‘Golden Shield’ at MTC, Review of a Must-See Production
Golden Shield by Anchuli Felicia King, directed by May Adrales currently at Manhattan Theatre Club is a thematically rich and profound work that looks into corporate greed, political activism, digital censorship as a means of control, the ethic of understanding a different language through translation without considering cultural variance, and relationship reconciliation redux. Through the lens of a jury trial against corrupt actors who refuse to consider the consequences of their actions when digital efficiency and progress is at stake, King examines ethical responsibility and the fallout when accountability is measured in litigation awards.
The principal theme begins when audience members hear the instructions to keep masks on and turn off cell phones in another language. Mandarin. They think they know what is being discussed because it is the protocol of all theatrical experience in New York City to be reminded before the play begins to be the dutiful audience. However, in reality, unless they have a working knowledge of Mandarin, they don’t know what is being said. The speaker might be cursing out the audience; thus, the setting and context determine the level of trust the audience has for the speaker.
This is the linchpin of Golden Shield, illustrated by Fang Du, the clever and affable Translator who takes our hand during the more opaque sections of the two act drama and guides us with his knowledge of Mandarin and unaccented English. We can only assume that he understands both languages to provide a correct translation of what is happening when the conversation is only in Mandarin. Thus, we trust him. But should we? This is a slippery slope. Indeed, trust between and among human beings, even if they are friends and family, as King proves, is flawed.
It is a fluid theme. By the end of the play, The Translator learns an important lesson. There is no correct translation for what happens during the play between older sister Julie Chen (the excellent Cindy Cheung) and younger sister Eva (the superb Ruibo Qian) who Julie abandoned to live with their tyrannical mother in China when she was a child. Nor is there a correct translation for what happens to Li Dao (Michael C. Liu in a heartfelt powerful portrayal) when Eva gives a one sentence translation that mistakenly encourages Li Dao to take a course of action that impacts him and the case that Julie is trying for her law firm.
Indeed, The Translator and the Chens realize that translation is a matter of interpretation of cultural values, the proper selection of metaphors and figurative language, subtle inflections and nuances in a contextual medium that must be included to convey what an individual is saying. Finally, there is no translation for why Chen acts as she does at the play’s end, nor is there a translation for the villain ONYS Systems in how they relate to the Chinese government.
Language between native speakers is not easily conveyed if there are geographical and cultural differences within a nation. Words hold loaded meanings and what one thinks one communicates may hold offense or have an entirely different understanding for the listener. How much more is the confusion of communication if a language that conveys meaning in a circular fashion through characters and pictorial thoughts is translated to a listener and speaker of English which is essentially linear and word based, and whose time is chronological? Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese are effectively without chronology, and retain a circularity and pictorial, visual thought process seamlessly navigated and understood by those who speak, read and write it.
Interestingly, Fang Du’s Translator warns us about the chronological expansiveness of English compared to the circularity of Mandarin and suggests there is no word for word translation. However, by the end of the play as he lives through and guides us through the events, even he is caught up short. The revelation for him is profound because he has been in the “God” seat. But he becomes enlightened like the Chens and the audience that what results is because of incomplete translation and incorrect “interpretation” and felt understanding. Mistaken understanding roils through every interaction in King’s play; it is fascinating.
This is perhaps the most profound of the themes in King’s work which takes place between 2006-2016 and shifts scenes from Washington, D.C. to Beijing, to Yingcheng, to Dallas, to Palo Alto to Melbourne. Though flashback is used and The Translator keeps us mapped out in the setting and scenes, Act 1 is top heavy. The playwright wants to say so much that she dilutes the force by trying to jam pack it all i>. Truly, the play could be streamlined and the dialogue shaved at the least to arrive at the question what are the most salient, striking themes. How can they be made to bring the audience toward vibrance.
When I saw Golden Shield, members of the audience appeared to be most affected by the relationship which implodes between the Chens. Nevertheless, King’s passion for the topics and themes is noteworthy. How do you streamline even a few words when you are in love with what your characters are saying to you. I get it, but it bears looking at for future productions to make Act I a dynamo and powerhouse leading through Act II in its explosion/implosion and powerful trial scene testimony then the conclusion.
The frame of King’s work fans out into part courtroom drama, part lawyer discussion, part insider talk at the fictional American tech company ONYS Systems. They get the contract to create a process to help them spy on any activity that opposition and adversaries use to smash the firewall of digital censorship that pertains throughout China. ONYS Systems’ pompous Elon Musk-type executive Marshall McLaren (the sardonic and superb Max Gordon Moore) creates an effective firewall by decentralizing it into multiple checkpoints, making it much easier for Chinese monitors to gauge spying and identify hackers who defy China’s digital control.
Thus, ONYS Systems in an extraordinary pro-communist political move is used as a tool of the Communist Chinese government to expose potential American spies in a counter-American action to protect itself. It also is used as the chief deterrent to stop hacking their firewall by identifying the hackers and punishing them severely.
During the course of the play, we understand the culpability of ONYS Systems through Moore’s McLaren. His nonchalance and self-satisfied genius, that he and he alone came up with this plan of decentralization for his company which increased their profitability exponentially as China pays them a huge price is loathsome. Interestingly, Moore makes the character ironic with the help of Adrales fine direction. Thus, the full understanding becomes “lost in translation.” And the full impact of how China has created a puppet in McLaren/ONYS Systems as a compromat or whatever the Mandarin word is for those without ethics or integrity who turn against their own nation, humanity and the “little people” for extraordinary wealth is muted. But hey, what the hell; it’s just business. (Some of this plays out from real life; check out Cisco and Yahoo litigation.)
Meanwhile, McLaren and ONYS Systems have ignored the impact of this “Golden Shield.” Their bottom line is paramount. Enter Chinese-American attorney Julie Chen who leads a class-action lawsuit by eight dissidents against ONYS Systems, chief among them the severely injured Professor Li Dao. Chen has found an obscure law used against pirates a few centuries ago that gives federal courts the jurisdiction to hear litigation filed by non-U.S. citizens for torts committed in violation of international law. She convinces her partner in the firm (Daniel Jenkins who doubles in his ONYS Systems’ role ) that they must take the case of the dissidents. She is passionate, convinced that McClaren and ONYS Systems are culpable for injuring the dissidents via their digital assistance to the oppressive and brutal Communists. Indeed, during various flashbacks we learn of Professor Dao’s five year imprisonment and torture because he showed students how to circumvent the Communist governments’ new “Great Wall of China,” The Golden Shield.
Enter the side plot and conflict between the siblings which also is lost in translation, misunderstanding and flawed communication because of emotional trauma, cultural differences and denial. Julie hires her sister Eva to visit China with her and speak to Professor Liu who can only testify and reveal so much of the brutality visited upon him under the Communists because he has been traumatized. The most vital scenes of the play occur with Li Dao and his wife Hang Mei (the fine Kristen Hung). Liu represents Li Dao with such empathy throughout that his portrayal ironically, though we don’t understand his speech, conveys superb understanding of his feelings and his expressions. Thus, the theme of translation being an incomplete and flawed means of communication hits the hardest with their performances because the words don’t matter. The emotions, tone, timbre wrought with great feeling immediately convey truth.
In Act II the courtroom scene where Professor Dao testifies is sensationally done with all the actors firing on all syllables. However, Chen as a result of her own trauma with her mother and leaving her sister in China has a confluence of emotions which end up forcing her to take a path which is devastating. For her part Eva, who we find out has been a sex worker and has compromised her sister’s relationship with her law firm partner, ends up bereft and lost. By the conclusion all the characters reveal that the events have traumatized them in one way or another. It doesn’t become a matter of winning or losing the lawsuit, it becomes whether or not one respects oneself for one’s choices.
Only Eva in her relationship with her Aussie lover (Gillian Saker who also does double duty as lawyer for ONYS Systems) seems to be seeking some sort of resolution with herself, especially after she throws over her sister Julie. But all of the characters are flawed, not very appealing, ethically challenged with the exception of the Professor Dao who has paid a terrible price for challenging China’s autocracy and repression. And indeed, by the play’s conclusion the future appears even more bleak as McLaren provides himself an off-ramp from changing his ways reflecting on the Dark Web, Block Chain and other tech “innovations” which provide myriad ways toward profitability by any means necessary.
I particularly enjoyed dots’ scenic design which coupled with Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design was used to smashing effect during the scenes relating to the Professor’s prison term and punishment. The set of Li Dao’s and Huang Mei’s living raised on a platform and framed by the lattacework partitions/screens on either side intimated the cultural setting, though the living room appeared Western. Its functionality was pointed and well thought out. Kudos to the rest of the creative team for applying King’s themes and Adrales’ vision. These include Sara Ryung Clement (costume design) Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts (original music & sound design) Tom Watson (hair & wig design).
The show closes on Sunday 12 June. I have highly recommended to to friends. It is a must-see and will be performed again. Look for it regionally. For tickets go to their website: https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/golden-shield/
Phylicia Rashad, Brandon J. Dirden in ‘Skeleton Crew,’ Workers vs. Corporates, a Worthy Fight at Manhattan Theatre Club
From the symbolic and representative opening salvos of gyrating piston Adesola Osakalumi, whose break dancing suggests the automation which is rendering the human scaling at the auto-stamping factory obsolete, to the well-hewn set by Michael Carnahan (the dusty, run-down, cold, shabby staff room where employees enjoy down-time) we understand that the four person skeleton crew in the Detroit plant will be ghosted as soon as budgetary financial reckonings are made by upper management. This is 2008 Detroit, US during the economic mortgage mess when investment bank Bear Stearns collapses and is bought over by JPMorgan Chase and Lehman’s a 150-year old booming institution goes belly up. People are losing their homes and living in their cars and cheesy motels in Florida. And, it is worse in Detroit whose booming success of the 1960s is a bust by the 1990s and there’s one plant left that is barely churning out product.
Skeleton Crew directed by the superb Tony Award® winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, currently in revival at Manhattan Theatre Club after its intimate presentation Off Broadway at the Atlantic six years ago, hints at the tour de force Dominique Morisseau meant the last segment of her Detroit Project to be. The trilogy (The Detroit Project) is about Detroit’s life and times before and after the Reagan outsourcing debacle toppled the city from its glory as the country’s industrial fountain of youth. It includes Detroit-’67, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew.
The play has been given a glossy uplift using video projections of the robotic machinery of the assembly line etc. (excellent design by Nicholas Hussong). Coupled with the music (Rob Kaplowitz’s original music & sound design, and Jimmy Keys’ original music & lyrics) at the beginning and between salient scenes, we note the encroaching modernized doom that hammers the employee work force into unrecognizable bits, hyper-downsized from its greatness when Detroit was in its manufacturing heyday. The digital video projections supplant proscenium curtains which would normally frame the stage. As such, the plant’s relentless, driving automation is the outer frame of the stage and encapsulates the action and interactions in the staff room where workers take their breaks from the repetitive and monotonous production line.
The contrast Morisseau’s dualism creates is trenchantly thematic. The defined “wasted, decrepit humans” are pitted against inevitable “progress” which especially grinds down the people whose loyalty and dedication to the industry have been turned against them. These management diminished unfortunates, like Faye (Tony Award® winner Phylicia Rashad) whose once magnificent efforts are discounted as “unprofitable,” didn’t see the “handwriting on the wall” to prepare for another career after working for the company 29 years in the hope of getting a “great” retirement package. Faye and others trusted the corporates to have their best interests and welfare at heart.
As Morisseau indicates in her characterization of Faye, stand-up employees projected their worthiness, values and integrity on their slimy directors and CEOs, mistakenly assuming they would be rewarded for hard work and effort. Ironically, it is the elite corporates who are the unworthy, lazy, greedy, un-Americans who made America “un-great” through Reagan’s tax laws that allowed them to outsource profits by closing plants and establishing factories anywhere but the United States.
In view of the current debacle with supply chain issues, inflation and absence or overpricing of medical product needed to fight the ongoing health disaster (COVID-2022) which incompetent, do-nothing Republicans have fueled as a political stratagem, Skeleton Crew‘s themes are profound and incredibly current. The problems fourteen years later from the setting (2008, Detroit) are even worse with expanding economic inequality, oppression of the workforce, whether white or blue-collar, by oligarchic elites herding the intellectually infirm white supremacists with misdirection against the democratic institutions that could save them. The seeds of the current destructive forces are evidenced in Morisseau’s setting with the ghosting of Detroit’s last automotive plant where supervisor Reggie (the wonderful Brandon J. Dirden) Union Representative Faye (Phylicia Rashad) the energetic Dez (Joshua Boone) and the pregnant Shanita (the excellent Chanté Adams) work and stress out with each other in unity.
Within this framework we follow the devolution and evolution of these four who signify Morisseau’s special individuals who are the backbone of the nation. It is these who the elites would erase. Their ability to hope and thrive is sorely tested against the annihilating backdrop of demeaning corporate abuse which demands personal strength and communal support to over-leap it. With Morisseau it’s the people vs. “the corporate machine,” and as Morisseau spins the conflicts caused by the plant closure, personal self-destruction or revitalization are the direction for Faye, Dez, Shanita and Reggie, who prove to be likeable working class heroes with huge cracks and flaws that we recognize in ourselves.
Reggie who has been practically raised by Faye as family-she got him the position where he rose to management-is pressured and strained. He’s forced to walk a fine line, knowing what his bosses plan to do. Yet he must not tip their hand which would panic the workforce to strike or leave before the current contracted work is completed. Oppressed to enforce nit-picking rules, Reggie argues with Dez who may or may not be stealing and who sees him as a cold-hearted puppet of corporate.
Likewise Reggie emotionally wrestles with Faye who must protect her union workers and herself deciding whether to retire early, which would mean an income loss after retirement. Shanita is pressured emotionally after she is dumped by her baby’s father. She faces being the sole support of her child. She enjoys working at the plant, though she’s a cog in the wheel, but she feels proud for her contribution to making product. Nevertheless, she is strained working and bearing up with her pregnancy, making doctor’s appointments and saving up money before and after she takes time off from the job she loves.
Morisseau excavates each of their struggles with authentic dialogue that is at times humorous, and powerful/poetic as the characters present their positions. Importantly, the playwright extends the reality of what it is to hold a decent job with benefits that is being pulled out from under the worker because the owners’ obscene profits aren’t big enough and government isn’t holding them to account. Thus, as the play progresses and we understand each of the characters’ dreams, we credit Dez for attempting to start his own business with friends, and we hope for Shanita’s child, in light of the nightmares she’s having over the uncertainty of her future. Additionally, we understand Reggie’s position though we expect him to stop his haranguing of the others and stand up to his bosses. We are thrilled when he finally does.
Interestingly, Faye, who appears to be the most solid and reliable is confronting her own devastation in addition to the cancer remission she is going through. Morisseau gradually unfolds each of the characters’ issues and at the end of Act I brings Dez and Reggie’s relationship to a turning point where Dez is about to be fired. When Faye steps in and counsels Reggie to stand up for Dez and the other workers, we question whether Reggie has the guts to or whether he will be a sell-out. The irony is Faye is great at negotiating and encouraging others, but she is lousy at taking care of herself. The revelation of this is poignant, and Morisseau opts to make every audience member put themselves in Faye’s shoes as she, too, “walks the line” between wanting to live or just throw in the towel and give up.
This is a strong ensemble piece and the acting is finely wrought. Unfortunately, some of the humor was lost on me because the actors weren’t always projecting in the cavernous space of the theater. Please actors, project and enunciate! Nevertheless, the passion and presence of Phylicia Rashad along with her counterpoint Brandon J. Dirden was heartfelt. The relationship they create reveals bonds that run deep into love and sacrifice. And the surprising relationship that blossoms between Boone’s Dez and Adams Shanita is beautifully effected by their graded, nuanced performances.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson understands Morisseau’s themes down to his soul’s bone marrow. The play’s visual elements represent the most vital of her themes and the characters are ourselves. We cannot help but be concerned for the conflicts the play presents which seem everpresent and unchanging. The current administration’s hope to “Build Back Better” during this time would appear to rectify the external circumstances of such characters who jump off the stage at us and populate our society. But the same corporate structure that Reggie fights is so entrenched, that soul progress is for the little people, these who are Morisseau’s besties. Perhaps that is the consolation. As for the corporate elites? As Reggie and Dez intimate, they are they’re own soul destruction. And that too is its own tragic consolation.
Kudos to the technical team mentioned above and Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Rui Rita’s lighting design, Adesola Osakalumi’s choreography and Cookie Jordan’s hair and wig design.
Morisseau’s play is dynamite in the hands of Hudson the artistic/technical team and these superb actors. This is a must-see. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/skeleton-crew/
‘Morning Sun’ Starring Edie Falco, Blair Brown, Marin Ireland at MTC
Morning Sun by Simon Stephens directed by Lila Neugebauer, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club (New York City Center Stage 1), takes its name from the titular Edward Hopper painting. Hopper’s austere work is of a woman on her bed in bright sunlight staring out the window that faces a factory type building in the distance and rooftops below. The building is out of view from the high-floor perspective of the painted cityscape.
Edward Hopper came from the same hometown, Nyack, as the McBride family women who make reference to him with pride. The painting “Morning Sun” is symbolically appropriate, because Stephens’ protagonist (#1 or Charlotte/Charley) played with terrific focus and authenticity by Eddie Falco, is peering out the window of her life in a flashback life review. She recalls to remembrance her past, assisted by Blair Brown (#2, her mother) and Marin Ireland (#3 her daughter). The woman in the painting steeped in reflection and introspection mirrors Charley McBride.
Brown, Falco and Ireland represent three generations of the lower middle-class McBride women. We see their perspectives and lives as they discuss their relationship with Charley who is the centerpiece of the play. Brown and Ireland also portray the important friends, family and male partners who populated Charley’s life and who are central to the events that took her on her singular journey through the stages of youth, middle age and beyond.
The exposition begins after Charley cries out about safety and security for herself, like a child crying out in the dark. The others assure her she is safe, and calm her down. We understand this beginning to mean that Charley initially is in a place where she fears for her safety. Ironically, it comes to refer to her entire life as a question of unsafe uncertainty. Like every human being who confronts death every moment without accepting or understanding the conundrum of life in death, they move without fully grasping that their instinctive purpose is to stay alive until they leave this earthly plane.
Stephens intimates that there is another consciousness, and the characters inhabit some netherworld in it. But he never clarifies the specifics and certainly not with any religious overlay. Thus, Charley’s cries have great moment. However, we don’t realize why this is so and to what she refers to in her cries until the conclusion, when Stephens reveals it.
With rapid-fire unveiling, the women stream through the beginning, middle and ending of Charley’s life assessment. Their exposition has break through dynamic moments where the women or men that #2 and #3 portray argue or disagree and resist Charley. The drama of a “life well or ill lived” is bled out of Charley’s existence which might be characterized as one of the invisible millions of “average” and “ordinary” women. These lived and died as New Yorkers making do, because they decided not to commit suicide and affirm their identity with an important emotional statement embracing death as a balm for their life’s miseries. Without much reflection or philosophical pondering, they a day-to-day existence.
Charley’s chronicle is sandwiched between Claudette’s move to New York City and purchase of an apartment on 11th St. in Greenwich Village where she raises Charley, and years later when Charley comes back to visit and stay with Tessa after she moves to Colorado. The apartment bought on the cheap, in a questionable area grows in value and becomes the envy of all who hear of it, including the audience.
We learn that Claudette arrived in NYC to escape upstate New York and an untenable home-life. By degrees almost as an expanded laundry list, we learn of Claudette’s work, her husband, Charley’s father, Charley’s formative years, her friendship with Casey, her work as a receptionist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, her one-night stand with a pilot and her pregnancy and decision to keep Tessa as a single mother without extensive means. We also learn of Charley’s substantive partners, one abusive, the other kind.
The chronicle is also of New York City’s rise, fall and rise again, revealed as Stephens intertwines Charley’s personal events through the decades which are sometimes impacted by the culture. Ironically, Claudette wants to linger on the 60s, her generation, while Charley affirms the 70s is more important and it’s about “her life” after all. Thus, politics and the upheavals of the 1960s roll off Charley’s back without notice. We consider that Claudette’s viewpoints perhaps were shaped by that time, while Charley, the recipient of the benefits of the 60s social upheavals, remains unconcerned about them.
Throughout, as New York’s financial situation improves, there is discussion about the apartment and what to do with it. We discover that one of Charley’s partners, Brian, who Claudette can’t tolerate because he abused her daughter, persists in trying to get Charley to sell the place, even after they split up. Such discussions become points of humor, as every New Yorker at one time or another finds looking for a place to live, finding a place to live and staying once they’ve found it, one of the main preoccupations of being a New Yorker and living in the city.
Stephens’ vehicle of using #2 and #3 to supplement Charley’s perspective with the men and friends in her life offers an unsettling, unemotional scoping of a list of remembrances that speed us to the why and wherefore of Charley’s existence, however tedious it may be for the audience. The exposition in its great swaths of the non-confrontational is wearisome and uneventful. My neighbor in the audience slept through most of the play and at one point, I found myself almost joining him as I struggled to stay “woke.”
Clearly, Stephens is making a thematic point similar to one heralded by Thorton Wilder’s Emily in Act 3 of Our Town. That life, all of it, especially in its sameness and undramatic monotone is wonderful. Even if one’s life is dreary, monochromatic, dull and uneventful, it is up to us, the players, to bring purpose and meaning to it. This, Charley realizes by the end of the play. She understands the great importance of being a receptionist at St. Vincent’s after the hospital is shut down. She tells Tessa the amazing things about her that she loves.
Such realizations, Stephens suggests, arrive just on time for their full appreciation. Indeed, Charley understands by the end, that she misses what she took for granted as a privilege. Most importantly, those people, places and wants only resonate with her unique ethos and being.
The strength of Stephen’s work which requires a yeowoman’s job of getting all of the details down is in the overall message and the last few minutes of the play which is an apotheosis for Charley and the audience. Throughout, Falco is a tour de force, in a role beautifully rendered, especially at the conclusion. Blair Brown and Marin Ireland are wonderful assistants, though Ireland needed to project and at times in her inward emotion-gathering became a faint wisp, indeed, in character, but not always articulated.
Director Lila Neugebauer properly stages Morning Sun in the ethers, not focusing on the material aspects of the production so that we listen carefully and take in the lives being shared with us. Though Charley’s journey is told in flashback narrative, we do come to trust the reliability of those who speak. This is a testament to the actors and director savoring the playwright’s work.
Kudos to the creative team: dots (scenic design) Kaye Voyce (costume design) Lap Chi Chu (lighting design) Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger (sound design) Daniel (original music) Tom Watson (hair and wig design). For tickets and times go to https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/morning-sun/
‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ Laura Linney Fuels a Richness of the Titular Character With Nuanced Depth
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, 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. Barton moves in “her story” from immediate present which is years after her parents have died, then flashes back as she reflects upon one of the most important moments. Linney’s transition from daughter to mother is seamless. As Barton’s mother she nudges Lucy 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. Linney negotiates this with precision. 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. They only see him and 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. Linney present with genius the authenticity of this character and makes it her own.
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.
‘Long Lost’ by Donald Margulies directed by Daniel Sullivan
Are we our brother’s/sister’s keepers? There is a scripture that says a person who doesn’t take care of family is worse than an infidel. But do these tenets always apply? And how do we take care of family? Just supply their external needs? Or should we also connect with them on a truthful, soulful level which will nourish and heal frailties?
Pultizer-Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies in his new play Long Lost examines filial relationships, family dynamics and the assumptions and values that despoil love and forgiveness within families. Directed by Daniel Sullivan in a tight framework of fine performances by the actors, the twists in the arc of development reveal the inner trauma and turmoil in some families that often are never resolved. The only hope might be in the next generation where there is the possibility of redemption and love.
David (the ambivalent, deceptive, hypocritical and coolly raging Kelly AuCoin) lives a life of success as a Wall Street consultant who royally supports his socially conscious wife Molly (Annie Parisee gives a mesmerizing performance) who is a philanthropist. Their son Jeremy (Alex Wolff gives a thoughtful, sensitive portrayal) who is going to Brown, enjoys his promising life and is close to his parents whom he is visiting for Christmas recess.
Into this idyllic family situation intrudes the estranged, ne’er-do-well, older brother Billy (the wonderful Lee Tergesen). At the play’s opening, he sits symbolically in the dark waiting for his brother David in his Wall Street office. He is waiting to “say hello,” to reconnect, to redeem himself and more. When David turns on the lights, the last person he expects to see is Billy. AuCoin’s David reacts with shock, annoyance, suspicion, aloofness. These layers of darkness pull back as we note the conversation between the two brothers. There are recriminations; David wants Billy gone; there is no love lost between them, and if there is any empathy it is non-existent.
David unloads on Billy. Apparently, from his self-righteous, exalted position of having helped Billy attempt to overcome and get through his addictions and the destruction they’ve wrought, he has lost patience, and intends to stop any further enabling of his brother. Indeed, at this point, we respect David’s probity, his former magnanimity with Billy and his measured and enviable success.
Not that any time would be a good time for Billy to land on David’s doorstep to be invited into a warm family situation, this is the most inopportune of times, David suggests. It is the night of Molly’s fundraiser, which Billy cannot be invited to as it’s a black tie affair. And Billy eschews the proffered money that Billy usually gets, for example, the last time David heard from him two years ago when he “hit him up” and wired funds. But nothing works to put Billy off and then Billy unloads on David. He is dying and is coming to David and the family for help and support. David has the money, most probably, to rent a studio for Billy, but he will not. Instead, he invites him home.
From the outset we note the differences between the two brothers and wonder if one is a changeling because he is the antithesis of success, happiness and inner tranquility, so unlike David. Apparently, Billy’s addictions unraveled his soul and made him dependent upon David for money, who at one point banished him. Billy’s behaviors landed him in jail; the reason is tragic, but most probably caused because of his addiction which made him irresponsibly negligent and insensate. Indeed, despite his personable, charming open nature, it is obvious that he is a “bad seed.” And if he is allowed to stay with David and the family, what upheavals will he create? David is clearly wary of Billy for good cause. However he takes him in because of guilt. Billy has nowhere to go and he has cancer. What would David want someone to do for him if he were in Billy’s shoes?
In the subsequent scenes, Billy meets his nephew Jeremy and the scene between them is beautifully rendered. Indeed, all the scenes between uncle and nephew are heartfelt, and the pathos and sensitivity of the actors bring out the humanity and soulfulness in the character portraits. Through Jeremy’s eyes we understand another side of Billy; the fun loving, humorous, affable individual who is attractive, adorable and not “a bum.” Through Jeremy’s perspective, his parents should not be hard on his uncle, and certainly should let him stay to celebrate Christmas. The last time he remembers being with his uncle, he was nine. Jeremy doesn’t judge Billy as his parents do; he does not have the information or the experience with him that they have.
However, Billy being Billy provokes both Molly and David who chafe at his presence. When Billy lands a zinger truth on David that cuts his soul (this actually is hypocritical as we later find out and ego on David’s part) David kicks out Billy before Jeremy can say “goodbye.” Jeremy, the moral/familial conscience of the family, counters, “What kind of people are you?”
The irony is that Molly’s charity “Safe Harbor” to help women trapped in violent relationships, appears to indicate she has a soft heart with regard to supporting people. However, this softness stops where Billy is concerned. Easy to help strangers, but family? Hit the road Jack! Billy has apparently affronted Molly in the past and she will not forgive him. She refuses to have him stay with them for the holidays and looks up places to help him find the support he needs with his condition. Of course, Billy doesn’t help by consuming all the beer in their fridge and smoking weed and giving some to Jeremy who warns him Molly doesn’t want any smoke in the house. Humorously, it is the first thing she notices when she walks in with David after the fundraiser.
Margulies unwraps the comedy and the drama gradually with key details that allude to the swirling undercurrents in these individuals that move beyond sibling rivalry to deep wounds. Molly, David and Jeremy as a family are a brick structure, solid and sturdy to withstand hurricanes. But we discover, the bricks are painted cardboard; the house is built for show and is rotting within. Neither Molly nor David are honest or forthright about their own personal issues; they withhold their true nature from Jeremy and each other. They are living a sham existence gilded over by superficial, meretricious accoutrements and values that do not feed their souls nor sustain their relationships with each other. Jeremy ends up being the casualty of this existence that never really was. The only individual who is real to him, his Uncle Billy, remains the most down-to-earth individual who has confronted his own demons and is in effect coming to grips with his self-destructive past in full view of Jeremy. This is real and and heartfelt, especially when Billy nurtures Jeremy and encourages him to remember that he is “a good kid.”
Billy’s presence serves as a catalyst; he is a provocateur who blows up the family pretense with a few, choice, truthful revelations. These revelations force the issue and expose the core of David’s and Molly’s lies and their living a life of quiet desperation with each other, a fact which Molly refuses to see. Billy’s authenticity and his acknowledgment that he is impaired, flawed, a “mess” is disarming and we find him to be likable. However, this is a two-edged sword because being charming also makes him cunning and manipulative as an operator without filters. When David initially tells him that he can’t stay because he and Molly are going through a “rough patch,” Billy relates this to Molly and Molly confronts David who assures her they are “fine.” But Billy’s keen observation of his brother at the outset of the play gleans the truth and his authenticity draws out the truth from others.
Threading undercurrents weave throughout, expertly wrought by Margulies so that by the end the raw nature of the characters crystallizes before us. Indeed, the title we assumed defined Billy. But it relates to Molly and David, who also have been “long lost.” The only authentic individual who has found the core of his own frail and weak being is Billy. And he is not ashamed to admit it. Ironically, Molly and David are just beginning their journeys of dealing with who and what they are and what they have pretended to be in a marriage that has been lifeless for a “long” time.
Margulies brings the characters into a few revelatory highpoints. The most significant one occurs between Billy and David. We learn of the sibling rivalry, the abuse, the parental neglect and the recriminations each brother feels. The scene is a powerful one and AuCoin and Tergesen bring to bear their extensive talents to draw us into a dynamic that many will empathize with. The tragedy is that as in many families, forgiveness is not an option. There is too much anger, fear, ego, and extreme hurt. There are not enough centuries to work through all of it, not that David would want to.
That Billy is dying is an answer for Billy, a strange redemption in which all of his life comes back on itself. By the conclusion he is fatalistic and grateful, even able to joke a bit about who he is and what he has done. However, David doesn’t have the same good fortune. He will have to deal with himself and his own inner resentments, pride, frailties and sadnesses especially after Billy is gone. Whether he has the strength or courage to do so, as Billy seems to have been able to do, remains to be seen. Perhaps it is easier after all to be a mess and to rather make a mess of one’s life and recognize it. That is a life lived with few expectations. On the other hand, David and Molly have so many ambitions and expectations, to not measure up to any of them is an agonizing and soul hardening devastation.
Margulies ends on an uncertain note, but brings a partial resolution during Jeremy’s visit with his uncle before he goes away to school. During their conversation, we see the impact of Billy’s visit on the family which externally appears to be disastrous, but in terms of clearing the air of lies and duplicity, in effect, was a blessing. However, Margulies expert characterization reveals that most probably David or Molly would not attest that Billy’s visit yielded a positive outcome. As often happens, he will be blamed for causing difficulty when, in effect, they should look to themselves to rectify their own inner mess.
Long Lost works on many levels. The actors’ spot-on portrayals reveal these poignant, flawed individuals whose lives are scattershot regardless of how “perfect” they may appear socially and economically. Parisse and AuCoin adroitly strip the gradual layers revealing that false perfection cannot sustain or nurture their characters’ relationship with each other. Tergesen uses the truthful comments to deliver Billy’s honesty bullet-like; his is the most empathetic character and the most chilling. The underpinnings are thrillingly made manifest through the excellently paced, shepherded production with Sullivan’s thoughtful, specific direction.
Kudos to John Lee Beatty for his gorgeous and appropriate revolving set design. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are equal to the social/economic classes they embody. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design and Daniel Kluger’s original music and sound design round out the production with equal fervor.
Long Lost presented by Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center Stage I runs with no intermission at New York City Center (131 W 55th St. between 6th and 7th) until 30th June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s ‘Choir Boy’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Directed by Trip Cullman
Choir Boy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, superbly directed by Trip Cullman is a tour de force that thrills with its beauty and grace and grieves with its recognition that a fine education may advance one in the world, but it doesn’t answer the longing in one’s heart for individual love and acceptance. And so it goes for Pharus Jonathan Young a super achiever who places all his investment in his golden voice and ambitious pride to excel and be someone despite the abuse he receives at the hands of the adult male black community in his hometown and the teenage black students at The Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. Drew, as it’s affectionately known, is an elite, religious, black, male prep school which shapes black men to be accepted into Ivy League Schools and shepherds them toward sterling behavior to succeed in their careers and in life. The question is, as always in Prep Schools. Are the sub rosa mores being transmitted a benefit or a nullification?
Choir Boy opens with the 49th Commencement for Charles R. Drew Prep’s graduating seniors. The gorgeous voice of Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope in a vibrant, nuanced and fierce portrayal) rings out into the auditorium as he leads the choir in a song about “Trusting and Obeying Jesus” as the only way to happiness. The irony of the song and what occurs during the singing is reflective of the play’s underlying themes. It also is the linchpin upon which rests much of the action to follow.
What the staff, family and friends of the graduating seniors do not hear are the whispered insults and defamations by Bobby Marrow one of the choir members who clearly disdains and despises Pharus. Upset, distracted, Pharus stops singing and turns around to confront Bobby in a stare down. Bobby who achieves what he wants, to upset and deflect Pharus from his concentration, silences his whisperings. These opening salvos of raw animosity and tension between Bobby (J Quinton Johnson’s aggressions and rage are sustained throughout) and Pharus reveal the conflict which McCraney intensifies and escalates in this thrilling production that is currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
After the ceremony, Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper employs his adroit acting skills with moment-to-moment precision) reprimands Pharus for stopping in mid-song, however, Pharus cleverly responds and we understand that he will not be cowed and will maintain his dignity and honor. Though Marrow presses him to explain, Pharus who has been voted as Choir Lead because of his hard work and golden voice evokes the “behavior of a “Drew man.” He tells Headmaster Marrow (the name is more than ironic), “A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother. He allows him the honor of confessing himself.” The conflict is clearly expressed, and we understand Pharus is proud of being elected to head the choir which school-wide is considered an honor. However, we wonder why Bobby has chosen to slur Pharus’ sexuality and use the “N” word to demean him. Is this mere jealousy? Or has Pharus provoked him?
Thus, from the outset, McCraney and the fine direction and staging of the opening scenes by Trip Cullman have engaged us. From this point on we are intrigued to learn about these two individuals and discover whether they will resolve their differences by themselves or with the help of the Headmaster and their friends in the choir.
McCraney’s play is a hybrid (musical, comedy, drama). It is not easily defined or pigeonholed and this is just one of its astounding brilliances. For at crucial junctures in the arc of the plot development, the boys’ chorus breaks into shimmering songs during various practice sessions. And there are dance and rhythmic numbers that relate to the themes. Additionally, humor abides throughout. Yet, there is pathos. In short all the emotional peaks and valleys in life are pinged and resonate with truthfulness.
McCraney’s characterizations are right-on. The leads are distinct individuals; they are finely drawn and by the conclusion of the play we note their development. In an irony reminiscent of our current divisive culture, the young men align either with Pharus or Bobby and the behind-the-scenes dynamic of support and friendship escalates the conflict between the two adversaries throughout. the action.
Additionally, McCraney reveals how the characters negotiate the mores of Drew with lip service and sometime sincerity. Intrigue and surreptitiousness are necessary to get along. And it is the intrigue that crashes into the barricade of Drew “do’s and don’ts” that the characters cannot help but contravene. Thus, they bloody themselves. As a result the explosive scenes bring this incredible social and cultural expose of a black young men’s prep school into the same territory as any white male prep school. Though Drew has a religious fundamental base, the rages, the conflicts, the loves defy class, color, economics. The human heart and human nature unfortunately run true to form. Overcoming evil intent is hard won everywhere. How the protagonist Pharus manages to triumph despite his own self-destructive impulses and need to “be Pharus” is the crux of the play.
The themes relating to division, separation, isolation and, remaining proud and courageous when others attempt to destroy you, McCraney explores with these individuals using humor, song, dance. The plot twists startle. The play’s dynamic is well constructed. From the initial conflict, Bobby, Pharus and their friends and foes are sent spinning until they reach their destinations.
Importantly, from the outset, we understand that the stakes for Pharus and a few other non-legacy young men are very high. Non-legacy men have advanced to Drew by merit based upon their efforts and skills. Pharus has worked very hard to receive a scholarship which he must maintain to take the shot he’s been given or fall by the wayside like other young black men. Thus, in his discussion with Headmaster Marrow, we learn that for Pharus, his newly appointed position as Choir Lead means everything to him. But would he risk that for something even more important?
On the other hand, legacy men like Bobby don’t have Pharus’ worries. Additionally, Bobby enjoys the favor of his uncle’s being the Headmaster. As the arc of development moves toward its climax, we note that Bobby is hell-bent on unseating Pharus and taking the honor for himself. Who will win, who will lose? Clarity of conflict and the high stakes are the genius of this production along with the sensational choral work, the dancing, sensitive acting and the extraordinary meld of the ensemble, all of which makes Choir Boy a uniquely enthralling work..
During the course of the production, we discover the dynamic interplay of the young men who are part of the chorus that Pharus has been chosen to lead because of his academic excellence and golden voice. All who have lead roles are just terrific. Junior Davis, foil of Johnson’s Bobby, nearly stops the show with his hysterical dancing to impress Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, is humorously grand. Yet he’s expressively and authentically emotional when he reacts to Bobby’s use of the “N” word. It’s a hallowed, stirring moment.) Caleb Eberhardt’s David Heard is sensitive and solid in his portrayal. The sadness he evokes as he walks away from the school is an injustice we take to heart. As Pharus’ roommate and friend Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James, John Clay III is superb. His comedic timing is spot on and his poignance and humanity is what is needed to help Pharus deal with the acute pain of life-long devastation he is trying to work through.
The production would not be as superb as it is without the following creative artists’ efforts. Special and heartfelt kudos to Jason Michael Webb (Music Direction, Arrangements & Original Music) David Zinn (Scenic & Costume Design), Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design) Fitz Patton (Original Music & Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair & Makeup Design) Thomas Schall (Fight Direction) Camille A. Brown (Choreography).
Don’t walk, run to see Choir Boy at The Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The production has no intermission and runs one hour forty-five minutes until 24 February. You can call for tickets at 212-239-6200, go in person to the Friedman or get tickets online at their website.