Monday, December 15, 2014

127. Review of POCATELLO (December 15, 2014)


“I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre, in Pocatella [sic], Idaho,” sings Judy Garland in A STAR IS BORN. On the other hand, the 10 characters in Samuel D. Hunter’s often engaging but finally unsatisfactory new dramedy, POCATELLO, set in that Idaho city of over 54,000, seem more likely to have been born in a funk. Each of the characters falls somewhere along the dark spectrum of unhappiness. Their malaise stems from the familiar ones of marital discord, teenage angst, sexual orientation, familial dysfunction, creeping senility, economic distress, parental loss, alcoholism, and drug abuse, with agricultural contamination and exploitation, as well as big-box store proliferation, thrown in for good measure. 

And for most, whatever’s getting them down isn’t made easier by their feeling trapped in a place that, as they see it, is a dead end with no jobs and no future. Residents of Pocatello, including the over 15,000 students at Idaho State University, which is located there, may be pleased that a New York play by a native Idahoan—a MacArthur genius grantee, no less—bears the town’s name, but I doubt they’ll be thrilled to learn how depressing a place he seems to think it is. And, for the record, the play, which is set in a restaurant, gives the impression there are hardly any others in Pocatello; a quick Google search shows several dozen restaurants serving a wide variety of tastes. Pocatello is a metaphor for how small-town America is becoming a faceless wasteland consisting of nothing but monolithic chain stores, but if you’re going to set the action of a play in an actual place you needn't exaggerate the facts so broadly.

From left: T.R. Knight, Brenda Wehle, Brian Hutchison, Crystal Finn. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The restaurant in question, which occupies the entire expanse of the Playwrights Horizons stage, is realized in a super-realistic set--designed by Lauren Helpern, with expert lighting by Eric Southern--that mirrors the phony Italian ambiance of any Olive Garden, with booths, tables, wine bottle d├ęcor, and other banalities of chain-store homogeneity. The manager is Eddie (T.R. Knight, of Grey's Anatomy), a sweet, affable, caring, but deeply troubled gay guy in his mid-30s. For one thing, he’s struggling to keep the place going in the face of news that “corporate” is closing it down; the only patrons we ever see are family members. For another, he’s trying to get his mother, Doris (Brenda Wehle), and brother, Nick (Brian Hutchison)—a successful real estate agent making a brief visit with his wife, Kelly (Crystal Finn)—to reestablish the close family relationship they once shared. Eddie’s homosexuality appears to have caused an irreparable rift that he’ll do anything to repair. 

This familial dilemma, with its depiction of a mother who defiantly resists any affection from her loving son, isn’t entirely credible, nor is the sentimental way the situation is eventually resolved just before the final curtain. It does, however, provide in Doris someone whose reactions to what’s going on around her are amusingly eccentric, even if these sharply contrast with the maternal turn she takes toward the end. When Nick, however, gets his big moment to express his frustration with Eddie and Pocatello, he pulls out too many stops for it to be believable. But this is the kind of play where everybody has at least one big scene expressing their despair; with 10 characters, it's not easy to make each such moment ring true.

From left: Danny Wolohan, T.R. Knight, Cameron Scoggins, Elvy Yost. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Some characters are on Eddie’s staff, the faux-family with which he tries to comfort himself from the absence of his real one, just as the restaurant becomes more of his home than the one he lives in, thus motivating him to fight for it. His workers include Troy (Danny Wolohan), a waiter in his mid-30s who, despite a college degree, can’t find more lucrative employment during the recession, and who’s engaged in a constant tussle with his alcoholic wife, Tammy (Jessica Dickey). Another waiter, Max (Cameron Scoggins), is grateful to Eddie for having hired him despite his record as a drug abuser, but can’t stay off the stuff, while the pretty waitress, Isabelle (Elvy Yost), is an orphan whose parents died when she was 12.  Filling out this assortment of underdogs are the septuagenarian Cole (Jonathan Hogan), Troy’s father, who’s showing signs of dementia, and Becky (Leah Karpel), Troy and Tammy’s 17-year-old daughter. Becky, probably the  most interesting character, is boiling with anger at a world in which she can’t trust the food she eats not to be contaminated, considers agricultural practices to be genocidal, and refuses even to have a name because “no one in America” deserves one.

From left: Danny Wolohan, Jessica Dickey, Leah Karpel. Photo: Jereemy Daniel.
POCATELLO may sound like the makings of a thuddingly depressing soap opera, but Mr. Hunter’s sprightly dialogue and tangle of character interactions manage to keep the atmosphere, if not scintillating, at least lively enough to hold your attention for its intermissionless hour and 40 minutes. An excellent ensemble, led by the excellent Mr. Knight and nicely conducted by director Davis McCallum, brings vitality and humor to what could easily have been a downer. There have been any number of plays like this, with a cast of colorful characters assembled in a single place, like a bar, hotel lobby, or ship, with plot being less important than people, ideas, and dialogue. Its setup, characters, and situations, though, are not especially original or captivating. POCATELLO’s menu is tasty enough but you may find something more nutritious somewhere else.

Friday, December 12, 2014

126. Review of EVERY BRILLIANT THING (December 11, 2014)


The night I saw EVERY BRILLIANT THING, a fire at the West 4th Street station made getting to and from the theatre on the subway a major hassle, but, as Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots sing at the end of the show, “Into Each Life SomeRain Must Fall.” If I were to compile a list of 1 million brilliant things that make life worth living, that song might make it, and maybe it’s even on the list put together by the protagonist of this very satisfying one-man show at the Barrow Street Theatre. Our anonymous hero, the Narrator, you see, learns at age seven that his beloved mother, a victim of depression, has attempted suicide by doing what his dad calls “something stupid.” Thereupon, hoping to make her feel better, he decides to write down a list of every brilliant (i.e., wonderful) thing he can think of, and show it to her when she’s released from the hospital.

Jonny Donahoe. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

As he narrates his story, he grows up, talks of yet another suicide attempt by his mom during his teen years, and tells of falling in love at university, getting married, and breaking up. He, too, becomes a victim of depression, which he seeks help to combat. The subject of suicide, which becomes a preoccupation for him, provides an especially memorable extended sequence. He rediscovers the list, which, with the contributions of friends, has reached over 800,000 items, and continues adding to it until it reaches 1 million, finding in it the reasons to survive. The song may talk about rain falling into each person’s life, and that “too much is falling in mine,” but it’s clear that the setbacks we encounter shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating every brilliant thing life has to offer.

This sweetly sentimental, wise, and often very funny one-hour piece, which originated in the U.K. and was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is performed by Jonny Donahoe, a chubby, cheerful, delightfully upbeat fellow with close-cropped blonde hair. It’s presented in such an ingratiatingly natural manner that it appears to be autobiographical. It was, however, written by someone else, Duncan Macmillan. Mr. Donahoe’s participation in the writing is noted in the program by his name being printed in a much smaller font than Mr. Macmillan’s.

The auditorium, which is also being used these days for the shadow puppet play, SWAMP JUICE, is arranged in a theatre-in-the-round configuration, including seats on the raised stage. When the audience arrives, Mr. Donahoe distributes Post-its, notebook pages, and other scraps of paper, each with a numbered “brilliant thing” scribbled on it. At numerous points in his narrative, he calls out these numbers and whoever has the corresponding paper reads out what’s written there. Mine was #14 and said “bed.” Others include “Kung Fu movies,” “Laughing so loud you shoot milk out your nose,” “Me,” Marlon Brando,” and both Christopher Walken’s voice and hair.  Moreover, several audience members are recruited to perform partly improvised scenes with Mr. Donahoe; they play a veterinarian, the Narrator's dad, a grade school counselor who speaks through a sock puppet, the Narrator’s lover (sometimes played by a man, sometimes a woman), and a university lecturer. Those chosen to participate at the performance I attended, despite their apparent shyness, turned in adorably appropriate performances.

Mr. Donahoe, as directed by George Perrin, works the audience like a stand-up comic, moving about freely among the chairs, sometimes with a mic in hand, and now and then cueing the sound technician to play pop and jazz segments--including Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Ella Fitzgerald--from the speaker’s father’s vinyl collection. The familiar music, touching premise, and Mr. Donahoe’s winning personality combine to create an hour of theatre that, in spite of its look at depression and suicide, manages in its life-affirming optimism to be both humorous and moving, while steering clear of undue schmaltziness. Many may consider it yet another of life’s many brilliant things. 

Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Through March 29, 2015

125. Review of ABSOLUTION (December 9, 2014)


Reviewing theatre can be dangerous. You can sometimes find yourself renditioned to a black site disguised as a theatre where you’re subjected to a barrage of psychological torture in the form of a play. It’s even worse when the play you’re watching has no intermission, and you fear for your safety if you try to escape in mid-performance. Just kidding, of course, folks, but these thoughts came to mind at St. Luke’s Theatre on Tuesday as I watched the world premiere of Christopher B. Latro’s ABSOLUTION while contemplating the confluence of two news items: 1) the Senate’s report on the CIA’s torture program and 2) the controversy over Jane Kaufman’s Wall Street Journal article, “Confessions of a Broadway Bolter,” about her practice of leaving dull shows at intermission, even though she’s privileged to receive comps because of her position as a cultural reporter.

From left: Ethan Saks, Becca Ballenger, Katrina Ferguson, Pedro Carma. Photo: ABSOLUTION company.

Most of my fellow reviewers would never think of walking out on even the most boring or artistically deficient shows, either during the performance or at intermission, unless an emergency arose. We adhere to Emperor Hirohitos advice to his defeated nation to endure the unendurable. And thats what anyone—whether there on comps or purchased tickets—who attends ABSOLUTION will have to do, unless they don’t mind escaping before the 90-minute, intermissionless play concludes.

The play’s publicity synopsis reads: “Absolution is the story of two bankers, their lovers, and the things they love the most: money, power, and satisfaction. As their fast-paced games unfold, a thrilling spiral of ambition, love and betrayal unravels.” As this suggests, the play is about the dog-eat-dog world of big-time moneymaking, a theme much more effectively expressed in the various movies that have excoriated Wall Street in recent years. This new dark comedy”as it’s billed, focuses on what happens when the 40ish Angelo (Pedro Carma), who heads a successful investment firm, hires the ambitious young trader, Ethan (Ethan Saks). Ethan quickly displays aggressive tactics in his desire to move up the ladder. His ambitions are fueled by the need to pay for his rising expenses, many of them tied to the demands of his vain, free-spending fiancee, Marie (Becca Ballenger), who practically defines conspicuous consumption. Angelo, for his part, pairs up with a sophisticated hotty named Gabrielle (Katrina Ferguson), and the play charts the business and personal complications that entangle this ruthless foursome. 

Sad to say, ABSOLUTION fails to provide even 30 seconds that ring true; the plotting is clumsy, the characters are cardboard, and the dialogue is patently artificial. There are numerous faux-poetic monologues, some in prose so purple it would make Mikhail Gorbachev hide his forehead in shame; moreover, the overly formal, almost conjunction-free syntax, has that phony sound you often hear in plays poorly translated from other languages.

The four actors are totally at sea with this material. An experienced theatre journalist who saw the same performance told me she’d never seen such bad acting; I disagreed, thinking the fault lay not only in the pretentious writing but in the amateurish direction of Anna Bamberger, who fails to evoke any sense of truth, either in the characterizations or in the staging, during which the actors often barely relate to one another. Nor is the work well served by sound designer Sam Godin, who provides offstage voices and phone rings from a poorly amped speaker overhead at stage left, when the sounds are supposed to be coming from center or right.

The unit set by Lauren Mills and lighting by Jamie Roderick are passable, but the greatest effort seems to have gone into Michael Alan Stein’s costumes, particularly those worn by Ms. Ballenger and Ms. Ferguson, both of whom have the figures to do their emphatically chic duds justice. (Production photos on the show's Facebook page show several outfits different from what the actresses wear in performance, and the boyish bob Ms. Ferguson wears on stage is more flattering than the one in the pictures.) One might ask whether Ms. Ferguson, who comes to work in a skintight, scarlet dress with an elaborate necklace, looking more like a movie star than an executive, isn’t vastly overdressed. On the other hand, looking at her in this eye-catching getup is a welcome distraction from ABSOLUTION. For that alone it serves a useful purpose, although I doubt there’s anything that can absolve this misfire from its multitude of other sins.  

St. Luke's Theatre
308 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through February 28