Saturday, April 30, 2016

194. Review: THE CRUCIBLE (seen April 28, 2016)

"He Has His Goodness Now"

Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of The Crucible please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.


Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West Forty-Eighth Street Theatre, NYC
Through July 17th 

Saoirse Ronan, Ben Whishaw. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Ben Wishaw, Tavi Gevinson. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Sophie Okonedo, Ben Whishaw. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Allegra Heart, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gervinson, Ashleigh Sharpe Chestnut, Erin Wilhelmi. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Ben Whishaw, Tavi Gervinson, Jason Butler Harner. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Sophie Okonedo, Ben Wishaw. Photo: Jan Versweyveld. 

Bem Wishaw, Bill Camp (standing), Tavi Gervinson, Ciaran Hinds. Photo: Jan Versweyveld. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

193. Review: FULLY COMMITTED (seen April 27, 2016)

"Another Infusion of Pipe Tobacco, Please!"

Stars range from 5-1.
In Becky Mode’s one-man play, Fully Committed, the fresh-faced, red-haired and bearded comic actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, one-half of the gay couple on TV’s hit sitcom “Modern Family,” plays—among many other roles—Sam, a reservations clerk at “a world-renowned, ridiculously red-hot Manhattan restaurant.” The first thing that came to mind as I watched him field a nonstop barrage of phone calls seeking impossible-to-get tables at his unnamed bistro was Dorsia, the fictional, super-exclusive eatery that wealthy serial killer Patrick Bateman hungers to get into in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 satire on American consumerism, American Psycho, now a Broadway musical. Even the outrageously satirical ingredients of the restaurant’s haute cuisine bring to mind the unheard of (for us hoi polloi) items delicately scarfed down with Bellinis at Easton's Dorsia and other restaurants. Items like “edible dirt” or “smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco” sound like a spot-on satire of Easton’s satire.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Apart from that appetizer of a reflection, this slightly updated version of Fully Committed, which opened for a 675-performance run at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre in 1999, starring Mark Setlock, and then enjoyed runs at other major cities, didn’t tickle my palate as much as it did the other gourmets around me; a friend didn’t stop laughing throughout and predicted that its star would be nominated for a best solo performance award. Given the remarkable amount of energy Ferguson expends under Jason Moore’s (Avenue Q) direction, and the great diversity of the 40 some odd characters he covers, such a prediction is probably on-target, although, personally, I strained to make my smiles audible. Also, Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre seems a rather cavernous environment for a piece demanding the intimacy of an Off-Broadway house, where the acting need not be so broad to get its points across.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One day in early December, Sam, a struggling actor from the Midwest who earns his bread working at the restaurant, is forced to handle the many calls coming in because Bob, the reservations manager, claims to be having trouble getting to work. The reservations are handled at a desk in a dingy basement room (designed by Derek McLane and lit by Ben Stanton) lined with pipes and various restaurant junk. A huge collection of wooden chairs hangs from the flies. Sam handles the callers via a headset while a red wall phone is used by his boss, a nasty celebrity chef whose specialty is “molecular gastronomy.” Sam’s cell phone connects him to people from his private life, like a rival actor, his widowed dad, or his brother.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
These three phones keep Sam running from one to the other as he tries to calm down or otherwise satisfy the demands for reservations at a place so busy you need to ask for one months in advance, a delicate balancing act when entitled VIPs insist on being seated (among them Gwyneth Paltrow via her swishy personal assistant). The play’s title is the restaurant’s euphemistic way of saying it’s all booked up. Sam answers the constantly ringing phones, puts people on hold, bickers with the power-hungry French maître’d, is ordered to clean up a sick customer’s bathroom droppings, worries about the outcome of an audition at Lincoln Center, frets about getting home for Christmas, deals with a helicopter agency on the self-centered chef’s behalf, and is otherwise put through a Job-like ringer until, finally, the worm turns and he’s able to take control on his own terms.

Ferguson portrays not only the people I’ve mentioned but socialite dowagers, a Mafioso, other employees, a Southern belle, a woman whose reservation can’t be found, and so on. For each he strikes a different pose, uses unique gestures, or a new voice or accent. Keeping all these balls in the air as he rapidly shifts from role to role is an admirable technical feat but eventually the material bogs down in repetitiousness and lack of dramatic (rather than nervous) tension. Ferguson is likable and skillful but, with the characters being so cartoonish and the need to differentiate them requiring such obvious choices, his enterprise becomes more a technical than an artistic feat.  Even for a performance lasting but an hour and 20 minutes, it occasionally becomes as tiring for the audience as for the star. Maybe it needs an additional infusion of pipe tobacco to get our hearts racing again.


Lyceum Theatre
149 West Forty-Fifth Street, NYC
Through July 24

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

192. Review: THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL (seen April 26, 2016)

“Gossip Gurus”

Stars range from 5-1.
It’s an undisputed fact that Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy The School for Scandal remains one of the finest examples of its kind, a play that audiences two and a half centuries later can still laugh at uproariously while also appreciating the truth of its scathing attack on hypocrisy and the insidious effect of malicious gossip. As they say, the more things change the more they remain the same. When the late critic Harold Clurman attended John Gielgud’s revival of Sheridan’s play in 1963, he wrote: “A lady of high literary eminence confessed the other night in the lobby of the Majestic that she felt a little self-conscious at the play because the kind of gossip and convivial malice it satirized was exactly the pastime in which she and most of her friends indulge.” The spread of social media in recent years has served to make the situation even worse.

Dana Ivey, Frances Barber, Helen Cespedes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
So it’s great that the Red Bull Theatre, whose “cornerstone” since its founding in 2003 has been plays of the Jacobean era, has jumped ahead 150 years or so with its sprightly if sometimes dubious staging of The School for Scandal at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. This marvelous work contains delightful dialogue and richly humorous situations that can still inspire bursts of rollicking laughter. New York revivals of Sheridan aren’t common, of course, although the Pearl Theatre pulled off a charming production of The Rivals two years ago, so one would think it behooves any company seriously dedicated to reviving less-seen classics to respect the original works. (And, by the way, this is not a Restoration comedy, as some reviewers mistakenly claim; it was written 117 years after the Restoration began and 77 years after it is usually said to have ended!)
Henry Stram, Nadine Malouf, Christian Conn, Christian DeMarais, Ramsey Faragallah. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Of course, most Shakespeare plays are so familiar that audiences welcome innovative approaches, but is The School for Scandal so well-known that directors can with impunity alter important characters like the Jewish moneylender Moses by turning him into a cigar-smoking, Godfather-like character in black fedora and shades named Mr. Midas (Derek Smith)? Or, for reasons I fail to comprehend, to turn Sir Oliver’s friend Rowley into a bearded, turbaned Muslim from the Punjab named Master Ranji (Ramsey Faragallah)? This isn’t to say the play can’t be goosed up for comic effect where appropriate, even by moving its period forward (which has been done), but to change important characters so egregiously with such minimal comic payoff reveals either a lack of faith in the original's ability to what its author intended or the director's ambition to show how clever he is.
Ramsey Faragallah, Mark Linn-Baker. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Apart from these distractions, director Marc Vietor’s nearly two and a half-hour production is generally faithful; it moves swiftly and energetically, has an attractive and flexible setting by Anna Louizos that captures the appropriate 18th-century ambience, and is nicely lit by Russell H. Champa.  Andrea Lauer’s costumes, though, are a colorful but otherwise unexceptional mix of more or less authentic late 18th-century and anachronistic styles, with Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs being an equally eclectic mix of historical and relatively modern; several, like the green monstrosity worn by Snake (Jacob Dresch), try to be outrageously funny but succeed only in being annoyingly unattractive. Highlighting the design team’s mingling of styles is the musical background, which includes an original song by Gideon & Hubcap in a faux traditional style along with original music by Gregg Pliska, whose sound design also includes 20th-century background tunes, like “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”
Helen Cespedes, Mark Linn-Baker. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The central action of the plot—which has the usual subplots—concerns the secret return from India (“the Near East” in this version) of the extravagantly wealthy Sir Oliver Surface (Henry Stram), loving uncle of Joseph (Christian Conn) and Charles (Christian DeMarais), and his disguising himself as a moneylender named Premium to determine which of his nephews is deserving of his largesse: the sentimentalist, moralistic Joseph or the hedonistic, profligate Charles. Of course, Joseph proves the hypocrite and Charles the honest one. The other principal plotline follows the marital friction between Sir Peter Teazle (Mark Linn-Baker), the well-to-do older man who marries the much younger, free-spending Lady Teazle (Helen Cespedes); she’s been flirting with the lecherous Joseph, an affair uncovered in the play’s famous “screen scene,” whose exquisite construction resembles something from a bedroom farce by Feydeau. Surrounding these actions is the behavior of a pack of wolfish gossips, gobbling up any tasty-looking mortals in their sights.
Christian DeMarais, Henry Stram, Derek Smith. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These scandal mongers carry the Ben Jonson-like, character-defining names of Lady Sneerwell (Frances Barber), Snake, Mrs. Candour (Dana Ivey), Sir Benjamin Backbite (Ryan Garbayo), and Crabtree (Derek Smith). As is often the case with American performances of British comedies of manners by male actors, those playing Snake, Backbite, and Crabtree make them into effete poufs, smothering their cutting witticisms with mincing behavior. Barber and Ivey (in an amusing Maggie Smith-lite portrayal) acquit themselves well, though, especially the British-trained Barber, who uses her sharp-edged voice to slash and slice the subjects of her spite. She has a fine moment at the end when her machinations are exposed and her wig knocked off, revealing how easily surfaces can deceive. It’s a point Sheridan emphasizes by calling the brothers Surface, their true characters belied by their external behavior, just as the disguise worn by Sir Oliver is a false cover hiding its wearer’s real nature.
Henry Stram, Christian DeMarais. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Linn-Baker’s Sir Peter, while not one for the ages, captures the man’s marital frustrations and avuncular good nature without pushing for laughs while DeMarais’s prodigal nephew Charles offers a feast of hearty bonhomie and innate decency. Conn’s Joseph is technically fine, and handles the screen scene well, but lacks the deliciously insidious nastiness beneath his skin to make us love/hate him as we should. Stram brings a playful, almost boyish joy to Sir Oliver’s role-playing, although he’s occasionally in danger of going too far. Cespedes’s Lady Teazle and Nadine Malouf’s Maria (Charles’s love interest) offer spirited if conventional performances while Faragallah’s Ranji is stalwart, interesting mainly for the unexpected but completely unnecessary exoticism it brings to Sheridan’s world.
Christian DeMarais, Henry Stram, Christian Conn. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It’s good to see any local production of this great play, even if its production is marred by this or that misstep, but it’s painful to see it manhandled for no good reason by completely changing the nature of two principal characters. Just think what Mrs. Candour or Lady Sneerwell would make of that in their school for scandal!
Nadine Malouf, Christian DeMarais. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Through May 10

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

191. Review: TUCK EVERLASTING (seen April 22, 2016)

"A Thirst for Life"

Stars range from 5-1.
Anyone who’s ever hoped they could live forever need only consider plays or films like Death Takes a Holiday, On Borrowed Time, or The Picture of Dorian Gray to realize the potentially tragic consequences of such wishful thinking. A similarly  skeptical idea informs Broadway's newest family musical, Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s fantasy novel about the effect on a family of drinking from what amounts to a fountain of youth. Big and colorful as the show is, it’ll need more than a slug of that magical elixir if it’s to find anything approaching immortality on the Great White Way.
Carolee Carmello, Michael Park, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The material already has been made into two films, one in 1981, without any name actors, and the other (by Disney) in 2002, starring Sissy Spacek, William Hurt, and Ben Kingsley. The musical version was two years in the making when, during the 2014-2015 season, unable to find a Broadway venue, it premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. It had much the same cast and creative team as the present staging at the Broadhurst, where the program squeezes in so many producers you may need a magnifying glass to read the credits.
Robert Lenzi, Sarah Charles Lewis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Claudia Shear (Dirty Blonde) and Tim Federle’s book simplifies yet remains faithful to the familiar plotline of Babbit’s novel. Toward its end, future events following the main action are capsulized in an extended “Everlasting” ballet, choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw (Spamalot, The Book of Mormon), in which the cycle of life and death is beautifully evoked. It's one of the relatively few takeaways from a show that, despite running about two and a quarter hours, sometimes feels as though it should be called Tuck Neverending.
Terrence Mann and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The tale proper, set in 1893, follows a plucky 10-year-old named Winnie Foster (Sarah Charles Lewis), who lives with her widowed mother, Betsy (Valerie Wright), and Nana (Pippa Pearthree) in Treegap, New Hampshire. Winnie, a spunky kid who has a pet toad, feels constrained by her mother’s protectiveness so she runs off into the forest, where she meets a 17-year-old boy named Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger, convincingly belying his actual age of 30), drinking from a secret spring. Jesse takes the adventure-seeking Winnie off to meet his mother Mae (Carolee Carmello) and father Angus (Michael Park), and his 21-year-old brother, Miles (Robert Lenzi, who sings "Time," the show's most haunting number).
Andre Keenan-Bolger and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Winnie learns the Tuck family secret, that during the late 18th-century they discovered that the water they accidentally drank from the spring gave them eternal life and safety from any physical harm, even (as the show reveals) a rifle shot; eventually, to deter attention from their never growing older they split up, reuniting at Angus’s rustic cottage after years of separation. (I know fantasy plots arn't supposed to be taken literally, but I couldn't help wondering why, despite the family’s age [Jesse is 102], its members continue to relate to each other in the same way they as when they first drank the water; the teenage boy is still treated as the teenage boy, the parents still lead the family, and the brothers still maintain their boyhood tension.)
Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Sarah Charles Lewis, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Only one other person is aware of the water’s existence, the wicked carny called the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann). His desire to find and buy the spring so he can become wealthy by selling its water leads to his tricking Winnie’s mother into selling him the land on which the spring is located. An investigation into Winnie’s disappearance is carried out by the comical, kindly Constable Joe (Fred Applegate) and his fumbling but smarter-than-he-seems deputy, Hugo (Michael Wartella). Winnie, given some of the water, never chooses to drink it, and the circle of life (summarized in Angus’s “The Wheel”) goes on, although there is that toad . . . Of course, all works out happily but the taste in some mouths may be bittersweet; the heroine, as we see in the final ballet, chooses a far more conventional path toward fulfillment than her childhood self may have implied.
Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Sarah Charles Lewis, Robert Lenzi, Carolee Carmello. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Next door to the Broadhurst is the Shubert Theatre, home to the smash hit family musical, Matilda, about another precocious girl; I had reservations about Matilda but, in retrospect, its imaginative staging, offbeat humor, creative cleverness, and overall originality make apparent its neighbor’s relative lack of laughs, unexceptional, folk-inflected score (music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen), lack of dramatic tension, excessive sentimentality, and stretches of dullness.
Sarah Charles Lewis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sarah Charles Lewis, the 11-year-old star, who was 10 when she created the role of Winnie in Atlanta, is a sweet and highly capable actress with a Broadway-quality voice, but there’s nothing especially unique in her performance; partly, this is because of the formulaic nature of her role and its lack of any unforgettably catchy songs (the way “Tomorrow” served Andrea McArdle in the original Annie).
Terrence Mann. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The same could be said for the adult actors, who can all belt out those frequent big release notes (as in Mae’s “My Most Beautiful Day”) and, for all their considerable energy (and occasional overacting), aren’t able to make us love their two-dimensional characters. One of Broadway’s most familiar stars, Terrence Mann (Pippin, Cats, Les Misérables), plays the Man in the Yellow Suit in a jazzy, Fossean vaudevillian style (as per his bouncy number, “Everything’s Golden”) but his vocal and physical hamminess goes only so far. Only veteran Fred Applegate (The Last Ship) as the constable has the grounded honesty and humor so lacking in the forced emoting of most of his peers. His “You Can’t Trust a Man” routine with Wartella is a standout.
Terrence Mann, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Sarah Charles Lewis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Visually, there’s nothing to carp about and lots to admire. From the moment you enter the theatre, set designer Walt Spangler’s enormous tree, with its bark and leaves like a sculpture of carved, curving peelings, its huge boughs able to rise and fall, captivates; the same is true of his other design elements, like the partial houses for the Foster and Tucker homes. Kenneth Posner covers the set with luscious lighting, and Gregg Barnes’s delightful period costumes are perfectly at home.
Fred Applegate, Michael Wartella. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Several theatregoers could be spotted drying their eyes after the show ended, but only time will tell if Tuck Everlasting has more than a famous title and a tearjerking finale to make its stay on Broadway an everlasting one.


Broadhurst Theatre
235 West Forty-Fourth Street, NYC
Open run

Sunday, April 24, 2016

190. Review: ECHOES (seen April 21, 2016)

“What Goes Around Comes Around”

Stars range from 5-1.
The number of plays seeking to come to grips—slippery as that may be—with the ongoing problems of the Middle East is tiny. Thus, even a minor effort like Echoes, an offering in this year’s Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, is a welcome addition to the slowly accumulating pile. Henry Naylor’s award-winning two-hander, directed by Naylor and Emma Butler, was first produced at the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to London’s West End. It also succeeded at the Adelaide Fringe, and, given the simplicity of its technical requirements, will likely travel widely.

Felicity Houlbrooke, Filipa Bragnca. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Naylor’s interestingly topical, if overly schematic, 50-minute play presents two women’s thematically similar stories, side by side. Each is a monologue delivered straight to the audience, interrupted only when the other woman speaks. The monologues incorporate whatever dialogue the stories require. Bleak as the stories are, Naylor has a way with words, and provides enough laughs to keep the piece afloat. While the characters move about in close proximity they never actually interact. Naylor’s set, simply but effectively lit by Ross Bibby, is a black-painted open space, with a stool as the only set prop. The word “ECHOES” is splashed two times in white paint on the black upstage drop.
Filipa Braganca, Felicity Houlbrooke. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
When we meet these bright, educated, young women, they’re 17 and living in Ipswich, England. However, the fair-skinned Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke) lives in the mid-19th century, while the olive-skinned Samira (Filipa Braganca) is our contemporary. Tillie is Christian; Samira is Muslim. Tillie wears a lovely, white, Victorian-era dress, with a scoop neckline, while Samira is garbed head to toe in traditional, black, Muslim garb, only her face visible under her hijab. (Adrian Gwillym did the costumes.)
Felicity Houlbrooke. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tillie, wishing to produce children for Britain’s Christian empire but disappointed by her local prospects, decides to journey to India with the Fishing Fleet, the name given to the considerable exodus British women made to hunt for husbands in India, where thousands of men had migrated to serve under the Raj. She meets a military officer en route and, despite signs of his obtuseness, marries him. He’s soon stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, where Tillie’s belief in Christian values collides with the maggoty rot (a frequently used metaphor) of British imperialism, whose worst elements are embodied in her brutish husband.
Filipa Braganca. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Simultaneously, we discover that Samira, daughter of Syrian refugees, has been radicalized because the tabloid press ignores Muslims in favor of sensationalistic news, and politicians like the xenophobic Nigel Farage hold power (if true, it’s hard not to think what will happen if Donald Trump becomes president). Her accent, language, and behavior could be those of any English teenager, but she decides to abandon her middle-class life and sneak off with a friend to the ruins of Raqqa, Syria, to marry a jihadist soldier she’s been introduced to on Skype. There she thinks she’ll help to build a caliphate. Like Tillie, her marriage is a rude awakening to the cruelty of the man she married and the fanatical religious ideals he stands for, and she decides to make a bolt for freedom.
Filipa Braganca, Felicity Houlbrooke. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Playwright Naylor’s heart is in the right place, from a historical, political, and feminist standpoint; his wish to show two women separated by 175 years both trying to butt heads with the political, sexual, marital, and religious injustices of their particular times is a good one, as is his point that Western barbarity toward colonized subjects is not far removed from the excesses of ISIS. But, while Tillie’s story could certainly have happened to a specific individual, it’s hard to accept it as representative of what Victorian women underwent when joining the Fishing Fleet. 

Samira’s story, also replete with melodramatic elements, rings slightly truer because we read of girls like her who have abandoned their middle-class lives in the name of jihad only to be disillusioned, risking their lives in an attempt to return home. Whatever one may think of Tillie's fate, given the limited access she would have had in Victorian Ipswich to information about the worst aspects of British imperialism, it’s hard to fault her for the adventurous spirit inspired by her quest for a spouse, even if she should have known better than to choose the lout she weds.

Samira, though, isn’t given strong enough reasons for her too-rapid radicalization and hatred for “kuffars”; while it’s true that many naïve girls do seek the paradise of jihad over the comforts of Western life, Samira seems too smart not to have known that soldiers like her Syrian spouse-to-be enjoy cutting off people’s heads and blowing them to bits, in addition to their erratic sexual proclivities. Tillie didn’t have the Internet; Samira does. Whatever idiocy other Western-bred Muslims may display in going off to Syria, it simply doesn't compute for this particular girl. The result seems to be a convenient but false equivalency between the two women’s stories. A scarier approach might have been for Samira to overcome her initial hesitancy and, like the friend with whom she went to Syria, follow through on the radical path she'd begun.  

Houlbrooke and Braganca give committed, intelligent performances, ably changing their voices and attitudes to characterize the various people they reference. I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about the play itself, but it’s only fair to note that, as we left the theatre, my companion disagreed with me about it, and was echoed by another theatregoer who’d heard us talking. Echoes encourages conversation, and, for that reason alone, you may find it worth a visit.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through May 4

Saturday, April 23, 2016

189. Review: IN THE SECRET SEA (seen April 20, 2016)

"A Sea of Troubles"
Stars range from 5-1.

As Cate Ryan’s” In the Secret Sea, “a new American play,” begins, its look and tone suggest we’re in for a conventional domestic comedy. A middle-aged, well-dressed couple, Gil (Paul Carlin) and Joyce (Glynnis O’Connor), have just returned from Easter Sunday services to their beautifully appointed home in suburban Connecticut. As they prepare for an unwelcome luncheon visit from Jack (Malachy Cleary) and Audrey (Shelly Burch), their newlywed son Kenny’s (Adam Petherbridge) in-laws, they snipe at each other in a way revealing the typical strains in a marriage of several decades; they also display their mutual affection or, at least, how they accommodate one another’s less attractive tics. But the laughs are infrequent and mild, and a darker tone keeps intruding. Certainly, the play’s moody title, which is what her doctor called Joyce’s womb when she was pregnant, has nothing cheery about it. 
Glynnis O'Connor, Paul Carlin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Gil criticizes Joyce for hypocritically sucking up to their Catholic priest, whose self-serving sermons are pushing Gil “this close” to atheism; Joyce, however, appears to hew more closely to her faith. They slash at their expected guests, starting with Joyce’s annoyance at Audrey’s nerve in asking her to prepare Easter lunch at only three days’ notice. Gil, who’s always had a very close relationship with Kenny, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan and who works at Gil’s real estate firm, is depressed about this being the first Easter his son hasn’t been at home with his family. Kenny’s wife, Gail, is pregnant, the outcome of which Joyce hopes will take Gil’s mind off Gil's doldrums. 
Shelly Burch, MalachyPaul Carlin, Glynnis O'Connor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In moving her action forward, Ryan depends heavily on “well-made play” contrivances, such as when Gil suddenly brings up the question of why he and Joyce never had another child, a topic dropped into the dialogue like a rock as preparation for what will follow. Finally, Kenny arrives in a funk and, after endless prodding, reveals what's bothering him. It takes forever to get to this point and another forever for him to spit it out, with Ryan milking the disclosure as if playwriting were a dairy factory. The reveal, which constitutes the play's mainspring, happens about one-third through, so here's a spoiler alert: Gail is in her fifth month and her fetus has been diagnosed with a very serious disability. If it's brought to term, life will be hell for the child and everyone else 
Paul Carlin, Glynnis O'Connor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Naturally, the subject, despite the contrived playwriting, grabs you unrelentingly by the heartstrings. Jack and Audrey, just as nicely dressed and successful as Gil and Joyce, enter; they're convivial but just as liable to be on each other’s case as are their hosts. Ryan needs to get the grandparents alone together so she concocts a way of getting Kenny out of the house, thus allowing the elephant in the room to come stomping forth. The initially wary foursomeneither couple at first knowing if the other one knowsargue about what should be done, even engaging in the blame game (which Gil and Joyce already played before their guests arrived) regarding how the crisis came to be.

Whether or not you know people who’ve faced a dilemma like Kenny and Gail’s, you’ll sit in rapt silence as you listen to the arguments fly for one solution or another. If, like me, you know a couple who've gone through this nightmare, your heart will pound and your eyes well. I admit not having been this touched in the theatre in ages. The opinions voiced are passionate, of course, but not necessarily the ones you might expect, nor might you guess who holds which views. But since it's the grandparents who've commandeered the podium, we're deprived of hearing from those most immediately concerned, particularly the mother. The arguments, while moving, are mostly emotional and moral, and get mired in too-conveniently remembered personal tragedies. While the ramifications of situations like this are rarely examined on stage in so instantly relatable a context, you're unlikely to come away enlightened or with your beliefs altered, no matter what they are. 

In the Secret Sea has been given a polished staging by veteran helmer Martin Charnin (Annie), with a classy-looking living room setting by Beowulf Borritt and Alexis Distler, fashionable garments by Suzy Benzinger, and quality lighting by Ken Billington. The attractive ensemble, which looks ready-made for a TV special, is generally on target but it does have its overwrought moments; these could easily be blamed on the playwright's strained mechanics, including a scene built around a Google search.
Adam Petherbridge. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Cate Ryan has found a meaningfully engaging subject; her flawed but well-meaning characters and situations, melodramatic as they are, will move many theatregoers. You can argue with the clumsy remembrances each of the couples calls upon to justify their positions, or with the play’s egregiously sentimental epilogue, with its quote from Yeats's beautiful "The Stolen Child," but the core issue—for all the superficiality of its treatmentis affecting enough to keep you in your seat for the play's 80 intermissionless minutes.   

Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row
410 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through May 21