Sunday, November 23, 2014

117. Review of ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR (November 21, 2014)

Regardless of its title, Robert Callelly’s ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR, a production of the Directors Company, isn’t a barroom play, but instead a domestic drama set largely in a Camden, NJ, suburban kitchen in the late 1980s. It attempts to come to grips with a sensitive issue, somewhat akin to the dilemmas faced by the Stephen Rea character in the 1992 movie THE CRYING GAME and by the French diplomat in the play and movie M. BUTTERFLY. Since the “mystery” underlined in the play’s press release is explained early on, and its disclosure isn’t really the play’s subject, revealing it in a review (as others already have done) shouldn’t really be a spoiler.

In brief, Tony DeMarco (Timothy John Smith), a macho lumberyard owner, is married to his second wife, Chris (Antoinette Thorne), with whom he enjoys a rich sex life. Chris is a caring stepmother to Tony’s three kids, and the kind of attractive woman who dresses in nicely tailored casual designer clothes, has her rich head of dyed strawberry blonde hair perfectly coiffed, and never goes around without her high-cheekboned face made up to the hilt.

On a Stool at the End of the Bar
From left: Zachary Brod, Antoinette Thorne, Sara Kapner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

One day, when Tony comes home earlier than expected because of a work-related accident, he’s visited by Michael McCullough (John Stanisci), who expected to be meeting with Chris. You see, Chris has been separated for twenty years from her family because—here it comes!—she’s really a man who’s had gender-changing surgery. Her conservative Catholic family rejected her, but now her uptight dad has died, and Michael has come to give her a check for the $97,000 she’s inherited. Michael hasn’t seen his “brother” in all these years, and only his recent discovery that his own son is gay has tempered his raging homophobic bigotry enough to make this visit possible.
Photo Flash: First Look at ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR at 59E59 Theaters
Timothy John Smith, Sara Kapner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It takes some time for Michael to realize that Tony has absolutely no idea of what he’s talking about (Tony’s so ignorant he has no idea that a.k.a. means “also known as” when he sees that the check is for “Christopher Eugene McCullough a.k.a. Christine McCullough”). Tony also needs a lot of time to digest the fact that his wife is a transsexual (the play’s word). Oil often marries water, but, while one can understand Tony’s confusion and disgust, his attitudes are so retro that it’s hard to see the more refined and well-spoken Chris—albeit with a background as a hooker to pay for her operation—living with him in connubial bliss.
One might imagine that, had Michael and Tony not met by accident, the latter would have remained in ignorance until his dying day, but, whoops, the truth is out and Tony is so enraged that he’s been fooled into marrying a “faggot” that he even gives the wife he loves the back of his powerful hand. The rest of the play, which goes nowhere slowly, is concerned with Tony’s struggle to come to terms with Chris’s egregious failure to divulge her past (the play’s true subject) The only person from whom he seeks counsel is a clueless old priest (Robert Hogan), who even wants to break the confidentiality of the confessional by reporting the case to his bishop. During his confession, Tony divulges the fact that, when he was young, he experienced fellatio (another word he doesn’t know when he hears it) on several occasions, and denies vehemently the priest’s suggestion that he himself might be gay, although the playwright clearly wants us to think there may be some truth in it. The play wastes stage time with a scene between Chris and her female shrink (Liza Vann), but provides no one who can offer Tony (and the audience) any sort of reasonable explanation or counseling for his problem.
Anyway, the two-act, two-hour play stumbles along without any important developments, only its several scenes that try to explain the problem of transsexuality having any intrinsic interest. Tony’s younger kids, 16-year-old Angie (Sara Kapner) and 13-year-old Mario (Zachary Brod), seem able to deal with Chris’s revelations, but high school senior Joey (Luke Slattery) is as narrow-minded and conflicted as his dad, and runs away. The play ends by hinting, inconclusively, that things may be stabilizing.
So the lesson is, if you’ve undergone sex change surgery, make sure you tell your new spouse about it. Of course, this lesson can be extrapolated to refer to any important information you withhold inappropriately from someone who should have it, like the story my friend told me before the show began about his failure to let the people for whom he was acting in a commercial know he was a vegan, even though the job meant he’d have to eat ice cream. If you don’t want unnecessary tsuris in your life, tell the truth!
ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR deals with a situation ripe for dramatic treatment, but it fails to develop its situations effectively and lacks credible or sympathetic characters. Mr. Callely has placed the story in the late 80s, but the behavior of these pre-Internet people seems to belong in a time capsule of the 60s. The play might have gained more traction in a better production, but this one, with a paint-by-numbers set by Jessica Parks and lackluster direction by Michael Parva, with its deadly pacing and uninspired staging (including little things like having a kid take a can of soda from the fridge three times and never open it), doesn’t do the play or the actors much justice.

Most of the performers are solid professionals, but the soft-voiced, eye-rolling Ms. Thorne, despite being an actual transgender (the term an usher I spoke to used) performer who fronts a rock band (the Thornes), is not much of an actor, a major drawback that may make you wish you were on that titular barstool instead of at this play.
59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street
Through December 14

116. Review of PUNK ROCK (November 20, 2014)ann

The MCC Theater’s production of PUNK ROCK, British playwright Simon Stephens’s 2009 British drama about a group of boisterous students in an English public (i.e., private) school, delivers such a rock ‘em sock ‘em theatrical blow that it’s not till you’re riding home on the subway or rerunning it in your head as you fall asleep that some of its dramatic drawbacks begin to bleed. Bleeding is an operative word here, given the outcome of this often funny, but mainly tragic look at the uncomfortably entwined lives of these anxious kids as they revise (i.e., review) for their A level mock exams (something like PSATs) in a school located in Stockport, England, near Manchester, where Mr. Stephens (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME) actually spent some time as a teacher.

PUNK ROCK is the second play inspired by the Columbine shootings I’ve seen in a week; it makes the other, THE ERLKINGS, look, in theatrical terms, like a BB gun next to an AK47. All the action takes place on Mark Wendland’s brilliantly photorealistic envisioning of a mostly disused school library, peeling ceiling paint and all, which makes the Lucille Lortel stage look twice as big as you might have thought it was.

Will Pullen gives Noah Robbins a piece of his mind in Simon Stephens' Punk Rock, a production of MCC Theater directed by Trip Cullman at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
From left: Pico Alexander, Will Pullen, Noah Robbins, Lilly Englert. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mr. Stephens’s four boys and three girls offer such a dynamically active picture of rampaging hormones, sexual confusion, romantic awkwardness, teenage depression, and damnable bullying that you’ll wonder how you ever got through those tormented years (if, indeed, these kids even remotely reflect your experiences) in one piece (assuming you did). Yes, these lads and lasses, each representing some teenage stereotype—already represented in an endless series of films and TV shows, not to mention plays (a recent, representative example being HISTORY BOYS)—are not particularly unique, but the playwright manages to invest them with piercing vividness, not a heartbeat of which the exceptional young cast misses. Although seemingly realistic, these characters are, in fact, hyper-realistic, their insistently physical, super-articulate, often profanity-smeared way of expressing themselves taking them to another level only viable on the stage. Their combined charisma, vitality, and emotionalism compresses this mélange of smart, privileged, middle-class prep uniform-wearing teens into an explosively potent stick of stageworthy TNT.

The action, played out during a consistently gripping intermissionless hour and 45-minutes, covers seven scenes, beginning in early October, climaxing in an act of violence in November, and concluding around Christmas with the culpable student in a medium security hospital. On view are William Carlisle (Douglas Smith), a motor-mouthed, savvy, but mendacious and jumpily neurotic beanpole who wants to go to Cambridge; Lilly Cahill (Colbie Minifie), the masochistic new girl, a college professor’s daughter, just arrived from Cambridge, and quickly involved—to William’s distress—in a relationship with the handsome lacrosse player, Nicholas Chatman (Pico Alexander), one of the quieter students; Tracy Gleason (Annie Funke), a goodhearted, overweight girl who becomes an unfortunate target of abuse by the restlessly driven bully, Bennett Francis (Will Pullen); Chadwick Meade (Noah Robbins) nerdy but brilliant, who strikes back at the threatening Bennett with a devastating diatribe about the ultimate downfall of the world; and Cissy Franklin (Lilly Englert), Bennett’s hottie girlfriend, a straight A student whose emotional neediness allows her to tolerate his sadism. There’s also a brief role for a character’s younger sister, Lucy (Sophie Shapiro).  

I’d rather praise the entire excellent ensemble than each member of it. Only one actor, Lilly Englert, is actually British, but the accents almost always sound authentic, even to the point of occasional incomprehensibility as the words come tumbling out. As is so often the case, all the actors playing high school students are way too old (22 to 29), but they all pass convincingly for adolescents when on stage.

To underline the nervous tension during the scene breaks, director Trip Cullman (abetted by sound designer Darron L. West) turns the music volume (Big Black, Sonic Youth, the Stooges, etc.) up to max and the lights (a superb job by Japhy Weideman) to an eerie min, as the cast enters in phantasmagoric masks moving bizarrely to the wild rhythms before rapidly vanishing as the music suddenly ends and the lights bounce instantly on again, the contrast creating an effect of deafening silence. The effect suggests a nightmare vision of the inner demons torturing each student. Mr. Cullman’s staging throughout is inventive and excitingly paced, with the actors’ bullet-train speech and high energy interchanges almost giving the impression they’re on speed. The climactic scene is done with such frightening realism you may consider running for the nearest exit.

Living in a world where every week seems to offer news of school violence, we yearn for answers to what can be done to stop the carnage. THE ERLKINGS offers the desperate suggestion that “reaching out” will help but PUNK ROCK doesn’t even go that far. Mr. Stephens includes an unnecessary coda involving a psychiatrist (David Greenspan), but stops short of attempting to offer an explanation for the unexplainable. As we continually learn, the modern world is such that there’s no way these events can be prevented.

If this were an American play, one could protest the country’s idiotic lack of gun control, but the play takes place in England, where guns are banned (although gun crimes are on the rise). Madness is madness, wherever it happens. As the perpetrator admits: “I did it because I could.” PUNK ROCK may not be great drama, but it’s sure as hell terrific theatre. It won't enlighten you about school violence, with or without guns, but it may very well scare the bejesus out of you.   

Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through December 14


Friday, November 21, 2014

115. Review of PITBULLS (November 19, 2014)

Need some gritty grunge in your playgoing diet?  If so, you can usually depend on the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre to provide it. Looking back on the past couple of seasons, I can recall feeling the need for a shower after sitting through several of THE HILLTOWN PLAYS, THE LONG SHRIFT, THROUGH THE YELLOW HOUR, A FABLE, and THE FEW, plays usually filled with shiftless, scruffy, swearing characters in rundown settings depicting a world of losers and miscreants. So it was no surprise on entering the theatre to encounter the shabby trailer trash environment Andrew Boyce has put together for PITBULLS, Keith Josef Adkins’s intermittently interesting examination of life in an African American Bible Belt community somewhere in the Appalachian backwoods, near where the Ohio River meets Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
Pit bull (two words, not one) fighting is not only acceptable around here, but even the town’s mayor and chief law enforcement officer advocate for it with a Fourth of July Pitbull Summit intended to help local breeders make a profit on dog sales, making the place America’s “pitbull capital.”
Although much of the play is about pit bull fighting’s significance to the town, nothing is said about its legality. According to Wikipedia:
In addition to [dog fighting] being a felony in all 50 U.S. states, the federal U.S. Animal Welfare Act makes it unlawful for any person to knowingly sell, buy, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any dog for purposes of having the dog participate in an animal fighting venture.
It’s hard not to be puzzled about this in a play where only one character opposes the fighting, and no one ever cites the laws against it; on the other hand, the play doesn’t shy away from iterations about other local infractions, including flag burning.
PITBULLS is a domestic drama portraying five black hillbillies (Hill Jacks, the play calls them), and focusing chiefly on a blowsy, feisty termagant, Mary (Yvette Ganier), whose ideals—she’s the one against pit bull fights and for flag burning—clash with those of everyone around her. Mary and Dipper live in a decrepit trailer, where she inexplicably keeps her washer outdoors and earns her living by making bootleg wine, which Dipper sells at the nearby highway off-ramp. Her libations are also used for various healing purposes, for which some consider her a witch.
Mary is fiercely protective of Dipper (Maurice Williams), her feckless 20ish son, whose name, we learn in one of the play’s brief—but not very credible—infusions of poetic atmosphere, was inspired by Mary’s fascination with the stars and constellations. Her overprotectiveness involves her keeping him away from people and pit bulls, but, bored and lonely, with barely any outlets for “funning,” Dipper’s inclinations aren’t easy to repress.
From left: Donna Duplantier, Nathan Hinton, Yvette Ganier. Photo: Monica Simoes.
The local sheriff, Virgil (Billy Eugene Jones), is a swaggering ex-Marine and torch-bearing former lover of Mary, who returned from service (where is unspecified) with a mean streak that makes him potentially dangerous to anyone with whom he disagrees. Virgil is intent on making Mary admit she tried to blow someone up in their truck some years past for having killed her pup (an incident about which she still obsesses), and we have to wait until late in the play to find out what actually happened. Mr. Adkins, whose play seems mainly interested in squeezing as much local color from these folks as he can, doesn’t create much suspense about this or other matters, including the killing of two dogs.

From left: Billy Eugene Jones, Maurice Williams, Yvette Ganier. Photo: Monica Simoes.
Possibly Dipper’s father, Virgil arrests Dipper, accusing him of blowing the head off a pit (the grisly remains appear in a bowling bag), forcing Mary to choose between Dipper’s going to prison or joining the Marines, which latter possibility Mary—seeing what military service did to Virgil—vehemently opposes. Without revealing the outcome, I can suggest that, from what we’ve seen of Dipper, even if he decided to serve, his chances of actually being accepted, regardless of Virgil’s inside line to recruiters, would be unlikely; the idea of him shooting missiles at the enemy stretches credulity to the breaking point.   
Then there’s Wayne (Nathan Hinton), a door-to-door salvationist seeking to become a full-fledged minister. Wayne, however, is an avowed porn-watching sinner, cussing freely and, despite being married to the bible-thumping but equally hypocritical Rhonda (Donna Duplantier), having casual sex with Mary, for whom he serves as a Mr. Fixit. “It’s better to speak your sins,” he declares, “than to hide them.” Mary, for her part, has little but ridicule for Wayne’s piety, or for any religious belief. Wayne’s immediate aim is to gain the mayor’s approval so he can offer the official benediction when the summit is held, thus enhancing his ministerial aspirations. This creates conflict when he hesitates about helping Mary in her attempt to shield Dipper from incarceration.  
Mr. Adkins requires that the actors speak in a local dialect that shouldn’t be confused with Southern black speech; it’s hard for me to tell the difference, although my companion, who once lived in Ohio, felt that Ms. Ganier sounded authentic. The language is colorfully ripe and vulgar (the local mountains are referred to as “tittified babies”), the characters are profanely earthy, and, one supposes, are intended to serve as human representatives of the tenacity with which pit bulls never let go.
With much of the action taking place on Independence Day, there’s clearly a link to the characters’ respective needs to establish their own independence from their living conditions. The townspeople, for their part, need the sort of independence they can get by separating themselves from poverty by making money from the summit. To Virgil, Mary’s rejection of pit bulls is a rejection of these needs, which is why he informs her that town can tolerate her flag burning but not a “disregard for pitbulls.”
Despite the play’s clunky storytelling, the actors offer vivid performances, most especially Ms. Ganier, who works hard to make her character’s negativity artistically positive. Leah C. Gardiner’s direction keeps things moving; Mr. Boyce’s set cleverly squeezes several naturalistic locales into the tiny space available; Dede Ayite’s rural costumes look authentic; and Eric Southern’s lighting offers acceptable indoor and outdoor effects.
Mr. Adkins’s play is both nominally and thematically about dogfighting, a subject into which not many may wish to sink their canines. It would, at the least, have to have more red meat than what’s been put on the platter here.  

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
224 Waverly Place
Through December 13

114. Review of ASYMMETRIC (November 19, 2014)

 Let’s assume you’re familiar with “Homeland,” the hit cable TV show about international espionage starring Clare Danes as superspy Carrie Mathison. Imagine that Carrie, disillusioned by years of counterterrorism work for the CIA, with all the killing she’s been forced either to condone or carry out herself, has turned traitor and sold state secrets to some bad actors. Let’s further imagine that she’s recently divorced after an eight-year marriage from her fellow superspy—a Brody-Quinn-Saul mash up—who was forced out of his job when boozing got in the way. Now, picture Carrie strapped to a chair in a sparely furnished, brick-walled interrogation room where she’s being asked to give up information to her ex-husband, a gray-haired specialist brought unwillingly out of retirement; only he, it’s believed, has the skills to extract the needed intel on who she sold the specs to for a DNA-sniffing drone that vaporizes itself (so it can’t be traced) once it’s carried out a non-combatant killing. Throw in a good cop-bad cop pair, the latter a sadist who’s itching to use his lethal shears, and you’ve got the setup for Mac Rogers’s thriller wannabe, ASYMMETRIC, now playing in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, under the aegis of Ground Up Productions i/a with Gideon Productions.

Kate Middleton, Sean Williams. Photo: Travis McHale.
The characters, of course, don’t have the names I’ve mentioned. The indomitable female agent is Sunny Black (Kate Middleton); her washed-up ex is Josh (Sean Williams); Josh’s former friend, who succeeded him as head of the “Fifth Floor,” a boutique CIA department Josh founded, is Zack (Seth Shelden); and the happy snipper-snapper is Ford (Rab Mattner). Zack’s last name, by the way, is Quinn. An homage to “Homeland”? Just askin’ . . .
Seth Shelden, Sean Williams. Photo: Travis McHale.

Mr. Rogers has mastered the spook chatter, with its hot-list houses, Venn-diagrams, asymmetric warfare, and exfiltrations, and his premise might be interesting to lovers of spy shows and novels, with its technobabble about the new drone’s scary capabilities (think neurotoxin projectiles, if you think I’m fooling). Critics of Pres. Obama’s drone strikes (the Commander in Chief looks on from a wall photograph) will appreciate the sniping about collateral damage, and the plot’s various power struggles as it twists one way and turns another may keep some guessing as to what’s coming next and who’s fooling who. But the frequent wisecracking and uneasy combination of espionage and marital discord—a lot of time is taken up with “why did you leave me” dickering—puts a heavy damper on a clock-ticking situation demanding a rapid response. As in many well-done film and TV spy dramas, dialogue flies by at mach speed, and you have to listen closely to catch the nuances, but ultimately, when the reason for Sunny’s becoming a turncoat emerges, you may wish to turn your own and flee to a safe house.
If a play like this is going to keep you glued (if not strapped) to your chair, it needs to have the kind of high-intensity acting and direction we associate with the best in the genre. The actors in ASYMMETRIC are capable professionals, but, as directed by Jordana Williams, none convey the essential sense of urgency and life and death commitment; as for romantic chemistry between Josh and Sunny . . .  All seem instead to be playacting at spies and spy-catchers and barely any of it rings true, including the apparent lack of suffering induced when a character gives instead of gets a finger.
Travis McHale’s set (he also did the lighting), surrounded on two sides by the audience, provides a space that serves efficiently as two offices, with areas above for when the climactic op goes down in Reykjavik. Limited by the theatre’s resources, this latter scene fails to work, just as the play’s manipulative resolution (think any episode of “24”) leaves much to be desired. Not to worry, the next episode of “Homeland” awaits on Sunday.

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street
Through December 6


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

111. Review of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN (November 15, 2014)



The eye-catching title of Young Jean Lee’s new play, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, is something of a red herring. Perhaps a more accurate title would be SOME STRAIGHT WHITE MEN or FOUR STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. Lee’s title—assuming it relates only to Americans of that description—suggests something universal about a human subset that the very well-performed play fails fully to either exemplify or clarify. A multi-award winning Korean-born playwright of considerable stature who’s best known for her nonlinear experimental plays, which often examine issues of identity politics, Lee turns in this play—now at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall—for the first time to a linear, naturalistic form.
From left: Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley, Austin Pendleton. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The action unfolds over three acts, covering 90 intermissionless minutes, in the generic family room of a white, liberal Midwestern home (designed by David Evans Morris and brightly lit by Christopher Kuhl) belonging to a retired engineer and widower named Ed (Austin Pendleton). Ed’s brood of three sons, all in their forties, has gathered to celebrate the Christmas holidays. The oldest is Matt (James Stanley), highly educated and strongly committed to social justice (he once got a school theatre teacher fired for producing an all-white Oklahoma!), but adrift, unable to make use of his knowledge and abilities. He’s been living with his accommodating dad as a sort of substitute mom, handling various household chores. Matt holds down a temp position doing menial work (Xeroxing) with a socially responsible organization, but is burdened by a large student loan debt.
The visitors are the middle son, Jake (Gary Wilmes), a banker, recently divorced, with kids of his own, and the youngest, Drew (Pete Simpson), an unmarried college teacher (one four-hour class a week) who writes novels on political themes, and whose positive experience in therapy leads him to recommend it for Matt. Aside from brief scenes where the dialogue engages with personal and social issues of white privilege, you’d never guess from their incessant adolescent hijinks, profanity (they especially love to throw the word “dick” around), and crude horseplay that they were (apart from the rudderless Matt) accomplished professionals. Ed, for his part, is a quietly bemused spectator to their childish behavior, not always getting it, but never raising his voice. He serves as the essentially neutral moderator when the play’s central issue comes into focus.
This happens when, as the family is eating Chinese take-out, Matt begins weeping (if only briefly); the play now begins to deepen as Drew reaches out to uncover the source of Matt’s unhappiness, drawing the others into the conversation and, if only sporadically, igniting something of a discussion drama. Matt, for all his alleged brilliance (none of it ever demonstrated), can’t explain his sadness or his loser’s inability to use his gifts to move on in life. The causes of his unassertiveness are hard to grasp, and even he can’t articulate them, making his unanswered dilemma the play’s biggest question. To help give Matt the confidence he seems to lack, Ed stages a mock interview, as if hiring Matt for a job, but Matt handles it poorly, even after trying to emulate Jake’s performance when he demonstrates the proper way to do it. In the end, Ed’s forced to make a difficult, if belated decision, about his son.
The play has lots of vivid activity and offstage music (some by Chris Giarmo, with sound design by Jamie McElhinney) as the brothers roughhouse with each other; everyone dances wildly (movement is by Faye Driscoll) at one point to loudly thumping music (with Matt doing comically robotic movements), but this doesn’t make up for an essentially inert dramatic structure. STRAIGHT WHITE MEN wants to confront issues of white privilege (Drew and Jake even play a version of Monopoly their late mother cleverly adapted into a game called Privilege), but, a few moments aside (some of it related to that board game), little of it goes very deep nor does it demonstrate much that might not also be associated with nonwhite, non-straight, non-male behavior, although the male component is probably the most incisive. Generalizations are fun, but what do they really prove?
Ms. Lee also serves as her own director, which works well enough for the acted scenes. However, this is 2014 and it’s time for directors to recognize that if you’re going to stage a naturalistic play whose action must be interrupted for scene changes, you should either use a curtain, dim your lights to near darkness, or choreograph your actors to cover the shifts. Bringing a handful of black-garbed stagehands, headsets and battery packs in place, onto a barely dimmed stage won’t do if you wish to sustain any sense of illusion.
Austin Pendleton gives a convincingly paternal performance as the easygoing Ed; seeing him amidst the fairly strapping actors playing his sons reminds us that tiny acorns can produce mighty oaks. Each of the sons is believable, but the sum total of their performances still doesn’t enlighten this straight white man about his own condition. Perhaps, in Young Jean Lee’s eyes, that likely is itself part of the problem.    
Public Theatre
425 Lafayette Street
Through December 7