Category Archives: Play

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.  

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The Glass Menagerie

With its simple narrative, The Glass Menagerie has always lent itself to reinterpretation.  For those unfamiliar with the Tennessee William’s classic, the play centers on the Wingfield family.  Many years before the opening scene, Mr. Winfield abandoned his wife Amanda and their two children Laura and Tom, now in their 20s.  A former Southern belle who proclaims to have had a fleet of suiters, the socially skillful Amanda is overly focused on her children and the molding of their lives.  Having suffered childhood illness, Laura is so painfully shy she has no friends or career prospects.  Her one joy is her collection of glass animals.  Tom has had to set aside his dream of being a writer and works at a shoe warehouse in order to pay rent on their shabby St. Louis apartment.  Amanda is determined to find a suitable husband for Laura in order to provide for their future and perhaps free Tom for a better life.

Told from Tom’s viewpoint and relayed as his recollection of events, The Glass Menagerie is referred to as a memory play.  Tom himself cautions the audience that what they see may not be precisely what happened. Plot points are therefore more representational than factual. The much anticipated visit from the Gentlemen Caller who may sweep Laura away can stand in for any elusive wish.  Laura’s much discussed disability is represented as a psychological wound as often as it is depicted with a physical leg brace.  

In the current iteration staged by Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch, the recurring theme of illusion takes center stage.  It is emphasized in Tom’s love of movies, Amanda’s revisionist past, and Laura’s hazy self-image.  The piece opens with Tom performing slight of hand.  Many props remain illusionary, with the entire cast miming everyday actions such as drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette in an intentionally unrealistic manner.  The essential Gentleman Caller’s visit seemingly haunts the lives of the family, hanging over the room as fully as the father’s portrait which stares down from the back wall.  

Glass Menagerie

Alexandra Rose and Ginger Grace in Glass Menagerie at The Wild Project

While it is an intriguing approach, the production’s gauziness makes it difficult to latch on to the characters.  The relationships feel flattened by their hallucinatory essence.  As is described in the script, Gentleman Caller Jim is the most three dimensional, brought to appealing life by Spencer Scott.  But the other performers are left nearly bloodless.  Pendleton/Bloch collaborator Matt de Rogatis’s Tom shows brief flashes of frustration.  When he is downstage speaking directly to us, Amanda and Laura are often upstage as if in his thought bubble. But he too is sometimes crammed upstage and many of his character-defining moments are therefore obscured. Frequently placed behind a scrim literally separated from everyone and cloaked in shadows, this Laura (a single-noted Alexandra Rose) floats like a phantom through her scenes.  Most significantly Amanda (a fiery Ginger Grace ) is strongest when she is alone on stage, leveraging what’s left of her Southern charm to sell magazine subscriptions.

The deliberate ghostlike features work far better as an integral part of the production design.  Steven Wolf’s lights are initially neatly focused on Laura’s collection of glass animals, slowly broadening to reveal the tattered set. Gothic furniture designed by Jessie Bonaventure is missing limbs and top off with glass elements lending them an air of incompleteness. The father who abandoned his wife and children eerily looms over their plight in a large photographic projection.  Sean Hagerty original haunting music from unseen dance halls along with discomforting sounds effects orchestrated by Allison Hohman emphasize the nature of memory and complete the spectral landscape.

A curiosity best suited to fans of the play, The Glass Menagerie is running at The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street, between Avenues A & B) though October 20.  Runtime is 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission. Tickets are $35 and are available through Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or by visiting  www.theglassmenagerieplay.com.

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.

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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.

TornKid at Lady Fest

As the name would suggest, Lady Fest theater festival in New York shines a light on womanhood in all its wondrous forms.  In the supportive atmosphere of The Tank, female and female identifying artists are provided the opportunity to be heard by youthful spirits of all ages.  Currently on stage in the smaller of the two houses is Tornkid, a multimedia fable for the times, presented in partnership with Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective (BAPAC).  Written by Katelynn Kenney, the script vividly illustrates the emotions underlying the immigrant experience, using Southeast Asian and Pacific Indigenous creation stories as a springboard to explore the quest for belonging.

Struggling to fit in with both traditional Asian family life and the typical school experience of American children, Tornkid literally tears themselves in two.  Sadly, their other half runs off with the voice, pointing out that Tornkid hasn’t really made use of it.  Refusing to be doomed to a life of silence, Tornkid journeys through mystical lands, determined to be reunited with the parts of themselves that have been lost.

Use of the inclusive pronoun “they” to describe Tornkid is significant since exploring identity is essential to both the story and the storytelling technique.  Tornkid is pulled apart by two distinct ways of being as well as an environment that constantly shifts between comforting and strange.  The actors, too, morph identities as they move from role to role, often employing intriguing masks created by Tara Cariaso and Aaron Elson of Waxing Moon Masks.

The experience is similar to the ones frequently offered at The New Victory on a Saturday afternoon.  Typical of myths, the story is very episodic, though the through-line is strong.  A dragon-headed magical guide addresses the audience directly, explaining that we are the ancestors.  She elicits our help at critical junctures, encouraging us to participate by adding claps, slaps and clicks and other sound effects.  Metaphors are creatively made concrete by most of the characters.  Each interaction makes Tornkid stronger and brings the goal into clearer focus.

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Tree Spirit in a previous workshop of TornKid

Surasree Das lends tremendous warmth and stirs compassion as she pantomimes her way through Tornkid’s unusual journey.  Her most powerful encounters are with a Tree Spirit and a Sea Warrior, two fantastic puppets created by Jess Rassp and given voice by Elizabeth Ung who also provides unique hand-decorated costumes.  The narration supplied by the Magic Teller is sometimes stilted, but actress Kim Le sweetly and enthusiastically engages with the audience.  Marela Kay Minosa and Mika Nakano round out the cast, playing a half dozen roles between them.

Co-directors Cara Hinh and Donna Ibale don’t yet have the knack for arranging movement appropriately in 3/4 round, staging too much of the action for the center section.  But this is a minor distraction with so much creativity clearly in evidence.  The puppet movements are nicely choreographed and literally extend the actors performances. There are also wonderful props by Pauline Lamb which draw on childlike images.  Sounds not provided by the audience are designed by C. Swan-Streepy with the mystical atmosphere capped off by Miranda Poett’s lighting.

BAPAC’s inaugural production, this second iteration of Tornkid delivers an upbeat message in an inventive way.  This worthy work is being hosted at The Tank (312 W 36th Street) a nonprofit that strives to remove economic barriers for emerging artists.  Remaining performances of this workshop production are Saturday, August 10 at 3 PM and 7 PM and Sunday, August 11 at 3 PM. Lady Fest runs through Wednesday, August 28.  Tickets range from $0 – $25.  For a complete performance calendar and to purchase tickets in advance visit www.thetanknyc.org/ladyfest.

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson

On a soundstage, a talented production team is preparing to shoot an AT&T commercial featuring beloved Luke Wilson.  The creative concept is to drop red gumballs around the star to symbolize all of Verizon’s dropped calls.  Despite a lack of time to test the hastily put-together rig, prop lead Rob is able to toss the small projectiles just shy of Luke’s shoulder and the first few takes go smoothly.  Then a case of nerves sets in and a few of the hard objects hit Luke squarely on the head.  The actor sees stars; the director —award-winning documentarian Errol Morris — sees excitement and orders the crew to deliberately aim for the performer on the next take.  

This is the set-up of the aptly named Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, which is based on true events.  Though the Directors Guild of America takes set safety very seriously, sadly there are occasional incidents of a director demanding a dangerous shot, as happened in this case.  Rob Ackerman accurately has commercial Assistant Director, Alice, threaten to report Morris to the Guild.  The script also provides enough background to realistically make her vulnerable to manipulation.  It’s a creative stand-in for any project on which a concerned would-be whistleblower has instead been made complicit through intimidation.  If only the playwright had trusted his audience to get his very clear and impactful message.  Instead, after a lively and thought-provoking 55 minutes, he burdens the additional 20 with outright lectures on broader issues and political topics ranging from gender discrimination to Nazis.  It’s an unnecessary departure from the previous territory that mars an otherwise engaging production.

First time director, famed playwright Theresa Rebeck, does an imaginative job of bringing us deep inside the physical set of the commercial and the mind set of each participant.  The results are visually stimulating and often laugh-out-loud funny.  The assorted screens that are employed by Morris for playback at the shoot are also used to show us the crew’s previous experiences that have brought them to this critical moment.  (Yana Birkukova provides the ideal video design.)  The nearly all-white set designed by Christopher and Justin Swader shows off these projections to great effect.  Emphasis is achieved by Mary Ellen Stebbin’s well-placed lighting, which often shifts to a befitting green-screen green.  The look is completed by the essential craft service table.  Costumes designed by Tricia Barsamian will make any production pro feel right at home.  All-important clever props are provided by Addison Heeren. 

the cast of DROPPING GUMBALLS

The Cast of Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson; Photo by Carol Rosegg

As a former prop person, Rob Ackerman makes the prop man, also named Rob, his spokesperson.  George Hampe does a fabulous job of growing increasingly manic as character Rob struggles to remain the voice of reason and the closest thing we get to a hero.  With a get-on-with-it gruffness, Dean Nolen is well cast as his boss and seasoned rigger, Ken.  Reyna De Courcy is less successful at maintaining an appropriate emotional build in the role of their assistant, Jenny, becoming akin to a cartoon character with jerky motions and high-pitched yelps of displeasure.  With enough charm and swagger, Jonathan Sale could easily be Luke Wilson’s deliberately pudgy body double.  It’s less easy to know how well David Wohl impersonates Errol Morris.  The part is written in one obnoxious note, though the theater vet certainly manifests a typical ego-driven artist.  In the toughest role, Ann Harada swings rightly between assuredness and fear as Alice, but she struggles to differentiate the other small parts she takes on in memory and flashback.

Ackerman’s love of television production and those who strive to keep it creative and truthful shines through despite a dip in the ending.  It is easy to see why both Luke Wilson and Errol Morris have given the project their blessing.  With a little reworking of the last section, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson has the makings of insightful modern satire.  Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission.  It plays through July 6, 2019, in the Mezzanine Theater at at A.R.T./ New York Theatre (502 W. 53rd Street). Tickets are $25 for union card holders, $30 general admission and $40 for reserved seating.  For purchasing and additional information, visit TheWorkingTheater.org or call the Box Office (Ovationtix) at 866.811.4111.