Tuesday, February 25, 2014

231. Review of ALMOST, MAINE (February 22, 2014)


John Cariani’s ALMOST, MAINE, originally given a brief run locally in 2006, has returned after more than half-a-dozen years in which it became the most produced play nationally, especially in high school productions where it has surpassed A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Mr. Cariani’s play, composed of nine vignettes about the joys and sorrows of love, is set, according to the program, in “Various locales in Almost, Maine, a small town in northern Maine that doesn’t quite exist.” The time is “nine o’clock on a cold, clear, moonless, slightly surreal Friday night in the middle of the deepest part of a northern Maine winter.”  ALMOST, MAINE is a sweet, simple, and slightly fantastical play about the vagaries of love. I find it a bit too twee for my tastes, but my theatre guest—an actress and acting teacher—fell completely under its spell, both for its writing and performance. The whimsically romantic, mostly lighthearted, and often comic piece, now playing at the Judson Gym in a Transport Group production nicely staged by Jack Cummings III, makes the most of an estimable four-member ensemble composed of Mr. Cariani, Donna Lynne Champlin, Kevin Isola, and Kelly McAndrew.

John Cariani, Kelly McAndrew. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
            The seats in the expansive, rectangular Judson Gym are placed along one of the long sides, with the entire loft-like space opposite employed by designer Sandra Goldmark for the multiple scenes; here and there are scattered the various simple scenic props needed to localize the individual vignettes during the two hour, one intermission, piece: a saloon table and two chairs, an ironing board, a log, a beer cooler, whatever. The upstage wall is that of the space itself, exposed pipes and all, and the floor is entirely covered with fake snow, even for the few interior scenes. The four actors play a total of 21 characters, with only those of Ginette (Ms. McAndrew) and Pete (Mr. Cariani) seen in more than one scene, although connections are sometimes made between characters in the various scenes. Although there probably are rhythmic and emotional balances that might be disturbed, my sense is that most scenes can be cut, or—except for the strategic placement of the Ginette-Pete scenes—rearranged at a director’s discretion. If I had my druthers, I’d like to see the piece shortened by one or two scenes, but I wouldn’t dare suggest which, and am sure the mere mention of such tinkering will have the play’s fans clamoring for my throat. By the way, each scene has its own title (“Her Heart,” “Sad and Glad,” “This Hurts,” and so on), but you have to wait until the performance is over to know this, since no programs are distributed until you’re on your way out.

Kevin Isola, Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            Rows of identical hanging glass lamps capable of changing their interior colors (designed by R. Lee Kennedy) serve as the night sky for this part of Maine, where the Northern Lights are sometimes visible, and rhythmically compelling music by Tom Kochan ties one scene to another, contributing greatly to the atmosphere. Since it’s the dead of winter Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are mostly in the colorful parka and snow suit genre; there’s a charming scene when lovers played by Ms. Champlin and Mr. Cariani find themselves getting aroused and begin to rapidly peel off their clothes, a scene that, amusingly, goes on and on because of all the layers each is wearing.  Although sexual attraction is a core component of some scenes, there’s no nudity and little that’s verbally crude, so high school teachers shouldn’t be overly concerned about the appropriateness of the material for student actors. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is much raunchier.

            Since most characters appear only in one scene and then are gone forever, and since the scenes are self-contained, the play is held together mainly by thematic strings, not an overarching plotline; the characters are essentially sketches designed to be filled in by the actors’ personalities. Some of them seem almost interchangeable, and the actors do little to vary their personalities or appearances to play them. We learn who they are from the circumstances, not from something visual about them that quickly gives away their natures. In general, Mr. Cariani is somewhat goofy and self-deprecating, Ms. Champlin is perky and upbeat, Mr. Isola is quiet and unassuming, and Ms. McAndrew is pretty and on the sensitive side. The writing and acting immediately go to the core of what’s happening in any scene, not unlike Caryl Churchill’s much more technically complex LOVE AND INFORMATION, recently reviewed here. These scenes, though, are nevertheless more fully developed than those in Churchill’s play, and we get a far greater sense of who Mr. Cariani’s people are, even if they remain largely outlines.

            As an example of Mr. Cariani’s sense of romantic whimsy, we might consider the scene called “Her Heart.” Glory (Ms. Champlin), a woman who has set up her tent in the yard of East (Kevin Isola), thinking it okay to do so without first asking permission because of what she’s heard of the hospitality of Maine’s people. She wants to view the Northern Lights as a way to apologize to her late husband, whom she thinks died because she rejected him after having an artificial heart implanted. She carries with her in a paper lunch bag her real heart, which broke into 19 pieces, and, before the scene is over, East has rapidly fallen in love with her and, being a repairman, promises to mend her broken heart.

A more farcically direct scene is “This Hurts,” in which Steve (Mr. Cariani) is a man who can feel no pain (he has “hereditary analgesia”), which leads to some broad physical humor when Marvalyn (Ms. Champlin), staying at the same boarding house and doing her laundry, accidentally bangs him in the head with her ironing board. He keeps a list supplied by his brother of what to be afraid of and what might hurt him, but before long he finds himself falling in love, at which point his response to another smack in the head lresults in the first real pain he’s ever felt.

            Other scenes show a lonely guy at a bar (Mr. Cariani) who runs into the girl (Ms. McAndrew) who left him and whose efforts to hook up with her again go flat when she reveals she’s there to celebrate her bachelorette party before she marries her new boyfriend; a woman (Ms. McAndrew) who unloads pillowcases filled with fluff at her ex’s (Mr. Isola) place, these representing all the love he gave her, which she’s now returning, in return for which she asks for her love back; a woman (Ms. Champlin) who tells her best friend (Ms. McAndrew) of being rejected by her boyfriend because of the way she smelled, leading to a lesbian encounter, and to the pair’s subsequent inability to keep from falling down; and so on.

            The work has much to commend it but is somehow incompletely satisfying. Like its title, it’s not quite there, just almost.   

Sunday, February 23, 2014

230. Review of PHILOSOPHY FOR GANGSTERS (February 22, 2014)


Because of construction on the A train tracks I was forced to take a shuttle bus between Utica Avenue and Jay Street-Metrotech on Saturday afternoon, thereby adding 45 minutes to my usual 40-minute trip to Times Square. I arrived at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row at 2:16, around 6 minutes after the play, PHILOSOPHY FOR GANGSTERS, had started, feeling horrible for being late (only the second time among the 500 or so shows I’ve seen since June 2012), although relieved I had no guest waiting for me to arrive. Once I was admitted to the half-filled theatre I took any empty seat I wished, and within minutes began wishing I’d come later.

From left: Kyle Robert Carter, David Demato, Tom White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            The oddball effort is by a pair of Australian writers and directors, Liz and Barry Peak, a daughter-father team who are clearly intelligent people with an interestingly skewed sense of humor, and a good idea on which to premise their play; unfortunately, they have little sense of how far out to go on their satirical limb before it breaks. When this somewhat surrealistic, excessively episodic, darkly farcical tribute to THE GODFATHER and “The Sopranos” ended, after an overlong two hours and 15 minutes of agonizingly unfunny violence and philosophizing (yes, philosophizing) amid rival crews of New Jersey Mafiosi and black drug dealers, I felt like one of the victims of the play’s reprehensible hoodlums, riddled not by bullets but by bad jokes, unconvincing acting, and a nonsensical plot.

Courtney Romano, Bruno Iannone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            Here’s a rough idea of what transpires. The word “philosophy” in the title, as I’ve hinted, is actually germane to this tale of pseudo-intellectual Italian-American hoodlums under the influence of Callie (Courtney Romano), the Ivy League-educated, black leather-jacketed, skin-tight jeans, and stiletto-heeled Mafia daughter whose family of goons was recently killed by the cops. The gang decides that the root cause of the world’s problems is the philosophy of determinism, which holds that everything that happens is based on predetermined outcomes, with free will (or choice) playing no role. This prompts these honor-bound thugs to take vengeance on philosophers who advocate this position. Callie and her fellow black leather-jacked henchmen, the trigger-happy Eddie (David Demato) and the urbane, knowledgeable Luther (Tally Sessions), who totes around a huge set of lock clippers, pick at random a meek young New Jersey college professor named Wilford May (Tom White); after Luther snips off Wilford’s pinky, they make him their prisoner, keeping him bound and gagged in a plastic trash bin. Callie and her crew are simultaneously doing the same with a black drug dealer (Kyle Robert Carter), whom they casually torture by pumping his stomach. The play is filled with  such supposedly hilarious random violence, and people get whacked willy-nilly before our eyes, with nary a sign of regret or compassion. Presumably, these actions all demonstrate the mob’s belief in free will. All of this is expressed through stereotypical hip-hot attitudes for the black gangstas and similarly broad gestures and accents by the Mafia gangsters.
From left: Kyle Robert Carter, Leajato Amara Robinson, Shabazz Green. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            The crazier the plot gets, the harder it is to sit through; it includes a drug war between the local crime boss, the Don (Bruno Iannone) and the bling-wearing black gangstas X-Dogg (Mr. Carter) and A-Dogg (Shabazz Green); the conversion of the professor into a radical revolutionary who will help them rob a bank (remember Patty Hearst?) and who's credited with carrying out mass murders he didn’t actually commit; the implication that the media are responsible for turning miscreants into popular heroes (à la Che Guevera); a growing attraction between the protesting professor and the callous Callie; and many other too-silly-to-swallow developments made even more difficult to accept because of the many exaggerated performances and thudding direction.

Courtney Romano, Tom White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Central to the play’s development is the idea that the two rival gangs attempt to battle out their differences via a philosophical debate between Willie May and a black philosopher named Mfume (Leajato Amata Robinson), who wears pink eyeglass frames and a pink tie, and who calls his philosophical platform “ethnocentric relativism.”  (We learn as well that philosophy has become so hot that the Latino hoodlums now have their own philosopher and that TV shows with titles like “Nietzsche Knows” are now trending well.)  

            Julia Noulin-Mérat’s unappealing set provides a brick-covered false proscenium, with wood-paneled sliding doors that serve as a kind of curtain. The main acting area is divided into two spaces, the one at stage right a paneled room used for differing locations, the one at stage left a seedy room where Callie and her gang carry out their nefarious duties. Overhead is a projection screen on which are shown not only scenes of different exterior locales and other still images, but which also serves for videos of surveillance tapes, TV newscasts about the crimes being perpetrated, interviews with various citizens about the events transpiring, and even a dialogue scene between a character on stage and (in prerecorded video) the person he’s talking to.

            Much of this play concerns our ability to make choices. Unless you’re a determinist, you’ll make up your own mind about whether to visit PHILOSOPHY FOR GANGSTERS. My advice is to stay home or see something else. The choice is yours. Or not.   

229. Review of DINNER WITH FRIENDS (February 21, 2014)


Donald Margulies’s DINNER WITH FRIENDS, winner of the 2000 Pulitizer Prize, is receiving its first New York revival in a fine production staged by Pam McKinnon for the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre. The two-hour, one-intermission, dramedy stars Jeremy Shamos and Marin Hinkle as Gabe and Karen, successful gourmet food writers preoccupied with good dining and wine; their marriage is happy and stable, but nonetheless subject to the subterranean stresses and questions that affect most relationships once the honeymoon is over. Their best friends, Tom and Beth, who marry after Gabe and Karen set them up on a sort of blind date at their Martha’s Vineyard summer home in the early days of their marriage, are played by Darren Pettie and Heather Burns. One snowy evening at Gabe and Karen’s, when Beth is over for dinner without Tom, who’s at the airport waiting for a plane, Beth breaks down and reveals that she and Tom are getting a divorce because he’s having an affair with a “stewardess” (she turns out to be a travel agent). When Tom learns that Beth told the other couple about the breakup without his having had a chance to share his side of the story, he grows enraged, but the argument that ensues only serves to warm the pair up for a bout of steamy sex. 
From left: Jeremy Shamos, Marin Hinkle, Heather Burns. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

            Still, the revelation of Tom and Beth’s marital crash is the trigger that sets off the principal issues regarding love, sex, marriage, and friendship with which the play is concerned. We not only see the paths taken by Tom and Beth as they describe the happiness they find in their new relationships, but we see the effect of their breakup and subsequent discovery of new partners on the hitherto rock solid marriage of Gabe and Karen and on their personal feelings for people they’ve long considered close friends.

From left: Darren Pettie, Heather Burns, Marin Hinkle, Jeremy Shamos. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

            Mr. Margulies sensitively charts the evolving changes in Gabe and Karen’s marriage as well as their responses to the way Tom and Beth are working out their problems. To give us an idea of how things were at the beginning, he begins act two by suddenly shifting us from the present to the time when Tom and Beth were introduced at the Martha’s Vineyard house, giving us a glimpse of the young Tom and Beth that allows us to better understand the self-involved people they’d eventually become. Later, there are scenes between Beth and Karen and Tom and Gabe that more fully express the way they’ve evolved, and why both Gabe and Karen find themselves falling out of love with their former best friends, while simultaneously worrying over the fate of their own relationship. Gabe and Karen fight for the principle that people should fight to preserve their marriage, regardless of the bumps and bruises, and can’t accept that divorce can sometimes lead to happier lives for those concerned. The evocative, often stingingly funny dialogue is filled with painfully honest revelations and responses that many will recognize as echoes of their own lives and concerns.

Marin Hinkle, Jeremy Shamos. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

            The four-member cast makes a quality ensemble, although I found Ms. Burns to incline too closely toward performing, rather than being, her character. Ms. McKinnon’s direction is well paced and the various scenes are emotionally balanced, effectively capturing both their comedy and drama. Allen Moyers’s attractive set, nicely lit by Jane Cox, is a cloth covered box-like environment into which scenic units, like a kitchen, two different bedrooms, a living room, a patio, and a bar slide easily in from the wings, with windows within which snow keeps falling flying in when needed. Color-wise, these scenes are rather muted but the one in the Martha’s Vineyard kitchen offers a burst of lovely blueness, with an impressionistically painted backdrop representing the sky and the great outdoors.  
            DINNER WITH FRIENDS remains tasty and nourishing, and well worth the price of the meal.

Friday, February 21, 2014

228. Review of LONDON WALL (February 20, 2014)


A recent Sunday piece in the New York Times by Jason Zinoman pointed out that John Van Druten himself wrote in 1953 of his 1931 play LONDON WALL that it was too culturally specific to life in a British law office to mean anything to a New York audience. Perhaps because of views like this it was never produced here and had to wait until the current staging at the Mint Theatre, devoted to uncovering lost theatre gems, before its author’s thesis could be tested. Judging from the audience’s reaction and the comments of people I overheard as we walked down the steps from the third floor, Van Druten, known for his romantic comedies, like BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE, couldn’t have been more wrong about how it would go over on this side of the pond. Not that it’s a long-lost treasure, by any means; its dramatic structure begins to creak noisily as it moves into its third act (yes, a three-act play, performed as such with two intermissions), but it’s unquestionably stage-worthy enough to merit production, and—despite a few rough edges—the Mint gives it a sufficiently polished production to make it worth a visit.

            Early this season, J.B. Priestley’s CORNELIUS, another forgotten English play from the 1930s set in an office, was produced at 59E59. That production was a replication of the work’s successful 2012 revival by London’s Finborough Theatre, with its original English cast intact. The Finborough also was responsible for rediscovering LONDON WALL earlier this year, but the Mint’s production, directed by Davis McCallum, is a fresh view, with an American cast donning British accents, if not always with complete success. Mr. McCallum’s staging, while never achieving as great a sense of period authenticity and ensemble unity as CORNELIUS, is nevertheless a satisfactory job of theatrical resuscitation, with sufficient charms of its own.
Photo: Richard Termine.

            Mr. Van Druten’s dramedy (there are two offstage deaths so calling it a comedy seems a bit off the mark) places us in the offices of Messers. Walker, Windermere & Co., solicitors, located in the London Wall section of London. Three of the five scenes are set in the firm’s general office, the two others in that of one of the senior partners, Mr. Walker (Jonathan Hogan). However, unlike the Finborough production, photos of which show different scenery for each office, the Mint’s basic set—possibly for budgetary reasons—remains the same and only the arrangement of desks and file cabinets—swiftly shifted by the cast in the middle of acts 2 and 3—changes. Designed by Marion Williams, the set very capably captures the feel of a 1931 British office, with its faded walls, wood trim, shelving, and office accoutrements (including an old-fashioned switchboard), but it takes a moment or two for the notion of the same space being used for two settings to sink in, since the substantial walls and doorways remain the same throughout. (From where I sat, by the way, on an aisle seat at audience right, I missed the entire stage right wall.) In the best of all possible worlds, two sets would have been better than one. Martha Hally’s Depression-era costumes and Nicole Pearce’s lighting, with multiple ceiling lamps hanging over the stage nicely complement the period look. 
From left: Elise Kibler, Alex Trow, Katie Gibson, Matthew Gumley. Photo: Richard Termine.

            There are four unmarried women working in the office, the principal ones as far as the play is concerned being Miss Janus (Julia Coffey), 35-years-old  and in a relationship with a man from the Dutch legation for seven years. She’s the bedrock among the secretarial staff, having been there a decade, and, though she will endure her own romantic trauma, offers mature, well-seasoned advice on matters romantic to the other leading woman, the pretty 19-year-old, Miss Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), recently employed at the firm, and pursued by the tongue-tied Hec. (sic) Hammond (Christopher Sears). Hec. works for another firm in the same building and is constantly visiting Pat’s office on one trumped-up excuse or another. He, too, benefits from Miss Janus’s advice to the lovelorn. Complicating matters is the attractive, but sexually predatory, solicitor, Eric Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), who hits on everything in skirts and establishes a definite sexual rivalry with Hec. The other women, Miss Hooper (Alex Trow) and Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson), are also preoccupied with their boyfriends. It’s a wonder anything gets done since the staff seems to spend so much time talking about their marital futures.

Elise Kibler, Christopher Sears. Photo: Richard Termine.

            It becomes clear that the sword of Damocles hanging over these women’s heads is the prospect of eternal spinsterhood. Career opportunities for women being so limited, marriage is everyone’s goal, even if they don’t necessarily love the man they plan to marry. Issues of sexual relationships outside of marriage also intrude, albeit subtly. Representing the ultimate in spinster tragedy is a colorfully eccentric old lady, Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy), who haunts the offices so much with her requests to revise her will and the various lawsuits she files that Mr. Walker finds various excuses not to see her. Everyone calls her mad, but what we actually see is a talkative yet sincere old biddy who not only is perfectly harmless but is concerned with doing the right thing. After she has a brief conversation with Pat and learns how little money she’s making, she changes her will.

Stephen Plunkett, Laurie Kennedy. Photo: Richard Termine.

No spoilers here (you can guess already can’t you?), so suffice it to say that after two acts of office byplay during which we gradually learn who the characters are and what’s on their minds, act 3 explodes with a flurry of dramatic developments that, while more or less prepared for, offer a somewhat melodramatic, if emotionally fulfilling, resolution to the play’s various complications. LONDON WALL bears all the markings of the well-made play; it has a certain familiarity that makes it go down smoothly, but it’s hard not to smile at the young Van Druten’s grasping at theatrical contrivances to tie up all his loose ends.
Elise Kibler, Julia Coffey. Photo: Richard Termine.

Although gender equality is still being fought for in the corporate world, it’s improved enormously since LONDON WALL was written over 80 years ago. Still, enough of what the play presents remains true, including the problem of sexual harassment in the work space, to make its situations still recognizable. Most young men and women may no longer be quite as naïve as Hec. and Pat, but innocence and susceptibility will always remain human qualities, and, while we may smirk at what seems dated about these people, experience shows that such attitudes continue to exist beneath a layer of so-called modern sophistication.
Stephen Plunkett, Elise Kibler. Photo: Richard Termine.

The performances in LONDON WALL are generally smart and truthful. Stephen Plunkett’s Mr. Brewer is convincingly slick and narcissistic; Julia Coffey’s Miss Janus conveys a nice balance of maturity and kindness mixed with knowing cynicism; Elise Kibler’s Pat is appropriately innocent yet determined; and Laurie Kennedy’s Miss Willesden is effectively peculiar, if a bit clichéd. Christopher Sears as Hec. is less convincing, coming off as more goofy than shy; he’s attractive enough but one still wonders what a smart cookie like Pat would see in him. Then again, one wonders what she sees in Mr. Brewer, so perhaps this is more the playwright’s problem than the actor’s. Jonathan Hogan, who gets less stage time than most of the others, makes the most of his scenes as the benevolent but forthright head of the firm; his accent, though, is shaky. The scene in which he insists that the workplace is for work, not private matters, is one of those moments that brings the play directly into the modern world. But Mr. Walker also questions the wisdom of women having entered the work force, a telling remark that establishes the play’s position at a crucial historical moment.

Jonathan Hogan, Elise Kibler. Photo: Richard Termine.
Katie Gibson and Alex Trow as the other office workers give fine support, but the weak link is Matthew Gumley, the Cockney office boy, with his annoying voice, accent, and mannerisms. His role, by the way, was played in the original (and in the 1932 film version) by John Mills, who became one of England’s greatest actors.

Most of the original London Wall, built by the Romans, has been torn down. John Van Druten’s LONDON WALL surely won’t last as long as the place it’s named for. However, the fact that it can still stand on its own after eight decades of neglect is heartening, and we can thank both the Finborough Theatre and Mint Theatre for excavating it for our benefit. Soon a more famous Van Druten play, I REMEMBER MAMA, will be shown in New York, where it had success many years ago. And CABARET, soon to be revived as well, originated in Van Druten’s I AM A CAMERA. The Van Druten season is off to a good start; here’s hoping it continues.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

227. Review of I CALL MY BROTHERS (February 19, 2014)



Ever wonder what it’s like to be in the skin of someone who appears to be Arab-American at a time when some terrorist act has been committed locally and the cops are searching for the perpetrators? This premise informs I CALL MY BROTHERS, an overly literary, insufficiently dramatic, but potentially interesting play translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles from a Swedish original by Jonas Hassen Kemiri, son of a Tunisian father and Swedish mother. It was originally written as a prose poem, adapted into a novel, and then revised as a play. I suggest that, despite an earnest production directed by Erica Schmidt (for the Play Company at the New Ohio Theatre) and some positive reviews, it didn’t need the third step.

From left: Rachid Sabitri, Francis Benhamou, Damon Owlia, Dahlia Azama. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
            Amor (Damon Owlia) is a dark-haired, ponytailed, bearded, hoody-wearing young man, living—in Ms. Willson-Broyle’s English version—in New York City. He’s a chemistry student so fond of his subject he calls his friends by the elements they most closely resemble. Amor has been out dancing at a club until the wee hours and when his best friend, Shavi (Rachid Sabitri), calls to inform him of a car bombing, he’s too buzzed to answer and lets the messages go to his voice mail. The next day he’s asked on the phone by a cousin living abroad to replace a drill head she needs for a cottage she’s building, which—despite his having been cautioned to lay low because he’s said to resemble the bomber—sends him on an errand to a hardware store in Times Square (?!), and makes him self-consciously aware of possibly being surveilled by the authorities.

           The play lets us believe that he’s not the bomber, but, because of his paranoiac behavior, it leaves a few hints that he may be guilty of something; he emphasizes that he’s carrying a knife in his pocket but when he describes various nasty things he does with it, his words shift from reality to fantasy. Similarly, we’re not quite sure whether the sunglass-wearing law enforcement officer (Dahlia Azama) watching him and tapping his cell phone is real or in his imagination, but it really doesn’t matter because the playwright is equally interested in other matters. These include Amor’s personal relationships with Shavi, his cousin (Francis Benhamou), a hardware salesman (Mr. Sabitri), a girl named Valeria (Ms. Azama) who doesn’t return his affections, and a Valley girl-accented telemarketer named Carrie (Ms. Benhamou) who tries in call after call to get him to sign up with an animal rights group and eventually recognizes his voice as someone she went with to grade school (groan).  We’ve seen this kind of character before, of course, but Ms. Benhamou deserves credit for nailing it and making it the most appealing aspect of the production.

Damon Owlia, Rachid Sabitri. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            The characters in this nonlinear play don’t interact through dialogue to move the plot forward; instead, they mingle direct address monologues that cross over from the first to third person as the characters speak not so much to one another but to the audience, as if recounting something that happened in the past even when it’s happening in the present; when speaking to each other they’re also speaking to us. While this may work on the page, on stage it seems precious and distracting, only heightening the already vague evolution of the story, whose levels of reality remain ambiguous. The multiple threads describing Amor’s best friend, his cousin, his unrequited love, his errand, and the animal rights caller all serve like paint thinner to dilute the central action.  

           Mr. Khemiri’s themes of racial profiling, immigration status, and suicide bombings are all significant, but they get lost in the jumble of side plots. The translation, in moving the action from Stockholm, which had a terrorist bombing in 2012, makes some odd choices when naming specific New York streets and fails to explain why Amor, on a mission to replace a drill head, has to do so in a hardware store in the Times Square area. And in what midtown New York subway station can you easily hold a cell phone conversation?

            Daniel Zimmerman’s set is essentially a mirror image of the New Ohio auditorium, that is, black, stepped platforming with the same kinds of seats. Banks of lights are placed behind the seats where the risers would be, and along the top of the set at the rear, and tiny lights rim the false proscenium. Jeff Croiter’s design makes good use of these lights, as well as of the various spots that highlight the actors as they move from one seat to another. The idea of having the stage mirror the audience is perhaps to implicate us in Amor’s problems, but the effect of staring for 80 intermissionless minutes at a bland gray and black environment is not especially appealing.

            Aside from Ms. Benhamou’s Valley girl shtick, the performances are not especially distinctive, including the dominant one of Mr. Owlia as Amor. He shows few facets of the character aside from a relentlessly energetic yet benign personality, and I doubt that his well-groomed appearance, despite what the script suggests, is one that would quickly point suspicious eyes toward him in a city of 8 million people. I CALL MY BROTHERS is a step in the right direction, but needs many more to reach its destination.

226. Review of MY MOTHER HAS 4 NOSES (February 14, 2014)



Many of us will face the problem of dealing with an aging loved one in the last stages of their lives when they’re suffering from physical or mental disabilities. As the ailing person drifts further away, the demands on their caregivers magnify, causing tremendous anguish and stress. Lately, there’s been an increasing tendency to dramatize such situations, as in the movie AMOUR, about an elderly husband watching his wife drift away, in last season’s play with music, THE MEMORY SHOW, about a daughter’s dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and in this season’s TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY. Such works are typically poignant and sensitive in their treatment of the issues, and may even have a dollop of humor to lighten the load. Jonatha Brooke’s MY MOTHER HAS 4 NOSES, about the writer-performer’s mother’s decline into dementia is in this vein, albeit with a surprisingly positive tone about what she went through before her mother died.

            Ms. Brooke is a well-known folk singer-composer who performs her own compositions, and has produced a number of CDs, including one that captures her performance in this one-woman show. She’s an attractive, middle-aged redhead in early middle age, with a super-sleek figure set off by skintight jeans, long boots, wide rhinestone belt, and a formfitting top; watching her graceful gestures one can easily imagine her as a professional dancer. She tells the story of her beloved mother, a poet named Darren Stone, whose facial cancer eventually caused such deterioration of her features that she was forced to make alternate use of four realistic prosthetic noses; these are seen in projections (by Caite Hevner Kemp), both in their natural state, lying next to one another, and on Ms. Stone’s ravaged face (from which they had a tendency to fall off). In the play, Ms. Brooke describes her mother’s condition as that of dementia, but she has also published a blog of her experience caring for her mother in which she attributes Ms. Stone’s disease to Alzheimer’s (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/alzheimers-stories-waltz-with-my-mother-by-jonatha-brooke). Regardless, Ms. Brooke’s project, being shown at the Duke Theatre, with direction by Jeremy B. Cohen, aims to let us in on the two years she, with the aid of her sister, cared for her mother before she passed away.

            As she speaks, introducing her mother’s life, kooky personality (she often performed as a clown), and various illnesses and  institutional experiences o us, a wide range of personal photos (and information titles) are projected on a large screen; the only actual scenic locale is a nook consisting of a bookcase, a table, and chair at stage left. A cellist and keyboardist sit up right; a piano down right allows Ms. Brooke to accompany herself on a number of songs (when she isn’t doing so on her guitar). There are 10 songs, five in each act, making it as much a musical as a play. The songs are not narrative heavy but rather reflections of Ms. Brooke’s emotional states at different points in her tale.  They do reflect the play’s narrative, of course, as in “Are You Getting This Down,” inspired by Ms. Stone’s frequent asking of that question when, aware of the silliness of some of her own experiences or conversations, she wanted to confirm that her daughter was writing it down for posterity.

            The principal element that makes the narrative different from those of a similar nature is Ms. Stone’s having been a Christian Scientist. Christian Science believes that God’s love will cure mortal ailments: “you’re supposed to meet every human need with prayer,” we’re told. The disconnect between Ms. Stone’s faith and the reality of her ailments is fodder for her deeply skeptical daughter’s narrative. Apart from this, and several of the musical numbers, which Ms. Brooke sings in a rich, sharp-edged voice, there’s little that’s very original here. We learn about the problems of putting a parent in a nursing home (where “they tie people to their beds”) and of the advice to care for them at home, if at all possible. This, of course, requires superhuman patience and love. Not enough of it the story is amusing enough to raise more than an occasional chuckle, and the emotional payoff did not, for me at least, warrant the distribution to the audience during the intermission of tissues to keep damp eyes dry.

            Ms. Brooke is engaging and, despite her ultimately depressing story, she continues to convey a girlish, optimistic attitude, no matter how dire the things she’s describing (and they are dire). But, even her attempts at scatological humor, as when she describes the “poop management” efforts she and her sister (a team she dubs “poop midwives”) were forced to perform on their mother’s behalf, fail to do more than elicit an understanding smile. How funny is it to learn that Ms. Brooke’s mother thought she would save money on her plumbing by flushing as little as possible?  Or to listen to talk about the size of her mom’s BMs?

I rate Ms. Brooke’s performance and her music highly, and admire her devotion to her mother in the last two years of her life. However, as someone who watched a close relative endure the last stages of a terminal disease in his own home, I need more than MY MOTHER HAS 4 NOSES supplies to help me find the humor in such an experience.



225. Review of LOVE AND INFORMATION (February 16, 2014)



If you’re looking for a show with great sound design, let me recommend LOVE AND INFORMATION, by the major British playwright Caryl Churchill, originally produced to warm responses at London’s Royal Court Theatre and now being shown at the Minetta Lane Theatre under the aegis of the New York Theatre Workshop. Here, too, it has received strong approval from many ("hilarious," "poignant", etc.), with a small number of dissenters joining in as well. A company of fifteen actors, some of them among the most familiar faces in the Off Broadway arena, speeds through a nearly two-hour, intermissionless play that requires 57 scenes and more than 100 characters, in what is for performers, designers, and stage management a tour de force of theatrical expertise.

Phillip James Brannon, Jennifer Ikeda. Photo: Joan Marcus.

           Never mind that the scenes range from several seconds to several minutes each, that none of the characters appears in more than one scene or even has a name, that the abstract set remains the same while varying from scene to scene only by the clever choice of scenic props, that there is no narrative arc as a whole and that deconstructing the play’s meanings requires academic analysis, and that if you realized half way through that there was only more of the same ahead  you’d be thankful for an aisle seat to let you slip away quietly (the rows are too tightly packed to leave without a fuss). At least you’d be happy with the excellently realized technical requirements, the remarkably fast and mysteriously executed scene and costume changes, and the memorably ear-catching mixture of music and sound effects created by Christopher Shutt to cover the numerous shifts.
Susannah Flood, Lucas Caleb Rooney. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            Ms. Churchill’s play, which has been Americanized for its New York ensemble (including such talents as Karen Kandel, Kellie Overbey, John Procaccino, Maria Tucci, and James Waterston), is divided into more than half a dozen numbered sections, each number being projected on a screen, with multiple thematically linked scenes in each section. The printed script contains titles for the scenes, but these aren’t introduced during the production, nor are they in the program. The playwright’s instructions note that scenes within sections can be played in any order. Early examples of scene titles include “Secret,” “Census,” “Fan,” and “Torture.”  

            The dialogue is written in brief snippets with nothing to explain who’s speaking; in fact, there’s no indication of who the characters are at all, so the choice of who says the lines, what the situation or setting is, and so on can only be that of the director, in this case, the imaginative James Macdonald, who staged the Royal Court original. His achievement in bringing clarity to the individual scenes, which are essentially straightforward and realistic, no matter how vague their intentions, is exceptional. He also mines the material for comedy when appropriate, as in the scene of a man on an exercise bike talking about his having fallen in love with what sounds like the perfect woman until she turns out to be his computer (just as in the recent movie, HER). The actors all seem to know what their scenes are about, even if they’re on stage only momentarily (as with a pair of Elvis impersonators alluding to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), and, despite what often seems elusive on the page, everyone’s objectives and attitudes are immediately clear, even if they seem to go absolutely nowhere. I can see the play serving acting classes well because of how it will force actors to find motivations and truth in characters and situations created with only a few strokes of the keyboard.

Maria Tucci, John Procaccino. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            For a taste of Ms. Churchill’s approach, here’s the complete scene, titled “Sleep,” that ends section 1. We see a man and woman in bed (although there are no stage directions to indicate this).

             I can’t sleep

            Hot milk.

            I hate it now.


            I don’t have one I like.

            Just lie there and breathe.

            My head’s too full of stuff. Are you asleep?

            No no, what, it’s fine. You can’t sleep?

            I think I’ll get up and go on Facebook. 

            The action all takes place within Miriam Buether’s design of a white box built in slightly forced perspective. The walls and ceiling are covered with graph-paper like lines, and the downstage perimeter of the walls is ringed with tiny lights that come on when the stage proper goes black as scenes are changed. After a few seconds of atmospheric sound, which I assume is meant to somehow convey the essence of the scene to follow, we’re in a fresh environment, made apparent by the presence of some easily identifiable physical object, like a pup tent or beach chairs. In the above quoted scene, the man and woman are in a bed shown standing straight up, as if being viewed from the ceiling. A similar bird’s eye effect shows two boys lying on a slab of grass, one of them upside down, with a baseball bat fixed to the ground near the top. So many scenes transpire like this that one wonders how the shifts are enacted (or where the actors entered from), since the walls of the box, which must be little more than cloth sheets, never seem to be stirring after having just been moved.

James Waterston, Kellie Overbey. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            Just as the choice of props instantly conveys locale, so do the countless costumes—excellently designed by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood—tell us immediately who the characters are, even when a scene is no longer than six or seven lines long. Peter Mumford’s lighting, which creates especially interesting effects between the scenes, is yet another technically proficient aspect of the production.

            The play, begins interestingly enough, as we try to piece the material together, but its endless succession of scenes—with their implications about the sharing of information, our coping with all the information streaming at us, the tenuousness of memory, and the breakdown in human communication—eventually runs out of steam. After one hour, the point seems to have been made. If the idea is to express how we deal with information overload, the play itself cleverly manages to make its point by so stuffing our heads with bits and pieces of information that processing it becomes nearly impossible. Two days after seeing it I had to return to the script to find out what I’d missed. As it moves into its second hour, watching the play increasingly becomes an endurance test, one that I and my theatre companion, at any rate, found nearly unendurable.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

224. Review of TIL DIVORCE DO US PART: THE MUSICAL (February 16, 2014)


Ruthe Ponturo, who conceived this show, wrote its lyrics, and created its choreography, makes no bones in her program bio about the fact that it was inspired by her own divorce from a man who “decided he no longer wished to be married.” (Her husband was a Broadway producer whose eyes wandered to a younger woman.) “She hopes that this production helps women, divorced or not, to feel confident and positive.” The result, TIL DIVORCE DO US PART: THE MUSICAL, at the DR2 Theatre near Union Square, is more a revue than a musical (no book writer is credited), and presents around two dozen songs riffing on themes of divorce in a variety of pop musical styles.

            The cast is composed of three attractive women, the lead being Kate, played by a flametressed beanpole named Erin Maguire; her friends are a brunette named Audrey (Gretchen Wylder) and a blonde named Suzy (Dana Wilson), but we learn nothing about them as characters (and little enough about Kate). They frequently change costumes (designed by Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton) fully or partially to sing songs with titles like “Wedding Vows,” “Denial” (done with a Cleopatra motif and an accent on “the Nile”), “Best Friend Rag,” “If Only You Were Gay,” and so on, in styles ranging from 50s rock ‘n roll to Latin to Andrews Sisters boogie woogie to straw hat and cane vaudeville to rap.

From left: Dana Wilson, Erin Maguire, Gretchen Wylder; center, John Thomas Fisher. Photo: SPA Digital Images, Ltd.
What book there is is largely spoken by a fourth character, a gay man who gives divorce advice under the name “Dottie,” often while wearing a black and white-striped woman’s hat with a large butterfly bow. He’s played by John Thomas Fischer, who's also the show’s composer, and who mainly performs from behind a keyboard upstage right. Once again we have a gay man giving straight women tips on how to conduct their love lives (see SEX TIPS FOR STRAIGHT WOMEN FROM A GAY MAN, below).

There’s no story to speak of, just one divorce-themed song after the other, most of them staged with unexceptionable choreography. Most have a comic or satirical tone and nothing touches on the maudlin. Some of the material is mildly raunchy, but everything is so blandly pleasant no offense can be taken. Mitchell Greenberg’s colorful set, brightly lit by Julie Duro, uses a false proscenium onto which are affixed oversized, heart-shaped candy lozenges with innocuous words and phrases on them like “Really?” and with several Cupids pointing their arrows downward toward the stage. The performers are all game but none is exceptional, and, as my guest remarked, their harmonies are sometimes off the mark. Mr. Fischer’s tunes are suitably tuneful but so derivative that they pass through your system as quickly as you hear them. The best thing I can about his singing is that he should stick to songwriting.

TIL DIVORCE DO US PART is passable entertainment, suitable for dinner theatres and the like. I can’t say whether women who’ve gone through or are undergoing a divorce will feel more confident and positive about themselves because they sat through 90 minutes of mildly tacky songs and dances on the subject, but if it helps at all to lift their spirits more power to the show (and them).