Tag Archives: social commentary

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).

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson

On a soundstage, a talented production team is preparing to shoot an AT&T commercial featuring beloved Luke Wilson.  The creative concept is to drop red gumballs around the star to symbolize all of Verizon’s dropped calls.  Despite a lack of time to test the hastily put-together rig, prop lead Rob is able to toss the small projectiles just shy of Luke’s shoulder and the first few takes go smoothly.  Then a case of nerves sets in and a few of the hard objects hit Luke squarely on the head.  The actor sees stars; the director —award-winning documentarian Errol Morris — sees excitement and orders the crew to deliberately aim for the performer on the next take.  

This is the set-up of the aptly named Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, which is based on true events.  Though the Directors Guild of America takes set safety very seriously, sadly there are occasional incidents of a director demanding a dangerous shot, as happened in this case.  Rob Ackerman accurately has commercial Assistant Director, Alice, threaten to report Morris to the Guild.  The script also provides enough background to realistically make her vulnerable to manipulation.  It’s a creative stand-in for any project on which a concerned would-be whistleblower has instead been made complicit through intimidation.  If only the playwright had trusted his audience to get his very clear and impactful message.  Instead, after a lively and thought-provoking 55 minutes, he burdens the additional 20 with outright lectures on broader issues and political topics ranging from gender discrimination to Nazis.  It’s an unnecessary departure from the previous territory that mars an otherwise engaging production.

First time director, famed playwright Theresa Rebeck, does an imaginative job of bringing us deep inside the physical set of the commercial and the mind set of each participant.  The results are visually stimulating and often laugh-out-loud funny.  The assorted screens that are employed by Morris for playback at the shoot are also used to show us the crew’s previous experiences that have brought them to this critical moment.  (Yana Birkukova provides the ideal video design.)  The nearly all-white set designed by Christopher and Justin Swader shows off these projections to great effect.  Emphasis is achieved by Mary Ellen Stebbin’s well-placed lighting, which often shifts to a befitting green-screen green.  The look is completed by the essential craft service table.  Costumes designed by Tricia Barsamian will make any production pro feel right at home.  All-important clever props are provided by Addison Heeren. 

the cast of DROPPING GUMBALLS

The Cast of Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson; Photo by Carol Rosegg

As a former prop person, Rob Ackerman makes the prop man, also named Rob, his spokesperson.  George Hampe does a fabulous job of growing increasingly manic as character Rob struggles to remain the voice of reason and the closest thing we get to a hero.  With a get-on-with-it gruffness, Dean Nolen is well cast as his boss and seasoned rigger, Ken.  Reyna De Courcy is less successful at maintaining an appropriate emotional build in the role of their assistant, Jenny, becoming akin to a cartoon character with jerky motions and high-pitched yelps of displeasure.  With enough charm and swagger, Jonathan Sale could easily be Luke Wilson’s deliberately pudgy body double.  It’s less easy to know how well David Wohl impersonates Errol Morris.  The part is written in one obnoxious note, though the theater vet certainly manifests a typical ego-driven artist.  In the toughest role, Ann Harada swings rightly between assuredness and fear as Alice, but she struggles to differentiate the other small parts she takes on in memory and flashback.

Ackerman’s love of television production and those who strive to keep it creative and truthful shines through despite a dip in the ending.  It is easy to see why both Luke Wilson and Errol Morris have given the project their blessing.  With a little reworking of the last section, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson has the makings of insightful modern satire.  Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission.  It plays through July 6, 2019, in the Mezzanine Theater at at A.R.T./ New York Theatre (502 W. 53rd Street). Tickets are $25 for union card holders, $30 general admission and $40 for reserved seating.  For purchasing and additional information, visit TheWorkingTheater.org or call the Box Office (Ovationtix) at 866.811.4111.

Square Go

Get ready to go toe to toe with two terrific actors in the fast moving and highly entertaining Square Go. (A “Square Go” is a Scottish term for an all-out fist fight.)  Max has made an unfortunate remark that received the wrong kind of attention from local bully-in-chief Danny Guthrie.  Now he’s been challenged to fight it out in the playground.  Max’s best friend, the affable and slightly dim Stevie, stands firmly at his friend’s back  But his support will be limited to the moral kind.  The audience is therefore invited to participate in Max’s preparation for an almost certain pummeling at Danny’s bigger and more experienced hands.  As we contribute our cheers and a hand or two, we learn the key turning points that led to this undesirable moment in Max’s short life. 

Several components put this slice-of-life tale in a class above most two-handers.  The writing by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair is poignant, humorous, and well edited.  Both Daniel Portman (Poderick Payne on Game of Thrones) and Gavin Jon Wright (Black Watch with the National Theatre of Scotland) turn in wonderfully layered performances. Wearing boxing shorts and tank tops which fully display bodies that obviously did not just emerge from the New York Sports Club next door to the theater, they perfectly capture the awkwardness of their youthful characters.  

What stands out even more is the viewpoint, with the action moving seamlessly from a school, to various locations around small-town Scotland, to inside the characters’ heads, to inside the theater.  The entire creative process used to tell the story is imaginative and well executed.  The setting is a simple square imbedded on the floor.  The rest of the background is filled in with a soundscape and lighting.  The lights designed by Peter Small, props developed by Martha Mamo, and original soundtrack provided by members of Frightened Rabbit are integral to Wright’s remarkable portrayal of multiple characters.  Portman has the tougher job of bringing variation to the more straightforward role of the downtrodden Max.   

Daniel Portman and Gavin Jon Wright in SQUARE GO part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Daniel Portman and Gavin Jon Wright in SQUARE GO. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Director Finn Den Hertog, who won a Scotsman Fringe First Awards for this production, has staged the entire piece within the square with the audience on all four sides just like a wrestling arena.  The energy builds from the close proximity and the physical containment of the actors.  The players’ interactions with the audience  — which can often be awkward — are carefully crafted and skillfully managed.  There’s no room for bad moods or poor sportsmanship from the crowd.  You’ll be required to keep your feet out of their space and your head in their game.

Arriving at a time when toxic masculinity is being reevaluated by all genders, Square Go presents a universal story in a singular fashion.  Though the details of Max’s journey may be particular to him, the experience of trying to find one’s place in the world is one that everyone can understand.  Performances run through June 30 in Theater C at 59E59.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for members) and seating is general admission. Running time is 60 minutes, with no intermission.  To purchase or for more information, call the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.

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.

All Our Children

At a time when the US government has been separating families at the border, All Our Children sends an impassioned message about the responsibility we share as a society to protect the most vulnerable among us.  The play by Stephen Unwin is a work of fiction based on true events that took place in Germany between 1939 and 1941.  In a lesser-known chapter from that time, the Nazis sent 100,000 mentally and physically impaired people to the gas chamber.  It was felt that their deaths were efficient and even compassionate since these citizens could never properly contribute to the development of the Third Reich.

The intentionally claustrophobic piece is set entirely in the office of Victor Franz, a doctor whose clinic has been repurposed to quickly diagnose and dispatch the children under his care.  Director Ethan McSweeny has staged the work in the round so that the audience encircles the doctor, witnessing the slow dismantling of the acceptance he has maintained of his role in these casual murders.  The audience in turn is enveloped in a wall of file cabinets which contain the children’s medical files, a powerful image in the minimalist set by Lee Savage. Somber radio music, part of Lindsay Jones’s sound design, is used to effectively illustrate the passage of time.  Simple period costumes by Tracy Christensen complete the look and tone, sending us back to that horrible period.

Karl Kenzler brings a combination of gruffness and vulnerability to his role of Dr. Franz as he ping-pongs between professional obligation and personal discomfort.  But the actor cannot escape the circular emotional arc with which the character is burdened.  Unwin is a seasoned director and teacher and this is his first time as playwright. The results are heartfelt but thinly executed.  The other four characters are drawn in stark black or white, a weakness that often plagues stories that involve the Nazis.  Furthermore, Franz’s tolerance for many of his encounters isn’t properly explained or realistically motivated.

KARL KENZLER and JOHN GLOVER Photo by Maria Baranova

KARL KENZLER and JOHN GLOVER, Photo by Maria Baranova

Among Franz’s foils are his pious maid, Martha, (a fluttery, sweet Jennifer Dundas) a genuinely caring woman who tries to reconnect him with his sense of responsibility to heal and give comfort to his young patients.  There is also Elizabetta (a too broad and harsh Tasha Lawrence) representing all the grieving mothers who love their children no matter their limitations.  Most important is Bishop von Galen (the always excellent and engaging John Glover) who attempts to appeal to Franz’s long-lost soul.  Counterbalancing them all is the clinic’s administrator, Eric (an appropriately oily Sam Lilja), who is not only a member of the SS, but also guilty of statutory rape.  He’d be twirling his mustache if only he had one.  It is only his embodiment of pure evil that eventually breaks through Franz’s trancelike state.

Recommended for ages 13 and older, All Our Children lacks nuance, but delivers on its examination of a particularly shameful practice. It is playing through May 12th in the versatile Black Box Theater at The Sheen Center, a project of the Archdiocese of New York.  Runtime is a scant 90 minutes with no intermission.  Tickets are $65 and $80 for general admission and can be purchased at https://www.sheencenter.org/shows/allourchildren/2019-04-06/. For those wanting to delve deeper into the topic, post-performance talkbacks are scheduled throughout the run.  The play is also accompanied by an exhibit in the Sheen Center gallery, Little Differences: The Portrayal of Children with DisABILITIES Throughout History.

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).  

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/.