Sunday, July 31, 2016

42. Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2016: SERIES A (seen July 28)

"These Shorts Fall Short" 
Stars range from 5-1.
The annual Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays has returned to 59E59 Theaters for its tenth year with its standard offering of six plays spread over two programs, Summer Shorts 2016: Series A and Summer Shorts 2016: Series B. I’ll be seeing the B program next week; hopefully, it’ll offer a more exciting lineup than does A.

In recent years, the one-act play has become more common Off Broadway than multi-act plays; one-acts often show up on Broadway as well. These, however, are usually 80-90 minutes in length and some go on without an intermission for nearly two hours. Those on display at 59E59, then, are smartly dubbed “short plays,” and typically run between 20 and 30 minutes, roughly the time of an average TV episode. (The Series A program runs 80 intermissionless minutes.) Perhaps because of the camera’s flexibility, television has come to seem more adept at creating half-hour dramas than the stage, where playwrights struggle to overcome the constraints of time and space in forging engrossing narratives and characters.

The three plays in Series A are Cusi Cram’s “The Helpers,” Neil LaBute’s “After the Wedding,” and A. Rey Pamatmat’s “This Is How it Ends.” All are performed on Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s elegantly simple unit set using translucent upstage screens that can be pivoted to form varying backgrounds. As the audience waits for the show to begin, a time-lapse film shows the construction of the set, the kind of thing now popular on YouTube videos shared on Facebook. Apart from LaBute's engrossing but flawed play, the video is the most fulfilling part of the production.
Maggie Burke, David Deblinger. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
"The Helpers," directed by Jessi D. Hill, is set around the timeworn presence of a park bench, this one in the West Village on a chilly winter day. There are two characters, one, the feisty Dr. Jane Friedman, is a fashionably dressed, middle-aged, retired therapist. The other is her former patient of fifteen years, Nate (David Deblinger), a hapless guy in his forties who’s decided to give up his sessions. The recently widowed Jane, who’s also lost her beloved cat, Bijou, has taken to talking to the departed kitty even in public places. The play watches patient and therapist essentially change places.
David Deblinger, Maggie Burke. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The piece, which is vague about why Nate and Jane are meeting, of all places, outdoors on a winter day, is sporadically amusing, but its tone is flat, its humor dull, and its performances unilluminating. It’s the kind of thing one could imagine being done brilliantly as a Nichols and May duologue. Here, it’s simply forgettable.
Elizabeth Masucci, Frank Harts. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Everyone will have their own take on which play is the evening's standout; for me it's LaBute’s “After the Wedding,” directed by Maria Mileaf. The well-known LaBute, a regular presence on these programs, offers a tantalizing piece that turns out to be more a trick than a convincing drama, but his gift for sharply observed, often humorous dialogue is enough to carry you along. A young husband and his wife, nicely limned by Frank Harts and Elizabeth Masucci, occupy chairs isolated from one another as they each address some unseen person--a marriage counselor, perhaps--in front of them. Although they’re not supposed to be speaking in each other’s presence what each says is closely related to the previous speaker’s words. 

At first, they talk about their relationship, their carefully planned wedding, and how they feel about one another; it all seems perfectly normal and some of it, especially when sex is the subject, is raunchily funny. But then they speak about an event that happened as they headed for their honeymoon in the Hamptons. The light, conversational tone remains intact but we suspect a deep sense of guilt beneath their veneer of normalcy. And that, perhaps, explains their spatial isolation and failure to speak directly to one another.

LaBute entices you into these characters’ lives with his humorous depiction of an ordinary young couple explaining their relationship; then he slyly steers his dramatic vehicle into much darker territory. He also lures you into contemplating how you might have responded to the dilemma faced by his characters. Still, since there’s no way the first half of the play hints at what’s coming, the smoke and mirrors dramaturgy makes you feel you’ve been taken for a ride.
Chinaza Uche, Kerry Warren. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Closing out the evening is “This Is How it Ends,” an exaggeratedly absurdist whatchamacallit about the end of the world that drags on like an overextended “Saturday Night Live” sketch. With six actors, this theatrical oddity, which stumps even the usually inventive director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, is the longest play on the program, and has the largest cast of characters and most elaborate costumes (designed by Amy Sutton) and effects (surrealistic projections by Daniel Mueller).
Sathya Sridharan, Patrick Cummings. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Playwright Pamatmat, who asks those who “don’t get it” to watch Gregg Araki’s Teen Apocalypse Trilogy, notes in his script: “TIME: Felch me; PLACE: Eat my fuck.” His potty-mouthed characters are Annie Christmas (Kerry Warren), a cutie who reveals herself as the Anti-Christ (boomingly amplified voice and all; sound design by Nick Moore)); her gay, African-American roommate, Jake (Chinaza Uche); and four others representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, all portrayed with cartoonish distortion and satiric intention in the manner of the Theatre of the Ridiculous: Death (Nadine Malouf), Pestilence (Sathya Sridharan), Famine (Rosa Gilmore), and War (Patrick Cummings).
Sathya Sridharan, Nadine Malouf, Patrick Cummings. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
I’m aware that there’s an audience for this kind of thing. I’m also aware that there’s a critic somewhere pondering the appropriateness of using one of Pamatmat’s scene-setting phrases as a response.
Rosa Gilmour, Sathya Sridharan, Patrick Cummings. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 3

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

41. Review: BUTLER (seen July 26, 2016)

"The Fugitive Kind"
Stars range from 5-1.

As Michelle Obama reminded the world at this year’s Democratic Convention, slaves built the White House. According to Richard Strand’s engaging historical comedy, Butler, slaves also built the fortifications of Southern forts early in the Civil War. In 1861, on the day following Virginia’s secession from the Union, three of those slaves have run away from a Confederate-held Virginia fort to the Union-held Fort Monroe, also in Virginia, seeking asylum. 

The commanding officer is Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler; (Ames Adamson), an argumentative Massachusetts lawyer with no actual military experience, among whose quirks (exploited for comic effect) is an aversion to hearing anyone “demand” anything from him. The only "Negro slave" we meet is the equally argumentative Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), whose scarred back reflects his obstinacy toward authority. The vibrant verbal volleys between Mallory and Butler invest the piece with wit and wisdom.
Benjamin Sterling, Ames Adamson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Since the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), declaring that property has to be returned to its owners, doesn’t allow Butler to offer the runaway slaves sanctuary, he has to contrive another way to save them when a Confederate agent, Major Cary (David Sitler), arrives, seeking their return on behalf of their owner. Butler saves the day when he devises a clever strategy in which he argues that the men are “contraband,” the fascinating story of which you can read by clicking here.
Ames Adamson, John G. Williams. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although Strand has comedic fun playing with the relationships among the pompously officious Butler, the surprisingly articulate Mallory (who fears letting anyone know he can read), and Butler’s militaristically straight-arrow adjutant, Lt. Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), the basic facts are true. (Note: Butler was a controversial figure. Later in the war, when he was put in charge of New Orleans, he ordered that any woman who disrespected Union soldiers be treated as a prostitute, a command that lost him his position.)
John G. Williams, Ames Adamson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The Confederate major arrives, blindfolded, at Shepard’s suggestion, to prevent his spying on the fort’s armaments. He and Butler—whose comment about voting for Jefferson Davis in the Democratic Convention gets a big laugh, given what’s happening in Philadelphia this week—engage in an amusing battle of words during which Butler gets to display his crafty legalistic mind. (Lawyers, and the way they manipulate the law for their own purposes, are also the subject of the just opened Off-Broadway play A Class Act.)
John G. Williams, Ames Adamson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Butler, produced by the New Jersey Repertory Company, replicates their 2014 production for this New York premiere, with the same cast, director, and design team. It’s set in Butler’s office, a brick-walled room realistically created by Jessica L. Parks and effectively lit by Jill Nagle; the sound design, which uses period tunes, is by Steve Beckel. Furthering the Civil War ambience are the authentic-looking costumes of Patricia E. Doherty. 
Ames Adamson, David Sitler. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Adamson’s Gen. Butler bears a convincing resemblance to the original, a pot-bellied officer with balding pate and page-boy locks; he gives the foxy lawyer the ostentatiously florid speech and manner of a 19th-century ham actor that seems a bit over the top at first; by the end of the two-hour, two-act play, you appreciate its daguerreotype shadings. Williams is perfect as the feisty runaway in rags, who “astonishes” Butler with his verbal skills (including words like “convoluted”) and independent spirit. As the overprotective adjutant whose military training seems to have placed a rifle up his butt, Sterling goes from humorously uptight to appealingly upright, while Sitler’s condescending Confederate officer, with his mutton chops and white gloves, offers an ideal image of antebellum Southern smugness just waiting to be punctured.
David Sitler, Benjamin Sterling, Ames Adamson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Butler’s style is heightened for dramatic effect, its tone is mildly anachronistic, and its details conflated, so you have to take much of it with a grain of salt.  Nonetheless, it’s a historical drama about something that actually happened that manages to be relatively faithful to its source material while being both informative and highly entertaining.
John G. Williams, Ames Adamson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

59E59 Theatres/Theater A
59 E. 59th Street, NYC
Through August 28

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

40. Review: A CLASS ACT (seen July 18, 2016)

"Don't Drink the Water"
Stars range from 5-1.
There’s a good reason that a substantial number of hands were raised when co-producer Eric Krebs asked the audience waiting for A Class Act to begin how many were lawyers. A Class Act, by veteran attorney Norman Shabel, is a good fit for legal beagles who aren’t getting enough of their briefs, affidavits, reversionary clauses, appeals, and claims at the office or court and want to spend an evening in the company of actors showing them how their jobs are done.

Lou Liberatore, Stephen Bradbury, Matthew DeCapua. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Given Shabel’s 46-years as a New Jersey trial and class action lawyer, his play, dramatically awkward as it sometimes is, offers a veritable fly-on-the-wall perspective as to what goes on during the intense negotiations surrounding a major law case against a giant chemical company. The episodic drama, which begins in 2014, is set in the offices of the respective battling law firms and that of the fictional General Chemical Corporation’s V.P., as well as in secondary settings such as Central Park and a fancy restaurant: times and places are indicated by projected titles. For an hour and 40 minutes, six lawyers (three on each side), supplemented by General’s vice president, tangle over strategies, legalities, fees, evidence, culpability, and morality.
Lou Liberatore, Matthew DeCapua, Stephen Bradbury, Jenny Strassburg, Nick Plakius, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, David Marantz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
General Chemical, which has contributed many good things to society, has nonetheless polluted drinking water throughout the country with its chemical runoffs, causing perhaps a million people to get cancer. Fighting for the plaintiffs are the 60-year-old Phil Alessi (Stephen Bradbury) and his youthful partner Frank Warsaw (Matthew DeCapua), aided by the 50ish Ben Donaldson (Lou Liberatore), representing another plaintiff firm, for whom he won a previous case against General in California.
Jenny Strassburg, Lou Liberatore. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
On the defendant’s side are the 62-year-old John Dubliner (Nick Plakias), senior corporate counsel; Ignatio Perez (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, a standout), outside counsel, in his 50s; and 38-year-old corporate counsel Dorothy Pilsner (Jenny Strassburg), whose reputation is based on her combination of razor-sharp intelligence, ice-in-her veins attitude, and sex appeal, the latter a potent weapon in her arsenal. Also involved is the company’s 62-year-old V.P., Edward Duchamp (David Marantz).
Stephen Bradbury, Matthew DeCapua, Lou Liberatore.
Lawyers will appreciate the profanity-laced boardroom wrangling over huge payoffs, class actions vs. individual lawsuits, settlements vs. trials, and venal techniques (including two outrageous and surprisingly lame blackmail attempts). There’s a lot of handwringing over the environmentally horrendous practices of companies like General (think Monsanto, Dow, and countless others); Duchamp is even given an explosive tirade cynically advocating that, regardless of the damage done to our planet, technological advances are necessary in the name of business.

Even with one side representing the cancer victims, there are no obvious white knights here. A tone of cynicism and self-interest pervades even the good side, and moral standing is all relative. Whenever things get too shady, Perez, even though representing the chemical company, attempts to demur; ultimately, he’s as complicit as anyone else. Shabel, wanting to make clear where his heart is (as if it weren’t clear enough) concludes with a melodramatic twist that taints the play's integrity much as General's chemicals do the water supply.
Matthew DeCapua, Jenny Strassburg. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
It takes a while to get involved in all this, especially as so much exposition is laid out blandly before the narrative and its players come into focus. General’s guilt is never in doubt; Shabel’s strongest suit is his ability to dramatize with a sense of authenticity the often nasty legal dynamics that go on behind the scenes in such cases. The cat and mouse tactics can be fascinating for even the non-lawyerly observer, but they do have their limits.
Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, Jenny Strassburg. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Under Christopher Scott’s competent direction the actors do their best to bring their conventional characters to life and to speak the often jargon-prone, yet mostly accessible, dialogue with conviction. This is an ensemble piece although the flashiest character is Dorothy. Strassburg gets both her smartness and drive but falls a bit short in capturing her sexual charisma.

This is a low-rent production, with a set by Josh Iacovelli consisting of furniture set against black drapes, with a small screen upstage for a series of rather ambiguous projections. Joan Racho-Jansen’s lighting is efficient and Dustin Cross’s costumes look right for these high-powered attorneys. A Class Act doesn't reach the heights of other works about the dangers of pollution, like Ibsen's An Enemy of the People or the movie Erin Brockovich, but its examination of how lawyers operate entitles it to its day in court. 


New World Stages
340 W. 50th Street, NYC
Through September 4

Friday, July 15, 2016

39. Review: KANZE NOH THEATRE (seen July 13, 2016)

"If You Want to Be in the Noh"

Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of Kanze Noh Theatre please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

38. Review: THE GOLDEN BRIDE (seen July 6, 2016)

"If She Were a Rich Girl"
Stars range from 5-1.
Oy! Have I got a show for you! It’s called The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale) and it’s playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s lovely Edmond J. Safra Hall, in Battery Park. I promise you it's a mechia, that is, something totally refreshing. It’s not common these days to leave the theatre humming the music, but there’s a powerful chance you’ll head up the aisles singing the catchy “Mayn Goldele” (My Goldele), right after joining the cast on it at the final curtain.

Rachel Policar, center, and company. Photo: Justin Scholar.
The Golden Bride is a return engagement of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s 2015 revival of a thoroughly entertaining 1923 Yiddish operetta with music by Joseph Rumshinksy, “the Jewish Victor Herbert,” with joyful lyrics by Louis Gilrod and a deliciously trivial yet—in hindsight, socially fascinating—book by Frieda Freiman. And it’s mostly in scrumptiously tasty Yiddish (some passages are in Russian and there’s a smattering of English), which you can follow easily via the surtitles in both English and Russian. (The sing-along lyrics for “Mayn Goldele” are in Yiddish.)
Rachel Zatcoff, Cameron Johnson, Lisa Fishman, Bruce Rebold. Photo: Justin Scholar.
The first of its two acts is set in an idyllic Russian shtetl (no pogroms here) being visited by Benjamin (Bob Ader), a wealthy American Jew, and his actor son, Jerome (Glenn Seven Allen). They’ve come to bring Benjamin’s niece, a young beauty named Goldele (Rachel Policar), back to the States. Goldele, who’s been raised by a pair of innkeepers, Pinchas (Bruce Rebold) and Toybe (Lisa Fishman), has inherited a fortune from her father and Benjamin wants her to marry Jerome. Her newfound wealth, though, makes her the target of three local bachelors—Berke the cobbler (Alex Bird), Yankl the deaf tailor (Cody A. Hernandez), and Motke the cantor (Michael Einav). 
Glenn Seven Allen, Rachel Zatcoff. Photo: Justin Scholar.
Goldele, however, loves and is loved by the dashing wanderer Misha (Cameron Johnson). (At one point, Misha sings a paean to post-revolutionary Russia and all its dreams. This is 1923, so little does he know about a guy named Stalin lurking around the corner.) However, Goldele foolishly decides she’ll marry only the one who finds her long-lost mother, setting the major plot device in motion.
Rachel Zatcoff. Photo: Justin Scholar.
Jerome turns out to be more interested in Goldele’s sister, Khanele (Rachel Zatcoff), who, like him, wants to go on the stage. Along with Goldele, she immigrates to New York, inspiring a sprightly comic duet with Jerome called “We Are Actors.” Pinchas, Toybe, and Kalman also make it to America. A grand finale at a masked ball resolves all the melodramatic plot strands (one of which is reminiscent of the parent scam in Annie), and the company brings down the house with that hard-to-forget hand-clapper about “My Goldele.”
Michael Einav, Alex Bird, Cody A. Hernandez, Cameron Johnson, Bob Ader, Bruce Rebold, Adam B. Shapiro, Lisa Fishman. Photo: Justin Scholar.
The show reflects, superficially but intriguingly, the immigrant experience of early 20th-century Russians (and by extension other nationalities) longing to leave their oppressed lives for the gold-paved streets of America. Memories of shows like Fiddler on the Roof rattle around during the shtetl scenes, but when we get to New York we’re in a world of idealized Jewish wealth that can only have served to further whet foreign appetites when the show toured to South America and Europe. Scenes of Jewish life are abundant, most touchingly an act one-ending Shabbat Kiddush scene set around a candle-lit table.

Every one of the 15 numbers is tuneful in that old-time operetta way; a 14-piece orchestra wonderfully conducted by Zalmen Mlotek (in an upstage space seen through a scrim) accompanies the robustly gifted company of 20 outstanding singer-actors, both principals and chorus members. There are sentimental lullabies, rambunctious comic numbers, and operatic ballads. The dance sequences choreographed by Merete Muenter are appealing, Izzy Fields’s period costumes are consistently inviting, John Dinning’s unit set serves nicely for all locales, and Yael Lubitzky colors everything with tasteful lighting.

Under the insightful tutelage of co-directors Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner the company performs with just the right degree of excess energy to establish the stylized, dated nature of the material without ever lapsing into parody. The pacing and enthusiasm never lag; despite the obvious theatrics, we become fully engaged with the situations, recognizing both their outlandishness and their essential truth. Corny as it is, the ending will probably defeat your efforts to hold back the eye-faucets.

Policar and Johnson as the soprano-tenor leads, Goldele and Misha, impress mightily with soaring voices and personal charm, while the comic romantic leads of the brash American actor Jerome (with his American-accented Yiddish) and his Russian bride Khanele provide a perfect balancing act. Adam B. Shapiro’s colorful matchmaker, Kalmen, and Bob Ader’s rich American uncle provide expert comic support, as do Lisa Fishman and Bruce Rebold as Goldele’s foster parents.
Cameron Johnson, Rachel Policar. Photo: Justin Scholar.
Originally given an 18-week run on the Lower East Side at Kessler’s Second Avenue Theatre during the Yiddish theatre’s heyday, The Golden Bride then toured throughout the country and internationally. After its local revival in 1948 the show disappeared until what remained of the score and libretto were discovered at Harvard University by musicologist Michael Ochs around 1990. Several years ago he and the Folksbiene began to work toward resurrecting the show; the extraordinary result is this funny, schmaltzy, silly musical for which Wasserman and Didner received a Drama Desk Best Director nomination, while the show itself was nominated for Best Revival of a Musical.

I missed that production but I can now heartily concur with its accolades and even wish a few more might have been provided. P.S.: you don’t have to be Jewish to love it (but I can’t say it doesn’t help!).

Museum of Jewish Heritage
26 Battery Place, NYC
Through August 28

37. Review: SIMON SAYS (seen July 7, 2016)

“A Whole Lot of Shaking Going On”
Stars range from 5-1.

There’s a whole lot of shaking going on in Mat Schaffer’s Simon Says, a wannabe thriller about spiritual channeling now at Off Broadway’s Lynn Redgrave Theater after premiering last year in Boston. The shaking comes whenever a young man, James (Anthony J. Goes), goes into a trance to channel an entity named Simon, who, in one manifestation or another, male or female, has lived through multiple existences.

Brian Murray. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Simon Says could almost as easily have been called Seth Speaks, as its subject matter closely resembles the ideas and circumstances surrounding the communications of Seth, a Simon-like entity, to psychic Jane Roberts in the 60s and 70s. Roberts and her husband, Robert Butts, recorded and set down his words in a substantial series of books (one being titled Seth Speaks) that made a major contribution to the New Age movement. Schaffer, who holds a degree from Tufts in Interdisciplinary Studies in Mysticism, acknowledges the influence of both Roberts and another major clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce. (Full disclosure: my wife was totally into Roberts and Cayce back in the day and their books line our shelves.)
Brian Murray, Anthony G. Goes. Photo: Maria Baranova.
In this 80-minute play (don't believe the usher if she tells you it's 60), James is the companion of the much older Professor Williston (Brian Murray), who has partnered with him in an effort to profit from James’s talent while also video recording his sessions for purposes of a book he’s writing about the eternal life of the soul. One of the play’s throughlines is the conflict between the aspirations of the morally culpable, has-been professor and the protégé whose life he tries to control.
Vanessa Britting. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The setting for this potentially interesting but dramatically dull play is Williston’s shabby digs (which look more put together than designed by Janie Howland), with books piled in mountains (not the best way to find one when you need it) and exotic religious artifacts (like prayer beads blessed by the Dalai Lama). Here, Williston and James—a regular, baseball-playing guy who resents his gift (the result of a childhood head injury) because it prevents him from living a normal life—are visited by an attractive young woman named Annie (Vanessa Britting).
Anthony J. Goes, Vanessa Britting, Brian Murray. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Annie wants James to contact her beloved late husband, Jake, who died in a car crash two years earlier, and whose memory continues to haunt her. After initially resisting, he agrees, and thus begins a sequence of convulsive trances during which James becomes Simon, reverts to James, then shifts back to Simon, and so on, ad infinitum.  Lights relentlessly flash on and off (lighting designer John R. Malinowski has been busy), there are some odd mechanical noises (thanks to sound designer Brian Doser), and James’s body jerks and lurches like someone being tased. When Simon speaks it’s with a phony British accent; when he first moves, it’s by jumping and rolling about with simian dexterity. What this has to do with the transmigration of souls is a secret; you might even wonder if Simon was originally an ape.

To set up an appropriate dialectic, Annie, despite her obsession with reaching Jake, is a skeptic concerning things like spiritualism, mediums, channeling, and the like. In fact, she teaches chemistry and physics and declares, “I deal with facts, evidence.” This gives Simon the opportunity to lecture and advise on various matters related to otherworldly matters—reincarnation, coincidence, the nature of existence, accidents, predestination vs. free will, and so on—all in bookish dialogue with the emotional impact of a wet noodle. His blather eventually reveals a dramatic secret about the mutual relationship of the dramatis personae to a 2,000-year-old event that only a New Ageist (not me) could love.

Director Myriam Cyr hasn’t done much to channel this material from page to stage; the pacing is flat and the acting—despite several outbursts—lacks tension. Brian Murray still possesses the intelligence and charm that has made him a three-time Tony nominee, but he's going on 79 and, if I may use a baseball metaphor, has lost some bat speed. As James, Anthony J. Goes lacks the vocal and emotional versatility to take advantage of a role with great opportunities for theatrical fireworks. He might also consider whether there aren’t other ways of expressing inner turmoil than rubbing the heels of his hands against his eyes. Vanessa Britting’s Annie may tell us she’s a doubter but nothing in her performance (partly because of the writing) makes us believe it.

Time, I think, to pull Seth Speaks down from the shelf and see what all the fuss was about.


Lynn Redgrave Theater
45 Bleecker Street, NYC
Through July 30

Saturday, July 9, 2016

36. Review: THE ANIMALS (seen July 8, 2016)

"Reading and 'Riting and ‘Rithmatic"
Stars range from 5-1.

Almost a year ago I began my review of Ripple of Hope, a one-woman play by and with Karen Sklaire, as follows:

One of my regrets over the past three decades, ever since my daughter became a grade school teacher in the New York public school system, has been my failure to record her frequent rants about her job: the incompetent principals, arrogant parents, lack of supplies, budgetary shortfalls, emphasis on testing over creative teaching, bureaucratic ineptitude, and, even though she mainly taught the earliest grades, the physical violence wrought by troubled students.

Ripple of Hope, which deals with many such issues, was inspired by the author’s experiences as a teaching artist in the New York public school system. The Animals, by Amina Henry, has a somewhat similar genesis, although it’s not as autobiographical as Sklaire’s work.

Here’s how Henry explained it in an online interview with Sarah Guayante:

“The Animals” was inspired somewhat from my experiences as a teaching artist. I became increasingly in awe of teachers who seemed to have to do it all. Teaching is hard work, and there are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of in terms of students, teachers, administration, special programs (like the one I am a part of), lesson plans, rubrics, standardized tests—it takes a really special person to be able to balance it all with grace, while still having time for a personal life. That being said, there was no one specific experience that inspired the play. It was more of a meditation on teaching that began when I was doing a residency at The Pacific School during the 2014-2015 school year. Those teachers work hard.

The Animals, like the recent Exit Strategy, which also examines the difficulties of being a public school teacher, is set in a teachers’ lounge, this one at Peabody Elementary School, represented by a set creatively crafted from cardboard boxes by Angelica Borrero and Christopher J. Cancel-Pomales. The action evolves in ten scenes, each representing one of the ten months in a school year, the specific months being designated on a wall calendar that the actors change between scenes. We watch the interactions among five eccentric teachers of different grades, each of them struggling to navigate the pressures of teaching and maintaining a normal life. A common goal is to win the school’s teaching award.
Amelia Fowler, Leta Renee-Alan, Richard McDonald, Melissa Diaz, Isabelle Pierre. Photo: Amina Henry.
The wafer-thin plot serves mainly as a pretext for us to observe the comings and goings and individual attitudes toward their jobs of the various teachers. There’s the quietly cynical Sue Faulkner (Isabelle Pierre, leaden), who steals a colleague’s yogurt and handles stress by vaping weed; the fresh-as-a-daisy, idealistic, new first grade teacher, Dot Banks (Melissa Diaz, pert and promising), who says words of positive affirmation (i.e., “I am a winner”) to herself in the mirror every morning; the overwrought Sasha Klein (Leta Renée-Alan, frantic), who tries to control her tight-as-a-spring emotions by omitting the letter “o” from her conversation; the distressed, moonlighting, pony-tailed math teacher and soccer coach, Bob Mills (Richard McDonald, meh), separated from his wife, who begins a sexual relationship with the noncommittal Sasha, who can’t even bring herself to say “Bob”; and the warmly supportive Gloria Martinez (Amelia Fowler, vibrant), who must cope with the discomfort of her pregnancy and then with the problems of balancing her duties as a mother and teacher.
Leta Renee-Alan, Richard McDonald, Melissa Diaz, Ameleia Fowler, Isabelle Pierre. Photo: Amina Henry.
Some of this mostly familiar material crackles with humor, which gets a robust audience response, and there are several nice paeans to the nobility of teaching. Despite the hardships several of the teachers encounter, very little of it evokes pathos, though, even when disillusion sets in. There’s no sense of danger, either; mostly, the material is mined, even pushed, for laughs, some of it—like Sasha’s haywire behavior—too broadly farcical. About the most traumatic classroom experience anyone has is when a first-grader in Ms. Banks’s class does the unimaginable and pees in her pants. And says “you’re a bitch.” How, I wonder, would Ms. Banks have reacted, if one of her darlings punched her in the face or smashed an angry hand through a glass door? Yes, folks. First-graders can be threats.

And the various complaints about teachers not being paid enough don’t quite ring true, especially when one says she can do better in banking and another in real estate. Good luck with that. While no one denies how stressful the job is, nor that teachers won’t become wealthy, if they stick with it teachers in the New York area at any rate can nowadays earn a decent salary (a close relative with an MA is making $66,000 after one year in nearby Long Island, with another $3,000 for coaching track), get the summer, as well as many other days, off, and receive major health, pension, and other benefits. I can name a number of well-educated, middle-aged people who'd be happy to get teaching jobs in this economy.

The acting slides along the spectrum from professional to amateurish, but all the performances would have benefited from a firmer directorial hand than Gretchen Van Lente provides. There’s little sense of honest interplay among the actors, who often seem overly involved in their own dilemmas to the detriment of their mutual relationships; as acting teachers often say, the stakes never seem high enough. Van Lente’s staging frequently suggests the air going out of a balloon, particularly in the handling of the many scene transitions. Henry’s script shares the blame for not having found sharper ways of ending the scenes; what should be exclamation points, or simply periods, too often are ellipses. Van Lente’s lethargic handling of these moments, however, only makes them worse.

For all its flaws, Amina Henry's The Animals will definitely appeal to anyone who's spent time teaching in an urban school. The audience received the production warmly, and one could often sense the been there, done that feeling of recognition. 

I write this with mixed feelings since many of those involved in The Animals are graduates of Brooklyn College, where I spent my own teaching career. I had a reputation as a tough grader. There's a line in the play that a small change can make a big difference. Some things, though, never change.


The Animals
505 1/2 Waverly Ave., Brooklyn, NY
Closes July 9