Monday, December 29, 2014

131. Review of DVD version of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: THE MUSICAL (December 28, 2014)

"From Best Seller to Great Movie to Blah Musical"

For my review of the DVD of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: THE MUSICAL, please visit THE BROADWAY BLOG: 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

130. Review of CAFE SOCIETY SWING (December 17, 2014)


One sign of the cultural difference between Las Vegas and New York is which dead performer it never stops impersonating. In Vegas, of course, it’s Elvis Presley, and in New Yorkat least of late—it seems to be Billie Holiday. Last season alone, there were two major musical biodramas about Lady Day on New York stages. Well, now she’s back again, if only in a supporting role, in CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING, a cabaret-style revue at 59E59 Theaters that’s nicely sung, is musically vibrant, but is stuck with a lumbering narrative.

Allan Harris. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The two-hour show is a tribute to the jazz nightclub, Café Society (“The Wrong Place for the Right People”), which opened in the Village at One Sheridan Square in 1938, and to Barney Josephson, its proprietor. The leftist politics of Josephson, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, didn’t sit too well with America’s conservatives during the postwar “Red Scare” years. Café Society, America’s first integrated nightclub, was famous for breaking racial barriers both on stage and among its patrons. Even Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club, despite its black performers, catered mainly to a whites-only clientele. Despite his club’s acclaim, when Josephson’s outspoken brother Leon got in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and was sentenced to a year in jail on contempt charges, Café Society’s business tanked. According to Alex Webb’s script (based on Josephson and Terry Trilling-Josephson’s Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People) the capper that forced its closing in 1949 was the loss of its license for allegedly selling adulterated liquor.

Charenee Wade. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
An ensemble of three excellent singers, Cyrille Aimée, Charenee Wade, and Allan Harris, is backed by a swinging eight-piece band made up of black and white, male and female musicians all of whom deserve to be named: Benny Benack III on trumpet, Mr. Harris on guitar, Mimi Jones on bass, Shirazette Tinnin on drums, Camille Thurman on tenor sax, Bill Todd on alto sax and clarinet, Brent White on trombone, and Alex Webb, the musical director, at the piano. 

Evan Pappas, who also sings a couple of numbers, delivers the tired narrative. In Act 1 he's a right-wing Commie-baiting reporter assigned to do a hatchet job on Josephson, that pinko bagel-bender, but--surprise!--he winds up learning to admire the guy. In Act 2, Mr. Pappas continues with the biographical spiel, this time in the guise of the nightclub’s white-aproned barkeep. His by-the-numbers anecdotal material includes several lethal attempts at humor. When the bartender mentions having a half-Japanese, half-black kitchen worker, he cracks that “Every December he attacks Pearl Bailey.” Da-da-bum.

Charenee Wade. Allan Harris, Cyrille Aimee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Mr. Pappas frequently interrupts his biodata to introduce some famous entertainer, such as Holiday, Josh White, Billy Strayhorn, Big Joe Turner, Lena Horne, or Sarah Vaughan, as well as such less well-remembered names as Susie Reed and Nellie Lutcher. The respective artist—dressed, of course, in attractive period wear (David Woodhead did the costumes)—then steps up to the standing mic and sings. Director Simon Green stages the songs straight, not as “production numbers.” 

Many are familiar but always welcome blues and jazz standards, like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Stormy Weather,” “Rockin’ Chair,” One Meat Ball, “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” “Lush Life,” and, of course, “Strange Fruit,” the powerful anti-lynching song, which Holiday introduced at the club in 1939. Predictable as it may be, “Strange Fruit” closes the show on an appropriately emotional level. The very talented Ms. Wade, portraying Holiday, enters with the singer’s trademark gardenia in her hair and delivers the goods in a somewhat exaggerated but reasonably effective emulation of Lady Day’s unique vocal style.

Charenee Wade. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
There are few surprises here, although there’s a substantial number of less well-known tunes on the bill, including several new ones in period mode by Mr. Webb himself. A few come with satirical political messages, such as Willie Johnson’s “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’” Webb’s “Red Scare” and Harold Rome’s “The Investigator’s Song,” sung by Mr. Pappas. Zero Mostel originally performed the latter at a Madison Square Garden rally, not the nightclub, making its inclusion here a bit questionable. But that doesnt mean it isnt fun hearing the question, “Who’s gonna investigate the man who investigates the man who’s investigating me?” Mr. Pappas, though, is no Zero Mostel.

David Woodhead’s minimalist set—illuminated by Maruti Evans’s usual lighting magic—provides a bandstand for the musicians, with the piano down right, and a desk down left in Act 1, replaced by a small bar in Act 2. Hanging vertical banners that back the musicians include highlights from the once-famous mural cartoons by Syd Hoff that satirized the swells of what Clare Boothe (before she added Luce to her name) called “café society.”

Shows like this, which gain much of their éclat from the singers they resuscitate, always face the dilemma of how closely they should attempt to recapture the sound of those artists. It seems to me that if the singer’s voice and style can’t be invoked, then the focus shifts to what they’re singing. However, when the presence of a very particular star is emphasized, the audience expects to hear something that somehow resembles what that person is famous for. In CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING, the only singer who sounds at all like the original is Ms. Wade, when she does Billie Holiday. Her Sarah Vaughan has nothing of that distinctive chanteuse's quality, nor, if you were blindfolded, would you recognize Lena Horne singing “Stormy Weather” other than by identifying the singer with the song.

CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING can be recommended as a pleasantly pedagogic, but unexciting, musical-political journey down show biz memory lane. Not only does it lack a compellingly presented narrative, it requires its mortal singers to represent immortal ones. Talented as they are, I still don’t envy them the task. 

Friday, December 19, 2014


“Kiss Me, Kate? I Don't Think So.”

Few contemporary celebrities have lived lives so often touched by scandal as Mia Farrow's while managing to skirt widespread, career-ruining, public opprobrium. There’s always been something so winsomely childlike, bright, and vulnerable about her that—especially in her younger days, when she was blessed with stunningly gamin-like beauty—many have found it difficult to hold her fully responsible for any of the romantic messes in which she’s been involved. Her recent appearance on Broadway in A.R. Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS, in which she gave a truly heartbreaking performance, only heightened her aura as one our most curiously engaging stars; that position was even further burnished by the sudden rise to prominence this year of her son, Ronan, alleged to be the son of Ms. Farrow and Frank Sinatra, not Woody Allen, who was in a relationship with Ms. Farrow when he was born.
Kate Dimbleby. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
But it was way before Frank and Woody that Mia was enmeshed in questionable romantic circumstances, when she got involved with married composer André Previn, and created the circumstances that inspired the main title of this cabaret-type performance, starring British singer Kate Dimbleby, at 59E59 Theaters. Mia, seen at the apex of her girlish luminosity in projected images, plays her remembered role mainly in Act 1 of this two-act, hour and 20-minute show (does it really need an intermission so the star can change costumes?). Nevertheless, as its subtitle, changed from “The Songs of Dory Previn” in the show’s original British manifestation, reveals, BEWARE OF YOUNG GIRLS, directed by Cal McCrystal, focuses on singer/songwriter Dory Previn, who died at 86 in 2012.
Kate Dimbleby. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ms. Previn (born Dorothy Langan to an Irish-Catholic family in Rahway, NJ), who was most active in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually suffered from schizophrenia, and was institutionalized for a time after her anguished 1970 divorce from Mr. Previn. Although already a successful songwriter, whose VALLEY OF THE DOLLS soundtrack music inspired a major hit recording by Dionne Warwick, she only now began to write the painfully honest, confessional lyrics about her romantic, sexual, and mental issues, many of them as pertinent today as they were when first created. 

In BEWARE OF YOUNG GIRLS, Ms. Dimbleby, an appealing but limited singer and actress, offers what’s little more than a conventional cabaret-show biographical rundown of Ms. Previn’s life, interlarded with 15 of her best songs (three co-written with Mr. Previn). They include Angels and Devils,  Beware of Young Girls,” Lady with the Braid, Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?, Lemon Haired Ladies, Mythical Kings and Iguanas, Twenty Mile Zone, and, of course, You're Gonna Hear from Me.  These are often sung in two-part harmony with her accompanist, Naadia Sheriff, who also sometimes participates in the narrative. Ms. Dimbleby does best with the musically simpler, patter-like songs, which are more about interpretation than vocal beauty. When she has to belt, hitting challenging high or power notes, the result borders on shouting. Still, as the text (written by Ms. Dimbleby in collaboration with Amy Rosenthal) reminds us, Dory Previn was not considered a terrific singer, either. 

Ms. Dimbleby, using extracts from Ms. Previn’s memoirs, Bogtrotter and Midnight Baby, shifts back and forth from her own storytelling persona (using her natural British accent) to that of Ms. Previn herself (with an American accent) as she traverses the latter’s life, covering her show business childhood; her evolving career as a performer and lyricist; her romance with and  marriage to André Previn, with whom she collaborated on Oscar-nominated songs, but who left her for Ms. Farrow after he got the younger woman pregnant; her romance with much younger record producer Nik Venet; and her three decade-long marriage to actor-artist Joby Baker. The songs, of course, illuminate her life’s ups and downs, but the overall tone is never less than upbeat, which is one of its problems.

No matter how depressed the lyrics reveal Ms. Previn to be, Ms. Dimbleby’s face is rarely far from a smile. She remains pleasantly warm and cozy, barely suggesting her subject’s tormented psyche. Much as she comprehends the subtext of her songs, she seems more focused on being likable and entertaining, and even gets the audience to clap along with her at the end to her rousing reprise of “Twenty Mile Zone, whose tempo continues to accelerate as the clapping gets ever faster. The song, for those who don’t remember it, is about a woman whose inner demons have gotten so out of hand that her only outlet is to scream out loud, for which a cop stops her for screaming in a 20 mph zone.

The stage is a simple black space with a piano down right, and the rear wall used for projections. The use of projections is uneven, there either being too few or too many, depending on what’s happening in the narrative. Some songs have none, while “Lemon Haired Ladies” shows a montage of blonde screen goddesses (some of whom, like Barbara Stanwyck and Mae West, seem a bit out of place). In Act 1 the high-heeled star wears spangled black tights, a black jacket, and a white blouse and scarf, while in Act 2 she appears in a floor-length, clingy green sheath. 

At one point during the show I attended, Ms. Dimbleby came into the audience and, stopping at my aisle seat, bent low and put her hand on my knee to engage me in a momentary improv. Looking deep into my eyes, the 41-year-old singer asked this septuagenarian codger two brief questions, to which I, using my sexiest voice, responded by repeating her words with a slight innuendo. Friends told me my reactions were very good, but only afterward did I wonder what Ms. Dimbleby would have said had I declared instead, “Kiss me, Kate.” Perhaps, like Shakespeare’s shrew, she would have slapped me, and perhaps I would have deserved it even before posting this review. 

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 St., NYC
Through January 4

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

127. Review of POCATELLO (December 15, 2014)


“I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre, in Pocatella [sic], Idaho,” sings Judy Garland in A STAR IS BORN. On the other hand, the 10 characters in Samuel D. Hunter’s often engaging but finally unsatisfactory new dramedy, POCATELLO, set in that Idaho city of over 54,000, seem more likely to have been born in a funk. Each of the characters falls somewhere along the dark spectrum of unhappiness. Their malaise stems from the familiar ones of marital discord, teenage angst, sexual orientation, familial dysfunction, creeping senility, economic distress, parental loss, alcoholism, and drug abuse, with agricultural contamination and exploitation, as well as big-box store proliferation, thrown in for good measure. 

And for most, whatever’s getting them down isn’t made easier by their feeling trapped in a place that, as they see it, is a dead end with no jobs and no future. Residents of Pocatello, including the over 15,000 students at Idaho State University, which is located there, may be pleased that a New York play by a native Idahoan—a MacArthur genius grantee, no less—bears the town’s name, but I doubt they’ll be thrilled to learn how depressing a place he seems to think it is. And, for the record, the play, which is set in a restaurant, gives the impression there are hardly any others in Pocatello; a quick Google search shows several dozen restaurants serving a wide variety of tastes. Pocatello is a metaphor for how small-town America is becoming a faceless wasteland consisting of nothing but monolithic chain stores, but if you’re going to set the action of a play in an actual place you needn't exaggerate the facts so broadly.

From left: T.R. Knight, Brenda Wehle, Brian Hutchison, Crystal Finn. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The restaurant in question, which occupies the entire expanse of the Playwrights Horizons stage, is realized in a super-realistic set--designed by Lauren Helpern, with expert lighting by Eric Southern--that mirrors the phony Italian ambiance of any Olive Garden, with booths, tables, wine bottle décor, and other banalities of chain-store homogeneity. The manager is Eddie (T.R. Knight, of Grey's Anatomy), a sweet, affable, caring, but deeply troubled gay guy in his mid-30s. For one thing, he’s struggling to keep the place going in the face of news that “corporate” is closing it down; the only patrons we ever see are family members. For another, he’s trying to get his mother, Doris (Brenda Wehle), and brother, Nick (Brian Hutchison)—a successful real estate agent making a brief visit with his wife, Kelly (Crystal Finn)—to reestablish the close family relationship they once shared. Eddie’s homosexuality appears to have caused an irreparable rift that he’ll do anything to repair. 

This familial dilemma, with its depiction of a mother who defiantly resists any affection from her loving son, isn’t entirely credible, nor is the sentimental way the situation is eventually resolved just before the final curtain. It does, however, provide in Doris someone whose reactions to what’s going on around her are amusingly eccentric, even if these sharply contrast with the maternal turn she takes toward the end. When Nick, however, gets his big moment to express his frustration with Eddie and Pocatello, he pulls out too many stops for it to be believable. But this is the kind of play where everybody has at least one big scene expressing their despair; with 10 characters, it's not easy to make each such moment ring true.

From left: Danny Wolohan, T.R. Knight, Cameron Scoggins, Elvy Yost. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Some characters are on Eddie’s staff, the faux-family with which he tries to comfort himself from the absence of his real one, just as the restaurant becomes more of his home than the one he lives in, thus motivating him to fight for it. His workers include Troy (Danny Wolohan), a waiter in his mid-30s who, despite a college degree, can’t find more lucrative employment during the recession, and who’s engaged in a constant tussle with his alcoholic wife, Tammy (Jessica Dickey). Another waiter, Max (Cameron Scoggins), is grateful to Eddie for having hired him despite his record as a drug abuser, but can’t stay off the stuff, while the pretty waitress, Isabelle (Elvy Yost), is an orphan whose parents died when she was 12.  Filling out this assortment of underdogs are the septuagenarian Cole (Jonathan Hogan), Troy’s father, who’s showing signs of dementia, and Becky (Leah Karpel), Troy and Tammy’s 17-year-old daughter. Becky, probably the  most interesting character, is boiling with anger at a world in which she can’t trust the food she eats not to be contaminated, considers agricultural practices to be genocidal, and refuses even to have a name because “no one in America” deserves one.

From left: Danny Wolohan, Jessica Dickey, Leah Karpel. Photo: Jereemy Daniel.
POCATELLO may sound like the makings of a thuddingly depressing soap opera, but Mr. Hunter’s sprightly dialogue and tangle of character interactions manage to keep the atmosphere, if not scintillating, at least lively enough to hold your attention for its intermissionless hour and 40 minutes. An excellent ensemble, led by the excellent Mr. Knight and nicely conducted by director Davis McCallum, brings vitality and humor to what could easily have been a downer. There have been any number of plays like this, with a cast of colorful characters assembled in a single place, like a bar, hotel lobby, or ship, with plot being less important than people, ideas, and dialogue. Its setup, characters, and situations, though, are not especially original or captivating. POCATELLO’s menu is tasty enough but you may find something more nutritious somewhere else.

Friday, December 12, 2014

126. Review of EVERY BRILLIANT THING (December 11, 2014)


The night I saw EVERY BRILLIANT THING, a fire at the West 4th Street station made getting to and from the theatre on the subway a major hassle, but, as Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots sing at the end of the show, “Into Each Life SomeRain Must Fall.” If I were to compile a list of 1 million brilliant things that make life worth living, that song might make it, and maybe it’s even on the list put together by the protagonist of this very satisfying one-man show at the Barrow Street Theatre. Our anonymous hero, the Narrator, you see, learns at age seven that his beloved mother, a victim of depression, has attempted suicide by doing what his dad calls “something stupid.” Thereupon, hoping to make her feel better, he decides to write down a list of every brilliant (i.e., wonderful) thing he can think of, and show it to her when she’s released from the hospital.

Jonny Donahoe. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

As he narrates his story, he grows up, talks of yet another suicide attempt by his mom during his teen years, and tells of falling in love at university, getting married, and breaking up. He, too, becomes a victim of depression, which he seeks help to combat. The subject of suicide, which becomes a preoccupation for him, provides an especially memorable extended sequence. He rediscovers the list, which, with the contributions of friends, has reached over 800,000 items, and continues adding to it until it reaches 1 million, finding in it the reasons to survive. The song may talk about rain falling into each person’s life, and that “too much is falling in mine,” but it’s clear that the setbacks we encounter shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating every brilliant thing life has to offer.

This sweetly sentimental, wise, and often very funny one-hour piece, which originated in the U.K. and was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is performed by Jonny Donahoe, a chubby, cheerful, delightfully upbeat fellow with close-cropped blonde hair. It’s presented in such an ingratiatingly natural manner that it appears to be autobiographical. It was, however, written by someone else, Duncan Macmillan. Mr. Donahoe’s participation in the writing is noted in the program by his name being printed in a much smaller font than Mr. Macmillan’s.

The auditorium, which is also being used these days for the shadow puppet play, SWAMP JUICE, is arranged in a theatre-in-the-round configuration, including seats on the raised stage. When the audience arrives, Mr. Donahoe distributes Post-its, notebook pages, and other scraps of paper, each with a numbered “brilliant thing” scribbled on it. At numerous points in his narrative, he calls out these numbers and whoever has the corresponding paper reads out what’s written there. Mine was #14 and said “bed.” Others include “Kung Fu movies,” “Laughing so loud you shoot milk out your nose,” “Me,” Marlon Brando,” and both Christopher Walken’s voice and hair.  Moreover, several audience members are recruited to perform partly improvised scenes with Mr. Donahoe; they play a veterinarian, the Narrator's dad, a grade school counselor who speaks through a sock puppet, the Narrator’s lover (sometimes played by a man, sometimes a woman), and a university lecturer. Those chosen to participate at the performance I attended, despite their apparent shyness, turned in adorably appropriate performances.

Mr. Donahoe, as directed by George Perrin, works the audience like a stand-up comic, moving about freely among the chairs, sometimes with a mic in hand, and now and then cueing the sound technician to play pop and jazz segments--including Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Ella Fitzgerald--from the speaker’s father’s vinyl collection. The familiar music, touching premise, and Mr. Donahoe’s winning personality combine to create an hour of theatre that, in spite of its look at depression and suicide, manages in its life-affirming optimism to be both humorous and moving, while steering clear of undue schmaltziness. Many may consider it yet another of life’s many brilliant things. 

Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Through March 29, 2015

125. Review of ABSOLUTION (December 9, 2014)


Reviewing theatre can be dangerous. You can sometimes find yourself renditioned to a black site disguised as a theatre where you’re subjected to a barrage of psychological torture in the form of a play. It’s even worse when the play you’re watching has no intermission, and you fear for your safety if you try to escape in mid-performance. Just kidding, of course, folks, but these thoughts came to mind at St. Luke’s Theatre on Tuesday as I watched the world premiere of Christopher B. Latro’s ABSOLUTION while contemplating the confluence of two news items: 1) the Senate’s report on the CIA’s torture program and 2) the controversy over Jane Kaufman’s Wall Street Journal article, “Confessions of a Broadway Bolter,” about her practice of leaving dull shows at intermission, even though she’s privileged to receive comps because of her position as a cultural reporter.

From left: Ethan Saks, Becca Ballenger, Katrina Ferguson, Pedro Carma. Photo: ABSOLUTION company.

Most of my fellow reviewers would never think of walking out on even the most boring or artistically deficient shows, either during the performance or at intermission, unless an emergency arose. We adhere to Emperor Hirohitos advice to his defeated nation to endure the unendurable. And thats what anyone—whether there on comps or purchased tickets—who attends ABSOLUTION will have to do, unless they don’t mind escaping before the 90-minute, intermissionless play concludes.

The play’s publicity synopsis reads: “Absolution is the story of two bankers, their lovers, and the things they love the most: money, power, and satisfaction. As their fast-paced games unfold, a thrilling spiral of ambition, love and betrayal unravels.” As this suggests, the play is about the dog-eat-dog world of big-time moneymaking, a theme much more effectively expressed in the various movies that have excoriated Wall Street in recent years. This new dark comedy”as it’s billed, focuses on what happens when the 40ish Angelo (Pedro Carma), who heads a successful investment firm, hires the ambitious young trader, Ethan (Ethan Saks). Ethan quickly displays aggressive tactics in his desire to move up the ladder. His ambitions are fueled by the need to pay for his rising expenses, many of them tied to the demands of his vain, free-spending fiancee, Marie (Becca Ballenger), who practically defines conspicuous consumption. Angelo, for his part, pairs up with a sophisticated hotty named Gabrielle (Katrina Ferguson), and the play charts the business and personal complications that entangle this ruthless foursome. 

Sad to say, ABSOLUTION fails to provide even 30 seconds that ring true; the plotting is clumsy, the characters are cardboard, and the dialogue is patently artificial. There are numerous faux-poetic monologues, some in prose so purple it would make Mikhail Gorbachev hide his forehead in shame; moreover, the overly formal, almost conjunction-free syntax, has that phony sound you often hear in plays poorly translated from other languages.

The four actors are totally at sea with this material. An experienced theatre journalist who saw the same performance told me she’d never seen such bad acting; I disagreed, thinking the fault lay not only in the pretentious writing but in the amateurish direction of Anna Bamberger, who fails to evoke any sense of truth, either in the characterizations or in the staging, during which the actors often barely relate to one another. Nor is the work well served by sound designer Sam Godin, who provides offstage voices and phone rings from a poorly amped speaker overhead at stage left, when the sounds are supposed to be coming from center or right.

The unit set by Lauren Mills and lighting by Jamie Roderick are passable, but the greatest effort seems to have gone into Micheal Alan Stein’s costumes, particularly those worn by Ms. Ballenger and Ms. Ferguson, both of whom have the figures to do their emphatically chic duds justice. (Production photos on the show's Facebook page show several outfits different from what the actresses wear in performance, and the boyish bob Ms. Ferguson wears on stage is more flattering than the one in the pictures.) One might ask whether Ms. Ferguson, who comes to work in a skintight, scarlet dress with an elaborate necklace, looking more like a movie star than an executive, isn’t vastly overdressed. On the other hand, looking at her in this eye-catching getup is a welcome distraction from ABSOLUTION. For that alone it serves a useful purpose, although I doubt there’s anything that can absolve this misfire from its multitude of other sins.  

St. Luke's Theatre
308 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through February 28

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

122. Review of DISENCHANTED! (December 3, 2014)


For my review of DISENCHANTED! please visit THEATER PIZZAZZ at:

121. Review of ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER (November 30, 2014)


Peretz Hirshbein (1880-1948), born in Grodno, Russia, and known as “the Yiddish Maeterlinck” because of his symbolist inclinations, is considered the founder of Europe’s Yiddish art theatre before World War I. He’s probably best known for his play GREEN FIELDS (1916), made into a classic of the Yiddish cinema in 1937. Sometime in the 1970s, I served as adviser on an MFA thesis production of it directed by Diane Cypkin, who remains an active promoter of Yiddish theatre and musical culture. I remember it as a charming pastoral comedy, completely unlike the darkly ambiguous, moodily poetic, and regrettably soporific ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER (Oif Yener Zeit Taikh) now being presented at the Here Arts Center by the New Worlds Theatre Project. This group, founded in 2005, is devoted to the revival in English translation of the more artistically literary plays of early 20th-century Yiddish theatre, especially if—unlike THE DYBBUK or GOD OF VENGEANCE—they’ve been neglected or forgotten. This is not the kind of sentimental, hammy but kosher entertainment that comes to mind when many think of Yiddish theatre; instead it's comparable, at least in intention, with the more experimental work associated with the European avant-garde.

David Greenspan, Jane Cortney. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The characters in ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER have Jewish-sounding names, and the grandfather and grandmother are referred to as Zeyde and Bobe (to use the program’s spellings), but there’s little else about the play that smacks of Jewish life or Yiddishkeit. Originally written in Hebrew, first produced in Russian, and then translated into Yiddish, the play has now been rendered into English by Ellen Perecman, New Worlds’ founder and producing artistic director.

Whereas Hirshbein’s longer plays—dealing with peasant life—have cozily accessible plots, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER is heavy on atmospherics and imagery but light on action and story. It uses images of blindness and sight, darkness and light, water and dryness, fire and ice, cold and warmth, and a river and ferryboat (bringing the River Styx and Charon’s ferry to mind). Hirshbein’s play, which emphasizes love's life-affirming but also destructive power, seems directly influenced by Maeterlinck’s early one acts, in which childbirth, death, blindness, old men, mysticism, and subtextual religiosity play a role, and in which audiences are expected to intuit meanings not intellectually but through their feelings and imaginations.

I’ve provided a full plot summary at the end of this review for interested readers, but here I’ll confine myself to only a brief outline. ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER, which begins during a winter storm and ends when another storm erupts on a summer eve, concerns a blind grandfather, Menashe (David Greenspan), alone with his granddaughter, Mir’l (Jane Cortney), as the river waters rise in the darkness, eventually washing their house away. We learn that Mir’l’s mother died in childbirth, of a magic amulet her mother got from a holy man and that Mir’l now wears, and of how the river killed Mir’l’s father and caused Menashe’s blindness. The flood destroys the house, and Menashe freezes to death after seeing visions of angels on their way. A Stranger (David Arkema)—is he an angel?—arrives, saying his ferry, headed for the other side, was sunk in the storm; he refuses to let Mir’l die, promising her a palace-filled future, and she consents to live. The Stranger vanishes, time passes, and one summer evening at the riverside, Mir’l, who seems to have lost her mind, speaks of her yearning to join the Stranger on the other side. When another storm threatens, she rejects her grandmother Yakhne’s (Christine Siracusa) plea to return home, hoping the storm will bring the Stranger back to her. As the weather worsens, Mir’l has visions and, before long, seeking to be saved, dashes into the rising river.

David Arkema, Jane Cortney. Photo: Hunter Canning.
David Greenspan gives an intense performance as Menashe, blending realism and non-realism in his high-pitched line readings and almost puppet-like movements. (Mr. Greenspan is also sharing his talents in PUNK ROCK at the Lucille Lortel, where he comes on late in the play.) Capable work is done as well by Ms. Cortney, Ms. Siracusa, and David Arkema, but the stylized quality of the writing and performances prevent any emotional involvement in what happens to them.  

Patrick Rizzotti’s minimal set, propless except for a chair in the first scene, evokes a world of water via wrinkled, vertical swathes of stiffened, translucent cloth on screens and borders beautifully lit by Nick Solyom in combination with the projections of Bart Cortright. M. Meriwether Snipes’s simple costumes ably convey a sense of who the characters are. Shannon Sindelar’s simplified staging ignores Hirshbein’s explicit stage directions, depending on lighting and sound effects to establish the cataclysmic events in the audience’s imagination. She also blurs locales and seasonal shifts, as when she sets the final scene, not at a riverbank in summer, as Hirshbein does, but behind the screens, almost as if it’s taking place under water. What’s vague in the writing is thus even vaguer in performance.

Jane Cortney, Christine Siracusa. Photo: Hunter Canning.
I wish I could praise New Worlds for having uncovered a lost gem in ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER. After a promising beginning, however, the play’s lack of compelling action, its one-note characters, the continual underscoring of Erik T. Lawson’s eerie mood music, the thematic obliqueness, and the need to watch some scenes through translucent fabric may eventually have the effect of a hypnotist’s watch swinging back and forth before your eyes.

Here Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue
Through December 21

Plot Summary:

It’s deep winter in the dead of night, and we’re somewhere on the banks of a rising river where the whistling wind, rushing water, and ice floes crashing into one another can be heard. A nearly blind old man, Menashe, recalls the thrill of sailing a ferryboat across the river in rough waters, but present conditions would make that impossible. He tells his granddaughter, Mir’l, who can’t fall asleep, about a time when five days of nonstop rain caused the river to rise and destroy a ferryboat. He recounts the story of Mir’l’s mother giving birth to her as the river flooded and dying before seeing her baby, and insists she wear her mother’s magic amulet to protect her from harm. The amulet, which Menashe says Mir’l must never look inside, was the gift of a mysterious holy man whose blessing also was a curse. The water also killed Mir’l’s father and caused Menashe’s blindness. Menashe, who senses his imminent death, pronounces Mir’l the pure child of sinless parents, but she seems to be burdened by guilty feelings.

Meanwhile, the waters seep into the house and Mir’l thinks someone is outside. She expresses great fear of what’s out there and also of her zeyde, whose eyes seem to reveal evil. The house is inundated and all goes dark although Menashe sees a holy angel coming to their rescue. Mir’l climbs through the window to reach the angel and his torch-bearing fellow angels and the house is destroyed. Menashe, having followed a strange light, finds himself on higher, dryer ground, needing to locate Mir’l, although his body is getting colder. He hears her voice saying she’s cold, and offers to warm her. She feels to him like a block of ice. Seeking the light from her amulet, he learns that someone tore it from her in the flood. Menashe then grows warmer, thinking he sees his late daughter in heaven.

A Stranger (David Arkema) is heard, crying out to be saved from death. The Stranger finds Mir’l and her grandfather, who is dead. Mir’l too wishes to die, but the Stranger won’t let her, now that the ferry he was on was destroyed and he never made it to the other side. Life must be preserved, he insists, and, after he insists that Mir’l and he cling to each other tightly to keep each other warm through the bitter night, she begins to feel the heat returning to her body. The Stranger promises a happy future, including jeweled palaces, and when she says she can’t understand him he declares that feeling can be better than understanding. Reluctantly leaving her zeyde’s body, she fearfully follows the Stranger in his quest for life.

The action shifts to a summer evening by the riverside, where Mir’l wishes she could swim across to the other side; she refers to someone, presumably the Stranger, who came to her at night and left her when the sun rose. Her frightened grandmother, Yakhne, comes to take her home, thinking she’s lost her mind. Mir’l, disappointed that the grand promises made by the Stranger have not materialized, wants to go to him on the other side, and tells her grandmother, in whose eyes she sees darkness, to go away or she’ll jump in the river. She longs for the Stranger to come for her in a ferryboat, and fears she’ll die of coldness before he arrives.

A storm threatens; Mir’l, imagining it will bring the Stranger back with his promised palaces, refuses to obey her grandmother’s demands that she take refuge, and waits for the river to take her to the other side. Yakhne places her own amulet around Mir’l’s neck, to protect her, but when her granddaughter throws it into the water, Yakhne goes in after it. Mir’l, her heart broken by the Stranger’s disappearance, has visions of fires on the river, and, as she grows ever colder, of her zeyde’s eyes beckoning her. Yakhne tries to take her home, but Mir’l’s madness rages as she thinks the Stranger is coming for her with ruby-studded palaces, and, shouting, “Save me! Save me!” rushes into the waters.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

120. Review of I SEE YOU (December 2, 2014)

120. I SEE YOU

It’s often said about the art of stage directing that it works best when most concealed. Of course, this isn’t always true; some directors, like Julie Taymor, for example, are known for their conceptual brilliance and audiences often go to see something more because of a particular director’s take on it than for the work itself. But, for the most part, especially in realistic plays, directors best serve their work by not drawing attention to themselves. This, I’m afraid, isn’t the case with Jim Simpson’s staging of Kate Robin’s I SEE YOU, at the Flea Theater, where Mr. Simpson has made this one-act, 90-minute, two-character “romcom,” as it’s being called, into a showcase for directorial ingenuity.

Danielle Slavick, Stephen Barker Turner. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Ms. Robin (a writer and co-executive producer of HBO’s “The Affair”) has written a straightforward play about Nina (Danielle Slavick) and Jesse (Stephen Barker Turner), thirtyish New Yorkers, married to others, who meet one day at the Children’s Museum while their tots are playing in a “Ball Pool.” She’s a blocked writer (of memoirs), he a laid off teacher and stay-at-home dad whose avocation is making movable sculptures. Mainly because of the garrulous Nina’s aggressive friendliness toward the soft-spoken Jesse, which evolves into what some might consider a moderate form of stalking, they gradually slide into a romantic embrace as they huddle in a blackout at a Zen meditation center on Spring Street during what, though unnamed, is surely Hurricane Sandy. Nina and Jesse both express relative complacency with their current marital/familial statuses while also revealing deep underlying dissatisfaction. Their brief physical encounter leads to radical changes in their individual outlooks, but that doesn’t mean their altered conditions will lead to mutual happiness.

Until her character’s loquaciousness grows annoying, Ms. Slavick creates an amusingly quirky picture of Nina as a self-involved New York mom, obsessively preoccupied with all the currently trendy issues related to the ecology, nutrition, poultry raising, depression, Botox, child raising, wireless radiation, shellfish allergies, corporate greed, religion, and, among other little things, the future of the human race. Of course, Nina doesn’t fail to vent about the modern world’s immersion in social media to the exclusion of human contact, and there’s a bit too much would-be humor at the expense of gluten, another overused satirical target. A lot of this is interesting, of course, like reading a digest version of the Science Times, but you sometimes want to ask, “Hey, folks, is this a conversation or a play?”

Danielle Slavick, Stephen Barker Turner. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Nina’s chatter goes on and on and gradually chips away at Jesse’s reserve (he’s always looking at his phone), until he starts to respond with his own takes on her nonstop commentary. Why she chooses him as the recipient of her accumulated wisdom, and why he finds himself drawn to her are questions I can’t answer, but, pretty as Ms. Slavick is, Nina’s someone I’d probably find myself running from, not toward.

Danielle Slavick. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The writing and performances are realistic, the structure is episodic, and the locales—the museum, a hospital’s ICU ward, Nina’s home, the meditation center, Jesse’s home, and a room where one takes kids to engage with wall projections—are unexceptional (except, perhaps, the last). For its performance, Kyle Chepulis has designed an open space backed by translucent curtains, with a long wooden bench placed on an off-white floor into which is built a motorized revolve. Bare stage, background curtains, bench, two actors: add connective mood music, cool clothes (by  Claudia Brown), and smart lighting (by Brian Aldous) and what more do you need?

Do you really need two attractive young men (John Paul Harkins and Alexander Kushi-Willis) dressed in black with cowl neck sweaters to be choreographed into the action, where they’re frequently quite visible, to hand the actors their props, like kurogo in a kabuki play? Must they carry little black boxes that light up to spell out the locale of the following scene? Does the accompanying piano music (Janie Bullard is the sound designer) have to be so overwhelmingly portentous? Do we have to watch the actors sitting endlessly in place, bathed in atmospheric light, before the action begins? Does the blackout scene, played only in candlelight so that we can barely see the actors’ faces, have to go on so long that we’re tempted to sneak in a nap before the lights return? And is an expensive revolve for a sceneryless set absolutely necessary?

Ms. Robin’s play has a scene in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, where Jesse’s child is rushed after having an allergic reaction to eating shrimp. Perhaps that scene inspired director Simpson to believe I SEE YOU needed an ICU of his own. Or perhaps not.

The Flea Theater
41 White Street
Through December 21