Tag Archives: social commentary

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.

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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). 

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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/.

Bobbie Clearly

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

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

Bobbie Cleary
Roundabout Underground

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

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

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

Dogs of Rwanda

Dogs of Rwanda is like that really sweet guy you wanna like, but you just can’t get beyond his shortcomings. There are several unfortunate distractions that prevent it from being as powerful as it should be.  Given that the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 and the audience spans a large age range, a short background beyond the artistic director’s statement would have helped.  By necessity, the tale we hear is a deeply personal one and moments are certainly shocking, but they are not given sufficient context or a sharp enough lens through which to see.  There are also some artistic choices that have hindered the impact of the piece.

The script by Sean Christopher Lewis is delivered as a monologue told solely from the point of view of David Zosia, who at 16 volunteered for a church run spring break program in order to spend time with his crush, Mary.  At their Ugandan camp, they are assigned laundry duty working just downstream from Rwanda.  When the fight between the Tutsis and the Hutus breaks out, bodies begin floating by the horrified youth. The pair is drawn deeper into the conflict when they attempt to help a local boy named Gods Blessing.  Over the course of 90 minutes, David vividly describes what happened at the time and also 20 years later when he receives a note from Gods Blessing that takes him back to Africa.  The audience is present to bear witness to his account: an integral role in any deeply meaningful ritual.

David is portrayed by Dan Hodge, an actor and director with an impressive resume.  Unlike most solo performances this isn’t Hodge’s story and that is the first stumbling block to its success.  Hodge never fully inhabits the role: he is acting not being.  The only other person on stage is musician Abou Lion Diarra who accompanies David’s tale with original music performed on a variety of percussion instruments.  This creative embellishment was added by the Urban Stages team, but the execution doesn’t quite work.  Hodge is inconsistent about including Diarra in the action, sometimes exchanges glances and sometimes ignoring him.  Furthermore, the talented Diarra is often so swept away by the joy he finds in playing that it is easy to catch him smiling incongruently to the horrors being described.

Dan Hodge stars along with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider (3)

Actor Dan Hodge with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider.

There is also the critical issue that David is essentially a selfish SOB.  Everyone else we hear about — Mary, Gods Blessing, and his current girlfriend — have been treated with contempt by our narrator and guide.  He is not without redeeming qualities, having literally bled to share at least some of his story with the public in a book called Letters From The Red Hill.  While David is certainly contrite by the end, that is where we leave him, never witnessing any actual change in his behavior.  This makes his confession a rather hallow one.  How can we forgive David as we are meant to if we never see him embody the lessons he claims to have learned and put them into action?

Urban Stages Founder, Frances Hill, and Director of Musical theatre, Peter Napolitano are responsible for the meandering direction.  The creative team is the same as the one that brought Zhu Yi’s A Deal to life.  Their vision is much murkier this time around.  The set by Frank J. Oliva is made to look like a village clearing with a faux earthen floor and thatch peering through a side opening. It lends an interesting flavor to the atmosphere, though the setting is only appropriate some of the time.  John Salutz’s lighting casts long shadows which may be intended to add mood but come across as an amateurish mistake.  The brilliant Ryan Belock has once again designed the projections, but the screen is at an angle over Hodge’s head.  This is effective for planes, trees, and clouds, and a head scratcher for ocean waves.

While not completely successful as a drama, Dogs of Rwanda can serve as a reminder of the dehumanizing effects of war, the atrocities committed based on tribalism, and the many treasured places around the globe devalued by Americans.  It is a worthy end to a season in which Urban Stages has been shining a light on works with an international point of view.  It runs through Saturday, March 31, 2018.  Tickets for are $35 ($25 during previews; $50 on opening and $15 student rush) and may be purchased via OvationTix at www.urbanstages.org or by phone at 1.866.811.4111.