Sunday, August 2, 2015

46 (2015-2016): Review of SUMMER SHORTS SERIES B (seen July 30, 2015)

“Three Up, Three Down”
Stars range from 5-1.
Something there is that seems to make writing quality one-act (or “short”) plays very difficult, even for playwrights with established track records for longer plays. The SUMMER SHORTS FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN SHORT PLAYS, to give it its full title, is presently offering two three-play bills—SERIES A and SERIES B—at 59E59 Theaters. In the former, only Neil LaBute’s 10K comes near to passing muster. I’ve got baseball on my mind these days, so I’ll take SERIES A’s .333 batting average any day over SERIES B, a 75-minute program that, to continue the baseball metaphor, barely makes it over the Mendoza line; these plays, produced by producing director J.J. Kandel’s Throughline Artists, seem more like they’re playing in the single-A minors than in the major leagues.
Lauren Blumenfeld, Alfred Narcisco. Photo:  Carol Rosegg.
Leading off is Lucy Thurber’s “UNSTUCK,” directed by Laura Slavia, in which a depressed couch potato named Pete (Alfredo Narcisco) is the target of three different women’s attempts—each in her own scene—to please him on his birthday. First is his kooky sister, Jackie (Lauren Blumenfeld), who tries to entertain him with a defiantly amateurish tap-dancing routine. She confronts him with her “warrior”-like determination to make choices, even those that might embarrass her, versus his stuck-in-a-rut indecisiveness.  Next up is a married friend, Sara (Carmen Zilles), a Latina beauty who sings “Happy Birthday” in English and Spanish. A therapist-in-training, she’s also an annoying narcissist who talks mainly about herself. Whereas Jackie displays awful dancing skills, the same can be said of Sara’s singing talents. Why Pete, or anybody, for that matter, would endure her company, is unexplained. Finally, Pete’s girlfriend, Deirdre (KK Moggie), more grounded than the others, arrives. The play now shifts radically to become a clichéd domestic drama, with romanticized dialogue, about their marital future.
Lauren Blumenthal, Alfred Narcisco. Photo: Alfred Narcisco.
Even actors who’ve shone elsewhere can do little to make this dull play convincing; it has neither tension nor wit, and does little to explain who Pete is, or why he’s depressed. The scenes with Jackie and Sara are more like a playwright’s doodling than organic necessities.
Carmen Zilles, Alfred Narcisco. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
KK Moggie, Alfred Narcisco. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Even weaker is Robert O’Hara’s “BUILT,” a two-hander that strains for a sexually challenging, slightly off-kilter tone by focusing on a confrontation between Mrs. Back (Merritt Janson), an outwardly conservative 35-year-old woman, and Mason (Justin Bernegger), a 25-year-old manwhore (or so he seems). The premise is that Mrs. Back preyed sexually on Mason 10 years before when she was his high school teacher, was prosecuted as a Child Sex Offender (although other teachers were similarly pedophilic), and now appears to be seeking a professional encounter with his grown up persona. Mason’s own responsibility for what transpired is alluded to, but rather than delving into the truth of what transpired, the play shifts into an unconvincing role-playing mode between raunchy teacher and sexed-up teenager before arriving at its contrived conclusion.
Justin Bernegger, Merritt Janson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The acting (especially Mr. Bernegger’s) is inadequate, the ponderously atmospheric staging (by Mr. O’Hara) forced, and the dramatic development shallow. (59E59, by the by, has suddenly become a locus for male nudity, what with Mr. Bernegger baring it all in this play and Quinn Franzen doing the same downstairs in THREESOME. Mr. Bernegger, however, seems much more constrained about it than his fellow thespian.)

Closing out the program is Stella Fawn Ragsdale’s “LOVE LETTERS TO A DICTATOR,” the best written but least dramatic play on view. It’s a promising, but thin, one-woman piece, directed by Logan Vaughn, in which Ms. Ragsdale (played by Colby Minifie) is herself the single character, a Tennessee farm girl who begins an epistolary relationship with North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, in 2011, the year he died. She’s moved to New York to be a writer but lives on a Hudson Valley farm because she feels out of place in the city.

The production, which often has Stella playing popular tunes by Elvis (Kim loved the King, whom Stella claims was her second cousin) and Dolly on a battered old radio, is done straight, with no winking at its ironies, especially given the personal nature of what Stella writes in nine letters to one of the world’s most hated rulers, whom she thinks is misunderstood; Ms. Ragsdale talks about her relationship with her ailing mother, contrasts her concerns about her own goodness and personal responsibility with what she deems to be Kim’s, and mildly admonishes him for his behavior. The only notion we have of his responses, however, comes from her own letters. Throughout the piece, Ms. Vaughn has Stella hang her handwritten letters up like laundry on a clothes line. Don't ask me why.

 “LOVE LETTERS TO A DICTATOR” is momentarily surprising for its whimsical concept; Stella’s letters, though, never morph into a play. Ms. Ragsdale’s writing has a wry, charmingly quirky, sometimes even poetic tone, but its humor is pale and its ideas only vaguely engaging. Ms. Minifie is competent as Stella but, with such low stakes, there are few reasons to give her one's heart. 

Three up, three down.

Other Viewpoints:
Talkin' Broadway
Bob's Theater Blog
New York Times

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES B
59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through August 29


Monday, July 27, 2015

45 (2015-2016): Review of THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY (seen July 20, 2015)

"Could Be Brighter"
Stars range from 5-1.
One-person plays, which form a regular part of every theatre season, come in many shapes and colors. Some are biographical or autobiographical; others are ruminations on art, politics, history, or sociology; others revisit actual events; and yet others are fictional, either original stories or ones based on existing sources. The performer may play anywhere from one to many characters.

THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY, directed by Tony Speciale, and written by and starring James Lecesne, who plays multiple roles, is a work of fictional drama adapted from the playwright’s own 2008 young adult novel, ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS. (Lecesne won an Academy Award for his 1994 short film, TREVOR, about a teenage suicide.) It was first shown earlier this year at Dixon Place, where it received very positive reviews, especially from the New York Times. Because Mr. Lecesne is able to sharply differentiate each character, young and old, male and female, with barely any help from props or costuming, his performance is undeniably a tour de force of acting versatility.
James Lecesne. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
A trim, good-looking man of 60, who looks considerably younger, Mr. Lecesne wears dark slacks and a close-fitting navy blue shirt, its long sleeves rolled up past his elbows (Paul Marlow is credited for the “clothing”). Assuming the role of Chuck DeSantis, a detective in a small town on the New Jersey shore, he has a masculine timbre, overlaid with a convincing Jersey accent. Nothing in his voice or manner couldn’t reasonably be accepted as belonging to a small town Jersey cop. But as he tells his story he makes split-second transformations—sometimes for only a single line—into other people, each of whom has distinct vocal and behavioral characteristics. All are somehow connected to the disappearance and death of Leonard Pelkey, a flamboyantly gay 14-year-old, whose mother’s dead, whose father appears to have abandoned him, and who’s been taken in by Ellen Hertle, a local beauty salon owner. His case ten years earlier, we’re told in the detective's snarky style, was notorious enough to put the town on MapQuest.

The people we meet—most get a colorful, character-revealing monologue—are Marty Branahan, a loud cop in DeSantis’s office; the hot-looking Ellen, who says “toym” instead of “time,” and who reports Leonard’s absence to DeSantis; her 16-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who protected Leonard from bullies; Buddy Howard, Leonard’s fey drama teacher, with his affectedly upper-class British accent; Gloria Salzano, a Jersey-accented, binocular-wielding bird-watching mob wife who made an important discovery in the search for Leonard; Marion Tochterman, yet another Jersey-accented woman, a chain smoker with the rasp of a rotten esophagus, whose invisible smoke you can practically see curling up toward the flies; the elderly Otto Beckerman, a once-but-no-longer homophobic clockmaker who benefited from Leonard’s friendship, and whose German accent offers a welcome respite from all those Joisey vowels; and Travis Lembeck, a wise-ass teenage video-gamer known to have bullied Leonard.

We discover how deeply Leonard, despite his eccentricities--most notably his pasting the soles of half a dozen flip-flops together to create a pair of platform sneakers--affected the lives of all who came in contact with him by being his own person, fearlessly living as he chose to, and offering life-affirming advice (like how the local women should dress) to one and all.

The script sometimes aims for a Raymond Chandler vibe, giving the detective’s narration in ersatz macho dialogue like this, when Ellen comes to report Leonard missing: "She was what they used to call in my line of work, 'a dame.' A steady looker with legs up to here, an impressive rack and the kind of in-your-face-attitude that could have you leaning up against a bar before noon knocking back shots of Johnny Walker."

A similarly clichéd quality clings to everyone, each of whom, regardless of how well Mr. Lecesne limns them in performance, has an unsurprising familiarity. The audience when I attended didn’t seem to mind, however, and laughs erupted throughout, even at the most innocuous remarks, gestures, or intonations. The language is definitely colorful and there are some funny lines, like when Ellen says of her gay Uncle Paulie that “He didn’t identify as a BLGT or whatever,” but neither I nor my guest viewed the show through the laugh riot spectacles everyone else seems to have been wearing. As for the mystery behind Leonard’s disappearance, the facts eventually emerge in as contrived a manner as on any TV procedural, although, apart from some comments about the presence of evil, and the inclusion of a trial, we never learn the motive behind what happened.

Nothing (apart from the sight-obstructing pillars in the downstairs Westside Theatre) detracts from the storytelling on Jo Winiarski’s simple set, consisting mainly of a table with various props on it. Matt Richards’s lighting, Duncan Sheik’s original music, Christian Frederickson’s sound design, and Aaron Rhyne’s projections all contribute effectively to the overall effect. But, apart from Mr. Lecesne’s display of his considerable mimic gifts, THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY might be described as moderately, not absolutely, bright.


Westside Theatre
407 West Forty-Third Street, NYC
Through October 4

44 (2015-2016): Review of HAPPY 50ISH (seen July 25, 2015)

"You Don't Have to Be 50ish to Enjoy HAPPY 50ISH"
Stars range from 5-1.


For my review of HAPPY 50ISH, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.


















Other Viewpoints:
TBA

HAPPY 50ISH
Beckett Theatre
410 West Forty-Second Street
Through August 30

Sunday, July 26, 2015

43 (2015-2016): Review of THREE DAYS TO SEE (seen July 26, 2015)

"Sensory Perceptions"

Stars range from 5-1.

If you were blind and had three days to see, what would you choose to look at? This question was once considered by Helen Keller (1880-1968), the renowned woman who overcame blindness, deafness, and muteness—the results of a childhood illness—to become an internationally famous and beloved writer and speaker. To most people, the story of her first breakthrough into the world of language is best known from William Gibson’s play (and its subsequent film version) THE MIRACLE WORKER, in which Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft embodied Helen and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Keller’s moving description of what she would see had she the opportunity, published in The Atlantic in 1933, forms part of an intriguing but problematic new work of devised theatre conceived and directed for the Transport Group by the perhaps overly imaginative Jack Cummings III.
From left: Barbara Walsh,, Zoe Wilson, Ato Aghayere, Theresa McCarthy, Chinaza Uche, Marc delaCruz, Patrick Boll. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Because Gibson’s depiction of that breakthrough into the mind of the violent, practically feral child by the remarkable Sullivan has become so potent an image, we may forget just what an extraordinary woman Helen Keller grew into. She knew five languages (English, Latin, Greek, French, and German, all of which she read in Braille), and was a public intellectual with strong, even provocative, ideas on many subjects, religious, social, political, romantic, literary, and artistic. Mr. Cummings has gleaned many of her writings from different sources, and, in edited form, presented them through a highly theatricalist staging. Unfortunately, none of them is either documented or dated for the audience, although this could easily have been accomplished by using projections. And since the company wishes to save paper, the program is merely a small sheet of paper with no room for explanations or commentary.
Foreground: Barbara Walsh, Zoe Wilson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Harder to come to terms with, however, is Cummings’s staging. Instead of having a single person represent Keller and speak her words, as in a standard solo show, Mr. Cummings has divided the words up among seven white and nonwhite actors, male and female, and of varying ages, though none of them are senior citizens. (The actors are Ito Aghayere, Patrick Boll, Marc delaCruz, Theresa McCarthy, Chinaza Uche, Barbara Walsh, and Zoe Wilson.) Thus everyone on stage is Helen Keller, sometimes in dizzying succession, sometimes as part of a group talking among itself, and sometimes in dialogue scenes, since many of the selections are written in more than one voice. It’s easy enough to discern when Keller is talking to someone else, but unless one knows in advance that everything spoken was transcribed by Keller herself, it may take some time to comprehend the single voice responsible for it all.
From left: Patrick Boll,Theresa McCarthy, Chinaza Uche, Barbara Walsh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The actors don’t simply speak the words, though, but have been thoroughly choreographed into all sorts of flashy movement patterns (Scott Rink is credited with the “musical staging”), all of it performed on the bare, brick-walled expanse of Theatre 79, which is actually East Fourth Street’s New York Theatre Workshop, temporarily given over to the Transport Group’s production. The scenery, designed by Dane Laffrey, who also chose the casts’ everyday clothing, is little more than several long metal tables and a bunch of plastic chairs. Effective lighting is provided by R. Lee Kennedy. 
Marc delaCruz, Zoe Wilson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Mr. Cummings, working with sound designer Walter Trarbach, infuses many familiar American songs into the show’s fabric, usually attempting to highlight its themes in ironic ways. For example, an instrumental of “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” is heard during an epistolary diatribe Keller delivers in 1933 to the German publisher who, because of Nazi policies, told her he had to cut the references to Bolshevism and Lenin from one of her books. I suspect the song, with its Yiddish origins, is supposed to have some connection to the Jews in Nazi Germany, but your guess is as good as mine. Keller's defense of Russian communism, by the way, may surprise you more than her attack on Nazi ideology.
Foreground: Barbara Walsh, Patrick Boll. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Probably the most extravagant use of music to underscore the material is an extended scene inspired by the famous tooth and nail battle between the young Keller and her teacher (which, in reality, knocked two of the latter’s teeth out) at the Keller family’s dining room table. As the actors take turns donning the blue apron associated with Patty Duke’s performance of the irascible child, and then give their physical and emotional all as Sullivan tries to wrestle Keller into submission, the audience hears a heavily amplified rendition of Benny Goodman’s big band swing classic, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” There are several vivid scenes in the intermissionless, 105-minute production, but this one's pretty much over the top.
Foreground: Barbara Walsh, Ito Aghayere, Zoe Wilson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Regardless of how theatrically evocative Cummings’s staging is, the question arises as to whether his deconstructive method is doing a service to Keller’s ideas or is using Keller’s ideas to serve the director’s self-interest in showing off his technique. I read the script before seeing the production and—even though I directed a production of THE MIRACLE WORKER myself in 1984—was struck and moved to tears not only by her exquisite, expressive discourse but by how much I’d forgotten of Keller’s intellectual contributions; of her life as a celebrity (she was a vaudeville star and acted in a 1919 silent movie about her life); of her single, unhappily concluded romantic liaison; of her political ideas; of her thoughts on feminism and marriage; of her reaction to reading GONE WITH THE WIND; of her razor-sharp wit; of her human goodness and concern for society’s neglected and downtrodden masses; of her incredible sensitivity to the beauties of art, nature, and music she could neither see nor hear; and to so many other aspects of her incredible experiences. I couldn't help feeling that a versatile actress, only lightly suggesting Keller’s cloudy speech, might very well have made the production far more emotionally and intellectually gripping than it is.

When watching THREE DAYS TO SEE, however, Keller’s existence only fitfully comes to life, mainly in the quieter scenes when a single actor speaks her words without the attention-drawing capers of Mr. Cummings’s theatrics. However much I appreciated his ingenuity, it was too often at the expense of Keller’s contributions, which reached me with far more immediacy on the printed page. More is not necessarily more.

There’s one part of the show that doesn’t derive from Keller’s writings. This is the opening sequence when the company comes downstage, using microphones, to rattle off a string of cruel Helen Keller jokes. This seems an intentionally ironic device to underline how insensitive people are to those with handicaps they deem amusing because of how different they seem. I can still recall seeing Helen Keller in person when she came to speak at my junior high school in Brooklyn, and how, afterward, we kids thought it funny to imitate the oddly obstructed diction of this old woman, who had learned to speak by feeling the vibrations on her teacher’s face. I was 13 or 14, old enough to know better. Yet, surprisingly, a number of adult theatergoers, apparently not aware of the show’s intent, laughed when the actors began their Helen Keller wisecracks. Whether or not they'd learned their lesson by the time the play ended I think this sequence deserves to be gone with the wind.

THREE DAYS TO SEE, despite the drawbacks of its style, has reopened my eyes to its somewhat forgotten subject, who surely deserves a major biopic. Helen Keller, blind, deaf, and dumb, saw and heard more than most sighted and hearing people. I can’t think of a better way to honor her than to reprint these concluding words (as lightly edited by Mr. Cummings) to Helen Keller’s essay on what she’d see if she had three days of sight.

I who am blind can give one hint to those who see. Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. And the same method can be applied to the other senses.  Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you.

P.S. Although there is no signer present, the program notes that “an audio described performance” will be offered on July 29 at 7:30 p.m. and “open captioning” will be available on August 5, at 7:30 p.m.

Theatre 79
79 East Fourth Street, NYC
Through August 16



42 (2015-2016): Review of SUMMER SHORTS A (seen July 22, 2015)

"Running in Place"
Stars range from 5-1.

Every summer 59E59 Theaters produces two bills of one-acts, or “short plays” as they’re called here, under the rubric SUMMER SHORTS. One-acts, considered an endangered species--and not to be confused with the increasingly prevalent 90-minute (more or less) one-acts now even invading Broadway--survive mainly because of programs such as this, in which several are bundled into a single presentation. When people speak of them, of course, they’re generally referring to plays of 30 minutes or less; really short short plays are increasingly popular, though; some festivals celebrate 10-minute plays while others actually focus on one-minute dramas. The challenges of compressing narrative developments and character revelation into plays 30 minutes or less are profound and, as in the plays discussed here, the results are usually problematic.
Clea Alsip, J.J. Kandel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As in the past, this year’s SUMMER SHORTS programs, labeled A and B, are by playwrights with established track records, supplemented by first-rate actors and directors. A neutral set has been designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt to serve for all three plays, while Dede Ayite has seen to all the costumes, Greg McPherson the lighting, and Nick Moore the music and sound design. The best-known playwright on program A, which lasts an intermissionless 90 minutes, is the prolific Neil LaBute, whose 10K—which he also directed—leads off the evening. Although not particularly meaty, it’s the evening's most substantial work.
J.J. Kandel, Clea Alsip. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
10K’s two characters are those ubiquitous constructs we know as the Woman (Clea Alsip) and the Man (J.J. Kandel). The Man and the Woman are joggers, and the “k” in the title refers to kilometers, which the Woman counts instead of miles. Strangers at a suburban park, they meet just as they’re beginning an early morning jog, and agree to run together. As they go, they chat casually, expressing themselves more or less obliquely in Mr. LaBute’s naturalistic dialogue, beneath which flows a stream of hint-dropping subtext. Neither is especially well informed, as they refer ignorantly to how Asian countries control population growth; mention their respective families while implying they’re unhappily married; discuss the wisdom of her having left her two-year-old girl at home alone; and drift into talk of fantasies vis a vis the messiness of reality. Naturally, their small talk inches toward sex and, for all their politesse, there’s a definite aroma of endorphins as the Woman slyly lights the man's emotional Bunsen burner. Nothing untoward happens, but it’s clear that the fantasy of a future encounter has created a chemical reaction.

The press release for 10K suggests that there’s more here than I’ve described, that perhaps these people aren’t meeting for the first time; could this be something the characters do regularly? Still, there’s little reason not to accept the piece at face value as the chance encounter of two unhappily married strangers who enjoy the momentary pleasure of a sexual fantasy that can sustain them when they’ve been jogged back to their personal realities. What makes the play most memorable, however, is that, for perhaps 80% of the time, the two fine actors jog in place, running in a steady rhythm toward the audience, much as Shelden Best did a couple of season’s back in THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. It’s a stunt performance, but both Ms. Alsip and Mr. Kandel carry it off by combining athletic sturdiness with honest and, under the circumstances, surprisingly subtle acting. Nice work.

Up next is Vickie Ramirez’s less substantial GLENBURN 12 WP, directed by Kel Haney and named for a very expensive whiskey that figures in the action. Ms. Ramirez, a Native American playwright, locates us in a small Irish pub on Vanderbilt Avenue opposite Grand Central Station. A young black man, Troy (W. Tre Davis), in backward-facing baseball cap, hoody, and winter jacket, enters to take a break from an apparently race-related protest demonstration at the station (the press release say it’s a “die-in” but the play doesn’t specify this). The joint is empty of both a bartender and customers until Roberta (Tanis Parenteau), an attractive, well-dressed woman in high heels arrives a moment later. She, it turns out, is a Native American attorney. In both cases, appearances can be deceiving.
Tanis Parenteau, W. Trey Davis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Troy, sensitive to others’ perceptions of him, is very careful about not doing anything that might be mistaken for an illegal act, while Roberta acts more freely, taking drinks for herself and Troy, although leaving money to pay for them so as to assuage Troy’s fears. Much of their conversation covers racial issues, black and NDN (Indian), but the plot’s engine is driven by a crime, no more about which shall be said here. However, what seems an ordinary, if spiky, conversation between strangers drifts increasingly into improbability, especially once Troy and Roberta begin testing one another with arcane quotes from famous persons, and Troy reveals the unexpected news of what he does for a living. The point of this nicely performed exercise is summed up by Roberta’s parting quote from Native American Sherman Alexie, “Don’t live up to your stereotypes.”
Tanis Parenteau, W. Trey Davis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Thinnest of the trio is Matthew Lopez’s sentimental THE SENTINELS, a 9/11-inspired piece about three widows who try to meet annually at a coffee shop near the site of the World Trade Center, where their husbands, all of whom worked for the same company, died that fateful day. Mr. Lopez uses the backward-moving chronology of plays like BETRAYAL, beginning in 2011, with each succeeding scene taking place the year before, thus giving an idea of how the women moved on with their lives after the tragedy. The clock moves backward to 2002, then skips to 2000, when the women are gathered at Windows on the World to celebrate the hiring of one of their husbands.
Meg Gibson, Michelle Beck. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Director Stephen Brackett has chosen to have projections for each scene indicating which year is involved, but, unlike the script, has detached the words “September 11,” a date that soon becomes evident anyway. Some years go by without anyone showing up (other than the same waitress [Zuzanna Szadkowski]), others are missing at least one person, and others are represented only by one character, Alice (Meg Gibson), wife of the company’s owner, is the oldest of the group; she's determined to continue the tradition of memorializing their late spouses, while Christa (Kellie Overbey) grows increasingly cynical about the whole thing. And since Kelly (Michelle Beck) has remarried, moved to Oregon, and is expecting, the annual meetings appear to have run their course.
Meg Gibson, Zuzanna Szadkowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
While there’s a certain curiosity in such reverse chronology plays as they strip away the layers of time to show how things got to where they are, there are few surprises here, the characters are more shadow than substance, and the play seems to rely mainly on the resonance of 9/11 for its emotional effects. The performances are all suitable, but the play itself never rises much above Ground Zero.
Meg Gibson, Kellie Overbey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Like Mr. LaBute's 10K, the one-acts on this program are basically running in place.

59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through August 29



41 (2015-2016): Review of AMAZING GRACE (seen July 23, 2015)

"Slaving Away on 41st Street"
Stars range from 5-1.
While nowhere near the wretch of a show some of its severest critics would have you believe, AMAZING GRACE, the new musical which comes to the Nederlander after its Chicago premiere, will nonetheless need what its title implies if, once lost, it is ever to be found by Broadway audiences. The show is definitely blessed with a number of virtues that many will find sufficiently entertaining to keep them in their seats for its two and a half hours, including an important historical lesson about England’s fight to abolish slavery in the 18th century, several big-chested songs sung by powerful singers, a remarkable underwater special effect, and, among other things, the beloved eponymous hymn (sung so touchingly recently by President Obama), which closes the show in a heartfelt, full-cast choral blast in which the audience gets to join.
 
On the other hand, this tale, for all the veracity of its broad outlines, is a fictionalized distortion of what actually happened, its narrative is awkward and clichéd, its characters broad stereotypes, and its wit almost an afterthought. Unlike the 2006 movie of the same title, which followed the activities of abolitionist William Wilberforce, the musical omits that man and focuses on John Newton, former slaver turned abolitionist, who wrote the words to “Amazing Grace,” and who gets only secondary attention (although played by Albert Finney) in the film.
Newton, by the way, didn’t write the music for “Amazing Grace,” which, one could argue, is even more affecting than the words (for nonbelievers, at any rate), and which, following the use of earlier melodies, was attached to the song in 1835. None of this, however, is mentioned in the show, in which the hymn plays no part other than as an emotional coda to events that transpired many years before Newton wrote it; as it is, its direct connection to those events remains blurred. Despite the perils and suffering Newton endured during his slave trading years, and the fascination of his story, his contributions to the abolitionist movement don't seem to have been as significant as this show makes them out to be.
In AMAZING GRACE John Newton (Josh Young) is the handsome, dashing, callous, dissolute, and morally misguided son of a powerful slave trader, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt); John’s experiences in the trade ultimately lead him to find God and, in time for the final curtain, to finally turn against slavery (which he didn’t actually do until years after the show ends). Unlike another recent musical, HAMILTON, which adheres—despite its hip-hop rhythms—rather faithfully to historical truth, Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron’s book for AMAZING GRACE plays fast and loose with who did what (even creating new characters) by using John’s romantic relationship with Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), transformed here into a beautiful abolitionist spy admired for her lovely singing, as a central fulcrum; their relationship is complicated by a hackneyed love triangle the third corner of which is represented by the foppish Major Gray (Chris Hoch), whose mannered speech and behavior serve as the show’s chief source of humor.
Subplots include Newton’s bond—broken, but eventually resealed in classic melodramatic fashion—with his black manservant, the nobler than noble Thomas a.k.a. Pakuteh (Chuck Cooper); Newton’s business association with a wickedly vampy, campy African monarch, Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy), who sells her own people into slavery; and Newton’s difficulties with his domineering father. And, oh yes, there’s the discovery of Yema (Rachael Ferrera), the long-lost child of Nanna (Laiona Michelle), Mary’s black servant, yet more fodder for the melodramatically inclined. 
As in standard-issue history-based musicals, AMAZING GRACE employs hopefully rousing anthems sung by deep throated baritones, clarion tenors, and soaring sopranos, but its music, by co-librettist Christopher Smith (a self-taught former Pennsylvania police officer), while generally melodic, and always well sung, is more earnest than exciting. The solo comic number, Major Gray’s “Expectations,” never approaches the wit and rhythmic infectiousness of, to choose a prime exemplar, LES MISÉRABLE’s “Master of the House.” Hearing “Amazing Grace,” you realize just how far short the music falls of its aspirations (and of LES MIZ, a probable model).
For all their excellent vocal talents (Ms. Mackey was my favorite), the leads—especially Mr. Young—fail to overcome the two-dimensionality of their characters, even the always admirable Chuck Cooper being shackled by the stiffness of the writing. Gabriel Barre’s direction isn’t much help in conjuring believable performances, but he makes the best of the episodic show’s theatrical possibilities, moving the large cast along briskly with the help of Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s flexible sets, frequently dominated by an imposing arrangement of ship masts and rigging. Christopher Gattelli is responsible for what choreography there is, although the African dancing in Sierra Leone seems rather kitschy. Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes are suitably attractive, and the extraordinary sound design by Jon Weston makes a smashing impact.
As noted earlier, the show includes a spectacular effect when, after a shipwreck toward the end of act one, the entire stage is brilliantly lit (by Ken Billington and Paul Miller) to represent the ocean’s depths, as John’s body sinks slowly into the brine only for the faithful Thomas to appear from above the proscenium swimming down to rescue his master and end the act. Had the same level of imagination been employed for all other aspects of the show, AMAZING GRACE itself might not be in as much danger of drowning.
Other Viewpoints:


Nederlander Theatre
208 West Forty-First Street, NYC
Open run


Thursday, July 23, 2015

40 (2015-2016): Review of THREESOME (seen July 22, 2015)

"She's the Pique of Araby" 

Stars range from 5-1.
 As my guest and I emerged into the summer evening after seeing THREESOME, a two-act dramedy by Yussuf El Guindi at 59E59 Theaters, I was about to say, “That was like two different plays,” when he took the words right out of my mouth. Act one of THREESOME, originally produced at Oregon’s Portland Center Stage, is almost like a sit-com parody of what might happen in the offstage “playroom” of Bruce Norris’s recent THE QUALMS, in which a young couple attempt to work out their personal issues by joining a swingers’ group. Act two, however, is something else entirely. 
Karan Oberoi, Alia Attallah. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The first act is set in the bedroom of Rashid (Karan Oberoi) and Leila (Alia Attallah), Egyptian American lovers. Rashid and Leila are sitting in bed, smoking e-cigarettes, casually chatting. We learn that he’s a photographer, that he grew up here while she came later, that she’s written a book whose subject remains an annoying secret to Rashid, and that their relationship is troubled; we also note that they’re getting ready for something with which neither of them feels entirely comfortable. They bicker about gender-related anxieties, including the relative degree of concern men and women have about body issues, Leila dismissing the idea that men can be as obsessed about how they look as women. Then, suddenly, Doug (Quinn Franzen) enters from the bathroom, totally naked (which he remains for much of the act); Leila’s invited him to join her and Rashid in a threesome.
From left: Quinn Franzen, Alia Attallah, Karan Oberoi. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Apart from the initial shock of seeing this sweet-faced young man in the altogether, the play, like THE QUALMS, isn’t really about the display of sexual hijinks; more than titillation, it’s focused both on what in Rashid and Leila’s relationship led them to take this radical step, and what this means on the larger spectrum of male-female, East-West relations. As Doug, Leila, and the resistant Rashid play out their increasingly uncomfortable round robin of will they or won’t they, the mood is that of bedroom comedy (with a sprinkling of farce), exposing not only the principal lovers’ sexual and romantic apprehensions, but those of the amusingly insecure Doug. Laughter is mined from scatology, homophobia, germ phobia, body image, masculinity, and so on. Political issues (including an allusion to the Arab Spring) also poke their noses into the crossfire, to the point that Doug says, “I wasn’t anticipating this. It’s like a seminar. Without clothes on.”
From left: Alia Attallah, Quinn Franzen, Karan Oberoi. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Toward the end of act one, Mr. Guindi contrives a reason to get Doug momentarily offstage so the lovers' conversation can hint at the still undisclosed reason for the diminished passion between Leila and Rashid. We also discover that, to Rashid’s disgust, Doug is the photographer who’s been contracted to do the cover for Leila’s book.
From left: Alia Attallah, Quinn Franzen, Karan Oberoi. Photo: Hunter Canning.
With act two we’re in Doug’s studio, decorated to resemble a harem-like fantasy of Middle Eastern orientalism as a background for Leila’s book cover. Hanging nearby are an abaya and hiqab (a.k.a. hijab), ready to be worn by Leila during the photo shoot; Leila finds Doug’s ideas offensive but he defends them as necessary to sell the book. (This seems a shot at capitalistic merchandising practices and their contribution to international misunderstandings.) Later, you may wonder why she’s even there, since any model in a body and face-concealing abaya and haqib could as easily have fulfilled the task.
Alia Attallah. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Act two is much darker than its predecessor. Leila and Doug discuss men’s anxieties (he’s in therapy) and their need for women to shore up their egos; her contention that the West inadequately depicts Muslim women as helpless, oppressed victims and that Arab women have imaginations and desires, “like everyone else”; the comparative values of fantasy versus reality, and so on. Then Rashid rushes in, drunk; having obtained and read a manuscript of Leila’s book, he’s angry about how thoroughly it depicts a violent experience she had in Egypt. This detonates more discussion, now touching on things like the differences in their respective bravery (he was a “hero” in the Arab spring), why Leila finds Rashid’s solicitousness offensive, how her experience alienated them as lovers, her turning what she went through into a cause, and his disgust with her assessment of “all men from that part of the world.”
From left: Karan Oberoi, Alia Attallah, Quinn Franzen. Photo: Hunter Canning.
After Rashid leaves, Doug returns to photograph Leila in her Arab garb, telling her a long story of something he did while a photographer embedded with American troops in the Middle East. His obliviousness to the offensiveness of his tale is startling, and leads to a striking final image, which, however, like other elements in the play, is somewhat muddled in its implications.
Karan Oberoi, Alia Attallah. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Mr. El Guindi’s dialogue is often interesting, but there’s too much of it, and the second act’s droning tends to drown the drama out. Few have the talent of George Bernard Shaw to make discussion drama continually compelling. Chris Coleman, who directed the Portland production, crisply repeats the assignment here, and each of the actors offers a sharply etched portrayal, Ms. Attallah being especially notable as the feisty, argumentative, intellectually alert Leila. Mr. Oberoi is convincing as the desperate, emotionally and ethically confused Rashid, and Mr. Franzen scores strongly as the sexually apprehensive Doug, who has a tendency to speak before he thinks.

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59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through August 23