Friday, November 9, 2018

118 (2018-2019): Review: DAYS OF RAGE (seen November 8, 2018)

“Power to the People”

As I’ve previously noted, Days of Rage, Steven Levenson’s (Dear Evan Hansen) play about a cell of antiwar radicals in 1969, is the third leg in the accidental trilogy of thematically related plays about late 60s political activism I viewed this week. The first, Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade, is a documentary-style biodrama about Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign; the second, Gloria: A Life, about feminist icon Gloria Steinem, is also a biographical docudrama; while Days of Rage, briskly staged by Trip Cullman, is a conventional play about fictional characters within the very real circumstances of contemporary activity. 
Set in October 1969, the year of Woodstock and the My Lai massacre, it introduces three college-age militants, a man, Spence (Mike Faist). and two women, Jenny (Lauren Patten) and Quinn (Odessa Young), living together in a ramshackle house in an upstate New York college town. Gritty, grungy, and graffiti-covered, with fading old wallpaper, Louisa Thompson’s realistically detailed dollhouse set—beautifully lit by Tyler Micoleau—shows two upstairs bedrooms, and a downstairs living room, decorated with a Vietcong flag. Exterior scenes are played in front of the big set, which rolls forward for more intimate views. 
The inhabitants are struggling to pay their expenses while also trying to raise money for what they believe will be a massive protest opposing war, racism, and imperialism, “In solidarity with the Chicago 8” (a.k.a. the Chicago 7). Midway through, their cell is increased in the person of the wealthy, gun-toting Peggy (Tavi Gevinson), who brings to mind Patty Hearst. Another perspective is provided by Hal (J. Alphonse J. Nicholson), the well-dressed (by Paloma Young)—apart from his cuffs being a bit too short—black man who works at Sears and whose brother is serving in Vietnam. 
Days of Rage takes its name from the Chicago protests that followed soon after the play proper concludes (there’s an arguably unnecessary epilogue). Levenson mixes history with fiction, and not everything you might expect is reported. SDS, PLP, and the Black Panthers are mentioned, for example, but not the Weathermen. The playwright’s intention is mainly to dramatize the behavior, thoughts, and interactions of young people caught up in the ferocity of their political goals. 
Their leftwing ideology has driven them to believe only a revolution to overthrow the government can solve the nation’s problems. This was when so many Americans, usually from the lower part of the socio-economic scale, were being shipped off to fight what vast swaths of their contemporaries believed an unjust war. 
So, to the occasional rock music constituting Darron L West’s period-setting sound score, we have these pot-smoking kids citing Lenin and Engels as they try to live “collectively” by abandoning patriarchal structures, dismissing monogamous sexual relationships, and acting only when everyone consents, as per discussions and votes. Anyone who breaks the party line must be subjected to corrective instruction. 
A considerable amount of comedy, of course, emerges from the difficulty these middle-class young people face in giving up their individualism (and jealousies) in the interests of the commune. But comedy can quickly turn serious, given the potential danger of work in which every newcomer, no matter how seemingly benign, represents a threat. Paranoia is practically a state of being.

I was a young professor at the time but, aside from when my younger brother was arrested at an SDS sit-in, was too preoccupied with my family and career to indulge in activism. Watching the kids in Days of Rage behave as naively as they do, regardless of the sincerity of their beliefs, made me feel that Levenson, too young to have been around in 1969, had conjured up an ersatz, even tongue-in-cheek, vision of clueless, counter-cultural revolutionaries.

My plus-one, though, someone I’ve known since our college days, had a considerably different take. He’s a playwright-director (and former critic) with left-wing positions he continues to express, and was himself an activist who lived communally, much like the characters in the play. His many contributions included raising money for the Panthers and participation in mass demonstrations. (He was connected to groups like the Living Theatre.)

After the play, when I hinted at my hesitations regarding the veracity of what we’d seen, he couldn’t refrain from an emotional outpouring of how precisely accurate (regardless of this or that fact) everything in it is.

This morning, on the phone, he was even more animated, talking about how each character was distinct and like someone he’d known; how the dialogue perfectly mirrored the things people said; how the issues discussed were like what he and his friends talked about; how the characters’ sexual and other personal behavior reminded him of what he’d experienced, and so on. In the face of this onslaught from such a knowledgeable witness I was forced to submit.

I enjoyed Days of Rage and thought it generally well performed but still had several reservations. Those, however, have now been consigned to the dustbin of my fading memory and I sign off by recommending the play via the fervent acclimation of my friend, still radical after all these years.


Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through November 25

Thursday, November 8, 2018

117 (2018-2019): Review: KENNEDY: BOBBY'S LAST CRUSADE (seen November 5, 2018)

"Bobby for Prez"

For my review of Kennedy: Bobby's Last Crusade please click on THEATER LIFE.

116 (2018-2019): Review: BEAUTIFUL DAY WITHOUT YOU (seen November 7, 2018)

“Not Such a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Origin Theatre Company, founded in 2002, prides itself on being “the ONLY Theatre company in New York dedicated solely to producing American or New York premieres from Europe.” For 11 years, the company also has presented Irish plays at a city-wide festival called Origin’s 1st Irish Ireland Month.

Dan Butler, Richarda Abrams. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Their latest endeavor, a world premiere, was commissioned from multilingual, award-winning Italian playwright-actor-director Marco Calvani. Beautiful Day Without You, his first play written in English, proves his linguistic fluency, vulgarities included, but I’m taking a raincheck regarding his playwriting abilities.
Richarda Abrams, Dan Butler. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Calvani’s program note tells us Beautiful Day demonstrates the need to break down the barriers between people, especially in our notably divisive times. Unfortunately, the play’s fuzzy writing, overabundance of topical subjects, and confusing production succeed more in throwing up new barriers than bringing down the old ones. Moreover, by setting the play in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, with his three characters all being Americans of different ethnicities—mixed European, African-American, and Asian—his play has nothing notably European, much less Italian, about it.
Anne Son, Dan Butler. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Following an inexplicable opening in which director Erwin Maas has the actors running in place at top speed (a non-helpful device he repeats at the end), we see what happens after Janet Blount (Richard Abrams), a middle-aged, black nurse, rushes hysterically into the living room of the obnoxious Bob Sacco (the nearly as obnoxious Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe of TV’s “Frasier”). Shouting at the top her lungs, she accuses Bob’s Doberman, Blaze, of killing her little dog, Pippi. This sets up the appearance of animal control officer Rachel Huang (Anne Son), a lesbian, assigned to investigate the case and arrange for its legal outcome.
Dan Butler, Richarda Abrams. Photo: Deen van Meer.
The dialogue exposes us to racism, homophobia, addiction, same-sex marriage, revenge, atheistic blasphemy, animal welfare, memory loss, and so on. But the characters are so superficial and the treatment of these issues so commonplace they seem like dramatic garnish than matters of serious concern.
Anne Son. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Calvani threads many of them them through the hateful comments Bob continuously screams at Janet and Rachel, as he complains about the death of his wife, Rose, and the neighborhood’s drug and crime infestation. But there’s also Rachel’s obsession about finding the dealer who sold drugs to her wife; Bob’s succumbing to a stroke; the churchgoing Janet’s ministering to him as she strives to express Christian forgiveness; Bob’s begging Janet to kill him; and, feeblest of all, Bob’s clumsy attempts at poetry expressing his love for Rose.
Dan Butler, Anne Son. Photo: Deen van Meer.
The chief locales are Bob’s grungy townhouse residence and a yard in the nearby “projects,” where Janet lives. Calvini’s script suggests a realistic set, at least for Bob’s deteriorating environment. Oddly, however, director Erwin Maas, in collaboration with set, lighting, and costume designer Guy De Lancey, instead drapes not only the stage floor (whose wavy surface the shoeless actors must navigate with care) and its few furnishings—chiefly a couch and a bench—in white cloth, but the entire auditorium, seats and floor. It almost feels like the characters in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard will soon be arriving to yank off the dust covers as they repopulate the estate.
Anne Son, Dan Butler. :Photo: Deen van Meer.
This minimalist approach, lacking even projections on the black, blank, upstage wall, seems to be one of Maas’s directorial tics; although he left the auditorium alone, he used similarly empty designs for Poison and The Hundred We Are. Given the naturalism of the performances in Beautiful Day, the non-realistic setting becomes a distraction, its purpose being unclear, and the locales not always being clearly distinguishable. Moreover, the lack of specificity in the environment robs the action of atmospherics that might otherwise support its emotional values. What happens in Beautiful Day is essentially realistic; it’s not theatre.
Anne Son, Richarda Abrams, Dan Butler. Photo: Deen van Meer.
De Lancey’s other contributions are similarly problematic. The “uniform” he provides Rachel, a brown outfit of matching slacks and jacket, looks more like a fashionable ensemble tailored to the actress’s elegantly trim proportions than anything official. When she removes the jacket, she reveals a beautifully fitted white blouse. And, with lighting on such an abstract set being so important, one wonders why some scenes are so dull, with actors’ faces needing more heightening.
Butler, incessantly spouting curmudgeonly nastiness, rarely achieves Bob’s potentially comedic goals and is too irritatingly unsympathetic to gain sympathy for this wounded man. Huang, her considerable beauty unnecessarily enhanced by too much makeup, plays many of Rachel’s scenes facing front and fidgeting with her clothes, as if hoping her looks might somehow make her more convincing. And, while Janet is also too artificial, Abrams comes closest to creating a recognizable human being in her portrayal.
Yesterday was indeed beautiful but the same can’t be said of A Beautiful Day Without You.


West End Theatre
263 W. 86th St., NYC
Through November 25

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

115 (2018-2019): GLORIA: A LIFE (seen November 6, 2018)

“Women for Peace and Equality”

Whatever it is with late 60s political activism, it seems like the local theatre scene can’t get enough of it. On Monday, I saw Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade, a one-man biodrama (opening November 8) about Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968; next, I viewed Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life, another biodrama, this one chronicling the career of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who came to national prominence in 1969; and later this week I’m booked for Days of Rage, about three young radicals in 1969 planning to take revolutionary action. 

I can’t yet speak of Days of Rage but both Kennedy and Gloria accomplish more as educational reminders of their titular characters’ ideas and achievements than they do as compelling dramas. 

Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Seeing Kennedy on Election Eve was a bit distressing, with its depiction of a potential POTUS whose charm, eloquence, and liberal positions stand in such stark contrast to our current president. But even more immediately electric in our #MeToo moment was seeing Gloria’s story of the rise of modern feminism unfold on Election Night itself in the spacious Daryl Roth Theatre, impressively arranged by designer Amy Rubin in arena style, with an audience of perhaps 90 percent women. I’m sure many watched with their focus split between the show and the voting. One can only imagine their elation afterward to learn of the record-breaking number of women, many of them people of color, elected to important positions.

Christine Lahti, Joanna Glushak. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Stage and screen star Christine Lahti, herself a notable feminist, is perfect casting for Steinem. The 68-year-old is every inch (actually a bit more than the original) the tall, still sleekly slim 84-year-old journalist, lecturer, activist, and organizer. You may remember that, early in her career, Steinem gained great notoriety for going undercover as a Playboy bunny to expose the working conditions of that profession. Regarding her famously attractive looks, click here for what she said at 83.
Company of Gloria: A Life. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jessica Jahn has accentuated Lahti’s low bodyfat ratio by dressing her in heels, formfitting black tunic and slacks, a Native American-style belt of large, linked, silver buckles, and a wig matching Steinem’s hairdresser-heightened color. Of course, those memorable Steinem aviator sunglasses get their moment in the sun.
Christine Lahti, DeLanna Studi, Liz Wisan, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mann’s script has been composed as what is, at its heart, a one-woman show, supplemented by a six-woman ensemble. Under Diane Paulus’s brightly tempoed direction, it rambles through the years, on a stage laid with Oriental rugs and a few props, flashing back to Steinem’s girlhood and family life, her college days (at Smith), and her rise to fame in the late 60s. Among the central situations is Steinem’s creation of MS. Magazine, which had such a surprisingly successful impact, despite the scoffers, that it made Ms. (which already existed) almost universal as the title for both married and unmarried women.  
Joanna Glushak, Christine Lahti, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As the years go by, the principal feminist issues of the day (abortion a major one), as well as personal ones, are reflected both in the action and in excellent stills and video sequences created by Elaine J. McCarthy and projected simultaneously on opposite walls of the arena’s cushioned bleachers. A large number of other women who contributed importantly to modern feminism are thus honored.
Patrena Murray, Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The versatile, physically and racially diverse ensemble—Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan—plays multiple roles, changing costumes partly or entirely, to represent (often too broadly) many people, including men, in Steinem’s life. Most colorful, on stage as in life, is Bella Abzug, played with Abzugian flamboyance by Joanna Glushak.
Joanna Glushak, Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all its historical interest, and its red-hot relevance to those invested in the ongoing women’s movement, Gloria: A Life is more a docudrama than a drama, a history lesson about a fascinating, important, still living woman. Steinem has certainly faced hardships in her life, as with her psychologically troubled mother or the loss after only three years of the man (David Bale) she married at age 66 only to lose him to brain lymphoma three years later. There are moments of sadness, moments of triumph, and moments of laughter, but little dramatic tension.
Christine Lahti, Fedna Jacquet. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When the final line is spoken, a brief amount of time passes before a second act begins. This, though, is in the form of a talkback, with the cast spread about the space, Lahti at center, and mics made available for audience members to provide their personal responses to the feminist issues on display. Several speakers when I attended offered interesting, even touching comments, the best coming from a remarkably articulate girl who couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12.
Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Christine Lahti, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, Liz Wisan. Photo: Joan Marcus,.
 Gloria: a Life is like a sermon to the choir—uplifting, informative, and excellently delivered—but, after an intermissionless hour and a half, not entirely lacking in dullness.
Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.


Daryl Roth Theatre
103 E. 15th Street, NYC
Through January 27

Monday, November 5, 2018

114 (2018-2019): Review: THE THANKSGIVING PLAY (seen October 31, 2018)

"No Turkey, Please, We're Pilgrims”

At this very moment in 2018, there are many schools across the US where children are preparing projects, including plays, depicting the traditional story of Thanksgiving. That story, of course, would feature pilgrims (historically, Separatists) and Indians (now American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, or simply indigenous peoples) in 1621, feasting together in peace—probably on an historically inaccurate turkey and stuffing—to celebrate a bountiful harvest following a year of devastating hardship. 

In The Thanksgiving Play, an endearingly funny, considerably educational, satirical farce by Larissa FastHorse, who identifies as an indigenous person, we get a drumstick-in-cheek lesson about just how problematic that story is. Originally produced at the Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland, OR, it’s now at Playwrights Horizons. 
Margot Seibert, Jennifer Bareilles, Greg Keller, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In a program note, FastHorse describes the familiar account of the early interactions of white settlers and indigenous peoples as a lie: “That which was recorded and reproduced was usually an intentional choice to support governmental policies of manifest destiny and genocide to make America larger, wealthier, and great.”
Margot Seibert, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Joan Marcus.

This is serious stuff, capable of inspiring reams of historical, political, anthropological, and ethnographic discourse. However, FastHorse pulls off the remarkable feat of expressing her dismay at the distortions by ridiculing them mercilessly while simultaneously making hilarious fun of political correctness. Plays by Native Americans are rarities on the New York stage. Hopefully, The Thanksgiving Play will open the door for others.
Margot Seibert, Jennifer Bareilles. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The setting is a conventional classroom (precisely designed by Wilson Chin and lit by Isabella Byrd); in it are four theatre artists—a director and three actors—joined to create a politically correct play about Thanksgiving. The frantically optimistic director, Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), is a high school drama teacher who’s received a grant with which she wants to produce a 45-minute work of “devised theatre,” in other words, one created improvisationally in collaboration with her cast. 
Margot Seibert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The actors, all white (and all so comically perfect I won’t say anything further about them), are her slacker boyfriend, Jaxton (Greg Keller, Belleville), a second-rate street performer, yoga practitioner, and obsessive PC advocate; Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a middle-aged elementary school teacher and aspiring playwright, who uses picture books to teach the others about Thanksgiving; and Alicia (Margo Seibert, Rocky), a gorgeous actress whose guileless simplicity appealingly combines talent, ego, and ignorance. 

Alicia was hired mainly because Logan, whose grant depends on her hiring a Native American, saw a headshot depicting her in indigenous guise and assumed that was her ethnicity. When Logan, despairing, learns of her mistake, Alicia responds: “Whatever, it's theater.  We don't need actual Native Americans to tell a Native American story.  I mean, none of us are actual Pilgrims are we?”
Jennifer Bareilles, Greg Keller. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Alicia’s heritage and colorblind casting in general thus join the many PC-related topics with which FastHorse stuffs her theatrical bird. Among these are veganism, yoga, feminine hotness, the commodification of sex, gender sensitivity, coded language, historical inaccuracy, public school prayers, meditation, female empowerment, white privilege, racial labels, and post-racialism.

Laughs are also generated at the expense of street theatre, improvisation, acting as a career, and rehearsal practices. Much of the humor stems from the characters’ well-meaning but comedically oversensitive tiptoeing around saying or doing anything inappropriate.
Jennifer Bareilles, Margot Seibert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
At several points, the cast drops character to don Tilly Grimes’s costumes in clever interludes representing variant Thanksgiving scenarios. The prologue, for example, begins with the actors lined up as three pilgrims and a turkey, singing, to the tune of “On the Twelve Days of Christmas” about the nine days of Thanksgiving. Another employs body puppets (also by Grimes) attached to the actors, whose own faces remain exposed, and in yet another the actors assume rebellious hip-hop attitudes.
Greg Keller, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Logan eventually has a brainstorm about the best way to dramatize Thanksgiving, one I’ll leave for you to discover. However—given how hard it is tell the story without offending someone—it couldn’t be more pointedly elegant.
Jennifer Bareilles, Greg Keller, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Bernhardt/Hamlet) pulls these bits off just as effectively as he does the play’s fast-paced comedy, straight-faced cluelessness, and farcical mayhem, including football played—Ugh! (in more ways than one)—with a pair of bloody heads. 
Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One comes away from The Thanksgiving Play feeling it’s impossible to dramatize controversial historical events in a way that will satisfy everyone. And why, for example, is the story of Thanksgiving automatically better because told by a Native American, even if it uses facts hitherto unexpressed? How much of a story’s power is lost if equity takes precedence over drama? And is even-handedness actually possible? That’s why Logan’s seemingly outlandish solution—sardonic as it may be—is so thoughtful.
Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, Margot Seibert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In the real world, theatregoers will be thankful for Larissa FastHorse’s having exploded and explored the Thanksgiving story through satire both broad and subtle. The Thanksgiving Play deserves some thanksgiving of its own.


Playwrights Horizons/Peter J. Sharp Theatre
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 25