Category Archives: Off-Broadway

Einstein’s Dreams

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

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

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

scenic design ISABEL MENGYUAN LEcostume design SIDNEY SHANNON

lighting design HERRICK GOLDMAN

sound design KEVIN HEARD

projection design DAVID BENGALI

props design SEAN FRANK

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

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

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

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

Power Strip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strangers in the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round Table

Medievalist and Live Action Role Player Zach is on the writing team for a period television series with a rabid fanbase.  As a successful ghostwriter of bodice rippers, Laura knows every cliched metaphor for an erection.  The two meet when Zach takes his ill-timed first foray into online dating in Liba Vaynberg’s Round Table, having its Off Broadway premiere at 59E59.  The audience for these oddball lovebirds skews particularly young and it’s easy to see why.  Despite the characters’ (pre)occupation rooted in the past, they are engaged in a very modern romance. Costume designer Johanna Pan does a particularly clever job of firmly pulling us into both worlds, with one half of the wardrobe lovingly mocking the other.  

L-R: Craig Wesley Divino, Sharina Martin in ROUND TABLE at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Craig Wesley Divino as Zach and Sharina Martin as Morgan in ROUND TABLE at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Ms. Vaynberg’s script is largely humorous and unexpectedly sophisticated.  Threads of sad misfortune are delicately woven into the comedic tapestry.  The carefully plotted landscapes of Laura’s novels and Zach’s LARP explorations are juxtaposed with the very real messiness of detached parents, sleepless nights, and creeping illness.  There are some puzzling references to Greek mythology (is Zeus the gateway drug to King Arthur?), but for the most part the connective tissue is strong.  This is a tale of would-be knights and damsels both in distress and in control.  Vulnerabilities exposed in life can be gently cloaked and “cloaked” in the alternate universe, making them easier to confront. While these characters may need to escape to a place in which every move requires consent, they must ultimately accept what the universe hands them. These two realities are  intermingled, with monologues serving to separate the beats, ending in a lifelike precarious balance of the two.  The seesaw of moods is echoed in the lighting designed by Cha See, which switches from hot spots to muted shadows cast by branches suspended from the ceiling.

Perhaps too attached to her precious words, Vaynberg the actress doesn’t do justice to her own work.  Laura’s lines indicate that she is self-aware, if imperfect.  Instead, the actress’s delivery is stilted, as if read from a gigantic invisible paper floating before her.  Fortunately, the rest of her cast is terrific.  If there was a special Tony for staging embarrassment, director Geordie Broadwater would be the runaway winner.  He brings out a full range of difficult emotions in his tiny team while also using natural movements to store out-of-time props.  Craig Wesley Divino’s performance as Zach is infused with genuine tenderness, bringing out both his mastery of our hero’s work and dis-ease in the rest of his life.  Karl Gregory rescues Zach’s gay brother Kay from remaining a one note flamboyant sidekick, providing emotional layering to pivotal scenes.  Matthew Bovee’s Modred isn’t given as much to work with, though he does give distinction to his warrior and shyer selves.  And Sharina Martin’s Morgan is so electrically charge, you can well imagine her having hoards of adoring followers.  Even as her anxiety-ridden alter ego, she bores into your soul when she stares unflinchingly into the eyes of audience members.  Good thing since Izmir Ickbal’s set bifurcated with effective scrim puts the players mere inches from their viewers.

In all their iterations, the characters of Round Table are thoroughly likable.  And at $20/$25 this piece makes for a full and engaging theatrical experience.  Produced by Fault Line Theatre and Anna & Kitty, Inc. it runs through October 20 in Theater C at 59E59 Theaters ((59 East 59th Street, between Park & Madison).  Running time is approximately 95 minutes, with no intermission.  Tickets are available by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or by visiting www.59e59.org. 

Tech Support

If you’ve ever found yourself trying to persuade a malfunctioning gadget to behave itself, you will identify with the inciting incident that sets Pamela Stark on a new life course.  The stressed out antique book dealer is on musical hold in a long queue awaiting help with her printer.  In her hand, her iPhone displays the divorce papers her husband has blithely texted over, while in the background her coffeemaker emits discomforting smoke.   When customer service representative Chip finally comes on the line, it is Pam who breaks down, erupting with pent up frustration and hurt.  Unable to solve her issue, Chip transfers her… to 1919.  Pam finds herself in a boarding house where the women are more concerned with securing the vote and access to birth control than getting a prescription refill from their shrink.  This is the first stop of many on Pam’s journey of discovery in Debra Whitfield’s comedic Tech Support, now playing at 59E59 Theaters.

30 TECH SUPPORT

Margot White, Mark Lotito, Leanne Cabrera, Ryan Avalos, and Lauriel Friedman in Tech Support. Photo by Russ Rowland

The staging is impressive, especially given the tight space.  There are even a few dance numbers to enliven the scene changes.  However, playwright Whitfield might have benefited from working with a director other than herself if only to have another seasoned talent contribute to the development process.  The script contains some genuinely revealing moments, but they are all too quickly brushed aside in favor of easy laughs.  Opportunities to answer questions about what progress looks and feels like are replaced with rom-com trivialities. Ultimately, the logic of the story doesn’t hold up and the ending is disappointing.

Regardless of the plot’s weaknesses, those in the mood to be swept away will get caught up in the waves of enthusiasm and joy emanating from the cast.  Star Margot White could take Pam’s initial anxiety level down a notch and still fill the room, but she ultimately finds her rhythm and exudes great tenderness.  She is well partnered with the positively darling and nimble-on-his-feet Ryan Avalos as All the Chips.  Mark Lotito, Lauriel Friedman and Leanne Cabrera give depth to each distinct period in their assorted roles.

The creative team has done an incredible job of transforming a little blackbox theater into time machine.  Shifts in years are illustrated with projections designed by Elliott Forrest which blend period photos and graphic patterns.  The effects are enhanced by well-chosen songs and a rich soundscape designed by Ed Matthew.  Natalie Taylor Hart’s scenic design builds on the theme, incorporating circuit design elements and three portal/doors.  The set pieces are cleverly constructed, though the actors’ pacing is thrown whenever they are forced to double as stage hands.  Hair and make-up by Inga Thrasher capture each decade and set off Janice O’Donnell’s playful costumes.  For theater buffs, their efforts alone are worth the $25 ticket price.

While there are too many shortcuts taken in Pam’s journey, for most of its 80 minutes Tech Support is enjoyable fun.  The production is produced by Chatillion Stage Company where Ms. Whitfield serves are Artistic Director.  Tickets for performances through September 21 are available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/tech-support/. 

The Exes

As The Exes opens, it is Christmas Eve day and the Killingworth household is preparing for the wedding of Richard’s over-indulged daughter, Victoria.  Richard’s best friend, Dick Wright, is helping to keep everything on track despite the barrage of business calls.  Richard made a fortune from the patent he holds on a genetically-engineered “forever” flower that has caused quite a stir among fearful florists.  There’s a protest planned and it is even suspected that these small-business owners were behind a fire that destroyed Richard’s original townhouse. 

The birth of Richard and Dick’s friendship was an unusual one.  Richard’s soon to be ex-wife, Mavis, was first married to Dick.  One year ago, she ran off to Denmark to be with her now-fiancé, Marcel.  The two men bonded when Dick saw a reflection of his own pain in Richard’s distress at her leaving.  Now the two are so close that they jokingly call each other #1 and #2.  Even Dick and Marvis’s son, Garrett, comfortably hangs out in the Killingworth home.  Just as everyone is about to depart for the ceremony, Mavis makes her customary chaotic entrance.  She’s returned from overseas to get her divorced papers signed.  She is also intent on witnessing the marriage of the young woman she helped raise.

If it wasn’t for the key role played by cellphones and iPads, The Exes could have been written ages ago.  Rather than exploring what divorce and remarriage is like for woman like Mavis, playwright Lenore Skomal leans into the throwback elements of her script.  She has followed her own advice and self-produced this run, assembling a production team that seemingly drew inspiration from a creaky drawing room comedy.  Craig Napoliello’s set is functional, but the elements are dated.  Magda S. Nyiri’s direction often has the actors awkwardly posed in a straight line.  And it’s hard to say what time period is represented by the jazzy musical phrases looped together by Nathan Repasz.  These are puzzling choices for a talented writer devoted to artistic empowerment.

'The Exes' by Lenore Skomal, Directed by Magda S. Nyiri, Theatre Row

David M Farrington, John Coleman Taylor, Galen Molk, Tim Hayes, Alison Preece, Karen Forte in The Exes; Photo by Emily Hewitt

The most disappointing fallout from these creative decisions is that 2019 Mavis comes across like a character from a 1940 movie.  Having been introduced to the audience by her exes as a serial cheater, Mavis doesn’t do much to redeem herself.  While she has brief tender moments with her son, Garrett, and confident, Prim, she mostly thrashes around.  It’s unfortunate that the character isn’t developed more sympathetically since that possibility is running right under the surface.  Despite only one of the Richards using the nickname Dick, they both obviously are.  #1 makes cutting remarks about everyone around him.  #2 always has business on his mind and a cellphone glued to his ear.  Neither could have made a suitable partner for the sociable Mavis, who was left searching for connection.  Having apparently learned little about what constitutes a healthy relationship, she chose to move on with a man who was dismissed from his job for behaving inappropriately with younger women.  Now she is leaving Garrett behind  AGAIN, this time to face his 6th year of college with only three stunningly selfish people to guide him.

While the most enduring relationship portrayed is between Richard and Dick, it is Garrett who stirs compassion from the audience.  Alone among the hyped up cast, Galen Molk’s performance is warm and natural.  His vivid, witty description of events which take place off stage — enhanced by designer Ross Graham lighting — is a bright spot.  John Coleman Taylor also remains dignified if a bit stereotypical as English “house manager”, Prim.  Oddly for a production powered by women, Karen Forte’s Mavis and Alison Preece’s Victoria border on the unpleasant with shallow interpretations coated in neediness.  The capable men are each given one note to play.  David M. Farrington has terrific timing, but Dick’s every line is delivered with equal snap.  Richard is driven, so Tim Hayes is continually put in drive mode.  And Kyle Porter’s badly dressed and overly-mannered Marcel is so quirky the character becomes an unfathomable punchline.  

The Exes has a fun premise and some great minds at work.  But like the marriages it portrays, it doesn’t fulfill its promises.  Runtime is about 2-hours with an intermission.  Tickets are available for $59.25 through Telecharge at https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Exes/Overview.  It’s playing off-Broadway at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street near 9th Avenue) through October 5th.