Tag Archives: 59E59 Theaters

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.  

Einstein’s Dreams

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

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

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

scenic design ISABEL MENGYUAN LEcostume design SIDNEY SHANNON

lighting design HERRICK GOLDMAN

sound design KEVIN HEARD

projection design DAVID BENGALI

props design SEAN FRANK

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

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

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

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