Category Archives: Off-Broadway

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The first glimpse of a miniature cardboard cutout of the London skyline sets the tone for an evening spent with Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.  Wildly creative and deceptively simple, this retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel is one selection from this year’s Fringe Encores line-up.  Well curated by Artistic Director Darren Cole and his team, the series brings to the nonprofit SoHo Playhouse the very best shows from the world’s most well regarded fringe festivals including Brighton, Edinburgh, Hollywood, Limerick, Orlando, and Toronto as well as New York.  It’s theater for lovers of lively and inventive works.

At first, the dapper Burt Grinstead as Dr. Jekyll plays straight man to Anna Stromberg, varying her accent and exchanging aprons, hats, pipes, and other bargain bin objects in rapid succession as she takes on every other character.  It’s a tour de force performance for the actress, who also directs the piece.  Several purposefully awkward lectures later, Mr. Grinstead gets in on the fun with his brilliant transformation from mild Jekyll into villainous Hyde, played out in effective silhouette.  From there, the pace accelerates until the play’s dramatic conclusion.

Officer Hug - Cooper Bates Photography

Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg; photo by Cooper Bates

The two actors wrote the script, which is witty with just enough scare to keep audience members jumping.  Their adaptation retains many of the major plot points from the original book while taking quite a few creative liberties.  The character line-up has been streamlined.  This gives Ms. Stromberg the opportunity to show the full range of her talent without giving herself a coronary.  As playwrights, they have also infused the story with contemporary relevance: heightening the social commentary and playing up the frustrations associated with Victorian era repression by providing Jekyll with a feminist love interest.  It all works to tell a tale that is at once familiar and completely fresh.

The suggestive sets are composed of black interlocking wooden pieces with hidden compartments that reveal essential details in white.  Mood changes are emphasized with solid color lighting behind a plain backdrop.  These physical elements are augmented with a wonderfully produced soundscape of gulls, clock chimes, and musical flourishes.  

At 75 minutes,  Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde takes you on a highly engaging ride that ends before it can become repetitive.  With its pun-filled dialogue, clever production design and remarkably flexible two person cast, it’s low-budget entertainment done right.  And with tickets available for as little as $25, it’s also tremendous night-out bang for the buck.  

The “best of the fests” runs through December 16 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street off 6th Avenue near Spring.  To see a calendar of remaining performance dates and purchase tickets, visit www.fringeencores.org.

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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/.

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.

First Love

When seeing Charles Mee’s First Love at the Cherry Lane, take your emotional cue from Edward Pierce’s Magritte-influenced set.  From its cloud covered doorway, to the leaf-shaped tree, to that end point that wraps itself around the side curtain, everything here is inspired by the natural world and simultaneously fanciful.  If you can get yourself firmly in that mind space there’s a pleasant ride ahead, witnessing two people who could benefit from their shared time.

The phrase first love is nearly synonymous with young love, but in this case the lovers are closer to 70.  They initially connect over memories of activism in the 1960, though from the beginning their idea of involvement is wildly different.  Edith was an eager and active participant while the biggest impact that tumultuous period had on Harold occurred when he wasn’t even present.  Though this disparity persists, their relationship takes root, nurtured by a Young Woman who appears to have powers similar to those of Cupid.

Taylor Harvey, Michael O'Keefe and Angelina Fiordelissi. Photo by Monique Carboni (3)

Taylor Harvey, Michael O’Keefe and Angelina Fiordelissi. Photo by Monique Carboni

The romance is portrayed in a series of clipped scenes, some with moments of tenderness and others largely cruel and cutting.  Throughout their story, the two essentially hold true to their 1960s selves.  Edith initiates, entices and at one point boogies down to the whoops and hollers of the audience.  Harold reacts and expresses his inner thoughts and turmoil aloud, both to himself and to us. Though Edith professes that Harold is changing her life, there is little character growth, which is perhaps realistic for a tale of two people who are farther down the path of life.  The couple occasionally engages with the Young Women, but more often she is an outside observer, floating in with a prop or playing the piano on stage left.

Mee’s dialogue is excessively flowery, at points sticking to the roofs of the actors’ mouths.  Edith and Harold sometimes speak Braavos-like of “a man” and “a woman”.  While potentially distancing, these artistic flourishes also bring an air of old love poetry to their exchanges.  The opening scene is thick with cultural references to luminaries from 1960 counterculture, culminating in Edith and Harold shouting the lines from “Howl” at one another.   No context is given and it might be tough going for someone not familiar with Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman and Jack Kerouac.  A gleeful rant about the very opinionated John Simon received the biggest laugh, but it is doubtful that many newer theater goers are familiar with a critical column that hasn’t been published in 13 years.  Mee also makes questionable choices with the music used  to connect beats of the script.  The selection of classics from the 1940s  — crowd-pleasers though they are — undercut the common ground from 20 years on that has been laid.

Given a script long on elements of the fantastic, director Kim Weild focuses attention on the more human elements of Edith and Harold’s interaction.  Angelia Fiordellisi brings terrific exuberance to Edith while Michael O’Keefe has a realistic blend of vulnerability and soft sex appeal.  Taylor Harvey makes a graceful spirit of love, though she falters in her unnecessarily lengthy tug of war with Harold over his selection of dessert.  All three characters are buoyed by Theresa Squire’s costumes: flowing earth motherly layers for Fiordellisi, baseball cap and whatever is closest to the bed for O’Keefe, and sparkle, hearts, and flowers for Harvey.  The back of Edward Pierce’s set is a delight, but the piece that functions as a bench, sofa, restaurant booth and more is not as clever as it should be to complete the vision.  Paul Miller and Christian Frederickson are responsible for sturdy lighting and sound design.

The concept of developing a story of first love taking place between two people who came of age in the 60s in an intriguing one.  While this First Love doesn’t quite fulfill the assignment, there is enough beneath its outer shell to provoke exploration. Performances continue at the Cherry Lane though July 8.  Tickets are $65-$95 and are available at www.cherrylanetheatre.org or by calling Ovation Tix at 1.866.811.4111.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

Caryl Churchill is a witty, often brilliant playwright who is sometimes ahead of the curve on intriguing issues.  Her plays delved into gender fluidity, female empowerment, and environmental crisis long before those themes made the covers of popular magazines.  It is therefore particularly frustrating that New York Theater Workshop reached into the back of Churchill’s vault to remount Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a piece that examines the failures of both church and state during the English Civil War.

The scant story intertwines the lives of a variety of English citizens during the mid 1600.  Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians imprisoned King Charles I, who is still supported by Royalists.  Strict Puritanism has enveloped the Church, though there are whiffs of free consciousness and individualism in the air.  Most of the action takes place off-stage leaving the bulk of the dialogue as passive conversation and exposition.  A chunk of the play reenacts the Putney Debates: an attempt to rework the British constitution.  Some historical knowledge is helpful for following all the verbiage and a brief outline is provided in an addendum to the show’s program.

As staged by the often whimsical Rachel Chavkin and her creative team, this production is particularly rough going.  She employs what has become her trademark of having the actors in the aisles, but mostly keeps them arguing from chairs.  The lack of physical interaction keeps the pace maddeningly slow.  The first act is made almost literally airless by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s decision to lower the ceiling.  Isabella Byrd’s lighting includes faux candlelight for the shadowy Act I and florescence for Act II when illumination seems more in reach.  The soundscape designed by Mikaal Sulaiman is thick and sometimes distorted.  The wardrobe designed by Toni-Leslie James starts off mildly period, then moves to jeans and T-shirts for Act II.  This section also includes anachronistic use of an iPhone, diet soda, and plastic bags.  These may all be nods to today’s struggles with class and power, but the metaphors aren’t clear enough and the props by Noah Mease feel more like empty gestures.

Light Shining in BuckinghamshireNYTW

The cast of LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE at New York Theatre Workshop, Photo by Joan Marcus

The make up of the cast is as broad and eclectic as possible.  While this is fitting for the work, they are not equally strong performers.  Mikéah Ernest Jennings is the standout, blessed with the most compelling through-line from household servant to preacher serving mankind. It is easy enough to see Matthew Jeffers’ magnetism as well as his dwarfism, though in stretches he speaks too swiftly and softly.  Seasoned actress and activist Vinie Burrows really gets the play going, speaking up from the audience to interrupt a particularly paternalistic sermon.  Evelyn Spahr is also given occasions to show her range, with opportunities to sing as sweetly as a nightingale and mewl Eliza Doolittle style.   But performers Rob Campbell and Gregg Mozgala mostly get lost in waves of sameness. At several points the audience relies on the projected captions to tell them which of their characters is speaking.

Dour, preachy and repetitive, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was an intriguing experiment written before Caryl Churchill found her true voice and rhythm.  While the challenges of the English Civil War may have been compelling in the mid 1970s with its parallel rise of disenfranchised young people, the lines to the relatable aren’t clearly drawn.  It is also difficult to become emotionally invested in any of these characters.  There is insufficient differentiation between their roles and there is no one we get to know well.  Though not completely lacking artistry, at 2 hours and 40 minutes this production is a test for even the loyalest of Churchill’s fans. The play continues through June 3 at New York Theater Workshop.  Visit https://www.nytw.org/show/light-shining-buckinghamshire/ for tickets and information.

This Flat Earth

“Are you there,” implores 13 year old Julie at both ends of This Flat Earth to anyone who’s listening Nine students were recently killed in a school shooting, disrupting her feelings of peace, safety, and normalcy.  This topic should be the springboard for compelling discussion.  Indeed there are some threads about socioeconomic conditions and adolescent turning points that click.  But for the most part, this is a ninety minute missed opportunity that ultimately promises that trauma will be all but lost beneath the unrelenting waves of everyday life.

This Flat Earth

Ella Kennedy Davis (Julie) and Lynda Gravátt (Cloris), Photo by Joan Marcus.

The piece is set in the recent past, and yet somehow Julie has no idea that hers is not the first school to have gone through such an experience.  She believes that her persistent jealousy of a talented and popular girl who died might have caused the tragedy. In her program notes, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino tells how she experienced a similar sense of misplaced power when the incidents of 9/11 occurred the day after she had written a diary entry about the joys of peacetime.  The transference of those feelings to sadly more common circumstance are diminishing to her main character.  The excuse provided for Julie’s ignorance is that her father is too poor to have purchased a laptop.  But even her best friend/would-be-boyfriend Zander seems to think the girl just hasn’t been paying attention.

The casting of Ella Kennedy Davis as Julie doesn’t do much to shore up the character as an interesting representative of her generation.  While speaking too quickly at a very high pitch and slurring key words is all too realistic, it also left many of the audience members trying to keep up as they attempted to fill in the missed dialogue. Faring much better is the gifted Ian Saint-Germain, who captures the natural flow of Zander’s assuredness and awkwardness.  Lucas Papaelias has trouble navigating the clumsy role of Julie’s father, Dan, but it is hard to tell how much of the difficulty is in the lines and  how much in his interpretation.  While no parent can protect a child from all dangers, widower Dan comes across as particularly ill-equipped and Papaelias often flails around in his skin.  In the role of Lisa, a mother who lost a child in the tragedy, Cassie Beck is also constrained by her character’s limited responses.  The only adult providing any constructive contribution is Lynda Gravátt’s upstairs neighbor Cloris.  Naturally she can’t answer the impossible, but she delivers sincere and often amusing descriptions of effective coping mechanisms.

The talented director Rebecca Taichman does her best to underscore the truer emotions in the script by matching it with genuinely motivated physicality.  Dane Laffrey’s two story set works wonderfully, though it could use a few more tonal touches.  Costume designer Paloma Young has put together a fitting wardrobe, particularly with a bag of clothes that plays a critical role.  Adding to the mood as well as forwarding the story is cellist Christine H. Kim under the musical direction of Christian Frederickson.

This Flat Earth is one of several recent productions that poses probing questions about the world we are leaving to the new generation.  The Artistic Director claims it was never conceived as a production about gun violence, but opening just a month after events at Parkland it’s impossible to view it separate from that issue.  Even when evaluated as an artistic expression, the play is wan when compared to similar offerings. While there are moments when the authentic psyches of the teens shine through, there are too many uninspiring stretches.  Performances of this world premiere continue through April 29 at Playwrights Horizons.  For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/flat-earth/.