Tuesday, October 17, 2017

88 (2017-2018): Review: OFF THE METER ON THE RECORD: DRIVING NEW YORK CRAZY FOR 35 YEARS (seen October 15, 2017)

Take it from me. Every cabbie, no matter how long he’s been on the job, has a carload of stories to tell. I drove a New York City yellow cab during my senior year in college over 50 years ago and I still sometimes tell my taxi tales, like the time I gossiped naughtily to a passenger about movie star Montgomery Clift only to discover that’s who I was talking to.  

John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It’s hard to think of anyone who could who could do justice to the New York cabby’s life better than John McDonagh, son of Irish immigrants, who’s been driving a cab for 35 years, but who’s also been a radio host with an interest in Irish-American issues, an outspoken political activist (liberal), and a stand-up comic and writer. And justice he does in Off the Meter On the Record: Driving New York City Crazy for 35 Years, his often hilarious one-man show in the Irish Rep’s tiny W. Scott McLucas Theatre.
John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In a day when New York cabbies seem predominantly to be immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, South or East Asia, or Africa, McDonagh is like the kind of driver much more common when I was behind the wheel: white, locally born and raised (Middle Village, Queens), and fueled with opinions and stories. Holding his audience with his Irish charm for a just-right hour, he seems more the working-class guy next door than a polished actor. Much of his stuff is very funny, the more so because it’s grounded in reality and McDonagh tells it like he’s the lightly lubricated, garrulous, but never overbearing gent sitting next to you at the Blarney Stone.
John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Until he warms up he seems ever so slightly uncomfortable as he paces about, now and then glancing nervously at the floor, and spitting out vowels that would instantly qualify him for the NYPD or NYFD. If he said his cab was outside waiting for his gig to end you’d have no trouble taking him at his word. His authenticity, in fact, is a large part of his attraction.
John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Working on Charlie Corcoran’s relatively elaborate set of actual yellow cab components (tires, headlights, a hood, a door, and so on), and dressed in baseball cap and work clothes, he either rolls around on a platform-mounted driver’s seat—sometimes leaning out a rolled-down window—or walks about regaling us with his narrative. Pop music and WINS announcements fill M. Florian Staab’s soundtrack.
John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
McDonagh’s obviously had to whittle down his years on the city’s asphalt for the demands of a solo performance but he doesn’t focus only on taxi stories; some anecdotes are tangentially related to his life beside the meter. One episode, for example, concerns the international fuss he inadvertently kicked up by arranging for an electronic Times Square display sponsored by a charitable organization connected to the Irish Republican Army. And there’s the segment concerning his and a buddy’s attempt to appear on a popular reality show, The Amazing Race, with its million dollar payoff, in a get-rich-quick scheme Ralph Kramden would have loved.  
John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
McDonagh’s more immediately taxi-related accounts concern the hard work, the hours, the discomforts, the problem customers (the drunks, the elderly, the ailing, the about-to-give birth, etc.), and the like. He even argues that the carriage horses in Central Park receive better treatment than the poor, overworked cabbies.

Of enormous supplemental help are videos (Chris Kateff, designer), some of which are archival records of what he’s talking about, like the time he introduced British actor and writer Stephen Fry to the members of an Italian-American “social club,” the kind of wise guys who consider Goodfellas a documentary. Or when he was interviewed by Fox News’s Neil Cavuto and responded with such ballsy anti-Republican remarks you can practically see the anchor sinking.
John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
McDonagh mentions Uber and Lyft only in passing, and never references the green cabs that now share the streets with the iconic yellows. It’s the latter he honors, as in a poem he reads at the end, offering a deliciously bittersweet lament for how they and so many other New York things are disappearing. For example, “I know the streets of the city like the back of my hand/But people now blurt out, ‘Google maps says take a left!” The poem is titled “What Happened to My City?” Well may he ask. In John McDonagh we see the embodiment of yet another New York institution on the brink of extinction, making his words resonate that much more poignantly.


Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through November 5

87 (2017-2018): Review: TIME AND THE CONWAYS (seen October 14, 2017)

"Joy and Woe"

For my review of Time and the Conways please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Friday, October 13, 2017

85 (2017-2018): Review: THE HOME PLACE (seen October 12, 2017)

“Irish Stew”

Just as an Irish stew can be tasty despite having an abundance of disparate ingredients, including some that may not agree with your palate, so does late Irish playwright Brian Friel’s (1929-2015) The Home Place offer flavorsome but occasionally indigestible drama. The play, making its New York debut in a lively but uneven Irish Rep production, premiered at Dublin’s Gate in 2005, with Tom Courtenay playing Christopher Gore; it went on to a successful production in London the same year, and made its American bow two years later at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theatre.
Rachel Pickup, Ed Malone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Set during the summer of 1878 in Friel’s familiar fictional town of Ballybeg, Donegal, it combines multiple subplots, beginning with one about the simmering conflict between the town’s tenant farmers and the wealthy English landlords who live there in big manor houses. (For background on the Home Rule Movement, which helps to understand the play’s politics, click here.) One such landlord, known for his cruelty, recently has been killed; others, like the aging lord of the Lodge, Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham), are worried they might be in danger, regardless of their kindness.

Christopher lives with his son, David (Ed Malone), whom Friel describes as “a hesitant, uncertain young man,” and their attractive housemaid or “chatelaine,” Margaret O’Donnell (Rachel Pickup), with whom both men are in love, creating another significant plotline. Margaret tells the importunate David she loves him; however, given the eccentricities of the charm-challenged Malone, who looks more like a tenant than a landlord, this seems highly unlikely; also questionable is her relationship with Christopher, old enough to be her father. (The father-son romantic rivalry, by the way, is reminiscent of one in another Irish play, Teresa Deevy’s “In the Cellar of My Friend,” a one-act recently staged by the Mint Theater.)
John-Windsor Cunningham, Rachel Pickup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Christopher is always talking of his “home place” in Kent, England, and the play often makes reference to similarly stateless English citizens living away from their native land. David, in fact, wants to join such a person by moving with Margaret to Kenya. This state of homelessness among the U.K.’s colonialists is one of Friel’s principal themes, particularly as it relates to Christopher’s position.
Andrea Lynn Green, Ed Malone, Christopher Randolph. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The arrival of Christopher’s anthropologist cousin, the snootily arrogant Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph, appropriately annoying), with his self-involved assistant Perkins (Stephen Pilkington), makes Christopher’s position even shakier. Christopher’s research concerns the evolutionary development of the local populace’s physiological features, which he believes hold the key to unlocking their psychological traits and thus offering a key to their future behavior.
Stephen Pilkington, Polly McKie, Christopher Randolph, John-Windsor Cunningham. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
When he measures two poor peasants, Polly McKie (Mary Sweeney), who begs for a few coppers, and the barefoot Logan Riley Bruner (Tommy Boyle), he treats them more like animals than humans, only emphasizing the disparity between the smug superiority of the English toward what Richard considers Ireland’s lesser specimens. He’s even concerned with the progeny of a marriage between the Irish Margaret and the British Gores.
Stephen Pilkington, Christopher Randolph, Polly McKie, John-Windsor Cunningham. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
An additional chunk of time is occupied by Christopher’s saucy, young maidservant Sally Cavanagh (Andrea Lynn Green), who flirts with Perkins but is involved with Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins), a rebellious, anti-British hothead. Then there’s Margaret’s bibulous father, Clement (Robert Langdon Lloyd), a gifted but loquacious, Alfred P. Doolittle-like choirmaster, who waxes endlessly about the virtues of the great Irish poet/composer Thomas Moore. 
Ed Malone, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Stephen Pilkington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Friel’s pseudo-Chekhovian, two-act play, which runs an hour and 45 minutes, meanders from theme to theme, sometimes inserting symbols, like a falcon that threatens the household’s chickens; unfortunately, it never truly coheres as an integrated whole.
Ed Malone, John-Windsor Cunningham, Rachel Pickup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
We hear a lot of interestingly informative dialogue about things like anthropometric measurements and Tom Moore’s contributions but must wait until well into Act Two before anything truly dramatic bursts out. The final scene, which brings the play to a deliberately inconclusive end, seems at first to be some time later but turns out to be on the same day as all the previous action. A busy day, indeed.
John-Windsor Cunningham, Johnny Hopkins, Gordon Tashjian. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
James Noone’s painterly manor house setting, delicately lit by Michael Gottlieb, combines a downstage garden area fronting an interior breakfast room; the latter’s lack of downstage walls seems odd, though, especially when characters inside and outside converse with one another.
Christopher Randolph, Stephen Pilkington, John-Windsor Cunningham, Johnny Hopkins, Gordon Tashjian. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
David Toser has provided suitably attractive costumes, more period-suggestive than historically precise. And two of New York’s busiest composers of original stage music, Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staub, have collaborated here to good effect.
Christopher Randolph, Stephen Pilkington, John-Windsor Cunningham, Ed Malone, Rachel Pickup, Gordon Tashjian, Adrian Lynn Green, Johnny Hopkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Director Charlotte Moore’s deft staging keeps things moving nicely but runs into trouble when she’s got nearly a dozen actors to dispose of on the small stage. The tall and slender British actress Rachel Pickup, as Margaret, offers the most convincing performance, bringing warmth, intelligence, and strength to the role. Although she uses an Irish accent one wonders why British actor Robert Langdon Lloyd’s colorful portrayal of her drunken dad doesn’t do the same. The silver-haired John-Windsor Cunningham seems emotionally wobbly at times but at least looks the part, while Ed Malone, as his son, is seriously miscast, and we’ll leave it at that.  
Rachel Pickup, John-Windsor Cunningham. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The Home Place may have found a home at the Irish Rep but I’m not convinced it’s really at home there.


Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through November 19, 2017

Thursday, October 12, 2017

84 (2017-2018): Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE (seen October 11, 2017)

"When Shakespeare Met Weinstein" 

If theatre is most relevant when it dramatizes issues currently on the public’s mind, there could be no better time than now for a revival of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, when the media is screaming about the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal.

The experimental theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service, renowned for its illumination of American literary classics (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury), couldn’t have had this particular cause célèbre on its mind when it chose the play—similar, if less publicized, scandals rock the headlines every week—but it definitely gives this otherwise bizarre interpretation, directed by John Collins, a cachet of significance.
Pete Simpson, Rinne Groff. Photo: Richard Termine.
Measure for Measure, of course, is a “problem play” whose mixed comic and tragic tone and confounding thoughts on justice and mercy have bedeviled bardolators, actors, and directors for centuries. But they keep trying. A relatively traditional, albeit modern dress, revival was staged in June by Theatre for a New Audience, to modest effect, while a musical adaptation, Desperate Measures, at the York Theatre, is essentially a new work using only the original’s central premise for its richly appealing retelling.
Maggie Hoffman, Greig Sargeant. Photo: Richard Termine.
The play’s connection to Weinstein et al. is its premise about an overbearingly moralistic politician named Angelo (Pete Simpson, in an over-the-top, physicalized performance) using his Weinsteinian power to grant favors to a beautiful woman in exchange for sex. Angelo, you’ll recall, has been deputized to become leader of decadent Vienna by the Duke (Scott Shepherd) while the latter, disguised as a friar, secretly goes about among the citizens to spy on their (and Angelo’s) behavior. Angelo’s first important act is to sentence a young man, Claudio (Greig Sargeant), to death for the crime of having impregnated his fiancée Juliet (Lindsay Hockaday, who also plays Pompey, the pimp), in violation of a long-ignored law regarding premarital sex.
Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol, Lindsay Hockaday, Scott Shepherd. Photo: Richard Termine.
When Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Rinne Groff), a beautiful young novitiate, is prevailed upon to petition Angelo for clemency, Angelo falls for her and agrees only if she’ll sleep with him. She’s unwilling to sacrifice her chastity for her brother’s life, however, so the plot moves on to multiple complications, including “the bed trick,” involving having Angelo’s discarded love, Mariana (April Matthis), substitute for Isabella in the dark; there's even a substitute head trick, in which another prisoner’s head doubles for Claudio’s to make people think the latter is dead. (Kabuki fans will appreciate this.) Finally, the wily Duke, observing everything from the sidelines, steps in, restores order, and—in yet another expression of sexual power grabbing—takes Isabella for himself.
Maggie Hoffman, Vin Knight, Lindsay Hockaday, Gavin Price, Susie Soko. Photo: Richard Termine.
ERS’s version of the play, its first attempt at Shakespeare, while faithful to the script (which it presents in an intermissionless two hours and ten minutes), is a mélange of avant-garde tropes that eventually become more important than the play itself. This isn’t to deny that occasional flashes of insight occur, or that the actors aren’t all vocally and physical skilled enough to do justice to the words. The tradeoff, though, is a show so bogged down in gimmickry that you lose interest in the narrative and instead focus on directorial “ingenuity.”
Rinne Groff. Photo: Richard Termine.
Questions you may find yourself asking are: why does the set (designed by Jim Findlay), with its long tables, chairs, and old-fashioned phones, resemble a conference room, regardless of the locale; why are moving (and largely unreadable) sections of the text projected on the walls and ceiling (projection design by Eva Schweinitz) when someone slams a button on a table, only to vanish when the button is pressed again (which also happens with Gavin Price’s noteworthy sound design); why, in this kookily dressed production (designed by Kaye Voyce) mingling costumes from several last-century periods, is Isabella, a soon-to-be-nun, dressed like a Mafia widow in a short black dress, heels, and a smart black hat?
Maggie Hoffman, Scott Shepherd. Photo: Richard Termine.
Other questions concern the dialogue: why do the actors sometimes speak so rapidly they seem be in a Peter Piper-picked-a-pickled-pepper contest; why, on the other hand, is the long prison scene between Isabella and Claudio performed so sl-o-o-o-w-ly you may think you see the actors growing old before your eyes; why do Angelo, the Duke, and Escalus speak in dry, nasal, posh British accents; why are there teleprompters at stage right and at the rear of the house, with the text scrolling by for actors who clearly know their lines, and so on?

The answers (acceptable or not) to some of these queries can found in Collins’s program note, where he also mentions the show’s use of “proprietary teleprompter software” to set “the actors’ pace” as a way of performing the show. How, one wonders, could Shakespeare have survived so long without such breakthroughs?
Vin Knight, Pete Simpson, Greig Sargeant, Mike Iveson, Maggie Hoffman, Gavin Price. Photo: Richard Termine.
Oddly, some of this oddball manipulation works, especially when Scott Shepherd’s Duke/Friar Lodowick is around, creating the image of a motor-mouthed, ruler on speed who seems to do what he does merely because he can; his manipulation of the play’s concluding scenes is especially creepy in the offhand way with which he dispenses orders and controls his minions. For the most part, though, this Measure for Measure is a solipsistic exercise that serves more to obscure than clarify what’s already difficult enough to comprehend.
Rinne Groff and company. Photo: Richard Termine.
Collins also observes that what makes Shakespeare’s language in Measure for Measure “genuinely timeless is a kind of music in those sentences and a deeply felt poetry that pulses with emotional truth.” Agreed; however, his production does everything to muffle that verbal music and suppress that emotional pulse. It’s one measure of his achievement that, the night I went, around a dozen people departed midway through. Measure for measure, I assume.
Company of Measure for Measure. Photo: Richard Termine.


The Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through November 12

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

83 (2017-2018): Review: SYNCING INK (Seen October 9, 2017)

“The Best of Rhymes; The Worst of Rhymes”

If Niegel Smith intended to make a splash with his first production as the Flea’s new artistic director, replacing Jim Simpson, he couldn’t have made a louder one than with Nsangou Njikam’s hip hop musical Syncing Ink. The night I went, the audience of mostly 20 and 30 somethings was as fully engaged as any I’ve ever seen, short of a sports event.

The show—which had its world premiere at Houston’s famed Alley Theatre in February and is a product of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group—is nearly two hours and 40 minutes long and stuffed with crude banalities. That doesn't stop if from dancing through the night with such ebullience and talent that nothing could be easier than to forgive its various faults. The headline above (paraphrased from Njikam’s script) suggests you have to take the good with the bad. But the good far outweighs the bad in Syncing Ink.

Syncing Ink—the first production in the Sam, the new Flea’s black box venue named for the late talent agent Sam Cohn—is a coming of age tale about Gordon (Njikam, the playwright), seeking to fulfill his destiny as a rapper. There’s a bunch of Yoruba ritual stuff thrown in to connect his story to his ancestral roots and the African diaspora; some high school characters even wear simplified African makeup and the music sometimes reveals a West African influence.
DJ Reborn. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Overseeing all is the Muthuh (DJ Reborn), a DJ in the guise of Oludumare, “the supreme creator,” standing atop a platform overlooking the empty space, a large circle painted on its floor, its four sides surrounded by the audience. The music she chooses to back the rapping sequences is from artists whose work, the night I went, was so familiar to many they sometimes moved and sang along with it.
Company of Syncing Ink. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gordon, socially awkward, attends Langston Hughes, a middle-class suburban high school, where his poetry teacher, the abundantly alliterative Mr. Wright (Adesola Osakalumi) a.k.a. the Baba, encourages his class to write haiku before they move on to the rhyming difficulties of hip hop. Gordon is overshadowed by rhyme-spitting students with emcee creds.
Kara Young, Nuri Hazzard, McKenzie Frye, Elisha Lawson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s the diminutive sparkplug Sweet Tea (Kara Young), who encourages Gordon; the braggart hip hop master, Jamal (Nuri Hazzard), who challenges him; the crafty Ice Cold (Elisha Lawson), who advises him; and the voluptuous Mona Lisa (McKenzie Frye), who catches his eye. Each also is thought of as the avatar of an African spiritual entity.  (Most actors also play several roles, including Gordon’s parents.) Gordon’s quest to compete against Jamal is hindered by his difficulty in mastering the art of rhyming, a corny playwriting device but one that’s necessary for there to be a second act.

Act Two is a year later, when the students are at Mecca University. The script shifts gears so loudly you can hear them screech with a side plot satirizing a rivalry between two English professors. One is the pompous, British-accented Prof. White (Hazzard), who teaches black and white classical literature;the other is Prof. Black (Osakalumi), a Black Panther-like radical, who mocks the idea of writing anything down, even denigrating “white paper.” Their scenes steal too much time from the plot’s main thrust, Gordon’s training to take on Jamal in a freestyle rapping contest. I’ll let you guess who wins.
Adesola Osakalumi, Nsangou Njikam, Nuri Hazzard. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Technically, the show couldn’t be better. Riccardo Hernandez is credited with the minimalist set design while Kevin Rigdon provides a remarkably inventive lighting scheme that allows the awesomely versatile cast to use little more than a few chairs and hand props to depict varying times, places, and events. Sound designer Justin Ellington does exceptional work, including his collaboration with Rigdon for great fantasy effects, while Claudia Brown’s attention-grabbing costumes make vivacious contributions.

Smith’s staging, combined with the choreography of associate director Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, is a master class in theatrical creativity; each move and gesture is rhythmically calibrated (much like the recent Clockwork Orange) so that not only the more overtly musical sequences but straight acting scenes are played with perfectly timed precision.
Elisha Lawson, Kara Young, McKenzie Frye, Nsangou Njikam, Nuri Hazzard,Adesola Osakalumi, DJ Reborn. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are few Off-Broadway ensembles as remarkably multitalented and charismatic as this one. Still, it’s hard not to be especially captivated by Kara Young, a mighty mite with a head of dreads, who can pack more physical, facial, and emotional attitude into a single word than many performers can get out of an entire speech. No need for a crystal ball to see where this ball of fire’s going.
Nsangou Njikam. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It helps to be young and in tune with hip hop music to appreciate the show, which is somewhat more funkily down and dirty than Hamilton, the apex of hip musical theatre genius. One doesn’t often see such enthusiastic audiences at the theatre, responding to every nuance of the complex rhymes, waving their hands or clapping to the beat, stamping their feet, or laughing with abandonment. Older visitors may feel a bit constrained by the palpable reactions of those around them but I guarantee they’ll soon be synched to the joyous spirit of Syncing Ink


Flea Theater
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through October 29