Tag Archives: Off Off Broadway

The Baby Monitor

The shattering impact of an “I love you” with a “but” clause is at the heart of The Baby Monitor, currently mounted as a workshop production at the 14th Street Y.  The plot centers around the suspicions a woman harbors concerning her gay cousin’s treatment of the toddler son he shares with his husband.  By fleshing out this nightmare scenario with all-too-common misunderstandings stemming from distinctions in race, class and religion, playwright David Stallings has delivered something far richer than an issues play.  It is a thoughtful examination of the ways in which simply tolerating differences rather than embracing them can cause irreparable damage to our societal fabric.

The scene opens on a family Thanksgiving.  Rejected by most of his strict Catholic family after coming out, Damon has invited his close cousin Claire and her husband Josh to join him and his husband Phillip to celebrate the holiday along with their two-year-old son and nanny.  The evening includes a great deal of reminiscing and chardonnay and concludes with flipping through the new family’s photo album.  A combination of tainted religious doctrine and personal frustration leads Claire to react inappropriately to one of the pictures.  Her misguided good intentions have the potential to destroy the happiness of everyone involved.

David Stallings, Leo Goodman, Amanda Jones, and Hector Matias. Photo by Michael Dekker.jpg

David Stallings, Leo Goodman, Amanda Jones, and Hector Matias. Photo by Michael Dekker

Even at a time when gay marriage is legal and children stemming from these unions are not uncommon, it has been hard for many people to move beyond ingrained beliefs.  Stallings realistically explores a variety of viewpoints stemming from these slow-to-shift societal norms.  The genuine danger that can grow from preconceived notions is revealed in peeling layers.  While there is certainly an ideology that skews left running underneath, the dialogue is stealthy, with little slips of the tongue that indicate early on that Claire’s love for Damon has many qualifiers attached to it.  By making Phillip and the nanny Soledad immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Stallings can additionally explore the role culture and class play in the escalating tensions.

Stallings also stars as Damon, a performance infused with deep passion.  Héctor Matias is positively dreamy as Phillip, accustomed to keeping up his guard except around the family he clearly adores.  Stallings is less successful in his drawing of female characters.  Though Amanda Jones strives to manifest Claire’s sympathetic backstory, the character is essentially unlikable and therefore challenging to portray.  This is magnified in her scenes with Leo Goodman’s wonderfully nuanced Josh, who is most often given the voice of reason.  Greta Quispe similarly struggles to give balance to Soledad, whose personal journey could make for an equally compelling play.  However, Mel House is strong in her too-brief performance in the critical role of activist Shelly.

For this production, the black box theater has been set up in 3/4 round with a simple set of padded tiles and wooden boxes.  Lighting designed by Kia Rogers is used to shift the setting and to mimic a violent climatic moment.  Direction by Stallings’ husband Antonio Miniño is skillful, with an engaging blend of quiet touching moments and palpable strain.

As much as it is a powerful drama, The Baby Monitor is also an important conversation starter.  Developed on both coasts of this divided country, it would be wonderful if this work could find its way into the middle.  The production contains very brief partial nudity and is recommended for ages 16 and over.  It is playing through December 16 at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street near 1st Avenue.  General Admission tickets can be purchased by calling 646-395-4310 or by visiting www.differenttranslation.com.  Prices are $25 for adults and $22 for seniors and students.  $5 rush tickets are available 15 minutes before curtain for those living in zip codes 10003 and 10009.  

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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/.

Bobbie Clearly

We are seated in the Milton Community Center witnessing the making of a documentary.  Ten years ago, this small Nebraska town was rocked when the title character of Bobbie Clearly shot and killed Casey Welsh when she was 16 and he 14.  For nearly 2 1/2 hours, we will hear from Bobbie and ten others about what led up to that horrific event and beyond it to present day.  It will be as hard to see the next turn in their stories as it is to navigate the tall fields of corn where Casey’s body was found.

Avoiding the pitfalls of some of the seasons other issues-oriented productions, Bobbie Clearly focuses on the violent act’s human impact rather than on the shooting itself.  Playwright Alex Lubischer has generously peppered his moving script with moments of humor, taking care to treat his characters with affection even when poking fun.  Though primarily delivered in interview format (to an unseen host), the relationships sparkle.  There are times when two people are telling separate segments using identical phrases, shining a light on the importance of context.  Lubischer also captures a common progression of high school friendships, following four of Bobbie’s classmates from their summer jobs corn detasseling through their awkward fundraisers in Casey’s memory.  Further, there is a profound exploration of the link between religion and forgiveness.  Most importantly in this delicate time, Lubischer is careful not to take a stand on guns by making Casey’s father, Stanley, take delight in hunting as a distraction from his grief.

Bobbie Cleary
Roundabout Underground

The entire cast is terrific, beginning with Ethan Dubin who — though used sparingly — manages to be both sweet and disturbing as Bobbie.  Many will recognize the magnificent Constance Shulman from her equally wonderful ensemble work in television including Orange is the New Black.  With her tiny wiry frame and high-pitched croak, she makes an unusual police officer, which is perfect given the unconventional bond she develops with Bobbie from the time he was the Sunday school bully to the day he makes his best attempt at repairing the huge hole he has ripped in his community.  Her intensity is balanced by the performance of JD Taylor as Bobbie’s misguided and slightly goofy Big Brother Derek Nelson.  As BF(F?)s and mismatched bookends Megan and Meghan, Talene Monahon and Sasha Diamond play off each other with great timing.  And Tyler Lea taps into both vulnerability and inner strength as Casey’s younger brother, Eddie, the only witness to the murder.

The piece is performed in 3/4 round with what are essentially service doors to the space serving as entrances and exits.  As directed by Will Davis, the energy flows consistently even through the silences.  He may also be responsible for the brilliant choreography of two critical dance numbers, which call for very special talent.  Kudos to Asta Bennie Hostetter for finding such great costumes-on-a-budget for those numbers as well as the more everyday items that fill in character details.  Providing unsettling atmosphere are the smothering walls of dried corn that almost exclusively comprise the minimal set by Arnulfo Maldonado.

At $25 a ticket, Bobbie Clearly is superb bang for the theatrical experience buck.  The play is presented as part of Roundabout Underground at The Black Box Theatre and is sure to keep developing its strengths.  If you are looking for a who dunnit or even a why, look elsewhere.  However, this slow-burn storytelling and honest examination of what is ultimately unknowable will leave you with your thoughts turning.  For tickets, on sale through May 6, 2018, and information visit https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bobbie-Clearly.aspx.

Brilliant Traces

Brilliant Traces the Play | by Cindy Lou Johnson | NYC | NY | 2018 | at the WorkShop Theater NYC | presented by Art of Warr Productions | starring Blake Merriman and Alyssa May Gold

Blake Merriman and Alyssa May Gold in Brilliant Traces.  Photo by Grace Merriman

Inside his purposefully isolated Alaskan cabin and bundled under blankets, Henry Harry is in a deep sleep when he is disturbed by a series of panicked knocks at his door.  Enter Rosannah DeLuce incongruously dressed in full bridal attire, mascara running down her face and talking a mile a minute.  Thus begins Brilliant Traces, a two-character fantasy currently vying for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards for Off-Off Broadway.

The set-up is deliberately absurd and yet much of their exchange is rooted in genuine personal tragedy.  This asymmetrical construction runs throughout the work.  Perpetual loner Henry is clearly unused to casual conversation.  Yet it becomes equally obvious that he is a caregiver who instinctively reaches out to others when given the opportunity.  Rosannah describes herself in rapid succession as having felt encased in ice and too warm, propelled forward and completely stuck.  All these states are equally true for her.

As directed by creative impresario Joshua Warr, the piece starts slow, then moves along for the remainder of the 90 minute runtime.  Warr’s production team is strong.  Matthew S. Crane’s icicle covered cabin with its unadorned walls and spartan furniture is almost a third character.  Paul T. Kennedy’s lighting adds mood and supports the passage of time.  Costumes by Todd Trosclair are appropriately sporty and simple, except of course for the shiny gown and shoes.  No program credit is given for sound design, which is a shame given the important role played by whistling wind that had me snuggling under my coat.  Both Alyssa May Gold and Blake Merriman successfully lean into their characters’ duplexity.   Gold — an understudy for Broadway’s Arcadia — brings a rawness even to the most farcical of her lines.  Merriman leverages the quickness developed in improvisation training with the Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City to make Henry’s unexpected turns feel more plausible.

The script is intriguing, but not without problems.  By withholding deeper truths in order to have a big reveal, Cindy Lou Johnson has her characters speaking in circles much of the time.  Instead of deep story, Ms. Johnson simulates forward motion, shading the surface by having the same lines reappear with different context.  For example, “I cooked your shoes” is delivered by turns as comic, menacing, and sad.  Using rotating emotional filters is an interesting construct that gives the script a fairytale quality.  The challenge with Ms. Johnson’s technique is that it’s a block to audience involvement.  Uncomfortable chuckles and even a few talk-backs peppered the evening.  I never forgot for moment that I was watching a play about two people rather than being swept away by connection to the emotional life within the fantasy.

There is also an issue with how well the relationship between Harry and DeLuce has traveled through time.  Originally produced in 1989 by Circle Repertory Company, the piece has several anger-fueled fight scenes choreographed by Alberto Bonilla.  Whether you are able to accept these moments as intended or see two people in need of anger management therapy will depend on your tolerance for such things against the backdrop of #MeToo and #Timesup.  Rosannah needs to be alluring enough to pull Henry back to civilization.  By the same token, Henry needs to inspire trust so that Rosannah can get grounded again.   But even back in the 1970s, self-help guru John Bradshaw claimed that most people would walk into a room and find connection with the least appropriate person present.

Rosannah and Henry’s odd relationship touchingly illustrates that everyone needs to be seen to feel truly alive.  With communication, parallels can be drawn between any two human stories. The current incarnation of Brilliant Traces is presented by the director’s own Art of Warr Productions in association with Ruddy Productions and runs through March 4 at The Workshop Theater.  Tickets are $25 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com

I of the Storm

Richard Hoehler. Photo by Michael Abrams (4)There is no denying that Richard Hoehler is a talented man.  A winner of the The Off-Off-Broadway Review (OOBR Award) for Best Solo Performer, he knows how to own a room. In his latest monologue, I of the Storm, he tells tales, recites poetry, sings heartily and even dances a lick or two.  You’re sure to take notice throughout even if it doesn’t quite all hold together in the end.

The story is told from the point of view of Hoehler’s alter-ego RJ Bartholomew.  In this adventure, an increasingly shady finance whiz who goes one deal too far, gets sent to jail, and winds up living on the streets.  There are clear-sighted descriptions of how poorly our society treats those who have paid that debt.  (It should be noted that Mr. Hoehler is the founder of Acting Out, a professional-level acting class for at-risk youth and men who are incarcerated.)  What is unusual is that his circumstances have led RJ to be more aware and alive than when he was in possession of money and power.  If this seems unrealistic, just tell yourself that for this particular Alan Watts reader it is the truth.  He is living his version of “holy poverty” in which having nothing to lose has given rise to complete freedom.

Over the course of 85 minutes, we learn snippets of RJ’s “riches to rags” story.  The through line is kept in broad-brush watercolor, with splashes of the darkness of his greedier days and the light of his relationship with a free-spirited artist who goes by the name of Mars.  Hoehler shares the narrative directly with the audience, but there is something missing from his invitation to completely enter his world.  On the night I attended, those around me remained unsure about whether they were actually meant to engage with the character or simply observe.

Bartholomew keeps his mind nimble by writing poems in a tattered notebook.  They range from Spike Milligan style doggerel to rap-ish verses akin to early Fresh Prince.  Hoehler’s energetic recitations, staged engagingly by director Janice L. Goldberg, are punctuated by song phrases from the Beatles to Broadway.  Along the way, Hoehler/Bartholomew make observations about the modern American way.  Though his declarations aren’t revolutionary and details are few, the hopeful viewpoint is refreshing and presented with flair.  A little editing would be wise.  75 minutes into the performance the presentation reached a saturation point, and the performer was in effect clapped-off by an appreciative but restless audience.

Painting also makes up the majority of Mark Symczak’s set.  Three striking canvases and a swirled floor stand in for light, sky, ground, and cityscape.  David Withrow’s costume captures almost the entirety of RJ’s rise and fall in a single blemished suit.  Michael Abrams’ lighting and Craig Lenti’s sound add texture to key moments while making use of every production dollar.

Whether you are a crusader for social justice or a fan of fresh solo work, I of the Storm makes for an absorbing evening.  It is scheduled to play through October 29 at The Gym at Judson.  Tickets are available though Ticket Central.  For more information visit https://www.iofthestormoffbroadway.com/about.

A Real Boy

I was attracted to the concept of A Real Boy the moment I read the log line: Puppet parents adopt a human child. (This is not a spoiler. Even the most inexperienced of theatergoers is bound to notice this attribute of Max’s parents the moment they shuffle into his kindergarten classroom on their little wooden feet, strings and control handles attached.) The play lands some of the anticipated satirical punches, but it’s hard to make the argument that the darkly comic work is a total success.

To be clear, I can accept even the highest of concepts provided the writer stays within the boundaries of his own mythology.  Unfortunately parameters that are drawn in the first few minutes are broken almost immediately when a character who is supposed to live in a black-and-white world enters wearing blue glasses.  This is only the beginning of the muddled thoughts that swirl around what it means to be “puppet”.  How much do you or we acknowledge your “other part”: the obvious human member of Actors Equity who sometimes participates in a scene whenever tiny hands won’t do?  Do humans evolve into puppets simply with enough exposure?  If so, how does that translate in families with members who are not exactly mainstream?

The unclear vision of the Puppet Universe is just the beginning of playwright Stephen Kaplan’s challenges.  As the plot moves along, he creates a serious case of metaphorical whiplash. He can’t seem to make up his mind exactly what point he’s trying to make. The untraditional family stand-ins in for children with disabilities, transgender persons, and mixed race families and more before moving on to a vague “you be you.”   Any one of these statements could have been profound if followed through with conviction. Together they come up as ideological ambrosia salad.  And that’s before adding multiple snide asides about home schooling, ambitious local politicians, and online MBAs.

The cleverer sections of the work are hindered by the direction of Audrey Alford who, with the help of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer,  manages to ensure that every seat in the house becomes partial obstructed view.  Audience heads throughout the theater are constantly jostling for a position around the pillars, down to the floor, and over to a critical stage piece on the side.  I missed several important visual cues because they were not in my line of sight. This is fairly inexcusable given the the current configuration of the theater is about 60 seats.

ARealBoy3

Brian Michael in A REAL BOY at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

Ms. Alford has also made some curious casting choices.  At the performance I attend, young Max is played by 20-something Kelley Selznick, a talented puppeteer, but not particularly gifted actress.  Max’s mother, Mary Ann Myers, is played by Jason Allan Kennedy George making his theatrical debut.  He’s fine in the role, but I found the selection of a tall male for the part a distraction from what more obviously makes Mary Ann different from other members of the PTA.  It is also hard to figure out how Max would find comfort with Miss Terry, played at a near-vibrating pitch by Jenn Remke.  More successful is Brian Michael, striking all the right notes as Max’s father distraught father, Peter Myers.  Breaking the tension with great timing is Jamie Geiger in the role of Principal Klaus.  And of course there are the all-important puppets created by Puppet Kitchen Productions, close to blank canvases the better to project your own vision of what different means to you.

For lovers of live theater seeking an unconventional production, A Real Boy has enough artistry to make it worthy of the $25 ticket price.  It is brought to 59E59 by Ms. Alford’s Ivy Theatre Company in association with Athena Theatre, which is known for it’s unorthodox psychologically-based dramas.  Performances run through August 27.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=293.

Project W

ProjectWAnyone looking to fill an evening this week with good theater that supports a great cause and an even better movement should head over to the Cherry Lane for the Project W Theatre Festival.  Running June 6-10, this series of staged readings turns the spotlight on professional theater women in creative and business roles.  Pay-what-you-wish donations will be given to Planned Parenthood of NYC, which provides reproductive healthcare and educational programs to women and their families throughout the five boroughs.

The opening night selection, The Club written by Amy Fox and directed by Suzanne Agins, was a chuckle-filled meditation on the importance of nurturing friendships over time.  Four women who were roommates in college gather to celebrate one’s long-awaited pregnancy.  Over the course of the evening, they are forced to address the cracks that have developed in their relationships.  While none of the characters resonated with me — likely due to generational differences —  the overall tone and themes rang true.

When done well, staged readings can allow an audience the thrill of filling in the visuals. The rendition of The Club was a terrific example of this performance art.  The ensemble —  Cindy Cheung, Jolie Curtsinger, Emily Donahoe, Melanie Nicholls King, Eileen Rivera and Jason Liebman as the lone compassionate male voice —  had familiarized themselves with the lines well enough to interact with sincerity and listen with intensity.  Their ease made the banter flow, which was essential for this particular offering.

Festival producer InProximity was founded in 2008 by Ms. Curtsinger and Laurie Schaefer Fenton to highlight the candid, deep work of emerging female voices. Even in the year in which luminaries Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage have finally brought their brilliant works to Broadway, gender disparity in the arts remains.  It is important to cultivate opportunities to shine a light on the talented women of professional theater.

What was missing from a production billed as part of a “festival” was any element of celebration.  No one greeted the audience, welcomed the talent to the stage or delivered a word of thanks.  Even the donation basket sat quietly unattended on a side table.  Given the presence of co-founder Curtsinger in a leading role and her organization’s commitment to the development new works — a process that can take years of workshopping and rewrites —  I had also expected some form of feedback request.   The lack of interaction was a letdown and a lost opportunity to build camaraderie around a critical issue.

The Project W lineup continues the rest of the week with

Halcyon written by Danielle Mohlman and directed by Maureen Monterubio on Wednesday, June 7

Still Life written by Barbara Blumethal-Ehrlich and directed by Shelley Butler on June 8

Honor Killing written by Sarah Bierstock and directed by Pamela Berlin on June 9

The Flora and Fauna written by Alyson Mead and directed by Stefanie Sertich on June 10.

All performances take place 8PM in the smaller house at the Cherry Lane Theater.  For more information visit http://inproximitytheatre.org.