Category Archives: Play

Brutal Imagination – Streaming On Demand

In late October 1994, OG “Karen” Susan L. Smith of Union, South Carolina called the police to report that an African American man had highjacked her car with her two young sons still strapped into the back seat.  Nine days later she was arrested for the boys’ murder.  Brutal Imagination is writer/poet Cornelius Eady exploration of the ease with which Smith constructed her lie.  Originally presented at the Vineyard Theatre at the end of 2001, it was nominated for the Lucille Lortel for the engulfing sound design and Eady was awarded an Oppenheimer for the script.  The piece has now been reimagined as a fundraiser for this supportive Off-Broadway incubator of dauntless voices.  Viewed through the shattering prism of recent events, the continued criminalization of Black men’s everyday actions, and the persistence of the rageful boogieman mythology, the work is as powerful as ever.

Though it is billed as a staged reading, this recreation by Joe Morton is more of a full-fledged film, complete with powerful special effects and a blood pumping score.  Fresh off her well-received role of Jane Apple in the Zoom-perfect Apple Family Plays, Sally Murphy revives her performance as the increasingly antsy Smith.  More tortured by her deception than the death of her children, Murphy is often shown caught in a frame constructed by turns from her bookshelves, her rearview mirror, and her television antenna.  But this is Morton’s show wherein he embodies Smith’s self-aware creation Mr. Zero.  At times he chuckles at his own inconsistencies, her shocking stereotyping, and above all the improbability of his very existence.  At others, his anger and those of thousands of others is channeled into brilliant condemnation of a society so deeply seeped in racism that Smith’s flimsy fabrication persisted for days.

Sally Murphy and Joe Morton in Brutal Imagination

Obie Award-winning video designer Jared Mezzocchi has brought Morton’s bold images to life, vividly blending them the way they would be entangled in someone’s mind.  This technique gives the piece tremendous movement even on a small screen.  Several racist touchstones are incorporated including the brilliant Buckwheat’s Lament.  The one flaw in the presentation stems from the sound mixing in which the score often obscures Murphy’s dialogue.  Closed captioning is unfortunately not available. 

Throughout the viewing of Brutal Imagination, it is hard not to feel weight of how little we have moved as a culture since the time of Smith’s saga.  Yet the poetry of the language and the wisdom of Mr. Zero’s observations shine through the darkness.  “We hope this play will be part of discussions about how we imagine or try to imagine what a future, a multicultural future, looks like,” says Cornelius Eady. “That to me is the heart of the struggle. This is part of the push that is going on. And the arts are part of this push… you have to imagine it before you can walk into it.”  This engaging play is available to stream On Demand through 11:59PM on June 7.  Runtime is 90 minutes and playback can be paused.  Tickets begin at $27.50 and are available on https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/brutal-imagination-2/.  Proceeds support the artists and programs in The Vineyard’s 2020-2021 Season.

Jericho – Streaming on Demand

One in three American families has lost someone to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The grief of individuals has become hard to process in the face of daily headlines and our collective mourning as a nation.  The decision to launch New Normal Rep with the company Artistic Director Jack Canfora’s own Jericho superbly meets this searing moment in our history.  This drama interlaced with comedic exchanges features two families whose lives have been impacted by the events of 9/11, another tragedy with deep historic significance.  It is an entertaining vehicle that provides an opportunity to explore the search for identify and the need to feel connected to something (or someone) meaningful.  

At the opening we meet Beth (Eleanor Handley) whose husband Alec died in the towers.  It is clear that her therapy and drug regimen aren’t having the desired affect.  To Beth and us, her 67 year old Korean female therapist looks exactly like her 40-something Black husband.  (CK Allen’s simultaneous portrayal of two such disparate people is a delightful highlight of this online event).  After nearly four years, Beth is finally dating somewhat seriously.  Her boyfriend Ethan (Michael Satow) is incredibly understanding of her slow progress towards intimacy.  His brother Josh (Jason O’Connell) escaped from tower two and has had what the family views as a “crazy” response to his brush with death. While the Hartmans have always been secular Jews who didn’t think twice about serving lobster at a wedding, Josh has become so devote he can only envision living out his life in Israel.  His religious fixation is particularly hard on his wife Jess (a fully present and wonderfully layered Carol Todd) who has seen her own future severely altered with his change of priorities.  The threads of all of their stories will be pulled tightly together over a typically taut Thanksgiving dinner in the home of Hartman matriarch Rachel (Jill Eikenberry).

Eleanor Handley & CK Allen in JERICHO, © New Normal Rep

In her direction of this the Zoom-based production, Marsha Mason has mixed elements of stage and screen technique.  Occasional tight close-ups and establishing exterior shots are mixed with the now familiar talking heads in individual boxes.  The shifts of style make what should be a first-rate theater experience feel studied and distanced.  The clean set is designed to make the backgrounds appear contiguous when characters are in the same room.  But though they rehearsed together in quarantine, the actors come across as six skilled monologuist rather than a cohesive ensemble. 

Written in another decade, Jericho still provides delicious food for thought.  As we work through this challenging time, each of us must decide what provides us with meaning and is therefore fundamental to who we are.  The play is streaming from NewNormalRep.org. through Sunday, April 4.  Tickets can be purchased on the site and cost $25; $10 tickets are available for students and theater professionals. The On-Demand show includes options for HD and closed captioning.  Running time is a little over two hours plus a ten minute intermission.  The intention of NNR is to continue to build a streaming company that meets this moment of transformation in live theater.  Four-play subscriptions are available for $100, and include free access to special programming including live play-readings, special Q&A discussions and virtual happy hours. 

[hieroglyph] – Streaming On Demand

Recent powerful productions including the film Promising Young Woman, the limited series Unbelievable, and the play What the Constitution Means to Me have strived to open conversations about our country’s seeming inability to effectively address violence against women.  All too often the aftermath of these crimes is focused on how to change the behavior of women (who should perhaps dress and act differently!) rather than the male perpetrators.  [hieroglyph] — a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre currently streaming from the SF Playhouse website — explores our near-dismissal of rape culture specifically as it manifests in the Black community.  Inspired by true events that took place in the projects near her Chicago home as well as headlines made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza has crafted a work centered on 13 year old Davis.  Along with her father, the girl was evacuated by FEMA from New Orleans to Chicago while her mother has stayed behind. 

Her old life ripped away from her, Davis is struggling with her studies and seems unusually anxious. Concerned that she’s endangering her chances of securing a good college education, her father Ernest enlists the help of her favorite teacher Miss T.  Art is the only subject in which Davis is excelling and he hopes Miss T can encourage the talented teen to put that energy into academics.  Instead, Miss T shares her concerns that through her art, Davis is attempting to communicate a trauma for which she literally has no words.  (The play’s title is enclosed in square brackets, used to indicate that an outside voice is imparting information left unclear by the speaker. ) The pictures of women and street scenes of her old home are peppered with symbols.  When their secret is revealed, it is simple and yet devastating. 

Jamella Cross and Khary Moye in [hieroglyph]; photo by Jessica Palopoli

The Equity production was fully staged at the San Francisco Playhouse and filmed using three cameras with Zoom in mind and under the guidance of two COVID compliance officers.  Assuredly directed by Hansberry Artistic Director Margo Hall with choreography by Latanya D. Tigner, the drama is paced with rising urgency.  Hall’s steering of the quick changes of mood is cleverly color coded by costume designer Regina Y. Evans, who wraps Miss T in a radiant palate while signaling Leah’s comfort with her own body with soothing tones and relaxed fit.  Dickerson-Despenza’s dramatic device of muttering in one’s sleep as a way of filling in backstory isn’t nearly as impactful as the use of projections (created by Teddy Hulsker) to share Davis’s impassioned pictures.  Headphones are highly recommended in order to better feel the anguish evident in Everett Elton Bradman’s searing soundscape.

Jamella Cross provides the vulnerable Davis Hayes with the shaky defenses of a typical teen.  In a moment of particular tenderness, she clutches a teddy bear while trying to hide the alcohol on her breath from her concerned father.  Her delicacy is nicely balanced by the bubbly confident energy of Anna Marie Sharpe’s buoyant Leah.  The pivotal role of Miss T is beautifully rendered by Safiya Fredericks, who has to navigate the tightest emotional turns of the four.  While Khary L. Moye as Ernest Hayes is left holding the space for men who must confront the fallout from their own toxic masculinity.  The skillful performances bring authenticity and connection to a script that occasionally overruns its banks.  There are four vivid descriptions of rape, similar only in their level of disturbance.  The tidal wave of horrors risks drowning the audience in pain and potentially depresses their ability to fully respond.  (The playbill provides contact information for appropriate agencies for those who need to talk.)

It is heartening to see two fabulous production companies collaborating to provide a homebound audience with thought-provoking content.  And despite its relentless gut punches,  [hieroglyph] fulfills the mission of continuing to build community one play at a time. It runs 98 minutes without an intermission and is streaming On Demand at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/hieroglyph/ through April 3.  Tickets ($15 – $100) can be purchased from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org. 

The Jewelry Box (Streaming)

Though The Jewelry Box is the story of one particular little Black boy buying a Christmas present for his mother, by distributing this production online the San Francisco Playhouse has given us all a gift.  Holiday season brings up a range of emotions; never more so than in the middle of a pandemic when we are likely isolated from the people with whom we’d most like to celebrate.  This warm, human, and utterly heart-melting play is performed and co-written by Brian Copeland, who’s Not A Genuine Black Man still echos in my mind despite the dozens of solo shows I’ve seen since.  Though there are storytellers who depict their assortment of characters with more physical distinction, Copeland has a singular flair with language and the ability to paint vivid and lasting images with his words.  Moreover, he has a fantastic sense of humor and periodically draws on his stand-up experience to share a little secret with the audience as his adult self.  

The Jewelry Box covers an early chapter in Copeland’s life, but it stands complete on its own.  We’re in 1970s Oakland where a six year old Brian has spotted a wooden jewelry box he knows will make his Mom smile.  His family had been forced to move four times in a short period and personal possessions had been left behind at each stop.  He sets out to raise the $11.97 he needs to purchase the box, showing himself to be a tiny but mighty entrepreneurial spirit.  We get to meet many of his neighbors — some more understanding than others — sketched out in detail with the colors filled in by mixing Copeland’s artistry with our own imagination.

David Ford directed the original production for The Marsh Theater.  The intimacy of this project makes it well suited for the streaming environment where San Francisco Playhouse’s Artist Director Bill English did the editing.  For this rendition, English balances mimicking the theater experience with more intense close ups. No set is necessary as Copeland builds his own landscape with some sound effects and lights fully focusing the picture.  The choice of a slightly baggy primary colored striped shirt makes it easy for Copeland to embody his much younger self.

No reflection on all those theaters who will once again stage A Christmas Carol or A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but the San Francisco Playhouse deserves praise for finding such an appropriate fresh offering for this unique holiday season.  Class and race play important supporting roles in The Jewelry Box, evergreen themes that have taken on renewed significance.  Two COVID compliance officers kept Copland and the production team safe and a brand new Equity agreement made it possible for this to be seen online for a limited time.   The final screenshot is a long “Heroes List”: a visual reminder that now more than ever we need to pull together and keep the performing arts healthy as well.  The only element I dearly missed was the laughter of my fellow audience members.  But I know for certain it was there.

The on-demand video stream of The Jewelry Box is available through Christmas day.  Single tickets are $15-$100. Call 415-677-9596, or visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-jewelry-box/.    Subscriptions in support of the San Francisco Playhouse season may also be purchased.

Pass Over on Amazon Prime

Spike Lee’s movie rendition of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over debuted on Amazon Prime in April of 2018 without much fanfare.  It recently received a promotional bump by the service as part of their highlighted material related to Black Lives Matter.  The film couldn’t be more timely for those seeking a theatrical experience from the safety of their couch.

Produced at the Steppenwolf Theater, the 75 minute one-act is bookended with Lee’s footage of a primarily Black audience bussed in from the south side and west side of Chicago. The work is given more humanity by including throughout the faces of those whose lives all too often mirror the Pass Over themes as they witness the performance.  

The play was famously inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin.  Ms. Nwandu was teaching in Tribeca at the time of Trayvon’s murder and regularly coming into contact with young men who were being stopped by NYPD just for “breathing black.”  She wanted to explore whether we are capable of change as a nation, a conversation that has only gotten louder, broader, and more persistent in recent months. 

The tragedy portrays the deep friendship between two young Black men who have been cut off from everyone.  Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the classic from which Nwandu’s script takes its form, Moses and Kitch are stuck in a wilderness one-block long, starting each night by creating a top ten wish list.  Their desires are comprised primarily of simple things like clean tube socks with the occasional inclusion of something like a yellow sports car making them briefly smile. 

Julian Parker, left, and Jon Michael Hill in “Pass Over,” directed by Spike Lee_Credit_Chayse Irvin:Amazon Studios

Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill; Photo by Chayse Irvin/Amazon Studios

Lee takes full advantage of Danya Taymor’s strong stage direction, allowing us to see the characters’ cycles of ease and dis-ease she’s created with his wide shots punctuated by extreme close up.  Music by Howard Drossin emphasizes the stirring, melancholy mood.  The quality of the acting is sublime, with Jon Michael Hill  — who also appeared in the Lincoln Center production in the summer of 2018 — taking control of the stage as the outwardly assured Moses.  Julian Parker gives Kitch a refined and touching delicacy.  Balancing mannered charm and menace is Ryan Hallahan’s Master, with Blake DeLong rounding out the cast as an obvious and overblown police officer.  

Pass Over is not so much a conversation starter as a personal meditation that challenges us to dig deep and ask ourselves how we are each contributing to the patterns of racism.  For anyone who missed the original, this film offers an opportunity to see a well reviewed play performed by a first rate cast and filtered through the sensibility of a filmmaker of color at the top of his craft.  For those who saw the stage production, Lee’s revision displays the work through the sharpened lens of the BIPOC movement.  Pass Over contains strong language and adult themes.  It is available to Amazon Prime subscribers. 

Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe

For the 2020 production of Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe, the greenery of The LeFrak Center in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has been replaced by green screen.  But the production still provides a breath of fresh air with its engaging performances and a timeless story of a faker whose plots are foiled by love and loyalty.  

Though there are obvious ties to today’s political and social currents (including a visual nod to a recent incident when someone used a bible as little more than a prop), for the most part this is a traditional rendition of the Comédie-Française staple.  Orgon, an aging landed gentleman, has fallen under the spell of Tartuffe, a wily vagrant who uses false piety to cover his lust and greed.  Though most of his friends and family try to warn Orgon about Tartuffe’s deceit, he will hear nothing against his new friend.  So taken is Orgon that he signs over his property to the conman and attempts to force his daughter to break up with the man she loves in order to cement the relationship in marriage.  

lf translation of artistic work is tricky, then translation of verse composed by one of the greatest playwrights of all time is a veritable Cirque du Soleil act.  Fortunately MIP used a script created by Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur, who completely captures the gleaming wit and social insight of the original.  The production is directed with heart by MIP founder, champion of free theater, and Brooklyn resident Lucie Tiberghien. 

Known for its inclusive casting, MIP has chosen Samira Wiley (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”) to take on Orgon.  To call this gender-bending is to wrongly emphasize the significance of Wiley’s sex rather than the elegant quality she brings to the part.  Providing a powerhouse performance that explodes beyond her small Zoom box is Toccarra Cash as Orgon’s charming, knowing wife, Elmire.  Between them stands Raúl E. Esparza in the title role.  He delights in playing every false note of Tartuffe’s guff with the twinkle of a Tony nominated star.  The supporting cast includes Kaliswa Brewster (Orgon’s vulnerable daughter, Marianne), Naomi Lorrain (Marianne’s protective brother Damis), Jared McNeill (bringing noble distinction to Cléante, Elmire’s brother), Lucille Lortel Award nominee Jennifer Mudge (clever housekeeper, Dorine), soap star Rosemary Prinz (Orgon’s deluded mother Mme Pernelle ) and Carter Redwood (Marianne’s devoted finance, Valère).

clockwise from top-Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill

Clockwise from top: Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill in Tartuffe

While it must have been frustrating for the artistic team (Kris Stone – Production Design, Andrew Carluccio – Video Programmer & Technology Consultant) to be confined to online resources, their choice to use green screen for the backdrop is an unfortunate one.  The effect is highly distracting, reminiscent of video games from the early 1990s, with parts of props and faces frequently dropping out.  Animated between-act bumpers by Emily Rawson and Jonathan Kokotajlo are somewhat incongruous, but charming.

This highly satisfying production of Molière Tartuffe is co-presented with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and LeFrak Center at Lakeside.  While this may not be the intimate night under the sky originally envisioned, moving online has provided a wonderful theatrical experience to a broader audience.  Replays with French captions have been extended until Sunday, July 12 on MIP’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/moliereinthepark).  The runtime is 90 minutes excluding introductions by the director, the producer and a Molière befitting the times.

Suicide Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Border People

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

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

Hoyle Border People_ by Carol Rosegg

Dan Hoyle in Border People, Photo by Carol Rosegg

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

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

The Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven

No one creates moments that are simultaneously unsettling and humorous quite like Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is his first play since being awarded the Pulitzer in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy.  This new work is a snapshot of the struggling residents of a New York City halfway house, surrounded by an unwelcoming neighborhood and staffed by those whose lifestyles aren’t much healthier.  It’s a sprawling script with over a dozen main characters to track.  Many of the transactional relationships include elements of genuine affection and the ride is a profound one.  Ultimately, though, it is not so much a tapestry as a sewing kit with each thread slightly touching the one beside it.  

As the play opens, a group session is in progress.  This initial conversation hits many predictable beats — drug use, sexual exploitation, and abuse — but also provides a quick introduction to the characters with whom we’ll spend the next three hours.  We learn Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas) has gotten caught up in an Amway-style pyramid scheme while Munchies (Pernell Walker) is preoccupied with Nigerian caregiver Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard). There are glimpses of Wanda Wheels’ (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) elegance, the stranglehold that mentally ill mother Sonia (Wilemina Olivia Garcia) has over her bright daughter Tiana (Viviana Valeria), and the familiar relationship pattern fragile Bella (Andrea Syglowski) is recreating with lesbian in command Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas).  Always quick to say, “no,no,no” is Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan).  Taking center stage at the top is the clever rapper Little Melba Diaz (Kara Young).  In the corner is morbidly obese Betty (Kristina Poe) whose surprise connection and subsequent blossoming is a highlight.  And on the edge (and on edge) is the transgendered Venus Ramirez (a glorious Esteban Andres Cruz) a ferocious voice for those who insist on their rightful place.  That list doesn’t include the rest of the staff compassionately portrayed by Victor Almazar, David Anzuelo, Sean Carajal, Molly Collier and Elizabeth Rodriguez.  

Elizabeth Canavan ( Rockaway Rosie ), Liza Colón - Zayas ( Sarge ), Kara Young ( Lil Melba Diaz ) and Pernell Walker ( Munchies ) . Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

Elizabeth Canavan ( Rockaway Rosie ), Liza Colón – Zayas ( Sarge ), Kara Young ( Lil Melba Diaz ) and Pernell Walker ( Munchies ). Photo Credit/ Monique Carboni.

As with other Guirgis plays, a subtle but clear picture of the outside world is also drawn.  The city’s system is failing and the shortages of both supplies and care are making these lives unnecessarily challenging.  A flock of goats tending the grass in a park uptown receives more devotion and support than any of the humans who are simply looking for a chance.

To hold all these tales, a skeleton of the tenement house dominates the set.  The sparsely decorated central room of Narelle Sissons’ design also represents the office of the dedicated and overworked manager and occasionally the bedroom of an occupant.  The area between the first row and the stage serves as the surrounding alleyways. Director John Ortiz places much of the action on the house front steps audience left and a bench audience right making the viewing experience a bit like a tennis match.  Additional focus is achieved with lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger while the mood rises and falls with sound and compositions by Elisheba Ittoop.

Haunting and moving, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is like taking in a gallery filled with the faces of those whom New Yorkers breeze past every day.  Though their full stories are not on the display, the images will sear into you.  Note that the material is strictly adult, containing nudity and simulated sex and drug use.  The limited engagement co-produced by LAByrinth Theater Company has already been extended through Sunday, January 5.  Regular tickets begin at $70 and are available online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).