Monday, October 18, 2021

7. THE LEHMAN TRILOGY (seen on October 16, 2021)

 "Money Makes the World Go Round, The World Go Round . . . "

For my review of The Lehman Trilogy please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

6. CHICKEN AND BISCUITS (seen October 13, 2021)

"Hold the Potatoes"

Norm Lewis, Cleo King. (Photos: Emilio Madrid.)
If Chicken and Biscuits, Douglas Lyons’s new play at the Circle in the Square, were a potato, it would make a potential side dish for the food mentioned in the title. After all, it mashes together a panoply of different styles, including family comedy, zany farce, domestic melodrama, and even revivalist singing, smothering them in heavy acting gravy. Sadly, these mashed methods aren’t so easy to swallow.

Michael Urie, Devere Rogers.

Originally seen in 2020 at the Queens Theatre, Queens, NY, Chicken and Biscuits is a raucous funeral comedy about an African-American family. Some theatregoers were in stitches; others, myself included, squirmed in their britches.  

Aigner Mizzelle, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Alana Raquel Bowers.

Friendly, warmhearted, and schmaltzy, the play—vigorously staged by Zhailon Levingston—never makes up its mind as to just what it wants to be. It spends the first half of its intermissionless 110 minutes establishing its clichéd characters with broadly painted strokes before anything one might call an “inciting incident” occurs. At that point, it suddenly introduces a new character whose catalytic presence blows the situation sky high before the pieces manage to fall back to earth in neatly packaged, feel-good resolutions.

Cleo King (like many in the cast, making an impressive Broadway debut) and the always reliable Norm Lewis (Broadway’s first African-American Phantom in Phantom of the Opera) play the middle-aged matriarch Baneatta Mabry and her preacher husband Reginald. When we first see this lovingly bantering couple they’re preparing to attend the funeral of Baneatta’s preacher father, Bernard Jenkins. Reggie has succeeded to his father-in-law’s position at St. Luke’s church in New Haven, CT, where the funeral is about to take place.

Accordingly, Lawrence E. Moten III’s set—brightly lit by Adam Honoré—turns the Circle’s three-quarters round configuration into a church interior, including stained-glass images on the surrounding walls, with movable pews that help divide the space into multiple locales. The churchy atmosphere is enhanced by Dede Ayite’s lively costumes, including the ladies’ memorable millinery.

As per the formula for funeral plays, film, and TV shows (like, for example, 2007’s Death at a Funeral, also about a Black family), those most closely associated with the deceased gather closely together to say their farewells. Volatile family chemicals in such proximity can be explosive, of course; as expected, the expected detonation eventually occurs.

Among the array of heightened characters is Baneatta’s sass-spouting, bra-busting sister, Beverly (Ebony Marshall Oliver, a force of nature). A fitter-than-a-fiddle peacock in black spikes, sequined dress, and jacket, she colors her multi-patterned hair a dazzling turquoise (and other eye-catching hues). We soon see the tension between the self-consciously outrageous Beverly—who pushes the envelope the way her bra pushes up her puppies (as she calls them)—and her upright church lady sister, indignant about Beverly flaunting her “titties” so openly. This becomes one of several running jokes.

The sibling conflict between Beverly and Baneatta is balanced by the discomfort felt by Baneatta’s gay actor son, Kenny (Devere Rogers), about coming out to his family. (Haven’t we seen this play before?) This, despite Kenny’s being there with his lover, Logan Leibowitz (Michael Urie, increasingly typecast as a needy gay guy), white and Jewish. In a particularly tired running joke, no one can properly remember the name Logan: Lamar, Loofah, and Lucas are among those proffered. Only the audience, perhaps, has any trouble with Baneatta or La’ Trice.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers, Cleo King.

La' Trice (the ultra-animated Aigner Mizzelle) is Beverly’s fifteen-year-old daughter, an aspiring songstress-song writer, as extreme in her own overstated teen fashionista way and manners as her flamboyant mom. Then there’s the Mabrys’ somewhat more subdued daughter, Simone (the grounded Alana Raquel Bowers), Kenny’s sister, nursing her own private wounds, who objects to Kenny’s dalliance with a white man. Finally, we meet Brianna (NaTasha Yvette Williams, solid), the surprise visitor who finally gets the plot moving. I’ll avoid disclosing her connection, although it’s just another part of the formula.

Chicken and Biscuits takes pleasure in its own cartoonishness, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall to take the audience into its world (we’re presumed, when necessary, to be part of the funeral attendees). This wouldn’t be so bad if the material were funnier, or if the acting—polished as the performers are—weren’t trying so hard to make us laugh. For farce to work, you need more than energy and sheer determination. You have to be credible, and that, despite the obvious talent present, doesn’t happen enough in Chicken and Biscuits.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers.

The play does sometimes veer, oddly, into the realm of believability. For instance, most of the characters are asked to deliver a three-minute eulogy of the departed. For perhaps fifteen minutes you hear just the kind of sincere memories, with occasional comic flavoring, as you’d be likely to encounter at any real-life service. The dramatic action freezes and we listen as if there really was a corpse in the onstage coffin. But when the otherwise sober preacher speak-sings his piece (Norm Lewis has a Broadway voice, of course), the play shifts into another, much wilder realm, out of sync with what’s just transpired. And when Brianna explains who she is, things get even crazier.

Alana Raquel Bowers, Aigner Mizzelle.

Sibling rivalries, escapes from the gay closet, parental worries, religious aspirations, Black women’s empowerment, and inter-racial humor (don’t forget that very white guy’s presence) are appropriate concerns, even if meant more for laughs than social change; they all get their moments—both satirical and serious—in the spotlight. But they're not enough to make this a satisfying theatrical meal.

Cleo King, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, NaTasha Yvette Williams.

You can mash, fry, boil, and bake Chicken and Biscuits but it still doesn’t make a very good play.

Cleo King and the cast of Chicken and Biscuits.

Chicken and Biscuits

Circle in the Square

1633 Broadway, NYC (Fiftieth Street)

Through January 2, 2022







Tuesday, October 12, 2021

5. SOUTH PACIFIC (seen October 10, 2021)

 "Most People Long for Another Island"

For my review of South Pacific please click on Theater Life.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Monday, September 27, 2021

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

2. SANCTUARY CITY (seen September 18, 2021)

Sharlene Cruz, Jasai Chase-Owens. Photos: Joan Marcus.


For my review of Sanctuary City, please click on Theater Life. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

1. (2021-2021). Review: PASS OVER (seen September 11, 2021)

 "Black Lives Shattered"

On Saturday afternoon, September 11, 2021, I saw
Pass Over, my first show since March 10, 2020, eighteen months earlier, when I saw The Girl from the North Country just before the pandemic closed down New York’s theatres. (I’ll get to Pass Over in a minute.) I was as nervous at entering a crowded theatre as I was taking the subway from South Queens. I even wore two masks on the train (where a handful of jerks were unmasked) and in the theatre.

Namir Smallwood, John Michael Hill.

I was cautiously early, so, with the weather as beautiful as it was twenty years ago on that more fateful 9/11, I exited the subway at 34th Street and walked to the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd. Having visited Manhattan only once during the lockdown, this was my chance to reunite, unmasked, with the midtown I’d missed for so long, and, with traffic considerably lighter than before, breathing what felt like cleaner city air.

The cityscape had changed a bit. Scaffolding, still ubiquitous, covered different facades, familiar storefronts were shuttered, new businesses had opened, and excavations, like the one at 34th and 8th, replaced landmark buildings. But most eye-catching was how slender the 8th Avenue crowds were, especially after I crossed the nearly deserted 42nd Street.

Those fabulous side-streets in the forties, with their marquees blaring the names of prior and coming shows, were nearly empty. Back in the pre-Covid days you needed a bulldozer to clear your way at matinee time in the theatre district. On Saturday, you could have roller-skated or scootered between the pedestrians and still kept your social distance.

Namir Smallwood, John Michael Hill.

Further, the surprisingly small queue showing its IDs and vaccination proof outside the Wilson was echoed by the ghost town gloom pervading the theatre's auditorium. The recently reopened musicals, Hadestown and Waitress, are said to be doing boffo business (Waitress even broke a single-performance record), but Broadway audiences seem to be giving Pass Over a pass over of their own, at least at the performance I attended.

John Michael Hill.

Perhaps that’s because Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s provocative, but ultimately disappointing, avant-garde comedy-drama, which opened three weeks ago, itself feels so forlorn on Broadway. This may have something to do with its being available in a Spike Lee-directed streaming version on Amazon Prime. Pass Over has a solid pedigree, of course, including a premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and a highly praised staging with this very same cast and director at New York’s LCT3, Off Broadway at Lincoln Center, before the pandemic descended. I saw neither although I’m aware that there have been various revisions—especially of the ending—among the several productions the show has received. Not being qualified to comment on these, I’ll let them pass.

However, even a rave by Jesse Green in the Times hasn’t been able to overcome the box office lassitude toward what I assume—in spite of the favorable reviews—to be less than favorable word-of-mouth about a play that would surely work more potently on an Off-Broadway stage, like the LCT3’s. At the Wilson, at least most of the time, it looks undernourished.

Namir Smallwood, John Michael Hill.

Lots of people obviously favor Pass Over, Broadway’s first new play since it closed up shop. It has a very decent 78 on the Show-Score review aggregating website. And sixteen individual and institutional producers are designated at the top of the Playbill credits. It deploys socially relevant themes, including the urge to escape from economic oppression, the curse of plagues, and, most ferociously, American race relations, particularly the monstrous problem of white on Black police brutality. Nwandu’s distinctive approach blends gritty realism with dreamlike surrealism in a script with obvious reflections of Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, Waiting for Godot.

But, despite its woke goals, its superb three-man, four-character performance (one actor plays two roles), and Danya Taymor’s inventive staging, it fails to be more than momentarily engaging, and makes more of a cerebral than an emotional impact.  

Jon  Michael Hill, Gabriel Ebert, Namir Smallwood.
Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Fitch (Namir Smallwood) are the Didi and Gogo avatars, two Black street dudes on a generic ghetto street corner designated as such by designer Wilson Chin’s placement, against a dead black backdrop, of a milk crate, a tire rim, a tire, and, looming like a gallows, and a street lamp. (Near the end, the background undergoes a mystical transformation.)

Moses, whose name fits his leader-like aspirations, and Fitch, his follower, fill their time with petty preoccupations (including Fitch often working away at a foot problem), role-playing, games (as per the vaudeville-like shtick in Godot), and lamenting the sorry state of Black men in a world where fear of the police (the “po-po”) haunts their every thought. Moses wants to lead Fitch out of this miasma by leaving the block—a stand-in, it’s implied, for the plantation—to which conditions have enslaved them. In other words, to “pass over,” as in the Biblical tale of the Jews fleeing to the Promised Land. Toying endlessly with their baseball caps, like Didi and Gogo with their bowlers, they speak in artfully heightened, crude street dialect, riddling their dialogue with countless repetitions of the n-word.

Perhaps some will argue that this insistent usage has some higher literary and sociological value that I’m unable to appreciate, but hearing it so often on the stage (as on the subway) becomes increasingly uncomfortable, regardless of whatever point it’s intended to make. There is even a scene in which a third character, a lily-white man named Mister (Gabriel Ebert), who has entered some time before, confronts Fitch and Moses about it, in the usual debate about why is it okay for Black people to call one another niggers while a white person isn’t even allowed to use it in a non-offensive way.

Mister, by the way, is the name in the program, but what I kept hearing was “Master,” which fell on Moses and Fitch’s ears like the explosive crack of a slave-driver’s whip. [See my note on the name, below.] One might say that if Fitch and Moses are ultimate archetypes of smack-talking street guys, Mister/Master (it’s not explained if this is his last name or his first), nattily dressed by Sarafina Bush in an off-white suit, is perhaps the ultimate stereotype of the well-meaning, effete, polite, educated, goofy, gee whiz kind of white man, the kind who would never knowingly say something inappropriate. In fact, his carefully articulate vocabulary is peppered with gollies, goshes, and similar vacuities. Benign as he is, it's impossible not to feel an undercurrent of tension in his presence. (Interestingly, Ebert’s understudy is actress Andrea Syglowski, whose mere appearance would likely open the play up to gender-related nuances.)

[Note: In the script, which I received after this was posted, the character is listed as "Mister," just as in the program, but he does indeed pronounce it as "Master." When--in the playwright's lowercase style, Moses says, "yo mister," Mister answers that it's "master," repeating, "master, my name is master." Just because I heard correctly doesn't mean I'm not still confused.]

Mister (or whatever) encounters Moses and Fitch when he gets lost on his way to his ailing mother’s home, carrying an endlessly giving basket of food, like Red Riding Hood on her way to grandma’s. He is as exaggerated a symbol as the other character Ebert plays, a cop named Ossifer (a cross, perhaps between Officer and Lucifer?), who soon betrays his true, blue colors as the representative of police oppression.

Gradually the play moves ever further into the realm of fantasy, mingling images of violence (fight direction by J. David Brimmer), religion, and death (passing over, get it?). Posterior male nudity makes two unnecessarily distracting intrusions as well.

Hill and Smallwood offer vivid, engaged performances, shifting deftly from their street personas to affected “white” speech during several satirical routines. Ebert, a gifted musical theatre actor who gets to warble ironically intended songs like “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “What a Wonderful World” (which latter the others join in on as Mister strums a ukulele), is delightfully versatile in portraying both the effete visitor and the ruthless cop. And Taymor (good genes, obviously; Julie Taymor is her aunt) comes through with her handling of the play’s rhythms and the choreographic way she has with her actors.

But these are not enough to lift this earnest effort out of the head-scratching doldrums into which it sinks before its ninety minutes are concluded. Pass Over is here for only a limited run and, since there’s presently no competition from any straight play on Broadway (the one-man Lackawanna Blues is soon to open), you might want to read some other responses before deciding whether or not to give it a pass.

Pass Over

August Wilson Theatre

245 W. 52nd Street, NYC

Closes October 10