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.

The Play That Goes Wrong

If celebrated farce Noises Off struck you as too controlled, then The Play that Goes Wrong will knock your socks off, most likely while doing a pratfall.  A more apt title would be The Play That Starts Wrong and Goes Even More Wrong from There.  The entire two hours is loopy silliness, which is either cathartic or annoying depending on your taste.

Even before the curtain rises, we are immersed in the whacky world of The Cornley University Drama Society, a ragtag company of well-meaning amateurs.  Outside the Lyceum, posters of celebrities boast that they haven’t attended or did so to their great regret.  Inside, the cast wanders throughout the theater making small talk, many encouraging audience members to leave and go elsewhere in order to attend a better show.  This practice sets expectations for the messiness that is to come.

As gracelessly explained at the opening by director/designer/customer/prop maker/ box office manager/ etc, etc, Chris Bean, The Murder at Haversham Manor — the play within the play —  was chosen primarily for the number of parts it provides for his tiny organization.  So it is no surprise that the drama they present is a painfully bad jumble of stock characters, tired plot, and melodramatic lines, all the better to fall apart at the hands of the hapless players.  Whether they are reading keywords from their palms or substituting a flower vase for a misplaced notebook, the entire team is well versed in physical comedy.  It also helps set the tone that they come across as likable and well-intentioned.  This is unsurprising since the actors have worked together on multiple “…Goes Wrong” productions from Mischief Theater.

As the multipurpose Mr. Bean, Henry Shields sets the giddy pace.  While he doesn’t wear as many hats as his fictional counterpart, Shields did also write the play with his co-stars Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, for which they won the 2015 Olivier Award.  He is wonderfully supported by Dave Hearn as the self-conscious Max who somehow landed two parts.  Broad broads Charlie Russell  as Sandra and Nancy Zamit as Annie battle it out to play the female lead role of Florence Colleymoore in full view of their horrified fellow actors.  In the smaller but crucial role of Trevor the Duran Duran-loving sound engineer, Rob Falconer never loses his focus except of course when he’s suppose to.  It is amusing to note that he also provided the original music.

The Play That Goes WrongAn equally important character is the set by Nigel Hook.  Every piece has impeccable timing.  Not since Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce have I seen furniture collapse so slowly and perfectly.  (I will not give away any of its more clever secrets.)  The purposeful fiasco is deftly staged by director Mark Bell.  His training at Ecole Internationale de Theatre and experience teaching at LAMDA likely influence the more overt style of this buffoonery.

If you enjoy seeing one joke played to the millionth degree by an experienced good-natured troupe, pop on over to the Lyceum Theater for The Play that Goes Wrong.  Tickets are available http://www.broadwaygoeswrong.com through the end of the year.

A Doll’s House Part 2

DollsHouse2MetcalfNora Helmer’s exit from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was the door slam heard around the world.  Since 1879, scholars, sociologists, and others have speculated about her fate.  Now playwright Lucas Hnath attempts to reveal what came next in A Doll’s House, Part 2, using modern language and the commanding Laurie Metcalf to deliver a post-feminist message about marriage, freedom and self-knowledge.

While it is certainly a bold move to take on an iconic illustration of the role of women in a male-dominated society, Mr. Hnath’s vision isn’t quite worth the wait.  To his credit, he recreates some of Ibsen’s original patterns, giving middle-aged Nora a number of unpleasant options from which to choose her next steps.  He also does not shy away from examining the questions of criminality and betrayal raised in the original classic.  Having set up his typically provocative framework, however, Hnath wraps it up in a mixture of flippant retorts, tedious arguing, and lectures that are only mildly engaging.  The laughs are largely of the cheap variety, stemming from mugging and the dropping of “shocking” f-bombs.  The plot becomes so buried under bluster that my companion — a wise and wonderful theater vet — missed the final point completely.  This made me wonder what experienced producer Scott Rudin saw on the page that made him invest in this production based solely on the script.  Perhaps the rush to Broadway was a misstep.  On the plus side, being intimately familiar with “Part 1,” while certainly adding to one’s understanding, is not essential.

Hnath is helped along his misguided route by the usually excellent Sam Gold.  Gold has chosen to stage many of the longer speeches as if they are TED talks, with the actors facing the audience instead of their scene partner.  This results in significant revelations being delivered butt first, which is as disengaging as it is contrived.  Whatever flow remains is halted by the intrusion of green neon signs projected on the walls announcing the central character for the next beat. How strong is the exchange of wits in dialogue if you need to be told which viewpoint to follow?  Set off by Miriam Buether’s clean scenic design, David Zinn’s costumes and Luc Vershueren’s hair and makeup are divine.  Nora conveys almost as much with her outfit as she does in her opening lines.

Despite what appears to be disappointing early ticket sales (there were tumbleweeds blowing through the mezzanine at the preview I attended), Ms. Metcalf is still being discussed as a possible Tony nominee.  She is indeed an excellent Nora-by-way-of-Hnath, with splendid delivery and body language that combines triumph and frustration.  Recent Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell takes on the lighter role of nanny/housekeeper Anne Marie in classic comedic style.  Chris Cooper, returning to Broadway after a 40 year absence, gives us a rather dry and somewhat disappointing Torvald.  (Although one could argue that’s exactly the Torvald we should expect.)  Rounding out the cast is Condola Rashad as the talking-slightly-too-fast Emmy, Nora’s daughter.

With its stark set, talky script and short runtime, this production is a modest one by Broadway standards.  It may be difficult to command the $147 asking price for premium seating.  But if you can grab a discounted seat and wade through the tidal wave of words, it is worth seeing the brilliant Metcalf  poke gently through a modern lens at a once scandalous character.  Tickets for the limited engagement ending July 23, 2017 are available at http://dollshousepart2.com.

White Guy on the Bus

WhiteGuyontheBus

Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media

It’s been disquieting to hear a certain level of weariness creeping into the general dialogue about racism.  Headlines covering people of color unfairly detained or even killed may be a near-daily occurrence, but that doesn’t make any individual event less worthy of attention or thoughtful discussion.  White Guy on the Bus provides a gripping reminder that behind each incident is a person with hope for the ones they love and a potential for fear of those who are different.  Though Bruce Graham wrote the script over two years ago, it is shockingly appropriate for a time of deepening gulfs between people of varying races, socio-economic backgrounds, and opportunities.

The time-shifting plot is beautifully constructed.  Each twist that pulls us deeper into the story also jolts us into confronting our own racists thoughts.  How many of us make quick judgements about where to sit or walk based on what we feel about a certain neighborhood?  Yet how can we deny that while such reputation is based on generalizations and stereotypes, those in turn are based on facts and figures?  What happens when we push common ground to the side and focus on differences?  It’s hard not to become as unnerved as the characters we are watching, especially if you are white as most of the audience at 59E59 is.  It is worth noting that the director is another white man.  On the audience hand-out, Bud Martin confesses to being drawn to the play primarily because the story made him uncomfortable.

Two magnetic central performances rivet our attention for the two hour run.  Tony nominated for Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Cuccioli once again displays both calm professionalism as well as a more controlling dark side.  His non-white seat-mate Shatique is played with strength and grace by Danielle Lenee´, previously nominated for a Barrymore Award for this role.  Their supporting cast is a perky Jonathan Silver as devoted like-a-son Christopher, a steady Susan McKey as Ray’s feisty wife Roz and a far weaker Jessica Bedford as Christopher’s righteous wife Molly.

The simple yet clever set is designed by Paul Tat DePoo III and enhanced by Nicholas Hussong’s projections.  Together they move us from Ray’s stunning suburban home, to the critical public bus and to points beyond.  Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes fit the characters in all meanings of that word and help sell important details of the story.

As a five character one-set piece, White Guy on the Bus is attractive to small theater companies with tight budgets.  It has already played Wilmington, Trenton, Denver and Chicago and I imagine it will hit other cities with mixed populations.  That it should also spark discussion wherever it lands is exciting.  You can grab your chance to participate in the conversation by catching it at 59E59 through April 16.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=252.

Come From Away

[4]_Jenn Colella and the cast of COME FROM AWAYWhen the air space above New York closed on 9/11, nearly 7000 passengers were diverted to Newfoundland off the coast of eastern Canada.  That airport had retained several large runways dating from a time when flights between the United States and Europe had to stop and refuel.  Suddenly inhabitants of this 43,000 square foot island had to prepare to double their population for an unknown duration.

A new musical, Come From Away, follows some of their stories, as weary and frightened travelers engage with small town residents.  There aren’t many unexpected plot twists here.  But following their emotional detour is a generally delightful experience.  Frankly in our current often divisive climate, it feels good to be reminded that even at the darkest moments strangers can find many ways to come together.  Perhaps with this in mind, the production has added a page to their website where audience members can dig deeper into the history that inspired such an unlikely Broadway offering.  (I recommend at the very least pulling up the photo of the air strip with 38 jumbo jets parked nose to tail.)

This is very much an ensemble piece.  Each actor portrays multiple characters, usually switching roles with the addition of a hat or jacket and a change of accent.  (Special acknowledgement goes to dialect coach Joel Goldes for helping the actors capture the special Newfoundlander cadence and to costume designer Toni-Leslie James for supplying the perfect wardrobe pieces.)  The entire cast is strong and it is to their credit that within a short period we feel for each and every one.  Past Obie winner Joel Hatch represents two mayors who pitch in with different styles and equal verve.  Jenn Colella takes on a pioneering airline pilot and an oft-smitten assistant principal with the same amount of compassion and insight.  It falls to Q. Smith as Hannah to carry the weight of the desperate mother who doesn’t know the whereabouts of her firefighter son.  One by one the voices of many cultures are heard.

Christopher Ashley’s staging is remarkably clever, using mostly lights and a few chairs to convey many locations from inside a plane to inside a schoolhouse.  Lovers of big musical numbers may be disappointed, however.  The work by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is more of the storytelling-set-to-tunes variety.  Dance Captain Josh Breckenridge has provided some movement, but nothing that could be called a dance number.   Lyrics do their job in moving the plot forward, but aren’t particularly clever or catchy.  Songs are nicely executed and have wonderful echoes of the Irish ancestry shared by the majority of Newfoundlanders, but there isn’t a great deal of variation.  In fact, it wasn’t until the post-bow jam session that I was able to fully appreciate the band’s talent.

Judging from the prolonged standing ovation, I’m not the only one who thinks Come From Away is a welcome addition to lineup for this season.  The show is recommended for ages 10 and over and for a change I can say that entire age range will be engaged by what they see and hear.  Running time is a compelling 100 minutes.  Tickets for the run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater are available for the remainder of 2017 at http://comefromaway.com.

Waitress

Waitress MUSICALORIGINAL BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE 256 W. 47TH ST.The sweet story of a sorrowful originator, the soaring melodies of Sara Bareilles, and the soulful voice of Jessie Mueller blend like butter, sugar, and flour. Together they produce a tasty joy-inducing creation that was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2016. Regular readers of this column know I am not the world’s biggest fan of modern day musicals, but I honestly can’t wait to see Waitress again. And I’m not just saying that because the entire theater smells like pie.

The movie on which it is based is among my favorites.  It may not possess a philosophical depth worthy of extensive examination, but at its core is some spirited girl-power.  I was therefore quite trepidatious when I heard it was coming to Broadway at all much less in musical form. But Bareilles’s music and lyrics along with the book by Jessie Nelson have preserved all of Adrienne Shelly’s original laughs, aches and gentle twists and added an extra layer of celebration in song that — puns aside — hits all the right notes. The numbers are so genuinely stirring, it’s fitting that the cast hosts regular karaoke nights for audience members who want to take a turn singing one.  (Remembering my mishap while attempting to replicate Baby’s leap at the end of Dirty Dancing, I refrained.)

In the lead role of Jenna, the unhappy pregnant waitress who escapes into her pie recipes, is Mueller, still with a touch of Carole King in her phrasing.  Despite her radiance, the rest of the company is so terrific that she’s in constant danger of being upstaged.  Her inappropriate love interest is portrayed with endearing charm by Drew Gehling.  The perky Caitlin Houlahan and booming Charity Ang´el Dawson play her two co-workers Dawn and Becky like perfect bookends.  Each has a solo that threatens to bring down the house.  But it is Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle winner Christopher Fitzgerald as Dawn’s besotted beau Ogie that elicits the loudest round of cheers for his eccentric rhymes and original dance moves.

The team is in the mighty hands of director Diane Paulus, who also steered the Tony winning revival of Pippin.  Using Scott Pask’s welcoming diner setting as an anchor, she moves her cast fluidly through their small southern town, adding wonderful touches of physical comedy to each performance.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Jonathan Deans’ sound keep the audience focused.  (At least that’s why I think I missed seeing an entire band on stage for the first 15 minutes.)  Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes are appropriately whimsical.

The inclusion of decidedly PG-13 material causes the show to be a little awkward for some families, but the blend of playfulness indulged and lessons learned makes Waitress a generally appealing choice in these overwhelming times.  Tickets for the open-ended run are available at http://www.brooksatkinsontheater.com.

The Liar

Set Design ALEXANDER DODGECostume Design MURELL HORTON Lighting Design MARY LOUISE GEIGER Original Music ADAM WERNICK Sound Design MATT STINE

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod in The Liar Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Decidedly cute, The Liar, is currently brightening the Classic Stage Company just off Union Square.  This quick-paced farce is adapted by David Ives of Venus in Fur fame from a comedy written by Pierre Corneille, a man known better for his well-received tragedies.   The light-hearted (and one could say well-timed) story centers on Dorante, a man who tells lies as easily as he skewers his friend with an invisible sword.  Written in iambic pentameter — including a few lines purloined from mighty Shakespeare — the crafty script is dotted with modern references to personal ads, fraternity handshakes, and general self-awareness.  This keeps the 17th century spirit intact while making the work relevant and entertaining for a broad audience.

Director Michael Kahn commissioned the piece in his role as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, where it received a world premiere in 2010.  A quick perusal of the Who’s Who reveals a seasoned cast well connected with both the director and the writer as well as a number of quality Off Broadway houses.  The results are surefooted if not stunningly original or particularly generous to audience members seated on the sides of the 3/4 round.

As portrayed by Christian Conn, Dorante is smooth if somewhat lacking in the necessary magnetism to fully hold the center.  He keep things flowing as fluidly as the falsehoods roll off the rogue’s tongue.  As the object of his current fancy, Clarice, Ismenia Mendes delivers too many of her lines at a high pitch squeal, leaving her nowhere to go as her situation escalates in intensity.  Amelia Pedlow in the role of Lucrece has slight advantage as her character is silent for much of play’s first half, allowing her to step into her own power in Act Two.

These leading players are greatly upstaged by the stars of the subplot, starting with Carson Elrod as the loyal and eternally truthful Cliton.  His joyful performance perfectly balances physical and verbal humor to delightful effect.  Even better is Kelly Hutchinson who by all appearances is having the time of her life playing twin sisters Isabel and Sabine. Kudos to wig and hair designer J. Jared Janas for finding the perfect clip-on to aid Ms Hutchinson in her rapid changes between the two.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge supports the lively pace, keeping settings simple with a few flown-in paintings and chandeliers and other set pieces pushed into place by the characters.  Award winning costumer, Murell Horton, decks the cast in easy to move in gowns and tunics with a nod to the proper period.  Original music, which adds a frothy layer, was developed by Adam Wernick in his CSC debut.

Great for a date and a safe bet for Mom, The Liar provides a carefree, low stakes two hours.  Tickets are available through February 26, 2017 at http://www.classicstage.org/season/the-liar/