annoy Captain Taylor who dislikes that Davenport outranks him in intelligence and education, though they are on equal footing as Captains.
They disagree continually about Davenport’s mission, his competence, his confidence bucking the system and his insistence in interrogating and arresting white officers who might be charged with Waters’ murder. Underwood’s Davenport and O’Connell’s Taylor are authentic in their head-to-head arguments which intensify as Davenport incisively moves through his investigation. Both actors contribute to creating suspense and heightening the themes about why Waters was murdered, which gives rise to the underlying psychological and racial components that his murder reveals.
Fuller’s depth of characterization, his wisdom and his clear-eyed perception of what it means to be black in the military and in America then and now is only enhanced and codified in this insightful rendering shepherded by Kenny Leon to perfection. Each of the relationships between and among the enlisted soldiers of Company B, Waters and the white officers reflect explosive, vital issues. The irony of the setting is that America, which is mandated to fight and destroy fascism, of course refuses to adequately confront its racist fascism at home. The white culture forces susceptible blacks to obviate their own identity and culture to embrace white culture to “thrive.” Of course by doing this, blacks must reject their own people, their own very being as they internalize the value of being white and act white to get ahead, destroying their very valuable spirit and the soul of blackness.
This mistaken assumption is exemplified by Sergeant Waters. David Alan Grier’s perceptive understanding of Waters reveals the character’s limitations and sorrows. His cruelty toward some of the men in his company is an outgrowth of venerating white values and not defining himself as having worth apart from the white cultural “successes”. Grier’s portrayal is complex and rich with nuanced meaning. He reveals Waters’ realization of how he has destroyed himself and others as the great tragedy of the play. He is stunning and sardonic in his provocation of the white officers, and it is then we realize that he cannot get untangled from the morass he has created in abusing himself and others. He has become the epitome as the white man’s creature who perpetrates the most pernicious elements of discrimination and hatred by oppressing himself and attacking his own people.
Grier’s Waters is miserable and is looking to be put out of this hell he has created. And the execution he cannot effect for himself in a suicide, he provokes another to accomplish for him. His death is paralleled with another in the production. The other death is senseless genocide that Waters prompts, of course, because daily, Waters must cut out his black identity from his own soul. And in a twisted, passive aggressive revenge against blacks, whom he sees as not rising to the white man’s standards, he obliterates them. It is a slow, horrific process of self-destruction and fraud that the men in his company recognize, but cannot articulate. If they could they might be able to beneficially codify how to stop the genocidal practice of destroying oneself to “fit in” which Waters exemplifies.
In addition to the exceptional performances already mentioned are the performances of J. Alphonse Nicholson portraying Private C. J. Memphis and Rob Demery portraying Corporal Bernard Cobb. Nicholson’s Memphis is sensitive, loving and accepting. His speech to his close friend Corporal Cobb (who, too, is kind and elucidating) is poignant and filled with longing. We immediately understand where he is going in his life and why; his choice is symbolic and consequential; it is the cry of freedom from strictures which have so bound up Waters as to make him daily harm himself and target those like Memphis and Cobb.
Waters’ act of provocation and Memphis’ act are different sides of the same coin. That their behavior is directed against themselves and the black race in genocidal acts caused by racism and fascism, runs to the soul of American and is Leon’s and Fuller’s indictment against white supremacy. Indeed, if we look hard and deep enough in our justice system, in our economic inequality, in our educational inequality, the same threads of injustice prevail today. They are frighteningly manifest in the fascism of white supremacists who look to find their “place in the sun” which they fear they have lost. It is an incredible irony considering that they are blind, deaf and dumb to their own cultural creations and backwash reflected by institutional racism and discrimination that ultimately is destroying the white culture along with the black in a nihilistic seething inhumanity.
The conclusion delivered by Underwood’s Davenport that sums up the case findings and aftermath is emotionally riveting. It is as heartfelt and poignant as Nicholson’s speech as Private C. J. Memphis. But where Memphis has chosen his decision, Davenport is both blessed and cursed with infinite understanding. Indeed, we see that his recounting of what has transpired in Fort Neal is a memorial to these individuals. Also, it is triumphant in its prophesy for the future of civil rights achievements and the hoped for end of racism and discrimination which has yet to be realized even to this day in America. And finally it is a cry of anguish from the depths of Davenport’s soul: of frustration, of anger, of a cry to the heavens for justice. The interpretations are many as a capstone to this incredible production whose themes are paramount for us today.
Thankfully, Fuller’s play and this production put these themes front and center. It is impossible not to feel them, see them, know them, especially in recognizing current attempts to destroy our imperfectly realized democratic form of government by moving it toward fascism and dictatorship.
Once again kudos to the ensemble acting whose unity and and realism helped to create a memorable, thrilling night at the theater. And kudos also go to the creative team: Derek McLane (set design) Dede Ayite (costume design) Allen Lee Hughes (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) Thomas Schall (fight choreographer).
The must-see A Soldier’s Play is running at American Airlines Theatre (42nd St. between 7th and 8th) with one intermission until 15 March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
In Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of My Name is Lucy Barton, Rona Munro’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, nothing is obvious. Indeed, a comparison to the novel may be a misdirection from what has been achieved in this sterling production, acted in a solo performance by the unparalleled Laura Linney. Linney flawlessly manifests director Richard Eyre’s vision for the titular character, and in doing so enhances Munro’s fine adaptation and Strout’s incredible, heart-felt characterization.
As the lights dim, we gaze upon the minimalistically staged hospital room whose large 3 D window spreads to almost cover the entire back wall, an indication of its importance to reflect Barton’s memories through three time lenses. Throughout the 90 minute play, projections of location scenes (NYC brownstone, corn/soybean fields, etc.) will splay, each enhancing and signifying Lucy Barton’s life (materially and symbolically).
When, Linney makes her entrance, stage left, her vital presence smashes through the sterility of the room and the possibilities of what being hospitalized portends. Her walk is confident, forthright, determined, with perhaps a hint of ruthlessness (this relates to what a friend told her about her career). And from that moment on, Linney secures our focus with her character’s articulate, well-hewn descriptions. She bewitches us by infusing Lucy Barton’s masterful story-telling with spot-on passion and seemingly open-hearted truthfulness. Our attention remains transfixed, throughout. And, at times, during her intimate, heartbreaking monologue, the audience remains hushed and still, avidly gleaning revelatory peeks into Barton’s miserable childhood of poverty, loneliness and fear while she grew, like the corn and soybean fields surrounding their ill-kempt, noisome home, into teenage-hood in Amgash, Illinois.
Barton’s story is not particularly exciting or eventful in the “average” way. It begins in the vibrant, present day. The arc of development moves in flashback to the time when Barton was married with two daughters and, after an appendectomy, is weirdly unable to systemically recover her health. Barton’s story-telling is filled with mystery in its exploration of her relationship with her mother. Linney portrays both women and seamlessly steps from present to flashback clearly designating the time intervals through Eyre’s staging, the mother’s Amgash accent and Munro’s pointed time transitions as Barton recalls or reflects on memories in the present time, then segues to the past for another dip into hope, loneliness and redemption.
Barton’s story is relatable to a cross-section of humanity, even the wealthy who suffer emotional trauma and abuse from parents. Some might argue Lucy Barton’s narrative transcends gender because it’s generalizable to relationships between parents and children, beyond stereotype and myth in the family dynamic. In other words, its sensitive, emotional and human universality appeals. What individual does not feel, if they dare to admit it, that their parents did not give them enough love, understanding, wisdom, and material and spiritual protection that they hungered for at various points in their lives? What individual does not feel remorse at not being able to have lived happily, growing up in a “Father Knows Best” loving, emotionally magnanimous family experience? Indeed, how much more duress does one feel if one’s material and emotional well-being was continually jeopardized by parents/siblings, what has been described euphemistically as being a member of a dysfunctional family?
Munro’s adaptation retains Strout’s searing, uber-subtle fervency as Lucy relates “her story,” which we discover is an attempt to expurgate devastating emotional pain to reconcile past memories of dire consequence which she has suppressed and which might have killed her, but for her mother’s 5-day visit, when Barton’s hospital stay moved past the normal recuperation period: she can’t eat, has blockages and grows thinner and weaker. Barton’s husband, who has been too traumatized by death and dying in hospitals to visit her regularly, calls her mother who shows up “out-of-the-blue” and sits in a chair, at the foot of the bed eschewing a cot to be with her, 24/7.
It is during this life changing visit, that her mother relates stories about the neighbors or relatives, all of them attached with a negative, inferred lesson critical to Lucy’s life. It is also during this time and in the retelling of “her story” that Lucy recalls memories that are so unendurable, she cannot fully relate the details clearly. Interestingly, her mother also refuses to answer some of Lucy’s questions about the time when her children grew up. Her mother closes her eyes and pretends to sleep so Lucy doesn’t persist. There are some places where both dare not go, perhaps because the emotions are so incredibly raw, they might never recover their balance and attempted “control” over their lives.
Ancillary comments quietly expose a mountain of affection between Lucy and her mother, expressed uneasily by Lucy and in repressed undercurrents by her mother. Indeed, since Lucy’s marriage, they have been estranged. Clearly, though Lucy leaves this unspoken, the home where she grew up is noxious (it smells, it is freezing, it is stinks of loneliness and alienation). She has been relentless about never seeing her parents and gaining success as a writer, until she withers psychically and needs her mother’s love, as imperfect and ill-formed as it is. Her mother puts resentments aside and brings a healing balm; it’s time.
For nine years, her mother and father have never come to Manhattan and she hasn’t been home. Her parents resent that Lucy got a scholarship, went to college to become a writer, got married and left them in the morass of hopelessness and weirdness that they had to confront after she left: another unspoken self-recrimination against her/against them. They can hardly blame her for leaving, but resent her for doing it all the same. Her rejection of what they represent and her identity in their family unit is too much for her to bear. And then, she becomes ill; it is a metaphoric illness, systemic and psychic that requires a “healing touch and kindness” which her doctor delivers assisted by her mom.
Ironically, it is a testament of her mother’s love for her that she drops in (Lucy’s husband paid the plane ticket) despite her fear of flying to be Lucy’s much needed emotional support and prophetess who proclaims that Lucy will live, “though her marriage will have troubles.” A highpoint of reconciliation for her mom is her admission and apology about having to raise her three children under the strains of severe poverty (they eat molasses on bread regularly, can’t afford a warm or clean home, and are too poor for a TV).
Linney portrays her mother, at times humorously, with an Amgash, Illinois accent. As Barton moves in “her story” from immediate present which is years after her parents have died, then flashes back as Lucy reflects upon one of the most important moments. It is when her mother nudges her to affirm her own life, despite the gnawing darkness and despair that threatens to overcome her and despite her material success which is a canard and no cover for the abyss within, unbeknownst to her.
Eyre’s use of lighting (Peter Mumford) his staging and the projections (Luke Halls created the video design) bring in the other-worldly aspect of memory and remind us that Lucy Barton, as solid and stalwart and sincere as she appears to be, is the narrator of her own story. And all solo narrators embellish, exaggerate some details and leave gaping omissions. For all their ability to explain, the emotional content is so laden with stark bleakness, it cannot be accessed easily or articulated. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to do so or maybe never. Thus, the arc of Lucy’s story development as she discusses her relationship with her mother is a shining example of her ability to codify what she can live with (reflected in the hopefulness of the Chrysler Building the hospital window peers out on).
Indeed, Lucy Barton has made the building a beacon of success in her life, up from the oppression of her past, something her mother agrees with. And she has used that and other symbols (projections of corn fields, lightening sky) to manifest her identity as a successful writer who at this juncture is able to confront herself by going public. That is who Lucy Barton wants to be and that’s who she is.
Linney makes this unreliability, this shakiness brilliantly apparent. She allows it to pop up and back. She moderates it, especially when Barton cannot articulate the most traumatic memories of abuse in her past. And it flops back into the story-telling when she heartbreakingly remembers calling for her mom, as her daughter called for her when she saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. It is also apparent when Linney aptly philosophizes as Barton about the statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Sculpture Garden. The statue is of a distressed, starving father and his children, seeing only him, are willing to sacrifice their own bodies and feed him to arrest his starvation. So bonded are children with their parents. So entangled will Lucy Barton always be with her mother, father and siblings. Because of them, she is Lucy Barton.
Kudos to all the creatives who worked on this production and brought it to life. In addition to those already mentioned are Bob Crowley (scenic and ccostume design) and John Leonard (sound design). My Name is Lucy Barton is running in a limited engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (47th Street between Broadway and 8th Ave.) with no intermission until 29 February. It is a must-see for Laura Linney’s amazing portrayal and Eyre’s and Munro’s bringing home Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling novel with grace and power. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Why would anyone want to reenact the most bloody battles of American History? In the World Premiere of How to Load a Musket, currently at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January (unless it is extended which it should be) playwright Talene Monahon examines the nature and viewpoints of American citizens who devote time, energy, money and passion to acting out various historical wartime confrontations that founded and preserved our United States of America.
The play that Monahon configured relates perspectives based upon her interviews with reenactors in Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. With exceptional actors portraying the individuals she interviewed, director Jaki Bradley brilliantly stages a production that is vibrant, humorous, at times chilling and always memorable.
Monahan interviewed individuals addicted to portraying historic events principally those occurring during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. What she discovered turned out to be fascinating portraits of a unique group of impassioned citizens who “got the bug” to participate in reenactments, some for the past thirty years. In her interviews, she gleaned their demographics, their interest in American history and their views about our country, formed during and after their extensive research and their activities with others to conduct reenactments for an audience of history and battle lovers.
The production entertains us with these quirky, odd individuals, who put on battle dress and show us how to load and shoot a musket. In initial sequences related to the Revolutionary War, individuals familiarize us with this clannish hobby and identify the levels of those who engage in the fun of it. There are those who went out and did extensive research and are incredibly serious about “getting back into the past,” to the point of attempting to relive it with accuracy. These folks eat hardtack, sew their own outfits and starve themselves as happened because Congress didn’t allot enough provisions for our soldiers during the Revolutionary War. And then there are the “Farbies.” These folks are not authentic or historically accurate. So as Larry says, “For some of us, as we get older, we want a little more comforts of home; so when my ten flap is closed at night, it’s not 1776. It’s 2015.”
We learn about the typical positions of reenactors, from those who play fifes, to those who portray George and Martha Washington, British soldiers and even King George. The sheer fun of it is escapism, to remove oneself from the stresses of modernity and imagine a time when the air and water were cleaner. Of course, that is the male perspective. One of the women reenactors, the fifes-woman (Lucy Taylor) reminds us that women died in childbirth, oftentimes, and there were horrific childhood diseases that killed, “back in the day”. The beauty of reenactments is that one can imagine oneself living in a desired time and place as another individual for a few hours, and yet return to the comforts of one’s modern life.
From these interviewed the playwright teases out reactions fomented from the political climate, and the increasing social and cultural divide, after the 2016 election shifted participants’ attitudes and feelings. Their notions reflect the deepening discourse about the nation’s founders as slaveholders, the increasing acts of white supremacy under this presidency, and the confluence of racism and symbols of the confederacy, i.e. the flag, once thought harmless, now viewed by many as egregious remnants of our nation’s inglorious and inhuman past. Naturally, there are those who find these sentiments appalling, as if to nullify a history that is painful but moving in the progressive direction of “freedom for all.” Without the Civil War, no slaves would have been freed until many years later. The price paid, of course, is incalculable.
During the production which spans the years from Fall of 2015 through July 2017, and up to 2019, those interviewed discuss the present divisions in the country that reveal their roots in the Civil War, including the events in Charlottesville and the white supremacist marchers opposed to the “tearing down” of Robert E. Lee’s statue. Interestingly, for the first time ever after another reenactment, there is a bomb incident. This threatened violence for what once was a fun, staged event and hobby, indicates that spirits are darkening in the country. Those who are interviewed, note these changes with alarm.
Cleverly, Monahon uses issues to raise questions and reveal themes. Some of these concern our ideas about the formation of our nation to gain freedom. Others reveal divergent perspectives of citizens from the South and North. Interestingly, the interviewed (who are “characters”) point out, after a Revolutionary War enactment, the idea that America is an experiment which may or may not last. Throughout, issues related to slavery and its attendant racism are brought up stirring questions about what this means for us today. The actors portraying real people are reflected through the prism of changing trends based upon our social climate. Vitally, the playwright reveals the cultural shift in how these individuals view what the reenactments mean to them during the past five years.
Eight actors portray the individual reenactors, switching into various parts. These are a cross-section: old, young, male, female, black, Hispanic, mother-son, father-son, educated, working class. The dialogue is lightly edited from the interviews. Essentially, the playwright quotes individuals verbatim. Thus, the accents, the humor, the chilling commentary ring with authenticity to reveal what folks in our country believe and think. Importantly, without the exceptional and adroit acting by the ensemble (Carolyn Braver, Adam Chanler-Berat, David J. Cork, Ryan Spahn, Andy Taylor, Lucy Taylor, Richard Topol and Nicole Villamil) who bring this production to its sweet spot, none of the import and power of the themes would resound as fully or shine as vitally, especially the theme about the encroaching violence in our culture.
The production from its scenic design (Lawrence E. Moten III) costumes (Olivia Vaughn Hern) lighting (Stacey Derosier) sound design (Jim Petty) original music (Zoe Sarnak) to staging is superior. Artifacts from the various periods of history adorn two walls of the set, including the costumes and hats the actors use throughout. Actors take their entrances and exists from three different sides of the set, two of which the audience surrounds as two sides of a rectangle; This is minimalistic and smart. The intimate setting allows the audience to feel a part of the action as the actors, at times, interact and directly address comments to them.
As a capstone to the ideas that are presented, Monahon introduces TM, the playwright, as a character (portrayed by Carolyn Braver). On a subway, TM and artist Dread Scott (David J. Cork) discuss the idea of genocide. An Armenian, she discusses its meaning to her (the Turks conducted a genocide and expulsion campaign against the Armenians (1914-1923). Indeed, as a black man Dread understands the meaning of genocide related to what happened during the American institution of slavery. As an important part of American History, he invites her to his proposed 1811 Slave Rebellion reenactment in New Orleans which TM attends two months after their subway meeting.
This powerful conclusion is telling. As an Armenian, TM is struck by Jeffrey’s (Richard Topol) use of the word “genocide” to indicate how he feels about his southern ancestry being vitiated with the removal of the confederate flag and statues of confederate soldiers from parks and federal buildings in the south. The application of Jeffrey’s “genocide” in juxtaposition with Dread’s idea to reenact the rebellion which has been removed from US history books and the Armenian genocide which has been largely left out of the History of Western Civilization is ironic. In a weird confluence, all have understood what being “wiped out,” means, and there is a unity. Perhaps, as Dread states at the end, it is a portentous recognition that “heroes in seeking liberation, receive mercy.” This is especially so in reenactments.
The production that rings with great truth provides a jumping off point for us to consider what our country means to each of us and how we can reconcile that meaning. Above all, the playwright, director and actors inspire us to broaden our understanding of aspects of our society beyond the stereotypic “Red States” and “Blue States” that we may not have considered before. As we question attitudes that may not resonate with ours, nevertheless, we must stand in each other’s shoes, especially those that we may have previously disdained.
How to Load a Musket is a must-see for its originality, ingeniousness and wonderful performances shepherded beautifully by Jaki Bradley. It is running with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Maz and Bricks by Eva O’Connor takes place on a tram, and on the streets of Dublin over two days in 2017. Its setting is monumental because at this time, the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland was at its height. Because of the popular support, reflected in the protests to repeal the amendment which banned abortion, the amendment was repealed in 2018, and a women’s right to make decisions about her own body was solidified under the law.
During the campaign, Maz, who is on her way to a massive protest in Dublin to repeal the constitutional abortion ban, meets Bricks. Their initial meeting filled with conflict and humorous, verbal smackdowns becomes the linchpin that changes both of their lives.
The production presented by Fishamble, The New Play Company, won an Olivier Award and is in its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters, as part of Origin’s 1st Irish. Experiencing the 80 minute production which has no intermission, a minimal, spare set and fine staging, one can understand why it is an award-winner. First, it is directed with precision and sensitivity by Jim Culleton. Secondly, O’Connor’s titular characterizations lure us with their vitality, and surprise us with their raw likeability. The play is well crafted with continually dynamic interchanges by the characters and an unadorned, satisfying, character-driven plot development, with powerful themes that hold currency for our times.
Thanks to the superb performances by Eva O’Connor (playwright) who also performs Maz, and Ciaran O’Brien as Bricks, we are led on a journey that moves deeper into the minds and hearts of these individuals, as they become acquainted, gain interest in each other, bounce apart, then couple together in mutual respect and caring. By the conclusion of the production we note how “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last sound of the trumpet,” individuals can open up and help each other reach a place of authenticity and healing, that they did not realize they could reach in themselves alone.
Upon first meeting Maz and Bricks, we are struck by Bricks’ over-confidence, braggadocio and utterly loutish behavior during a phone conversation on a tram, which one needs ear plugs to ignore. When Maz calls Bricks out for his “wildly inappropriate behavior,” and reveals that she is finishing a placard about a nineteen-year-old who died because she couldn’t get a legal abortion, Bricks recoups himself, twits her and tries to smooth over Maz’s attitude by sharing details about his life. After this meeting where he discovers her name and tells her his, the characters, in open monologues to the audience, share their perspectives about the meeting and then describe the next steps as they make their way through their day’s events. Maz goes to the protest; Bricks goes to Lara’s (his X partner) to pick up Yas, his daughter, to take her to the zoo.
The monologues are in rhymes which rhythmically play out with vibrance and power, adding interest and keeping the audience focused at their novelty. Bricks describes how Lara prevents him from his seeing their daughter because she heard about his untoward behavior with her cousin. Bricks’ forthright manner, as he eventually tells the truth to Maz, is a turning point. The playwright exacts a shift in Bricks’ characterization from the lout to the individual underneath the mask. We note his vulnerability, insecurity and upset at not being allowed to be with his daughter, whom he loves. We understand that the cousin may have set him up, so that Lara might punish him using Yas, a cruel action. Desolate, Bricks ends up at the protest. He is just in time to stop Maz from getting into trouble throwing stones at the anti-abortion protesters.
As they thrust and parry, with jibes and humor, O’Connor evolves the dialogue between these two flawed individuals. She heightens the monologues in a unique way so that the characters step away from the action, and with thoughtful, sometimes philosophical commentary, bring themselves to the next step in their relationship with each other. This is a clever device the playwright employs. It gives us the benefit of the characters’ inner thoughts to reveal their personalities and how their feelings relate to their resultant outer actions.
Thus, by degrees, we note the mystery of how Maz and Bricks, who appeared so antithetical to each other at the outset, find common ground with which to understand each other. They demonstrate that “opposites attract,” as Bricks indicates in his interest in Maz, who is unlike anyone he has ever known. However, once they find the raw and authentic centers of each other’s emotions, they realize they are not that different in their humanity and impulses toward decency.
The characters evolve in their relationship as they hang out with each other and spend the day. O’Connor uses their first interaction on the tram as a thematic prelude on a number of levels. She suggests that it is possible to compromise with others about political views, if one is open-minded and hopeful. That Bricks has an ulterior motive, turns into something deeper as Bricks tells us when he stops Maz’s stone throwing. He intuits that his interference, may lead to something between them. If not, he will crash and burn in humiliation. It is a risk he is willing to take.
O’Connor’s characters grow more likeable in their interest and acceptance of each other, driven by acute direction and nuanced, spot-on performances by the actors. We believe that Maz and Bricks might care for each other in a world that is chaotic and filled with pain for them, as we later learn. However, in spite of the problems and turmoil that they must confront and do confront with each other’s help, theirs is a relationship worth saving and deepening.
In its conclusion Maz and Bricks is refreshing, satisfying and real. O’Connor presents themes about prejudice, open-mindedness, truthfulness and human dignity in respecting one another’s viewpoint and in “standing in another’s shoes.” It is a behavior that we sorely need to reflect upon and practice in the current, divisive, political climate in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.
Kudos to the creative team: Maree Kearns (set and costume design) Sinéad McKenna (lighting designer) Carl Kennedy (sound designer) who, with director Jim Culleton and the actors, have made this a must-see production. Maz and Bricks runs until 23 February at 59E59 Theaters, Theater B. This is one you won’t want to miss. For tickets and times, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Greater Clements, by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Davis McCallum spotlights a dying town whose end comes “not with a bang, but with a whimper,” especially for those who have invested their sweat in its history to make a life there, however, insignificant and invisible. The production stars Judith Ivey as stalwart Maggie, whose emotional range is delivered with power and grist. The superb Edmund Donovan is her outlier son who is doomed to confront his psychological illness without the tools to manage himself successfully. Greater Clements reveals lives lived in quiet desperation before they fizzle out or implode in despair, while looking for for an exit from soul pain which never comes.
The play opens in darkness, thousands of feet below ground as a miner (we discover this is Joe-Edmund Donovan-who once gave mine tours) in his gear with one bright headlamp speaks about the Dodson Mine and a mining catastrophe in 1972. It was then his grandfather burned alive and a total of 81 men lost their lives. Immediately, in the darkness, we have a sense of foreboding, of a doomsday trajectory of the town and its people.
The scene shifts from the mine shaft to the bi-level set (Dane Laffrey’s creation) via an elevator that rises and falls to expose Maggie’s museum and mining tour office and bedroom in a later act. The elevator set is a neat contrivance, but it is view obstructing and unwieldy, notwithstanding the symbolism conveyed of the oppressive, confining and dangerous conditions the townspeople and miners lived with all of their lives.
Clements, a defunct mining center of Idaho whose largest mine closed 12 years before the setting of 2017, represents an every-town of the once booming industrial west before Reagan’s outsourcing, recent automation and current energy technologies siphoned off jobs, factories and hope. With no inspiration to transfer its prosperity toward tourism, or developing other resources, Clements has been “decommissioned” as a functioning town.
Ironically, in a sort of self-immolation memorial, to keep away wealthy elites from other states who might take over and bring back the rosy bloom in its cheeks, town officials have voted to unincorporate Clements and remove all municipal services. The thought comes off as follows. “If we can’t make a go of it, we’ll do everything in our power to prevent you from trying. You want to try? Start from scratch!” The last indignity has been to deliver the town to the darkness from whence it came, as they turn off the juice to power the street lights and one, lone stoplight that once allowed a bustling downtown crowd to cross the street in safety.
The concept of removing Clements from the historical record, exemplifies a number of Hunter’s themes about such mid-west devastation since Reaganomics, which has been exacerbated with tax cuts to the wealthy, moving right up to today, while leaving places like Clements in the dust. The town, like many other areas in Red States, became mired in the past and never got out from under its own debris to prepare for a viable future. Rather than to be forward thinking, even after the mine shut downs, town fathers chose oblivion masochistically, like the places that sprung up during the gold rush, then dissolved into ghost towns, when the rich veins of ore dried up.
Maggie, who has kept the town’s history alive with her museum and her mine tours, has been forced to close down, in effect, removing Clements from historical significance and obviating its residents’ lives from remembrance. The retrenchment and immaturity of the attitudes of the town fathers, reflected by their choice to unincorporate, reveals the same rage, powerlessness and victimization that propels one into self-damaging choices.
Hunter subtly references the self-destructive attitudes of the Red States’ populace, like those in this Idaho town, that most probably put someone like Trump in power, believing he would keep his promise, perhaps to add “industrial” jobs to the economy; a canard. It is one of the ironies that Hunter slips in quietly that pervades throughout, as we watch the disintegration of the town and the lives that once made it a community and held it together. Clements has blown itself off the map rather than to persist. This of course leaves residents like Maggie no choice but to escape to restore their dignity to “make it to the next day.” We learn later of Maggie’s abyss of despair for she, too, voted with the town fathers in vengeance, almost as an unthinking afterthought.
The idea of being disconnected (unincorporated) from the future and each other is a theme which plays out in the relationships between and among the characters. Maggie, the sheriff (Andrew Garman) and her nosy neighbor Olivia (Megan Bartle) are among the individuals remaining who keep up an acquaintanceship, but do not go beyond the surface to discuss, at depth, issues related to the town’s death or their own aching problems. Maggie refuses to discuss much with Olivia, and when she is backed in a corner about her resentment about wealthy people buying up property, she finally reveals she hates the mine that killed her father and paid him low wages. That she is conflicted is an under statement. Her mine tours and “keeper of the flame” museum has put bread on her table. Indeed, her inner conflicts and regrets are many, and her lack of introspection about herself is the flaw which causes the final destruction for the family.
As the foil and main driver of the action, Joe, Maggie’s twenty-seven-year-old son is the one who will inherit Maggie’s and the town’s legacy. Maggie has brought him back to stay with her because she cannot let go. She feels alone and responsible for his well-being, since he ran off and was barely caring for himself in another state. Years before, when the mine closed, Maggie’s husband left her to run off with a gay man. She was forced to raise Joe alone which has been a tremendous burden that Joe reminds her of cannily and apologetically at various points throughout the play.
Joe has psychological debilities. He socially functions as a 15 year old, and in the past often got into trouble. As Joe attempts to communicate with his mother and reach some sort of settlement upon his return, we note their sturm and drang. It is apparent in Act III, during a heart to heart between them, that Joe has taken stock of himself and his situation with his mother, and indeed, is more knowledgeable than she. As the “fall guy” prodded by the sheriff, Olivia and his mother, and manipulated by Kel (Haley Sakamoto) who, herself, is a psychological mess, one can see the consequences of the impact of their own small-town behaviors which lead him on an unstoppable crash course toward an end zone for the opposite team.
Their mother/son relationship is the most gripping element of Greater Clements. Developing their character’s stresses and their attempt to communicate, despite their inner depression and hopelessness, becomes the linchpin of the drama and a tour de force between Ivey and Donovan. They are magnificent in these roles. Their emotional authenticity is spot-on. Maggie’s abject blindness about herself, and Joe’s self-awareness are heart-wrenching as we hope for them, yet know they do not really hope for themselves or each other. This is reflected throughout the play in its symbols (i.e. Joe’s grandfather’s watch which Joe prizes). The watch was pulled off the grandfather’s incinerated body after the mine catastrophe. The watch makes it through the Pacific Theater WW II and the mine’s fiery flames, but its crystal cracks when Maggie knocks it from its place on a shelf, out of nervous carelessness.
As Maggie is one of the last to leave Clements, she reaches out to a far light at the end of the tunnel for Joe and herself. She contacts a high school love, Billy (Ken Narasaki) with whom she tangentially maintained a relationship for the past fifty years. Billy and Kel, his granddaughter stay with Maggie and Joe. Problems develop which we intuit, but which Maggie in her rush to reformulate her relationship with Billy ignores until too late. An explanation for her fervor is revealed. Their love was banned by her father because of Billy’s ethnicity (Japanese American) and her father’s sensitivity to fighting the Japanese during WW II. Though Billy has cancer, he remains hopeful having conquered the disease the first time. Maggie remains nonplussed, and believes his well-meaning, cheerfulness. She is anxious to have some happiness in life which Billy will give her.
Hunter and Ivey again highlight Maggie’s underlying flaws. Disconnected with herself and perhaps not fully working through despair at never really living life for herself, but living to nurse others, once again, Maggie appears to be doubling the load, not only having to care for Joe, but for Billy as well. This, despite Billy’s claims that he cares for her and doesn’t need a nurse. Regardless, because Maggie appears addicted to hardship, the likelihood that she will be involved in Billy’s care and troubles with Patrick, his alcoholic son, is great.
Ironically, it is Joe who questions her motive why she brought him back to a dead-end situation. Is Maggie like many women of her age and economic status, too afraid to strike out on her own, freely, to take care only of herself? Or is she comforted to feeling the only true purpose of her life is that of a nurturer who takes care of others, and when trouble comes, makes a botch of it? Hunter’s characterizations of Maggie and Joe are richly drawn, fueled by the fine performances. Billy and Kel serve as doorstops which open and close varying events. Joe’s developing closeness with Kel which ends in a backfire when she importunes him to take her down the mine shaft where they shouldn’t be, and then he later keeps secret her walk by herself, ends in further conflict and recrimination. Joe is picked on by the sheriff, Billy, Olivia and Maggie like a flock of chickens pecking at a bloodspot. He can’t please them, thus, he can’t please himself. All he can do is agree with them and apologize.
Billy and Maggie’s alone-time discussions reveal the red-neck prejudice of the area with residues still present against “the other.” Nearby is the Japanese-American internment camp which once housed Japanese Americans during WWII. In another irony of the play, now, Minidoka War Relocation Center is a National Historic Site accepting numerous visitors each year. Clements, once the largest mine center in the country, with a grand historic past, no longer exists except in its abandonment.
Hunter’s tone throughout portends disaster. The flaws of Maggie’s blindness plummet the characters into the rather long play’s tragic end. The rising and falling set that recedes into the darkness of the mine, and Maggie’s attempts to retrieve a former love that will most probably end in her despair, nursing him to his death, is a reality that she is shocked into realizing. Indeed, nothing can prosper in this place, which has willfully refused to enter the 21st century. Maggie should have left long ago. But that would require self-knowledge, the desire to free herself from her own enslavement and to hope for a better future. Hunter capstones the characters and rural America as he sees them and indeed, he points to the self-destruction and hopelessness that infuses them. It’s a warning we in the cities should not take lightly and which resonates at the conclusion, that all will not be “fine.”
Noted are Kaye Voyce (costumes) Yi Zhao (lighting) Fitz Patton (original music and sound). Greater Clements fills the heart and mind with its richness. It runs two hours, 55 minutes with two intermissions at The Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center until 19th January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.