Tag Archives: Comedy

The Cake

The Cake is like one of those imperfectly filled jelly donuts: a few sweet spot surrounded by too much bland.  At a time when we could use serious conversation and considered insight into the critical issues that divide us as a nation, this comedy by This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter offers too little that is satisfying.  Though it concludes with some timid steps towards a “love is love is love” message, it gets there via worn out arguments on both sides of the issue of gay marriage.

Fans of That 70s Show may delight in seeing Debra Jo Rupp as Della, the owner of a sweet shop in Winston-Salem North Carolina (Brunstetter’s home town) about to find fame on a national baking show.  Her opening monologue cleverly lays the groundwork for the rigid discipline Della applies to all areas of her life.  Soon after, she is reunited with Jen, her deceased best friend’s daughter, who is in town preparing for her October wedding.  Initially Della is thrilled when asked to provide the wedding cake.  But when she discovers Jen’s intended is another bride, she clumsily rescinds the offer.  Their ensuing awkward discussion leaves both Della and Jen rattled and searching for the roots of their beliefs and accompanying feelings of shame.

Director Lynne Meadows does her best with a space that is too wide for a story this intimate.  Rupp is her usual perky self, delivering most of the better lines with comic flair.  To some ears, Della will simply come across as a bigot (though a chirpy petite one) who uses someone else’s pleasure and pain to mend her own relationship.  But there are moments when Della’s turmoil feels genuine.  Rupp is most grounded in her scenes with Dan Daily, who has the most joyful character arc in the role of her domineering husband, Tim.  (Daily also provides the voice of the appropriately oily George, the host of the American Baking Show who functions as Della’s conscience.) 

Rupp and Angelson in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus

Rupp and Angelson in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The relationship of the lesbian couple is more problematic. Disappointingly, though the words are often there — particularly in Jen’s vivid and horrifying description of her heterosexual encounters — there is no palpable connection between the two actresses. The fresh-faced Genevieve Angelson brings a sweet restlessness to Jen as she is tossed between the realms of her conservative childhood and newly found freedom discovered in New York.  As her betrothed, Marinda Anderson gives Macy some well-earned rough edges, though the script occasionally requires her to speechify.  But as a couple, they never seem to click.

The overall look of the piece is spot-on.  Scenic designer John Lee Beatty has chosen candy colors to surround his baker, with mint green and strawberry cream pink swirling through her shop and home.  In contrast, the engaged couple is staying in the only earth toned room on the set.  Wardrobe by costume designer Tom Broecker follows a similar scheme, with Jen alternating palates.  Philip S. Rosenberg’s ’s lighting sharpens the intensity of Della’s inner dialogue and softens the conversations between lovers.  

With The Cake, Ms. Brunstetter has tried to make the point that recent cultural shifts have occurred too quickly for some goodhearted people to catch up.  The irony is that since the time the play was first produced, those same shifts have given rise to a slate of superior projects with bolder things to say.  From our current cultural vantage point, this work is a disappointing use of Rupp’s comedic talent as well as a waste of several delectable-looking cakes.  

The Cake is playing through March 31 at MTC at New York City Center – Stage I.  Theater-goers under 30 qualify for special $35 tickets.  Full priced tickets begin at $89 and can be purchased online at www.nycitycenter.org, by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212, or by visiting the New York City Center box office (131 West 55th Street).  

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Bonnie’s Last Flight

Pack a bag full of whimsey and climb aboard Bonnie’s Last Flight.  This imaginative new play by the prolific Eliza Bent is taking off at Next Door at NYTW.  Your experience of the extended metaphor begins as soon as you receive your confirmation from the theater.  First class passengers are allowed to enter first and receive pre-performance wine and snacks.  (Though bibs on the back designate them as First Class, Comfort Plus or Economy, all the chairs are the same and there are no bad seats in the house.)  Upon entering, you are immersed in a representation of a cabin surrounded by oval windows and Virgin inspired overhead lighting.  Leg room is generous, though there is a limit of one carry-on per person.

Despite the title, the head of your crew is Jan. Thirty-one years ago during the rise of feminism, the then sexually naive teen found herself pregnant and alone.  She chose to carry the child to term.  Though she gave her daughter up for adoption, the chapter derailed her lifelong ambition to become a writer.  Taking a job as a “waitress of the skies” she continues to jot down ideas between trips down the aisle to serve brownies.  Her inspiration is a manic Mark Twain who is almost always by her side.  Recently accepted into a renowned Chicago based writing program, she’s finally hanging up her wings to follow her abandoned dream.

Jan’s story is one of many we learn during our fictional flight to Chicago and it is by far the most linear. The remainder of Ms. Bent’s script includes several personal episodes told by the rest of the crew as if glimpsed through cloud cover.  Jan’s counterpart is the well-meaning, high-energy and somewhat dimwitted LeeAnne who is also struggling to course-correct her life. Rounding out the cabin team is Jan’s devoted longtime colleague Greig, moved by items he finds left in seat back pockets and under seats.   Up in the cockpit is Tony, whose obviously lack of fitness to fly is one of the play’s plot holes.  His calling his co-pilot Erik “Jesus” is a running joke.  The troupe also portray other characters from the past.  To reveal more about the titular Bonnie would be a small spoiler, but she too is on board.

Ceci Fernandez in Bonnie's Last Flight. Photo by Shun_Takino

Ceci Fernandez in Bonnie’s Last Flight. Photo by Shun Takino.

In the elegant and graceful body of Barbara Walsh, Jan is a marvelous character, surprisingly well rounded and deeply sympathetic given the short amount of time we get to spend with her.  Greig Sargeant’s Greig isn’t given as much depth, but he acts as a sweet partner and balances Ceci Fernandez’s frantic and funny LeeAnne.  While those three are tonally in sync, the others seem to have stumbled in from a much more farcical piece.  The cockpit duo played by Sam Breslin Wright and Federico Rodriguez veers firmly into stock character territory.  Playwright Eliza Bent’s own clown-like Twain nearly pulls the piece over the slapstick edge, though this is apparently integral to her vision for the work.  

Director Annie Tippe cleverly choreographs the motion using the confined space defined by airplane body, aisles and jump-seats.  A good portion of the runtime is devoted to skits and business including clips of inflight movies.  This necessitates looking from side to side like a tennis match and occasionally completely turning around to see a curtained area behind you.  A few times, an unwitting “passenger” is included in the action.  Scenic design by Meredith Ries and costumes by Heather McDevitt Barton make the best of a small budget. Small overhead monitors expand the performance space and creative wigs and accessories make for quick changes.  The live action is supplemented by videos by David Pym and sound by John Gasper, which in previews had some technical glitches.  (For anyone who has tried to use Go-Go inflight wireless, this is not out of step with the rest of the gag.)

With tickets starting at $25, Bonnie’s Last Flight is a pleasant diversion, delivering some great fun and mild food for thought.  Can we lose our emotional baggage as easily as a major carrier sends the suitcase clearly marked for Rome to its hub in Abu Dhabi?  It is playing through March 2 as part of Next Door at NYTW, 83 4th Street near 2nd Avenue. Tickets are available online at NYTW.org, by phone at 212-460-5475, or in-person at the NYTW Box Office. Be warned that similar to a real flight, it will be impossible to leave before reaching the final destination.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The first glimpse of a miniature cardboard cutout of the London skyline sets the tone for an evening spent with Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.  Wildly creative and deceptively simple, this retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel is one selection from this year’s Fringe Encores line-up.  Well curated by Artistic Director Darren Cole and his team, the series brings to the nonprofit SoHo Playhouse the very best shows from the world’s most well regarded fringe festivals including Brighton, Edinburgh, Hollywood, Limerick, Orlando, and Toronto as well as New York.  It’s theater for lovers of lively and inventive works.

At first, the dapper Burt Grinstead as Dr. Jekyll plays straight man to Anna Stromberg, varying her accent and exchanging aprons, hats, pipes, and other bargain bin objects in rapid succession as she takes on every other character.  It’s a tour de force performance for the actress, who also directs the piece.  Several purposefully awkward lectures later, Mr. Grinstead gets in on the fun with his brilliant transformation from mild Jekyll into villainous Hyde, played out in effective silhouette.  From there, the pace accelerates until the play’s dramatic conclusion.

Officer Hug - Cooper Bates Photography

Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg; photo by Cooper Bates

The two actors wrote the script, which is witty with just enough scare to keep audience members jumping.  Their adaptation retains many of the major plot points from the original book while taking quite a few creative liberties.  The character line-up has been streamlined.  This gives Ms. Stromberg the opportunity to show the full range of her talent without giving herself a coronary.  As playwrights, they have also infused the story with contemporary relevance: heightening the social commentary and playing up the frustrations associated with Victorian era repression by providing Jekyll with a feminist love interest.  It all works to tell a tale that is at once familiar and completely fresh.

The suggestive sets are composed of black interlocking wooden pieces with hidden compartments that reveal essential details in white.  Mood changes are emphasized with solid color lighting behind a plain backdrop.  These physical elements are augmented with a wonderfully produced soundscape of gulls, clock chimes, and musical flourishes.  

At 75 minutes,  Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde takes you on a highly engaging ride that ends before it can become repetitive.  With its pun-filled dialogue, clever production design and remarkably flexible two person cast, it’s low-budget entertainment done right.  And with tickets available for as little as $25, it’s also tremendous night-out bang for the buck.  

The “best of the fests” runs through December 16 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street off 6th Avenue near Spring.  To see a calendar of remaining performance dates and purchase tickets, visit www.fringeencores.org.

The Thanksgiving Play

In the right hands, satire can be a terrific educational tool.  This was clearly in the mind of award-winning playwright and activist Larissa FastHorse when she chose to go broad with The Thanksgiving Play.  Pained by the way the typical Thanksgiving story obliterates the voices of her people, the Sicangu Lakota uses laughter rather than lecture to take on all those insulting myths.  This is the award winner’s first New York production and it’s a worthy entrance. Through her four well-intentioned if off-base characters, she blows up those oft-repeated stories of pilgrims showering America’s indigenous peoples with respect and side dishes.  The results are uneven and she’s likely preaching to at large number of regular choir members, but a good time can still be had.

Thanksgiving Play

Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, and Margo Seibert; photo by Joan Marcus

The economical cast of achingly progressive characters are developing a holiday performance that celebrates Native American Heritage month for a elementary school audience.  The director of this play within a play is Logan, an anxiety prone vegan who has pulled together an array of small niche grants in order to fund her vision of a more honest Thanksgiving story.  Her school play will co-star Disney-obsessed actress Alicia and Logan’s yoga-loving street performer boyfriend, Jaxton.  Rounding out the “creative team” is Caden, a playwright-wanna be and first grade teacher.  For the majority of the 90 minute runtime, these well-intentioned souls improvise and brainstorm their way towards an increasingly awkward outcome.  Their endeavors are occasionally interrupted by wildly off-kilter musical numbers covering all the cringe inducing story elements they are trying to leave behind.

Under the direction of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, the dialogue starts out at such a high pitch it doesn’t have enough room to grow.  Jennifer Bareilles as Logan is a constant bundle of nerves.  Greg Keller’s Jaxton’s oozes PC doctrine from every pore.  Margo Seibert’s Alicia is such an airhead she’s perfected the art of looking at the ceiling.  And Jeffrey Bean’s Caden is like a Jack Russel terrier, excited just to be in their company.  All four quality actors do their best to add range and fair better with the piece’s physical humor.   These moments includes an uncoupling ritual and reading aloud from several fantastically illustrated textbooks.

The design team mostly strikes the right comedic notes.  The single set by Wilson Chin combines classic classroom elements with some of the most appropriately inappropriate theater posters.  Costume designer Tilly Grimes delivers equally well with liberal casual and tacky pageant wear.  Lighting created by Isabella Byrd highlights the action as it shifts from faux intense to intensely faux.

As both a comedy and a lesson plan, this production of The Thanksgiving Play would likely earn a B- for its insufficient build and variation.  But it has heart and successfully serves as a reminder that the upcoming family holiday is fraught with misunderstandings that go far down and way back.  Certainly if you’ve ever had a Caucasion friend who built a sweat lodge right next to his jacuzzi to honor “their heritage,” you will recognize FastHorse’s creations.  And even if you haven’t, you’ll be reminded that what you’ve learned about US history is not necessarily the full story. 

Performances are scheduled to run through November 25 at the Peter Jay Sharp theater at Playwrights Horizons.  For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/thanksgiving-play/.

The Lifespan of a Fact

In this age of high anxiety and bitter divide, it didn’t seem possible that anyone could write a play that was both timely and hilarious.  Amazingly The Lifespan of a Fact — based on true events surrounding the development of an article about a Las Vegas teen’s suicide — achieves this blissful combination.  Written in vivid detail by nonconformist writer John D’Agata, the original 2005 article was assigned for fact-checking to an ambitious magazine intern, Jim Fingal.  D’Agata and Fingal’s conflict over the nature and role of facts spanned seven years and resulted in an essay and a book which in turn inspired Lifespan’s script by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. With so many fingers on keyboards, this production could have been a cacophonous mess, but the logic and story are sound. Fingal’s on stage persona makes a strong case for journalistic integrity and thorough research.  Equally persuasive is D’Agata’s viewpoint that the right words, however poetic, are needed to attract and hold readers’ attention. Perhaps most importantly for Lifespan’s audience, their 90 minute argument elicits many cathartic chuckles.

The well crafted material hits the intended target in large part because of the wise direction of Leigh Silverman.  She has a keen instinct for when to punch up the humor without going too broad.  Rather, she peels back the layers of each of the three characters in slowly building rhythm.  She has the great advantage of being blessed with a magnificent cast, each of whom has an incredible sense of pace and timing.  Charmingly obsessive in his role of fact checker Jim Fingal, Daniel Radcliffe is physically taut and verbally cranked to 11.  He prepared for the role by actually working as a fact checker for New Yorker magazine, which clearly gave him a strong foundation on which to draw character details.  His opponent in the battle of wits, writer John D’Agata, is bought to irritated life by a blustery and brilliant Bobby Cannavale.  That the two actors are nearly a foot apart in height adds a shiny layer of physical humor on top of their perfectly orchestrated banter.  Standing between them with a commanding hand and a touch of grace is the charismatic Cherry Jones as the magazine’s editor, Emily. 

7013b The Lifespan of a Fact, Pictured L to R, Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe, Photograph by Peter Cunningham, 2018

Many hands add their own magical touch to bringing out the best in the piece. Mimi Lien’s scenic design includes some smile-inducing details.  Linda Cho’s costumes give good visual cues.  The playwrights have raised the stakes by putting their characters on a four day deadline.  Projections by Lucy Mackinnon and music and sound by Palmer Hefferan keep us on edge as the clock ticks stressfully onwards towards publication day.  

Suitable for teens and up, The Lifespan of a Fact brings much needed smart laughter to Broadway’s fall season.  Though the ending may be unsatisfying to some, the overall experience is everything you want from an afternoon or evening at the theater.  It is playing at Studio 54, which has particularly good sight lines.  Tickets for performances through January 13, 2019 are for sale at https://www.lifespanofafact.com and on most entertainment apps.  A limited number of affordable $40 seats are available for purchase in-person at the Studio 54 box office for same-day sale.

Head Over Heels

Like one of its stars, Peppermint, Head Over Heels has a refreshing sense of self.  A blend of 16th Century verse, music by 1970s pop stars The Go-Go’s, and an ultra modern “love is love is love” message, Broadway’s newest musical eludes “pegging”.  Based loosely on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, the story follows King Basilius as he attempts to defy a prophecy delivered to him by Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. She declares four tragedies will befall his kingdom, each one signaled by a veil falling from the sky. Should all come to pass, the land is doomed. Determined to cheat fate, Basilius packs up his citizens and travels deep into the woods.  Anyone who knows their way around a Greek myth can predict how successful the well-meaning ruler’s plan will be.

The Go-Go’s repertoire —including Mad about You, Cool Jerk and Vacation — contains many catchy ear-worms, but they are hardly known for their deep meaning.  While the dialogue is often witty, characters sometimes tee-up the next production number by delivering forced lines. If hearing that what makes this kingdom distinctive is that they’ve “got the beat” makes you cringe, you should have second thoughts about purchasing tickets. On the other hand, if you find yourself going along with the playfulness, there is more where that came from.

There is none of the over amplification which dominates rock musicals and every word is clearly articulated. Many eyes will be on the aforementioned Peppermint, a fierce RuPaul Drag Race competitor and first “out” trans  actress to develop a lead of a Broadway musical. Her Pythio may be the only character to literally sparkle, but she is not alone in that quality of performance. The cast – some of whom have been with the production since its early days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having one heck of a good time. In particular, Andrew Durand steals every scene he’s in as the sweet shepherd Musidorus on his road to self discovery and empowerment. Bonnie Milligan making her Broadway debut is another standout as the difficult and vain Pamela, the older of the king’s two daughters. She ably avoids becoming a tedious “fat joke” by infusing her character with gentle confusion which elicits compassion. She is well paired with Taylor Iman Jones’s Mopsa, her several-steps-ahead admirer.

Head Over HeelsA New Musical

Taylor Iman Jones in the San Francisco Production of Head Over Heels

Director Michael Mayer has his cast members veer towards the hammy, a superfluous move with this broad book created by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. The moments that are less heavy handed are also more visually exciting, including a seduction scene accomplished in shadows. The production design wonderfully captures the glow and fizz of The Go-Go’s heyday as well as the bejeweled styling of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Scenic designer Julian Crouch’s amusing backdrops include fake curtains and two dimensional trees in a pallet that is pure disco. Arianne Phillips picks up this mixture in her costume design in which half naked male suitors are topped with metallic ruffs, and bows are painted onto the princesses’ elaborate dresses.  Hair and makeup by Campbell Young Associates complete the look to whimsical perfection.

Familiarity with The Go-Go’s is not essential, but it adds to those moments when distinctive guitar licks foreshadow an upcoming production number. Sadly, though, something is off with Kai Harada’s sound. It is admirable that the creative team chose to use only female band members, but their output lacks sufficient depth and energy.  This becomes particularly noticeable upon exit when the original article can be heard throughout the lobby.

Perhaps because it’s a fun and flashy romp, Head Over Heels is attracting a particularly undisciplined audience to the Hudson Theater. The young woman next to me crackled her way through a large bag of gummy bears throughout the 2 hour 15 minute runtime, while the 60-something woman behind me got so drunk that by Act Two she was discussing the quality of the house wine with her friends in what can only be described as her outdoor voice. It may help you get into the proper mood by imagining yourself at the Globe with sawdust under your feet and jolly old England just outside the door. Tickets are on sale now through June 30, 2019 at https://headoverheelsthemusical.com.

Plano

All fans of quirky theater are encouraged to flock to Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, which typically runs from mid-May to the end of June.  Each season, the Clubbed Thumb artistic team — currently spearheaded by Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar (who has been with Clubbed Thumb since their 1996 debut) and Associate Artistic Director Michael Bulgar — pore over hundreds of submissions seeking unique voices with something funny  and insightful to say.  Each final selection is carefully cultivated with precision and vision.  As the company’s reputation has grown, so has their ability to attract superior acting and behind-the-scenes talent that can rapidly bring these challenging pieces to fruition.  Many of these plays go on to lead fuller lives, including Men in Boats at Playwrights Horizons and The Wolves at Lincoln Center.

Their current production is Plano, which was commissioned by Clubbed Thumb for the 2017-18 Directing Fellowship.  The director in question is Taylor Reynolds who, along with her outstanding cast, brings out every magical beat of Will Arbery’s script.  Surreal  images including a red ribbon independently descending a staircase and a Faceless Ghost (played with acrobatic aptitude by Brendan Dalton) are blended into the often funny story of three fairly realistic sisters.  This authenticity is no doubt made possible by playwright Arbery being the only boy in a family of eight siblings.  Genevieve, the eldest, is a stereotypical know-it-all.  The youngest, Isabel, is coddled to the point of thinking she might be a saint.  In between them is Anne, the often-overlooked middle child struggling to establish identity.  Their simple lives of work and family are intruded upon by strangeness that might be a curse. The town of Plano is used almost Mad Lib-like to represent alternative mindsets which are open to interpretation. Time passes through the use of the phrase “it’s later.”  And husbands split into multiple parts so that they can do the dishes while also dancing the night away.

The skill needed to pull off clipped dialogue that is based more on timing than on story cannot be overstated.  Crystal Finn as Anne, Miriam Silverman as Genevieve and Susannah Flood as Isabel stay perfectly in tune with each other throughout the 75 minute runtime.  They are wonderfully supported by Mary Schultz as their religious fanatic mother, Mary, Cesar J. Rosado as Anne’s gay husband, John, and most especially by Ryan King as multiple Steves all of whom are married to Genevieve.  The far-seeing Ms. Reynolds pushes their characters’ oddball boundaries by using nearly every inch of the theater, including the exit aisle and the area beneath the stage.  Elaborate fight scenes are expertly choreographed by Kelly Bartnik.

Plano

Susannah Flood, Miriam Silverman, and Crystal Finn in Plano.

The rest of the creative team has kept things delightfully simple.  The suggestion of a ranch house by scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman is given necessary mood changes by Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Mark Van Hare’s sound design.  Stephanie Levin’s costumes are casual and, most importantly, move well.  

With its basic human experience infused with mystical adventure, Plano is unlikely to be confused with anything else you’ve seen.  It is being presented at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St.  This column is based on the June 21 performance, at which point performances were being added to the schedule and it was anticipated there would be a few modifications made to the production.  For tickets and the latest information visit https://www.clubbedthumb.org/productions/2018/.