Sunday, February 25, 2018

165 (2017-2018): Review: A MARRIAGE CONTRACT (seen February 23, 2018)


Alex Roe, artistic director the tiny Metropolitan Playhouse in Alphabet City, nobly devoted since 1992 to the exhumation of long-forgotten American plays, has dug more deeply than usual this time. His discovery: Augustin Daly’s 1892 A Marriage Contract, now showing as part of his company’s current Season of Resilience. 

In fact, you won’t even find the play’s title in the standard histories because it was actually staged at Daly’s Theatre as A Test Case: Grass vs. Granite, a broad satire on suburban vs. urban living.
Mike Durkin, Nick Giedris, Trevor St.John-Gilbert. Photo: YuFei Liang.
Daly (1838-1899) was one of the most prominent New York theatre figures of the late 19th-century, being a critic, producer, director, and very prolific playwright. He was known mainly for melodramas, like Under the Gaslight (that’s the one with the girl tied to the railroad tracks) and Leah, the Forsaken, both of which have played the Metropolitan. He also adapted many comedies from translations of French and German originals he commissioned, one such example being A Marriage Contract, based on a German farce by Oscar Blumenthal and Gustav Kadelburg called Grofßstatdluft (The Air of the Metropolis). 
Anna Stefanic, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: YuFei Liang.
In the 15th and final volume of his monumental Annals of the New York Stage, chronicler George C. Odell, after noting that the play opened on November 10, 1892, says it “held the stage for barely three weeks . . . , and, then, disappeared forever from our ken.” A later chronicler, Gerald Bordman, points out that it was a “major disappointment.” And thus it would have remained had not the Metropolitan given it—after 125 years of moldering in a forgotten grave—a new life.
Tyler Kent, Florence Marcisak. Photo: YuFei Liang.
And, indeed, the old farce still does have some laughs left in her, although one has to appreciate the limited circumstances of budget and casting under which she wheezes. As the headline on page 1 of the Sunday, February 25, 2018, New York Times Real Estate section reminds us, the play's central conflict over the relative values of residing in New York City or moving to the suburbs continues to embroil local yokels on both sides of the divide: “Suburban Idyll: Once You Have Decided to Move Out of the City, How Do You Determine Which Location Will Suit You Best?”
Jennifer Reddish, Anna Slefanic. Photo: YuFei Liang.
In A Marriage Contract, the suburban manufacturing magnate Jessekiah Pognip (Mike Durkin), devoted booster of his (fictional) New Jersey village, East Lemons, is seriously disturbed by the fast life of New York (although, hypocritically, not so much he can’t enjoy his own night on the town).
J.M. McDonough, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: YuFei Liang.
He’s so uptight, in fact, that, before allowing man-about-town, proudly profligate New York architect Robert Fleming (Trevor St. John Gilbert) to marry his daughter, Sabina (Anna Stefanic), Pognip insists the reluctant architect sign a contract (“a regular test case”). Its purpose is to make him promise to move to what—in those pre-Trump days—Fleming calls the “hole” of East Lemons, where Pognip can “keep his optics on him.”
Nick Giedris, Jennifer Reddish. Photo: YuFei Liang.
Writing up the contract is Ned Jessamine (Nick Giedris), gallivanting lawyer husband of Pognip’s niece, Juno (Jennifer Reddish). For much of the play, Juno will keep Ned in sweaty suspense by refusing to disclose just what secret she knows about his gadding about that could be used to divorce him.
Donna Eshleman, Teresa Kelsey. Photo: YuLei Fiang.
Life in East Lemons is a sour experience for Fleming, who, after six months, is bored up to his stiff collar with the lack of anything interesting to do, apart from a shooting gallery, village musicales, poetry readings by the local Browning society to the accompaniment of ice cream and cider, or games of euchre.
Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr., Mike Durkin, Tyler Kent. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
Old Pognip, for his part, couldn’t be happier or more self-satisfied, thus only further irritating his son-in-law, who feels as much married to the old buttinsky as to the complacent Sabina.
J.M. McDonough, Tyler Kent, Trevor St. John-Gilbert, Terence Dineen. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
And then there are the gossips, the need to maintain the puritanical town’s “moral average,” the lack of an express train, the day-late telegrams, the old news in the papers, the clockwork regularity of things, and everybody and his brother’s knowing your business. “It’s only among a million people we can be really alone,” Fleming laments.
Tyler Kent, J.M. McDonough, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
Unable to bear it any longer, Fleming packs up and returns to the city, followed soon after—to her father’s amazement—by Sabina, wrapping up not only the main plot but several subplots when the entire cast gathers in Fleming’s new city flat.
Mike Durkin, Trevor St. John-Gilbert, J.M. McDonough. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
Those subplots involve Juno’s distant cousin, the foolish Natty (Tyler Kent), who keeps coming in second when it comes to asking for a girl’s hand; East Lemon’s liberal-minded Dr. Tinkey (J.M. McDonough), fed up with the town, but ruled by his henpecking, nosey wife, Columbia (Teresa Kelsey); and, of course, Juno herself and Ned.
Trevor St. John-Gilbert, Tyler Kent, J.M. McDonough. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
The contrived plotting is charmingly old-fashioned as are much of the stagey dialogue and constant asides. There’s nothing here that other turn-of-the-century farces haven’t done better, but its occasional wit and lack of prolixity are in its favor. It’s also interesting to see how Daly refashioned the German original to capture touches of New York life in the gay 90s, when up-to-date meant being “twentieth century.”

When Sabina and Juno go to a matinee it’s to “Ibsen’s last play,” with the admonition that they “leave the theatre at the first objectionable word.” Bedlow’s Island and the Statue of Liberty, as well as the steeple of Trinity Church, are touted as must-see tourist spots, and, as today, someone notes that the city’s occupants only see the local sights when accompanying someone from out of town.

And the flat that Fleming must abandon for East Lemons is on Broadway at 23rd Street, “right in the midst of the noisiest—gayest—brightest—maddest crowd on the continent.” You can decide for yourself how much this remains the case.

One of the liveliest sequences involves several of the men getting drunk on champagne and singing “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” a tune introduced a year earlier that became so popular in 1892 it was on everyone’s lips. So ubiquitous and, to some, annoying, was it that, given its ongoing familiarity (and its place at the end of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters), it’s intriguing to see what the play’s New York Times reviewer had to say about it on November 11, 1892.

But why must we have ‘Ta-ra-ra’ on this stage? It is not pretty, or funny, or graceful, or even naughty. It is worn out already, and the bootblacks—the progressive bootblacks—have found another tune to whistle. There are a dozen variety shows in town where they do this sort of thing better!

Of course, the introduction of the tune is probable enough, but the thing itself is so stale and common, the fun of the incident involving it is so obvious, that it gives people who look to this stage [Daly’s] for the best, the brightest, the gentlest, most poetic and fragrant in contemporary comedy, an unpleasant shock.

Readers, the shock is gone.

The production, performed in an intimate three-quarters-round space, uses director Roe’s own simple setting, with furniture moved by the actors when the action shifts between city and country. Sidney Fortner’s eye-catching costumes, close enough to period accuracy to pass muster, help greatly, while Roe’s competent but mostly unexceptional cast—the best work comes from Reddish, McDonough, and Giedris—keeps things lively. Still, with four acts running well over two hours, interest often flags.
Mike Durkin, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: Ed Forti.
A Marriage Contract maintains the Metropolitan’s reputation as a dependable theatrical curiosity shop. The play’s chief value lies in demonstrating the kind of thing our not-that-distant ancestors attended just as Ibsen, Chekhov, and modernists far more extreme were changing the dramatic landscape. On the other hand, overlong and dated as it is, it’s more entertaining than many other current plays I could mention. Who knows? Perhaps it won’t take another 125 years before its next revival.


Metropolitan Playhouse
220 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 18

"Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?"

My plus-one, a scholar in his mid-70s, gave the play a 55.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

164 (2017-2018): Review: A WALK WITH MR. HEIFETZ (seen February 21, 2018)

"Fiddler on the Wall"

For my review of A WALK WITH MR. HEIFETZ please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

"Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?"

My plus-one gave the play a 45.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

163 (2017-2018): Review: RETURNING TO REIMS (seen February 20, 2018)

"Documentary Theatre"

Once again, a production forces us to ask the question, what is theatre? Or, what is a play? Theatre is a shapeshifter and its definition is constantly changing. You can, for example, have theatre without the conventional elements of actors, sets, theatres, scripts, and so on. 

Nina Hoss, Bush Moukarzel. Photo: Arno Declair.
All of these elements are present, however, in Returning to Reims, now making its American debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse (following its world premiere in Manchester, UK, and a production in Berlin), which nonetheless expands a few theatrical boundaries and gives a new twist to the meaning of documentary theatre.
Nina Hoss. Photo: Arno Declair.
Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims) is an adaptation of the 2009 memoir of that name (English version 2013) by French philosopher Didier Eribon. Director Thomas Ostermeier, of the renowned Schaubühne Berlin, who presumably did the uncredited adaptation, has set the play in an expansive recording studio (designed by Nina Wetzel) where the actress Katy (Nina Hoss, Homeland, Phoenix) has been hired to voice Eribon’s first-person narrative for a documentary directed by Paul (Bush Moukarzel), a filmmaker. 

Perhaps 60 percent of the play shows the actress seated on a stool at center, reading Didier’s words, as a large, overhead screen—seen only by us—presents the rather artfully compiled documentary (created by Ostermeier and Sébastien Dupouey), with a haunting score by Nils Ostendorf. Meanwhile, the recording is monitored from a booth by the filmmaker and sound technician/studio owner Tony (Ali Gadema).
Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
The rest of the stage time is occupied with discussions between Katy and Paul over the script’s political dimensions (along with systemic evil, conspiracy theories, etc.), and with the technician performing a politically charged rap song he wrote.

The song breaks the fourth wall, for some unexplained reason, allowing for additional such intrusions—as when Paul asks communists in the audience to raise their hands—that destroy the realistic world previously established.
Bush Moukarzel, Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
Subtextual political connotations—including “processes of domination”—color all the characters’ interactions so perhaps this is somehow intended to include the audience in that realm.

The conclusion, devised so as to provide the actress’s richly personal perspective, offers home videos of Katy/Hoss’s own father, a communist trade unionist who lost faith in his ideology, turned Green Party activist and did humanitarian work for the indigenous people of the Brazilian rain forest (where we see a much younger Hoss having her face painted by a tribesman). This, we’re perhaps supposed to imagine, is intended as an alternative attitude toward the demoralizing forces of globalization, capitalism, and monopolization roiling the landscape.
Bush Moukarzel, Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
The recording occurs in two scenes, a week apart, during the play’s uninterrupted (except for a brief blackout) two hours. The Eribon story, supported by considerable documentary footage from his life and times, recounts his feelings as a gay, progressive, intellectual from a poor, working-class family in the provincial city of Reims when, following his homophobic father’s death, he returns to visit his mother. Eribon, who considers himself a class traitor for abandoning his class origins, examines his identity issues in the light of political and sociological realities.

One theme that emerges, and which we understand to cover far more than the French politics it cites, concerns how the working classes, feeling betrayed, have been shifting from their traditional support of leftwing ideas and parties to populist, rightwing ones, particularly Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Trump’s name is never spoken but his existence in this maelstrom of international unease is hard to ignore. When Katy reveals her personal understanding of and involvement in the issues at stake, the play takes a surprisingly autobiographical detour into Hoss’s own life. It’s interesting but only serves to muddy the waters.

Returning to Reims is not a ready-made crowd pleaser. The narration’s low-key focus on Didier’s identity issues, the kind that have become increasingly familiar in recent years, is not as gripping as one could wish; not only do most American audiences have no connection to Didier, we’re hearing his thoughts through the medium of a woman’s voice and presence, creating a Brechtian effect that distances us emotionally. Moreover, the emphasis on the class-related preoccupations of European politics, while of intellectual interest, seems more appropriate for a TED lecture than a dramatic presentation.

Hoss, an exceptional artist, reads the narrative in a soft, naturalistic, barely accented, deceptively objective tone; its mood is perfect for the footage being projected if you focus only on that but it seems oddly disconnected from the narrator’s living, onstage presence, where we expect more overt demonstrations of action and emotion.

Even when engaged in vital dialogue with the somewhat more volatile filmmaker, Hoss’s demeanor—a reflection of gender-related dominance-submission issues?—is personable, droll, controlled, knowing, and disciplined. The scenes during which Paul gets Katy to divulge her personal story—at far too great a length—as her face fills the large screen over her head never betray that she’s performing rather than living what she’s portraying.
Bush Moukarzel, Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
While there are several boring patches in Returning to Reims it generally manages to sustain interest; political junkies are likely to relish it more than those seeking dramatic action and strong feelings. The arguments are pertinent and thought-provoking but not notably polemical and the general subtlety of their presentation is less stimulating than an opening segment of Rachel Maddow on an active news day.

My politically active plus-one was hypnotized by the discourse from first to last. I, though, was more excited about seeing and learning about the fascinating Nina Hoss up close and personal.


St. Ann’s Warehouse
42 Water St., Brooklyn, NYC
Through February 25 

Did the Folks Next to Me Like It (8)

This time it wasn’t someone next to me but a pleasant, white-haired woman who, hungry to discuss what she’d just seen, had begun to chat about the play with me and my plus-one on Dock Street as we walked to the subway. I asked for her grade on a score of 1-100. Hesitant at first, she offered a 6 or a 7. I asked if a 70 would do, and she agreed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

162 (2017-2018): Review: FLIGHT (seen February 19, 2018)

“A Modern Odyssey”

Warning: The following describes an uncommon theatre experience whose methods you may wish to discover for yourself. If that’s you, and you don’t want to read further, I’ll say only that Flight is a brief, excellently produced, nontraditional presentation about the experiences shared by two Afghan boys fleeing to England and presented not by actors but by miniature figures and scenic models. The production won an award at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For those who want more detail about the experience, read on.

Photo: Vox Motus.

The walk from the nearest subway to the Hotel McKittrick, a former warehouse, over on W. 27th near 11th Avenue in one of Chelsea’s less frequented sections, may not appeal to many theatregoers, especially older ones hiking there in inclement weather. 

However, after seeing Flight, an unusual theatrical experience created by the Scottish company Vox Motus about a pair of Afghan boys fleeing to the West, they’re likely to look forward to their return trip when they realize the insignificance of their trek in comparison to what the protagonists endure.

When you arrive at the McKittrick, you may see a long, barely moving line snaking down the block. It’s there to see, not Flight, but Sleep No More, the immersive, Macbeth-inspired presentation that’s been playing since 2011.

A bit further down the block, right in the middle of the queue, is another doorway to the same building, which you can enter at once, without waiting in line. It leads to a small lobby where a tiny elevator, operated by a black-garbed attendant, takes you to a second lobby, resembling the interior of an old-time, European train station, including picturesque telephone booths. I felt like I was in a Wes Anderson movie.

After you get your tickets, other very polite, black-clad attendants quietly guide you through dimly lit, ghostly corridors, past mockups of old-fashioned train cars on either side, to another station-like coat-check area, where a much-used luggage truck leans against the wall near an antique scale piled with vintage valises.

Once you’ve checked your belongings you’re ushered into one of the train cars you previously passed, where you wait with a small group of others to be summoned across the corridor into a different car. You sit silently with the group on a leather banquette-style couch as one by one, separated by several minutes, people in the group are summoned to another room.

There, in the darkness, you’re asked to sit alone in a petite cubicle, with black walls to either side. In front of you, is a black wall with a window-like opening lit by a horizontal streak of white light outlining vaguely defined forms. You’re given a headset and soon begin to hear composer/sound designer Mark Melville’s remarkable mix of sound effects, narrative (spoken by Emin Elliott), dialogue, and music that accompanies what you’re seeing.

And what you’re seeing is the story of the orphans, 15-year-old Aryan (voiced by Farshid Rokey) and his eight-year-old brother Kabir (voiced by Nalini Chetty), adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’s 2012 novel, Hinterland. The boys run off from their war-torn nation with $2000 and little more than the clothes on their backs in an attempt to get to relatives in London via Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, and Paris.

They encounter awful experiences, including being shanghaied to do forced labor on a farm, and one of them being sexually abused, but they also share a few good times, like when they’re able to take a swim, or when a group of American young women in Paris buy them sneakers. On the whole, though, they suffer mightily as, using various subterfuges, they creep ever nearer to their goal. The story, based on Brothers’s interviews with numerous refugees, encapsulates the experiences of actual people into the odyssey of these fictional Afghan boys.
Photo: Vox Motus.
Most remarkably, their adventures are represented not by living actors, nor even by puppets, but by exquisitely rendered tiny sculptures of people, places, and things. These are placed within a series of diorama-like, square and rectangular openings that slide by very slowly, inches from your face, each little window brilliantly lit with miniscule instruments by designer Simon Wilkinson. The openings are built into a huge, revolving, drum-like or carousel structure that allows perhaps 25 people at a time to sit around it, each seeing in turn what the person just before them witnessed.

Sometimes only one opening appears, sometimes more. Cinematic methods are used, with close-ups, medium, long-shot, and birds-eye effects; human figures look to be anywhere from half an inch to two inches tall, with background persons often seen as silhouettes. Cars, trees, mountains, trucks, rubber rafts at sea, fruits, architecture, clouds, sky, planets, and whatever else is needed, no matter how grand or how minute, fill frame after frame.

The models are mostly realistic, often with awesome detail, but frequently distorted for emotional effect, like the urban buildings that curve threateningly over the boys, or the scenes that suggest etchings on glass, or the depiction of French security personnel as impersonal, threatening birds. (Rebecca Hamilton is the exceptionally gifted co-designer and lead model maker.) Birds, in fact, are a consistent visual motif, often representing freedom but also suggesting oppression and death.

The narrative of Flight has frequent ellipses that fail to explain transitional gaps in the story, and we have to fill these in ourselves or simply take it for granted that the story, for all its apparent literalness, is not always meant to be taken literally. A lot has to be crammed into its mere 45-minute presentation (which allows for multiple showings every day).

The presentation reminded me of a far more spectacular but in certain ways similar proto-theatrical genre, the 19th-century panorama; it also has a hint of the old zoetrope device. Regardless, I’m afraid that, however well-done Flight is, it’s easier to become absorbed in its artfulness than to become as deeply invested in it emotionally as would be the case were it presented as, say, a movie.

Still, Flight, directed with theatrical imagination and delicate sensitivity by Candice otand Jamie Harrison, is, on its own terms, an impressively original articulation of the plight of innocent refugees fleeing the world’s disaster areas while suffering the cold shoulder of international disdain. It avoids polemics or Pollyanna solutions in favor of focusing on two children as symbols of the many thousands like them seeking security by leaving country after country.

Flight leaves it up to us to consider the tragedy of these invisible souls who, each in their own way, seeks asylum from the poverty, bloodshed, famine, or corruption in their native lands.  

Perhaps the best way to conclude is by repeating the following program note:

As of May 2017 the United Nations Children’s Fund counted 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children moving worldwide. These are the documented cases. Of these 100,000 were caught trying to cross the US-Mexican border and 170,000 lone child refugees sought asylum in Europe.


McKittrick Hotel
530 W. 27th St., NYC
Through March 25

"Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?" (7)

Because of the individual nature of this experience, I was unable to ask a neighbor for his or her reaction.

Friday, February 16, 2018

161 (2017-2018): Review: AGAINST THE HILLSIDE (seen February 15, 2018)

“Drone on the Range”

Sylvia Khoury’s Against the Hillside, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, is a well-meaning but mediocre play on a ragingly topical issue: drone warfare and its effects on both sides of the carnage it inflicts.

It’s well known that, under President George W. Bush, the American government, in 2004, began using drones to attack tribal areas in northern Afghanistan in its fight against the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. And, although the Air Force and CIA have sought to avoid civilian casualties, the resulting loss of life and limb hasn’t discriminated very well between the bad guys and the good, the militias and the citizens.

Jack Mikesell, Caroline Hewitt. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Putting the relative statistics—decidedly unfavorable to the good guys—aside, consider the ethical dimensions of this kind of combat: American servicemen and servicewomen are asked to surveil and kill people on the ground from the comfort of a command center 8,000 miles away.

In 2014, playwright George Brant approached the issue in his powerful one-woman, Off-Broadway play, Grounded, starring Hannah Cabell in a first-rate performance as a major who begins to suffer from the stress of liquidating strangers on the other side of the earth from a windowless, air-conditioned room outside Las Vegas. (Ann Hathaway starred in the 2015 revival at the Public Theater.)

A couple of movies also deal with the subject, most notably the Helen Mirren starrer, Eye in the Sky. That melodrama, in part, observes the emotional reactions of an Air Force drone pilot (played by Aaron Paul) to a particular operation he deems highly questionable.

In these cases, the dilemma focuses on the feelings of the Americans who must push those lethal buttons. Khoury’s play does so as well but, unlike the other works, also investigates what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those remote-controlled missiles.

To express this she divides her play into alternating scenes. On the one hand, we see the growing discomfort of the highly regarded American RPA (Remote Piloted Aircraft) pilot Capt. Matt Walker (Jack Mikesell), based near Las Vegas; on the other, we discover the anxieties of a family in Waziristan, Pakistan, representing the hellish existence of those who must live in fear of instant annihilation.
Jack Mikesell. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
In Nevada, Matt’s issues are tied to his marital situation with his pregnant wife, Erin (Caroline Hewitt). Erin’s concerned with how closely Matt’s become involved with the lives of the presumably innocent people he’s surveilling, especially Reem (Mahira Kakkar), wife of Sayid (Babak Tafti), owner of a store frequented by suspected militants whose mere presence there puts his totally innocent life in peril.
Babak Tafti, Mahira Kakkar. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Erin refuses to sleep with Matt under these circumstances, asking her reluctant spouse to seek help from his supervisor, Jared (John Wernke), to redeploy, and to return to flying; she admits she can’t live with him anymore under these conditions. Reem, mother of one child, Abdul, refuses to bring another into their dangerous world unless Sayid gives up his business and flees to the safer environment of a big city, Karachi.
Babak Tafti, Mahira Kakkar. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
So far, so good. Khoury nicely sets up parallel stories of how two married couples enmeshed in either side of a tragic situation react to a situation threatening to tear them apart. And then the play slowly unravels.
Mahira Kakkar, Babak Tafti. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
In Pakistan, the death of Sayid’s cousin is followed by Sayid’s determination to hold a funeral despite the danger it involves (gatherings of more than five are red flags). This drives Reem to leave him—with Sayid’s male cousin Ahmed (Mohit Gautam). After that (like the gun that, (in defiance of Chekhov’s gun rule, is displayed but never used), this most vibrant of the characters vanishes from the play.
Mohit Gautam, Rajesh Bosh. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Back in Vegas, Jared offers Matt advice on how to separate his job from his private life. He also introduces a new arrival, Second Lt. Anthony (Avery Whitted), to be trained by Matt. Anthony doesn’t understand Matt’s preoccupation with Reem.
Avery Whitted, Jack Micksell. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
This devolves into a discussion of Matt and Anthony’s differing interpretations of why she left Sayid and just what one can determine about private lives from a drone thousands of feet in the air. They even dispute why Reem habitually pressed herself against a hillside, which at least gives us a reason for the play’s ambiguous title.  
Sammy Pignalosa, Babak Tafti. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Midway through, both the American and Pakistani stories waver, and whatever dramatic thrust existed fades. Sayid—to the dismay of his uncle, Farid (Rajesh Bose), who needs money for a niece’s operation—abandons his store to teach a single student (Sammy Pignalosa). Matt disappears and Anthony, himself now frazzled, reaches out for help. Reem and Ahmed’s current situation is explained when Ahmed returns but, oddly, we never learn either Erin or Matt’s fate.
Avery Whitted, John Wernke. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Finally, in the last scene, Farid meets Erin in a doctor’s office. Wait, that’s not Farid. It’s Abdul (Bose), Sayid and Reem’s child, now grown up and looking exactly like a well-tailored Farid. And wait again. That’s not Erin, it’s the British-accented Dr. Carter (Hewitt), examining Abdul, now a successful barrister, for the hearing loss he suffered as a child and that threatens to make him totally deaf. Khoury has moved us 40 years into the future to depict the aftereffects of the drone attacks. A reasonable point but, following the initial confusion, neither convincing nor particularly profound.

For all the effort to demonstrate how the drones are damaging to both sides of the equation, the play fails to adequately reveal anything about the Pakistani side that explains their ideological positions or much about their village ways; they’re simply theatrical pawns who don’t want to be destroyed. Apart from Sayid’s insistence on the funeral, little about them seems much different from the Americans.

Only the Indian-born Kakkar has the trace of a South Asian accent, while everybody else sounds—language as well as accents—more like people from Ozone Park than Waziristan (although Ozone Park probably has lots of those as well). Reem could as easily be arguing that she and Sayid should be escaping Trump’s presidency by moving to Canada, rather than from Waziristan to Karachi.

Jason Simms’s simple set, surrounded by the audience on two sides, shows a shiny, black-tiled floor, which seems out-of-place wherever the action goes, with a rear wall depicting, in a narrow, horizontal panel, what resembles an aerial bas-relief of Pakistan’s topography. Given the few pieces needed for tables, chairs, and beds, a more imaginative solution that didn’t need so many scene shift interruptions would have been preferable. 

However, the scene shifts get a bit more drama than the play itself via the work of designer Barbara Samuels, who dims the lights to create slim, horizontal, pulsating, neon-like strips along the walls, and sound designer/composer Shane Rettig, who turns up the volume for his pounding, room-shaking musical effects.

Sydney Maresca's costumes are satisfactory except for Anthony's uniform. According to my plus-one, raised in a military family, a big boo-boo is committed by giving this officer an enlisted man's stripes, especially when none of the other uniforms are designated with emblems of rank.

William Carden’s direction lacks the drive to ignite continued interest during the play’s intermissionless 90 minutes but he does get reasonably realistic acting from his company. Most effective are Wernke, Bose, and Kakkar (gone too soon). Khoury has tackled a worthwhile subject but I do wish she’d done more with it.  


Ensemble Studio Theatre
425 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through February 25

“Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?” (6)

(With apologies to the "Did He Like It?" website.) Often, I’m very aware of how the stranger (or plus-one) sitting next to me at a show is reacting. I may hear the audience laughing across the way or behind me, while the man or woman beside me is sitting stone-faced. Or I may notice sniffling while I myself am falling asleep. Since I often wonder how they'd grade what we’ve both just experienced I’ve decided to simply ask my neighbor or friend for an on-the-spot number on the scale of 1-100 and record it here.

My plus-one, feeling more positive than I, despite her cavils, settled on a 70 for Against the Hillside.

160 (2017-2018): Review: HANGMEN (seen February 14, 2018)

"No Noose is Good Noose"

For my review of Hangmen please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

“Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?” (5)

(With apologies to the "Did He Like It?" website.) Often, I’m very aware of how the strangers sitting next to me at a show are reacting. I may hear the audience laughing across the way or behind me, while the man or woman beside me is sitting stone-faced. Or I may notice sniffling while I myself am falling asleep. Since I often wonder how they feel about what we’ve both just experienced I’ve decided to simply ask them and record their reactions by giving the show an on-the-spot grade on the scale of 1-100. 

The middle-aged couple next to me at Hangmen agreed the show deserved a score of between 85-90.