Thursday, August 17, 2017

55 (2017-2018): Review: VAN GOGH'S EAR (seen August 16, 2017)

“The Power to Create”

In the pantheon of famous ears—think, for example, Clark Gable, Mr. Spock, and Dumbo the Elephant—none are as notorious as the one that the mentally unstable Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, in 1888, partially self-amputated in a fit of madness. The event (whose generally accepted circumstances were disputed in a 2009 book) figures briefly in Van Gogh’s Ear, an artsy concert-cum-art exhibition-cum-drama by pianist Eve Wolf, executive artistic director of Ensemble for a Romantic Century.
Carter Hudson. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Wolf’s bio notes that ERC was founded by her in 2001 “with the mission of creating an innovative and dramatic concert format in which the emotions revealed in memoirs, letters, diaries, and literature are dramatically interwoven with music, thus bringing to life the sensations and passions of a bygone era.” This perfectly explains what she, director Donald Sanders, set and costume designer Vanessa James, lighting designer Beverly Emmons, and projection designer David Bengali are after in Van Gogh’s Ear. The results, however, are mixed.

Although musically marvelous and visually vibrant, Van Gogh’s Ear is dramatically dull. This might have be expected from a work whose spoken text is little more than a handful of the more than 650 letters written by van Gogh from Arles, in southern France, to his brother, Theo, a Paris art dealer. Without Theo’s financial support and encouragement, Vincent, who killed himself at 37, would have been lost much earlier.

Van Gogh’s Ear is inspired by the concept of synesthesia, which is both a neurological condition and an aesthetic theory in which, simply stated, one hears music in terms of colors; according to musicologist James Melo’s helpful program note, it’s possible that van Gogh was himself a synesthete. This allows us to view the eponymous ear as a metaphor.

To establish the connection between music and painting, Van Gogh’s Ear creates a multimedia experience on a stage that pictures a corner of van Gogh’s room at Arles at stage left, a neutral central space where an ensemble of musicians (piano and strings) sits, and, at stage right, Theo’s home; the latter is represented by a fireplace over whose mantel is a large frame in which various van Gogh paintings are digitally projected throughout the show’s overlong two hours.
Carter Hudson. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
The artist’s paintings are also projected on a canvas sitting near his Arles room, on the rear wall, and on three vertical pillars that continue along the floor as intersecting runners. A multitude of van Gogh images continues changing as the narrative progresses. Each letter is enacted by the bearded young actor Carter Hudson only to be followed by extended musical interludes selected from the music of contemporaneous composers, mostly Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré, with a smaller number from Ernest Chausson and César Franck.

The superb musicians are Henry Wang (violin), Yuval Herz (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Timotheos Petrin (cello), Max Barros (piano), and Renana Gutman (piano). For some reason, the men are dressed in white caftans and fez-like caps, suggesting Middle-Eastern Muslims; the best reason I could come up with is that they somehow allude to the Zouaves van Gogh encountered in Arles. In his paintings of them some wear similar caps but never caftans.
Carter Hudson, Renée Tatum. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
As Van Gogh speaks, we see other persons standing by silently relating to what’s being said. Most often it’s Theo (Chad Johnson), wearing a white linen suit, striking a variety of noble attitudes. Another is a buxom wench in 19th-century undergarments, Gabrielle Berlatier (Renée Tatum), the brothel maid (not prostitute, as played here) to whom van Gogh presented his ear (her identity was revealed only last year), and a third is the matronly Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (also Tatum), the woman Theo married. The only other speaking actor is Vincent’s physician, Dr. Peyron (Kevin Spirtas), who appears briefly as something of a dandy.

Theo, Gabrielle, and Johanna may not speak but they certainly do sing, gloriously, since Johnson and Tatum are both gifted opera artists. They perform art songs by Debussy, Fauré, and Chausson from the Romantic genre called mélodie, similar to German Lied, their French words projected in English subtitles over the fireplace. The densely lyrical poetry, filled with images of nature, contributes nothing to the narrative, serving principally as aesthetic reinforcement to the mood. If you find it bothersome to read the lyrics while also trying to watch and listen to the performers I recommend ignoring them and concentrating on the latter.
Chad Johnson, Carter Hudson. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Van Gogh’s letters are preoccupied with concerns about his art—colors, stars, images he imagined, and technique—as well as with his personal well-being: his health, teeth, diet, mental illness, poverty, loneliness, unhappiness, intimations of suicide, and even his name (which the locals couldn’t pronounce properly). He’s grateful for Theo’s help and is happy Theo named his new son after him.
Carter Hudson. Shirin Tinati.
Without our hearing any response from anyone else, though, we see little more than the artist’s suffering before he blows his brains out (offstage). Perhaps a more powerful performance by Carter Hudson might have made van Gogh’s suffering theatrically palpable enough to overcome the script’s dramatic inertia. But his blandly uninteresting portrayal only demonstrates the danger lurking in Wolf’s conception: if you’re seeking to capture the spirit of so vigorous a personality as Vincent van Gogh’s, then you need more than beautiful music and gorgeous projections on your palette; you need an actor who brings comparable colors to the canvas, someone you can fully believe in when he says he cannot do without “the power to create,” someone with, dare I say it, a lust for life. Too bad a young Kirk Douglas isn’t available.


Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 10

Sunday, August 6, 2017

52 (2017-2018): Review: A REAL BOY (seen August 4, 2017)

“Max Has Two Puppets”

Ever since the success of Leslie Newman’s 1989 children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, the “two mommies” and “two daddies” trope has become a common feature of politically correct discussions regarding children being raised by parents with unconventional sexual orientations. Although he doesn’t mention such antecedents, playwright Stephen Kaplan has noted that his play, A Real Boy, was inspired by his experiences as a gay dad wondering whether the non-gay world would blame him and his partner if their child turned out gay.

Jenn Remke, Alexander Bello. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Rather than look at the issue realistically, Kaplan dramatizes it through the metaphor of a five-year-old boy, Max (eight-year-old Alexander Bello, sweet but inaudible), who has been adopted by puppets. Max, a student in the kindergarten class of devoted teacher Miss Terry (Jenn Remke, convincingly sincere in an unconvincing role), begins to show signs of being different from his classmates when he insists on coloring his pictures in black and white instead of other colors. Disturbed, Terry arranges a conference with Max’s parents, represented by puppets depicted as “a typical, suburban, white family.”

Further complicating the play’s identity issues is that the black-garbed actors (unlike one of the accompanying photos) manipulating the one-third human size puppets are African American. Brian Michael plays Peter Myers, Max’s argumentative dad, and Jason Allan Kennedy George is Mary Ann, the boy’s reticent, sympathetic, and ambivalent mom. And, while I don’t know anything about George’s personal life, he gives the mother a transsexual twist, obviously in keeping with Kaplan’s requirement that the parents be “non-traditional.”
Jamie Geiger, Jenn Remke. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
All this trouble is taken to dramatize a situation that evolves when the parents take issue with Terry’s concerns. A major conflict erupts in which Principal Klaus (Jamie Geiger, appropriately flustered) gets involved, with the parents demanding that Max be moved to another class. Things get even more bizarre when Max starts growing strings, implying he’s becoming a puppet himself. (And yes, there’s a Pinocchio-related subplot as well.) Feeling the need to protect him, Terry takes Max hostage, keeping his parents at bay by using the classroom as a sanctuary.

Soon we have a battle royale between the parents and the educational system, with arguments swirling around issues of parental versus educators’ responsibility for the raising of children. Brought in to supplement the debate are two broadly pompous caricatures; one is a fancy lawyer named Jilly Lambert (Katie Braden), with an infant strapped to her chest, fighting to reclaim the “kidnapped” child; the other is a vociferous congresswoman (or, as she prefers, “congressperson”), Rebecca Landel (Danie Steel), supporting the teacher as someone representing “the backbone of our nation.”

Each seems more interested in exploiting the situation for their own aggrandizement than for what they claim to be advocating, a development that takes this already weird play into even more confusing waters. Director Audrey Alford allows them—especially the congressperson—to go over-the-top and the actresses are up to the task.
Jason Alan Kennedy George, Jamie Geiger. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Despite the presence of puppets and their handlers as principal characters, this really isn’t a puppet play; moreover, the puppets themselves (created by Puppet Kitchen Productions, Inc.), for all their articulation, are extremely klutzy. And, while Michael and George, the otherwise fine actors controlling them, speak their lines effectively, they aren’t particularly adept puppeteers.It doesn't take long before you forget the awkward puppets and focus on their handlers instead.

Working in the production’s cramped confines, they struggle to stay out of each other’s way without tangling their strings, a problem that becomes especially obvious when they perform in the constricted space at one side representing the Myers’s home, with its miniature table and appliances. Add another actor to these scenes and it’s like being on the Lexington Express at 6:00 p.m.
Brian Michael. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The rest of Ann Beyersdorfer’s set, with the audience sitting on two sides of it, represents a kindergarten classroom. My companion, however, a kindergarten and pre-K teacher for over 30 years, says kindergarten classrooms no longer look like this one, which more closely resembles pre-K.

Nevertheless, this is the least of A Real Boy’s problems. Those begin with an hour-and-50-minute, jumbled, overwritten script that clouds whatever issues it’s trying to address with so many fantastical and thinly satiric distractions that you’re never quite sure just what it wants to say, which arguments you should favor, or just what those arguments are.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through August 27

51 (2017-2018): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2017: SERIES B (seen August 3, 2017)

“Games People Play”

Series B, the second installment in 59E59’s annual summer season of short plays proves, overall, to be the weaker of the two one-act programs; on the other hand, in Neil LaBute’s “Break Point,” it contains the best play in either series.

The same neutral unit set used in Series A serves just as well for Series B. Designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, and creatively lit by Greg Macpherson, it’s little more than an attractive three-wall background of translucent, wood-trimmed, sliding panels; with selective furnishings, it conjures up a pastor’s office, a living room, and what the playwright calls “a lawn” but, with its two low benches, could be anywhere the audience imagines.

As in Series A, the plays, whose running time totals 90 intermissionless minutes, have only the most tenuous of links. My review for Series A tied the plays together under the rubric, “Death, God, and the Sexes.” Here I’m going with “Games People Play” because in each piece one side is trying to manipulate the other in order to reach a desired goal. In the LaBute piece, the transaction involves an actual game, tennis.
Jennifer Ikeda, Mark Boyett. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Chris Cragin-Day’s two-hander, “A Woman,” opens the bill, with an attractive woman, Kim (Jennifer Ikeda), meeting with Cliff (Mark Boyett), the relatively youthful new pastor of her Presbyterian congregation. Kim, married and a mother, has been summoned because when asked to nominate someone as a church elder she submitted “a woman.”

This leads to a friendly debate in which Cliff explains why it’s impossible under the existing church rules for a woman to hold this position. Kim, a pious Christian who’s made the same request every year for a decade, responds with standard feminist arguments. The pastor scores a point when he says her request might go further if she were to name an actual person; you don’t need a crystal ball to predict the game’s outcome.
Jennifer Ikeda, Mark Boyett. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Cliff and Kim appear to once have had a flirtation, so their banter is casual enough to include off-color language one might not expect to hear in a pastor’s office. Other than that, “A Woman” is mild stuff, the issues are treated superficially, there are a few gentle laughs, the acting—under the direction of Kel Haney—is low-keyed and polite, and you begin hoping for a bigger score in the second play.

That one, “Wedding Bash,” by Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds,” takes comic pot shots at the growing popularity of destination weddings. Those, of course, are the ones requiring invitees to pay their own fare to and accommodations at some out of the way location; as suggested here, with tongue deeply in cheek (one hopes), they may even have to cough up six bucks for a burrito from the “burrito truck.”  
Andy Powers, Donovan Mitchell, Rachel Napoleon, Georgia Ximenes Lifsher. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
Newlyweds Lonny (Donovan Mitchell) and Donna (Rachel Napoleon) think their recent destination wedding in Sedona, CA, was the best ever (“I mean, those rocks!”) and are hungry for raves about it. When friends Alan (Andy Powers) and the very pregnant Edi (Georgia Ximenes Lifsher) pay a post-Sedona visit to Lonny and Donna’s home, they quickly realize they share a completely opposite opinion about the nuptials, from the money it cost them, to the hotel, alcoholic provisions, and so on. What they feel, of course, slips out, with the expected results, and Alan, who’s particularly disturbed by his $1,300 outlay, finds a way to tally a payback victory.
Donovan Mitchell, Rachel Napoleon, Georgia Ximenes Lifsher. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
(Question: There’s a notable bit where Alan brags about how his hair is so thick because of steroid injections. Yet the actor’s hair is very thin. Since Alan is otherwise not particularly obtuse, are we supposed to laugh at what we might perceive as his vanity or is the actor simply [in this regard] miscast?)

Like Series A’s “Playing God,” “Wedding Bash” is precisely the kind of stuff “SNL” revels in, from its clichéd jokes about undesirable wedding gifts to its bashing of the wedding to its detour into farce. J.J. Kandel’s direction squeezes the moderately comedic cast for a few good yocks but this is essentially a throwaway sketch that puts the pressure on the third and final piece to put some numbers on the board.
John Garrett Greer, Keilyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Happily, it does just that in Neil LaBute’s “Break Point,” a piece of classic LaBute cynicism satirizing male competitive ambition in the persons of two tennis champions, one of them among the world’s greatest, the other talented but far less noteworthy or wealthy. LaBute, who also directed, calls them Stan (Keilyn Durrel Jones) and Oliver (John Garrett Greer), but don’t expect Laurel and Hardy.
John Garrett Greer, Keilyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Oliver, a star who’s won 19 majors and has a humongous bank account to show for it, wants Stan, whom he’s known since they were kids at tennis camp and against whom he’s about to compete in the French Opens, to throw the match. Desperate for the “big round number” of 20 wins, and unsure if he can beat Stan, Oliver uses all his offensive (in both senses of the word) wiles to convince Stan to accept a substantial payoff for tanking; Stan puts his crafty game face on to suss out his rival’s weaknesses.

The ethical and psychological issues underlying the sharply authentic-sounding comic dialogue are volleyed with verbal backhand smashes and biting underhand serves, especially as performed with expert timing by Greer and Jones. The former precisely captures Oliver’s nervous desperation, while Jones offers a perfect counterbalance in the subtleties of Stan’s responses.
Keilyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The press script, by the way, contains a delightfully ironic curtain speech by Stan that’s been cut from the performance, perhaps because it was deemed to be gilding the lily. The play does well enough without it but that speech had its points.

This referee scores 55 for “A Woman”; 55 for “Wedding Bash”; 90 for “Break Point. 


59E59 Theaters/Theater B

59 E. 59 St., NYC

Through September 2

Sunday, July 30, 2017

48 (2017-2018): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2017: SERIES A (seen July 26, 2017)

"Death, God, and the Sexes"

The traditional “one-act” play, the kind that runs 20 minutes to a half hour, as opposed to the increasingly common variety that can last as long as two intermissionless hours, gets only rare exposure on New York’s main stages. Thanks, however, to 59E59 Theatres, local theatergoers have an annual opportunity to indulge in a half-dozen of these “short plays,” produced in two three-play programs designated as Summer Shorts: Series A and Series B.

These constitute the 11th season of 59E59’s “Festival of New American Short Plays,” founded by actor J.J. Kandel, the producing artistic director. He can be seen in a brief, pre-show documentary performing in “10K,” a Neil LaBute play from the 2015 Summer Shorts, as part of a project to film these plays by the Stage and Screen Initiative.

My general reaction to the previous five seasons of Summer Shorts has been on the tepid side, few, if any, of the offerings rising to an A-grade level. This year’s Series A, though, is a vast improvement, its plays including Melissa Ross’s “Jack,” a bittersweet, park-bench comedy about a recently divorced couple mourning a pet’s death; Alan Zweibel’s “Playing God,” a familiar farce about God coming to earth to teach someone a lesson; and Graham Moore’s “Acolyte,” an intellectually engaging drawing-room sex comedy satirizing the ideas of Ayn Rand. I’d grade them B+ for “Jack,” B-/C+ for “Playing God,” and A for “Acolyte.”

Providing a suitably neutral background for the evening is Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s box set of white walls accented by wooden strips, with Greg MacPherson’s repertory lighting scheme flexible enough to serve each play appropriately. Amy Sutton’s costumes are fine, while Nicholas Hussung’s projections and Nick Moore’s sound design serve each show well.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Karpen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“Jack” features George (Quincy Dunn-Baker, think Oscar Isaac) and Maggie (Claire Karpen, think Mary-Louise Parker), an attractive, recently divorced, late-30s couple meeting at the inevitable bench, this one near the dog run in a city park. Something sad has happened to Jack, their dog, and the bereaved Maggie is upset that, as per their legal agreement, George didn’t call her to let her know about it until it was too late. This precipitates a back-and-forth during which they squabble while also revealing their still underlying feelings for each other as, bit by bit, the details of Jack’s story are revealed and the consequences discussed.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Karpen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ross reveals an assured talent for sustaining interest in an essentially banal situation by how effectively she withholds information, letting it leak out in a sequence of amusingly endearing moments that offer unexpected touches and help both to bring George and Maggie together and push them apart. Much of the credit goes to the beautifully calibrated direction of Mimi O’Donnell, who extracts just the right tones of anger, recrimination, and guilt still burbling in the hearts of its protagonists. Dunn-Baker is appealingly frustrated in his attempts to explain himself, while Karpen embodies his high-strung ex with charming exasperation.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Karpen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
At times, though, there’s a feeling that perhaps, in order to keep the play’s engine running, Maggie’s reactions go a tad too far. Also, given the play’s structural consistency, its conclusion is anticlimactic; that is, there’ve been so many expository surprises, the lack of a final one is disappointing. Everything’s so smoothly carried off, though, with humor and pathos, that these glitches seem relatively minor.
Dana Watkins, Flora Ruiz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
My first impression of “Playing God” was that it’s like a highly polished “Saturday Night Live” sketch; only later did I discover that playwright Zweibel is an original SNL writer (not to mention for such other programs as “The Garry Shandling Show” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). If you’re familiar with movies based on God being comically human, like the Oh, God! series starring George Burns, Bruce Almighty with Morgan Freeman, or even A Little Bit of Heaven with Whoopi Goldberg, you’ll have a fair idea of why Zweibel’s concept is so unsurprising.
Bill Buell, Dana Watkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In “Playing God” the title character is acted in robe and sandals by white-haired Bill Buell, whose eye bags are so prominent they must be bearing the burden of God’s big job. Dr. Scott Fisher (Dana Watkins), a smug obstetrician, decides to induce labor in a pregnant patient (Flora Diaz) earlier than she expected so he can go on a skiing trip. Learning this, God gets upset about mankind presuming to take godly matters into their own hands. Disregarding the opposition of his wryly skeptical assistant (Welker White), God visits the atheistic doctor and, using his heavenly powers, happily squashes him at a game of squash, then finishes him off in a way guaranteed to keep his patients at bay.
Bill Buell, Welker White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Zweibel rings the concept for some worthy laughs, as, doubtless will other writers yet to come, but the formula of a comically irritated God teaching a faithless mortal a lesson is too familiar to warrant yet another go round. Luckily, Maria Mileaf’s lighthearted direction, Buell’s mischievous deity, Watkins’s egotistical physician, and White’s sarcastic assistant help the piece go down smoothly.

The most interesting play, “Acolyte,” by Graham Moore, bestselling novelist (The Last Days of Night) and Academy Award-winning screenwriter (The Imitation Game), takes on the daunting challenge of creating a half-hour play set at a small gathering in famed author and thinker Ayn Rand’s W. 36th Street apartment on November 6, 1954.
Sam Lilja, Orlagh Cassidy, Brontë England-Nelson, Ted Koch. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Rand, the heavily-accented, Russian-born screenwriter and novelist most famous for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is still revered by many who believe in her anti-religious dogma of reason over emotion and dependence on self over others, among them Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and a number of entrepreneurial big shots. She herself can be seen explaining her theories of Objectivism in a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, worth watching if you see this play in which Orlagh Cassidy (a dead ringer, apart from the actress’s better teeth) is perfectly cast as the cool, calculating, and controlling philosopher.
Orlagh Cassidy, Brontë England-Nelson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Remaining at Rand’s apartment after she’s concluded a lecture to her followers are the 49-year-old Rand herself; her booze-loving, undereducated, 57-year-old husband, Frank O’Connor (Ted Koch); and another married couple, Nathaniel (Sam Lilja) and Barbara Branden (Brontë England-Nelson), 24 and 25, respectively. Both are Rand acolytes, Barbara being a grad student in philosophy. During the course of the evening the foursome discuss Rand’s controversial concepts, especially those relating to sexual relations, leading to dynamic confrontations when those concepts are put to the test.

Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, the latter having written the first biography of Rand, were well-known intellectuals and the situation in the play is based on their actual romantic/sexual associations with the philosopher. This material previously was dramatized in the 1999 movie The Passion of Ayn Rand, based on one of Branden’s books, starring Helen Mirren as Rand and Julie Delpy as Barbara.
Orlagh Cassidy, Brontë England-Nelson. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Moore does an excellent job of crafting an engrossing discussion drama exploring Rand’s provocative notions, keeping us involved even during a philosophical argument sparked by Barbara’s asking, “Does Aristotelian epistemology correct the problem of universals in Platonic realism?”

Director Alexander Dinelaris (Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Birdman) and his actors—especially Cassidy and England-Nelson—make the dialogue both accessible and compelling, with some really sharp give and take between Barbara and Ayn. “Acolyte” would be well worth seeing, even without the lighter fare preceding it.

With them, though, audiences will find that this edition of Summer Shorts provides a well-balanced, excellently acted and directed 90-minute destination for a summer night in Manhattan.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 2