Tag Archives: Off Off Broadway

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.


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.

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 Healing

In The Healing, a circle of friends who met at a religious camp 25 years ago reunites to honor the death of one of their own.  Before you can roll your eyes, let me add that the situation is set in motion by Samuel D. Hunter, the Obie Award winning playwright behind A Bright New Boise.  In both cases, Hunter explores what happens when extreme faith meets life’s curveballs with stunning agility and clarity.

Here he adds an extra thought-provoking layer.  All of the main characters and the actors who portray them are disabled.  This is both significant and irrelevant.  Commissioned by the Theater Breaking Through Barriers, the piece provides a welcome opening for a group of gifted actors who have more limited opportunities.   The work was written specifically for this cast and that customization shows in their ease with one another.  In the lead role of Sharon, the heart of the group, Shannon DeVido — a comic, improv artist, and frequent Hunter collaborator — conveys a delicate balance of command and doubt.  (Regrettably on this occasion her perfectly timed moments of reflection sometimes lead to too quiet a delivery.)  Even stronger and more approachable is actor/speaker/filmmaker David Harrell as down to earth Donald.  Jamie Petrone and John McGinty are adorable as newly coupled Bonnie and Greg.

Their presence on stage also holds up an important mirror to an underserved audience of partially sighted and deaf as well as those with limited mobility.  The energy zooming in both directions is electrifying.  Ultimately, though, this is simply a terrific story about friendship, loyalty and getting through the day.  While The Healing isn’t quite up to Boise’s level of greatness, Hunter’s set-up is intriguing, every little touch has relevance and the dialogue simply flows forward.  As a result, the script could be well executed by any talented troupe, all be it less sincerely and powerfully.

This world-premiere production has been well-mounted at the small Clurman Theatre in Theater Row.  UK and US director Stella Powell-Jones brings her delicate touch to even the most uneasy of the play’s beats. Jason Simms’ set design wonderfully captures the watched-too-much-QVC-ness of Zoe’s living room.  And I would give Christopher Metzger a separate round of applause for Mary Theresa Archbold’s physically overwhelming outfits for her role as the nearly defeated Laura.

If you like your theater on the natural side, The Healing will strike many graceful notes.  Tickets are available through July 16 at http://www.theatrerow.org/clurmannowplaying/.

Phalaris’s Bull

I am a fan of solo performances, having experienced the wonder that was Spaulding Gray and later regularly attended the fabulous Marsh Theater in San Francisco.  The Marsh introduced me to the memorable works of Don Reed, Dan Hoyle and Josh Kornbluth among others.  All of them took me on adventures far from my own personal history.  I also have close friends who studied with The Marsh’s gifted workshop leaders, Charlie Varon and David Ford.  So I admit my taste in this arena has very much been formed by their focus on storytelling techniques to define character, time and place.

Yesterday I saw my first one-man show in New York after 30 years away. Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is written and performed by Steven Friedman.  Phalaris’s Bull was an execution device described in stories of Ancient Greece and it is also one of dozens of obscure references used by Mr. Friedman as he knits together his life story with philosophy, medicine, and poetry.   With that as background, I was expecting the piece to be dense and perhaps a little above my intellectual capacity.  But I was sorry to also find it as overly accessorized as Mr. T the day after a David Webb half-priced sale.  Swells of music, flashing lights, and dense projections cloud the story until Mr. Friedman’s words are literally turned into objects.  This is quite counter to the approach I’ve seen so successfully employed and I do not think it served the material or the performer well.

Director David Schweizer and his design team (Caleb Wertenbaker, Jimmy Lawlor, Ryan Rumery and Driscoll Otto) are certainly a cohesive artistic collective.  But what they’ve created is a flashy piece of multimedia decoration around Mr. Friedman’s tale rather than a production that enhances the work itself. We are told it’s “staged to reflect Friedman’s prismatic and eclectic vision of the world”.  Instead, it comes across as if Mr. Friedman either didn’t believe in the power of his story or didn’t have faith in the willingness of his audience to follow him on the journey.  His doubt became my doubt, and with each showy step I became less involved and more irritated.  It’s a shame because once you strip off the goo, the narrative has some profoundly sweet moments and the unique viewpoint only a gifted student and unconventional artist could tell.  While Mr. Friedman may not be the most natural and relaxed of actors, what he needed was cultivation of his on-stage persona not razzmatazz.

Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is playing at the wonderful Beckett Theater — part of Theatre Row — through January 16.  Visit http://solvingtheriddleplay.com/ for tickets and information.

The Eternal Space

New York’s original Pennsylvania Station is a poster child for lost opportunity.  The majestic Beaux Arts building was allowed to fall to ruin before being razed in the early 1960s and replaced with a modern monstrosity filled with florescent lighting and fast food joints.  Playwright Justin Rivers uses the demolition of this lost landmark to serve as a backdrop for exploring an unlikely relationship that develops between a teacher/activist and a construction worker.  The resulting production, The Eternal Space, is nothing short of glorious.

I have talked with Mr. Rivers and he is exactly the sort of person I hoped I’d meet when I became a Drama Desk member.  He has a clear vision of what he wants to express while remaining open to the creative ideas of others.  This wise and secure approach to the artistic process enabled him to assemble an astonishing team of professionals on stage and behind the scenes.  Skillful director Mindy Cooper makes the most of every one of the piece’s 85 minutes.  Jason Sherwood cleverly designed a series of architectural surfaces on which Brad Peterson projects stunning photos of the slowly dissolving station.   This allows the genuine and moving performances by Clyde Baldo and Matthew Pilieci to be set off by scenery so vibrant it becomes the third character.

While I imagine this production will particularly appeal to city dwellers who dread the thought of a big box store or luxury condo on every corner, The Eternal Space covers more universal subjects of love and loss that anyone can relate to. The story evolves more like a piece of music than a typical play.  Themes return in the dialogue but as if performed on a different instrument.  On several occasions I was taken by surprise, only to think a moment later, “well, yes, of course.”   The experience is (appropriately enough) much like a delightful slowly unfolding journey by train.

The Eternal Space is at The Lion Theater at Theater Row through December 6, 2015.  For tickets and information visit http://theeternalspaceplay.com.


You aren’t likely to confuse Underland by Alexandra Collier with any play you’ve seen before.  Its “Lost-y” WTFness is more typically associated with television and movies.  It is a credit to director Mia Rovegno that it works mechanically and, for the most part, narratively.  It was not at all to my taste, but I applaud 59E59 for making such a daring selection for their season.

Collier makes great use of the mood and isolation of the Australian Outback where the play is set.  From the opening moments it is clear something otherworldly is happening to the entire population, though some townspeople are more aware than their neighbors.  Collier moves her players skillfully to make the most of the small stage.  Burke Brown’s lighting and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound help create an appropriate menacing tone for the action.

The fantastical dialogue doesn’t always flow.  Daniel K. Isaac fares best as Taka, a Japanese businessman who gets sucked into town through a tunnel in Tokyo.  His character is enhanced by some subtle and imaginative “business” which sets him apart from the residents.  Many of the other actors are weighed down by the thick tenor of their lines.  The performances of Kiley Lotz as Ruth, an awkward school girl, and Jens Rasmussen as Mr. B, a domineering PE teacher, are so overblown they could be starring in a silent picture.  And the talented Annie Golden is burdened with mercurial speeches that are so drawn out they shoot beyond mood-setting and right into numbing.

Just as there is something lurking in the town’s quarry, there is something just below the surface of this piece.  For me, it stayed buried.  But to lovers of all things mystical and unexplained, attendance is likely to be an appropriately haunting experience.

Underland is being presented by the terraNOVA Collective in Theater B at 59E59 through April 25.  For tickets and information, visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=199.


Apparently Jo Darum — the lead character in Nick Jones’s satiric play Verité — is unfamiliar with the so-called “Chinese Curse”: May you live in interesting times.  After a rather unorthodox publishing house offers Jo $50,000 to pen her memoir, the housewife and mother decides she must start living a life worth writing about.  The results are by turns funny, unexpected and chilling.

In less assured hands, Jo’s surreal journey would be too preposterous to be engaging.  Thankfully the appealing Anna Camp’s experience includes turns in Pitch Perfect, True Blood and Equus, giving her all the tools necessary to make us connect emotionally with the play’s enthusiastic if naive heroine. Unfortunately, while some of the scenes crackle, the dialogue is too thin in places to fully support the bizarre premise.  At one point Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Winston, who may or may not have gone to high school with Jo,  is given a speech that resembles those dreadful scenes at the end of Perry Mason in which all is revealed in a Jamesian level of detail.  The woman next to me literally started snoring.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s skill is tested by the unusual dimensions of the Claire Tow stage.  The newest space at Lincoln Center is shallow and long, so those at the end of each row crane their necks while seeing too much of the actors’ backs.  Despite this challenge, Mr. Stuelpnagel and his cast deftly handle the rapid changes in tone.  Sharp pacing, terrific timing and clever sound cues are clearly in evidence.  Furthermore, the LCT3 is to be praised for offering this offbeat experience for $20 and bringing a diverse audience into their theater.

Verité runs through March 15 at the Claire Tow theater in Lincoln Center.  For tickets and information, visit http://www.lct.org/shows/verite/