Thursday, October 17, 2019

93 (2019-2020): Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (seen October 12, 2019)

"That Is One Strange and Interesting Plant"

For my review of Little Shop of Horrors please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

92 (2019-2020): Review: DUBLIN CAROL (seen October 17, 2019)

"Binge Watching"

Dublin Carol, Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s (Girl from the North Country, The Night Alive) chamber play from 2000, seen at the Atlantic in 2003 starring Jim Norton, is now getting a quality revival at the Irish Rep. The play reminds me of how going to the theatre almost daily can expose similar subjects or images in several works within a very short space of time.
Cillian Hegerty, Jeffrey Bean. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
This past week alone, I’ve seen plays presenting frank, onstage sex (Slave Play, Linda Vista), Trumpian criticism (Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Linda Vista), men abruptly ending relationships with women (Linda Vista, Dublin Carol, Georgia Mertching Is Dead), pregnancy (Georgia Mertching Is Dead, Linda Vista), a self-loathing antihero (Linda Vista, Dublin Carol), and, most urgently, substance abuse (Georgia Mertching Is Dead, Linda Vista, The White Chip, Dublin Carol.)

The substance abused in Dublin Carol, like The White Chip, is alcohol, and the abuser is John Plunkett (Jeffrey Bean), a painfully lonely, middle-aged, Dublin undertaker. Set entirely on Christmas Eve, 1999, it’s located in a funeral home’s office, designed by Charlie Corcoran, its drearily paneled walls decorated with casual, seasonal reminders: a string of colored lights, an Advent calendar, a tiny, artificial tree.
Jeffrey Bean, Cillian Hegerty.
Slowly, as John, surely desperate for a friendly ear, chats up a new employee, Mark (Cillian Hegerty), suggesting the Ghost of Christmas Future, we learn what they do for a living. We discover as well how indebted John is for his job to Mark’s uncle, Noel, their kind, hospitalized boss. Also gradually exposed is John’s bibulousness, which comes fully into focus in the second of the intermissionless, 90-minute play’s three parts. In that part, taking place later in the day, John, is visited by Mary (Sarah Street), his downbeat daughter, like a Ghost of Christmas Past, whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years.
Sarah Street, Jeffrey Bean.
John, learning from Mary that her mother—his wife, Helen, from whom he’s been separated for many years—is dying of cancer, reluctantly agrees to pay her a final visit at the hospital, although he’s hesitant about handling her funeral. Father and daughter recall the past, mentioning John’s alienated son, Paul, a motorbike repairman living in England. The emphasis is on John’s failure as a dad and husband because of his incessant pub crawling and fall-down drunkenness. Much of John’s pathology, his deceptions and rationales, resemble those of Steven in The White Chip.
Sarah Street.
In the third part, John, waiting for Mary’s return, and dreading his marital reunion, is already in his cups when Mark arrives. Mark recounts the reaction of his girlfriend to his having just ended their relationship, which he’s starting to regret. As the men toss a few back, John advises Mark that he’s better off without her, for some reason guiltily recounting an adulterous love affair he had with Carol, a widow he bedded more because she paid for his booze than because he loved her. Mark, angry at this bit of “wisdom,” is stopped from leaving when John discloses his wife’s condition.
Jeffrey Bean.
As the pair gather up the ornaments, John offers a clinically horrific description of an alcoholic’s hangover. It helps make Dublin Carol what would be a perfect match for The White Chip in an AA repertory of contemporary temperance dramas. At the end, of course, this being a Christmas drama with people named Noel, John, Mary, Paul, and Mark, a hint of redemption hangs in the air.
Jeffrey Bean.
Essentially plotless, Dublin Carol is a garrulous character study about the ravages of spirits (alcoholic, psychological, and Dickensian), redeemed by McPherson’s Irish-colored prose and the realistically nuanced performances of its actors, smoothly directed by Ciarán O’Reilly. Bean is a convincingly self-flagellating souse, but, without much of a dramatic goal to fight for, there’s little about the man to make him notably different from countless other woozy, puking, remorseful stage drunks.

I can almost imagine Dublin Carol being relocated to a pub where you must fight the urge to flee while listening to the outpourings of a barely sympathetic barfly going on about what brought him to this pass. And isn’t that what AA is for?

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through November 10

91 (2019-2020): Review: LINDA VISTA (seen October 15, 2019)

"Not Such a Pretty View"

For my review of Linda Vista please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Guest Review 15 (2019-2020): PAINTED ALICE: THE MUSICAL

“Sunday in LIC With Alice” ***

By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)

Tana Sirois, Meghan Ginley.
To get to the performance space for Painted Alice involves winding through multiple exhibits at the Plaxell Art Gallery in Long Island City; pretty cool to get a free art show along with your theatre tickets. The show is performed in an enormous room in the back of the 12,000 square-foot gallery (eat your heart out, Manhattan) where there’s ample stage space and the audience watches from chairs set up on bleachers. 

Presented by Long Island City Artists, Inc. by special arrangement with Greg Schaffert, Painted Alice is a love letter to LIC, where warehouses converted into art galleries neighbor waterfront high-rises with skyline views and the beautiful Gantry Plaza State Park, and  where struggling artists walk their dogs alongside the wealthy. The titular character Alice (Tana Sirois) paints with the Citi building as a backdrop, as seen through her window (original art created for the show by Eileen Coyne).

The concept is nifty: a modern-day Alice In Wonderland where Alice is an uninspired artist who falls through her canvas and enters an alternate universe in which she encounters odd characters who must teach her life lessons before she can return home. A zany show about art in an eclectic art gallery: great start.

Painted Alice features some fun ideas: Alice’s childhood drawings come to life and lecture her, she dances a duet with an Italian painter in which they both wear one roller skate, the audience gets to munch on brownies, there’s exercise-ball choreography, and the front row acts as a jury by holding up paddles of famous paintings (I had Girl With a Pearl Earring).

William Donnelly’s (book and lyrics) and Michael Mahler’s (music and lyrics) songs are upbeat and entertaining, led by music director Jonathan Bauerfeld at the piano and enhanced by Conor Keelan’s orchestrations. Guillermo Laporta’s lighting and projections bring gusto to Alice’s wonderland. Director Edjo Wheeler’s staging makes creative use of the space, though the show’s pacing needs more snap. 

The many characters in Alice’s orbit are played by Jack Bowman, Molly Kelleher, Adam B. McDonald, and Jamie Shapiro, who all have a lot of work to do and do it very well. Kelleher is given the bulk of the larger-than-life roles, including the flamboyant art agent who channels Frasier Crane’s agent Bebe, and an insult-hurling incarnation of a mermaid Alice drew as a kid, costumed by Olivia Vaughn Hern.  

The piece refreshingly focuses on a female artist, and I don’t even want to make it a thing that the primary romantic relationship is between two women, because the show doesn’t. Unfortunately, what begins as the progressive story of a young woman’s career as a painter surprisingly devolves into typical romcom trappings. Alice’s girlfriend Dinah (Meghan Ginley) is strangely unsupportive of the time Alice puts into her work and wishes she’d be more of a priority for her partner. It was hard to appreciate the pretty song imploring Alice to “make room in your life for love” when I was distracted wondering what the heck she did wrong other than try to meet a deadline. 

As plot events get “curiouser and curiouser,” so does clarity on what the production is aiming to achieve. It seems that Alice goes through a whole lot of trouble just to learn that love is more important than her work (huh?), and that it’s no big deal to back out of a job commitment if it means being true to yourself (huh??). 

The prevalent phrase I heard whispered among the crowd on my way out was “that was fun.” You may not leave the theatre with any more meaningful revelations than Alice had, but chances are you’ll have had a pretty good time. 

The Plaxall Gallery
5-25 46th Ave., Long Island City, NYC
Through Dec 1

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her husband Joe, kids Theo and Melody, and three cats. @elyseorecchio

90 (2019-2020): Review: GEORGIA MERTCHING IS DEAD (seen October 14, 2019)

"On the Road Again"

Instead of all those annoying titles that think it clever to use only lower case letters, most recently runboyrun, Catya McMullen’s GEORGIA MERTCHING IS DEAD insists on using all caps. The play itself is sometimes loud—to the point of yelling—but it definitely doesn’t call for headlines. 

The few critics who’ve commented on it thus far have had more or less positive reactions, but I found myself unmoved, incredulous (to use an au courant word), bored even, and—apart from a few good zingers—unable to find it as amusing as did many others in the audience. 
Diana Oh, Layla Khoshnoudi, Claire Siebers. All photos: Jeremy Daniel.
The three, self-involved women, in their early 30s, who form the play’s nucleus are having dinner at a restaurant when an email informs them that Georgia Mertching, the sponsor (and former addict) who helped them kick drugs when they were teens, has hung herself, leaving her husband and a six-week-old baby behind. These women, whose ongoing recoveries have fused their friendship, have survived—they even sponsor other users—but many others they know died of overdoses. They decide to drive to North Carolina from New York to attend Georgia’s funeral.

Their car belongs to Emma (Claire Siebers, intense), an unmarried, successful, sexually overactive, emotionally insecure writer with mom issues. She shares the driving with Whitney (Layla Khosnoudi, quirky), a lesbian, also unsure of herself, who’s just quit her job as a chef, and is weird enough to have built a urination device for Gretchen. Gretchen (Diana Oh, expansive), in the back seat, is the married, potty-mouthed mother of a kid with a butt fixation. She looks like she’s about to pop any minute, her belly so big she could be the next octomom.  
Layla Khoshnoudi, Diana Oh, Claire Siebers.
As the narratively flat drive down South proceeds, the women share a yada-yada barrage of remembered love affairs, sexual encounters, and other personal detritus. Much of what humor there is either childishly scatological or naughtily erotic, like “Who’s the oldest person you’d have sex with?” (Even Gretchen’s husband’s texts are preoccupied with sex and poop.)
JD Taylor, Diana Oh.
Over the course of  90 minutes, there’s also a lot of thematic chatter about friendships versus family and marriage. Various clichéd experiences bring the friends together, tear them apart, and bond them together again, more closely than before.
Layla Khoshnoudi, Diana Oh, Claire Siebers.
Gretchen and her husband, Jeremy (JD Taylor), who live in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, need the time to look at a Connecticut house they may be buying. Jeremy insists she not go to the funeral in her condition but she defies him, a decision that may have some momentary dramatic merit but, as anyone with a half a brain knows, is senseless from a practical perspective. Sure enough, the play proceeds to demonstrate this, albeit unsatisfactorily.
Layla Khoshnoudi.
Credulity is thus strained along with any sympathy for Gretchen, whose behavior otherwise doesn’t go a long way to making us admire her. Given to descriptive dialogue about female parts and hemorrhoids, she unconvincingly turns eloquently contemplative when delivering Georgia’s eulogy. There are multiple other such moments, as when Whitney, having stopped off at a trailer park she once lived in, talks to a tree.
Diana Oh.
Mack truck-like contrivances keep coming down the road, like Emma’s reuniting in North Carolina with a handsome ex, a filmmaker named Harlan (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the pretentious kind who can’t bear when Emma says “movie” instead of “film.” When, standing in a graveyard, the couple let old tensions flame into hormone-stimulating anger, you know exactly where this train is headed.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Siebers.
And the scenes, inevitably, when car troubles appear on the road back home, only confirm what you’ve been expecting all along. Whatever incredulity you’ve been feeling here rises to the plane of exasperation.  

Alexis Distler’s multipurpose set, efficiently lit by Cat Tate Starmer, encompasses both interiors and exteriors, consisting of dark-toned walls that allow props or wall hangings to identify specific locales. Since much of the action takes place on the road, there’s a central section that opens to reveal two rows of car seats, backed by the unchanging image of a rural highway.
Claire Siebers, Diana Oh, Layla Khoshnoudi.
Giovanna Sardelli (Finks, one of my fondest EST memories) provides crisp staging, at one point introducing a clever sequence of film-like jump cuts, with blackouts and rock music helping to move quickly from one tableau to another. She hasn’t found a way, though, to deal technically with a prop car lacking seatbelts or to cover for why Gretchen has to go through all sorts of contortions squeezing her baby boulder into the rear seat, as if cars with movable front ones for just such situations hadn’t been invented.

GEORGIA MERTCHING IS DEAD isn’t as far gone as the person in its title, but it survives more because of infusions from its able cast than from the nutrients in its dramatic bloodstream.

Ensemble Studio Theatre
545 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through October 27


Monday, October 14, 2019

89 (2019-2020): Review: THE WHITE CHIP (seen October 13, 2019)

“Drinking . . . Again” 

Sean Daniels’s The White Chip was originally produced at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA. Now at 59E59 in a production by the Arizona Theatre Company, where Daniels is artistic director, it's an inventively presented, inspirational, temperance dramedy about someone who successfully overcomes the curse of alcoholism. 

While it has moments both funny and touching, it’s hard not to see it as something that might more appropriately be produced regularly at AA meetings than Off Broadway. Stylistic issues aside, it’s very much in the tradition of Bill and Dr. Bob, seen locally in 2013. 
Finnerty Steeves, Genesis Oliver, Joe Tapper. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Although played by three excellent actors, The White Chip is not unlike many one-person plays in which a single, chameleon-like performer plays not only the central figure but all the colorful people, male and female, appearing in his life. That central figure is middle-aged Steven McNally (Joe Tapper, deeply committed although looking a bit young for the character), who narrates his memoir-like experiences as the son of not particularly devout Florida Mormons.
Joe Tapper, Finnerty Sreeves. 
Tapper is abetted wonderfully by Genesis Oliver and Finnerty Steeves, who play not only his parents but his wives, lovers, colleagues, bartenders, friends,and rehab counselors, expertly changing their voices and behavior—helped by Robert C.T. Steele’s minimal costume pieces—for each transformation. Lawrence E. Moten III’s essentialist setting, resembling an all-purpose, nursery-schoolroom, is little more than a half-dozen banquet hall-type chairs, some bookcases, and a large, movable blackboard. Director Sheryl Kaller shows her stuff in making this environment an active player in the narrative.
Joe Tapper, Genesis Oliver, Finnerty Steeves.
Steven, with a heavy dose of religious skepticism and humor, recounts his Mormon background, describing his restrained, sensitive father, and more expressive mother (given to tossing “Fuck. You” darts at her son). He proceeds to explain his adolescent introduction to alcohol, from the first bitter taste of a beer to his descent into uncontrollable boozing. He moves through the drunkenness of his college days to his relationships with women to his burgeoning career as a regional theatre director, explaining how he managed to get ahead by hiding his drunkenness under ever-more devious lies and self-rationalizations. 
Genesis Oliver, Finnerty Steeves, Joe Tapper.
His family ties and career path begin to fray, even after his father begins to suffer the dire effects of Parkinson’s. He tries AA, where we learn about the titular white chip, given to new participants in the program. Steven keeps relapsing, though, until, finally, after losing a major career opportunity, he reenters rehab in a last-ditch attempt at recovery. There, he achieves, with the support of a feisty, drill sergeant-like counselor, and, later, the scientific advice of Jewish rehab counselors, the breakthrough that dries him out, reconciles him with his mother, gets his life back on track, and lets him proudly cite the number of days since he’s been sober.
Finnerty Steeves, Joe Tapper.
The White Chip, briskly directed with meticulous imagination by Kaller, uses informational chalk-writing on both floor and blackboard, and a combination of direct address and dramatized mini-scenes to move the narrative forward. An exceptional sound design by Leon Rothenberg is perfectly integrated into the action, as are Rachel Fae Szymanski’s multiple lighting cues.
Genesis Oliver.
A nagging question is the degree to which The White Chip is autobiographical. Everything about it suggests the specificity of authentic experience, from the career and family facts to the lies and twisted rationales. Steven even mentions his founding of an Atlanta company called Dad’s Garage, a real company founded by playwright Daniels. Coyly changing the name to a fictional one blunts the play’s reality, which, given its obvious purposes, is only meaningful if it’s about an actual person.
Joe Tapper.
Whatever the reason for the fudging, it’s an unnecessary distraction from a play that will have an emotional, and, hopefully, uplifting impact on anyone dealing with their own or someone else’s substance abuse. For others, it adds little to what we already have seen countless times in plays and movies. That, though, doesn't prevent it from going down the hatch easily because of its breezy, 90-minute performance. For that, I lift my glass.

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 26


Friday, October 11, 2019

88 (2019-2020): Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING (2019-2020)

“Bursting Bubbles” 

Like its title, Will Arbery’s logorrheic, politically provocative Heroes of the Fourth Turning, for much of its intermissionless two hours at Playwrights Horizons, is dramatically and visually murky.

After Justin Ellington’s eerie preshow music recedes, the play begins in silence and darkness, which director Danya Taymor extends as long as she can until—bang!—the sound and flash of a gunshot. After another few seconds, a hint of light allows us to see a man, Justin (Jeb Kreager, convincingly honest), who enters, lays out a plastic cloth on his back porch, goes off, and returns carrying a dead doe. He places it on the cloth, then, tremulously, prepares to gut it. Blackout. 
John Zdrojeski, Julie McDermott. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Apart from how, in such darkness anyone could down a deer, this ritualistic prologue, soon followed by the main action, introduces us to an unusual, disturbing, rhetorically dense, only fitfully engaging drama. In it, we meet five, observant, well-educated Catholics, each on a different stratum of right-wing political belief, from moderate to reactionary. The play twists around the relationship between their personal issues and a number of theological, philosophical, and political ones.
Jeb Kreager, Julie McDermott. 
While some liberal viewers may see their bubbles bursting, others will likely react by building stronger ones. Arbery seeks to be impartial in presenting his characters’ points of view but isn’t entirely able to disguise his own liberalism, which evolved, ironically, from a background like that shown in his play. He even wonders, though, whether we might not actually end up loving his characters. Nothing to fear from this reviewer on that front.
John Zdrojeski, Jeb Kreager, Zoë Winters.
It’s a play larded with ideas associated with philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Arendt, and Heidigger, and Catholic theologians like Walter Brueggemann, whose names get dropped. There are also concepts like “the scandal of particularity,”the Benedict Option,” and the eponymous, generational theory of “the fourth turning.” Much of this comes across the footlights in rapid, well-enunciated, densely worded dialogue that, if you’re not up on such cogitations, may zip in one ear and out the other.
John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Michelle Pawk, Julia McDermott.
Arbery helps make the material a bit more accessible by expressing it through earthy characters who drink heavily, do drugs, use profanity, and watch “Portlandia.” Most of them, wrapped up in their existential angst, are so generally unappealing that the murk nonetheless persists.
John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott.
The introduction of symbolic elements only deepens the intellectual ambiguity. We’re required to consider things like Justin’s persistent, Lady Macbeth-like attempt to clean a spot of doe’s blood from his porch; the oft-referred to imminence of a solar eclipse; a loud, screeching noise, blamed on a faulty generator, that keeps interrupting the action; gunfire heard in the distance; references to a coming war, and so on. There are also several metaphorical monologues that require sussing out, including an allegorical children’s story about “a grateful acre,” a dream memory, and a curse-filled explosion of fury from the least likely source.
Jeb Kreager, John Zdrojeski,  Zoë Winters.
The occasion for the play’s moral, political, theological, philosophical, and emotional arguments is the gathering for a party to celebrate the accession of Gina (Michelle Pawk, impressively persuasive) to the presidency of Transfiguration College of Wyoming, a small Catholic college with a surprisingly liberal arts curriculum, in a sparsely populated area of Wyoming. (Arbery’s parents teach at such a school.)  

The action transpires in August 2017, a week after the Charlottesville riot, under the stars in a backyard designed by Laura Jellinek, with much of it lost in Isabella Byrd’s low-intensity lighting. The property belongs to Justin, 38, a tattooed, pistol-packing, Marine vet, and marksman with spiritual conflicts and anti-liberal principles, in whose house (at stage left, barely visible from my aisle seat) the party is being hosted.
John Zdrojeski, Michelle Pawk, Jeb Kreager.
Two of the guests are Justin’s decade-younger, former classmates at TCW. One is the self-doubting, heavy-drinking, Internet-addicted (porn, one assumes), religiously confused Kevin (John Zdrojeski, overacting), something of the group jerk. The other is Teresa (Zoë Winters, sharp as a tack), the ultra-articulate, Trump-supporting, coolly-dressed beauty (costumes by Sarafina Bush), who lives in a liberal Brooklyn enclave, thereby heightening her reactionary ideals.
Michelle Pawk, John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters.
The other group member, who went to college elsewhere, is Emily (Julia McDermott, a ticking bomb), Gina’s seemingly saintly daughter, constantly seeking the natural good in other people while suffering the pain (more symbolism) of Lyme disease.
John Zdrojeski, Julia McDermott.
It’s the brainy Teresa’s hard-right positions—first suggested in her fiery response to the theologically troubled Kevin’s question, “Why the heck do we have to love the Virgin Mary?” when she (without saying any names) impugns Hillary Clinton—that gets the play’s political ball rolling.
Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Julia Mcdermott.
There are various personal relationship issues involving love and sex among the four one-time buddies, but, for all the histrionic sturm und drang they spark, they’re too boringly ordinary to compete with the political arguments—from abortion and Planned Parenthood to empathy to Steve Bannon to Donald Trump to LGBT (including pronouns) to racism to guns to white suppression—they get into.
Zoë Winters, Michelle Pawk.
Although Emily takes issue with Teresa’s absolutism concerning the evil of abortion supporters, the discourse doesn’t really take off until the play’s second half, when Gina, Justin, Teresa, and Kevin’s beloved teacher, now the college president, arrives. A member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, and a one-time supporter of right winger Pat Buchanan, she nonetheless comes off, like Emily, as unexpectedly openminded, bashing Trump and feistily debating Teresa’s radical ideas.
Jeb Kreager, Julie McDermott.
In his program note, Arbery likens his play to a fugue, both in that word’s musical meaning and its psychological one. I won’t repeat the definitions he provides but will instead note that fugue, schmugue, Heroes of the Fourth Estate interested me, not because it’s a good play (which I question) but because—despite its intellectual diversions (better on the page than the stage)—it presents enough real-world subject matter to compel at least temporary attention. Its just too bad we have to wander in the weeds before getting to the good stuff.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 27