Wednesday, November 22, 2017

112 (2017-2018): Review: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (seen November 21, 2017)

“The Game of Love”

Imagine an if-only group of zanies like Jim Carrey, Amy Poehler, Robin Williams, Tina Fey, Kate McKinnon, and Susan Silverman locked in a theatrical storeroom loaded with miscellaneous pieces of furniture and 19th-century costumes. Then imagine telling them to come up with a show based on Jane Austen’s 1813 comedy of manners novel, Pride and Prejudice. There’s a good chance the result would be a lot like Kate Hamill’s exaggeratedly slapstick adaptation, now playing at the Cherry Lane; it might be funnier but I still doubt it would work.
Pride and Prejudice company. Photo: James Leynse.
It would, however, still likely raise the hackles of the book’s fans, who would agree with Lizzy Bennet, played by Hamill herself, when she actually shouts that Austen is probably spinning in her grave.

The talented Hamill took much the same parodic approach to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility a couple of years ago. That production, directed for Bedlam by Eric Tucker, became an Off-Broadway hit that managed to find a perfect balance between spoofing Austen’s original and also respecting its intentions. Staged in an alley configuration with the audience just two or three rows deep on either side, it employed many of the same effects of devised theatre found here. Pride and Prejudice, though, only fitfully flares with the earlier work’s comic warmth and magic.
Chris Thorn, Amelia Pedlow, Kate Hamill, John Tufts. Photo: James Leynse.
Director Amanda Dehnart’s Primary Stages production is presented proscenium style on the proscenium-less stage, with John McDermott’s set little more than a low platform surrounded by footlights. We see the stage’s actual brick walls, and, off the platform at the rear and sides, a miscellaneous assortment of props (including an ornate piano and an old-fashioned Victrola) and costume pieces. Lighting designer Eric Southern does a bang-up job of painting the set with color throughout.
Chris Thorn, Kate Hamill, Amelia Pedlow, Mark Bedard. Photo: James Leynse.
Five of the eight actors play more than one role in the 14-character play; whoever’s not in a scene is usually visible sitting along the perimeters and clearly responding to the performance or changing into one of Tracy Christensen’s simplified period costumes. The three playing only a single role are Hamill as Lizzy, Jason O’Connell (so good in Sense and Sensibility and the solo show The Dork Knight) as Mr. Darcy, and Nance Williamson—who also serves as an unnamed, mustached, bell-ringing, announcement-making servant—as Mrs. Bennet. Three others play both men and women: Chris Thorn, as Mr. Bennet and Charlotte Lewis; John Tufts, as Bingley and Mary Bennet; and Mark Bedard, as Mr. Collins, Mr. Bingley, and Mr. Wickham.

With a few exceptions, casting to type is out the window. And, while there are flickers of fine comic acting, and the actors are all expert at what they do, subtlety is sacrificed for pedal-to-the-metal hamminess. Hamill’s overacted Lizzy is the worst offender. Only Chris Thorn’s Mr. Bennet and Charlotte and Jason O’Connell’s Mr. Darcy manage to capture just the right mixture of broadness and refinement, with the others at various places on the comedic spectrum.  
John Tufts, Kate Hamill, Amelia Pedlow, James O'Connell. Photo: James Leynse.
Infused with a game-like atmosphere (more “Beat the Clock” than “Jeopardy”) intended to reflect the gamesmanship and rules of wooing among Austen’s British gentry, the performance has an anything-for-a-laugh exuberance that often smothers the story in farcical foolery. That the principal romance between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy comes through nonetheless is a tribute both to the strength of Austen’s narrative and Act Two’s greater restraint; while still guilty of comedic overkill, some scenes are allowed to play themselves out minus most of the intrusive shtick.
Amelia Pedlow, John Tufts, Nance Williamson, Kate Hamill, Chris Thorn. Photo: James Leynse.
After opening with an up-tempo dance (choreography by Ellenore Scott) to the sound of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “The Game of Love,” Hamill’s script, like a number of previous adaptations, follows Austen’s story faithfully enough.

Helen Jerome’s successful, more traditional 1935 version cut the number of Bennet sisters from five to three but Hamill goes with four, adding the moralizing, plain-looking Mary (John Tufts, in a purposely hideous dress) to her more lighthearted siblings, Elizabeth/Lizzy, Jane (Amelia Pedlow), and Lydia (Kimberly Chatterjee). The girls, of course, are the daughters of the long-suffering Mr. Bennet (Chris Thorn) and his fluttery spouse, Mrs. Bennet, preoccupied with finding suitably prosperous matches for her brood.
Kimberly Chatterjee, Amelia Pedlow. Photo: James Leynse.
The Bennet sisters’ romantic entanglements involve those between the outspoken Lizzy and the aloofly arrogant Mr. Darcy, the beautiful Jane and the amiable Mr. Bingley (Tufts), and the teenage Lydia and the dashing Mr. Wickham (Bedard), who marries her only when bribed by Mr. Darcy to do so. Then there are the imperious, meddling Lady Catherine (Chatterjee), and her boorish protégé, the clergyman Mr. Collins (Bedard), whose marriage to Lizzy’s spinster friend Charlotte secures her financial wellbeing.
James O'Connell, John Tufts, Mark Bedard. Photo: James Leynse.
In place of a narrative replete with satire, wit, charm (both elegant and bumptious), and period manners, though, we get shrillness, mugging, pratfalls, funny sounds, whistles blowing, hand bells ringing  (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” Mr. Bennet reminds the marriage-averse Lizzy), pop music, disco dance moves, double entendres, pants being pulled down, lovers wrestling amidst the audience, someone becoming entangled in two wooden chairs, someone else rushing down the aisle as one character so he can return to enter on stage as another, lots of tennis ball tossing, tissues being stuffed in watery nostrils, someone trying to sit on an elevated stool’s tiny seat, and a plethora of other farcical business that is too often gratingly distracting and sophomoric.
Kate Hamill, James O'Connell. Photo: James Leynse.
However well it’s done, and it is definitely well done, the appeal of all this japery fades quickly when you realize you’re going to be watching such juvenilia for over two and half hours. At least a half a dozen people decided after the first act that they got the idea and didn’t need to return for the second. On the other hand, Act Two, while still prone to excess, tones things down considerably and has some lovely, even serious moments, especially an extended conversation between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, and a pretty garden scene adorned with artificial flowers.

I’m not too proud to say that I remain prejudiced in favor of Hamill’s previous Austen outing, which, as its title says, revealed far more sense and sensibility than her current one.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC

Through January 6, 2018




111 (2017-2018) Review: HARRY CLARKE (seen November 17, 2017)

"The Talented Mr. Crudup"









For my review of Harry Clarke please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.




Friday, November 17, 2017

110 (2017-2018): Review: THE BAND'S VISIT (seen November 16, 2017)

Shalom Aleichem. Alaikim salaam.

It’s very rare that a New York Times critic rates a show 100% on the review aggregator Show-Score.com but Ben Brantley did so for The Band’s Visit. That, of course, is the affectingly lovely musical that recently opened at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre after premiering Off-Broadway last season at the Atlantic. My own rating won’t be quite so high but that’s not to deny I was thoroughly touched, amused, and impressed by this warm-hearted adaptation of Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film.

The Band’s Visit is about an Egyptian band, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, scheduled to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center in the bustling, thriving city of Petah Tikvah. Because of its name’s similarity to Bet Hatikvah, the men take the wrong bus and end up in the latter place, a lifeless, Tombstone-like outpost in the Negev Desert. Its residents sing to the stranded musicians about how the pronunciations of the cities’ names differ by one beginning with P and the other with B:

ITZIK
LIKE IN BORING.

PAPI
LIKE IN BARREN.

ITZIK
LIKE IN BULLSHIT.

PAPI
LIKE IN BLAND.

DINA
LIKE IN BLEAK AND BEIGE AND BLAH BLAH BLAH.

The magnificently magnetic Katrina Lenk (Indecent), she of the cheekbones that would challenge Sir Edmund Hillary to climb them, is Dina, the wryly cynical but goodhearted proprietor of this dead-end town’s café. Despite some initial reluctance, she suggests that she and several other townspeople allow the band, outfitted in powder-blue uniforms (costumes by Sarah Laux), and led by the imperious conductor Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub, Act One, TV’s “Monk”), to board at their homes until their itinerary can be ironed out.
Itamar Moses’s book then closely follows the film script as it shows the benign intermingling of the two cultures, Arab and Israeli, largely through the universal medium of music. The narrative arc highlights a variety of events precipitated during a single night by the band’s presence in this wasteland. A message of sorts is implied in the mutual respect shown by the Arabs and Israelis but the show doesn’t insist on any larger political point. Yet you can’t help but feel the human warmth beneath it all and think to yourself, “If only.”

The casualness of the event and an ironic comment on its significance is embedded in two sentences projected on a scrim before the show starts and repeated at the end by Dina: “Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The main story lines include the strained marital relationship between the unemployed Itzik (John Cariani) and Iris (Kristen Sieh), daughter of the amateur musician Avrum (Andrew Polk); the difficulty of the band’s clarinetist, Simon (Alok Tewari), in finishing his concerto; the obsessive patience of the lovelorn Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor), eternally waiting at the payphone for his girlfriend to call him back, and trying to prevent the Egyptian violinist, Camal (George Abud), from using the phone to reach his embassy; the roving eye of the band’s Don Juanish trumpet player, Haled (Ari’el Stachel), whose come-on is “Do you like Chet Baker?”; and, of course, the incipient but unfulfilled romance between the gentle, gentlemanly widower Tewfiq and the earthy, sensual Dina, beleaguered by her angry ex, Sammy (Jonathan Raviv).
Musical theatre fans shouldn’t expect a show with all the familiar Broadway ingredients; there are no huge, lung-busting power songs, not even a so-called eleven o’clock number; choreography is so minimal I was surprised to see a choreographer, Patrick McCollum, credited for it; and so many passages of quiet, low-keyed dialogue go by it’s easy to forget that the show has over a dozen numbers. Moreover, the leading man sings only one song, “Something Different,” and it’s a duet with the leading lady. Even the show’s brief running time, 90 intermissionless minutes, is a Broadway musical departure.

Much credit must go to the increasingly noteworthy director David Cromer (The Treasurer) and composer/lyricist David Yazbek (The Full Monty) for the songs being so well-integrated with the book that they arise organically from the dialogue and situations. Most of the music (which also includes a few moments from American standards) is infused with Middle-Eastern motifs, Arab as well as Jewish; sung numbers are supplemented by instrumental ones displaying the virtuosic techniques of the actor-musicians.
Although the Arab and Israeli accents occasionally slip, the company is consistently convincing at portraying the lassitude, loneliness, and melancholy of life in Bet Hatikvah. Standouts in the excellent 14-member cast include Andrew Polk’s Avrum, particularly memorable in “The Beat of Your Heart,” shared by Itzik, Camal, and Simon; and Ari’el Stachel’s Haled, a handsome charmer who sings “Haled’s Song of Love” like a combination of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, while also offering a mean trumpet solo of “My Funny Valentine” à la Chet Baker.

As Tewfiq, Shalhoub continues to add laurels to his stage achievements, using his mellifluous voice and delicate gestures to create a man of assured integrity and grace who could very well be the proud, sensitive conductor of an orchestra. While not a true singer, he carries off his duet with Dina with controlled dignity.
Lenk’s Dina is enthralling, her sinewy slenderness and feline features combining with a sensual voice and lived-in sensibility to create a vibrantly compelling persona, reminiscent in a way of the bigger-boned power of the late Colleen Dewhurst. Herself a talented musician, Lenk gets to play only her own voice and body, the latter a showcase of gestural elegance, especially when her serpentine dancer’s arms insinuate themselves into her lyrics. Even when she merely sits, slouching with legs spread wide under her ankle-length dress, she displays an artist’s full consciousness of her body as a well-tuned theatrical tool. And with so many of today’s musical stars noted for their soprano high notes, it’s a relief to hear a leading lady with a creamily rich tone that sounds more like a human being than a human bird. Her song, “Omar Sharif,” to Tewfiq, about her love for the eponymous Egyptian actor and the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, is enough of a reason to visit The Band’s Visit.
Scott Pask’s setting, moodily lit by Tyler Micoleau, captures the dull, concrete and sandstone facades and interiors of a desert city’s buildings; a revolving stage moves not only the scenic units but brings actors on and off in smoothly staged transitions.
The Band’s Visit is a welcome addition to the Broadway musical scene. I loved every sweet minute of it. Here’s hoping its visit lasts a long time. Shalom Aleichem. Alaikum salaam.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St., NYC
Open run












109 (2017-2018): Review: THE MAD ONES (seen November 15, 2017)

“A Memory Jumble”

It comes as a bit of a surprise that high school students today—or at least those in Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s well-performed, small-scale, dramatically inert new musical, The Mad Ones—are still inspired by Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel of 1957, On the Road.
 
Krystina Alabado, Leah Hocking. Photo: Richard Termine.
In this coming of age show, Kerouac’s Beat generation book, based on a 1947 road trip across America by Kerouac and a friend, forces a gifted but insecure, emotionally drifting 18-year-old high school senior to face the future by making a choice: begin college at an Ivy League university or drive off into the sunset, destination unknown, to find the freedom she’s presumably been denied. 

The Mad Ones gets its title from a Kerouac line quoted in the script about the only people he admires, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. . . .” Samantha Brown (Krystyna Alabado) yearns to be one of those mad ones; for this top student, her class’s valedictorian, who’s always followed the usual road, the decision about whether or not to take the less traveled one is agonizing.
Krystina Alabado. Photo: Richard Termine.
Two powerful forces strive to influence which road she’ll select: one is her demanding, carefully planning mother, Beverly (Leah Hocking), a professor of statistics, who wants her to attend Harvard, where she's been accepted, and likes to remind her daughter of the mathematical likelihood of getting killed in a car accident. The other is Sam’s colorful, fast-talking, free-living, risk-taking, wisecracking bestie, Kelly (Emma Hunton). Kelly has her own car and a taste for the open road.

The show opens on the day Sam is supposed to leave for college; she’s sitting in Kelly’s car, its key in her hand, hesitating about whether to turn the key. When the show ends, she’s still there, and she’s made her decision. Everything in between is a flashback as Sam’s memories of her senior year fly by, in “a memory jumble,” as Kelly puts it. Kelly, though, is a ghost, having recently died. Sam sees her as a still living presence, offering her advice and reliving their senior year’s highlights, if such relative lowlights can thus be called.
Emma Hunton, Krystina Alabado. Photo: Richard Termine.
As the show, filled with 14 songs, proceeds, Sam’s memories introduce her boyfriend, Adam (Jay Armstrong Johnson), the sweet, shy, supportive, but dim lightbulb who plans to go into his dad’s tire business. Sam’s love for Adam, a guy too inhibited even to mention a woman’s “period,” already hints at her veering from the conventional. Similarly, having Kelly, a mediocre student with decidedly mature ways of expressing herself (physically and verbally), as her best friend suggests that Sam is more off the beaten path than she thinks.

Despite the various incidents flashing through Sam’s mind during the show’s hour and 40 minutes, the fuzzy narrative has very little punch, the effect being more an episodic assortment of emotional reactions to various stimuli than dramatic actions. Too much teeters not only on the brink of overfamiliarity but on the banal.
Krystina Alabado, Emma Hunton. Photo: Richard Termine.
Before we learn Sam’s ultimate choice, we watch Kelly recklessly driving Sam around as they sing and talk of freedom and breaking the rules; discover how Beverly’s gift for statistics (“numbers don’t lie”) makes her fear for Sam’s safety and happiness; learn of Sam’s multiple efforts to pass her driving test; experience imaginary sidebar activities, as when the girls do a countdown of the ways that Kelly might die; share memories of Sam and Adam’s personal and sexual relationship; observe Kelly and Sam on a college tour; witness a meeting with Sam’s guidance counselor; and see Beverly coping with Sam’s intentions, disagreeing with Kelly, and warning Sam about the dangers in store for a woman traveling the road alone. The rest is more of the same. 

The book is a loose arrangement of scenes allowing for rapid transitions from one to another on what is essentially a bare stage, designed by Adam Rigg, with a two-tiered platform (with two sets of headlights set into them) and only the odd table or chairs when needed. Strips of neon lighting outline parts of the upstage area; overhead, a room-shaped unit hangs to no apparent purpose. No physical representation of a car is provided, not even a steering wheel to turn. David Lander provides cool lighting although much of it seems overly fond of smoke effects.

On a few occasions, the three supporting actors momentarily assume other roles, perhaps with a slight costume change, perhaps not. The costumes by Jessica Pabst help express the characters, although the wings on Kelly's jacket are an unsubtle touch. Now and then, bits of choreography, courtesy of Alexandra Beller are included, but these are more to demonstrate familiar dance moves than anything more extensive.
Krystina Alabado, Emma Hunton. Photo: Richard Termine.
Kerrigan and Lowdermilk’s score favors songs requiring big, belting voices, which the company very capably provides. Several of the songs, like “Run Away With Me” and “Say the Word” are already familiar to musical theatre buffs through their YouTube versions. Well sung as the songs are there’s a sameness to them that blends one with the other, making no particular one stand out.

Stephen Brackett directs with verve and each of his actors is up their tasks. Krystina Alabado, her eyebrows forming a nearly perpetual chevron, is believably anxious in an essentially one-note role. It’s no fault of hers that she’s overshadowed by the flamboyance of Emma Hunton’s Kelly, in ripped jeans, denim jacket, and red-tinted hair. 

Leah Hocking is a commanding Beverly, able to shift on a dime from Maternal Mom to Monster Mom, while Jay Armstrong Johnson makes a thoroughly delightful Adam. The latter, in fact, is all the more remarkable as he took over the role only shortly before previews began when Ben Fankhauser had to step down because of vocal problems. Fankhauser returns on December 3.
Krystina Alabado, Emma Hunton. Photo: Richard Termine.
The Mad Ones, first called The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown and originally presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival New Musicals, is produced by the Prospect Theater Company, a New York company with a distinguished record of new musical production since 1998.

Prospect begins a three-year residency at 59E59 Theaters with Mad Ones and, while I wasn’t mad about it, the work received a very warm welcome when I attended, another reviewer even whispering to me that she liked it more than Broadway’s newest hit, The Band’s Visit. Having seen that wonderful show last night, though, convinces me that in such a view madness lies. Nonetheless, I look forward to being mad (in the Noel Coward sense) about the Prospect’s next offering.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through December 17




Wednesday, November 15, 2017

108 (2017-2018): Review: TOYS: A DARK FAIRY TALE (seen

“Grenade Violence” 
As I’ve noted before, I have a friend who compiles an annual list of plays under the rubric “Bombs of the Year.” Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale is a ripe contender although, given its subject matter, it should probably be “Grenade of the Year.”

Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovran. Photo: Simion Buia.

It’s been a while since I exited a production only to run into people standing right outside the door complaining about what they’d just seen, or for another critic, someone I barely know, anxious to tell me that his review will express his gratitude that the play was only 50 minutes long. I had that same thought myself.


Toys, at 59E59 Theaters, is an antiwar play by Romanian-born playwright Saviana Stanescu and presented by J.U.S.T. Toys Productions and the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York. It’s a two-hander starring Hungarian-born actress Julia Ubrankovics and Transylvanian-born Tunde Skovran as, respectively, the quiet, reserved Clara/Fatma and the aggressive, bitter Shari/Madonna. The actresses, who cofounded J.U.S.T. Toys Productions, have been touring with the play since its 2015 premiere in Los Angeles.
Tunde Skovran, Julia Ubrankovics. Photo: Lindsey Mejia.
Both deserve kudos for their strong and valiant work on behalf of a play—its original version written over a decade ago—whose appeal, reportedly, is strong for some but seriously knotty for most others. If a play is going to seek universal understanding and compassion for a serious problem, it will have to do better than that.
Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovran. Photo: Lindsey Mejia.
The narrative, actually, is relatively straightforward: Clara, in the coziness of ivory tower academia, is researching her Ph.D. on “Women in War Zones.” She’s interviewing Shari, a refugee from the brutally war-torn nation of Karvystan—a fictional place whose capital is called Galajevo. Apart from its cruelty, nothing about the specifics of the war is described.

The heavily accented Shari, who prefers being called Madonna, first appears as a taciturn, mysterious woman in black leather, a black scarf over her head, and wearing large, black sunglasses. She reminded me, in fact, of the reticent, dark-garbed, sunglasses-wearing student in Julia Cho’s Office Hour. Unlike that menacing character, who turns out to be carrying a firearm, Madonna’s threat of choice is a hand grenade. This scary prop gets to sit center stage during much of what follows.

The barebones plotting offers no idea of how Clara contacted Shari. Still, Shari insists that Clara is Fatma, the sister from whom she was torn when they were children by an American couple able to adopt only one of the family’s kids. Clara strongly denies this, claiming to be unable to remember something from so long ago. How Shari knows this is also evaded. We must, I imagine, remember that this is "A Dark Fairy Tale" and forget logical considerations.

Shari not only suffered the trauma of childhood separation but grew up to become an English teacher forced to abandon her profession to serve as a “volunteer” nurse who had to clean war-torn body parts, even unrecognizable ones, to provide them with a proper burial.

Clara, despite Shari’s belief she had an idyllic upbringing in Connecticut, reveals her own childhood trauma from a male acquaintance’s sexual molestation. Eventually, the resistant Clara seems to accept she’s Shari’s sister and the women rejoice in a mock marriage.

However much this loose narrative seems to make sense of a sort on the page, regardless of the many huge expositional gaps it exposes, in performance it often becomes indecipherable. That’s because Romanian-Hungarian director Gábor Tompa—head of directing at the University of California, San Diego’s Theatre and Dance Department—has given it a radically theatricalized, nonrealistic, surrealistic, avant-garde staging that diminishes whatever it’s saying by drawing attention away from content to style.

Tompa designed the set and lights, while also being responsible for the sound and original music. Elisa Benzoni did the costumes. The set looks exactly like a photography studio’s white floored, white-walled background. There’s no furniture, so people sit on the floor. A small, digital camera on a tall tripod sits at one corner. The lighting casts the actors’ looming shadows on the wall, while the ominous sounds and original music are coupled with an eclectic mix of classical selections and modern ones. 
Julia Ubrankovics. Photo: Simion Buia.
In one scene, for example, Shari, dressed in a form-fitting nurse’s uniform (suggesting sexual role-playing more than humanitarian relief), lays out dozens of plastic baby dolls on the floor; she proceeds to tear the heads off each of them. As she does so, she changes her voice back and forth in a nightmarish conversation between “Mom” and “Dad,” explaining to her remembered younger self (who Dad acknowledges doesn’t know English) that they’re taking her sister away to America.
Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovran. Photo: Mihaela Marin.
In another scene, the women fill translucent plastic bags with air, don them as panniers (rather cleverly, by the way), place larger plastic bags over them to create the appearance of old-fashioned wedding dresses, and put on ugly, black wigs. As music is heard, they express their joy (at their reunion, one imagines, although it’s anybody’s guess) either by using bicycle pumps to try inflating a black garbage bag that is replaced by their dummy bridegroom or dancing around like asylum inmates.
Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovra. Photo: Simion Buia.
Assuredly, there are metaphorical explanations that exist for the women’s experiences and relationship, and one could even assume that Shari/Madonna and Clara/Fatma are projections of a single personality. These, however, are irrelevant when you’re watching a play that seeks to evoke awareness of and sensitivity to dilemmas concerning immigration, war, violence, and family disruption.

This isn’t to say some won’t find the production and its subject engrossing, and even comprehensible. But for those who find themselves wishing even a 50-minute running time were shorter, it’s not likely they’ll want to spend more time trying to find a cerebral explanation for what should be a visceral response.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St, NYC
Through November 26






Monday, November 13, 2017

107 (2017-2018): Review: OFFICE HOUR (2017-2018)

“A Classic Shooter”

Plays questioning the horror of gun violence in America are very rare; on that point, then, Julia Cho’s Office Hour, at the Public Theater, deserves attention for even considering the matter. Whether its approach is particularly helpful, though, is something else.
Gregg Keller, Adeola Role, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
At the beginning, we meet three young adjuncts, all college English Department writing instructors, discussing what to do about a problematic student. The teachers are David (Greg Keller), Genevieve (Adeola Role), and Gina (Sue Jean Kim).
Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The student is Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), a seriously disturbed young man who refuses to talk, and hides his face by wearing large sunglasses and keeping his baseball cap pulled down low under his hoodie. His writing is filled with horrifically violent images, like one that David quotes: “I’m going to ass fuck you till you bleed . . . Dad.” We understand there’s far worse.
Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The rules of free expression in a writing class, of course, prevent overt censoring of a student’s work, so the teachers struggle not only to improve the quality of Dennis’s writing but to reach him on a personal level. Since Dennis and Gina are both Korean-American, Genevieve hints to Gina that their shared “background” might be helpful. Reluctantly, Gina agrees to see what she can do during her office hour when she sees students for counseling.
Sue Jean Kim, Ki Hong Lee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Dennis shows up for his 20-minute conference (a class requirement); if you watch the real-time clock on the wall, you’ll notice the meeting ends up taking over an hour. (The play itself is 90 minutes long.) What begins as an earnest, even saintly effort on Gina’s part to address Dennis’s attitude and writing becomes an extended therapy session in which both analyst and analysand find a few things in common.

Their session even includes a pretend phone conversation, with Gina speaking as a domineering Korean-accented mother to her angst-ridden son. And, yes, Gina, who’s been in therapy herself, conveniently has problems, of her own.
Ki Hong Lee, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Dressed by costumer Kaye Voyce in skin-tight jeans, Gina pushes student-teacher boundaries, as when she hugs Dennis with compassion and he misreads her intentions, or when she talks to him while lounging inappropriately on the office table.

Things get really complicated, though, when Dennis reaches into his backpack and withdraws a gun. 
Ki Hong Lee, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
What follows ends in a shocking moment, after which there’s a blackout. Lights up and we realize that what just happened didn’t happen after all. Cho uses a similar device (reminiscent of the “Sure Thing” segment of David Ives’s All in the Timing) several more times, assisted by Bray Poor’s sound design, which only creates a “boy who cried wolf” feeling. 
Ki Hong Lee, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If we already know that what we’re seeing is going to be subverted by the suggestion that its outcome is only potential, not actual, then the shock dissipates and we wait for the action to return to the original reality that drives the play proper. Thus even the rather extended scene when darkness descends and the audience is supposed to think the whole place is being riddled with bullets draws a blank, although I’m aware some spectators were frightened. 

Cho’s writing is sharp enough to keep us listening and watching despite the play’s trickiness but, even without the rewind stratagem, both Dennis and Gina become increasingly hard to accept as real people. They come off instead as artificial figures created to explore—but certainly not resolve—issues of identity and violence.

Question: how could a scary student like Dennis, lacking not only talent but spelling and grammatical skills, and demonstrably the reason for other students dropping out of his class, be permitted to maintain his status?

Another question concerns Dennis’s unsurprising explanation of his behavior, which blames it on his lifelong feeling of rejection because of how he looks. When he does remove his hat and shades, however, he appears as ordinary as any young man. This implies either that his self-image is tragically skewed or that director Neel Keeler made a conscious decision not to alter his appearance. Whatever the answer, it’s self-defeating.

Also questionable is Gina’s sacrificial behavior in trying to reach Dennis; while certainly possible, it lacks plausibility. Empathy is one thing; self-endangerment is crazy. Why, especially given her part-time, underpaid, no-benefits position, does she feel the need to go so far with such a troubled, untalented student?

Based on what we see, it’s never clear how rewinding the action to see if something else might have been said or done could have prevented the bloodshed. If Dennis was intent on carrying out what he does (or might be doing), it’s impossible to see what would have stopped him. He even says: “What I have, this feeling I carry, I don’t have to keep carrying it. So years and years of art therapy and speech therapy and therapy therapy. Nothing took the feeling away.”

This only makes Gina’s suggestion near the end that he take advantage of the school’s free therapy program that much more ludicrous and out of character.

The gun issue—perhaps inspired by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre—is addressed mainly by presenting a mentally unbalanced, violence-obsessed student with access to firearms. There’s no discussion of gun rights or anything like that; in fact, the play seems to be more about the problem of what teachers with seriously disturbed students like Dennis can do about it in a free and open society than it does about gun violence.

Under Neel Keeler’s direction, Office Hour is given a well-acted production, with Sue Jean Kim offering a multi-emotional performance. Takeshi Kata’s design combines a bare downstage—other than a counter-like table and chairs at the opening—with a realistically detailed office; the latter is built on a platform and placed on an angle so that, when Christopher Akerlind’s lights come up on it, a downstage corner points at us as the room rolls ominously forward.

Tragically, mass shootings will continue, on campus and off, whether we pay close attention or not. Office Hour does little to advance the conversation other than, for those who fall for it, to give them the momentary thrill of being in the presence of a maniac and what it might be like to be in a theatre with gunshots going on all around.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Office Hour
Public Theater/Martinson Hall
425 Lafayette St.,NYC
Through December 3