Sunday, August 12, 2018

63 (2018-2019): Review: LESS THAN 50% (seen August 10, 2018)


“And Now for Something Completely Different”






If you’re tired of conventional rom-coms and are looking for something a little different, something pretty funny, and with an unexpected twist, you may find it in Gianmarco Soresi’s self-described “unromantic comedy,” Less Than 50%, at the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters.

Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Gianmarco (if I may), who plays himself, is a tall, thin, bespectacled, standup comedian—father Catholic, mother Jewish—whose big-nosed looks he likens to Jeff Goldblum’s. His semiautobiographical play is influenced by Woody Allen via Annie Hall (considered semiautobiographical by some despite Allen’s disclaimers), which it frequently references. Nor can we overlook his affinity for film writer/director Charlie Kaufman, also mentioned; however, for all the play’s preoccupation with illusion and reality, we never hear the more obvious name of Luigi Pirandello.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Actually, Gianmarco’s aggressive persona (honesty first, people’s feelings second) is much closer to Larry David’s. There’s even a stealthy “pretty, pretty” slipped in at one point. As on David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” such a personality doesn’t augur well for romantic stability.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Less Than 50%, a title alluding to the dismal number of marriages that succeed in our divorce-prone age, is an essentially two-character play about Gianmarco’s on-again, off-again romantic relationship with an actress named Laura Catalano. The couple met when they were studying theatre in a conservatory and she was his scene partner in Romeo and Juliet.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Gianmarco’s unusual setup is to tell his story by presenting it within the context of a standup routine. That is, he addresses us directly as himself, holding a mic and backed by several movable walls with comedy club bricks painted on them: Ashleigh Poteat is the designer, with terrific lighting by Driscoll Otto. The narrative, which covers several years, requires costumer Samantha Rose Lind to provide multiple outfits for Laura, while our hero wears a white shirt and black slacks throughout.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The 80-minute play alternates between his standup-style explanations and flashback scenes depicting his and Laura’s affair and his writing this play about it while in the process of performing it. Thus we see the ups and downs of the relationship as well as how it’s being dramatized, with helpful advice from Laura herself.

As performed, it’s not as complicated as this may sound: generally upbeat, it has bits of music and dance, lots of amusing lines, occasional profanity, and various theatricalist touches, nicely crafted by director Jen Wineman. Those touches include a sequence imagining the story as a surrealistic sitcom called Gianmarco! and one where the play’s principal actions are reenacted in fast-forward pantomime for an imagined upstage audience.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The comedy’s situations are more conventional than its format, dealing with subjects like marriage registries, the separation of Gianmarco’s parents soon after his birth, the use of dating services, therapy, getting the play performed at the New York Fringe Festival, Laura’s pregnancy concerns, handling a sprung mousetrap, confronting depression, and so on. Sometimes we’re forced to wonder where the play leaves off and life begins, or vice versa. It’s taken for granted that much of this is fictional but it’s also clear that much of it really happened (more or less).
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Gianmarco wants to confuse the reality of what happens in the play with the reality on which it’s based, making it difficult not to disclose too many spoilers. I guess it’s safe to reveal that, as soon as the play begins, Gianmarco informs us that, because of certain circumstances, the actress playing Laura at this performance will be Laura herself, the actual person about whom the play was written. The veracity of this claim, of course, is belied by the program, but it’s the kind of riff on the play’s proximity to actuality with which the star likes to toy.

Toward the end comes an unexpected development that seems to bring the play to a halt as it makes a strong effort to conclude on a Pirandellian note. I’ll say no more about it other than to point out that such theatrical hanky panky is incredibly difficult to pull off successfully; this one may go a bit too far but, looking back on what's preceded it, you can't say it doesn't fit.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The audience when I attended, especially a group of women in their 40s, seemed to find much of the play a hoot; I, though, was more inclined to smile than to laugh out loud. Gianmarco Soresi’s humor, like Larry David’s, clever as it often is, often lacks subtlety and is a bit too self-conscious. Hannah Hale, though, is about as refreshing a comic find as any presently on a New York stage. This petite, baby-faced actress, with the faintest of lisps, is an adorable hand grenade of emotional and comedic shrapnel. Less Than 50% gets 100% out of her.

As for the show itself, let’s give it 25% more than 50%.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 1


Saturday, August 11, 2018

62 (2018-2019): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2018: SERIES B (seen August 9, 2018)


"Three Nonidentical Stage Plays"



Series B. the second set of three one-acts at this year’s Summer Shorts festival, is only marginally better than Series A. That’s because it concludes with what is perhaps the best play in the festival, “Sparring Partners,” written by its best-known playwright, Neil LaBute, returning for his 10th consecutive season. The other two plays, Claire Zajdel’s “The Plot” and Eric Lane’s “Ibis,” are little more than undercard matches, neither of them a contender, placeholders for the main event.

The plays are performed on the same neutral, adaptable set of a curtain-like background with a central arch, designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, used in Series A. The lighting is by Greg MacPherson, the sound design and original music by Nick Moore, the costumes by Amy Sutton, and the projections—from gravestones to noirish images to scattered numbers—by Joshua Langman.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Series B is bookended by plays featuring verbal sparring. It opens with Zajdel’s “The Plot,” a featherweight family drama featuring a brother and sister in their mid to late 20s. Frankie Novak (Molly Broome) is an uptight lawyer just beginning her career at a big firm. Tyler Novak (Jake Robinson), her smartass, slacker brother, is a “freelancer. With emphasis on the word free.”
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These contrasting siblings meet early one morning at the Niles, Illinois, cemetery, where their mom, Debra, has purchased family plots at a bargain price, even having her own headstone placed there. Their mission is to approve the site, even though mom has chosen not to come, communicating her unheard commentary via cellphone. Clearly, these grown children will be subject to their demanding mother’s authority even beyond this world.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As they plod about on the plots, Frankie’s spikes sinking in the sod, the siblings exchange mutually snarky swipes. These cover religion (their background is Catholic), life and death, the afterlife, cremation, depression, responsibility, their rivalry for mom’s affection, their parent’s separation, and their romantic futures. We’re in a graveyard, so ghosts also float into the dialogue. A few amusing quips, though, aren’t enough to compensate for “The Plot” being a play in search of a plot.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In Series A, the characters do little but sit so you’d think a Series B play set in a cemetery with no visible benches would force them to stand. You’d be wrong, as the script finds opportunities for Frankie and Tyler not only to sit but lie and kneel on the grass, with the expected consequences for her lawyerly slacks. A seriously ridiculous scene (and a rare example of energetic physical activity) involves Frankie trying to dig up the headstone with one of her expensive shoes. Groome and Robinson do their best to overcome the exaggerations of their material, getting little help from director James Reese. This one is D.O.A.
Deandre Sevon, Lindsey Broad. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Equally lackluster is Eric Lane’s “Ibis,” which begins in a film noir style. Director Terry Berliner can do little more with this stylistic requirement than provide some mildly noirish music and a projection of light streaming through venetian blinds.
Lindsey Broad, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lane’s premise is that an African-American man named Tyrone (Deandre Sevon), 27, hires a female private eye with the pseudonym Sam Spade (Lindsey Broad) to find his long-missing father, Victor. In what Lane must think is droll humor, Sam Spade pretends never to have heard of Humphrey Bogart or The Maltese Falcon, although the dialogue soon engages in geeky movie references.
Harold Surratt, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tyrone’s mother has just passed away from cancer and he’s determined to locate Victor (Harold Surratt), who abandoned the family 20 years earlier and whose disappearance has produced a slew of rumors as to what became of him. Tracking Victor down proves fairly easy, given a certain change in his fortunes (hey, you never know). Reluctant father and anxious son thereby have a tense reunion. Eventually, their sentimental journey toward reconciliation concludes when Tyrone uses his mathematical gifts to prove that his emotionally resistant dad, who had a similar relationship with his own father, still has him on his mind.
Harold Surratt, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Neither the situation, the humor, nor the shifting styles click. Aside from Surratt’s effectiveness as Victor, the other roles are miscast, with both Sevon and Broad lacking the required gravitas, the former being decidedly lightweight, the latter seeming more like a pretty college student in a black leather jacket than the Camels-voiced, hard-bitten P.I. the role suggests.

Regardless of her importance to the setup, Sam, whose potentially interesting past remains unexplored, turns out to be something of a red herring, dropping out well before the play ends. In fact, given what leads to Victor’s discovery, and the play’s reliance on coincidence, Tyrone could likely have found his father by himself. By the time “Ibis” ends, we’ve moved from film noir to film blah.
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With the program on the ropes, Neil LaBute’s “Sparring Partners,” while a minor work about a conventional office romance, nonetheless lands one on the chin with its tightly scripted, granularly acted depiction of the relationship between the anonymously named Man (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) and Woman (Joanna Christie). (Playwrights: enough with the Man-Woman/He-She nominals! Do we really need the morality play labels? Will a play about a transgender character use the pronoun They?)
KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Joanna Christie. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Woman, who is single, works for Man, who is married. The pair, mutually attracted, are having lunch on a park bench outside their place of employment. (Is there a rule that every one-act festival include at least one park bench play?) Their usual lunch activity is to play a trivia game involving movie stars and their films, a game at which Woman is much the better player, to Man’s deepening frustration. Much stage time is occupied by the game, which serves as a cover for their subtextual yearnings.
KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Joanna Christie. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Man is attracted to Woman but not so much that he’ll risk his marriage, depressing as it is. Woman, increasingly desperate, wants to move the affair to another level, forcing Man, fearful of going too far, to politely deflect her attentions, or else stop their meetings altogether. When Man’s wife calls him—isn’t it time cell phones got billing in the program?—we see just how much he’s under her thumb.

Woman uses the expression “an affair of the mind,” suggesting that, for all Man’s seemingly above-board behavior, he enjoys the thrill of the relationship, in which he exploits his power over his romantic adversary without having to see things through to a physical conclusion. 
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
What makes the play work are the subtle tensions in the characters’ relationship in terms of timing, nuance, and emotional reactions. Less successful is an implausible sequence in which the otherwise knowledgeable and canny Woman must be informed of her misuse of the word “gorgon” to refer to a man.
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although this is yet another play about people sitting around talking, director J.J. Kandel makes the most of it, handling the ebb and flow of revelation, humor, rivalry, flirting, and recrimination with tasteful discrimination. Jones and Christie come closer to behaving like real people than any others in either series, creating a fine-tuned blend of script and performance in which each lifts the other to a higher level.

“Sparring Partners” may not be a championship play but, set against those it follows, it wins Series B by a TKO.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 1







   

61 (2018-2019): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2018: SERIES A (seen August 8, 2018)


"One Out of Three"





Summer Shorts, the annual two-program festival of American short plays at 59E59 Theaters, is the city’s premiere showcase for traditional one acts. Such plays run roughly a half hour or so in contrast to the now common practice of plays filling an entire bill for a mere 45 minutes to an hour, and sometimes two hours or more, without a break. Of those one-acts I’ve seen over the past seven years of the festival’s 12-year history, however, only a few have enhanced the status of the form, which also is true of the 2018 offerings.

Kate Buddeke, Joel Reuben Ganz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As is now standard, the festival offers two three-play programs, Series A and Series B, each an intermissionless 90 minutes. Two plays in Series A are by rising playwrights Robert O’Hara (Barbecue) and Abby Rosebrock (Different Animals) whose ascent, I’m afraid, suffers a loss of altitude with this departure. The third, best-selling novelist Chris Bohjalian’s (The Flight Attendant) first play, encounters turbulence but manages to stay aloft.

Each Series A play, without being notably polemic, touches lightly on some contemporary social issue that has been gently peeled, rather than ripped, from the headlines. “The Living Room” has a racial theme, “Kenny’s Tavern” takes place just before Trump’s election, and “Grounded” brings #MeToo to mind. Physical action is limited; the actors in each do little more than sit and talk.
Kate Buddeke, Joel Reuben Ganz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“The Living Room” is African-American playwright O’Hara’s metatheatrical fantasy about Frank (Joel Ruben Ganz) and Judy (Kate Buddeke), the last two white people on earth. They’re seated for our viewing pleasure in an eternal living room’s armchairs by an unseen, God-like, black dramatist. Sometimes, they comment surreptitiously on his personal and artistic proclivities.
Kate Buddeke, Joel Reuben Ganz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Frank and Judy, frustratingly aware that they’re only fictional entities, describe the violent story that got them here and that led to the birth of their baby, a doll sitting at one side. They suggest that they exist because, in view of all the money whites made off slavery (which they refer to as “bubblegum”), the unnamed writer is seeking reparations by making “a quick buck off a couple of White People trapped as White Characters in their living room!”

They also frequently mock the theatre’s conventions, like their existence between blackouts and lights up, the presence of the fourth wall, the artificiality of stage food, or props like the doll baby. The play’s points seem blunted to the point of pointlessness and its self-declared existence as a “satire” evokes barely any laughs. The characters—whose dilemma is faintly reminiscent of Six Characters in Search of an Author—remain locked in O’Hara’s brain, unable to escape, just as the actors, under his listless direction, fail to make much of a connection with the audience. 
Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarini. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In Rosebrock’s “Kenny’s Tavern” we’re in the seedy backyard behind the title locale, a dive bar in a North Carolina town. Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), a lonely, mid-20s English teacher at a magnet school, is downing shots with her early-40s dean and mentor, Ryan (Stephen Guarino). With the 2016 presidential elections days away, Laura, concerned about the political climate, talks about teaching Muriel Sparks’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which raises the theme of fascism.

Mariah Lee, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarino. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Laura and Ryan are involved (although he’s resisted her desire to sleep together) but he’s also got someone else. Laura—who compares Ryan to Trump—is so distraught she’s threatening to leave. There's also Jaelyn (Mariah Lee), the underprivileged, underage, hillbilly-accented teen who serves them. Jaelyn, twice rejected by their magnet school (a term she doesn’t understand), provides the most interesting element by allowing Rosebrock to depict how the self-involved, politically blue teachers treat the self-hating, red-leaning Jaelyn (Laura even calls her a “gargoyle”).
Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarino. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
But none of it amounts to much, plot or theme-wise, and the action slumbers until director Jess Chayes momentarily wakes it up with a bit of unconvincing ranting from Laura. “Kenny’s Tavern,” lacking both dynamic direction and acting, quickly recedes into the miasma of forgotten one-acts. Rosebrock’s future (she recently wrote a PhD dissertation on Chaucer), though, looks bright, with the Atlantic Theater scheduled to do her full-length Blue Ridge in the fall.
Mariah Lee, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Bohjalian’s “Grounded” (not to be confused with 2014’s long one-act of that title, whose 2015 revival starred Anne Hathaway) nearly rescues the floundering evening. Grace Experience plays Emily, a young flight attendant headed for London, nervous because it’s her first transatlantic assignment. She and the older, more experienced, worldly Karen (K.K. Glick) get to know each other as they fold napkins in preparation for takeoff and then, while seated and strapped in, as the plane ascends. 
Grace Experience, K.K. Glick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The play, like the flight, isn’t always smooth, but Bohjalian succeeds in creating relatable, well-written characters, each of them given convincing performances that are the evening’s real standouts. The central premise concerns Emily’s revelation that for many years, beginning when she was 15, a friend of her dad’s named Vladimir (cue the Putin jokes) took sexual advantage of her, although with her consent. Having come to the realization of her victimization, she ponders the ramifications of exposing the predator, which will cause suffering to those around him.
K.K. Glick, Grace Experience. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“Grounded” starts off as a light comedy about an apparently clueless young woman making her first transatlantic flight, which belies the more serious purpose that slowly comes into focus. Emily’s dilemma has considerable contemporary pertinence, made especially palpable in the sensitive, emotionally rich performances of Experience and Glick. Director Alexander Dinelaris deserves kudos for helping shape the simple humanity of their work.
Grace Experience, K.K. Glick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Once it makes its point, however, the play tends to linger a tad too long, as if not quite sure how to wrap itself up. Finally, it’s hard for the audience not to wonder about the service on this airplane. Aside from an occasional word or two to nearby passengers, or a PA announcement, once the craft is in the air Emily and Karen seem more concerned about their chit chat than fulfilling their responsibilities to a planeload of passengers.
K.K. Glick, Grace Experience. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tying the plays together is Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s adaptably neutral curtain-like background, which accommodates the various settings, Greg MacPherson’s versatile lighting, Nick Moore’s sound design (apart from the odd choice of “Rhapsody in Blue” for “Grounded”), and Amy Sutton’s costumes.

Series A goes one for three, good for a baseball hitter but not good enough for an evening of one-act plays.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through August 31