Saturday, December 23, 2017

Best of 2017 (and Worst)

Happy Holidays and thanks to everyone who’s a regular or occasional reader of Theatre’s Leiter Side. The blog began in the fall of 2012 when I was a nominator for the Drama Desk Awards. It’s therefore been active for over five years and has covered well over 1,000 shows. Midway through that time,—which both aggregates and excerpts numerous reviews and also provides a numerical score for each of them—came into existence. To date, 484 of my reviews have appeared on that site.

It’s now the time when reviewers are asked to pick their best of the year. Over the course of 2017, from January through December, I covered 198 shows. The number might have been considerably higher except that, for the first half of the year, I wasn’t always able to acquire press invitations, so I missed some potentially important work. For the second half, at least beginning in late June, I returned to the Drama Desk as a voter, which gave me access to more productions. However, various factors—such as scheduling conflicts or failing to receive press invitations—prevented me from seeing everything.

Looking back over my reviews for 2017 I notice I gave my highest recommendation of five stars and two thumbs up to 22 shows, Broadway and Off, while I gave only four shows my lowest grade, one star and two thumbs down.

Here are the five-star, two thumbs up offerings, in alphabetical order; titles beginning with articles are listed as such, i.e., The Emperor Jones, rather than Emperor Jones, The.

Reviews for these shows can be found by using the search box in the upper left hand corner of this page. 

Amerike—The Golden Land
Cross That River
Cry Havoc
Derren Brown: Secret
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
Off the Meter, On the Record
Once on this Island 
Prince of Broadway
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play
SpongeBob SquarePants
The Band’s Visit
The Emperor Jones
The Little Foxes
The Play that Goes Wrong
The Winter’s Tale
Woody Sez
Zero Hour

Narrowing this down to the top ten, we get the following, again in alphabetical order, with an (OB) for Off-Broadway, a (B) for Broadway, and an (R) for revivals:

Charm (OB) 
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (OB) 
Indecent (OB and B) 
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (OB; R) 
Once on this Island (B; R) 
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play (OB) 
SpongeBob SquarePants 
The Band’s Visit (OB and B) 
The Little Foxes (B; R) 
The Play That Goes Wrong (B)

The four shows that landed at the bottom of the pile, all of them Off Broadway, are as follows:

The Great American Drama
Pressing Matters
Come Light My Cigarette
Rhinoceros (R) [in Yiddish] 

That wraps it up for 2017. Wishing you all warm holiday wishes, I look forward to catching your theatergoing eye in 2018.

Friday, December 22, 2017

135 (2017-2018): Review: CRUEL INTENTIONS (seen December 21, 2017)

"School for Scandal"
Company of Cruel Intentions. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
In the beginning, there was Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pierre Chodorlos de Laclos’s four-volume, French, epistolary novel of 1782. Then, over the past half-century or more, there were more than half-a-dozen films, starting with Roger Vadim’s 1959 film of the same title, followed by Steven Frears’s 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, and, among the rest, a contemporized, teenage version called Cruel Intentions, its prequel and sequel, and Chinese and Korean adaptations. There have also been multiple radio, television, ballet, opera, novel, and, of course, stage treatments. 
Lauren Zakrin, Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
The most recent entry in the latter category is Cruel Intentions: the 90s Musical Experience, a high-energy, low-budget, Off-Broadway, jukebox version of Roger Kumble’s iconic (despite a 49% Rotten Tomatoes rating) 1999 film starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair, and Reese Witherspoon. 

This supercharged offering, co-created by Lindsey Rosin and Jordan Ross, with a script adapted by Kumble from his original screenplay, and a modicum of choreography by Jennifer Weber, is now rocking the low rafters of the basement space at Greenwich Village’s (le) Poisson Rouge. It’s actually the second New York incarnation of the show, which originally was seen in Los Angeles in 2015 and made a pop-up appearance at its current venue this past February.
Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
There, while seated with strangers at cramped cabaret tables, you can order food and drinks while craning your neck to the side to see the stage or twist it like Linda Blair to view scenes behind you. Someone’s cruel intention, perhaps?

Fans of the movie will groove to its darkly comic tale set in the “Gossip Girl” world of over-privileged, Upper East Side, prep-school step-siblings, Sebastian Valmont (handsome, ripped Constantine Rousouli in the Phillippe role) and Kathryn Merteuil (hot-as-a-branding-poker Lauren Zakrin in the Gellar character).
Lauren Zakrin, Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
This reputation-bashing, incestuous (as per “Game of Thrones”) pair make a bet about whether the teenage Casanova can bed the goofy Cecile Caldwell (comedic livewire Jessie Shelton in the Blair role). His Jag if she wins; her bod if he does. 
Carrie St. Louis, Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Kathryn’s motive is revenge on a guy who dumped her. The apple Sebastian would really like a bite of is the virginal Annette Hargrove (Cybil Shepherd lookalike Carrie St. Louis in the role Witherspoon created). Ruthlessly amoral, Sebastian and Kathryn rule the roost until the roosters come home to crow.
Alex Boniello, Brian Muller. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Two subplots introduce themes of homosexuality and racial bias, one involving the gay relationship between macho athlete Greg McConnell (Brian Muller) and the effete Blain Tuttle, the other concerning the shared affections of African-American music teacher Ronald Clifford (Matthew Griffin) and the goofy Cecile, daughter of the uptight Mrs. Bunny Caldwell.
Patricia Richardson, Matthew Griffin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
The night I went the actors playing Blain (Alex Boniello) and Mrs. Caldwell (Patricia Richardson) were out ill but were quite capably understudied by Tristan J. Shuler and Stefanie Brown. Let’s hear it for the talented understudies who make the most of the rare opportunities they get to strut their stuff!

Cruel Intentions uses barely any scenic units, apart from four chairs, a low, blue cloth to suggest a pool, and a white sheet for a silhouetted sex scene, all flashily lit by James Kolditz. Despite its four-member, onstage band’s lyric-smothering, over-amped performance (sound design: Robert Bradley), the show needs only a smattering of music stands and scripts to qualify as a staged concert.
Lauren Zakrin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Among the many songs—some borrowed from those on the movie’s soundtrack—highlighting thematic concerns, if not story-advancing ones, are Placebo’s “Every You, Every Me,” Jewel’s “Foolish Games,” the Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” Mercy Playground’s “Sex and Candy,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and, most sizzling, Meredith Brooks’s “I’m a Bitch.”

The last named is knocked upstairs and onto Bleecker Street by the flamingly sexy Zakrin, even if—dressed by costume designer Tilly Grimes in skintight black pants and black bustier (with well-filled red bra)—she’s hard to buy as “the Marcia Brady of the Upper East Side.” Too many of the songs, though, are belted as loudly as possible, leaving little room for gentler approaches. TV’s competitive singing shows have taken their toll.

For all the story’s apparently endless fascination, it's a mite unsettling, at this Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, et al juncture, to be watching a show reveling in sexual predation (involving teenagers, no less), regardless of how many nostalgia-packed 90s pop tunes seek to obliterate your unease along with your eardrums. 

It’s also hard to love the insistent efforts to titillate with salacious language and business that treat sex crassly, not erotically. And when something really sexy arrives as Sebastian and Annette disrobe in shadow play it stops short just as things get really interesting.

Cruel Intentions shows promise but I’d like to see and hear it in a more comfortable environment with less emphasis on the blare and glare. Then again, as a member of the Silent Generation, not the show's target group of Millennials, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut.


(le) Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker St., NYC
Open run

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

133 (2017-2018): Review: FARINELLI AND THE KING (seen December 19, 2017)

“If Music Be the Food of Therapy”

The Belasco Theatre, with its abundance of beautifully crafted wood and exquisite, old-time, stained-glass lighting fixtures, is the perfect venue for Claire Van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, a visually plump but dramatically slim production created by London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, starring first-time playwright Van Kampen’s husband, Mark Rylance.

Elegantly directed (by John Dove) and effectively acted and sung, this fact-based play’s subject matter is inherently fascinating. That subject is the apparent recovery of King Philippe V (Rylance) of Spain from mental illness on hearing the remarkable singing voice of the castrato Carlo Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane; sung by Iestyn Davies), born Carlo Broschi in 1705. 
But beyond its premise of music having curative powers, which now has some empirical evidence to support it, Farinelli and the King doesn’t contribute greatly to the advance of modern playwriting.
For dramatic purposes, Van Kampen (best known as a music director) both simplifies and amplifies the historical circumstances. For example, Philippe is seen as a stagey, comic madman, first shown fishing in a goldfish bowl and chatting with its occupant. He sometimes seems more like an ironically daffy Shakespearean fool than a monarch suffering from severe depression or bipolar disorder, as current accounts describe his condition. The 1994 movie Farinelli similarly distorted history for dramatic effect. 
Philippe’s beautiful Italian wife, Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove), sometimes known as Elisabetta, seeks to prevent him from losing his monarchical power, so she goes to London to hire Farinelli, the most famous singer of the day. Van Kampen strains credibility when she has Isabella request his services from John Rich (Colin Hurley), the resistant, preoccupied manager he’s contracted to, by simply asking for him backstage at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields playhouse without bothering to mention she’s the Queen of Spain. 
Isabella’s plan to cure Philippe, grandson of France’s Louis XIV, of his madness by having Farinelli sing to him, a scheme initially opposed by the king’s chief counselor La Caudra (Edward Peel) but supported by the physician Dr. José Cervi (Hus Garbiya), appears to work, or, at least, to ameliorate Philippe’s condition. The king, so enamored of the singer that he needs his voice the way a junky needs drugs, makes him a permanent employee of his monarchy, which he served for nine years, never again singing professionally. One of the play’s shortcomings is its failure to sufficiently justify this choice. 
Much is made of the fact that Farinelli’s talent was enhanced when his ambitious brother, the composer Riccardo Farinelli, had him castrated (it was actually a family decision) when he was ten. This appears not to have affected his romantic inclinations, and Van Kampen creates an attraction between Farinelli and Isabella to help sex up the plot and give one possible reason for Farinelli's sticking around.
Once the premise is established, however, the plot itself is rather uninteresting and its suspense quite limited; the playwright has to depend on various distractions, including faintly comic dialogue (including a reference to “Ricc the knife”), to keep the action moving. As is typical in many such biodramas, Van Kampen plays to contemporary ears with questionable expressions, like “balls,” “genitals,” “fuck,” and “shite.”

Two hours and 15 minutes seems a bit long to stretch this material; perhaps the inclusion of nine operatic solos by Handel, which pads the time, will please audiences with a taste for such classical music. Perhaps not. As performed, we see both the actor-Farinelli and the singer-Farinelli simultaneously. When a song is coming on, the latter steps forward and the former recedes, standing by forlornly as though invested in the musical mood. During nonmusical scenes, we see only the actor-Farinelli.
The visuals couldn’t be better, thanks to John Fensom’s superb period costumes, the perfectly done big wigs of Campbell Young Associates, and Fensom’s magnificently baroque set, which appears to be a mashup of various English stage types, public and private, from the Elizabethan to the 18th century.

Onstage audience seating is on two levels at either side (although the upper level’s sightlines look awful) and on an upper level at the rear, where musicians accompany the action. A trap in the ceiling and one in the floor allow surprise exits and exits in keeping with contemporary practice.
Footlights line the downstage lip, a ceiling painted with stars and planets hangs overhead, and chandeliers using what appear to be real candles are lowered and raised. Lighting designer Paul Russell, who keeps the lights on in the house throughout, has cleverly managed to conceal his sources, creating the low-intensity illusion that the actors are being illuminated by candlepower alone. 
Act one of the two-act play, set in 1737, has one scene backstage at a London theatre, but takes place largely at the Madrid palace of Philippe V; act two is mostly located during the same year at the king’s forest residence in San Ildefonso, with a time jump forward to 1759, in yet another London theatre, and to Bologna, where Farinelli lived in his retirement.

Aside from occasional scenic elements that fly in to suggest either the shift to London or to indicate 18th-century scenic methods, the set remains a neutral space that serves for any locale.

And, in keeping with the evocation of period visual effects, the acting also has a self-consciously theatrical patina, much of it aimed directly at the audience. At one point, the king treats the Belasco audience as if it were the one attending a concert at his forest home; he even gets laughs by pointing to people as though they’re the ones he’s mentioning (like, for instance, a prostitute).

Mark Rylance has gained much praise locally for his excellent Broadway performances in plays like Boeing-Boeing, Jerusalem, Twelfth Night, and Richard III. He’s quite good as Philippe but he offers few surprises to those familiar with his previous roles. Once again, we see the slightly quirky, mildly distracted countenance, the offhand hesitations as a line is spoken, the casually naturalistic stutters, the self-deprecating tone combined with vocally forceful readings.

Melody Grove makes Philippe’s wife a strongly supportive, if two-dimensional, spouse. Her role might have been further developed by showing, as history informs us, that it was she, in fact, who ran the Spanish government, not her husband; it’s something David Cote’s otherwise informative program on the play’s “historical truths” doesn’t mention.

Sam Crane brings grace and sensitivity to Farinelli while his musical doppelganger Iestyn Davies offers a fine countertenor for the character’s solos. For obvious reasons, though, he can offer only a shadow of what the real singer must have sounded like. Thus, for all his talent, he’s unable to cure the melancholy of those who would have preferred a stronger play in which to hear him.


Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44th St., NYC
Through March 25

Friday, December 15, 2017

131. (2017-2018): Review: A REGULAR LITTLE HOUDINI (seen December 14, 2017)


Any play with the name of the Hungarian-American magician and escape artist Houdini in its title is going to have instant appeal for lovers of magic. The great Harry himself makes a couple of appearances in A Regular Little Houdini, a generally intriguing, charismatically performed, 65-minute, solo narrative at 59E59 Theaters' tiny Theater C. Magic 
tricks, however, are in too short supply.

Instead, we’re invited to experience the magic of theatre in the good-looking person of Welsh writer-performer Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, who, playing a fellow named Alan, tells a fact-based story related to Houdini’s early 20th-century appearances in the seaport town of Newport, South Wales.
Daniel Llewelyn-Davis. Photo: Sheri Bankes.
Llewelyn-Williams weaves a narrative connecting Houdini to the 1909 Newport Docks disaster in which many lives were lost when a huge sea lock under construction collapsed. Excellent background on both Houdini and the collapse, during which a 17-year-old boy displayed great bravery, is provided in the program. 

Alan appears in a bare, black-painted space, simply lit, wearing a derby and a working-class, Edwardian suit topped off with a wool scarf around his neck; he holds an old-fashioned suitcase, speaks in a thick (sometimes too thick) Welsh accent, and has an obvious limp in his gait.

He addresses us as though on the stage of Newport’s grand old Lyceum Theatre, since demolished, reminds us of when Houdini stood there, and lauds the great prestidigitator’s “amazements,” as he later calls them.
Daniel Llewelyn-Davis. Photo: Sheri Bankes.
Alan then assumes the persona of himself 35 years earlier, in 1905, the year of Houdini’s first local visit, after which he introduces us to the town and his family, most importantly his grandfather, Gami (the local chief constable), and his hardworking, hard-drinking dad, a docker.

Then, as he changes voices and accents to bring various colorful characters not to mention Houdini himself, to life, Alan tells us of how someone called him “a regular little Houdini” when he picked his pocket as part of a pub routine.

He offers a few examples of sleight of hand, talks about Newport’s history and the Irish who fled there amid great danger from drowning during the famines, describes his experiences as a lock-picking “self-liberator,” and recalls Houdini’s famous local feats and why they upset old Gami so much.
Daniel Llewelyn-Davis. Photo: Sheri Bankes.
He continues covering the nostalgic Newport scene, including a description of a local engineering marvel called the Newport Transporter Bridge that he found a perfect playground for his boyhood ambitions to create his own Houdini-like amazements.

Alan’s breathlessly detailed description of a dangerous bridge exploit, which explains where his limp came from, is succeeded by an exciting account of the sea lock tragedy and its mournful aftermath. Yet another thrill-a-minute tale of Houdini’s return visit and Alan’s derring-do involvement in it is described just before a touch of hocus-pocus concludes the show. 
Daniel Llewelyn-Davis. Photo: Sheri Bankes.
Llewelyn-Davis’s minimalist, vocally and physically highly expressive performance, well-directed by Joshua Richards, has toured the world and won several awards. A program note says it was inspired by the actor-writer’s father, also named Alan, who died this year, although, of course, the time period is well before when he could even have been born.
Daniel Llewelyn-Davis. Photo: Sheri Bankes.
With its familiar but always pertinent message about following your dream, regardless of your circumstances, A Regular Little Houdini pulls a rabbit out of a hat to create a moment of entertaining theatrical magic. A little more conventional magic, though, would have made it even better.


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through December 31

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

130 (2017-2018): Review: METEOR SHOWER (seen December 12, 2017)

“Still Wild and Crazy, After All These Years”

Steve Martin, America’s favorite wild and crazy guy, may be 72 but his new Broadway farce, Meteor Shower, shows he’s as wild and crazy as ever. Just not as funny, or at least not as served up by the hyperbolic histrionics of director Jerry Zak’s spacey, 80-minute production at the Booth.
Amy Schumer. Photo: Matthew Murply.
Four highly charged comic actors—the adorable Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), in her Broadway debut; the smooth Keegan-Michael Key (“Key and Peele”), making his as well; the stunning, Tony-winning Laura Benanti (She Loves Me); and the versatile Jeremy Shamos (Clybourne Park)—carry on with such exaggerated, cartoonish abandon that 15 minutes is all it takes before your willing disbelief collapses, like a bridge in an earthquake.

It’s another natural phenomenon, however, a meteor shower, that brings the play’s characters together at the Ojai, California, home of Corky (Schumer) and Norm (Shamos), on the 1993 night when such an astronomical event actually occurred. Corky and Norm, anxious to show off their upscale new digs, have invited another couple over, Laura (Benanti), allegedly a former Vogue editor, and Gerald (Key), Norm’s coworker, to watch the night sky spectacle.

Corky and Norm, as first seen, are a sweetly quirky pair who have attempted to resolve whatever friction they have by self-help courses, tapes, and books. They’re so ultrasensitive to anything that one of them might perceive as a slight that whenever their radar detects a misstep they engage in a cutesy making up ritual. Also, Corky suffers from “exploding head syndrome,” which, when it acts up, causes enough pain to allow Schumer ample mugging opportunities. And, oh yes, her résumé includes having eaten a friend.
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 
Laura and Gerald are even more bizarre. He’s a flashy, bragging, know-it-all who speaks in perfectly enunciated, stentorian tones that sound like F. Murray Abraham on steroids. She, dressed in a form-fitting silk dress, is a drop-dead gorgeous vamp fully conscious of her obvious lusciousness.  

No good reason is provided for why Norm would invite a blatant creep like Norm over. And Laura and Gerald have ulterior motives, fuzzily explained, in being there. Regardless, as meteors occasionally flash across the background (thanks to lighting designer Natasha Katz), the sharply contrasting couples spend the evening in a series of ludicrously absurdist encounters, made even odder by their being repeated in different variations, with a worm-turns twist ending the proceedings.

With an anything-for-a-laugh incentive, Martin throws in jokes about penises, vaginas, and breasts, engages his characters in hetero and homo pairings, introduces drugs of both the injectable and snorted kind, keeps the drinks flowing, and allows a couple of meteor strikes to cause surrealistically ridiculous disasters that, based on your tolerance, you’ll find either annoyingly inane or (hint, hint) hilariously gut-busting. Some gleaming smiles arise from Corky and Norm’s handling of their relationship issues, like which partner in a hug should break off first—a device that offers a quality final curtain—but such moments are insufficient to rescue all those that expire before blazing across the cosmic skyscape.

Norm and Corky’s home, smartly designed by Beowulf Boritt, makes considerable use of a revolve to show both interior and exterior; the fashionable clothes are excellently realized by Ann Roth; and Fitz Patton provides an amusing sound design, which opens with Beethoven’s Fifth as we watch the meteor light show. Thus, in all design respects, the production displays a patina of luminous Broadway polish.

That polish, though, is dimmed not only by the innocuous script but by the exaggerated acting—Key being wrongdoer number one—which operates on the principle that more is more, removing even the barest semblance of believability. Of course, many theatergoers laugh loudly at these antics, which only encourages the actors to milk their shtick to the very last drop.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Meteor Shower would be more amusing if the silliness were performed straight, heightened just enough for comic effect, and not as if it were one of those old wild-and-crazy-guy sketches (which were just as broad but funnier than this play). Schumer and Benanti occasionally manage to do this, scoring some quality comic goals; in the end, though, even these marvelous talents get sucked up into the black hole of comedic overkill.

Despite its constellation of stars, Meteor Shower is light years away from further brightening the Great White Way.


Booth Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through January 21

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

129 (2017-2018): Review: SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY (seen December 10, 2017)

“More than Skin Deep”

Most of the actresses in Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play, about Ghanaian school girls and a beauty pageant, are not what you’d call conventionally beautiful but each finds the beauty in her character, helping make this MCC Theater offering one of the season’s most warmly endearing.
Nike Kadri, Nabiyah Be, Paige Gilbert, Mirirai Sithole. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Bioh, the daughter of Ghanaian parents who emigrated to America in the 60s, has written a perfectly suitable vehicle for a resoundingly talented ensemble that gets under the skin, so to speak, of seven teenagers at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, in the Aburi Mountains of central Ghana. That also happens to be where Bioh’s own mother—a self-confessed mean girl—went to school.

Bioh’s plot, set in 1986, is inspired both by her mother’s girlhood at this school and Ghana’s attempt to become the first West African country to have a contestant win the 2011 Miss Universe Pageant; the young woman in question, who didn’t place, was American-born, biracial, and of disputed Ghanaian heritage. The issue of “colorism” in African society, as Bioh calls it, was one of her main concerns in writing the play.
Abena Mesha-Bonsu, Mirirai Sithole, Paige Gilbert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Four of the girls are in thrall to Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo, sensational), leader of the pack and meanest of the mean:  there’s the Tweedledee-Tweedledum pair of Gifty (Paige Gilbert) and Mercy (Mirirai Sithole); Ama (Nike Kadri), tall, bespectacled, and nobody’s fool; and Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), overweight and so desperate to be part of the group she lets Paulina use and abuse her.
Maameyaa Boafu. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The seventh girl is Ericka (Nabiya Be, fabulous), a lovely, biracial, light-skinned girl raised in America; her father owns a local cocoa factory and family circumstances require her to finish school in Ghana. Immediately, the pack begins gravitating to the friendly, intriguingly appealing, won’t-take-guff stranger, and the domineering Paulina sees her position threatened.
Maameyaa Boafo, Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The stakes keep getting higher as the girls compete to be selected in a school pageant for the Miss Ghana competition, a prelude to what the play calls the Miss Global Universe Pageant. The judge is glamorous, dark-skinned, visiting alumna Eloise Amponsah (Zainab Jah, striking and true), Miss Ghana of 1966, onetime friend of the stern but motherly Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor, convincingly authoritative).
Myra Lucretia Taylor. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The growing enmity between the dark-skinned Paulina—whom everyone, especially Paulina herself, thinks has the title in the bag—and the light-skinned Ericka, whose potential Eloise immediately spots, leads to a strikingly dramatic confrontation during which the girls reveal far more about their personal circumstances than we might otherwise have realized. It’s one of the most gutsily acted scenes on any local stage.
Nabiya Be, Myra Lucretia Taylor. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Much of the play’s charm comes from the high-spirited girls’ naïveté about the world outside their mountain village, a world where New York’s Chinatown is considered a retail paradise and Wal-Mart and Conway are trendy boutiques. Worldly ignorance aside, these kids are no different from those you might see chattering away like chipmunks almost anywhere teenage girls of any color congregate.

With the action set entirely in the school’s cafeteria, realistically created in institutional green and beige by Arnulfo Maldonado and expertly lit by Jen Schriever to suggest the African heat, we’d expect other girls to be present, too. This isn’t a movie, though, so we just have to accept that everyone else is in class or outside playing while the action transpires.

Dede M. Ayite’s costumes make a potent contribution, ranging from the girls’ dullish green uniforms to Eloise’s eye-ensembles to the girls’ clumsily hopeful pageant gowns.

My super-progressive plus-one loved the play because he insisted it was intended as an indictment of capitalism, which, I suppose, could be read into it. Others will lean toward Bioh’s stated theme regarding preoccupations with skin color—even to the point of using dangerous bleaching cream—an issue significant beyond this West African setting. And others will ponder its concerns with female worries about body image, while the issue of physical beauty as the key to international success and wealth for poor young women will resonate as well.

It matters little that the situations are obviously old-hat, contrived, and manipulative; the African setting gives it a delightful twist, it’s written with much wit, and it’s so well-played by a first-rate cast, that you find yourself absorbed from its first words to its last. A huge hand must go to Tony Award-winning director Rebecca Taichman for making this play so theatrically spirited.

School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls play has some moments of bitterly divisive meanness but, with its plentiful laughs and tears, it’s also uplifting, unifying, and funny. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Hollywood producer weren’t already eyeing it for the screen.


School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through December 31