The Thanksgiving Play

In the right hands, satire can be a terrific educational tool.  This was clearly in the mind of award-winning playwright and activist Larissa FastHorse when she chose to go broad with The Thanksgiving Play.  Pained by the way the typical Thanksgiving story obliterates the voices of her people, the Sicangu Lakota uses laughter rather than lecture to take on all those insulting myths.  This is the award winner’s first New York production and it’s a worthy entrance. Through her four well-intentioned if off-base characters, she blows up those oft-repeated stories of pilgrims showering America’s indigenous peoples with respect and side dishes.  The results are uneven and she’s likely preaching to at large number of regular choir members, but a good time can still be had.

Thanksgiving Play

Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, and Margo Seibert; photo by Joan Marcus

The economical cast of achingly progressive characters are developing a holiday performance that celebrates Native American Heritage month for a elementary school audience.  The director of this play within a play is Logan, an anxiety prone vegan who has pulled together an array of small niche grants in order to fund her vision of a more honest Thanksgiving story.  Her school play will co-star Disney-obsessed actress Alicia and Logan’s yoga-loving street performer boyfriend, Jaxton.  Rounding out the “creative team” is Caden, a playwright-wanna be and first grade teacher.  For the majority of the 90 minute runtime, these well-intentioned souls improvise and brainstorm their way towards an increasingly awkward outcome.  Their endeavors are occasionally interrupted by wildly off-kilter musical numbers covering all the cringe inducing story elements they are trying to leave behind.

Under the direction of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, the dialogue starts out at such a high pitch it doesn’t have enough room to grow.  Jennifer Bareilles as Logan is a constant bundle of nerves.  Greg Keller’s Jaxton’s oozes PC doctrine from every pore.  Margo Seibert’s Alicia is such an airhead she’s perfected the art of looking at the ceiling.  And Jeffrey Bean’s Caden is like a Jack Russel terrier, excited just to be in their company.  All four quality actors do their best to add range and fair better with the piece’s physical humor.   These moments includes an uncoupling ritual and reading aloud from several fantastically illustrated textbooks.

The design team mostly strikes the right comedic notes.  The single set by Wilson Chin combines classic classroom elements with some of the most appropriately inappropriate theater posters.  Costume designer Tilly Grimes delivers equally well with liberal casual and tacky pageant wear.  Lighting created by Isabella Byrd highlights the action as it shifts from faux intense to intensely faux.

As both a comedy and a lesson plan, this production of The Thanksgiving Play would likely earn a B- for its insufficient build and variation.  But it has heart and successfully serves as a reminder that the upcoming family holiday is fraught with misunderstandings that go far down and way back.  Certainly if you’ve ever had a Caucasion friend who built a sweat lodge right next to his jacuzzi to honor “their heritage,” you will recognize FastHorse’s creations.  And even if you haven’t, you’ll be reminded that what you’ve learned about US history is not necessarily the full story. 

Performances are scheduled to run through November 25 at the Peter Jay Sharp theater at Playwrights Horizons.  For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/thanksgiving-play/.

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The Lifespan of a Fact

In this age of high anxiety and bitter divide, it didn’t seem possible that anyone could write a play that was both timely and hilarious.  Amazingly The Lifespan of a Fact — based on true events surrounding the development of an article about a Las Vegas teen’s suicide — achieves this blissful combination.  Written in vivid detail by nonconformist writer John D’Agata, the original 2005 article was assigned for fact-checking to an ambitious magazine intern, Jim Fingal.  D’Agata and Fingal’s conflict over the nature and role of facts spanned seven years and resulted in an essay and a book which in turn inspired Lifespan’s script by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. With so many fingers on keyboards, this production could have been a cacophonous mess, but the logic and story are sound. Fingal’s on stage persona makes a strong case for journalistic integrity and thorough research.  Equally persuasive is D’Agata’s viewpoint that the right words, however poetic, are needed to attract and hold readers’ attention. Perhaps most importantly for Lifespan’s audience, their 90 minute argument elicits many cathartic chuckles.

The well crafted material hits the intended target in large part because of the wise direction of Leigh Silverman.  She has a keen instinct for when to punch up the humor without going too broad.  Rather, she peels back the layers of each of the three characters in slowly building rhythm.  She has the great advantage of being blessed with a magnificent cast, each of whom has an incredible sense of pace and timing.  Charmingly obsessive in his role of fact checker Jim Fingal, Daniel Radcliffe is physically taut and verbally cranked to 11.  He prepared for the role by actually working as a fact checker for New Yorker magazine, which clearly gave him a strong foundation on which to draw character details.  His opponent in the battle of wits, writer John D’Agata, is bought to irritated life by a blustery and brilliant Bobby Cannavale.  That the two actors are nearly a foot apart in height adds a shiny layer of physical humor on top of their perfectly orchestrated banter.  Standing between them with a commanding hand and a touch of grace is the charismatic Cherry Jones as the magazine’s editor, Emily. 

7013b The Lifespan of a Fact, Pictured L to R, Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe, Photograph by Peter Cunningham, 2018

Many hands add their own magical touch to bringing out the best in the piece. Mimi Lien’s scenic design includes some smile-inducing details.  Linda Cho’s costumes give good visual cues.  The playwrights have raised the stakes by putting their characters on a four day deadline.  Projections by Lucy Mackinnon and music and sound by Palmer Hefferan keep us on edge as the clock ticks stressfully onwards towards publication day.  

Suitable for teens and up, The Lifespan of a Fact brings much needed smart laughter to Broadway’s fall season.  Though the ending may be unsatisfying to some, the overall experience is everything you want from an afternoon or evening at the theater.  It is playing at Studio 54, which has particularly good sight lines.  Tickets for performances through January 13, 2019 are for sale at https://www.lifespanofafact.com and on most entertainment apps.  A limited number of affordable $40 seats are available for purchase in-person at the Studio 54 box office for same-day sale.

Bernhardt/Hamlet

In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt decided to take on the role of Hamlet.  The most famous actress of her—perhaps of any — time was no longer comfortable playing ingenues, and the parts written for women in their 50s held no interest for her.  Her daring gender crossing is considered a seminal moment in the history of performing arts.   She could keep a pet tiger and a fleet of lovers, and even sleep in a coffin, but her decision to play a man was treated by critics at the time as one “eccentricity” too far.  The event should have made for a compelling play, at least for theater buffs and cultural historians.  Unfortunately in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, the excitement is smothered by too much talk and upstaged by scenes written by the Bard himself.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is the first commissioned original work that Roundabout has brought to Broadway.  Despite a lengthy development process, the piece still feels like it was created by committee and at the very least could do with another round of editing.  There are a number of enlightening themes explored in Rebeck’s script including the inner life of Shakespeare’s famed Danish Prince.  It becomes obvious that Hamlet and Bernhardt share an almost crushing doubt about their purpose.  Strongest of all are Bernhardt’s observation about gender issues that persist to this day, especially the challenges facing talented women who are too old to play 20 something convincingly and too fierce to take a tiny supporting role.  Bernhardt had successfully portrayed Cleopatra, Cordelia, Desdemona and Ophelia, all of which had become inappropriate.  What was left for an actress of her range to play except Shakespeare’s most defining role?  Sadly, too much of the banter sounds like it’s coming from the head instead of the heart, robbing the exchanges of any emotion that could move and inspire the audience.  The production comes across like someone sharing the love of ballet by drawing it on a chalkboard. 

0462_Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar in BernhardtHamlet, Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018

The characters’ nattering is made worse by the static direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel.  Even the more crackling stretches of Rebeck’s dialogue are choked off by the lack of movement. The enclosed feeling is made worse by Beowulf Boritt’s suffocating set.  Never has Paris seemed less lively. This lack of energy becomes is most noticeable during fast paced scene changes, which are accompanied by dramatic original music by Fitz Patton.  At least costumes by Toni-Leslie James and hair and wigs by Matthew B. Armentrout are appropriately jazzy.

What’s happening front and center is worthy of the Divine Sarah.  Like the one-of-a-kind star she is portraying, Janet McTeer dominates the stage with her honeyed voice, graceful stature and sheer presence.  Slightly more exaggerated is Dylan Baker’s performance as Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s frequent leading man.  Though he can’t match her vigor, he injects wit into their banter.  Jason Butler Harner as her lover Edmond Rostand embodies a realistic combination of lust and haplessness.  As his wife, Ito Aghayere who sparkled in Junk last season, is disappointing and flat in a significant scene.

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, Bernhardt/Hamlet will likely be a slog for all but the most dedicated lovers of “straight” theater. It’s a missed opportunity to share a shining moment when a talented actress took charge of her own career.  Bernhard, Hamlet, and Ms. McTeer all deserve better.  Tickets are on sale through November 11 at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bernhardt-Hamlet.aspx.

Head Over Heels

Like one of its stars, Peppermint, Head Over Heels has a refreshing sense of self.  A blend of 16th Century verse, music by 1970s pop stars The Go-Go’s, and an ultra modern “love is love is love” message, Broadway’s newest musical eludes “pegging”.  Based loosely on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, the story follows King Basilius as he attempts to defy a prophecy delivered to him by Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. She declares four tragedies will befall his kingdom, each one signaled by a veil falling from the sky. Should all come to pass, the land is doomed. Determined to cheat fate, Basilius packs up his citizens and travels deep into the woods.  Anyone who knows their way around a Greek myth can predict how successful the well-meaning ruler’s plan will be.

The Go-Go’s repertoire —including Mad about You, Cool Jerk and Vacation — contains many catchy ear-worms, but they are hardly known for their deep meaning.  While the dialogue is often witty, characters sometimes tee-up the next production number by delivering forced lines. If hearing that what makes this kingdom distinctive is that they’ve “got the beat” makes you cringe, you should have second thoughts about purchasing tickets. On the other hand, if you find yourself going along with the playfulness, there is more where that came from.

There is none of the over amplification which dominates rock musicals and every word is clearly articulated. Many eyes will be on the aforementioned Peppermint, a fierce RuPaul Drag Race competitor and first “out” trans  actress to develop a lead of a Broadway musical. Her Pythio may be the only character to literally sparkle, but she is not alone in that quality of performance. The cast – some of whom have been with the production since its early days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having one heck of a good time. In particular, Andrew Durand steals every scene he’s in as the sweet shepherd Musidorus on his road to self discovery and empowerment. Bonnie Milligan making her Broadway debut is another standout as the difficult and vain Pamela, the older of the king’s two daughters. She ably avoids becoming a tedious “fat joke” by infusing her character with gentle confusion which elicits compassion. She is well paired with Taylor Iman Jones’s Mopsa, her several-steps-ahead admirer.

Head Over HeelsA New Musical

Taylor Iman Jones in the San Francisco Production of Head Over Heels

Director Michael Mayer has his cast members veer towards the hammy, a superfluous move with this broad book created by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. The moments that are less heavy handed are also more visually exciting, including a seduction scene accomplished in shadows. The production design wonderfully captures the glow and fizz of The Go-Go’s heyday as well as the bejeweled styling of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Scenic designer Julian Crouch’s amusing backdrops include fake curtains and two dimensional trees in a pallet that is pure disco. Arianne Phillips picks up this mixture in her costume design in which half naked male suitors are topped with metallic ruffs, and bows are painted onto the princesses’ elaborate dresses.  Hair and makeup by Campbell Young Associates complete the look to whimsical perfection.

Familiarity with The Go-Go’s is not essential, but it adds to those moments when distinctive guitar licks foreshadow an upcoming production number. Sadly, though, something is off with Kai Harada’s sound. It is admirable that the creative team chose to use only female band members, but their output lacks sufficient depth and energy.  This becomes particularly noticeable upon exit when the original article can be heard throughout the lobby.

Perhaps because it’s a fun and flashy romp, Head Over Heels is attracting a particularly undisciplined audience to the Hudson Theater. The young woman next to me crackled her way through a large bag of gummy bears throughout the 2 hour 15 minute runtime, while the 60-something woman behind me got so drunk that by Act Two she was discussing the quality of the house wine with her friends in what can only be described as her outdoor voice. It may help you get into the proper mood by imagining yourself at the Globe with sawdust under your feet and jolly old England just outside the door. Tickets are on sale now through June 30, 2019 at https://headoverheelsthemusical.com.

Fire in Dreamland

There is a burning spark at the center of Fire in Dreamland, Rinne Groff’s new play which opened at the Public Theater last night. It comes in the form of Rebecca Naomi Jones who pours everything she has into the central role of Kate. Kate is sad and frustrated, desperate to fulfill her promise to her father to do something meaningful with her life. She finally finds inspiration and hope when she meets Jaap, a European would-be filmmaker in New York on a student visa. In total contrast to Kate, Jaap is completely focused on a passion project: a film he’s conceived based on the true story of the fire that destroyed the flashy Dreamland Amusement Park at Coney Island in 1911. Kate is consumed by Jaap’s enthusiasm and charisma, throwing herself body, soul, and bank account into his vision.

The mostly linear story opens with a direct confession to the audience and is interspersed with startling glimpses into the past, punctuated by bright lights and the sound of a film clapboard. As Kate struggles to find her life’s purpose, she identifies first with Dreamland’s Nubian lion who escaped a fiery circus tent only to be shot by police and also with the mermaid-clad carnival worker who led a herd of ponies to safety. Similar to last season’s film and critical darling Florida, there is also a more important story on the edges of Coney Island involving a housing project damaged in Superstorm Sandy.  The metaphors keep piling up until — to add one more — the play becomes a large Amazon box filled with air bubble cushions protecting a six pack of batteries and a pair of tube socks. It’s a lot to unpack for a somewhat disappointing outcome.

Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones; Photo by Joan Marcus

Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones; Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ms. Jones is on stage for almost the entire hour and 40 minute run time. The amount of energy and dedication she gives to sharing her character’s process of reinvention is impressive. Enver Gjokaj does not quite match her in intensity,  bringing insufficient magnetism to the role of Jaap. Rounding out the cast, Kyle Beltran is outstanding as the idiosyncratic Lance, Jaap’s dedicated assistant director who appears to be on the spectrum sexually and emotionally. (It’s a shame he does not join the action until an hour into the performance. I could have enjoyed an entire play about this multi faceted character.)

Groff’s script has the same uneasy mixture of the random and the planned that is swirling around in Kate’s brain. There are moments of humor as the playwright makes good use of the communication gaps that stem from both language and gender differences. Unfortunately there is also a credibility gap in a filmmaker having envisioned every shot seemingly without any knowledge of how to bring any of it to fruition.  It is hard to believe Jaap could be Kate’s catalyst for change. There are moments of truth that shine through, but a number of scenes seemed forced and contrived. Director Marissa Wolf making her New York debut has a clever touch and uses the three-quarter round space beautifully. The weaker plot points are propped up by the imaginative lighting design of Amith Chandrashaker, whose work also gave clarity to [Porto]. Susan Hilferty’s boardwalk inspired set and whimsical wardrobe lend an appropriate carnival vibe to the proceedings. Original music by Brendon Aanes is invaluable, particularly in orchestrating a vivid soliloquy that becomes more of a movie than anything Jaap is ever likely to produce.

While there is a great deal of artistic merit to this production of Fire in Dreamland, it still seems like a project in development. Whether like Kate you wish to take a leap into this story will depend on how much you value the creative process even when the results are mixed.  It plays through August 6 at The Public Theater.  For tickets and information visit https://www.publictheater.org/Public-Theater-Season/Fire-in-Dreamland/

Mary Page Marlowe

What makes Mary Page Marlowe such a fascinating character study is that she could easily be someone you know. She often feels as if her life is not of her own making, a dread hidden in the hearts of many. We witness notable moments of her life from birth through the age of 69, while crisscrossing through time.  It is not always a pleasant journey, but at a moving 90 minutes it is never boring.

Mary Page’s path is laid out by the brilliant Tracy Letts, a playwright who often centers his work on those who act out in pain and anger. Here Letts treats his lead character with more compassion. Though she has her dark moments involving struggles with addiction, a Letts’ hallmark, at intervals she is funny and is often downright likable. He also takes advantage of the magic of the theater by having Mary Page portrayed by six different actresses. Each interprets her slightly differently, yet there is a clear through-thread from promise to exasperation, and finally acceptance.

MARY PAGE MARLOWE By TRACY LETTS Directed by LILA NEUGEBAUER With DAVID AARON BAKER, BLAIR BROWN, KAYLI CARTER, AUDREY CORSA, MARCIA DeBONIS, NICK DILLENBURG, RYAN FOUST, TESS FRAZER, EMMA GEER, GRACE GUMMER, MIA SINCLAIR JENNESS, BRIAN KERWIN, TATIANA

The sprawling cast has 18 members leading to a frustrating amount of brief appearances by quality supporting talent.  These include Kayli Carter as Mary Page’s maturing daughter, Marcia Debonis as a patient therapist and Brian Kerwin as the most compatible of Mary Page’s husbands.  Fans of the brilliant Tatiana Maslany will enjoy seeing her focus on a single role. She brings an intensity to Mary Page at ages 27 and 36, when the character is self-aware though sadly self-destructive. Emma Geer sparkles with enthusiasm as Mary Page age 19, optimistically holding on to a future she feels she can manifest. And the remarkable Blair Brown  — a holdover from the play’s Chicago incarnation — gives tenderness and warmth to Mary Page as she eases into ages 59, 63, and 69.  The downside of the casting is that we don’t get sufficient time to bathe in the glow of any of these performances.

The various Mary Page manifestations and the family and friends central to her development are brought together by the sure hand of Lila Neugebauer, last seen receiving rave reviews for The Wolves. She creates opportunities for Mary Page to briefly pass herself along the road from past to future, giving her an opening to quite literally find herself. Many on the behind-the-scenes team have previous collaborative experience with Neugebauer.  The character’s ability to float through life stages is supported by the clever scene design of Laura Jellinek, who starts with a two story white landscape and adapts it with sliding islands of simple set pieces. Kaye Voyce’s costumes capture period and place, not to mention visually connecting the Mary Pages. Tyler Micoleau‘s lighting design works alongside sound provided by Brandon Walcott and original music by Bray Poor to emphasize appropriate year and mood.

The unusual structure of Mary Page Marlowe allows us not only to see cause and effect, but the even more complex and interesting effect and cause. How does each bend in the road lead to arriving at the ultimate destination? The minimal action culminates in a quiet scene built around an accurate and subtle metaphor.  If you can tolerate the deliberate gaps in what is shared — a technique critical to the expression of the character’s experience — there is much to enjoy in this well-crafted a piece.  The production plays at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through August 19. For tickets and information visit https://2st.com/shows/current-production/mary-page-marlowe.

Plano

All fans of quirky theater are encouraged to flock to Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, which typically runs from mid-May to the end of June.  Each season, the Clubbed Thumb artistic team — currently spearheaded by Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar (who has been with Clubbed Thumb since their 1996 debut) and Associate Artistic Director Michael Bulgar — pore over hundreds of submissions seeking unique voices with something funny  and insightful to say.  Each final selection is carefully cultivated with precision and vision.  As the company’s reputation has grown, so has their ability to attract superior acting and behind-the-scenes talent that can rapidly bring these challenging pieces to fruition.  Many of these plays go on to lead fuller lives, including Men in Boats at Playwrights Horizons and The Wolves at Lincoln Center.

Their current production is Plano, which was commissioned by Clubbed Thumb for the 2017-18 Directing Fellowship.  The director in question is Taylor Reynolds who, along with her outstanding cast, brings out every magical beat of Will Arbery’s script.  Surreal  images including a red ribbon independently descending a staircase and a Faceless Ghost (played with acrobatic aptitude by Brendan Dalton) are blended into the often funny story of three fairly realistic sisters.  This authenticity is no doubt made possible by playwright Arbery being the only boy in a family of eight siblings.  Genevieve, the eldest, is a stereotypical know-it-all.  The youngest, Isabel, is coddled to the point of thinking she might be a saint.  In between them is Anne, the often-overlooked middle child struggling to establish identity.  Their simple lives of work and family are intruded upon by strangeness that might be a curse. The town of Plano is used almost Mad Lib-like to represent alternative mindsets which are open to interpretation. Time passes through the use of the phrase “it’s later.”  And husbands split into multiple parts so that they can do the dishes while also dancing the night away.

The skill needed to pull off clipped dialogue that is based more on timing than on story cannot be overstated.  Crystal Finn as Anne, Miriam Silverman as Genevieve and Susannah Flood as Isabel stay perfectly in tune with each other throughout the 75 minute runtime.  They are wonderfully supported by Mary Schultz as their religious fanatic mother, Mary, Cesar J. Rosado as Anne’s gay husband, John, and most especially by Ryan King as multiple Steves all of whom are married to Genevieve.  The far-seeing Ms. Reynolds pushes their characters’ oddball boundaries by using nearly every inch of the theater, including the exit aisle and the area beneath the stage.  Elaborate fight scenes are expertly choreographed by Kelly Bartnik.

Plano

Susannah Flood, Miriam Silverman, and Crystal Finn in Plano.

The rest of the creative team has kept things delightfully simple.  The suggestion of a ranch house by scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman is given necessary mood changes by Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Mark Van Hare’s sound design.  Stephanie Levin’s costumes are casual and, most importantly, move well.  

With its basic human experience infused with mystical adventure, Plano is unlikely to be confused with anything else you’ve seen.  It is being presented at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St.  This column is based on the June 21 performance, at which point performances were being added to the schedule and it was anticipated there would be a few modifications made to the production.  For tickets and the latest information visit https://www.clubbedthumb.org/productions/2018/.