Tag Archives: social commentary

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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The Price of Thomas Scott

Long before there was Reverend Moore in Footloose, there was dance adversary and forceful chapel congregant Thomas Scott. Scott has been offered a small fortune for his declining neighborhood textile business.  The problem?  The new owners would turn the desirable corner location into a dance hall: a devil’s playground as far as Scott is concerned.  A righteous Protestant Nonconformist, he must now weigh his family’s future against his steadfast convictions.

Despite being written in 1913 by rising star Elizabeth Baker, The Price of Thomas Scott is brimming with modern dilemmas.  Class still dictates potential opportunity for education and career.  Our highly divided social climate is filled with the voices of strong convictions that have soured into prejudice.  Many become even more entrenched in the familiar and pass judgement on those who are open to differing opinion.  Yet as time moves forward, the seemingly outrageous and unusual can find more acceptance.

Scott’s family in question includes his far-sighted and talented daughter Annie (a radiant Emma Geer), whose creativity is stifled by her tasteless clientele.  Her brilliant brother Leonard (Nick LaMedica who does his best to come across as a teenager) has the potential to become upwardly mobile.  Their mother Ellen (an underutilized Tracy Sallows) longs to retire with her husband to Tunbridge Wells where they first met.  While Scott himself (a crackling Donald Corren)  has built his life around his chapel and now seems driven to protect everyone’s prospects for entrance to heaven.  Temptation is provided in the form of Wicksteed (a polished and eloquent Mitch Greenberg) a former friend now employed by the successful Courney Company.  The story is made richer by the Scott’s friends and neighbors played by Andrew Fallaize, Josh Goulding, Jay Russell, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, Ayana Workman and Arielle Yoder.

THE PRICE OF THOMAS SCOTT by ELIZABETH BAKER Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren and Emma Geer Photo by Todd Cerveris

Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren and Emma Geer.  Photo by Todd Cerveris.

Director Jonathan Bank is constrained in his approach, relying heavily on Tracy Bersley’s choreography to pick up the momentum.  All the action takes place in the back parlor of the Scott’s shop, represented by the perfectly rundown set created by Vicki R. Davis.  The charming mostly muted costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski tell the story of period and class in pre-WWI England.  The hats on display illustrate the gap between Annie’s instinct for style and her clients’ misguided requests.  Shifts in the lighting by Christian Deangelis and music and sound by Jane Shaw help set mood and pace. 

All are in service to the clever and often humorous words of Ms. Baker.  Growing up in a household similar to that of the Scotts, she took in her first play at the age of 30.  In short order she had transformed from an obscure stenographer to recognized playwright.  At first you may need to navigate the various accents and a few older expressions, but then the flow is established and the characters come into focus. However, the ending will feel extremely abrupt to a modern audience.  (Those around me failed to clap for a full 30 seconds, though they appeared stunned more than unhappy with the performance.) The production team seems to have recognized Baker’s departure from what has become an acceptable character arc and tacked on a post-curtain call “coda” to better manage expectation. Your reading of the Artistic Director’s statement and dramaturgical notes will help you better appreciate the work.

The Price of Thomas Scott poses some deep questions through pleasant voices.  It is Mint Theater’s latest project in support of giving new life to neglected women playwrights.   Runtime is 90 minutes with no intermission.  It is playing through March 23 at the Beckett Theatre in Theatre Row.  Full priced tickets are $65, though there are several discount options including $32 day-of Rush.  For more information and to purchase seats visit http://minttheater.org/current-production/

Blue Ridge

Alison only knows one way of being.  All waving arms and defensive language, she’s a fast talker in all the meanings of that phrase.  Having been incarcerated for taking a hatchet to her lover’s car, she’s been released into the loving care of a church-sponsored sober house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.  We meet her at her very first group session where she recites Carrie Underwood lyrics instead of the bible passage she’s supposed to have prepared.  Within minutes she’s telling the circle why she’s not really responsible for her crime and emphasizing that, having never done drugs, she doesn’t have need of any one of the twelve steps.  

Anyone who has experience with someone in recovery will know exactly how this story is going to unfold.  That’s the essential problem with Blue Ridge, now playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.  While Abby Rosebrock’s script is beautifully written with textured dialogue, it doesn’t have anything new to say about mental health, boundary issues, or the powers of addiction in its many forms. Only those who find a new path have a real prayer of moving on intact enough to survive in the outside world.

blueridge.dress.1064

From lower left: Peter Mark Kendall, Chris Stack, Kyle Beltran,  Kristolyn Lloyd, Nicole Lewis and Marin Ireland in Blue Ridge. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

In the hands and body of stage steady Marin Ireland, Alison is particularly irksome.  Her constant shrillness and twitching makes it hard to believe anyone in this substitute family would warm to her.  This is especially true of her devoted roommate Cherie, played with deep sincerity by the excellent Kristolyn Lloyd.  The male housemates’ reactions come from two diametrically opposed yet equally predictable directions.  Peter Mark Kendall brings genuine vulnerability to the easily beguiled Cole while the endlessly watchable Kyle Beltran’s Wade creates friction in his struggle to find inner strength.  The program’s co-founders are equally ill-equipped to lead everyone safely through a  troubled journey. Pastor Hern (a smooth Chris Stack) weakly attempts to guide the housemates in a more mindful direction, and Nicole Lewis’s insufficiently defined Grace generally lives up to her name by simply finding the good in what comes naturally to each of her residents.  

Director Taibi Magar successfully explores the shifting mood as the house moves from warm community to too close for comfort.  Confrontations have a palpable and fiery emotional core.  Her pacing is off, though, with the play running nearly 15 minutes over the prescribed two hours on Thursday night.  Mikaal Sulaiman provides the intelligently curated soundtrack for both conflict and healing. Unfortunately, some of the other design choices are distracting.  Why is the ten year old furniture of Adam Rigg’s set in a palate associated with the late 70s?  Why does Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting incorporate an incongruous brilliant December sunshine streaming through the window and ugly fluorescent overheads that play a supporting role for just a few minutes?  Why, while indicating the passage of time through Thanksgiving throws and a Rudolf mantlepiece, do we need to break the story’s flow and see each item put in place by the glow of a proscenium of LEDs?  

Taken as a whole, this production of Blue Ridge is flawed and consequently frustrating.  Writer Rosebrock has obvious talent, but her storytelling has not yet been brought into focus.  However, if you are fascinated by the ways in which broken people can either fit together with or puncture those around them, you may find enough with which to engage. This limited run is scheduled through Sunday, January 27th.  Regular tickets begin at $65 and can be purchased 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). 

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.  

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.

This Flat Earth

“Are you there,” implores 13 year old Julie at both ends of This Flat Earth to anyone who’s listening Nine students were recently killed in a school shooting, disrupting her feelings of peace, safety, and normalcy.  This topic should be the springboard for compelling discussion.  Indeed there are some threads about socioeconomic conditions and adolescent turning points that click.  But for the most part, this is a ninety minute missed opportunity that ultimately promises that trauma will be all but lost beneath the unrelenting waves of everyday life.

This Flat Earth

Ella Kennedy Davis (Julie) and Lynda Gravátt (Cloris), Photo by Joan Marcus.

The piece is set in the recent past, and yet somehow Julie has no idea that hers is not the first school to have gone through such an experience.  She believes that her persistent jealousy of a talented and popular girl who died might have caused the tragedy. In her program notes, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino tells how she experienced a similar sense of misplaced power when the incidents of 9/11 occurred the day after she had written a diary entry about the joys of peacetime.  The transference of those feelings to sadly more common circumstance are diminishing to her main character.  The excuse provided for Julie’s ignorance is that her father is too poor to have purchased a laptop.  But even her best friend/would-be-boyfriend Zander seems to think the girl just hasn’t been paying attention.

The casting of Ella Kennedy Davis as Julie doesn’t do much to shore up the character as an interesting representative of her generation.  While speaking too quickly at a very high pitch and slurring key words is all too realistic, it also left many of the audience members trying to keep up as they attempted to fill in the missed dialogue. Faring much better is the gifted Ian Saint-Germain, who captures the natural flow of Zander’s assuredness and awkwardness.  Lucas Papaelias has trouble navigating the clumsy role of Julie’s father, Dan, but it is hard to tell how much of the difficulty is in the lines and  how much in his interpretation.  While no parent can protect a child from all dangers, widower Dan comes across as particularly ill-equipped and Papaelias often flails around in his skin.  In the role of Lisa, a mother who lost a child in the tragedy, Cassie Beck is also constrained by her character’s limited responses.  The only adult providing any constructive contribution is Lynda Gravátt’s upstairs neighbor Cloris.  Naturally she can’t answer the impossible, but she delivers sincere and often amusing descriptions of effective coping mechanisms.

The talented director Rebecca Taichman does her best to underscore the truer emotions in the script by matching it with genuinely motivated physicality.  Dane Laffrey’s two story set works wonderfully, though it could use a few more tonal touches.  Costume designer Paloma Young has put together a fitting wardrobe, particularly with a bag of clothes that plays a critical role.  Adding to the mood as well as forwarding the story is cellist Christine H. Kim under the musical direction of Christian Frederickson.

This Flat Earth is one of several recent productions that poses probing questions about the world we are leaving to the new generation.  The Artistic Director claims it was never conceived as a production about gun violence, but opening just a month after events at Parkland it’s impossible to view it separate from that issue.  Even when evaluated as an artistic expression, the play is wan when compared to similar offerings. While there are moments when the authentic psyches of the teens shine through, there are too many uninspiring stretches.  Performances of this world premiere continue through April 29 at Playwrights Horizons.  For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/flat-earth/.