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‘Dark Water’ by David Stallings A Play of Impact and Power About the BP Oil Spill

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L to R: Dianna Martin and Chester Poon in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a tragedy that we are still reeling from. The riverfront and Louisiana wetlands were forever changed. The area’s ecosystem has been seriously compromised and devalued; the fishing and shellfish industries are crippled. However, out of the public spotlight, it’s business as usual spurred on by “the corexit” which dispersed the oil to the sea floor and like magic, “all was out of sight, out of mind.”  Only those who are part of the clean up process, the scientists, the researchers, those working with the EPA, those who live on or near the water and those in university settings who are familiar with the lasting damage of oil spills and the toxic impact of corexit understand the disastrous consequences that, like dominoes, are still toppling throughout the region. Those folks understand but their voices have not been heard above the din of other distractions. They understand, and the halt, maimed, blind animals (chemical mutations) and marine life understand. Daily, they have to experience the toxic “corexit correction,” and the complete alteration of their shelters, food supply and way of survival.

L to R:  Emily Hartford and Stephen Conrad Moore in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory

L to R: Emily Hartford and Stephen Conrad Moore in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory

Dark Water by David Stallings, directed by Heather Cohn enjoying its premiere at The Theater at the 14th Street Y, takes us back to the initial spill and reexamines the event from the perspective of the animals and marine life. Through them we acknowledge their reactions, their attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, and their hopeful struggle to survive despite the creeping “dark water” which moves toward them in a massive, viscous wave of suffocating, burning death.

Mother turtle Barnacle (a determined Dianna Martin) faces a conundrum. She is with her son Weed, but she has left her babies, Weed’s sisters, on an island in the gulf to keep them safe from the spewing dark water. She has told her children she will come back for them to take them to a better place, but the dark water is consuming everything in its path and she is afraid she will be too late. Barnacle drops off Weed (Chester Poon) on another island that appears to be far from the danger, leaving him with Foam (Erica Lauren McLaughlin). Foam, who has been enslaved by Clam (Susan G. Bob)  learns freedom as a result of a loving relationship with Weed. Weed convinces Foam to go with him to find and help Barnacle.

L to R:  Kathleen O'Neill, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon in Dark Water by David Stallings at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

L to R: Kathleen O’Neill, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon in Dark Water by David Stallings at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Before and during Barnacle’s and Weed’s travels, Barnacle has to protect her son while confronting predatory, conniving and dangerous enemies whose habitat is being threatened by the dark water. These birds of prey have grown cruelly rapacious and wanton. Gullet (the foreboding and noxious Brian Silliman) and Blue Heron (an excellent Kathleen O’Neill) connive with arrogance, tyranny and presumption. Barnacle remains strong. She endures and outsmarts these and others who plan to either eat her or Weed. Though some animals and marine life have been driven to desperation out of fear of the rapidly moving dark water destroying their food supply, there are others who remain noble and kind. There is the sweet dolphin, Daedalus (a beloved Antonio Minino), and the prophetic Sea Urchin (Emily Hartford) who gives wise counsel to Barnacle. The highpoints in the conflict create suspense. Will Daedalus who must swim through the entangling, engulfing thickness with Barnacle on his back be able to get to the island in time? Will Barnacle find Weed and will they rescue her daughters before they are all suffocated by the slimy, black ooze?

L to R: Chester Poon and Erica Lauren McLaughlin in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

L to R: Chester Poon and Erica Lauren McLaughlin in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

In Dark Water, Stalling’s message and themes are neither preachy nor easily dismissed. His anthropomorphic characters are like us. We are able to identify in his metaphor riot the best and the worst of human traits: maternal and filial love and sacrifice, rapacity, fear, desperation. On the other hand Stallings has found a unique way to differentiate his marine life characters from humans; they speak in verse. These other life forms express their desires, intents, hopes and fears in exacting rhymes. At times the verse is more rhythmic and poetic, at times not and there are no rhymes. His selection rises to necessity depending upon the unfolding action and events. His dialogue versification is interspersed with a few songs, a short dance and a choreographed fight sequence.

Emily Hartford in Dark Wter by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Emily Hartford in Dark Wter by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

These clever devices are packed with meaning and enhance the themes of this parable which is simple, direct and powerful. Stallings infers that though there are similarities between marine life and man, essentially, these other beings which we deem “dumb brutes” who are as “disposable” as flotsam and jetsom, are to be appreciated as beautiful and poetic creatures integral to the loveliness of the natural realm. By having them speak in verse, Stallings’ impulse is to magnify their preciousness and sanctity. For do we not ultimately depend on them for our sustenance? Throughout the play Stallings’ threads the question, “Do we have any idea of what we are really doing when we risk allowing such a disaster?”

Brian Silliman in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Brian Silliman in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Stallings’ choices are stylistically daring and unusually effecting. By the end we realize we are watching in these characters’ struggles for survival something akin to a Greek tragedy and all the more so because they are innocent creatures and have had no hand in what we have done. However, unlike some Greek tragedy, there is no Deus ex Machina (a god coming to the rescue of the protagonist). How can there be when the human “gods” are the executioners? And what they are executing is their own eventual destruction by first harming the creatures that maintain the ecosystems of the planet.

The fundamental theme expressed by Stallings’ title and how the dark water impacts the marine life evokes the symbolism of a darkness that is all encompassing. By extension we understand that this is an amorphous evil represented by man’s primordial lust for profit at the expense of life itself. Stallings ultimately suggests that If we continue to allow such a tangibly felt wickedness to overtake our rationality and common sense, then surely we do not have to fear an apocalypse. It has already happened in the overtaking of the human heart. Unless it is ameliorated, we are dooming ourselves and the fabric of our own culture and environment for future generations.

Dark Water will be at The Theater at the 14th Street Y until March 29th.

Ensemble: Brian Silliman, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon, Antonio Minino, Susan G. Bob, Erica Lauren McLaughlin, Kathleen O’Neill, Lily Drexler, Stephen Conrad Moore, Emily Hartford

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

 

‘The Tribute Artist’ at 59E59 Theaters

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Bush, Directed by Carl Andress, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Bush, Directed by Carl Andress, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

Buying and selling Manhattan real estate! It’s all about being in the right place at the right time with the right clients. If the opportunity to sign a deal on a most fabulous place in Greenwich Village just dropped in your lap, you’d probably leap at it. What if it involved a smidgeon of shadiness and a soupcon of fraud?

The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presents a hilarious scenario of three rather desperate, down on their luck characters, one attractive and potentially nefarious thief, and a $12 million dollar townhouse whose owner has recently died. From soup to nuts, this two act play is a cleverly written comedy that is beautifully acted by the ensemble cast and tightly directed by Carl Andress. Charles Busch, a Drama Desk Award winner for “Career Achievement as Playwright and Performer,” once again delights with his impeccable timing and comic genius in a play that skirts the edges of farce. The Tribute Artist’s trending humor, themes, and ironies are incisive and just shy of brilliant.

The play opens to the sumptuous living room of a Greenwich Village townhouse where we meet grand dame Adriana (the lively and funny Cynthia Harris), the homeowner. We appreciate Adriana’s sulfuric wit which she states, “is not nastiness, but my European sense of irony.” This “upper crust” lady is a former clothing designer and she is entertaining her down-to-earth and frenetic real estate broker, Rita (the excellent Julie Halston), who may or may not broker the townhouse sale. Jimmy (Charles Busch), a recently fired Las Vegas drag queen, who prefers to be called a “celebrity tribute artist,” is staying with Adriana for a while. When we are introduced to Rita and Jimmy, both are modeling Adriana’s designer clothing, and Jimmy is modeling one of her wigs. Rita and Jimmy have been long time friends. They enjoy Adriana’s hospitality as she fills in details from her past which, unbeknownst to them, are portentous to their future. When they all fall asleep from rather too much drink, the scene shifts to morning and the comedy and plot complications jolt into the most interesting of wonderful possibilities.

L to R: Keira Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

L to R: Keira Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

During the night, Adriana has passed; she did say she was dying, but Jimmy and Rita didn’t believe her. No one will inherit this lovely house and it will end up in the hands of the government since there are no inheritors and no will. The path appears to be clear that Adriana wants the house sold and is exerting her will that this should be exacted by those who are present. They are a perfect combination: a real estate broker and a female impersonator who just happens to have in his repertoire all the greats from Marilyn Monroe to Betty Davis. Impersonating “Adriana” will be easy.  Jimmy and Rita talk themselves into the devilish plan (a hilarious segue), plotting that Jimmy will become Adriana for the time it takes Rita to sell the house. In the clear, they will split their “winnings” fifty/fifty. They even have the perfect resolution for how to deal with Adriana’s remains. Through their euphoria, they both agree that they may have forgotten something, only they aren’t sure what.

What they’ve forgotten shows up in the next scenes, creates havoc, and additional conundrums. The plot complications humorously involve the real heirs who will take the townhouse away from Rita and Jimmy. The inheritors are Adriana’s late husband’s loathsome relatives, niece Christina (a perfectly overwrought Mary Bacon) and grandniece Rachel Oliver (a fine Keira Keeley). An additional complication involves one of Adriana’s former lovers, the sexy Rodney (Jonathan Walker in a hysterical performance). Somehow Rita and Jimmy deal with these “interlopers” and Jimmy’s impersonation of Adriana goes swimmingly for a time until Rodney throws the switch that could overturn their peaceful coexistence. Once again the elements of farce are stepped up with the added suspense that Rodney may be up to something worse than the “silly little fraud” that Rita and Jimmy had hoped to commit.

Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

While spinning these humorous events, the playwright carefully weaves in issues of class, gender, identity, and social injustice. He does this with wit and subtle undercurrents of poignancy in keeping with the comedic pacing. Added to the glee, Jimmy unleashes his repertoire of old-time celebrity actresses with snippets of dialogue from their most famous scenes. Rosalyn Russel, Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis, and others show up and aptly spout “wisdom” to heighten the madness. In his impersonations Busch is at the apex of his powers. His “Running Wild” is superb. If you don’t know which actress performed the song from which iconic film, then you’ll have to get yourself to 59E59 Theaters where the production is being performed. Rita will clue you in to the impersonations just in case you were born after 1990.

The playwright ties up all the complications and reveals the inner workings of each character reinforcing one of the main themes: one never knows how things will turn out in the end. In Busch’s iteration the phrasing is more poetic. The production will be running until March 16th. It is being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

Live in NYC: ‘Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes’

Billy Hayes (1970s) in his 20s. Billy Hayes is currently at the St. Luke’s Theatre in ‘Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes’, written and performed by Billy Hayes, directed by John Gould Rubin.

Billy Hayes (1970s) in his 20s. Billy Hayes is currently at the St. Luke’s Theatre in ‘Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes’, written and performed by Billy Hayes, directed by John Gould Rubin.

Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, written and performed by Billy Hayes and currently at St. Luke’s Theatre, is a profound and illuminating theatrical experience that will leave you uplifted and inspired.

Directed by John Gould Rubin, the production is a reexamination of Hayes’s experiences in Turkey in the 1970s, when he was smuggling hashish, caught, and given a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Some of the gruesome aspects of the story were chronicled in the film Midnight Express.

Many were not. This Off Broadway production sheds a bright light on events the film left out, some harrowing and some magnificent. Though the film was based loosely on Hayes’s book Midnight Express, whole swaths of experience were eliminated and fabrications added. This show is Hayes’ revelation about the full truth of his past and how it influenced his journey into the present.

Since Hayes’s solo performance relates to the film, it is necessary to review why the impact of this one-man show is so vital by comparison. When it was released in 1978, Midnight Express received worldwide acclaim and garnered 16 awards including two for Best Writing (screenplay based on material from another medium) and Best Music (original score). It even received a Golden Globe for Best Picture in the category of Drama. If they didn’t read the book, people believed Oliver Stone’s screenplay. It portrayed Hayes’s rollicking jaunt to Turkey, his arrest, his unjust trial, and his ghoulish nightmare after being sentenced to a life in the abomination of desolation: the Turkish prison. The audience was kept in suspense and horror watching the character’s devolution in prison and his nullifying flirtation with insanity. When Hayes unbelievably escapes, easily walking out into freedom without being seen by anyone, the audience feels tremendous relief that the hell is over and Hayes is free.

Billy Hayes in NYC after he escaped from Turkey. Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, written and performed by Billy Hayes, directed by John Gould Rubin, at St. Luke's Theatre.

Billy Hayes in NYC after he escaped from Turkey.

In Hayes’s live performance we discover that this “walk-out” did not happen, and what did was far more frightening. Indeed, his real escape to freedom took much longer and was a desperate, gripping survival story. As Hayes relates it, we cannot help but be astounded by each miraculous event that, domino-style, brought him closer to freedom. The “walk-out” as presented by the filmmakers was sheer Hollywood gloss and actually a diminution of Hayes’s character, resourcefulness and inner strength.

What particularly makes his one-man show so engrossing and compelling is Hayes‘s natural spontaneity. With his fine acting talents (he is a writer, actor and director), he aptly conveys the full import of and real events relating to his capture, arrest, trial, prison time and incredible escape. What is equally edifying is the discussion of his life afterward and his personal growth as an individual, a social advocate and a culturally dynamic American.

Billy Hayes being interviewed about his current activities.

Billy Hayes being interviewed about his current activities as they evolved from his past.

As we watch Hayes deliver his unexpurgated account, we are able to receive it in the entirety of its depth and detail. Unencumbered by any restraints, Hayes finally has free reign. Through his vibrant descriptions and vivid language we understand his thoughts, his unique perspectives; we come to know the mind of Billy Hayes. His performance is one of unbounded clarity. Hayes expresses the soul of an age that is current and ongoing. To say the message is life-giving is an understatement.

As we receive the truth of his presence, the deep issues and themes of freedom, love, enlightenment and growth become more real and heartfelt than what the film ever could convey. Indeed, Hayes understands the essence of his life’s journey. We recognize its vitality and note that it has far-reaching implications for our culture and society today. With great courage Hayes bares his soul and our souls follow, opened to his immeasurable riches of spirit. The film was a mere shadow of what he effects and gives us in this performance over 35 years later.

Billy Hayes and his wife, after the performance, speaking with audience members and signing autographs.

Billy Hayes and his wife Wendy after the performance, speaking with audience members and signing autographs.

Whether it was intentioned or not, the film was a cautionary tale that delivered lessons about the Muslim world and more specifically, Turkey. First, that Turkey was a brutal country and its prisons cesspits; one should not travel there as a lark to flout the laws. Second, that Turkish justice was no justice.

Considering U.S. politics in the 1970s, the film was a boon for American culture, and Billy Hayes was a hero. The film encouraged a feeling of patriotism (at a time when the culture needed this). Against Turkey and other Muslim countries, it spawned a host of travel warnings for Americans abroad. In its associative portrayal of hashish and marijuana, it was a negative advertisement. Though marijuana and hashish, its concentrated form, were plant-based drugs, un-patentable and used medicinally and recreationally across many cultures for millennia, Nixon’s “war on drugs” (related to Hayes’ prison sentence) sealed their doom. In the Q&A after his performance, Hayes’s commentary about the film’s impact (related to marijuana’s illegality, and many other issues) was fascinating.

Why filmmakers re-characterized Hayes’s experiences in prison, the Turkish court, and especially his escape is up for conjecture. In any case, the reality of what actually occurred as Hayes relates in his solo performance inspires hope, courage and peace. If that message was not politically or culturally efficacious for the time, so be it. But now a new generation of individuals will be exposed to the story. Its truth and its reckoning have finally come. This is a performance not to be missed.

Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is being presented by Barbara Ligeti with Jeffrey Altshuler and Edmund Gaynes. Co-producers are Jonathan Chang, Jann Cobler, Exodus Broadway and Joseph Trent Siff. The production is running through March 23 at St. Luke’s Theatre on 308 West 46th Street.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

‘My Mother Has Four Noses’ by the Amazing Singer/Songwriter Jonatha Brooke

Jonatha Brooke in My Mother Has Four Noses written and performed by Jonatha Brooke, currently at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo by Pierre Baudet.

Jonatha Brooke in My Mother Has Four Noses written and performed by Jonatha Brooke, currently at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo by Pierre Baudet.

Acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke emotionally climbed the mountains of the moon and plummeted to the depths of the abyss after she brought her mother to an apartment in NYC so she could care for her the last two years of her mom’s life. Her mom, published poet Darren Stone, had Alzheimer’s.

As Stone’s identity withered toward invisibility, a multiplicity of beings, characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients, emerged as she physically and mentally recreated herself with each new day. The disease took eminent domain of her mind and body parcel by parcel.

Jonatha and her mom accepted the challenge. They enacted their “greatest show on earth.” It was an all-encompassing adventure filled with drama and comedy, the mundane villains of aging (painful arthritis) and their comedic sidekicks (constipation from pain killers). Their surreal vision and dramatic courage helped pass the time as they worked through obstacles. And somehow together, they “got it all down.” Theirs was performance art which provided the raw material for a show which Jonatha Brooke would perform a year after her mom died.

By the time Stone left this plane, Brooke was ready. Mother and daughter had experienced the sublime end game in all of its beauty and beastliness. Brooke would learn to extirpate the horror of their most intimate and personal moments and keep the humor, longing, love and ethereality. By linking snippets of remembered conversation, exact quotes, and bits of her mom’s poems in a heady mix of narration and song, Brooke symbolizes the finest rhythms of those last two years. These snatches of life, brought to the stage in the one-woman musical My Mother Has Four Noses, are a precious human revelation.

One cannot witness this production, directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, and remain untouched. Brooke’s work helps us recognize and appreciate the poetic rhythms in our own lives and the lives of those dearest to us. She has dug deep into her own empathy to distill the highlights of their mother-daughter love relationship. The potion she creates is readily drinkable and the unique, bittersweet taste lingers. We are better for her gently shaking our consciousness, reminding us that our bodies are mortal. We, too, will one day have to answer the hard questions about who we are and whether we are happy about what we have made ourselves into. We, too, will enact our finality alone or in a drama with others. In her remarkable endeavor, Brooke’s artistry is heartfelt and powerful and there is much you will take away to contemplate.

Darren Stone had four prosthetic noses, one for each season. My Mother Has Four Noses by Jonatha Brooke at The Duke on 42nd Street.

Darren Stone had four prosthetic noses, one for each season. My Mother Has Four Noses by Jonatha Brooke at The Duke on 42nd Street.

In Brooke’s seminal song “Are You Getting This Down,” the opening number, she reflects how she and her mom came to deal with fleshly mortality through spiritual and electric currents of love, joy and endurance. Brooke settles on shaping the bulk of the production around a motif that streams through both of their lives: her mother’s religious beliefs as a Christian Scientist. In the earlier years it was the bane of their relationship, a major point of disagreement. Jonatha never believed, while her mother remained a staunch follower of the religion which eschews medical interventions.

That refusal is the boulder which shatters Darren Stone again and again and sends her careening to Brooke for help in the crisis created by failing to seek out doctors. Brooke uses the crisis and Christian Science as an overarching metaphor in the production: the salvation which brings no salvation. For example, her mother resorted to the science of prayer in the community of Christian Scientists as she struggled against cancer. When the cancer ate away most of her face, she decided she wanted to survive and elicited Jonatha’s help. The intensive surgeries resulted in multiple reconstructions and prosthetics. Her mom’s life was saved, but her nose was sacrificed during the battle. Hence the title of the production. Indeed, Darren Stone had four noses, as both she and her daughter joked, one for each season.

Acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke in the musical My Mother Has Four Noes at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo by Pierre Baudet.

Acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke in the musical My Mother Has Four Noes at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo by Pierre Baudet.

During the course of the musical we learn of Darren Stone’s artistic bent as a writer, poet and clown: she used the clown makeup to hide the unsightly cancer. In the mother’s incredible portrait, we see the vibrant picture of the daughter. By the end of the production Darren Stone and Jonatha Brooke merge into one. It is not a coincidence that Jonatha takes a poem her mother wrote in 1950 and adds stanzas that she fashions into “Mom’s Song,” the last song of the performance. The song’s completion is a symbol of resolution. Theirs is a love that requires no atonement for unresolved regrets, but finishes with a “tear and a smile” flourish. It is how Jonatha Brooke is able to nightly perform herself and her mother with joy and poignance and humor.

How does one deal before, during and after taking care of someone who as they daily die before you is a confluence of contradiction: loving and recalcitrant, lucid and foggy, cooperative and fearfully resistant, funny and tragic, a “character,” who enters a daily new normal, someone who wants to die to avoid the pain, yet hold on and live with every ounce of fading strength? How indeed? If we receive the artistry of what Jonatha Brooke offers with her instrumental and vocal expertise and power of storytelling, we have the answer in a near-divine and indomitable love that flows between the lovers out into the audiences’ hearts.

My Mother Has Four Noses is produced by Patrick Rains. Musical Director, Guitar: Ben Butler. Cello: Anja Wood. Orchestrations by Jonatha Brooke and Ben Butler. The production will run at The Duke on 42nd Street until May 4.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

 

‘Sotto Voce,’ Nilo Cruz’s Transformative Spin on the Tragedy of the MS St. Louis

Franca Sofia Barchiesi in the world premiere of Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City until March 9th.

Franca Sofia Barchiesi in the world premiere of Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City until March 9th. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

When one speaks “sotto voce,” one speaks in a softer, lower tone for emphasis or perhaps to give the impression of an involuntary utterance of truth which may shock or antagonize. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics, 2003), is revealing great truths through undercurrents and whisperings of poignant and impossible love in the world premiere of Sotto Voce. The play, which he also directed, is being performed at Theater for the New City until March 9.

As the play opens, we hear a foghorn and see two separate scenes that are going on simultaneously, one from the past and one in the present. The scene from the past involves memory and imagination. The scene in the present is of uncompromising reality. In the present we see Bemadette, a the renowned German-born writer, composing her work center stage at her desk in her apartment in New York City. A voiceover narration of Bemadette’s rich and beautiful prose describing the scene she has written makes the prose alive. We see a sister and her brother, the Strausses, walking happily on their way toward the ship they will soon board on their way out of Germany to Cuba. Along with 937 other Jewish refugees they are seeking asylum from Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1939, The ship is the ill-fated SS St. Louis.

L to R: Franca Sofia Barchiesi and Arielle Jacobs in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

L to R: Franca Sofia Barchiesi and Arielle Jacobs in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The tragedy of the St. Louis is one of the more egregious examples of politics, human profiteering and discrimination involving democratic countries to come out of the pre-WWII years. After the ship made it to the alleged place of asylum, the refugees never were allowed into Cuba. They sought help from Canada and the U.S. but were denied immigration status and turned away. After voyages to the Florida coast and back to Cuba, they were running out of supplies. The ship was forced to return to Europe. Belgium, France, England and Holland agreed to take in the refugees. Of them, 254 died when the European countries were occupied by the Nazis (England excepted). Of these 254, many were sent to the camps. The St. Louis incident is integral to Sotto Voce. How Cruz uses it to evoke wonderful themes about memory, lost love, regret, reconciliation and rebirth is poetic and illuminating.

Andhy Mendez in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz, directed by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Andhy Mendez in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz, directed by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

As Cruz develops the play, he intertwines memory, imagination and current reality to tell the story of Bemadette. Her lover was Strauss, who with his sister, were refugees on the St. Louis. Bemadette cannot deal with past regrets about her lover who died in the camps. Her stability and her enjoyment of the present have been warped by pain. When we meet Bemadette (an astounding and emotionally taut performance by Franca Sofia Barchiesi), we recognize she is a dried husk. Guilt has sucked out the choicest portions of her lifeblood. In her attempt to reconcile the past, she writes, but it is poor recompense and she is haunted by nightmares and ghosts.

Then a life-changing event occurs. It helps her expiate the sadness and desolation that has kept her pinned to the past in repeated agonizing remembrances. The catalyst comes in a beautiful form, a Cuban college student, Saquiel (an intense and provocative Andhy Mendez) who has read her writings and who shares a bond with her. His grandfather’s sister was on the St. Louis and was killed in the Holocaust. In seeking out Bemadette, he is looking for his past and wanting to understand the sources of the beauty of her writings and her own history that she would prefer to nullify but cannot.

L to R: Andhy Mendez and Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

L to R: Andhy Mendez and Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

An ethereal and platonic relationship via phone and email develops between Bemadette and Saquiel, fueled by an intermediary, Bemadette’s maid Lucila (an excellent Arielle Jacobs). The student and the writer help one another, even though they do not physically see each other but instead imagine they are together. It is through their loving, healthful relationship and their probing discussions that we discover the mysteries of Bemadette’s horrific regrets and misery about her Jewish lover. It is through Saquiel’s perseverance, love and appreciation of Bemadette’s artistry and history that she is able to reconcile her memories with the present realities. By the play’s conclusion Saquiel and Bemadette are transported to a new understanding of themselves and what they are willing to sacrifice to gain peace and hope.

In Sotto Voce Nilo Cruz has created a sumptuous work of art, integrating poetic forms within the structure of the plot to fuel the dialogue and characterizations. He does this with beauty and grace that convey a wistfulness and longing for health and wholeness which both characters are on their way to achieving by the play’s end. Most importantly, Cruz reminds us of the power of human relationships to heal. It is a power that transcends the limitations of time and space and age differences. If it is allowed to develop and grow, one may receive the energy to create new dreams to replace those lost to time and regret.

Sotto Voce was performed in a limited run at Theater for the New City.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams. A Play About a Teacher, a Single Mom and Her Son.

L to R: Dara O'Brien and Karen Leiner in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

L to R: Dara O’Brien and Karen Leiner in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Humans are self-deceivers; they often avoid confronting painful truths. When/if their frauds lead to catastrophe, then they are forced to look at how their self-duplicity created the consequences. With self-deception, there is the inevitable manipulation of others and the abusive “passing the blame” of one’s hated flaws onto these victims who may or may not suspect the manipulator’s ulterior motives. If the victims are enablers, they accept the blame and help push the abuser into their catastrophe. Ideally, the sooner one confronts the horrific inner Gorgon of truth, the better. Confrontation leads to enlightenment and growth. Delay, brings stony emotions, obfuscations, and more lies, until there is collapse, self-destruction, or madness.

In her play Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams explores how a mother and a fifth grade teacher dance around the “truth” of an incident which involves Gidion who was in Heather Clark’s fifth grade public school class. The dance provokes mother Corryn (Karen Leiner), and teacher Heather (Dara O’Brien), to inadvertently lay bare their souls in an interesting power manipulation. Rather than confront their inner Gorgon, and help one another, they pity, judge, condemn, project, and appear cold-hearted: all acts of self-deception and obfuscation. As the play records their convolutions, we, the audience, try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Gidion and what is happening in the present between the two women. But our attempt to unravel the knots of lies and truths remains feeble. In a fog we wonder about the significance of what we are seeing and question if these characters will ever acknowledge their inner Gorgon, thus destroying its power over them.

Playwright Johnna Adams has contrived a complex, hyper-charged conundrum of a play. Directed with precision, insight and sensitivity by Austin Pendleton, Gidion’s Knot leaves one spinning about the characters’ manipulations and duplicities as it examines the issue of social and parental responsibility. I cannot envision many other directors who so aptly could have created an atmosphere to elicit the marvelous performances. Because of the team’s united efforts this amazing production thrills and provokes.

Dara O'Brien in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dara O’Brien in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Pendleton’s talents adhere with the vivid, alive portrayals by actors Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien. Their creation is a continuous thrumming of palpable tension that keeps us engaged. Can the mysteries be solved given the complexities and needs of the characters?  Pendleton’s, Leiner’s and O’Brien’s masterful work illuminates the charades, blinding rationales, and subtle justifications the characters use to avoid their miserable inner truths. We recognize how Corryn’s and Heather’s self-deceptions have lead to catastrophe. Will these women see the light and help one another or resort to recriminations and judgements enabling and fomenting the inevitability of another disaster?

As the actors and director elucidate these points, the entanglements intensify. The more we attempt to extricate the truths, the more we are caught up in the characters’ rationalizations and self-fraud. We empathize because we are looking at ourselves. We realize that for them, there may be no way out except to live with an inner morass that will worsen. Unlike a Gordian Knot, an allusion aptly used by the playwright, the knot Gidion has created cannot be cut.

For the setting and backdrop Adams uses a conventional educational system and an atypical parent-teacher conference. Along the way she touches upon the issues of our present public educational system’s cultural assumptions about curriculum, appropriate behavior, and the responsibility of the parent, child, teacher, and system to produce learning. She also infers how these assumptions may run counter to the true nature of learning as art and how such learning prompts the finest art. Though parts of the play might appear to be contrived, (i.e. Gidion’s act, Corryn’s choice to put Gidion in a public school, the absence of communication between the school and parent), the playwright tries to smooth over the glitches with the characters’ logical explanations. Just at the point where one might find the contrivance an obstacle, Pendleton and the actors patch up the holes with brilliant performance art that is completely “in the moment.” We are swept up by the life we see and don’t give the contrivance much  thought.

L to R: Karen Leiner and Dara O'Brien in Gidion's Knot. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

L to R: Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien in Gidion’s Knot. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The playwright focuses Gidion’s Knot around Corryn’s interaction with Heather during the conference. When Corryn first enters the classroom, we believe she is misplaced because Ms. Heather Clark is shocked that she’s come. Corryn tells her she is there to discover the reasons why Gidion, a brilliant student, has been given a suspension by Ms. Clark. She wants to understand what happened to her son and figure out the motivations for his behaviors. We suspect there is more to her initially benign response because of Heather’s amazement at her presence. As Corryn probes Heather for answers, she becomes hostile and aggressive, and the underlying tensions between the parent and the teacher grow. Corryn’s acidic comments push Heather Clark into retreat mode with long periods of silent acquiescence as she takes in Corryn’s opprobrium. Throughout the exchanges we wonder who is being truthful, who is avoiding reality and why is the “bullying” necessary?

Karen Leiner in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Karen Leiner in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Little by little, the playwright unfolds the mysteries. We find out why Heather Clark is shocked to see Corryn in her classroom. However, this initial revelation is only the beginning. Gidion has left a knot to unravel about his behavior; we search for answers about the extent to which Corryn and Heather might have been culpable in effecting Gidion’s nullifying actions. The playwright adeptly guides the audience through the teacher’s and parent’s perspectives. From Corryn’s perspective we want to know more from Heather Clark. Surely, the teacher understands what happened to Gidion. We understand Corryn’s need to manipulate, browbeat, and abuse the truth from Heather. However, we know from Heather’s reticence that she is protecting someone and is keeping certain situations in her classroom confidential. Aligning with Heather’s professional perspective, then, she appears to be in the right. We assume that Corryn is too emotionally invested to see clearly and rationally. But who is Heather protecting? Heather? The principal? The children? Gidion? Corryn? And from what?

Because of the superb performances which ooze strain and inner turmoil, we yearn to understand and this suspense keeps our attention. As more of the complications are revealed, the less truth we know. The more vitriol Corryn expresses, the farther she moves from inner understanding of herself and her impact on her son. The more Heather Clark enables Corryn’s bitter “truth” seeking with her spare explanations, the less we understand about Gidion’s motivation and Heather’s part in it. Was Gidion’s suspension truly justified? Or was it an example of the public education system curtailing sensitivity, artistry, and creativity as suggested by Corryn? Does the letter that Corryn finds in Gidion’s desk reveal he has been damaged by classmates? Or is there a deeper, hidden truth which will have ramifications upon Corryn’s understanding of herself and her son?

Throughout the play we are riveted because we are off balance. We do not know who is “fronting” whom. By the conclusion we are uncertain and that is the best we can hope for because the characters are inscrutable. We should not be projecting our own failed, misplaced assumptions on them. The issues of where parental responsibility and social responsibility begin and end are not resolved. We do understand that the educational system presented by the playwright (somewhat contrived) is not ready to deal with who or what Gidion is, but then neither is Corryn. Lastly, there is Gidion. In fifth grade, he is past the age of accountability. To what extent does the final culpability rest with him?

Gidion’s Knot was performed at 59E59 Theaters in a limited engagement.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

A Play About the JFK Assassination: ‘Witnessed by the World’ by Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale

Photo is a still taken from the renown Zapruder film of the movie of the assassination of JFK.

Photo is a still taken from the renown Zapruder film of the movie of the assassination of JFK.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is perhaps the most written-about event of the 20th century, with over 800 books alone devoted to parsing the details of the how and why of the assassination and the alleged subsequent cover-up. Some books justify the evidence produced in the Warren Commission Report, which found Lee Harvey Oswald to be Kennedy’s sole murderer. Many reputable writers and investigators, including the 1960s District Attorney of New Orleans, James Garrison, meticulously and logically disputed the Warren Report’s conclusions.

The mainstream media ridicules “conspiracy theorists,” who put forth the idea that a cabal of conspirators were responsible for Kennedy’s murder and wanted him “out of the way” for various political reasons. Witnessed by the World written by Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale and directed by Karen Carpenter provides an interesting spin on the assassination and the “conspiracy theory” decriers. It is informative, taking into consideration that there are those in subsequent generations who know little about the assassination and the major players connected to it.

The playwrights have cleverly avoid didacticism and preachiness. They posit information about the assassination through dialogue between an older journalist, Joan Ross (an excellent Charlotte Maier), enthralled with the research she has done about the assassination, and the younger, uninterested, uninformed screenwriter, Ira Basil (Max Gordon Moore in a good counterpoint), who is working with her on a writing project. Information is also revealed through the play’s developing action. We follow Joan and learn about the assassination as she channels information from her leads into discussions with the screenwriter, a friend, and her sources.

L - R Charlotte Maier and Bob Ari (Aaron Spencer), in Witnessed by the World by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, Directed by Karen Carpenter

L – R: Charlotte Maier and Bob Ari (Aaron Spencer), in Witnessed by the World,  written by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, directed by Karen Carpenter. Photo by Douglas Denoff.

At the outset, the play shows the black and white TV clip of the Jack Ruby shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, which was the first live mass media murder viewed by millions. (There were no warning ratings preventing young children from watching the live coverage and later the incessant replaying of Oswald’s painful collapse after the bullet did its work.) We are in shock as the viewers at the time were in shock seeing Ruby conveniently smash the possibility that any trial of Kennedy’s alleged killer would take place.

If Ruby was a hero, performing the role of Oswald’s executioner, he was not released for his “good deed.” The mysterious incongruity is that Ruby received the death penalty after his first trial. This was overturned in a Texas appellate court. He was waiting for a second trial when he died of cancer in a Dallas hospital. Had he been threatened not to disclose the mystery of his relationships and background connections to mobsters, the CIA, Oswald and others? Though he was interviewed by Dorothy Kilgallen toward the end, Kilgallen never lived to “blow the lid off the JFK assassination” as she said she would.

Cohen and Beale explore these mysteries and others as Joan investigates Ruby’s early background and teen years to help Ira Basil finish a screenplay about Jack Ruby and the mystery surrounding his ties to organized crime and visits to Cuba. Though Ira warns Joan that she must not write about or investigate Ruby’s connection to the JFK assassination, Joan on her own recognizance pieces together information she learns from Jack Ruby’s sister, Eileen Kaminsky (an exceptional and believable Lois Markle). After Joan and Eileen become close, Eileen gives Joan a box of items which no one knows about. Ruby had given them to Eileen for safekeeping. Each item is a potential clue, a possible missing puzzle piece that Joan can use to create a logical picture of Ruby, his ties to organized crime figures and answers to the questions about why he killed Oswald.

L - R, Bob Ari and Joe Tapper (Joe Capano), in Witnessed by the World, by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, Directed by Karen Carpenter

L – R: Bob Ari and Joe Tapper (Joe Capano), in Witnessed by the World, written by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, directed by Karen Carpenter. Photo by Douglas Denoff.

As Joan’s investigation proceeds, she is spurred on with potential answers about the assassination. We are interested and happy to go along for the ride which she keeps hidden from Ira. However, when Ira discovers information which throws Joan’s character into muddy waters, we can see the headlines above her name “conspiracy theory nut,” a twist which is panicking Ira. He manages to continue  working with her because he has grown closer to her and for personal self-interest: he will continue to receive the information she has given him about Ruby. They work well together on the screenplay which appears to portend lucrative possibilities.

In the midst of the Ira-Joan scenario, there is a detour down a dark road. Joan confides in friend Aaron Spencer (an appropriate and capable Bob Ari) about the screenplay and her secret investigation of Ruby’s mob connections, and in turn, the JFK assassination. Aaron, who is confronting financial difficulties and is forced to make some debt arrangements with shady mob characters, is told by Joe Capano (a smiling, insidious Joe Tapper) that he knows an old “uncle” in the criminal network who knew Ruby. Aaron  shares the information with Joan, who tries to arrange a meet up with this “uncle,” to confirm the final threads of logic she is sewing together about how Ruby was connected to the JFK assassination. These threads tie in Ruby’s connections to mob figures, Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante and others.

Aaron discourages Joan about the meet up, but it has been arranged by Joe Capano who tells Aaron that  Uncle Tony is anxious to talk to Joan. Joan is thrilled after years of research and hard work in overcoming the resistance of recalcitrant sources. She is exuberant because she knows she is going to be able to blow the lid off the Kennedy assassination with the final confirmation of testimony from Uncle Tony.

L - R, Charlotte Maier and Lois Markle (Eileen Kaminsky), in Witnessed by the World by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, Directed by Karen Carpenter

L – R: Charlotte Maier and Lois Markle (Eileen Kaminsky), in Witnessed by the World, written by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, directed by Karen Carpenter. Photo by Douglas Denoff.

The play is a vital go-see-it for a number of reasons. It will be informative for those who are unfamiliar with the Kennedy assassination and the time period. The play provides a quick and dirty clip sheet of one element of the possible assassination conspirator network that will not be found through mainstream media, except the History Channel offerings. Highlighted is information which includes a growing body of research about the history of our government’s political machinations during the cold war and the extent that the intelligence community was willing to go to insure the US retained the upper hand against Communist leaders. The play is well constructed and keeps the audience engrossed about a period of our history which is crucial to understanding the present.

However, the play does manifest issues; some of the contrivances are problematic. The contrivance of character and dialogue to get out the information (an older journalist and a younger screenwriter unfamiliar and uninterested about the assassination) works because it is subtle and well crafted into the conflict and action of Joan’s investigation of Ruby. We can overlook it because it melds seamlessly with relaying the background information to the audience. But the character complication, that Aaron happens to be in financial trouble and just happens to be involved with mobsters who knew Ruby and who are still alive, is less seamlessly written into the play’s action.

Tthe contrivance of the naivete of Joan’s character cannot be overlooked. We understand that she is a brilliant investigative reporter who is putting the pieces together and who knows the score about the individuals connected with the assassination. We believe she is a hard hitting and uncompromising journalist and a thorough researcher. Her ingenuousness with her sources, for example overlooking the shady character of who she is dealing with seems incongruous and is not credible.

L - R, Charlotte Maier, Bob Ari, Max Gordon Moore, in Witnessed by the World by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, Directed by Karen Carpenter

L – R: Charlotte Maier, Bob Ari, Max Gordon Moore, in Witnessed by the World, written by Ronnie Cohen & Jane Beale, directed by Karen Carpenter. Photo by Douglas Denoff.

Would the playwrights have created even more tension…would the play have been more striking if Joan implies she knows the risks involved, but takes them anyway? Would this be a more heroic Joan, one more in keeping with who she is? If, yes, then, the conclusion would be more tragic, more appropriate, and of course, more ironic. Though the acting is excellent and the ensemble work holds together beautifully, it is a lot to ask of Charlotte Maier to reconcile the contradictions of Joan as a naive yet hard-hitting journalist. It is not as if her naivete has been intimated throughout the play as a tragic flaw. It is artificial, contrived. If Joan was portrayed as one who knows she is taking a risk but she does it anyway because there is a moral imperative…the truth must be revealed? This portrayal is logical, noble and in keeping with Joan’s character. It elevates the play to a greater reality. How many have risked their lives to tell the truth?

The great tragedy in the assassination of JFK is that the only justice the assassins, and there were more than one as the Senate Select Committee designated (which later puppets attempted to decry) is that justice was never served. The country, though never above corruption and villainy which our past is filled with, suffered many blows afterward. The most crucial misery was that the indomitable spirit of the American people was dampened. HOWEVER, IT WAS NOT EXTINGUISHED. If this is what was intended, and if the MO was to increase profits and gain lucre, then so be it. The perpetrators did that. They have reaped their reward. And the full weight of their actions will fall on their heads.

The play, which enjoyed its New York Premiere at 59E59 Theaters is a reminder that the JFK case, despite what one apologist wrote, IS NOT CLOSED. IT WILL NEVER, EVER BE CLOSED. SO THERE IS NO “CASE CLOSED” ABOUT THE JFK ASSASSINATION, no matter how much one may assert that we should all just not think about it.  The magic bullet theory which fatuously has been used as proof that only Oswald was the killer and that there was NO conspiracy is, in fact, THEORY. Theory is not fact; it is hypothesis. Once the argument is raised to “belief” then theories are allowed in and by their nature, are uncertain. The best we can say is it is a 50% / 50% chance there was a conspiracy. The true perpetrators have gotten away with murder, probably not for the first time. Hopefully, for the last.

The review first appeared on Blogcritics.

The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leyenes

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

Buying and selling Manhattan real estate! It’s all about being in the right place at the right time with the right clients. If the opportunity to sign a deal on a most fabulous place in Greenwich Village just dropped in your lap, you’d probably leap at it. What if it involved a smidgeon of shadiness and a soupcon of fraud?

The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presents a hilarious scenario of three rather desperate, down on their luck characters, one attractive and potentially nefarious thief, and a $12 million dollar townhouse whose occupant has recently died. From soup to nuts, this two act play is a cleverly written comedy that is beautifully acted by the ensemble cast and tightly directed by Carl Andress. Charles Busch, a Drama Desk Award winner  for “Career Achievement as Playwright and Performer,” once again delights with his impeccable timing and comic genius in a play that skirts the edges of farce. The Tribute Artist’s trending humor, themes and ironies are incisive and just shy of brilliant.

The play opens to the sumptuous living room of a Greenwich Village townhouse where we meet grand dame Adriana (the lively and funny Cynthia Harris), the alleged homeowner. We appreciate Adriana’s sulfuric wit which she states, “is not nastiness, but my European sense of irony.” This upper crust lady is a former clothing designer and she is entertaining her down-to-earth and frenetic real estate broker, Rita (the excellent Julie Halston), who may or may not broker the townhouse sale. Jimmy (Charles Busch) a recently fired Las Vegas drag queen, who prefers to be called a “celebrity tribute artist,” is staying with Adriana for a while. When we are introduced to Rita and Jimmy, both are modeling Adriana’s designer clothing and Jimmy is modeling one of her wigs. Rita and Jimmy have been long time friends and they enjoy Adriana’s hospitality as she fills in details from her past which, unbeknownst to them, are portentous to their future. When they all fall asleep from rather too much drink, the scene shifts to morning and the comedy and plot complications jolt into the most interesting of wonderful possibilities.

Charles Busch as Jimmy impersonating Adriana in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

Charles Busch as Jimmy impersonating Adriana in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

During the night, Adriana has passed; she did say she was dying, but Jimmy and Rita didn’t believe her. No one will inherit this lovely house and it will end up in the hands of the government since there are no inheritors and no will. The path appears to be clear that Adriana wants the house sold and is exerting her will that this should be exacted by those who are present. They are a perfect combination:  a real estate broker and a female impersonator who just happens to have in his repertoire all the greats from Marilyn Monroe to Betty Davis. Impersonating “Adriana” will be easy.  Jimmy and Rita talk themselves into the devilish plan (a hilarious segue), plotting that Jimmy will become Adriana for the time it takes Rita to sell the house. In the clear, they will split their “winnings” fifty/fifty. They even have the perfect resolution for how to deal with Adriana’s remains. Through their euphoria, they both agree that they may have forgotten something, only they aren’t sure what.

What they’ve forgotten shows up in the next scenes, creates havoc and additional conundrums. The plot complications humorously involve the real heirs who will take the townhouse away from Rita and Jimmy.  The inheritors are Adriana’s late husband’s loathsome relatives, niece Christina (a perfectly overwrought Mary Bacon) and grandniece Rachel Oliver (a fine Keira Keeley). An additional complication involves one of Adriana’s former lovers, the sexy and very masculine Rodney (Jonathan Walker in a hysterical performance). Somehow Rita and Jimmy deal with these “interlopers” and Jimmy’s impersonation of Adriana goes swimmingly for a time until Rodney throws the switch that could overturn their peaceful coexistence. Once again the elements of farce are stepped up with the added suspense that Rodney may be up to something worse than the “silly little fraud” that Rita and Jimmy had hoped to commit.

L to R: Kiera Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

L to R: Keira Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

While spinning these humorous events, the playwright carefully weaves in issues of class, gender, identity and social injustice. He does this with wit and subtle undercurrents of poignancy in keeping with the comedic pacing. Added to the glee, Jimmy unleashes his repertoire of old-time celebrity actresses with snippets of dialogue from their most famous scenes. Rosalyn Russel, Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis and others show up and aptly spout “wisdom” to heighten the madness. In his impersonations Busch is at the apex of his powers. His “Running Wild” is superb. If you don’t know which actress performed the song from which iconic film, then you’ll have to get yourself to 59E59 Theaters where the production is being performed. Rita will clue you in to the impersonations just in case you were born after 1980.

The playwright ties up all the complications and reveals the inner workings of each character reinforcing one of the main themes: one never knows how things will out in the end. In Busch’s iteration the phrasing is more poetic. The production will be running until March 16th. It is being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

The review first appeared on Blogcritics. Click Here.

‘Loot’ by Joe Orton, Stowing Mummy in the Closet for the Payoff

L to R: Ryan Garbayo as Dennis and Nick Westrate as Hal in Joe Orton's Loot, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater).

L to R: Ryan Garbayo as Dennis and Nick Westrate as Hal in Joe Orton’s Loot, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater). Photo by Sarah Moore.

Joe Orton, the British playwright whose London hit Entertaining Mr. Sloan proved his brilliance, had his life cut short in 1967 at the age of 34. He was killed by his partner, who committed suicide in recompense for killing Orton. It is the theater world’s great loss, for Orton had experienced the steam of greatness as an exceptional playwright/writer, but not the substance. Whenever a production of his zany, dark comedies is revived, see it to appreciate the frenzy of hyperbolic farce that Orton was marvelous at creating.  Impeccable timing and jeweled turn of phrase characterize Orton’s work. He is sardonic, like Wilde; over the top, like Monty Python; an iconic British wit.

Loot, in revival at the Lucille Lortel’s Red Bull Theater until February 9, is one of Orton’s gems. This production, directed by Jesse Berger, conveys Orton’s scorn of entrenched social institutions (religious, judicial, legal, medical). Clearly, the playwright had a rollicking time opening them to ridicule. This is appropriate for us currently; the hypocrisies Orton lays bare, are snatched from the 1960s. Yet, they are immutable now as they were then. In the delivery of the madcap and over-the-top plot extremities, we are able to bear the painful truths expressed underneath. If fraud, official corruption, murder and theft are the stuff of life, at least they can be used as meat to gnaw on for our entertainment sustenance in the hands of a savvy, sharp playwright, able director and acute acting ensemble.

The setting, the McLeavy living room is comfortably furnished with chairs and tables circling the walls, a locked chifferobe and what looks to be a folding screen more befitting a hospital room than a living room. The room is a style cacophony of weird items, the most strange being the coffin with decorative grave flowers at center stage. Thus begins the wackiness which develops into full-blown mayhem.

L to R: Nick Westrate, Rebecca Brooksher and Ryan Garbayo in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre until February 9th.

L to R: Nick Westrate, Rebecca Brooksher and Ryan Garbayo in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre until February 9. Photo by Rahav Segev.

We discover from Fay, Mrs. McLeavy’s live-in nurse (Rebecca Brooksher), in a discussion with barely sentient, grieving Mr. McLeavy (a hysterical Jarlath Conroy), that the funeral service is today. The lovely nurse is a sweet, unassuming golddigger who has been married and widowed seven times.She is looking to be widowed again, after she marries Mr. McLeavy who is overwhelmed with grieving his wife and straightening out his affairs, especially his confused mind and emotions. While Fay encourages him that a month or so is an appropriate time to remarry, son Hal McLeavy (Nick Westrate) bursts onto the scene. His entrance with his beloved (he is gay) buddy Dennis (he is a polyamorous bisexual), fosters a scene switch into a plot convolution that stirs up the cauldron of madness.

Hal is like a young George Washington; he can not tell a lie once confronted with the truth. Dennis (Ryan Garbayo), the undertaker will transport Hal’s mum to the cemetery.The other reason Dennis is with Hal is that both have committed a bank robbery and Dennis has become the chief suspect after his questioning earlier in the day. Better his questioning than Hal’s which would be disastrous for them both, for Hal, a parboiled Catholic with issues, can’t lie. If the moral contradiction of not being able to lie but having no problem with stealing seems patently absurd, you’re right. It is and so is the hypocrisy it represents; this is one of Orton’s tucked away jewels. The play abounds with them.

Dennis fears he will be pinched if he can’t stash the hot “loot” away from the piercing eyes of one particular copper, Truscott, (Rocco Sisto, who is hilarious in his continually indignant state). Truscott, who later appears in a poor disguise as an official from the Water Board, has been snarling and eying Dennis like a canny German shepherd. It is only a matter of time before Truscott finds him, discovers the evidence and throws him in prison, especially if he asks Hal any questions about the theft.

The loot which has been stashed but the locked armoire i is the first place anyone would look; and Fay, who can sniff out money like a dog sniffs out a bone, has intimated to Hal that she knows the loot is there and will expose them in a blackmail scheme. When she leaves, simultaneously, both spy the coffin with Mrs. McLeavy’s body inside. Hide the loot in the body? Gruesome, bloody horror! Hal is a “good” Catholic and that would be untoward. Besides, this is a farce, no matter how black hearted. Hide the body in the armoire and the loot in the coffin and lock both.? Perfect! That way Hal will not be lying if he has to deny the thousands are inside the wardrobe. And if someone gets a crowbar and breaks open the chiffarobe? They’ll be a bloody hell of a surprise. Mrs. McLeavy has been stuffed like a sausage and pickled with embalming fluid. She’s a real stiff.

L to R: Rocco Sisto, Nick Westrate and Ryan Garbayo in Loot, by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater) until February 9th. Photo courtesy of the site.

L to R: Rocco Sisto, Nick Westrate and Ryan Garbayo in Loot, by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater) until February 9th. Photo by Rahav Segev.

The official from The Water Board (investigator Truscott  inept disguise) interrupts their plans to check the water system. Hal and Dennis quickly send him off to the pipes, then speedily trundle the coffin to the armoire and lob in the corpse. In their frenetic haste they flip poor ole mummy like they’re hefting a log onto a wood pile. Their antics are hysterical especially in light of Hal’s professed Catholicism that has forbade him to see his mum naked but allows him to manhandle her remains. The woman hasn’t been able to RIP since she passed.

After this inglorious treatment, the miscreants lock the chiffarobe and dump their cash booty in the coffin sealing it just in time to escape detection. Truscott figures his inept disguise and circular questioning will eventually trip up the thieves so he can pin them like dead insects with the evidence, pulling out all the stops in his “intelligence” to do so. Orton’s characterization of detective Truscott, is an absurdity of confusion, all in the service of quick humor; Truscott is brilliant-inane, hypocritical-legalistic, corrupt but honest about it, opportunistic and self-serving. He is this and more in the interest of feathering his own nest, but money is his object.

The body-cash swap heightens our belly laughs. We see how these ingrates have dumped Mrs. McLeavy in a “most shameful position.” Added to the romp is Truscott’s indignation and frustration at the suspects “innocence” made all the more hysterical by his ridiculous questions which are as twisted as their answers. The scene is surprising and wonderful.

L to R: Nick Westrate and Rocco Sisto in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.  Photo courtesy Broadway.com.

L to R: Nick Westrate and Rocco Sisto in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Photo courtesy Broadway.com.

When Fay and Mr. McLeavy enter the fray, they contribute with flippant repartee. The pace steps up, high jinks fueled by understatement, irony. Orton weaves the scenes so the hilarity builds to climax in an even more preposterous and lunatic second act. Plot complications abound and mysteries are uncovered. The innocent are proven guilty and the guilty are shown to be innocent. Such are the pleasant spoils of ambition in a corrupt universe. For irony, Hal’s good, Catholic conscience has remained spotless. He has not seen his mum naked, and he never lied. He’s good to go. We just don’t know where.

The production does not disappoint. It is a pleasure to see the mostly American actors honor this astounding playwright and make him known to another generation of playgoers who can appreciate brilliant farce and black comedy. That said, it must be acknowledged that Orton is uniquely English. Though there is an opaque line between our countries and cultures differentiating America from England, there is a nuanced sensitivity that comes with presenting English cultural and social humor. It is more felt than studied, intuited than practiced. All humor is generic to place, culture, time, range and social consciousness. Very simply, there are some phrases which can fall flat to some ears if not comprehended in the way that the culture normatively means them to be. In this aspect the production’s humor was flattened by our cultural limitations. However, Orton’s words remain true if one has ears to hear them.

Loot is being performed at the Red Bull Theater by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation. George Forbes is the Executive Director; Jesse Berger is the Founding Artistic Director and Evan O’Brient is the Managing Director.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics, at this link: Click Here.

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