Category Archives: Off Off Broadway

A Real Boy

I was attracted to the concept of A Real Boy the moment I read the log line: Puppet parents adopt a human child. (This is not a spoiler. Even the most inexperienced of theatergoers is bound to notice this attribute of Max’s parents the moment they shuffle into his kindergarten classroom on their little wooden feet, strings and control handles attached.) The play lands some of the anticipated satirical punches, but it’s hard to make the argument that the darkly comic work is a total success.

To be clear, I can accept even the highest of concepts provided the writer stays within the boundaries of his own mythology.  Unfortunately parameters that are drawn in the first few minutes are broken almost immediately when a character who is supposed to live in a black-and-white world enters wearing blue glasses.  This is only the beginning of the muddled thoughts that swirl around what it means to be “puppet”.  How much do you or we acknowledge your “other part”: the obvious human member of Actors Equity who sometimes participates in a scene whenever tiny hands won’t do?  Do humans evolve into puppets simply with enough exposure?  If so, how does that translate in families with members who are not exactly mainstream?

The unclear vision of the Puppet Universe is just the beginning of playwright Stephen Kaplan’s challenges.  As the plot moves along, he creates a serious case of metaphorical whiplash. He can’t seem to make up his mind exactly what point he’s trying to make. The untraditional family stand-ins in for children with disabilities, transgender persons, and mixed race families and more before moving on to a vague “you be you.”   Any one of these statements could have been profound if followed through with conviction. Together they come up as ideological ambrosia salad.  And that’s before adding multiple snide asides about home schooling, ambitious local politicians, and online MBAs.

The cleverer sections of the work are hindered by the direction of Audrey Alford who, with the help of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer,  manages to ensure that every seat in the house becomes partial obstructed view.  Audience heads throughout the theater are constantly jostling for a position around the pillars, down to the floor, and over to a critical stage piece on the side.  I missed several important visual cues because they were not in my line of sight. This is fairly inexcusable given the the current configuration of the theater is about 60 seats.

ARealBoy3

Brian Michael in A REAL BOY at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

Ms. Alford has also made some curious casting choices.  At the performance I attend, young Max is played by 20-something Kelley Selznick, a talented puppeteer, but not particularly gifted actress.  Max’s mother, Mary Ann Myers, is played by Jason Allan Kennedy George making his theatrical debut.  He’s fine in the role, but I found the selection of a tall male for the part a distraction from what more obviously makes Mary Ann different from other members of the PTA.  It is also hard to figure out how Max would find comfort with Miss Terry, played at a near-vibrating pitch by Jenn Remke.  More successful is Brian Michael, striking all the right notes as Max’s father distraught father, Peter Myers.  Breaking the tension with great timing is Jamie Geiger in the role of Principal Klaus.  And of course there are the all-important puppets created by Puppet Kitchen Productions, close to blank canvases the better to project your own vision of what different means to you.

For lovers of live theater seeking an unconventional production, A Real Boy has enough artistry to make it worthy of the $25 ticket price.  It is brought to 59E59 by Ms. Alford’s Ivy Theatre Company in association with Athena Theatre, which is known for it’s unorthodox psychologically-based dramas.  Performances run through August 27.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=293.

Project W

ProjectWAnyone looking to fill an evening this week with good theater that supports a great cause and an even better movement should head over to the Cherry Lane for the Project W Theatre Festival.  Running June 6-10, this series of staged readings turns the spotlight on professional theater women in creative and business roles.  Pay-what-you-wish donations will be given to Planned Parenthood of NYC, which provides reproductive healthcare and educational programs to women and their families throughout the five boroughs.

The opening night selection, The Club written by Amy Fox and directed by Suzanne Agins, was a chuckle-filled meditation on the importance of nurturing friendships over time.  Four women who were roommates in college gather to celebrate one’s long-awaited pregnancy.  Over the course of the evening, they are forced to address the cracks that have developed in their relationships.  While none of the characters resonated with me — likely due to generational differences —  the overall tone and themes rang true.

When done well, staged readings can allow an audience the thrill of filling in the visuals. The rendition of The Club was a terrific example of this performance art.  The ensemble —  Cindy Cheung, Jolie Curtsinger, Emily Donahoe, Melanie Nicholls King, Eileen Rivera and Jason Liebman as the lone compassionate male voice —  had familiarized themselves with the lines well enough to interact with sincerity and listen with intensity.  Their ease made the banter flow, which was essential for this particular offering.

Festival producer InProximity was founded in 2008 by Ms. Curtsinger and Laurie Schaefer Fenton to highlight the candid, deep work of emerging female voices. Even in the year in which luminaries Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage have finally brought their brilliant works to Broadway, gender disparity in the arts remains.  It is important to cultivate opportunities to shine a light on the talented women of professional theater.

What was missing from a production billed as part of a “festival” was any element of celebration.  No one greeted the audience, welcomed the talent to the stage or delivered a word of thanks.  Even the donation basket sat quietly unattended on a side table.  Given the presence of co-founder Curtsinger in a leading role and her organization’s commitment to the development new works — a process that can take years of workshopping and rewrites —  I had also expected some form of feedback request.   The lack of interaction was a letdown and a lost opportunity to build camaraderie around a critical issue.

The Project W lineup continues the rest of the week with

Halcyon written by Danielle Mohlman and directed by Maureen Monterubio on Wednesday, June 7

Still Life written by Barbara Blumethal-Ehrlich and directed by Shelley Butler on June 8

Honor Killing written by Sarah Bierstock and directed by Pamela Berlin on June 9

The Flora and Fauna written by Alyson Mead and directed by Stefanie Sertich on June 10.

All performances take place 8PM in the smaller house at the Cherry Lane Theater.  For more information visit http://inproximitytheatre.org.

Pressing Matters

Jennifer Jasper’s Pressing Matters is like an artist’s sketchbook. Each of the six plays has strokes of brilliance, but none is fleshed out.  Bound solely by the loose thread of “imponderables of love,”  the event comes together as a frustrating and slightly sad illustration of what could be.  There are compelling moments, but they are never sustained for long.  The overall experience is more like a script being workshopped than a professional production.  In fact, a post-performance feedback survey would not have felt out of place.

Thanksgiving in July_ Molly Carden and Jennn Harris. Photo by Russ Rowland(2)

Molly Carden and Jenn Harris; ©  Russ Rowland

Each of Ms. Jasper’s short works is fashioned around a contrivance.  In every segment, it takes several minutes to work out the central puzzle and then view the content through the correct lens.  The most  developed of the six pieces is Free Range, a humorous and thought-provoking courtroom monologue set in the near future.  Jenn Harris fully commits to the role of Judy, a woman so riddled by anxiety that she takes squirming in a chair to new levels.  2014 Samual French Festival winner etymology holds together fairly well, with equal parts sweetness and shtick. In the case of Inheritance —a glimpse into the sociopolitical views of three generations of a family — by the time I worked out the scheme it was over.  The other three — Oscar Clyde Denman, Thanksgiving in July, and Destination Unknown — kept going long after the point was made.  I enjoy intellectual play, but by the end of Act One I was exhausted from all the mental gymnastics.

In addition to Ms. Harris, the cast includes Ito Ashayere, Molly Carden, Saum Eskandani, and Genesis Oliver.  Each is given at least one meaty role.  I found myself wondering how many of the artists were personal friends with Jasper or her crew.  They are all obviously capable of giving superior performances given the opportunity.

More successful is the work behind the scenes.  In fact, it is hard to fathom how this production would succeed at all without Amy Altadonna’s sense-of-place sound design or Grant Yeager’s targeted lighting.  Parris Bradley has done an admirable job delivering appropriate set pieces on a clearly limited budget.  Bringing it all together, director Adrienne Campbell-Holt makes the best of a small stage and gives her ensemble plenty of clever business to keep the energy up during scene changes.

I’m all for supporting emerging artists and giving new voices the opportunity to be heard.  Theatre Row is to be applauded for granting the use of the hall to Ms. Jasper and her team.  But unless you are inclined to be a very small patron of the arts, this is not a $49 experience.  Instead I suggest that lovers of “quirky and fresh” check out the various discounted ticket offers available online.  You’ll get a few laughs and the joy of live theater for less than the cost of a bargain matinee movie.  And you won’t be quite as bothered by Pressing Matters’ many mood swings.  The limited run ends on May 20, 2017.  For information visit http://www.theatrerow.org/clurmannowplaying.

Stet

Photo Credits: Jocelyn Kuritsky, Lexi Lapp

Photo Credits: Jocelyn Kuritsky, Lexi Lapp

The term “stet” comes from the Latin to “let stand” and is the instruction given by an editor when an alteration made to a text should be ignored in favor of what was originally written.  It is also the title of a new play by Kim Davies based on the incidents surrounding Rolling Stone’s article about a particularly brutal campus rape.  The piece was eventually retracted over erroneous reporting methods.  What remained, though, was a heightened awareness that these crimes were all too common.  While this production should be commended for reigniting that important conversation as well as raising money for the advocacy group Take Back the Night, sadly and astonishingly it falls short of being an engaging theatrical experience.

The director, Tony Speciale, also holds a co-developer credit, so it is surprising he has given himself so many challenges with moving forward what should be a compelling story.  The characters are often separated by their cellphones and walls, deadening what should be emotional undercurrent.  Lead actress and another co-developer Jocelyn Kuritsky seems rudderless as she moves through the story.  Her poorly defined often strident reporter, Erika, is neither ambitious nor caring enough.  Far better is Bruce McKenzie, who is genuine as Phil, her encouraging but off course editor who takes on the delicate subject of a gang rape at a college fraternity.  (This echoes the content of the Rolling Stone piece from a few years ago.)  Another standout is Déa Julien as a well-intentioned recent graduate who has been tasked by the college to counsel rape victims.

Yet, what could be a deeply affecting event never moves beyond the surface.  Clearly the biggest problem is the script itself.  There is an important message to be delivered about how the media attaches a scale to the impact of one rape story over another.  There is also the way society persists in maintaining different rules for different genders.  Neither of these potential themes is properly explored.  Too many stretches are talky exchanges with none of the raw impact essential to bring us in.  The scenes drift along without a central viewpoint.  As a result, we find out little about these characters other than their connection to a violent and appalling act.  Even Ashely, who is the victim of the crime and the heart of Erika’s story, is a shell of a person.  Here the story telling is so vague, the truth remains in doubt without enough to ponder.

Stet is obviously a labor of love for the Abingdon Theater and its collaborators.  I hope they continue to develop this brave work so that it becomes all they intend it to be.  It was recently extended through July 10 and tickets are available at http://abingdontheatre.org/stet/.

The Healing

In The Healing, a circle of friends who met at a religious camp 25 years ago reunites to honor the death of one of their own.  Before you can roll your eyes, let me add that the situation is set in motion by Samuel D. Hunter, the Obie Award winning playwright behind A Bright New Boise.  In both cases, Hunter explores what happens when extreme faith meets life’s curveballs with stunning agility and clarity.

Here he adds an extra thought-provoking layer.  All of the main characters and the actors who portray them are disabled.  This is both significant and irrelevant.  Commissioned by the Theater Breaking Through Barriers, the piece provides a welcome opening for a group of gifted actors who have more limited opportunities.   The work was written specifically for this cast and that customization shows in their ease with one another.  In the lead role of Sharon, the heart of the group, Shannon DeVido — a comic, improv artist, and frequent Hunter collaborator — conveys a delicate balance of command and doubt.  (Regrettably on this occasion her perfectly timed moments of reflection sometimes lead to too quiet a delivery.)  Even stronger and more approachable is actor/speaker/filmmaker David Harrell as down to earth Donald.  Jamie Petrone and John McGinty are adorable as newly coupled Bonnie and Greg.

Their presence on stage also holds up an important mirror to an underserved audience of partially sighted and deaf as well as those with limited mobility.  The energy zooming in both directions is electrifying.  Ultimately, though, this is simply a terrific story about friendship, loyalty and getting through the day.  While The Healing isn’t quite up to Boise’s level of greatness, Hunter’s set-up is intriguing, every little touch has relevance and the dialogue simply flows forward.  As a result, the script could be well executed by any talented troupe, all be it less sincerely and powerfully.

This world-premiere production has been well-mounted at the small Clurman Theatre in Theater Row.  UK and US director Stella Powell-Jones brings her delicate touch to even the most uneasy of the play’s beats. Jason Simms’ set design wonderfully captures the watched-too-much-QVC-ness of Zoe’s living room.  And I would give Christopher Metzger a separate round of applause for Mary Theresa Archbold’s physically overwhelming outfits for her role as the nearly defeated Laura.

If you like your theater on the natural side, The Healing will strike many graceful notes.  Tickets are available through July 16 at http://www.theatrerow.org/clurmannowplaying/.

Phalaris’s Bull

I am a fan of solo performances, having experienced the wonder that was Spaulding Gray and later regularly attended the fabulous Marsh Theater in San Francisco.  The Marsh introduced me to the memorable works of Don Reed, Dan Hoyle and Josh Kornbluth among others.  All of them took me on adventures far from my own personal history.  I also have close friends who studied with The Marsh’s gifted workshop leaders, Charlie Varon and David Ford.  So I admit my taste in this arena has very much been formed by their focus on storytelling techniques to define character, time and place.

Yesterday I saw my first one-man show in New York after 30 years away. Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is written and performed by Steven Friedman.  Phalaris’s Bull was an execution device described in stories of Ancient Greece and it is also one of dozens of obscure references used by Mr. Friedman as he knits together his life story with philosophy, medicine, and poetry.   With that as background, I was expecting the piece to be dense and perhaps a little above my intellectual capacity.  But I was sorry to also find it as overly accessorized as Mr. T the day after a David Webb half-priced sale.  Swells of music, flashing lights, and dense projections cloud the story until Mr. Friedman’s words are literally turned into objects.  This is quite counter to the approach I’ve seen so successfully employed and I do not think it served the material or the performer well.

Director David Schweizer and his design team (Caleb Wertenbaker, Jimmy Lawlor, Ryan Rumery and Driscoll Otto) are certainly a cohesive artistic collective.  But what they’ve created is a flashy piece of multimedia decoration around Mr. Friedman’s tale rather than a production that enhances the work itself. We are told it’s “staged to reflect Friedman’s prismatic and eclectic vision of the world”.  Instead, it comes across as if Mr. Friedman either didn’t believe in the power of his story or didn’t have faith in the willingness of his audience to follow him on the journey.  His doubt became my doubt, and with each showy step I became less involved and more irritated.  It’s a shame because once you strip off the goo, the narrative has some profoundly sweet moments and the unique viewpoint only a gifted student and unconventional artist could tell.  While Mr. Friedman may not be the most natural and relaxed of actors, what he needed was cultivation of his on-stage persona not razzmatazz.

Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is playing at the wonderful Beckett Theater — part of Theatre Row — through January 16.  Visit http://solvingtheriddleplay.com/ for tickets and information.

The Eternal Space

New York’s original Pennsylvania Station is a poster child for lost opportunity.  The majestic Beaux Arts building was allowed to fall to ruin before being razed in the early 1960s and replaced with a modern monstrosity filled with florescent lighting and fast food joints.  Playwright Justin Rivers uses the demolition of this lost landmark to serve as a backdrop for exploring an unlikely relationship that develops between a teacher/activist and a construction worker.  The resulting production, The Eternal Space, is nothing short of glorious.

I have talked with Mr. Rivers and he is exactly the sort of person I hoped I’d meet when I became a Drama Desk member.  He has a clear vision of what he wants to express while remaining open to the creative ideas of others.  This wise and secure approach to the artistic process enabled him to assemble an astonishing team of professionals on stage and behind the scenes.  Skillful director Mindy Cooper makes the most of every one of the piece’s 85 minutes.  Jason Sherwood cleverly designed a series of architectural surfaces on which Brad Peterson projects stunning photos of the slowly dissolving station.   This allows the genuine and moving performances by Clyde Baldo and Matthew Pilieci to be set off by scenery so vibrant it becomes the third character.

While I imagine this production will particularly appeal to city dwellers who dread the thought of a big box store or luxury condo on every corner, The Eternal Space covers more universal subjects of love and loss that anyone can relate to. The story evolves more like a piece of music than a typical play.  Themes return in the dialogue but as if performed on a different instrument.  On several occasions I was taken by surprise, only to think a moment later, “well, yes, of course.”   The experience is (appropriately enough) much like a delightful slowly unfolding journey by train.

The Eternal Space is at The Lion Theater at Theater Row through December 6, 2015.  For tickets and information visit http://theeternalspaceplay.com.