Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven

No one creates moments that are simultaneously unsettling and humorous quite like Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is his first play since being awarded the Pulitzer in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy.  This new work is a snapshot of the struggling residents of a New York City halfway house, surrounded by an unwelcoming neighborhood and staffed by those whose lifestyles aren’t much healthier.  It’s a sprawling script with over a dozen main characters to track.  Many of the transactional relationships include elements of genuine affection and the ride is a profound one.  Ultimately, though, it is not so much a tapestry as a sewing kit with each thread slightly touching the one beside it.  

As the play opens, a group session is in progress.  This initial conversation hits many predictable beats — drug use, sexual exploitation, and abuse — but also provides a quick introduction to the characters with whom we’ll spend the next three hours.  We learn Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas) has gotten caught up in an Amway-style pyramid scheme while Munchies (Pernell Walker) is preoccupied with Nigerian caregiver Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard). There are glimpses of Wanda Wheels’ (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) elegance, the stranglehold that mentally ill mother Sonia (Wilemina Olivia Garcia) has over her bright daughter Tiana (Viviana Valeria), and the familiar relationship pattern fragile Bella (Andrea Syglowski) is recreating with lesbian in command Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas).  Always quick to say, “no,no,no” is Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan).  Taking center stage at the top is the clever rapper Little Melba Diaz (Kara Young).  In the corner is morbidly obese Betty (Kristina Poe) whose surprise connection and subsequent blossoming is a highlight.  And on the edge (and on edge) is the transgendered Venus Ramirez (a glorious Esteban Andres Cruz) a ferocious voice for those who insist on their rightful place.  That list doesn’t include the rest of the staff compassionately portrayed by Victor Almazar, David Anzuelo, Sean Carajal, Molly Collier and Elizabeth Rodriguez.  

Elizabeth Canavan ( Rockaway Rosie ), Liza Colón - Zayas ( Sarge ), Kara Young ( Lil Melba Diaz ) and Pernell Walker ( Munchies ) . Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

Elizabeth Canavan ( Rockaway Rosie ), Liza Colón – Zayas ( Sarge ), Kara Young ( Lil Melba Diaz ) and Pernell Walker ( Munchies ). Photo Credit/ Monique Carboni.

As with other Guirgis plays, a subtle but clear picture of the outside world is also drawn.  The city’s system is failing and the shortages of both supplies and care are making these lives unnecessarily challenging.  A flock of goats tending the grass in a park uptown receives more devotion and support than any of the humans who are simply looking for a chance.

To hold all these tales, a skeleton of the tenement house dominates the set.  The sparsely decorated central room of Narelle Sissons’ design also represents the office of the dedicated and overworked manager and occasionally the bedroom of an occupant.  The area between the first row and the stage serves as the surrounding alleyways. Director John Ortiz places much of the action on the house front steps audience left and a bench audience right making the viewing experience a bit like a tennis match.  Additional focus is achieved with lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger while the mood rises and falls with sound and compositions by Elisheba Ittoop.

Haunting and moving, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is like taking in a gallery filled with the faces of those whom New Yorkers breeze past every day.  Though their full stories are not on the display, the images will sear into you.  Note that the material is strictly adult, containing nudity and simulated sex and drug use.  The limited engagement co-produced by LAByrinth Theater Company has already been extended through Sunday, January 5.  Regular tickets begin at $70 and are available online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).

Confidence (and The Speech)

Like the Mr. Rogers of Presidents, Jimmy Carter was a man who gently spoke the truth even when it wasn’t sunny news.  Susan Lambert Hatem examines such a heartfelt and impactful moment from 1979 in her new work Confidence (and The Speech) now playing at Theatre Row.  That Carter is warmly portrayed by April Armstrong, an African American actress of… shall we say limited stature… adds a brilliant and powerful punch.  Placing Carter’s consciousness in such an unlikely body forces us to focus on the only things that matter: the president’s heart and mind. Whatever else can be said of our 39th president, he always tried to do the right thing starting from the time he sold his tiny peanut farm so as not to have any appearance of impropriety.

The set-up for Ms. Armstrong’s performance begins at present day Baynard University.  Professor Cynthia Cooper has just wrapped up her session when she is approached by Jonathan (an outstanding Zach Fifer) who has been monitoring her class.  He’s learned that she was an intern assigned to Camp David just prior to Carter’s infamous Crisis of Confidence speech.  This address to the nation is consider by some to have been farsighted, though others see it as the moment Carter signed his fate as a one term Commander in Chief.  Cynthia agrees to tell Jonathan everything about that significant time from her viewpoint on the condition that in her story it is she who is President Carter and that Jonathan walk a mile in her heels as Cynthia.  With the assistance of grey suited dressers, the two take on their new roles and corresponding wardrobe skillfully designed by Vanessa Leuck.   Fifer also captures Armstrong’s manner and cadence.  

Their transformation is one of many clever moments orchestrated by director Hannah Ryan in the challenging layout of Theatre One.  She and the entire female creative team — Brittany Vasta (Scenic Design), Christina Watanabe (Lighting Design), Emma Wilk (Sound Design), S. Katy Tucker (Projection Design), Deb Gaouette (Properties), Karla Garcia (Movement Direction), Bobbie Zlotnik (wigs) as well as Ms. Leuck — deserve a round of applause for developing such a slick production on a limited budget.

Mark Coffin, Stephen Stout, Ross Alden, April Armstrong Photo Credit: Russ Rowland

Mark Coffin, Stephen Stout, Ross Alden, April Armstrong; Photo Credit/ Russ Rowland.

All the well known characters from the Carter administration are well drawn including Walter “Fritz” Mondale (Mark Coffin given little to work with just like a real Vice President), Hamilton Jordan (a suave Ross Alden), Jody Powell (appropriately brusk James Penca), Rick Hertzberg (a measured Imran Sheikh) and Pat Caddell (Stephen Stout stopping just short of Jack Black-ness.)  But though this remains a story dominated by men, it is the voices of the women that are amplified in this retelling.  We see how the strong bond with her husband gave Rosalynn (a gracious Sarah Dacey Charles) a special place in the administration.  And we are introduced to Sarah Weddington (a too soft, too fast Abigail Ludrof) whose work on behalf of women’s issues influenced many, including Cynthia.

Confidence (and the Speech) provides an immensely satisfying opportunity to consider the pressing issues of climate change, equal rights, and basic decency in politics through the lens of a deeply invested observer.  Performances of this 100 minute gem continue through December 7.  Shyer audience members should be aware that if they answer the pollster making the rounds before curtain that, in a risky move by the playwright, they will be called upon to speak during Carter’s Town Hall. Tickets are priced $49-$69 ($89 premium) and can be purchased at www.confidenceandthespeech.com or at the Theatre Row Box Office (410 W. 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.)

Einstein’s Dreams

Alan Lightman’s novel, Einstein’s Dreams, follows a fictionalized Albert Einstein during the period he was developing his theory of relativity.  This literary exploration of time and our relationship to it has in turn inspired a number of artists including Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum.  Their musical version — also called Einstein’s Dreams — is currently making its off-Broadway debut at 59E59 Theaters, produced by Prospect Theater Company.

A theoretical physicist may seem odd subject matter for song and dance.  Indeed the numbers that are the most tuneful and consequently memorable — such as the spirited Relativity Rag — are those that portray universal feelings.  The all too human desire to hold onto a special moment or to feel stuck in an unpleasant one are sensations that are easily translated to a musical language.  It is when Lessner and Rosenblum move into storytelling mode that the quality of the lyrics suffers and the piece becomes problematic.

To convert the book — which centers on 30 varied dreams — to a manageable structure for performance, this retelling focuses on a relationship Einstein develops with Josette.  The tantalizing and intriguing woman only comes to him when he is asleep.  Their conversations supply him with fresh insight and inspiration.  Alexandra Silber gives soaring voice to this muse, set off from a sea of earth tone clad players by a fiery red outfit designed by Sidney Shannon.  Zal Owen counterbalances Silber’s flamboyance with his sensitive portrayal of a genius with no peers who is bored in his job and troubled by his deteriorating marriage.  

scenic design ISABEL MENGYUAN LEcostume design SIDNEY SHANNON

lighting design HERRICK GOLDMAN

sound design KEVIN HEARD

projection design DAVID BENGALI

props design SEAN FRANK

l-r- Zal Owen, Vishal Vaidya, Michael McCoy in EINSTEIN’S DREAMS at 59E59 Theater. Photo by Richard Termine

Even this central relationship isn’t given much spark by Cara Reichel’s clunky direction.  The biggest contributing factor to the unwieldiness of the work is the wideness of Isabel Mengyuan Le’s dramatic set.  While it is eye catching and brilliantly brought to life by David Bengali’s projections (the production element that makes the most of the theatrical medium and the dreamscape environment), it takes up so much of the stage that actors are sometimes forced to scoot awkwardly between sections.  Movement contributed by Dax Valdes is often limited to stunted waving of arms while the actors’ feet remain planted.

Of the supporting cast, Brennan Caldwell is a standout, providing comic relief and a blast of humanity as Einstein’s closest friend Besso.  Caldwell even manages to make physics sound conversational.  The rest of the company members (Talia Cosentino, Stacia Fernandez, Lisa Helmi Johanson, Michael McCoy, Tess Primack, and Vishal Vaidya) move mechanically from scene to scene.  Those who play multiple characters struggle to find meaningful differentiation.  Thankfully everyone in the cast has a pleasing voice and articulates clearly and the overall sound is comfortably modulated for the space.

The vast concepts that Einstein’s Dreams sets out to explore feel constrained by this production.  Yet those who love musicals as a means of expression will find enough here to keep them engaged for the swift 95 minutes of running time.  This limited engagement runs through December 15 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison). Tickets are $25 – $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members) and can be purchased by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or
visiting http://www.59e59.org. 

Power Strip

There is a hunger for stories about women who find their power, and rare to find one that also follows an unexpected path.  One such surprising and welcome piece, Power Strip, is currently playing at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow.  Set in a refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece in the Spring of 2016, it follows the story of Syrian refugee Yasmin.  Through playwright Sylvia Khoury’s beautifully crafted script, we witness how this young woman came to be in such a harsh environment and learn her plans for the future.  So clever is this work that even the title takes on multiple meanings.  

Khoury’s storytelling is rich in detail despite the show’s tightly clipped runtime.  She doesn’t give her plot a twist so much as perform narrative slight of hand.  Everything is in front of you, but revealed so slowly and with subtle distraction that you only see the full picture at the end.  Khoury also takes the step of placing tiny lights along the cultural awareness path to lead the way for those without much knowledge about the lives of Middle Eastern women.  War forms an essential part of the backdrop, but the politics remains bubbling under the surface.  Khoury’s language is blended with Matt Hubbs’ humming soundscape which further communicates commotion, fear, and conflict.  It’s a powerful experience made even better by director Tyne Rafaeli’s masterful staging and pacing. 

Dina Shihabi is on stage for the entire 90 minutes, her lithe body flowing between taut and fluid as Yasmin’s story unfolds.  The skillful actress stuffs emotions into a tiny space with the same efficiency as Yasmin hastily packs her carrier bag with essentials.  The shallowness of the venue allows the entire audience to almost see her mind at work as she evaluates her shifting circumstances.  Arnulfo Maldonado’s bleak set and Jen Schriever’s muted light work to put further focus on the tiniest of her reactions. 

PowerStripLCT3 6028 - Darius Homayoun and Dina Shihabi - credit to Jeremy Daniel

Darius Homayoun and Dina Shihabi in Power Strip.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The men around Yasmin each have an influence on the trajectory of her life.  So, too, do the three actors who embody them impact what the actress brings forth.  The dominance and assuredness of Ali Lopez-Sohaili as her fiancé Peter, the protective sweetness of Darius Homayoun’s fellow refugee Khaled and the vulnerability of Peter Ganim’s widower Abdullah each bring out a different quality in her performance.

Just like a series of sockets, Power Strip provides us with a deep connection to the astonishing things that can keep someone going.  This effective drama is sure to linger with you, bringing with it a unique combination of grief and hope.  It runs through November 17 at the Claire Tow Theater in Lincoln Center (150 West 65th Street).  Curtain time is 7PM, with 2PM matinees on weekends.  All seats are an economical $30 and available through Telecharge at https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Power-Strip.

Quiet Enjoyment

Inspired by true events experienced by literary agent, author and playwright Richard Curtis, Quiet Enjoyment is a lighthearted comedy about a stressful experience: the title transfer of a New York City co-op.  As part of a bruising divorce settlement, Peter Chasen is signing over his $5M apartment to his ex-wife Juliana for $1.  It’s the first closing conducted by Meredith Cudlip and she wants it to be perfect.  With all her preparation, the transaction should flow and take approximately 20 minutes.  Instead, a series of events conspire to drag out the proceedings, leading to heated exchanges, underhanded dealing, and a few sexy memories.

The idea for this work percolated in Curtis’s mind for a number of years before being committed to paper.  The good news is that you are almost certain to laugh during the nearly 100 minutes of runtime.  Curtis has seemingly taken informal lessons from a number of masterful sources including Noel Coward’s witty banter and Groucho Marx’s physical shtick.  The drawback to this approach of blending comedic styles is they don’t tickle the same funny bones.  At any given point, a third of the audience is having a blast while the remainder sit stone faced.  Judging from the lopsided reaction, the most divisive element is Megan Simard’s Karma.  While Ms. Simard commits her heart and soul and several other flexible body parts to the role, she can’t bring her lines above the level of hippy chick caricature.  The character doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the piece any more than Karma’s wild presence fits the tightly controlled proceedings. Her presence literally in the middle of the conference table pushes the needle from humorous to absurd.

On the other end of the creative spectrum is Samantha Mercado Tudda’s Meredith Cudlip.  Ironically nicknamed Merry, she’s an anal-retentive and ambitious associate who makes zany entertainment spring from dry real estate language.   More broad but equally skillful is Paula Gates who takes on the roles of Peter’s harried assistant Tammy and Meredith’s overbearing boss, Martha Pusey.  Though the actress plays both similarly, the stand-up comedy chops she displays in her first scene elicit a special round of applause when she makes her second entrance.  (Someone needs to get this women her Equity Card pronto.)  At Friday’s performance, Jamie Lee Kearns was suffering from laryngitis.  She might consider vocal lessons to retain that Demi Moore-esque  purr which further enhanced her interpretation of Peter’s competent and sexy ex Juliana.  As for Peter himself, Mark A Daly has great timing but doesn’t project the magnetism that would more obviously stir so many loins.  Kris Paredes and Mario Claudio round out the cast as Jules’s sister, confident and lawyer, Dana  and Peter’s obnoxious lawyer with bladder issues, Abraham Bimsky.  (If it isn’t obvious from this paragraph, playwright Curtis has a particular flair with names.)

QUIET ENJOYMENT by Richard Curtis - L to R Samantha Mercado Tudda (MERRY), Mario Claudio (BIMSKY) _ Megan Simard (KARMA), Photo by Mozinya Productions

Samantha Mercado Tudda (MERRY), Mario Claudio (BIMSKY) and Megan Simard (KARMA), Photo by Mozinya Productions

Director Marcus Gualberto does a fine job with the rapidly moving exchanges, especially given the confined space.  He is aided in making the most of the 62 seat house by choreographer Ruth Guimerà.  The versatile Mercado Tudda also provided the appropriate costumes.  Lighting is employed to highlight areas of the set where physical barriers (doors, partitions etc.) would likely be used for a rendition with a bigger budget.

A shaker full of delicious ingredients that don’t quite blend, Quiet Enjoyment is a pleasant enough diversion for $25.  Richard Curtis certainly has an ear for comedy and his dedicated cast makes the most of what’s on the page. This production is registered with the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. It plays through November 3 at the Playroom (151 West 46th Street, between 6th and 7th) on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 7PM with a special performance on Monday, October 28.  Tickets are available at https://QuietEnjoyment.BrownPaperTickets.com and by calling 1-800-838-3006. In person purchases may be made at the theater half hour prior to performance.

Fear

An 8 year old girl has gone missing near a lake in a wooded area.  A plumber by trade and self-appointed neighborhood guardian, Phil has collared troubled teen Jamie, and dragged him into a nearby deserted toolshed for questioning.  Phil spotted Jamie near where the girl was last seen, but his suspicion of the young man stems more from their previous experience.  To gain a clear upper hand, Phil takes the drastic step of tying Jamie to a chair in an effort to extract a confession.  Hearing cries for help, erudite professor Ethan barges onto the scene and into the conversation.

Playwright Matt Williams uses this triad to explore how personal endangerment affects action in his new aptly titled work Fear.  As events unfold, each one of these people holds onto a strong conviction that he is on the side of what is right, not only in regards to the current potential wrongdoing but in their world view.  The three characters aren’t particularly original, but their relationships to one another is sophisticatedly developed.  As new background information is revealed, alliances between the three shift, along with the loyalty of the audience.  Williams’ experience in television comedy comes through in the heavy dose of explanation in the show’s opening moments.  There are also occasional splashes of jokes that come on a little strong, though they each provide a pleasant moment to breathe between psychological stabs. As in life, everyone here is an unreliable narrator, with truth getting lost in perception and self defense. 

The show literally starts with a bang as Ethan and Jamie struggle through the doorway letting it slam behind them.  There are many other moments that beg us to lean forward.  Director Tea Alagić keeps the pressure high by containing her characters in a small dusty and chaotic space designed by Andrew Boyce.  D.M. Wood’s harsh lighting adds to the desired mood with Jane Shaw’s sound adding aural punctuation.  All three actors are excellent, with Obi Abili’s Ethan particularly drawing us in with his tension-filled whispers.  Enrico Colantoni gives Phil appropriate swagger tinged with a touch of menace as he vividly recalls episodes he has witnessed.  Though we come to understand that Jamie is socially awkward and learning disabled, the potential for him to develop a fully sympathetic side is lost in Alexander Garfin’s jittery performance.  This may be a weakness of his lines rather than his acting ability.

Enrico Colantoni, Alexander Garfin, and Obi Abili. Photo is by Jeremy Daniel (7)

Enrico Colantoni, Alexander Garfin, and Obi Abili in Fear. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

By settling for easily recognizable characters instead of digging deeper, Fear falls short of making a lasting impression  But it does illustrate in shorthand how anyone is capable of becoming what they most loath in an attempt to save what they most love.  Though the opportunity for lasting impact is blunted, these actors bring their A Game and keep us engaged throughout the play.  This world premiere has a limited run through December 8 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street.)  Runtime is 80 minutes without intermission.  Tickets are $65- $89 and can be purchased by visiting FearthePlay.com or by calling (866) 811-4111.

Strangers in the Night

Composed of two one acts and a monologue, Strangers in the Night is a diverting if uneven entertainment.  Produced by Hunger and Thirst Theatre and doubling as a fundraiser for the Pay It Forward Foundation, each piece explores the consequences of connecting with strangers.

In Patricia Lynn’s Screwed — the most gripping section — the playwright performs the lead role of Molly, evoking sympathy as a young governess under arrest for the murder of one of her charges.  A sincere Patrick T. Horn is Peter, a local policeman whose sister, the previous governess, is presumed to have committed suicide at the same location.  Brandon J. Vukovic rounds out the cast as Molly’s suspicious boss, Mr. Douglas.  Inspired by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the script cleverly lays out opposing perspectives of events, sprinkling in elements of #MeToo and the ageless desire to be heard.  Lynn’s experience as a feminist Gothic writer shines through.  The assured hand of director Caitlin Davies builds tension and curiosity even as Molly barely moves from her chair. The result challenges the audience to examine what is fantastical and what is believable.

Patricia Lynn as Molly in Hunger & Thirst Theatre's Strangers in the Night_photo by Al Foote III

Patricia Lynn as Molly in Hunger & Thirst Theatre’s Strangers in the Night.  Photo by Al Foote III

Working as a counterbalance to this traditionally constructed story is the nonlinear Bottling Dreams of The Tearful Don’t Knower.  At opening, there is a man gathering tears from a pool in the woods.  He is intending to bring them to his “Other Half” who has cried herself dry and is consequently at risk of losing her sight.  Instead, he entices a flamboyant stranger into a sexual relationship which waylays him long enough to cause Other Half to panic and brings on an attack of self-loathing.  Created by Emily Kitchens and directed by Paul Kite, the work mixes staccato dialogue, exaggerated pauses, and simulated homosexual sex (intriguingly choreographed by Adin Walker) into a statement about need and identity.  It is punctuated with outbursts emanating from an art installation which displays an array of brightly colored cultural images on four screens. The three actors — Philip Estrera, Dillon Heape and Natalie Hegg — do a masterful job of delivering heightened material in natural style, finding human motivation in odd poetic phrases.  The video display is at once binary with its ones and zeros and non-binary with its gender neutral voice.  While the storytelling is creative, the scenes are often disjointed and the viewpoint ultimately hazy.

Attempting to tie these two disparate pieces together is a monologue.  Speaking in mannered tones and gesturing like a ring master, Frank (Jordan Kaplan) introduces each one act before sharing a personal story of his own.  This final chapter, written by Mr. Estrera, is thinner than the others, but makes for a sweet end note.  Lighting designer Wesley Cornwell, sound designer Randall Benichak, and video designer Ben Charles do their part to give this event cohesion by setting an uneasy mood throughout.

Whether you prefer your psychological entanglements eerily concrete or avant guard, Strangers in the Night has something to offer.  It plays through October 26 at The West End Theatre.  Runtime is about 90 minutes without intermission.  General admission tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door.  To purchase tickets and for more information, visit www.hungerandthirsttheatre.com.  Note: The venue is located on the second floor of the Church of St Paul and St Andrew on West 86th Street between Broadway and West End Ave.   The space has a slight echo which may be challenging for the hearing impaired, but the seats are comfortable and the rake is terrific.