Category Archives: Off-Broadway

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/

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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/.

Dogs of Rwanda

Dogs of Rwanda is like that really sweet guy you wanna like, but you just can’t get beyond his shortcomings. There are several unfortunate distractions that prevent it from being as powerful as it should be.  Given that the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 and the audience spans a large age range, a short background beyond the artistic director’s statement would have helped.  By necessity, the tale we hear is a deeply personal one and moments are certainly shocking, but they are not given sufficient context or a sharp enough lens through which to see.  There are also some artistic choices that have hindered the impact of the piece.

The script by Sean Christopher Lewis is delivered as a monologue told solely from the point of view of David Zosia, who at 16 volunteered for a church run spring break program in order to spend time with his crush, Mary.  At their Ugandan camp, they are assigned laundry duty working just downstream from Rwanda.  When the fight between the Tutsis and the Hutus breaks out, bodies begin floating by the horrified youth. The pair is drawn deeper into the conflict when they attempt to help a local boy named Gods Blessing.  Over the course of 90 minutes, David vividly describes what happened at the time and also 20 years later when he receives a note from Gods Blessing that takes him back to Africa.  The audience is present to bear witness to his account: an integral role in any deeply meaningful ritual.

David is portrayed by Dan Hodge, an actor and director with an impressive resume.  Unlike most solo performances this isn’t Hodge’s story and that is the first stumbling block to its success.  Hodge never fully inhabits the role: he is acting not being.  The only other person on stage is musician Abou Lion Diarra who accompanies David’s tale with original music performed on a variety of percussion instruments.  This creative embellishment was added by the Urban Stages team, but the execution doesn’t quite work.  Hodge is inconsistent about including Diarra in the action, sometimes exchanges glances and sometimes ignoring him.  Furthermore, the talented Diarra is often so swept away by the joy he finds in playing that it is easy to catch him smiling incongruently to the horrors being described.

Dan Hodge stars along with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider (3)

Actor Dan Hodge with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider.

There is also the critical issue that David is essentially a selfish SOB.  Everyone else we hear about — Mary, Gods Blessing, and his current girlfriend — have been treated with contempt by our narrator and guide.  He is not without redeeming qualities, having literally bled to share at least some of his story with the public in a book called Letters From The Red Hill.  While David is certainly contrite by the end, that is where we leave him, never witnessing any actual change in his behavior.  This makes his confession a rather hallow one.  How can we forgive David as we are meant to if we never see him embody the lessons he claims to have learned and put them into action?

Urban Stages Founder, Frances Hill, and Director of Musical theatre, Peter Napolitano are responsible for the meandering direction.  The creative team is the same as the one that brought Zhu Yi’s A Deal to life.  Their vision is much murkier this time around.  The set by Frank J. Oliva is made to look like a village clearing with a faux earthen floor and thatch peering through a side opening. It lends an interesting flavor to the atmosphere, though the setting is only appropriate some of the time.  John Salutz’s lighting casts long shadows which may be intended to add mood but come across as an amateurish mistake.  The brilliant Ryan Belock has once again designed the projections, but the screen is at an angle over Hodge’s head.  This is effective for planes, trees, and clouds, and a head scratcher for ocean waves.

While not completely successful as a drama, Dogs of Rwanda can serve as a reminder of the dehumanizing effects of war, the atrocities committed based on tribalism, and the many treasured places around the globe devalued by Americans.  It is a worthy end to a season in which Urban Stages has been shining a light on works with an international point of view.  It runs through Saturday, March 31, 2018.  Tickets for are $35 ($25 during previews; $50 on opening and $15 student rush) and may be purchased via OvationTix at www.urbanstages.org or by phone at 1.866.811.4111.

A Letter to Harvey Milk

A Letter to Harvey Milk is a slightly flawed gem of a musical, giving voice to some little seen characters. The work is based on a Lesléa Newman’s short story which follows mildly eccentric but loving Jewish characters as they discover and embrace their identities as lesbians.  In this case the seeker is Barbara, a Connecticut transplant earning a little extra money by teaching a writing class at the JCC in San Francisco.  Her unexpected partner in self exploration is Harry, a widowed retired butcher who finds himself drawn to her classroom and her energy.  What binds them is the titular letter that Harry composes as an assignment.  The honest love and sincere appreciation expressed to his activist friend pulls Barbara into Harry’s story.  She revels in the company of someone who is seemingly so comfortable with his choices.   Their developing friendship takes them both to unexpected places.

Adam Heller and Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

Adam Heller and  Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs  in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

The book by by Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern and Laura I. Kramer provides enough detail to follow both Harry’s and Barbara’s struggles with love and loneliness.  Throughout are two culturally significant threads about homosexuality and Judaism through time and in context.  There are a few small gaps in logic such as how Barbara can be making any money with only one student, but those are easy to set aside.  What doesn’t come through with sufficient clarity is the critical figure of Harvey Milk.  He is painted in such broad strokes, those unfamiliar with his ground-breaking achievements will see a badly dressed kook with terrible eating habits.  Perhaps the script suffered from too many cooks.  Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz work better to move the story along and provide atmosphere.  Music by Laura I. Kramer isn’t very memorable, but it does suit the words, particularly the Yankee Doodle Dandy treatment of some of Harvey’s most famous speeches.

Generally, the women in the cast outshine the men. Julia Knitel — who previously starred as Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful — has a soothing voice and magnificent articulation as she shapes Barbara’s story.  As Frannie, Harry’s deceased wife who is by his side for the journey, co-lyricist Cheryl Stern is the comic relief, delivering Elaine Stritch-style patter and emphasis.  And in her one big number, Aury Krebs is a dream.  Michael Bartoli captures Harvey Milk’s patterns and mannerisms, but as described earlier, he isn’t given enough to work with.  Supporting players Jeremy Greenbaum and CJ Pawlikowski do a fine job playing multiple roles.  The weak link is Adam Heller who was off key as a singer and lacked sufficient variation as an actor.  He has extensive Broadway experience, so perhaps it was just an off night.

Evan Pappas’s staging is clever, especially in the more intimate moments.  The charming set by David L. Arsenault captures the feel of the Castro district of San Francisco complete with muted colors and a big Bay window.  The orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Lodin, is perched on a balcony above so they are in view and adding to the ambiance.  The costumes by Debbie Hobson are pitch-perfect, notably Barbara’s anklets and sweater vest and Frannie’s tidy suit.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting effectively changes color palette to the match the mood of each scene.

While A Little to Harvey Milk is still at a “great potential” stage of development, it is already a genuine crowd pleaser (for the right crowd) and impressive bang for the buck.  Struggling with shame and the need for self-truth resonants even with those who are straight and/or gentile.  It runs through May 13, 2018 at the Acorn, part of Theater Row.  Tickets are $79 – $99 and can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.