Category Archives: Off-Broadway

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday

By all appearances, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday should be a smash.  The star is the versatile Kathleen Chalfont.  The playwright is MacArthur “genius” Award winner Sarah Ruhl.  And at its heart is the universal struggle or how and when we grow up.  Yet somehow it all comes up slacker than a broken aerial wire.  This work was intended to honor Ruhl’s mother and the rest of us are challenged to understand the point of it all.

The “adventure” begins in a bleak hospital room in which five siblings have gathered at their father’s deathbed.  The scene is very long and a particularly tough test in an age when binge-watching has become the norm.  It would be artistically daring if only the conversation did more to enlighten us about the family.  Instead it’s likely to leave you as fidgety as if you were sitting in an actual waiting room.  While the pacing improves from there, the revelation level does not.  There’s a worn-out exchange of political views, a cliched examination of birth and pecking order, and a unfulfilled thread about life after death.  On occasion the characters share a story that is so unlikely to be forgotten by those involved it is obviously for our benefit.  It’s as if Ms. Ruhl wrote some ideas on index cards, shuffled them, and then forgot to put any meat on the bones.  The script may fit her ideal of theater as poetry, but it isn’t particularly expressive or even interesting.

For-Peter-Pan-on-her-70th-Birthday

Photo by Joan Marcus

Initially, David Zinn’s set seems artistic and magical, but it just keeps getting in the actors’ way.  Equipment is hard to use while simultaneously delivering dialogue in a meaningful manner.  Pieces of the first scene remain in view for the rest of the act, yet serve no purpose.  Worst of all, the inside of the house is placed outside of the house, which seems intriguing until the Obie winning  director Les Waters’ staging grows awkward and then confusing.

At the center of all this muck, the actors perform like troopers.  The show’s highlight is Chalfont as birthday girl Ann addressing the audience as one from Iowa in the 1990s.  She is instantly engaging, sincerely reflectively, and almost completely wasted in this role.  The standouts in her supporting cast is the always remarkable Lisa Emery as Wendy in both her own story and the one that takes place in Neverland.  David Chandler doing double duty as brother Jim and nemesis Captain Hook (and maybe death?) supplies some laughs in Act II.  And kudos to Macy the adopted dog making her New York theatrical debut while generating an “aaaaw” or two.

If you are a devoted fan of Ruhl and want to be able to say you’ve seen all of her work, get yourself a seat.  For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday is scheduled to play through October 1.  Playwrights Horizons (https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/peter-pan-her-70th-birthday/) has many loyal subscribers, but there are seats available through some of the usual discount channels.  Runtime is 90 minutes.

Advertisements

In & Of Itself

Regular readers of this column know I pride myself on my no spoiler policy.  In the case of In & Of Itself , I couldn’t spoil it if I wanted to.  Is that because there is no plot?  Or because there are six plots?  As star Derek DelGaudio would likely agree, it all depends on how you look at it.

I was initially attracted to this production not because of Mr. DelGaudio, but by the notion of an event produced by Neil Patrick Harris and directed by Yoda… I mean four time Emmy winner and puppeteer extraordinaire Frank Oz.  What sort of mystery tour could possibly have attracted the backing of these two unique talents?  I’ve now taken the wild ride and my conclusion is “Of course.  Yes.  This one.”

7 - Derek DelGaudio in IN & OF ITSELF (c) Matthew Murphy

Derek DelGaudio in IN & OF ITSELF (c) Matthew Murphy

When attempting to describe the solo performer to me, my friend Jeremy called Mr. DelGaudio a magician.  True, DelGaudio has won the Academy of Magical Arts Award three times.  Nevertheless, I don’t believe that term really fits this storyteller/ fantasy travel agent.  He uses slight of hand the way most people in society use verbal persuasion.  It’s like Spalding Gray and Ricky Jay had a love child.  There are no rabbits or white doves in sight, though there is an elephant if one knows where to look.  Certainly I have never witnessed anyone else execute an illusion so profound and intimate it made someone cry, as happened to my friend.  (OK, I teared up a little too, but only cuz she was.)  I can’t imagine the self-preservation routine DelGaudio has developed in order to render this piece 8 times a week.  I’m going to need a visit to 16 Handles after just writing about it.

The direction by Frank Oz seems effortless, which is what’s required it in order to float through this evening.  There were a few occasions during which I wanted to look both in front and behind me, which was frustrating and perfect.  For once the term “production designer,” assigned to A. Bandit — the performance art collective founded by DelGaudio with artistic producer, Glenn Katino — is earned since the set would fit right in at MOMA.  Lighting by Adam Blumenthal is mood-transformative despite his techniques being unmasked in DelGaudio’s opening.  Original music by composer and Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh hits all the right notes in all the meanings of that phrase.

Even in the season in which I saw Indecent, Sweat and Dear Evan Hanson, In & Of Itself rocked me to my core.  Be among the lucky ones to grab yourself a ticket for the run — now extended through September 3.  Visit http://www.inandofitselfshow.com/#home, especially if you can picture yourself clearly on the steps of the landmark former Union Square Savings Bank having a fairly personal post-show conversation with 199 strangers.

At least that’s what happened to me.

And it was magical.

Building the Wall

If you admire our 45th President, you will likely consider Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall a bunch of liberal hysteria.  If on the other hand you are of the opinion that Mr. Trump’s policies have been injurious to the country, witnessing this production is like having someone poke a finger into the wound and fish around for the bullet.  The event is deeply painful and one can only hope to slightly feel better when it’s over.  For lovers of dramatic art, the extreme discomfort is offset somewhat by the exceptional lead performance delivered by James Badge Dale.

What often makes dystopian fiction palatable is that it takes place at a distant time or in a parallel universe.  This unpleasant tale unfolds in an El Paso, Texas prison in autumn, 2019.  Rick, the character portrayed by Mr. Dale, has been sentenced to death.  Over the course of 90 minutes we learn the details of his crimes through the questioning of Tamara Tunie’s Gloria, an historian who has come to capture Rick’s side of the story.

BuildingTheWallThough obviously embellished, Schenkkan’s premise is firmly rooted in current headlines.  There are references to true life incidents from as recent as February of this year.  Unfortunately, his dialogue — no doubt hastily written — is not realistic and often sounds like a PowerPoint lecture.  There is an additional challenge in having only one of the characters with something concrete to say.  The events are all in the past, with no action or dramatization of scene.  We get a few flashes of insight into Gloria, but for the most part Ms. Tunie is stuck asking, “why”.  Alot.

Thankfully, the focus is on Rick, who in the hands and mouth of Mr. Dale acquires depth that isn’t on the page.  One only has to flip through Dale’s IMDB photos to appreciate his chameleon-like range.  Confined in space and time, Rick attempts to take us on his journey from ex-military blue collar worker with a GED to a felon on death row.  Each step in his descent is made to sound completely reasonable, as is often true of Trump’s fans on the 6 o’clock news.  Perhaps that is part of the problem.  The play doesn’t stray far enough from a fairly predictable path until the last few irony-tinged lines.  As a result, it doesn’t give us much to think about except the faint hope that the worst will indeed be in the rearview in two years.

Director Ari Edelson, Founder of theatrical incubator The Orchard Projects, adds some essential physicality to Rick’s yarn spinning.  Tunie is little more than a coatrack.  Antje Ellermann’s set is suitable for its purpose.  Passages of time are defined by Tyler Micoleau’s subtle shifts in shaded lighting though Bart Fasbender’s tedious music and sound detract from rather than build tension.

Building the Wall has already played in four cities and is scheduled to be in New York through July 9.  If you wake up one morning feeling too good, you can likely score a $20 ticket and revel in Mr. Dale’s performance.  We may be in a political crisis, but there are more imaginative and helpful conversations on this topic than the one offered here.  Visit http://buildingthewallplay.com for details.

White Guy on the Bus

WhiteGuyontheBus

Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media

It’s been disquieting to hear a certain level of weariness creeping into the general dialogue about racism.  Headlines covering people of color unfairly detained or even killed may be a near-daily occurrence, but that doesn’t make any individual event less worthy of attention or thoughtful discussion.  White Guy on the Bus provides a gripping reminder that behind each incident is a person with hope for the ones they love and a potential for fear of those who are different.  Though Bruce Graham wrote the script over two years ago, it is shockingly appropriate for a time of deepening gulfs between people of varying races, socio-economic backgrounds, and opportunities.

The time-shifting plot is beautifully constructed.  Each twist that pulls us deeper into the story also jolts us into confronting our own racists thoughts.  How many of us make quick judgements about where to sit or walk based on what we feel about a certain neighborhood?  Yet how can we deny that while such reputation is based on generalizations and stereotypes, those in turn are based on facts and figures?  What happens when we push common ground to the side and focus on differences?  It’s hard not to become as unnerved as the characters we are watching, especially if you are white as most of the audience at 59E59 is.  It is worth noting that the director is another white man.  On the audience hand-out, Bud Martin confesses to being drawn to the play primarily because the story made him uncomfortable.

Two magnetic central performances rivet our attention for the two hour run.  Tony nominated for Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Cuccioli once again displays both calm professionalism as well as a more controlling dark side.  His non-white seat-mate Shatique is played with strength and grace by Danielle Lenee´, previously nominated for a Barrymore Award for this role.  Their supporting cast is a perky Jonathan Silver as devoted like-a-son Christopher, a steady Susan McKey as Ray’s feisty wife Roz and a far weaker Jessica Bedford as Christopher’s righteous wife Molly.

The simple yet clever set is designed by Paul Tat DePoo III and enhanced by Nicholas Hussong’s projections.  Together they move us from Ray’s stunning suburban home, to the critical public bus and to points beyond.  Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes fit the characters in all meanings of that word and help sell important details of the story.

As a five character one-set piece, White Guy on the Bus is attractive to small theater companies with tight budgets.  It has already played Wilmington, Trenton, Denver and Chicago and I imagine it will hit other cities with mixed populations.  That it should also spark discussion wherever it lands is exciting.  You can grab your chance to participate in the conversation by catching it at 59E59 through April 16.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=252.

The Liar

Set Design ALEXANDER DODGECostume Design MURELL HORTON Lighting Design MARY LOUISE GEIGER Original Music ADAM WERNICK Sound Design MATT STINE

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod in The Liar Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Decidedly cute, The Liar, is currently brightening the Classic Stage Company just off Union Square.  This quick-paced farce is adapted by David Ives of Venus in Fur fame from a comedy written by Pierre Corneille, a man known better for his well-received tragedies.   The light-hearted (and one could say well-timed) story centers on Dorante, a man who tells lies as easily as he skewers his friend with an invisible sword.  Written in iambic pentameter — including a few lines purloined from mighty Shakespeare — the crafty script is dotted with modern references to personal ads, fraternity handshakes, and general self-awareness.  This keeps the 17th century spirit intact while making the work relevant and entertaining for a broad audience.

Director Michael Kahn commissioned the piece in his role as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, where it received a world premiere in 2010.  A quick perusal of the Who’s Who reveals a seasoned cast well connected with both the director and the writer as well as a number of quality Off Broadway houses.  The results are surefooted if not stunningly original or particularly generous to audience members seated on the sides of the 3/4 round.

As portrayed by Christian Conn, Dorante is smooth if somewhat lacking in the necessary magnetism to fully hold the center.  He keep things flowing as fluidly as the falsehoods roll off the rogue’s tongue.  As the object of his current fancy, Clarice, Ismenia Mendes delivers too many of her lines at a high pitch squeal, leaving her nowhere to go as her situation escalates in intensity.  Amelia Pedlow in the role of Lucrece has slight advantage as her character is silent for much of play’s first half, allowing her to step into her own power in Act Two.

These leading players are greatly upstaged by the stars of the subplot, starting with Carson Elrod as the loyal and eternally truthful Cliton.  His joyful performance perfectly balances physical and verbal humor to delightful effect.  Even better is Kelly Hutchinson who by all appearances is having the time of her life playing twin sisters Isabel and Sabine. Kudos to wig and hair designer J. Jared Janas for finding the perfect clip-on to aid Ms Hutchinson in her rapid changes between the two.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge supports the lively pace, keeping settings simple with a few flown-in paintings and chandeliers and other set pieces pushed into place by the characters.  Award winning costumer, Murell Horton, decks the cast in easy to move in gowns and tunics with a nod to the proper period.  Original music, which adds a frothy layer, was developed by Adam Wernick in his CSC debut.

Great for a date and a safe bet for Mom, The Liar provides a carefree, low stakes two hours.  Tickets are available through February 26, 2017 at http://www.classicstage.org/season/the-liar/

Don’t You F**king Say a Word

We’ve all experienced being engrossed in a book only to have the plot fall apart in the final chapter.  Don’t You F**king Say a Word is the theatrical equivalent.  For the first hour the characters and conversation are suitably diverting, but when the inciting incident that provokes the title phrase finally occurs, it is a faint shadow of what we’re expecting.

Playwright Andy Bragen’s background is as a solo performer. In terms of its structure, phrasing and delivery, his script mostly plays out like another monologue only with the lines divided between two people. Interrupted by an occasional exchange, Kate and Leslie speak directly to the audience, taking us through the central relationships over the course of a few years.  Their fast patter creates momentum that is stronger than the described events ultimately achieve.

Sprinkled throughout the snappy script is some important if pat commentary about gender and different views towards competition. The collapse of the playwright’s case begins once the action moves from rapid scenes around New York City to a more traditional living room conversation.  The centrifugal force that has kept us spinning winds down and we along with it.  Breaking the fourth wall is an acceptable convention, but the same exposé doesn’t hold up when the characters are directly talking to one another.  We are confronted by a barrier comprised of false tone, unbelievable mechanics and a waning interest in the characters’ circumstances.

I appreciated and then blissfully forgot the colorblind casting. It was far more difficult to overlook the selection of Jennifer Lim and Jeanine Serralles as supposed college friends who nonetheless appear 10 years apart in age.  I also could not understand how two graduates of Yale’s MFA program didn’t manage to project past the third row.  It is one thing to address the audience and another to speak in the hushed tones you’d actually use if you were in public conversation.  As their romantic partners Russ and Brian, Bhavesh Patel and Michael Braun perfectly paint the landscape that lies between friendly rivalry and grudge match.  Their quivering body language and subtle changes in timbre were realistic and familiar.  (At least that’s the impression of this middle-aged female.)

The direction of Lee Sunday Evans is imaginative, defining several tough tennis matches with a series of frozen poses that work well for the constricted space and time.  Her creative vision is well supported by the simple and clever sets by Amy Rubin and the no-frills costumes designed by Asta Bennie Hostetter.

Don’t You F**king Say a Word is the first production of the writer-centric ABTP.  It is, therefore, doubly disappointing that it is not a fully realized piece, but rather a reflective soliloquy spread too thinly among four people and over 85 minutes.  It is playing at 59E59 through December 4.  For tickets and information visit https://www.ticketcentral.com/59e59/

Oslo

Whether or not Oslo is your kind of play depends in large part on your enjoyment of the drama of diplomacy and the language of complex interpersonal communication.  The piece by J.T. Rogers is based on the true events that led up to the Oslo Peace Accords: the extraordinary peace deal between The PLO and Israel signed into being on September 13, 1993.  The little-known backstory — particularly the delicate and perhaps heroic involvement of the Norwegians in the series of intricate and touchy conversations between lifelong enemies — will hold a genuine fascination for some.  For others, the intervening 23 years of failure and violence will overshadow the struggle reproduced on stage.  Yes, Oslo portrays an incredible opportunity, but one that could not be held together long with cleverness, waffles and Johnny Walker Black.

Purely as an entertainment, Oslo has a lot to offer.  Though it clocks in close to 3 hours, it never stops moving.  There is a surprising amount of action in what could have been an overly-talky script.  History has been condensed and characters melded for ease of understanding without great loss of accuracy.  The crackling dialogue flecked with humor is interspersed with clarifying remarks made directly to the audience.  Positions are dealt with even-handedly, delivering the clearest picture possible of what’s at stake for all parties involved.

The vast cast under the seasoned hand of Bartlett Sher is first rate.  While I did not buy his closing remarks about the lasting impact of the proceedings, the always excellent Jefferson Mays as Terje Rød-Larsen makes an eager and human guide.  His noble and gifted wife, Mona Juul, is played by Jennifer Ehle with integrity and warmth that radiates to the exit doors.  Henny Russell in multiple roles adds charm and laughs by turns.  But it is Uri Savir the Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry as portrayed by Michael Aronov who electrifies the space and keeps us rooting for something positive to emerge from the flutter of words.  Designer Michael Yeargan provides simple furniture supplemented with projections by 59 Productions which makes moving through locations quick and easy to follow.  Catherine Zuber’s costumes add “schlub”, utility and class in all the right places.

The short run currently at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse through August 28 (http://www.lct.org/shows/Oslo/) is sold out.  However it’s a good bet that lovers of mildly-fictionalized history and political intrigue will assure Oslo is repeated from time to time for at least as long as the Mideast face-off persists.