Thursday, March 31, 2016

176. Review: WRESTLING JERUSALEM (seen March 25, 2016)

“It’s Complicated”

Stars range from 5-1.
You don’t have to be Jewish to love Wrestling Jerusalem, Aaron Davidman’s wrenching but open-minded 90-minute solo drama about the social, psychological, military, political, and basic human complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This powerful piece, which premiered at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts in 2014, and is now at 59E59 Theaters, has been seen in a number of American cities and is being made into a feature film. Regardless of who or what you support, AIPAC or J Street, Israelis or Arabs, Jews or Muslims, one state or two, Davidman’s writing and performance will hold your attention and make you think. The expression “tour de force” may be overused but there’s no other way to describe this balanced, if frustrating, exploration of one man’s consideration of the tragic, intractable, and perhaps insurmountable difficulties that have been roiling the Jewish state since it was born in 1948. 

Aaron Davidman. Photo: Ken Friedman. 
Referring to himself as Aaron, the play’s redheaded, goateed actor-writer, a middle-aged man with family roots in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, narrates while moving about on sand-colored flooring, with a similarly colored, wrinkled drop behind him (the spare décor is by Nephelie Andonyadis). Under Michael John Garcés’s flawless direction, which makes use of not a single prop, he recounts in his own voice and those of 16 others—Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Americans, Brits, women, men, old, young, religious, and secular—a dizzying panoply of responses to the crisis. Here and there he moves to the rhythms of a Middle Eastern-style dance (Stacey Printz did the choreography) or sings in Hebrew or, for a Muslim prayer, in Arabic. Allen Willner’s lighting, which often casts Aaron’s graceful shadow on the backdrop, accentuates the many dramatic shifts in the narrative; together with the original music and sound design of Bruno Louchouran it perfectly conjures up the required ambiance.
Aaron Davidman. Photo: Wolfgang Wachalovski.
No sooner does the play begin than Aaron bursts into a litany of causes commonly cited as the reasons for Israel’s problems. Saying, “It’s complicated,” he rattles off the 1948 War of Independence (the Catastrophe to the Palestinians), World War I, various massacres perpetrated by Jews or Arabs, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, 1947’s UN Resolution 181, the invasion of Lebanon, the Intifadas, the settlements, the terrorist attacks, the war in or withdrawal from Gaza, the walls, the tunnels, the missiles, Iran, the politicians . . . You quickly get the point.
Aaron Davidman. Photo: Ken Friedman.
We soon encounter the widely varying experiences and reflections of the people Aaron spoke to in the Holy Land over the years since his first trip there, in 1992, when he went to study Torah and Hebrew. He talks to people from all walks of life and both sides of the issues; he even crosses the border—its barbed wire reminding him of a concentration camp—into the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank. (He also visits Hebron and the Dead Sea.) There are many stories to grab you, like an Israeli doctor’s account of the generations of trauma visible in Palestinian children’s eyes, or a rabbi’s potent exposition of the meaning of the Hebrew prayer, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohainu Adonai Echad,” which had even this secular Jew on the brink of tears.
Photo: Ken Friedman.
There’s much more here to relish and ponder. If anything, the work could probably stand to be a few minutes shorter. Most of what Davidman presents should be familiar to you, but when you hear it in context with so many contrasting and complicated perspectives your heart can’t help but break at the seeming impossibility of an imminent solution.
Aaron Davidman. Photo: Ken Friedman.
Here’s a slightly edited list of headline items Aaron presents at one point:

Occupation; Invasion; Assassination; Suicide bombing; Bulldozing; Sbarros; Maxim; Jenin;
Bil’in; Temple Mount; Mount of Olives; Judea; Samarea; Apartheid; Water rights; Human
rights; Hezbollah; Hamas; Fatah; Likud; Mossad; Shabbak; ‘48; ‘67; ‘73; Refugee; Golan;
Iraq; Iran; Lebanon; Katushas; Qassams; Homemade, Cluster, Roadside bombs; Ball
bearings; Nails; Shrapnel; . . . ; Kevlar; Tanks; Rocks; Slingshots; Mine Fields; Fields; Kidnapping; Tunnels; Terrorists; Tel Aviv; Jerusalem; Jericho; Jordon; West Bank; Gaza Strip; Boycott; Divestment; Sanction;  Land appropriation; Colonization; Two state solution; Settlement; Permanent; Right of Return; Bomb shelter; Peace partner; Cease
fire; Hold your fire; sheket sheket!

It's complicated, no?
Aaron Davidman. Photo: Ken Friedman.

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through April 17

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

175. Review: THE EFFECT (seen March 29, 2016)

"Viagra for the Heart"

Stars range from 5-1.
In Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, two characters swallow pills as part of a drug-testing protocol. Audiences viewing this award-winning 2012 play from London’s Royal National Theatre have to swallow a lot as well, although some may find not everything goes down so smoothly. Prebble’s (Enron) two-hour play, reportedly shortened by half an hour or more from its original version, is being given a clinically precise, quietly low-key (sometimes a bit too low-key) staging by David Cromer at Greenwich Village’s Barrow Street Theatre, where he previously offered such notable productions as Our Town and Tribes. 

Susannah Flood, George Demas, Kati Brazda, Carter Hudson. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Connie Hall (Susannah Hall) and Tristan Frey (Carter Hudson), neither suffering from depression, are among a dozen participants (we don’t meet the others) who’ve signed up to test the effects of an antidepressant drug, RLU37, intended to increase the brain’s dopamine levels. They’re being paid for a four-week experiment in which they’ve agreed, among other things, not to smoke, not to phone, and not to engage in sex.
Susannah Flood, Carter Hudson. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Connie, who’s in a relationship with a man, is a psychology grad student interested in learning about these things from the inside; she’s even familiar with the psychological tests in which she’s taking part. Tris is a loosey goosey contrast to her conventional behavior, intending to use his earnings for a backpacking trek. The drug trial is being supervised by Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda), an attractive psychiatrist in early middle age. As Prebble’s formulaic scenario would have it, she’s been through an unhappy romantic fling with her medical superior, Dr. Toby Sealey (Steve Key), who represents the Big Pharma drug company running the trials and whose guilt trip is responsible for his having hired Dr. James.
Katie Brazda. Photo: Mattew Murphy.
Connie and Tris meet cute when they submit their urine samples; pretty soon, they’re falling crazily in love. As their dosages increase, signaled by projections of how many milligrams they’re taking, so does their attraction. They wonder, though, if it’s natural or drug related. And whether they shouldn’t just accept their feelings, regardless of whether the chemical reaction is biological or pharmacologically induced. Since one of them is getting a placebo, though, knowing who might solve the problem.
Kati Brazda, Steve Key. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Their issues are conveniently contrasted with the private and professional ones of the doctors. They, too, are puzzled about the effect of the drug on their volunteers, Dr. Sealey considering that perhaps what’s being tested as an antidepressant may have the side effect of being “a Viagra for the heart.” The psychiatrists disagree on the efficacy of depression-altering drugs, Dr. James, herself a depressive, being skeptical, Dr. Sealey gung-ho. And what are feelings anyway, we wonder, if they can so simply be reduced to malleable chemical reactions?
Carter Hudson, Susannah Flood. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
In the course of the performance, the drug testing itself comes under scrutiny. When the placebo issue arises, for example, Dr. James gives in and reveals the recipient to one of the lovers who’s been getting it, an act that would immediately discredit the tests; in fact, strict protocols would probably preclude even her from knowing this information. So many protocol-compromising things happen during the play, including the lovers’ constant rule-breaking (sex, phones, etc.), that the trial’s integrity would be blown sky high if anybody ever investigated.
Carter Hudson, Susannah Flood. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

The Effect’s dramaturgy may be strained—especially in act two, which includes a big melodramatic development—but the dialogue is crisp and often humorous, the ideas about multiple subjects (chemistry, pharmacological texts, brains, ethics, love) are interesting, and all the actors give convincing performances, even if their characters aren’t fully developed. Brazda’s Dr. James is briskly professional yet emotionally vulnerable; Key’s Dr. Sealey is appropriately ambitious; and Flood and Carter are believably nuts about each other. Marsha Ginsburg’s sterile hospital setting, nicely lit by Tyler Micoleau, is impressive, and Sarah Laux’s costumes offer the right touch of everyday reality. 

Some of The Effect will raise your dopamine levels. It's those side effects you have to worry about. 


Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, NYC
June 19

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

174. Review: STUPID FUCKING BIRD (seen March 26, 2016)

"Feel the Bird"

Stars range from 5-1.
It’s highly probable that no play of the last 120 years has inspired as many revisions/adaptations as Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Over the years, this modern Russian classic, written in 1895 and produced a year later, has been transposed to such far-flung locales as Ireland, the African-American environment of South Carolina’s Sea Islands, the worlds of French cinema and ballet, the Hamptons, an Australian beach, a Canadian theatre company, and,a few months ago, in Songbird, a honkytonk bar in the Deep South. Moreover, The Seagull and Other Birds, an avant-garde, six-actor version in which the characters wear tutus, opened recently to positive reviews on the Lower East Side.
Joey Parsons, Joe Paulik. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The show reviewed here, which premiered in 2013 at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre and has since been seen nationwide, is Aaron Posner’s (My Name Is Asher Lev) award-winning Stupid Fucking Bird, its middle word either altered to "fuxxing" or a simple blank in ads and various outlets. The setting could be anywhere in America today but, given Posner’s imaginative, Pirandello-like, metatheatrical concerns you could say it takes place in whatever theatre it’s in, in this case, the Pearl on West 42nd Street.
Marianna McLellan, Christopher Sears. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Posner’s “sort of” adaptation is a deconstruction that reduces Chekhov’s cast from 14 to seven, revises their names, highlights only their most salient features, chops out much of the plot, and adds a lot of new stuff. Much of the time it seems he's replaced Chekhov's text with its subtext, a reductionist strategy that often doesn't work. Posner uses the material to explore the complexities of love and feeling, as in the original, but also issues of art and truth, reality and theatricality, albeit on a more ambitious level than Chekhov attempted. Chekhov’s Constantin Treplov becomes Conrad Arkadina (Christopher Sears, overdoing the angst), a would-be experimental playwright disgusted with the theatre’s outmoded conventions, as represented by the plays in which his stage and film star mother, Emma Arkadina (Bianca Amato, convincingly self-centered) appears. Con is hungry to revolutionize it with new ideas, if any can be found.
Marianne McLellan. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Marianne McLellan. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Posner breaks the fourth wall by having characters speak at length directly to the audience, even asking for (and expecting) feedback from them. Stupid Fucking Bird, which has its own play-within-a-play, becomes a play-within-a-play itself. In fact, a play Conrad is writing is called Stupid Fucking Bird. All this playful, self-referential activity, as well as the use of nudity, simulated sex, and incessant profanity (at least 110 fucks, fuckeds, fuckings, and motherfuckers), will be of particular interest to theatre graduate students and academics, but some—like the ladies in my row who left at intermission—may find act one (of two) sufficient for their needs.
Dan Dailey, Christopher Sears, Joe Paulik. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The players, under Davis McCallum’s lively direction, often struggle to find the proper tone for embodying both their characters and themselves as the actors playing those characters; since the goal of layering actor-character relative realities is so important, it’s not always easy to believe in or care much about them on any level. Nor do many of the laughs erupt as they should, perhaps because there’s so much kvetching. As in Chekhov, the ones these folks love belong to somebody else. Con’s cutely goofy friend Dev (Joe Paulik, boyishly appealing), Medvedenko's avatar, loves the black-garbed, ukulele-playing cook, Mash (Joey Parsons, quirkily depressive)—“I’m in mourning. For my life”—but she pines gloomily for the petulant Con, whose beloved, the aspiring actress Nina (Marianne McLellan, lovely), longs for the famous writer Doyle Trigorin (oddly dull), paramour of Con’s jealous, egotistical mother, Emma. Only Emma’s brother, the dying Dr. Eugene Sorn (Dan Daily, pleasantly avuncular and grounded)a mashup of Dr. Dorn and Sorinescapes this round-robin of unrequited love; that's because the married woman in The Seagull who’s having an affair with Sorn’s equivalent flew the coop before nesting in Stupid Fucking Bird.
Company of Stupid Fucking Bird. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Con argues at length for the theatre’s need either to find new forms or to revise the old ones because the theatre no longer—if it ever did—has the power to change the world. For this to work, you have to accept Posner’s argument that theatre is in such really bad shape today. It may be troubled but is it really so awful? And do the demographics that support theatre really deserve the offensive attacks Con levels at them?  What Con offers as an alternative surely deserves Emma's opprobrium, if not so rudely expressed. Of course, when The Seagull was written, Constantine’s play, pretentious as it was,signalled the nonrealistic theatre already springing up in Europe. Unfortunately, Con’s affected “site-specific performance piece,” in which director McCallum has Nina covered with white Christmas lights as she spouts artsy-fartsy pseudo-poetry, is so mustily retro-looking it would be more at home in a conventional The Seagull than this modernist appropriation.  
Christopher Sears, Bianca Amato. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The most successful contribution is designer Sandra Goldmark’s interesting set composed of rolling platforms that can be arranged in different ways, allowing the stage’s rear and side walls to be visible as a reminder of the work’s theatrical artifice. In act one, a unique touch is supplied by having these platforms backed by black panels on which the play’s title is spelled out in oversized letters. Amy Clark's costumes are suitably life-like and Mike Inwood's lighting, which often keeps the auditorium semi-illuminated (as in Brecht), does a good job of balancing the production's tonal shifts.
Christopher Sears, Bianca Amato, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo: Russ Rowland.
P.S. Another bird was in the news a few days ago, the tiny one that perched on Bernie Sanders’s podium. Now that was one smart fucking bird.


Pearl Theatre
555 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through May 8


Friday, March 25, 2016

173. Review: WOLF IN THE RIVER (seen March 24, 2016)

"It Huffs and It Puffs"

Stars range from 5-1.

As I sat in one of the eclectically collected old chairs surrounding the circular acting area at the Flea Theater waiting for Adam Rapp’s dystopian Wolf in the River to begin I started getting a creepy, crawly feeling. This was only partly because of my close proximity to the filth-encrusted actors in shabby clothing who were slowly and wordlessly mucking about in the setting’s muckheap of earth, purple flowers, and detritus (looking like cast-off cell phones and video games), or otherwise slithering around the room. In part it was also because I was thinking I was on a time trip back to the Tom O’Horgan-esque, Off-Off, experimental theatre of the 1960s, returning in a full-frontal assault. 
Kate Thulin. Photo: Hunter Canning.
In addition to the pre-curtain atmospherics of actors near enough to touch moving about in slow-motion or searching for shards to pitch into a bucket, Wolf in the River offers a dreamlike, disconnected, non-linear narrative that goes in the flick of a tongue from vigorously purple, logorrheic language filled with striking, often anatomical, images (like a distinctive discourse on the human body’s bones) to naturalistic, everyday prose. The characters range from the familiar to the bizarre, and wolf masks and rituals mingle with violence and physically demanding business. Naturally, sex and nudity are essential; one character even rushes on with his pants down as he has intercourse with a blowup doll using Miley Cyrus’s face. And, with 60s-style immersion once more considered daring, our old friend, audience participation, is back, including a climactic scene whose outcome is based on chance (think TV’s “Survivor”). There’s even a celebratory conclusion in which the actors shake hands with and high-five the audience while sharing brownies with them. Like the use of choice to decide on a dramatic outcome, neither the confetti-strewn celebration nor the brownies make logical sense; the brownies, however, are absolutely delicious.

Luckily, this hodge-podge of theatrical tropes is in the capable hands of the Bats, the Flea’s resident acting company, working under playwright Rapp’s retro-styled direction; the script may have made my companion, a veteran of the 60s Off-Off scene, want to flee after 10 minutes,but the terrific commitment and acting skills of these young actors kept him from making an early departure into the chill White Street air.
Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis, Mike Swift. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The press materials list as the play’s subjects, “love and neglect, the challenges of poverty, the dangerous cost of shiftlessness, the simple notion of leaving a place behind, and the value of a girl.” You might as well say that Hamlet is about the need to poison-test your sword when dueling, or to always make sure no one’s listening when having a private conversation. Perhaps the point is to emphasize man’s capacity for cruelty and his desire to flee the misery in which he lives. Whatever it is, I couldn't have cared a rap (pun intended). Wolf in the River is a theatrical grotesquerie that allows Rapp to give his fevered imagination free rein; much of it is godawful self-indulgent and overwritten, some of it is moderately interesting, and a small portion is actually quite fascinating.
Jack Ellis, Derek Christopher Murphy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado has enclosed the performance area with blood-stained, pressed-wood walls on which graffiti abstractions, including human stick figures, overlook the action. A crappy old refrigerator sits in one corner, and a La-Z-Boy recliner, facing away toward a TV screen, in another. As the lights (well designed by Masha Tsimring) go down, the Man (Jack Ellis) rises from his audience seat, where he’s been all along; he rips off his jacket and shirt, displaying a slim, sculpted torso, and, speaking in a Deep South backwoods accent, begins to narrate—if, indeed, that’s what he’s doing. (He’ll also serve in other roles, including a wolf; the script calls him a “shapechanger”).
Xanthe Paige, Jack Ellis. Photo: Hunter Canning.
With almost animal-like ferocity, he counts the spectators, then, displaying her panties and shoes, alludes to a 16-year-old, orphaned girl who was eaten here, near the river—a body of water represented by the audience. The tale, which shoots off in many directions, involves the dead girl, Tana Weed (Kate Thulin), so poor she survived by giving blood; Monty (Xanthe Paige), the beautiful leader of a zombie-like cult, the Lost Choir, each member of which wears a small tube on their arm for when they have their blood drained; Debo (Maki Borden), a persistently smiling, chubby fellow from Illinois who woos Tana in the play’s finest scene; Pin (Mike Swift), the unhappy cult member who has sex with the doll; another cult member, the butch, cornrowed Aiken (Karen Ellbacher); and Tana’s longhaired, tattooed brother, Dothan (William Apps), a PTSD sufferer following his brutal war experiences in Afghanistan.  
There are various theatrical surprises that offer occasional jolts, like the Miley Cyrus number, “When I Look at You,” done by Monty (lip-synching) in green sequined top and panties (the offbeat costumes are by Michael Hill and Hallie Elizabeth Newton). It’s a non-sequitur but it’s fun. Another highlight is a dangerous-looking sequence in which Tana and Pin work their way across the space by clinging to an overhead rope. The best scene is far less dynamic or overtly dramatic. It’s when Debo, using a long pole as if pushing a skiff through muddy waters, slowly circumnavigates the perimeters of the room while engaging in a flirtatious conversation with Tana on shore. The byplay between the two is perfectly balanced between fantasy and reality and shows Rapp’s talent at its best.

Wolf in the River, which runs an hour and 40 minutes without an intermission, is wildly uneven and will wake you up one minute and may put you to sleep in another (I noticed at least three pairs of closed eyes and sometimes fought to keep my own open). But however much Adam Rapp’s Wolf huffs and puffs, it serves as a marvelous springboard for several exceptional performances, most especially that of Kate Thulin, who makes her every unrealistic moment thrillingly real.


The Flea Theater
41 White Street, NYC
Through May 2


Thursday, March 24, 2016

172. Review: BRIGHT STAR (seen March 23, 2016)

“He Was Lost but Now He's Found”

Stars range from 5-1.
One of modern drama’s most famous plays about a foundling contains this classic observation; “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” The speaker, as you probably knew, is Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, reacting to the news that when Jack Worthing was an infant he was discovered in a handbag at Victoria Station (“the Brighton line”). It’s hilarious, of course, because of its comic implausibility (although stranger things have happened to foundlings), but it’s not terribly dissimilar to the much darker “true event” that inspired another foundling story, Bright Star, the new Broadway musical by man-of-all talents (including virtuoso banjo picking) Steve Martin and indie folk-pop singer-songwriter Edie Brickell.

Carmen Cusack and company. Photo: Nick Stokes.
Mention of this event isn’t a true spoiler since the New York Times said in its recent feature on the show that Martin and Brickell’s “creative process was helped along when Ms. Brickell was introduced to the story of the Iron Mountain baby, a real-life incident in 1902 in which an infant was discovered in a valise near a Missouri railroad after probably having been thrown from a passing train.” Aside from a scene with a baby, a valise, and a train, the show’s a total fabrication, in setting, characters, and plot. And therein lie its problems.

Martin and Brickell first put their skills together in an award-winning roots CD called “Love Has Come for You” (2013), which led to the creation of Bright Star. Martin wrote the book and Brickell the lyrics, with both credited for the story and bluegrass-influenced music. The show was first produced in 2014 under Walter Bobbie’s direction, with Josh Rhodes’s choreography, at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Some of the original actors and all of the main creative staff are still involved. What they’ve come up with is an entertainingly folksy, feel-good musical with an only fair to middling book

Bright Star takes place in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and follows two related timelines, one in 1923 and the other in 1945/1946. In 1945, 23-year-old Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returns from World War II to overalls-wearing Daddy’s (Stephen Bogardus) backwoods cabin in Hayes Creek to discover that his beloved Mama has died. He visits the angel statue Daddy planted over Mama’s grave (perhaps a salute to nearby Asheville native Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel). Billy also reacquaints himself with pretty, 21-year-old Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), a childhood pal who’s “grown every which-a-way” since he’s been gone, and runs a local bookstore.

Billy, ambitious to become a writer, wants to get published by the Asheville Southern Journal, which gets submissions from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Tennessee Williams. At its offices, he meets editorial assistants Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz), goofily gay in the usual comic relief way, and Lucy Grant (Emily Padgett), a man-hungry blonde. Using a forged letter, Billy lies to hard-bitten editor, 38-year-old Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), about having been recommended by Thomas Wolfe. Alice knows Wolfe died seven years earlier, but, opining that a good liar is a good storyteller, she gives the callow youth an advance. She hopes he’ll turn in a publishable story, one that’s “a sweeping tale of pain and redemption.” There’s pain and redemption in Bright Star but a better adjective would be “weeping.”
Carmen Cusack. Photo: Nick Stokes.
When the action moves back to 1923 we’re in the small town of Zebulon, and Alice is 16, the daughter of a puritanical preacher (Stephen Lee Anderson) and his obedient wife (Dee Hoty). Alice is a precocious young "wildcat" with the hots for Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), son of the powerful Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren). The mayor, a Big Daddy type, is intent on following his own domineering father’s footsteps and making sure his son follows his. When the unwed Alice gives birth to Jimmy’s child, the mayor, afraid of tarnishing the family reputation, takes things into his own cruel hands in the heartbreakingly—but hardly believable considering the alternative available—moment that ends act one. Although the stakes eventually rise to fever pitch, too much of this act is exposition setting us up for the payoff.

In act two, it doesn’t take long before the guilt-ridden Mayor Dobbs confesses his deed to Jimmy, thus removing its disclosure as a potentially suspenseful plot point; the act is principally about gluing everyone’s broken hearts together again.  The big, melodramatic reveal on the horizon is visible midway through act one.
Carmen Cusack, Paul Alexander Nolan. Photo: Nick Stokes.
Despite the impression of lots going on along the double timeline, much stage time is taken up with secondary matters, like Lucy’s drunken play for Billy; interest is maintained chiefly by the variety of rhythmic and emotional charms in the show’s 19 songs; only a few, though, are takeaways and too many resemble each other. The 11 o’clock number, though, is a power ballad, “At Long Last,” that Cusack knocks completely out of the Cort Theatre.
Hannah Elles, A.J. Shively. Photo: Nick Stokes.
An onstage orchestra of nine--piano, accordion, percussion, guitars, fiddle, banjo, bass, and the like--playing August Eriksmoen’s twangy orchestrations under Rob Berman’s direction, accompanies the robust singing and dancing while sitting in a movable, cabin-like enclosure. Like other elements in Eugene Lee’s décor, it’s moved around by the nicely choreographed ensemble of actor-singer-dancers playing the multiple secondary roles.
Michael Pearce, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman, Martha McDonnell. Photo: Nick Stokes.
Bright Star uses the familiar, deceptively simple Our Town design trope of an exposed brick wall (simulating the actual one behind it), with the cast often visible in the shadows, even when not directly involved in the action. At several points, a sweet little choo-choo train trundles across the stage, overhead beneath the proscenium arch. When a partial sky drop flies in with its lower edge trimmed to resemble distant mountain tops, Japhy Weideman’s exquisite lighting helps the upstage wall mimic those mountains. Also lovely to look at are costume doyenne Jane Greenwood’s beautifully tailored period costumes, especially the women’s print dresses.

Apart from the actual dancing (including a toe-tapping hoedown), there’s a seamless symbiosis between Bobbie’s staging and Rhodes’s choreography, making it sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The cast is uniformly fine, but the brightest star is Carmen Cusack, who can rival any Broadway belter while also offering a convincing country tone, and whose acting shifts nicely between the impetuous teenager Alice and the serious editor she becomes. A.J. Shively makes an appealing Billy, Jeff Blumenkrantz is amusing as the nerdy Daryl, Emily Padgett is a sexy Lucy, Michael Mulheren is a believably bossy Mayor Dobbs, Hannah Elless’s Margo is an attractive ingénue, Stephen Bogardus does well as Billy’s loving dad, and both Dee Hoty and Stephen Lee Anderson make Alice’s parents convincing.

Enjoyable as much of it is, Bright Star, which runs a little more than two hours, may not shine as brightly in Broadway’s constellation as some of its more unique and noteworthy competitors. It’ll be interesting to see if its pleasing bluegrass score, strong performances, and smart staging are enough to compensate for its thin book, melodramatically coincidental premise, stereotypical Southern-fried characters, and conventional situations.


Cort Theatre
138 West Forty-Eighth Street, NYC
Open run

Saturday, March 19, 2016

171. Review: SOUTHERN COMFORT (seen March 18, 2016)

"Transgender Trouble"

Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of SOUTHERN COMFORT please click on THEATRE PIZZAZZ.

Public Theater/Anspacher Theater
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through March 26

Joel Waggoner, David M. Lutken, Elizabeth Ward Land, Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Aneesh Sheth, Donnie Cianciotto, Robin Skye, Jeff McCarthy, Jeffrey Kuhn. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Jeffrey Kuhn, Annette O'Toole. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Aneesh Sheth, Jeffrey Kuhn. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Robin Skye, Donnie Cionciotto. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Annette O'Toole, Jeff McCarthy, Aneesh Sheth, Jeffrey Kuhn. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Elizabeth Ward Land, David M. Lutken, Lizzie Hagstedt, Joel Waggoner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Aneesh Sheth, Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Aneesh Sheth, Annette O'Toole. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Annette O'Toole, Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.