Tag Archives: Drama

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).

Confidence (and The Speech)

Like the Mr. Rogers of Presidents, Jimmy Carter was a man who gently spoke the truth even when it wasn’t sunny news.  Susan Lambert Hatem examines such a heartfelt and impactful moment from 1979 in her new work Confidence (and The Speech) now playing at Theatre Row.  That Carter is warmly portrayed by April Armstrong, an African American actress of… shall we say limited stature… adds a brilliant and powerful punch.  Placing Carter’s consciousness in such an unlikely body forces us to focus on the only things that matter: the president’s heart and mind. Whatever else can be said of our 39th president, he always tried to do the right thing starting from the time he sold his tiny peanut farm so as not to have any appearance of impropriety.

The set-up for Ms. Armstrong’s performance begins at present day Baynard University.  Professor Cynthia Cooper has just wrapped up her session when she is approached by Jonathan (an outstanding Zach Fifer) who has been monitoring her class.  He’s learned that she was an intern assigned to Camp David just prior to Carter’s infamous Crisis of Confidence speech.  This address to the nation is consider by some to have been farsighted, though others see it as the moment Carter signed his fate as a one term Commander in Chief.  Cynthia agrees to tell Jonathan everything about that significant time from her viewpoint on the condition that in her story it is she who is President Carter and that Jonathan walk a mile in her heels as Cynthia.  With the assistance of grey suited dressers, the two take on their new roles and corresponding wardrobe skillfully designed by Vanessa Leuck.   Fifer also captures Armstrong’s manner and cadence.  

Their transformation is one of many clever moments orchestrated by director Hannah Ryan in the challenging layout of Theatre One.  She and the entire female creative team — Brittany Vasta (Scenic Design), Christina Watanabe (Lighting Design), Emma Wilk (Sound Design), S. Katy Tucker (Projection Design), Deb Gaouette (Properties), Karla Garcia (Movement Direction), Bobbie Zlotnik (wigs) as well as Ms. Leuck — deserve a round of applause for developing such a slick production on a limited budget.

Mark Coffin, Stephen Stout, Ross Alden, April Armstrong Photo Credit: Russ Rowland

Mark Coffin, Stephen Stout, Ross Alden, April Armstrong; Photo Credit/ Russ Rowland.

All the well known characters from the Carter administration are well drawn including Walter “Fritz” Mondale (Mark Coffin given little to work with just like a real Vice President), Hamilton Jordan (a suave Ross Alden), Jody Powell (appropriately brusk James Penca), Rick Hertzberg (a measured Imran Sheikh) and Pat Caddell (Stephen Stout stopping just short of Jack Black-ness.)  But though this remains a story dominated by men, it is the voices of the women that are amplified in this retelling.  We see how the strong bond with her husband gave Rosalynn (a gracious Sarah Dacey Charles) a special place in the administration.  And we are introduced to Sarah Weddington (a too soft, too fast Abigail Ludrof) whose work on behalf of women’s issues influenced many, including Cynthia.

Confidence (and the Speech) provides an immensely satisfying opportunity to consider the pressing issues of climate change, equal rights, and basic decency in politics through the lens of a deeply invested observer.  Performances of this 100 minute gem continue through December 7.  Shyer audience members should be aware that if they answer the pollster making the rounds before curtain that, in a risky move by the playwright, they will be called upon to speak during Carter’s Town Hall. Tickets are priced $49-$69 ($89 premium) and can be purchased at www.confidenceandthespeech.com or at the Theatre Row Box Office (410 W. 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.)

Fear

An 8 year old girl has gone missing near a lake in a wooded area.  A plumber by trade and self-appointed neighborhood guardian, Phil has collared troubled teen Jamie, and dragged him into a nearby deserted toolshed for questioning.  Phil spotted Jamie near where the girl was last seen, but his suspicion of the young man stems more from their previous experience.  To gain a clear upper hand, Phil takes the drastic step of tying Jamie to a chair in an effort to extract a confession.  Hearing cries for help, erudite professor Ethan barges onto the scene and into the conversation.

Playwright Matt Williams uses this triad to explore how personal endangerment affects action in his new aptly titled work Fear.  As events unfold, each one of these people holds onto a strong conviction that he is on the side of what is right, not only in regards to the current potential wrongdoing but in their world view.  The three characters aren’t particularly original, but their relationships to one another is sophisticatedly developed.  As new background information is revealed, alliances between the three shift, along with the loyalty of the audience.  Williams’ experience in television comedy comes through in the heavy dose of explanation in the show’s opening moments.  There are also occasional splashes of jokes that come on a little strong, though they each provide a pleasant moment to breathe between psychological stabs. As in life, everyone here is an unreliable narrator, with truth getting lost in perception and self defense. 

The show literally starts with a bang as Ethan and Jamie struggle through the doorway letting it slam behind them.  There are many other moments that beg us to lean forward.  Director Tea Alagić keeps the pressure high by containing her characters in a small dusty and chaotic space designed by Andrew Boyce.  D.M. Wood’s harsh lighting adds to the desired mood with Jane Shaw’s sound adding aural punctuation.  All three actors are excellent, with Obi Abili’s Ethan particularly drawing us in with his tension-filled whispers.  Enrico Colantoni gives Phil appropriate swagger tinged with a touch of menace as he vividly recalls episodes he has witnessed.  Though we come to understand that Jamie is socially awkward and learning disabled, the potential for him to develop a fully sympathetic side is lost in Alexander Garfin’s jittery performance.  This may be a weakness of his lines rather than his acting ability.

Enrico Colantoni, Alexander Garfin, and Obi Abili. Photo is by Jeremy Daniel (7)

Enrico Colantoni, Alexander Garfin, and Obi Abili in Fear. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

By settling for easily recognizable characters instead of digging deeper, Fear falls short of making a lasting impression  But it does illustrate in shorthand how anyone is capable of becoming what they most loath in an attempt to save what they most love.  Though the opportunity for lasting impact is blunted, these actors bring their A Game and keep us engaged throughout the play.  This world premiere has a limited run through December 8 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street.)  Runtime is 80 minutes without intermission.  Tickets are $65- $89 and can be purchased by visiting FearthePlay.com or by calling (866) 811-4111.

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.

Original Sound

Danny — a spunky young Puerto Rican musician with a knack for creating earworms — uploads his diss track poking fun at pop phenom Ryan Reed.  Stumbling across the piece, the blocked Ms. Reed isn’t so hurt that she can’t seize the opportunity to steal Danny’s best song and recorded it for her new album.  Their heated decisions set in motion Original Sound, an engaging and emotional play with music by Adam Seidel. The events were inspired by his previous job as a Chicago-based hip-hop journalist.  In order to keep his work to a tight 95 minutes, Seidel can’t completely avoid the inclusion of music industry tropes.  Anyone who keeps up with that world will see echoes of recent headlines, from the cathartic 22-years-in-the-making Verve settlement to the unexpected collaboration of Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus to gain acceptance in a different genre.  Yet Seidel also skillfully mines even more interesting territory covering the potentially destructive role of power in the creative process.  What happens when your so-called self-expression is no longer your own?

OriginalSound

Jane Bruce and Sebastian Chacon in Original Sound; photo by Russ Rowland

The strong back beat of the plot is built atop the complex relationship that develops between Danny and Ryan.  Neither is completely in the wrong, which sets up a fascinating dynamic.  The supporting characters each heighten important story elements.  Danny’s sister Felicia attempts to be supportive.  He more easily receives encouragement from his friend Kari, a business school dropout who strives to keep him safe in an exploitative industry.  Ryan is backed by her well-intentioned manager Jake and a team of unseen studio producers and executives.  A sign of the script’s sophistication is that it is possible to experience both hope and sadness at the end of their shared journey.

Sebastian Chacon brings genuine warmth and exuberance to Danny.  (It is fitting to witness the young actor leave the theater with headphones on and a skateboard tucked under his arm.)   He is beautifully balanced by singer-songwriter and actress Jane Bruce’s Ryan, by turns stubborn, guarded, and freed by music.  Anthony Arkin plays Jake with credible matter-of-factness.  Countering is Lio Mehiel’s sensitive interpretation of Kari, though it seems a missed opportunity not to present the character as non-binary.  The production’s shortcoming is not providing Cynthia Bastidas and Wilson Jermaine Heredia enough to work with in their critical turns as Danny’s sister and father.

Director Elena Araoz generally keeps the energy high, all the better to shock the audience with quieter moments. The spirited scene is set by Justin Townsend, who cleverly echoes the look of LPs  further enhanced by lighting designer Kate McGee’s dance floor elements.  An array of imaginative t-shirts and power booties are provided by Sarita Fellows.  But it is the music that appropriately takes center stage in the production’s design. Both Chacon and Bruce perform the songs live.  The catchy hits are written by Daniel Ocanto, Ms. Bruce and Mr. Seidel.  An improvised solo was originally created by musical artist Armen Dolelian from diverse influences.  Additional sound design is provided by Nathan Leigh.

Like a tune recorded by multiple artists, each player in Original Sound goes through variations of their own central theme.  It makes for a stirring experience for lovers of emerging works.  Original Sound plays through June 8th in The Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.  Set 3/4 round in this small house, there are no bad seats.  Tickets are $55-$85 and are available by visiting CherryLaneTheatre.org, by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting the Cherry Lane Theatre Box Office. 

The Brothers Paranormal

Being unmoored feels as haunting as any creature to the characters in The Brothers Paranormal, opening tonight at Theatre Row.  Max left behind a fulfilling life in California and moved to the midwest to look after his mentally ill mother Tasanee and alcoholic brother Visarut.  Attempting to restore his financial stability, Max has partnered with Visarut in a ghost-hunting venture.  Delia and Felix have come to the same town after being forced out of their home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.  They are all brought together when Delia hires the brothers to rid her apartment of a malicious spirit only she can see.  Though Max is a non-believer, he is a pragmatic businessman and more than happy to take Delia’s money for an easy night’s work.  Felix goes along with the plan hoping to prove his wife’s visions are real and not the onset of madness.

Pictured (left to right): Vin K ridakorn, Dawn L. Troupe. Photo credit: John Quincy Lee

Vin Kridakorn and Dawn L. Troupe. Photo credit/ John Quincy Lee

The timing of this world premiere production by Pan Asian Repertory is auspicious. Modern audiences have been primed to experience the blend of comedy, social commentary, and horror that are entwined throughout Prince Gomolvilas’s script.  The lifespan of a typical play makes it unlikely that the playwright was inspired by Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking Get Out, but the sensibility is similar if not as artfully executed.  There are chills, chuckles, and deep reflections on displacement, along with family-oriented conversation.  The second act begins to drag with too much exposition and the ending is a disappointing “specter ex machina.”  But the overall journey is an entertaining and surprising one.

Talented director Jeff Liu does his best to navigate the many moods and styles, which are in near-constant transition.  The gasp-inducing horror elements are achieved with well-crafted lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan and perfectly-timed sound by Ian Wehrle, along with a magical assist from special effects expert Steve Cuiffo.  It is the logic behind the hauntings that is flawed.  It is explained to us that ghosts follow their own rules, but horror purists will be particularly frustrated by the inconsistencies of the other-worldly occupants.  Gomolvilas fares much better in the comedy realm where his zingers are delivered with flair, most especially by Emily Kuroda as the sly and insightful Tasanne. 

Sheryl Liu’s sparse set allows us to focus most of our attention on the characters.  Gomolvilas has chosen to explore the intersection of African American and Thai American cultures, particularly as they relate to superstition and the afterlife. Common ground is found and differences acknowledged and respected.  There are also interesting distinctions made between the viewpoints of Max who was born in America and the rest of his family who immigrated from Thailand.  It is especially in the heartfelt moments that Gomolvilas’s writing skills shine.  The chemistry between Dawn L. Troupe’s warm Delia and Brain D. Coats as her charming husband feels genuine.  More astonishing is the connection formed between her and Vin Kridakorn’s seat-of-his-pants Max. The relationship that develops between client and hoaxer is fresh and ultimately brings about extraordinary feelings of hope.  Natsuko Hirano and Roy Vongtama round out this strong cast.

As the month in which we recognize both Asian Pacific American Heritage and Mental Health Awareness, May is the perfect time to bring the unusual and twisty The Brothers Paranormal to our consciousness. The play is currently at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) for a limited engagement through Sunday, May 19, 2019.   Runtime is 2 hours plus an intermission.  Content is intense and may be inappropriate for children under 8. Ticket prices range from $62.50 – $102.25.  For more information and to purchase, visit https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Brothers-Paranormal/Overview.