Category Archives: Off-Broadway

The Orchard – NYC and Live Stream

Long before Joni Mitchell decried the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, Anton Chekhov’s emotionally paralyzed Ranevskaya family auctioned off their cherished cherry orchard to make way for summer homes. His last play, The Cherry Orchard, centers on Madame Lyubov who is hopelessly in debt after years of living in Paris.  She and her daughters have returned to their estate for one last party and it is only then that they reflect on the once-prized fruit trees that will be chopped down to make way for modernization.  Like many of Chekhov’s works, there is a sense that happier alternatives have simply slipped out of reach.  

In Arlekin’s (zero-G) imaginative retelling, The Orchard, the work is simultaneously performed live and streamed to a global audience.  Typically, live streams have been made available because there was no audience permitted at the theater or it was presented in a way meant to simulate as closely as possible the live experience.  This is the first theatrical piece I’ve seen that deliberately gives those watching from home a different experience from those seated at the venue. 

While it is simply wonderful to make this production available worldwide and Ukrainian director Igor Golyak has unique experience using virtual reality to enhance traditional theater, it seems unnecessary to have augmented this particular work with an interactive component. The video-game-like curtain-raiser features various rooms of the house containing Mikhail Baryshnikov as Chekhov reading some the author’s more personal words in the original Russian.  Much of the interaction during the play involves being able to select something other than the main camera, though the few times I switched to another unit, it wasn’t revealing so much as disorienting.  And it was impossible to avoid FOMO when just before the auction of the property — during which the audience makes non-binding bids with proceeds going to support the company — the home audience was addressed directly by matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya while a completely different scene was taking place on stage.

Furthermore, the production is straight-up terrific and needs no embellishment.  Golyak, whose homeland is currently undergoing life changing destruction and loss, has harnessed those feelings of disconnection and grief and made additions to the work that are engaging and meaningful.  The elegant script was translated by Carol Rocamora, who preserves the poetry while tightening the storyline and punching up the more farcical elements.  On scenic designer  Anna Fedorova’s all-blue stage, blossoms litter the floor and even the nursery room teddy bear and hobby horse appear melancholy.  The backdrop envelops the players in dramatic projections by Alex Basco Koch, including lines of dialogue, stars and planets, and the faces of the enraptured audience. The onstage robotics by Tom Sepe lend an eery futuristic and fatalistic feel to the tale.  

Denisova, Hecht, Brett and Nelson in The Orchard; photo by Maria Baranova

The cast is led by the sublime Jessica Hecht, who gives Ranevskaya’s delicacy meaning and tenderness.  Baryshnikov appears again as Firs, the faithful older servant.  His interpretation of an aging, submissive body practically collapses in on itself and he never stops being fully present, even providing a warm interaction with a mechanical dog.  The clowning of Arlekin Players regular Darya Denisova as Charlotta  the soon-to-be-displaced governess, adds appropriately discordant levity.  While Nael Nacer’s booming voice is just perfect for sounding the alarm as Lopakhin, the man best positioned to win the orchard his ancestors tended to as slaves.  John McGinty has been cast as Trofimov, though it’s unclear whether making the perpetual student deaf is a comment on communication between characters or Golyak just appreciates McGinty’s talent.  Juliet Brett, Elise Kibler, Mark Nelson, and Ilia Volok round out the company.

As a fresh take on a classic, The Orchard blossoms under Golyak’s knowing hand.  The themes of class division, misplaced materialism, and cultural loss are sadly timely and touching.  A quick read of The Cherry Orchard will only deepen your understanding of events.  Live performances run through Sunday, July 3, and take place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues) .  Showtimes are Tuesday – Thursday at 7PM, Friday – Saturday at 8PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2PM.  Proof of vaccination is required for entry and face masks must be worn throughout the two hour runtime.  Prices for the intimate live show run from $39 to $125.  The virtual experience — which requires a plugged-in laptop or desktop — is $29.  There are bundles to purchase both live and streaming together.  For tickets and additional information, visit www.TheOrchardOffBroadway.com.  

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas – NYC and On Demand

In 1977, Jim Henson showed the world how expansive his unique puppets’ universe could be by developing a charming television special based on the book Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell and Lillian Hoban.  Well-meaning Emmet and his devoted and somewhat naive Ma are scraping by: taking in laundry and doing odd jobs around their town of Frogtown Hollow.  When they hear about a Christmas Eve talent contest, they each take a risk in order to try to win the $50 grand prize and buy a special present for the other.  

31 years later, the Jim Henson Company expanded Emmet’s world again by creating a live adaptation with iTheatrics.  Henson’s wondrous Creature Shop creatures performed alongside humans outfitted in imaginative woodland costumes.  With folksy songs by Paul Williams and a straightforward book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, this musical production is currently playing for a reduced capacity audience at the New Victory Theater on famed 42nd Street.

Under Gattelli’s direction, the work makes full use of the New Victory’s space.  The beloved Henson Creatures add humor, with bits that also serve to break the story into bite-sized chunks easily digested by younger audience members.  The characters are all appropriately sweet including puppeteer Anney Ozar’s crusty old Mrs. Possum who shows a caring side while at her piano.  Even the members of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band are more mild bad boys than genuine hoodlums.  Likewise, the actors are warm and low key.  While newcomer Colin Trudell’s Emmet and Cass Morgan’s Ma ground the center of the story, it is LaVon Fisher-Wilson who kicks up the energy singing “Born In a Trunk” as Mrs. Mink, the Ma Rainey of Waterville. (She also takes on the role of Mrs. Squirrel whose puppet children perform the other show stopper, “Trust That Branch.”) 

Jiffy Squirrel, Skippy Squirrel, Nutella Squirrel, and Tiny Squirrel (Anney Ozar, James Wilson, Jordan Brownlee and Matthew Furtado) join Emmet (Colin Trudell) Photo Credit: Richard Termine

The entire look and feel of the show is in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’s trademark style.  Anna Louizos’s set of dusky sky over rippling water, Matt Kraus’s soundscape of whispering winds, Gregg Barnes’s whimsical wardrobe and Melissa Munn’s clever make up design all work together to bring Emmet’s world to colorful life.

Like cocoa topped with marshmallows, Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas will warm up a wintery afternoon.  It is recommended for family members age 5 and older.  Tickets start at $25 and there are no bad seats in the house.  Proof of full vaccination is required for everyone over 12 (one dose for children 5-11) and face masks must be worn at all times.  A 72 hour On-Demand pass is also available for $25.  Although you may miss the electric charge of sharing the experience with strangers, with the four camera streaming version you get close-ups of those delightful puppets and sign interpretation and audio description are easily accessed.  Running time is 75 minutes live and 80 minutes on demand with a brief introduction and outro.  The production runs through January 2, 2022.  For more information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org/tickets-and-events/2122-live-performance-emmet-otters-jugband-christmas/.

Suicide Forest

Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest is not so much a plotted play as an emotionally driven piece of performance art.  Sliding through dreamscapes saturated with Japanese cultural touchpoints, playwright and actress Lee allows the audience to undergo the experience of knowing that the way one is labeled by genetics conflicts with one’s sense of self.  So deeply personal is their storytelling that their actual mother, Aoi Lee,  appears on stage to represent the goddess mother, Mad Mad.  Her mature face whitened and her vocals racked with pain, she carries her grief symbolically in both hands.  The genuine pain was felt by the Lee family after the father passed away and the remaining members relocated from familiar Tokyo to unsettling Seattle.  With Mr. Lee in ashes, the father figure here is a put-upon salaried worker, who interacts uncomfortably with his own daughters and inappropriately with Lee’s character, Azusa.  The effect is unnerving whether your ancestors stepped off the Mayflower or you are a recent immigrant.

Lee’s story is disorienting and nightmarish, with dreamers and subjects exchanging places with frequency.  All of the characters are portrayed in poetic fashion with exaggeration and bold strokes, making them more like mythical figures than warm-blooded people.  But their feelings ring true, with repression and humiliation particularly starkly dramatized. Aya Ogawa’s dancelike direction builds on this illusory sensibility.  The Japanese-heritage cast — Ako, Keizo Kaji, Yuki Kawahisa, Eddy Toru Ohno, and Dawn Akemi Saito in addition to the Lees —slips easily between English and Japanese, sharing their befuddlement and isolation with most members of the audience. The flashback candy pink set by Jian Jung plays up the sense of otherworldliness, encompassing a graphical pattern that cleverly takes on added significance in the show’s second half.  Clothing by costume designer Alice Tavener combines elements of East, West, and cartoonish fantasy.

Design Team    Jian Jung | Scenic Design
    Alice Tavener | Costume Design
    Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew | Lighting & Video Design
    Fan Zhang | Original Music & Sound Design
    Jen Goma | Song Composition & Arrangement

Haruna Lee, Eddy Toru Ohno and Hoi Lee in Suicide Forest; Photo by Richard Termine

Holding this bold vision together is a taut framework of critical and timely conversation starters.  What does society use to measure what it means to be a man, a woman, or neither?  Is DNA destiny?  And what are accepted cultural norms when you live between more than one nation?  At one point Lee directly addresses the audience to share some of their thoughts on these issues, while designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew moves from stealthy shadows to literally illuminating the subject.  

Experiencing Suicide Forest is uncomfortable.  But this distinct work also provides a unique pathway into one person’s journey to self awareness that leaves a powerful impression.  The production presented by the famed Ma-Yi Theater Company runs until March 15 at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre (502 West 53rd Street, Manhattan),  Performances  are Tuesday – Saturday at 7pm; Sunday at 5pm.  Tickets are $30–$75 and available at ma-yitheatre.org or by calling 866-811-4111.

Border People

If you find that putting a face on an issue gives it meaning, you must make some time to experience playwright and performer Dan Hoyle.  In his latest work, this richly talented storyteller wears many faces to help us better understand the lives of Border People. Like the celebrated Anna Deavere Smith, Hoyle conducts  personal interviews — what he calls “the journalism of hanging out” — then weaves his subjects’ words into a rich tableau that shows us more of who we are as a nation.    

For this piece, Hoyle spoke with people on the Mexican and Canadian borders as well as his old stomping ground in the South Bronx, which shares a socio-economic border with Manhattan.  Taking close to 18 months to develop, the picture is a disturbing one, though not without hope.  His careful editing works like Miracle Gro, helping tiny seeds of individual moments blossom into deep insight.  While the cloud of the Trump administration’s policies hangs in the air, the stories are more personal than political.  These borders are shaped as much by culture and opportunity as they are by geography.  One particularly sweet section centering on a young girl’s introduction to chocolate cheesecake is bound to make you better appreciate whatever little treasure worked its way into your day.

Hoyle Border People_ by Carol Rosegg

Dan Hoyle in Border People, Photo by Carol Rosegg

Originally developed with and directed by Charlie Varon, Border People has all the hallmarks of the superlative solo-show development tank, The Marsh in San Francisco.  While Hoyle may be a young white male, for 75 minutes this flexible actor IS also by turns Black, Hispanic, Muslim, gay and female.  As staged by Nicole A. Watson, the audience has the pleasure of watching Hoyle physically and emotionally transform to deliver others’ experiences in their own words. Each character is rendered with respect and obvious affection.  A projection wall (scenic designer Frank Oliva; video design Yana Birÿkova) adds further detail and sense of place.

All borders are constructs and can be deconstructed if only we take the time to listen and understand their impact.  Dan Hoyle makes a chink in the walls that separate us, shining light on the view beyond them.  Presented by Working Theater, Border People is currently running Off-Broadway at the Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd Street).  The borough tour starting March 3 and includes stops at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, The Bronx Documentary Center, and the IBEW Local 3 in Queens.  Visit https://theworkingtheater.org/events/border-people/ for details and to purchase tickets.

The Commons

The Commons attempts to explore the ways in which everyday moments can form a wider story.  The comedic drama is written by Lily Akerman and directed by Emma Miller backed by an almost exclusively female creative team.  For a piece that sprung from the mind of a young playwright known for telling stories filled with colorful and distinctive voices and further filtered through a sharply feminine lens, it is surprisingly lacking in warmth or depth.  

The script is composed of quick scenes depicting a series of conversations held in the kitchen shared by four New York City housemates.  Fastidious Robyn (Ben Newman) is a failed artists who has lived in the house for 20 years.  Jittery Dee (Julia Greer) is struggling to focus her thoughts about her all-important dissertation.  Homey Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) lovingly bakes bread while Marie Kondo-ing the heck out of the space.  And newcomer Cliff (Ben Katz) is stretching his meager web designer paycheck while filling the air with empty promises.  The topics they cover are everyday issues from who should wipe down the stove top to how long a guest should be able to stay.  Atypically, these discussions do not build on one another.  Each time an incident appears to be lifting the action to the next level, it deflates as quickly as Cliff’s vow to clean his beard hair from the sink.  In total, the characters live together for 9 months — the period it takes to create a new human life —  yet they have almost no impact on each other, an outcome that is as tedious as it is unrealistic.  

Ms. Miller’s staging in the black box Theater C at 59E59 is also ill-conceived.  In order to accommodate Emmie Finckel’s clean kitchen set, the performance area has the audience seated in an L-shape.  But the actors are mostly placed so that those on the shorter side are continually confronted by backs instead of faces.  The sharp cuts between episodes often make the passage of time difficult to gauge.  At least the clever sound designed by Caroline Eng fills the pauses with the “music” of kettles, microwaves, timers, and other kitchen noises.  

The cast members — most of whom have worked exclusively in festival and workshop productions — do what they can to bring variety to their roles.  The most successful is Olivia Abiassi, whose energetic arrival halfway through the play woke up the audience, in some cases literally.  Her portrayal of Cliff’s ex Anna, the most full blooded of the characters, is thoroughly engaging  For the short time she is in the shared apartment, the spunky straight shooter fills the void by providing everything the others have been lacking in their lives, be it a fresh salad or genuine honesty.   Unfortunately, none of her vitality survives her character’s exit.

Julia Greer, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Ben Newman, Ben Katz Photo by Carol Rosegg

Julia Greer, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Ben Newman, and Ben Katz; Photo by Carol Rosegg

A still-emerging work, The Commons might be better appreciated in a less established venue.  For a modern day kitchen sink drama, this production suffers from a lack of seasoning.  Though the situations portrayed may be increasingly… common, that does not automatically imbue them with meaning.  To build a real bridge between the viewers and the subjects requires more than an exploration of surface traits and eccentricities.  

Presented by The Hearth, The Commons is running at 59E59 (59th street between Madison and Park) through Sunday, February 23.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for members) and are available by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646- 892-7999 or by visiting http://www.59e59.org. Seating is general admission.  Note that the second row on the shorter side of the L is not raked.  

Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn

A much-needed good time can be had at Romeo & Bernadette, a lighthearted musical spin on Shakespeare’s tragic love story.  At opening, a Brooklynite is attempting to get his date back in the mood for love after a performance of Romeo and Juliet leaves her teary eyed.  He spins a tale of Romeo’s post-curtain exploits, weaving himself into the plot as Romeo’s newfound best friend, Dino Del Canto.  In this new and evolving chapter, the young lover is propelled out of place and time to 1960s Brooklyn in search of Bernadette, a woman with whom he crossed paths in Verona.  Bearing an uncanny resemblance to his deceased beloved, she stole his heart during their brief encounter.  Upon arrival on Bernadette’s shores, Romeo learns that she is the daughter of famed mob boss Sal Penza.  Now he once again finds himself torn between two warring families, this time with Dino at his side for guidance.

Nikita Burshteyn and Michael Notardonato Photo credit: Russ Rowland

Nikita Burshteyn (Romeo) and Michael Notardonato (Dino) in Romeo & Bernadette. Photo credit: Russ Rowland

With a book and lyrics by Mark Saltzman, the piece is filled with the good natured sweetness you’d expect from someone who began his New York career with the Muppets.  The script blends iambic pentameter, modern colloquialisms, and humor as broad as Interstate 278.  The music, adapted from classic Italian melodies and wonderfully orchestrated by Steve Orich, is tuneful and uplifting.  Story and song are delivered smoothly by the adept cast.  Making his Off-Broadway debut as Romeo, Nikita Burshteyn hits both literal and figurative high notes.  Recent college graduate Anna Kostakis manages to soar even while bringing a slightly nasal whine to Bernadette’s solos.  And Michael Notardonato, also making his Off-Broadway debut, gives us plenty to wink and nod at as Dino and our narrator.  Also doing double duty is newcomer Ari Raskin as Bernadette’s edgy BFF Donna and the Brooklyn Girl on a date observing the action.  The more seasoned veterans in the company    Carlos Lopez, Michael Marotta, Judy McLane, Troy Valjean Rucker, Zach Schanne, and Viet Vo    are strong in their supporting roles.  The story sags at the beginning of Act 2 with too many side bits allowing some of the good mood felt at intermission to dissipate.  But just like its plucky heroine, the production pulls itself together to deliver a satisfying finish.

Currently running in the black box Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T., the work is given plenty of room to breathe.  The direction and dance moves provided by Justin Ross Cohen are energetic and appropriately playful.  Walt Spangler’s striking all white set has several purposeful sections including a small second story that serves as additional rooms and (naturally) a balcony.  Costumes designed by Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope capture the spirited mood of the 1960s and give key scenes their own color coding.   Fabulous hairstyles top off each look.

Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn delivers on its implied promise of mixing styles to humorous effect.  The limited engagement is scheduled through February 16 at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./NY Theatres (502 West 53rd Street between 10th and 11th.)  Runtime is approximately 2 hours with one 10 minute intermission.  Tickets are priced at $49-$69 and can be purchased online at www.amasmusical.org/romeo-bernadette or by calling (866) 811-4111.

Modern Māori Quartet’s Two Worlds

Modern Maori Quartet Two Worlds

If you already feel the glow of your holidays fading, consider a trip to Two Worlds, the latest offering from the award winning Modern Māori Quartet.  In a swiftly moving 70 minutes, four delightful performers will take you on an exploration of indigenous New Zealand culture through storytelling, song and movement.  

At opening, WWII veteran Koro (Matu Ngaropo), 1960s gadabout Uncle (Jamie Mccaskill), and 1980s lounge musician Big Bro (Maaka Pohatu) have been trapped in limbo for decades.  The unseen Miss (Kura Forrester) introduces them to the newly arrived Bub (Matariki Whatarau), a small town boy.  They must now must work together as a quartet to earn the right for each one of them to pass on. Only the truth can truly set them free.  This set-up emphasizes the need for cooperation represented in the strong harmonies that bind this heartwarming work together.  

Though pieces are performed in both English and Māori, all of the emotions are so genuinely expressed they are not only understandable but relatable.  The culture these men share brings distinction to their back stories, shedding light on the struggles of an indigenous people whose culture has been marginalized and submerged.  But their tales also encompass universal themes of seeking connection and acceptance.

Two Worlds developed from a production written by James Tito, Matariki Whatarau, Maaka Pohatu, and Francis Kora and originally presented in 2012.  The current incarnation fits the cast as well as their snazzy black and red suits.  The music is tuneful and transportive.  Accompanying themselves on guitar and percussion, each voice is pure and well blended for the space by Matthew Eller + Square.  Well produced sound effects successfully fill in for scenery.  Movement choreographed by the troupe uniquely combines smile-inducing boy band steps with traditional Māori gestures creating something that is simultaneously fresh and familiar.

Modern Māori Quartet’s Two Worlds runs through January 18, 2020.  This moving and joyful cabaret-style musical is currently playing at The Soho Playhouse (15 Vandam Street near 6th and Spring) as part of their annual Fringe Encore series.  The curated festival presents the best of the Fringe from around the world, offering the artists opportunity for an extended run in New York City and perhaps beyond.  Upcoming performances of Two Worlds are January 11 at 5:00 PM, January 12 at 5:00 PM, January 14 at 7:30 PM, January 16 at 9:00 PM, January 17 at 9:00 PM, and January 18 at 9:00 PM.  It is running in repertory with two other productions with Kiwi flair and perspective.  To view the entire lineup and purchase Individual tickets ($39) visit FringeEncoreSeries.com.  Reduced-price ticket packages are also available.

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.