Thursday, May 26, 2016

14 and 15. Review: A DOLL'S HOUSE and THE FATHER (seen May 24 and May 25, 2016)

“I Am Woman, Hear Me . . .”

Stars range from 5-1.
In the late 19th-century Scandinavia suddenly emerged as the birthing place for two of the most advanced and universally influential dramatists of the modern theatre, Norway’s Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and his younger contemporary, Sweden’s August Strindberg (1849-1912), who happened to be bitter rivals. For whatever reason, the flow of internationally acclaimed playwriting from their corner of Europe died with them, but their legacy continues in the influence they had on theatre ever since. An excellent way to see and compare these giants is to visit Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, where Theater for a New Audience (TFANA) is producing Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Strindberg’s The Father (1887),* written within a decade of each other, in rotating repertory with the same company of actors. TFANA founding artistic director Jeffery Horowitz notes that both were written when women’s emancipation was a burgeoning issue and that “the two plays present stark contrasts about marriage and relationships between the sexes.”  


Maggie Lacey. Photo; Gerry Goodstein.
Ibsen continues to be, at least in the U.S., the more frequently performed of the pair, as witness another important New York revival of his work, the Classic Stage Company’s Peer Gynt, also opening this week. A Doll’s House, of course, is far more frequently seen than the rarely produced Peer Gynt, or, for that matter, possibly of any other Ibsen play. In fact, just in the last couple of years, there have been two prior productions of it, one starring Britain’s Hattie Morahan as Nora at BAM and the other with Jean Lichty at the Cherry Lane in the Ingmar Bergman version titled Nora. One can be forgiven for hoping that whatever director next played with A Doll’s House would find a new way to justify yet another staging so soon after that famous door had slammed shut on its predecessors. Apart from the ambitious idea of playing it opposite The Father, and the insights that sparks, not much new is to be gained from this particular rendition.
Laurie Kennedy. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
 Arin Arbus, TFANA’s associate artistic director, uses Thornton Wilder’s heavily trimmed adaptation (based on earlier German and English translations). Wilder, who did the job while working on his masterpiece Our Town, prepared it for Jed Harris’s successful 1937 Broadway production, which starred Ruth Gordon and ran 142 times; it wasn’t revived for another New York production until now. Arbus provides a faithful, two hour and 15-minute version that differs in no striking respect from the play’s predecessors, regardless of who translated them.
John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
This is perfectly acceptable, given the play’s continuing power to hold an audience in thrall—with its well-constructed, melodramatically contrived machinations, made even sharper by Wilder’s tinkering (which eliminates Thorwald’s pet names for Nora), and its carefully crafted depiction of a marriage whose seams are slowly coming undone. However, one of the things one looks for in any revival of A Doll’s House is how much illumination it brings to the central character of Nora, the superficially child-like wife of a man whose self-centered, patronizing attitudes ultimately convince her that she can no longer live with him and lead to her walking out and leaving both him and her two young children behind. In the late 19th century such behavior was unheard of and made the play one of the most notorious of the day.
Nigel Gore. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Maggie Lacey is the attractive actress saddled with this dilemma in Arbus’s period-appropriate production (costumed by Susan Hilferty), in which most of the audience sits in steeply banked bleachers facing two sides of a narrow, wood-planked stage designed by Riccardo Hernandez, with tall white walls and doors at either side. For most of the play, she works hard at capturing Nora’s chipmunk-like simplicity, an act of helplessness and deference she assumes to navigate her relationship to the paternal benevolence of the ambitious Thorwald (John Douglas Thompson). But she always seems to be acting, making him seem that much more obtuse for not seeing it for what it is.
Maggie Lacey, Nigel Gore. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
She continues this routine throughout, showing barely any glimmer of the steel she belatedly demonstrates when Thorwald, discovering how she did something illegal in order to save his life, turns on her in disgust. Her decision to pack her bags and leave comes so swiftly, and her icy demeanor when she confronts Thorwald with her decision, seem to be coming from another character entirely. It’s even possible this lack of organic unity to her evolution stems from Wilder’s adaptation; regardless, it only serves to emphasize the artificiality of her action and to defeat its human truth. Lacey’s performance, in fact, makes Nora a much less sympathetic character than usual; her proclivity for lying and her ignorance about the ramifications of her behavior seem rather pronounced, making her decision to leave that much more troublesome; this Nora is as much at fault as her spouse in regards to what’s gone wrong in their relationship.
Jesse J. Perez, Linda Powell. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Melodrama also infects the performance of Thompson, who plays his early scenes with the well-regulated charm of a kindly if chauvinistic paterfamilias but whose angry behavior in the later scenes, when he discovers the letter incriminating Nora, is a touch overblown. In comparison to his performance in The Father, though, Thompson’s Thorwald is a model of restraint. Jesse J. Perez’s Krogstad, who can seem anywhere from sympathetic to villainous, is closer to the bad guy part of the scale, with his long, ominous overcoat, oleaginous air, and overly precise diction. Nigel Gore plays Dr. Rank nicely with a British-accented light comedy touch, and Linda Powell’s Christine Linden is grounded and sympathetic.
Maggie Lacey. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Seeing The Father a night after A Doll’s House proved instructive, given that Strindberg’s drama—inspired by his unhappy marriage to Siri von Essen—was a response to Ibsen’s depiction of a modern marriage. Arbus’s production, using a new version by David Greig that reduces the original three acts to a single act running an hour and 45 minutes long, uses the same layout as A Doll’s House; however, the latter’s white walls are replaced by heavy wooden panels adorned with guns and dead animal skulls, symbols of the occupant’s masculinity. 

That occupant is Adolf (Thompson), the Captain, a geologist who joined the military for the security it offered, and who finds himself in mortal combat with his wife, Laura (Lacey), over their clashing opinions on what’s best for the future of their young daughter, Bertha (Kimber Monroe); the Captain, who insists he has the authority to decide, wants to send her to university, Laura wants her to stay home and develop her skills as a painter.

The essence of the melodramatic plot (which contains several things mirroring parts of A Doll’s House) is that the Captain has recently heard a soldier named Nordstrom (Christian J. Mallen), accused of fathering an illegitimate child, declare that, while he did have sex with the mother, there was no way of proving his actual paternity. This, of course, was in the days before blood (the 1920s) or DNA (decades later) were available for testing fatherhood. With this seed in the Captain’s mind, it doesn’t take much for it to become an issue exploited by Laura—using the innocently offered services of the sympathetic Dr. Ostermark (Nigel Gore)--to the point that the Captain becomes obsessed with the idea that she might have conceived Bertha with another man. He goes completely crazy, has to be straitjacketed by his faithful servant/nurse, Margaret (Laurie Kennedy), and has a debilitating stroke.

Replete with the Captain’s slurs on the female sex (Greig’s colloquial text even lets him say “fuck”), this is a battle royale of the sexes, like such other Strindbergian conjugal boxing matches as The Dance of Death, in which each partner fights with as much willpower as they can muster. We see at once that Laura doesn’t kowtow to the Captain; she’s already got the brass balls that Nora takes so long to grow; she thereby represents Strindberg’s misogynistic answer to how marriage would be affected by women’s marital emancipation, which he feared would lead to a return to “matriarchy.” You understand all of Lacey’s choices as Laura and know precisely what she’s thinking, but she’s unable to transcend the sense of an actress at work.
Maggie Lacey, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Much as we should empathize with the Captain’s dilemma it’s hard to do so when a man, no matter how much he questions his biological fatherhood, is seemingly so willing to abandon the child he adores because of the flimsy possibility that he might not actually have fathered her. Laura actually seems a tad less complicit in his downfall than he himself; one might even consider her responsibility secondary to his own internal weakness, thus adding a touch of ambiguity that slightly reduces the thesis of the male-female conflict.
John Douglas Thompson, Maggie Lacey. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The part of the Captain does, however, give John Douglas Thompson abundant opportunities for one of those grand, old-time performances inviting him to swing wildly from fearful, childish trembling to Vesuvian bursts of furious anger, including thrashing about athletically like an unbroken stallion. His display of emotional volatility--much of it while on the floor while encased in a straitjacket--is technically awesome, but the impression it leaves is more one of a gifted actor's physical and vocal prowess than of truthful human despair.
John Douglas Thompson, Kimber Monroe. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The remaining performances are acceptable, although no one demonstrates the kind of chameleon-like transformation one looks for in repertory. Everyone looks and sounds much the same in both plays. Good work is done by Kennedy, who has little to do in A Doll’s House but brings religious zeal and maternal concern to Margaret in The Father, and Gore, whose rational, fair-minded doctor stands apart from his limping, syphilitic, yet still randy Dr. Rank in Ibsen’s play.
John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The Father and A Doll’s House are always worth revisiting, and the idea of pairing these two modern classics about marriage is commendable. For all their flaws, the productions are consistently viewable and smoothly done. They're accessible and thoughtful but—aside from the magnetic Thompson—neither is particularly memorable; perhaps, in fact, that's somewhat to their credit.
Laurie Kennedy. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
*The Father is not to be confused with Florian Zeller's play of the same name now on Broadway starring Frank Langella. Making the coincidence of two different plays with the same title being shown simultaneously in New York even more striking is the fact that Langella himself starred on Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre's production of Strindberg's The Father in 1996.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:
Show-Score

A Doll’s House
The Father
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through June 12




13. Review: PEER GYNT (seen May 22, 2016)

“To Thine Own Self Be True”

Stars range from 5-1.
The great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen may have believed that his epic, five-act, 1867 dramatic poem, Peer Gynt, couldn’t be staged but that didn’t stop either him or other ambitious stage directors from attempting to mount it. Nor, at least in America, has it prevented reviewers from finding it unstageworthy when moved from the armchair to the boards. That, at least, was my response to the version that just opened at the Classic Stage Company (CSC). Here's some historical background.


Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ibsen cut more than half the script for its first production, in Christiania, a production that, like many later ones, incorporated the music of Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” suite. In 1907, it received its first full American mounting in Chicago, prior to a Broadway opening at the New Amsterdam, for which its star/director, the great Richard Mansfield, restored over a third of what the playwright had removed; despite the remaining cuts, it still clocked in at over three and a half hours. Later mainstream New York productions, deemed either mediocre or worse, starred Joseph Schildkraut (1923), John Garfield (1951), and Fritz Weaver (1960).
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There also have been Off- and Off-Off productions (including Gint, a 1999 “Appalachian” adaptation by Romulus Linney, and a 1999 Shakespeare in the Park version starring Stacy Keach). Such productions usually were clobbered, the only one avoiding annihilation being the Classic Stage Company’s (CSC) 1981 rendering, directed by Christopher Martin, with a little-known cast; it was given over two evenings so as to include the entire text. Even master avant-garde director Robert Wilson fell on his face with his nearly four-hours long, highly stylized, 2006 version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of which Charles Isherwood wrote in the Times: “‘Peer Gynt,’ unfortunately, is a case in which the director's finely calibrated techniques prove more constricting than illuminating, more desiccating than enriching." (There have been visiting foreign productions as well, including a 1992 Swedish version at BAM staged by Ingmar Bergman in three parts!)
Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The CSC is revisiting this challenging piece in director John Doyle’s adaptation, which has radically sliced the play to an hour and 50 minutes; it eliminates many episodes and characters, changes the verse to prose, freely revises the dialogue, deemphasizes the fantasy, and uses a cast of seven to play both principal and minor characters. (In contrast, Mansfield’s scenically spectacular version had 48 speaking actors and an ensemble of 138.) The program's character designations suggest considerable conflation; the Troll King is played by an actor dubbed the Doctor (Dylan Baker), the Undertaker (Adam Heller) handles the Button-Molder, and the Bridegroom (George Abud) covers what another translation calls the Lean One (i.e., the Devil). Doyle’s productions usually employ actors who can also play musical instruments; two are present here, Abud and Jane Pfitsch; their music is credited to composer/sound designer Dan Moses Schreier. I imagine the lovely humming sometimes coming from the cast is also Schreier’s work.
Dylan Baker, Becky Ann Baker, Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Doyle, whose mother must have dreamed of noh theatre when she was carrying him, is best known for his minimalist revivals of popular musicals (Sweeney Todd, The Color Purple); he takes over the CSC’s artistic directorship from Brian Kulick this summer, so it’s likely more shows there will reflect a similar aesthetic. It won’t surprise those familiar with Doyle to find that Peer Gynt’s stage (designed by David L. Arsenault) is little more than a distressed platform, around two feet high, faced by bleachers on four sides, like a boxing arena. Attached to three sides is a step unit on which the offstage actors often sit, leaning on the stage floor, watching the performance, and ready to step in.
Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s no scenery and only the sparest of props, including a whiskey bottle, flower petals, a small box, colored buttons, dollar bills, and a broom to sweep up whatever falls to the ground. Ann Hould-Ward’s modern-day costumes are neutral, mostly in shades of black and gray. Peer (Gabriel Ebert) wears a black suit and white shirt; when he ultimately dons a yellow tie it’s almost as if he were turning on a light bulb. (This scene also stands out because it’s impossible not to think of Peer’s ascent into capitalistic wealth and his desire to become emperor of the world as a mussing of Donald Trump’s hair. Unlike Peer, though, Trump went not from rags but from riches to riches.) This lean approach puts the burden on Jane Cox’s atmospheric lighting, which responds well but isn’t capable of rescuing the otherwise expertly staged production from visual boredom.
Gabriel Ebert, Jane Pfitsch. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Boredom, in fact, is operative throughout this undramatic, highly symbolic “phantasmagory,” as an early translator, William Archer called it. Based on Norwegian folk tales, Peer Gynt is essentially a dramatized philosophical inquiry into and satire of Peer’s search for his true self. (The famous scene of Ibsen’s analogy of Peer’s centerless self to an onion is intact.) It includes both real and fantastical elements, although the fanciful here has been reduced to everyday dullness.
Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Peer, a poor, rural rube living with his mother (Becky Ann Baker), is a selfish, lying, bragging, womanizing, boozing, opportunistic dreamer, who encounters a series of picaresque adventures, including, but by no means limited to, his abduction and abandonment of a bride (Pfitsch); an affair with the ever-faithful Solveig (Quincy Tyler Bernstine); experiences among the trolls (no, not that kind), whose daughter he agrees to wed; the blocking of his passage by the Boyg, who wants him to "go round" to reach his destination; his survival of a shipwreck; his visit to his dying mother; his loss of his great wealth; his unsuccessful request of the troll king to testify that he's always remained true to his self so he can prevent the Undertaker from melting and recasting him; and a final reunion with the now aged Solveig.  

A company of first-rate New York thespians is unable to inject more than momentary life into Doyle’s frugal version of Ibsen’s banquet. Nor is it easy to follow Peer’s peregrinations, especially without visual or verbal markers. Ebert, a wonderfully versatile actor, is onstage throughout and offers a technically proficient performance that never rises to a tour de force because it's unable to inspire continued interest in and sympathy for Peer; it’s nearly impossible to get caught up in his travails, since he seems so obviously an intellectual construct, just like all the abstractions that pass as the other characters.

In 1951, Harold Clurman wrote: Ibsen's style in this play is an amalgam of poetry, satire, vaudeville, symbolism and 'surrealism.' To produce Peer Gynt so that it is clear--and too much literal or prosaic clarity would be to cheapen and devitalize it--is a formidable task requiring a combination of favorable circumstances and technical prowess that is almost unattainable in the American theatre today.” Whether this assessment still holds true is impossible to determine but the CSC production doesn't help much in arguing against it.  

John Doyle's Peer Gynt may end blessedly sooner than standard versions but it still can’t avoid seeming overlong, like so many of its more elaborate predecessors. Bore Gynt would be a much better name for it.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Classic Stage Company (CSC)
136 E. 13th Street, NYC
Through June 19






Tuesday, May 24, 2016

12. Review: SIGNATURE PLAYS (seen May 19, 2016)

“How Absurd!”

Stars range from 5-1.
In honor of its 25th season, the Signature Theatre has taken the bold step of reviving a trio of one-acts by three of its Legacy playwrights, Edward Albee, Maria Irene Fornés, and Adrienne Kennedy. Each play was seen during its writer's Playwright-in-Residence season at the theatre. I say “bold” as these plays—two of which have an iconic status in the rise of the American Theatre of the Absurd (even if not technically “absurdist”)—have puzzling plots, situations, and characters. Certainly, none is designed for mass consumption. They’re mostly at home on the stages of academic theatres, where professors and students can contemplate the way they push artistic and intellectual envelopes. 
Frank Wood, Alison Fraser, Ryan-James Hatanaka. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The writers are now all in their mid- to late 80s, Albee having been born in 1928, Fornés in 1930, and Kennedy in 1931. Albee’s “The Sandbox” and Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro” were first produced in 1960 and 1964, respectively, while the Havana-born Fornés’s “Drowning” is considerably newer, dating from 1986. These plays, which I find hard to love, and which have little in common, are fortunately in the good hands of excellent actors under the imaginative direction of Lila Neugebauer, whose best work is on view in Kennedy’s play, the most challenging (and least lovable) on the bill.

Ryan-James Hatanaka, Phyllis Somerville. Photo: Monique Carboni.
First up is “The Sandbox,” written in 1959, presented at New York’s Jazz Gallery in 1960, and given its first regular Off-Broadway staging at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1962. Its prior Signature revival was with two other Albee one-acts in 1994. This nearly 15-minute slap at American “Momism,” as Philip Wylie dubbed it—closely related to Albee’s longer “The American Dream,” with which it was paired in a 2008 New York revival—takes place at the seashore, imagined by Mimi Lien as a yellow floor and yellow wall. Mark Barton’s sunny lighting makes the most of this environment.

Four characters gather, the domineering, emasculating Mommy (Alison Fraser); her wealthy, docile husband, Daddy (Frank Wood), meekly acceding to Mommy’s every whim; a muscular, simplistic Young Man (Ryan-James Hatanaka), doing wing-like calisthenics that will reveal him as the Angel of Death; and Grandma (Phyllis Somerville), Mommy’s 86-year-old mother; there’s also a cellist (Melody Giron), playing as per orders from the others. Mommy and Daddy loll on beach chairs, awaiting the death of Grandma, who lies in a sandbox with beach toys, hinting at both her second childhood and her grave. When Grandma seems on the brink of death, Mommy and Daddy, walk off, congratulating each other on how brave they've been.

Grandma is Albee’s most sympathetic character (he dedicated the play to his own grandmother), speaking directly to us about her life with Mommy and Daddy, where she’s treated like a pet and made to sleep under the stove. Somerville gives her plenty of spunk as someone not quite ready to go gently into that good night. The play, though, for all its reputation, seems more interesting as an artifact from Albee's pre-Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? experimental phase, than as a living drama.

After a nine-minute “pause” during which actor Nicholas Bruder casually leans against the stage playing music on an old radio, we view Fornes's three-character “Drowning,” a delightful oddity inspired by a Chekhov short story and done on a two-play Signature bill in 1999. Forne's script locates the action at a cafe, "probably in Europe," but the present setting looks more like an institutional lunchroom.  

Subhumans Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) and Roe (Sahr Ngaujah) sit at a table with a newspaper on it. They're waiting for Stephen (Frank Wood). Pea is a naïve, gentle youth whose ignorance is such that he doesn’t know what a newspaper is when he sees one, nor even the meaning of snow. The more knowledgeable Roe is a kindly creature who answers Pea's questions and offers guidance, especially when Pea falls in love with a woman named Jane Spivak whose photo he sees in the paper. But heartbreak awaits when Pea, having met her, is rebuffed. It’s impossible not to sympathize with the sudden self-awareness washing over him; Roe’s tag line, in fact, is “He’s drowning. He hurts too much.” This is beautifully conveyed in Jennings’s sweet performance of a slimy non-human, while Ngaujah’s compassionate Roe provides a perfect match, helping make this surreal piece the most affecting of the generally unaffecting evening.

Perhaps most memorable is how the characters look. Their heads and necks are encased in lumpy, high-domed shapes showing only their faces; they reminded me of the slug-like Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars. Fornés describes them thusly: “Their eyes are reddish and watery. They have warts on their faces and necks. Their bodies are also like potatoes. PEA wears an olive hat, a beige jacket, and greenish-brown pants. ROE wears a brown hat and a brown suit. When they breathe their bodies sweat. Their skin and general shape resemble those of seals or sea lions.” 
Sahr Ngaujah, Mikeah Ernest Jennings. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Neugebauer has wisely staged the play at a snail’s pace, with long pauses, highly deliberate articulation, and slow-motion movement. This approach is far more subtly evocative and moving than the lively, farcical behavior of a production available on YouTube
Sahr Ngaujah, Frank Wood, Mikeah Ernest Jennings. Photo: Monique Carboni.

April Matthis. Photo: Monique Carboni.
After an intermission, we arrive at the pièce de résistance, the admirably acted and produced Funnyhouse of a Negro, replete with theatrical bells and whistles (or smoke and mirrors). However, it quickly becomes apparent why, despite its reputation (its first production won an Obie), Kennedy’s play is so rarely seen. Lien’s setting of a transformable, towering black space with an overhead walkway and door and a huge, canopied bedstead that appears and disappears as needed, benefits greatly from Barton’s magnificently dramatic shafts of light. Kaye Voyce’s period and modern costumes and Brandon Wolcott’s sound design and original music help make the experience visually and aurally memorable. 
January LaVoy, April Matthis. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The would-be poet Sarah (Crystal Dickinson), also called Negro, hates her black missionary father for having conceived her by raping her white mother, creating confusion about her racial identity. Her emotional and psychological plight is embodied in an hour-long phantasmagoria demonstrating her painful struggle to reconcile the separate parts of her African black and European white personas. These contradictory parts are represented by Queen Victoria (April Matthis, in whiteface), the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy, also in whiteface), the Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba (Sahr Ngaujah), and Jesus (Mikéah Ernest Jennings, a black actor in a role described by Kennedy as “a hunchbacked, yellow-skinned dwarf”).
Crystal Dickinson. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Most of Funnyhouse of a Negro occurs inside its heroine’s head. Its lack of dramatic conflict among, instead of within, its mostly abstract characters (who are aspects of Sarah, not individuals), as well as its great reliance on lengthy, tortured monologues instead of dialogue, gradually loses any emotional connection with its audience. Like what happens to its heroine, it leaves them hanging at the end.
Alison Fraser. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Signature Plays is best considered as a well-produced educational event; it offers a seminal play by one of America’s best-known playwrights and two plays, one barely known and the other widely respected (if rarely performed), by ethnically diverse female dramatists. I suspect it will be of interest chiefly to academics and theatre students; for the general theatregoer, not so much.
Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Mikeah Ernest Jennings. Photo: Monique Carboni.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

The Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through June 12










Sunday, May 22, 2016

11. Review: ROSS & RACHEL (seen May 18, 2016)

“The One Where He Learned Who Ross and Rachel Are”

Stars range from 5-1.
Lucy and Ricky. Check. Ralph and Alice. Check. Dan and Roseanne. Check. Cliff and Clair. Check. Homer and Marge. Check. Ross and Rachel. Duh? Yes, for whatever reason (perhaps I was “on a break”), I never watched “Friends” during its 10-season, 236 half-hour episodes run; while I could tell you the names of every one of its stars, I had no clue about the characters they played. At least not until I saw James Fritz’s Ross & Rachel—a 55-minute, one-woman play starring Scottish actress Molly Vevers, directed by Thomas Martin—and discovered that Ross Geller and Rachel Green (played on TV by David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston) are just as iconic as any of the others I’ve mentioned; maybe, for millennials, even more so.
Molly Vevers. Photo: Alex Brenner.
Since much of Ross & Rachel has internal references to the sitcom, what I got from it while watching was peripheral to say the least; a trip to Wikipedia helped a lot. (The same thing might have been true for some seeing David Adjmi’s 3C, a parody of “Three’s Company,” several seasons back; Ross & Rachel’s relationship to “Friends,” though, is more oblique.)
Molly Vevers. Photo: Alex Brenner.
Apart from its title, Ross & Rachel, an Edinburgh Fringe success imported for the current Brits Off-Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, never actually mentions those names, so we only infer that the couple at its heart are Ross and Rachel, elements of whose famous on-again, off-again love life it uses to explore the potential dark side of their marriage; certainly any fan of “Friends” hearing mention of a dinosaur tie, a lobster, a prom queen, Princess Leia, and so on, would appreciate it on a completely different level. Fans also would be intrigued to learn how the playwright imagines what eventually happened to Ross and Rachel—if it’s them—although they might not appreciate the way Fritz destroys the superficial image of their love perpetuated by TV's sitcom culture.
Molly Vevers. Photo: Alex Brenner.
59E59’s tiny Theater C is arranged with its limited audience on two sides of a dark space (designed by Alison Neighbour) dominated by a low ring filled with around a half-inch of water surrounded by small candles. Vever, an attractive young brunette with a light Scottish accent, enters barefoot and wearing a knee-length white robe, looking like she might be a spa guest. I’m really not sure why; perhaps because it comes in handy when she splashes about in the pool.
Molly Vevers. Photo: Alex Brenner.
The words quickly begin pouring forth but it takes some moments before we realize she’s playing two roles. I often found it difficult to tell just who I was listening to, or even which was a male and which a female voice. An air of surrealism, enhanced by Douglas Green’s ethereal lighting, pervades the nonlinear structure and often rapid-fire, back and forth dialogue, with its frequent interrupted or incomplete sentences.

We learn that the woman has just celebrated her 45th birthday, that she’s a beauty and her husband (obsessed with her looks) a nerdy professor, that she’s flirting with a fellow worker, that the marital relationship everyone thinks is wonderful is—despite the presence of a daughter—boring and unstable, and, most significantly, that he’s got a fatal brain tumor which makes her think hopefully of life without him while he, unable to think of her with other men, hopelessly contemplates a selfish conclusion. 
  
Fritz’s writing is vivid and offers Vevers many opportunities to display a wide range of emotional choices, but even had I appreciated the references to “Friends,” the material is too slender to have made much difference to me one way or the other. It did, however, get me to watch some "Friends" scenes on YouTube, an experience that, I regret to say, didn't inspire me to consider binge-watching its 118 hours, which would have occupied nearly five days of my life. I guess you had to be there.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through June 5

10. Review: TURN ME LOOSE (seen May 20, 2016)

“His Tongue Was His Switchblade”

Stars range from 5-1.
Not long into HBO’s just-aired film of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year as president, Johnson (Bryan Cranston), standing in the Oval Office, says, “You hear what that nigra comedian Dick Gregory said about me? ‘When Lyndon Johnson finished his speech 20 million negroes unpacked!’” A little later, Gregory himself appears. Well, not really. It’s stage, screen, and TV veteran Joe Morton (Eli Pope on Scandal), playing NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, who cautions against the militancy being considered by other black civil rights leaders. The irony here is that Morton just opened Off-Broadway in Gretchen Law’s Turn Me Loose, in which he plays Gregory, the African-American comedian and activist who was way more outspoken than the cautious Wilkins, and, at 83, hasn’t stopped being so. The times they may have been a-changin’ but, as the headlines still scream, they haven’t changed so much.
Joe Morton. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Morton has always been a first-class actor. In Turn Me Loose, a two-man (but practically solo), 90-minute piece excellently paced by director John Gould Rubin, he achieves greatness, revealing everything from perfect comic timing to quiet determination to raging anger, demonstrating total absorption and conviction in every word and gesture. Watching him alter his movements and speech to embody Gregory through the years from the 1960s to 2012 (with projected titles to keep the transitions clear) is a lesson from which all actors can learn. Morton, a lithe 68 who can still bust a move, doesn’t directly impersonate Gregory but he fully captures the man’s full-throated passion for the many humanitarian causes (civil rights being only one of them) that have moved him for over half a century.
Joe Morton. Photo: Monique Carboni.
His face lightly bearded (unlike the biblical visage of Gregory’s later days), and wearing a white shirt with a simple black suit and skinny tie (costumes by Susan Hilferty), Morton performs on Chris Barreca’s nightclub stage setting (perfectly lit by Stephen Strawbridge), often with a mic but just as often demonstrating the power and clarity of his unamplified voice and diction. He enacts the most compelling stories of Gregory’s life, including his schoolboy days as a star runner during the Jim Crow-era; his rising success as the first black comic to address America’s civil rights issues for mainstream audiences; the risk he took when Jack Paar invited him to appear on his popular late-night show and he refused until he wrested a path-breaking concession from the host; his becoming a nutritional guru; and, among other things, his evolution as a potent (albeit bitingly ironic) political activist, including a presidential candidacy.
Joe Morton, John Carlin. Photo: Monique Carboni.
As expected, the play is heavy on show business and political issues, but there also are moments of tragedy including the loss of an infant son and its emotional connection for Gregory to the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers; dark as some of this is, there are abundant examples of Gregory’s hilariously excoriating wit in the extended sequences during which his nightclub routines are recreated. This stuff not only isn’t dated, it’s as funny as ever, perhaps funnier, while remaining painfully true to the social evils that inspired it. As he declares, “My tongue was my switchblade, . . . my humor was my sword.”

Gregory gained popularity at the same time another highly controversial comic was riling the establishment, which is referred to in one of his routines: “You just read some of the papers—where they callin’ me the Negro Lenny Bruce. You gotta’ read those Congo papers where they callin’ Lenny Bruce—the white Dick Gregory!” Gregory didn’t shy from profanity, but was never as provocatively profane as Bruce. His claim to verbal infamy was his defiant use of the word “nigger,” which he—with the goal of defusing it—not only used as the title of an autobiographical book but said he’d name his next son with it, if he had one.

Aiding and abetting the star is the versatile John Carlin in several minor but significant roles, an old-style Jewish comedian, a Chicago cab driver taking Gregory to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, a racist Southern heckler, and a deliciously subtle bit as an unnamed interviewer who’s a dead ringer for William F. Buckley. Singer/songwriter John Legend, one of the producers, also gets into the act when we hear his original song, “Marching in the Dark.”

Joe Morton demonstrates his acting greatness in Turn Me Loose. But Law’s play also reminds us that, in Dick Gregory, he has a great character on which to build. I hope New York’s awards committees remember Morton’s work when nomination time comes around next April.

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Turn Me Loose
Westside Theatre
407 West Forty-Third Street, NYC
Through July 3