Tuesday, August 30, 2016

55. Review: THE PEARL DIVER (seen August 29, 2016)

"Perils of a Purloined Pearl"
Stars range from 5-1.
 For my review of The Pearl Diver please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

54. Review: CAUGHT (seen August 26, 2016)

“Catch It If You Can”
Stars range from 5-1.
Like a set of Chinese nesting boxes, Caught, San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s intriguing, satirical mind bender about truth, lies, cultural appropriation, censorship, and subversive art, keeps shapeshifting as it goes ever deeper into its intellectually bubbling core. Caught, already seen in Philadelphia, Chicago, London, and Seattle, is clearly the most challenging, offbeat, yet fully accomplished work I’ve seen all summer. 

Louis Ozawa Changchien. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Caught begins by having the audience walk through a gallery in the basement of La Mama displaying a work of installation art subtly critical of contemporary China in its reflection of a dissident Chinese artist's incarceration for political provocation. Once past the gallery and inside the performance space itself the audience sees a plain white wall with the central installation object, a cage-like jail cell. (The art is by Miao Jiaxin and the neutral set, with its sliding walls and rolling units, by Arnulfo Maldonado.)

Then the supposed artist himself, Lin Bo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), appears, lets us know he’s been profiled recently in the New Yorker, and lectures about contemporary political art in China and how he was arrested for having set in motion a potential mass protest in commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. His lengthy discourse, using slide projections, explains the devious ways in which subversive art must be carried out to evade China’s censorship, and he describes the horrible conditions in which he was forced to live during his prison stay.
Murphy Guyer, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Leslie Fray. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It’s tempting to describe the plot’s unconventional developments in similar detail but that would spoil the surprises—some of them metatheatrical—that await. Each scene is somehow tied to political and artistic issues regarding the elusiveness of truth in art, both narrative and visual, and, by extension, life. The people you meet may or may not be who they say they are. It also helps to know, as the play itself explains, that certain notorious real-life narratives—like the one created by monologist Mike Daisey, who got in trouble for embellishing his account of Chinese factory workers making Apple products—helped spur the writing of Chen’s play.

Following the lecture, the action shifts to a New Yorker magazine office where Lin, the newly minted celebrity artist (think Ai Weiwei), is interviewed by Joyce (Leslie Fray), a young journalist, and her editor, Bob (Murphy Guyer). Wait for the otherwise naturalistic scene's striking change in theatrical tone as it moves toward its conclusion, suggesting the relative levels of theatrical artificiality. (Great music by Jeremy S. Bloom to underscore the mood.)

We then move to a public discussion moderated by actress Leslie Fray, using her own name, who played Joyce in the previous scene (she explains why). Her guest is an artist provocateur named Wang Min (Jennifer Lim), whose relation to the scenes we’ve just witness is clarified, and who explains her own political/academic take on artistic veracity. If you don’t agree with Wang Min, such as when she speaks about cultural appropriation, you may want to wring her neck.
Jennifer Lim, Louis Ozawa Changchien. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Finally, there’s a somewhat surrealistic scene (the play’s weakest, which would benefit from a five-minute clipping) between Wang Min and Lin Bo who, while played by the same actors we’ve seen in those roles, raise questions about who they really are as they argue and laugh about their personal relationships with a former mentor.

Complex as all this may seem, Chen manages to make most of it accessible, and often very funny, while frequently springing the unexpected on us. There are a number of magnetic sequences showing Chen’s gift for stimulatingly satiric dialogue that sounds both believable and artificial at the same time. A highlight is the charged discussion between the curator and Wang Min, during which the former, acting as a surrogate for the potentially confused audience, drills Wang Min on what she’s getting at, only to grow increasingly frustrated when, every time she thinks she’s grasped her intent, it turns out to be not at all what the artist meant. Of course, when Wang Min eventually explains the convolutions of what a lie is, you may scratch your head bald in trying to figure her out:

A lie is a garden that grows sideways until its sidewaysness becomes straight. It is a feast made from mislabeled ingredients that tastes incredible. It is a documentary. A dollar bill. It is thinking outside the box but then being inside the outside of the box so going further going outside the inside of the outside of the box by going back inside the box to be outside the outside of the box then leaving the box to find another box whose outside has an outer outside outside outside the outside.

The Play Company’s production is every bit as good as anything the Soho Rep, which specializes in works like this, might have done. Director Lee Sunday Evans has created precisely the right ambience for capturing the play’s nuances by inspiring performances that seem off-the-cuff and honest enough to suck the audience into its world of faux reality. Each member of the ensemble has a relaxed, everyday believability that makes their lies like truth (to quote Shakespeare). Heady and unconventionally structured as Caught is, you’ll find that by the end of its 80 minutes you may not have understood every jot and tittle but that, as the title says, you’ve certainly been caught. And that’s the truth.


La Mama
66 E. 4th St., NYC
Extended through September 24

Thursday, August 25, 2016

53. Review: A DAY BY THE SEA (seen August 24, 2016)

 "Sea of Tranquility"
Stars range from 5-1.

Imagine a play in which a well-off family gathers at their estate with friends and hangers-on. There’s a matriarchal figure, her intelligent but ineffectual son, the son’s professional superior, a doddering octogenarian who slips in and out of his youthful memories, an alcoholic doctor who looks after him, a governess, an estate manager, and an attractive divorcée. Very little happens, although a thread of unrequited love ties together the son and the divorcée, as well as the governess and doctor. Lengthy monologues expressing cynicism about the state of the world as well as idealistic visions of the future mingle with casual, throwaway trivialities. After nearly three hours, the play concludes with a tone of bittersweet regret for lost opportunities and the somewhat forced sense that a new and better phase in the lives of all concerned is about to begin.

Julian Elfer, Jill Tanner. Photo: Richard Termine.
No, this isn’t a Chekhov comedy you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s A Day by the Sea, by British playwright N.C. Hunter (1908-71), a 1953 West End hit originally directed by John Gielgud with a cast headed by actors from British theatre heaven: Gielgud as the son, Julian Anson; Sybil Thorndike as his mother, Laura; Irene Worth as the divorcée, Frances Farrar; and Ralph Richardson as Doctor Farley. The 1955 Broadway production (at the ANTA Theatre), however, despite direction by Cedric Hardwicke and an only slightly less luminous cast than its London counterpart—Hume Cronyn as Julian, Aline McMahon as the matriarch, Jessica Tandy as Frances, and Dennis King as the physician—wasn’t able to duplicate the original’s success and the show flopped after 24 performances.
Jill Tanner, Katie Firth. Photo: Richard Termine.
A Day by the Sea is now being revived by Off Broadway’s Mint Theater, specialists at rediscovering worthy forgotten plays, newly ensconced at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre. The best one can say of the revival (and of the play itself, for that matter), whose most prominent name is that of director Austin Pendleton, is that it’s dully respectable. The staging is uninspired, the casting flawed, and the acting uneven; moreover, the slow-paced, relatively plotless play, although not entirely lifeless nor without moments of dry humor, suffers too many longueurs. And Hunter’s writing in act one offers a lesson in how not to introduce exposition.
Philip Goodwin, Julian Elfer. Photo: Richard Termine.
Everything transpires on a beautiful May day at the Anson seaside estate in Dorset; act one and the second scene of act two take place in the garden, while sandwiched in between is a scene at the beach. Charles Morgan’s pretty set reveals the performance as seen through two receding picture frames; a third frame encloses a large painting of a garden or a beach, depending on the locale, hanging on the upstage wall.
Jill Tanner, George Morforgen (foreground); Julian Elfer, Philip Goodwin (rear). Photo: Richard Termine.
The principal dramatic arc concerns the midlife crisis of Julian (Julian Elfer), a stuffy, 40-year-old Foreign Service officer who’s so obsessed with his work and world conditions that he barely has any close relationships; he learns in the course of the play, to his great disappointment, that he’s being transferred from his Paris post back to England.
Katie Firth, Jill Tanner, George Morfogen. Photo: Richard Termine.
Whereas Julian takes issue with his mother, Laura (Jill Tanner), because of her lack of concern for politics and current events, she wishes he would get married and take more of an interest in the estate. Romance sluggishly beckons in the presence of 37-year-old Frances (Katie Firth), mother of two, who was raised by Laura; Frances is both a war widow and a divorcée, a woman who’s made her life a bit of a mess. Twenty years earlier Julian failed to notice her love for him; when he, in turn, belatedly begins to fall in love with her, the burning question is: how will she respond?
Jill Tanner, George Morfogen, Philip Goodwin. Photo: Richard Termine.
Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times of the Broadway production that it was “brilliantly acted.” While that accolade can’t be offered this time around, there are generally effective performances from the venerable George Morfogen. whose crusty old man gets a few good laughs; Jill Tanner as the materfamilias, who manages everybody’s lives; and Polly McKie as the governess, Miss Mathieson, a homely, 35-year-old spinster who practically begs the much older doctor to marry her.
Katie Firth, Julian Elfer. Photo: Richard Termine.
As Julian, British actor Julian Elfer shuffles along with a Hugh Grantish, self-deprecating diffidence, but with too little of that actor’s charm; he seems to have a constant sneer of disdain on his face, which one supposes can be viewed as part of the man’s priggishness. Still, annoying as he is at first, Julian grows on you and by the third act, in which the play’s tone lightens a bit, he may even elicit a modicum of sympathy. As Frances, however, the female romantic lead, Katie Firth is seriously miscast, and her dowdy costumes, by Martha Hally (otherwise on target), only heighten the problem. Also problematic is Philip Goodwin’s Doctor Farley, a colorful character who comes off here more like a pickled Shakespearean ham than a philosophical, gin-pickled sawbones.
Katie Firth, Athan Sporek, Kylie McKvey, Jill Tanner, Philip Goodwin, Julian Elfer, George Morfogen. Photo: Richard Termine.
Among the play’s potentially most interesting moments is the first act debate between the idealistic Julian and the cynical doctor about the possibility of progress in which Julian wishes to see this “age of anxiety” become an “age of tranquility.” What Hunter has provided in this sleepy work might well be called a sea of tranquility.
Katie Firth, Jill Tanner, Kylie McVey, Polly McKie, Athan Sporek, Philip Goodwin, Julian Elfer, Curzon Dobell, George Morfogen.

Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 24

52. Review: QUIETLY (seen August 23, 2016)

“Truth and Reconciliation”
Stars range from 5-1.

Just last week a horrendous terrorist act by a child was carried out in Turkey when a 14-year-old suicide bomber killed over 50 people at a Kurdish wedding. The use of children as agents of terrorism is nothing new, as demonstrated by Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s sharply honed 70-minute drama kicking off the season at the Irish Rep. The play, in a production that originated under Jimmy Fay’s direction at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s national theatre), is being given in association with the Public Theater.  

It’s set in 2009, and the bombing it references (presumably fictional but nonetheless representative) occurred in 1974, when five Irish Catholic men died after a 16-year-old Protestant boy enlisted by the Ulster Volunteer Force threw a bomb into a Belfast pub where the men had gathered to watch a soccer (football) match.
Declan Conlon, Robert Zawadski, Patrick O'Kane. Photo: James Higgins.
Suicide bombing was not the fashion in the Northern Ireland troubles that form the play’s background, which allows McCafferty to create a situation where Ian (Declan Conlon), the bomber, now 52, arranges to meet up with Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane), also 52, the son of one of the men killed in the bombing. The political issues of the 70s may have been settled, at least technically, but the passions that roiled the citizens continue to seethe.
Patrick O'Kane, Declan Conlon, James Zawadzki. Photo: James Higgins.
Both men are seeking “truth and reconciliation.” Jimmy—fiercely confrontational, his shaved head and bristling intensity giving him a thuggish cast—wishes to purge the anger and hate still tearing him up. Ian—bearded, in a black jacket, and patiently self-assured despite the immense weight on his shoulders—seeks understanding and redemption. The setting is the renovated pub where the bombing happened—a rather generic-looking design by Alyson Cummins—now run by Robert (Robert Zawadzki), a Polish immigrant.
Robert Zawadski. Photo: James Higgins.
As the confrontation between Ian and Jimmy unfolds, another form of conflict is being enacted in the form of a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Poland and Northern Ireland, viewed by the characters—Robert being the most invested—somewhere over the audience’s heads. Outside the pub, a bunch of hooligans may threaten trouble if Poland wins. Knowing whereof he speaks, Jimmy, says “Kids can do more damage than you think,” and asks if he should get rid of them, but Robert, preferring to avoid more trouble, declines the offer.
Declan Conlon. Photo: James Higgins.
The meeting between Ian and Jimmy, though instigated by the latter, begins with Jimmy unable to restrain himself from head-bumping Ian, whom he’s never met; despite several furious flare-ups, the men—while drinking Harp drawn from the bar’s practical taps—engage in an intense verbal exchange, some of it loud, some muted with extended pauses, over the past and their personal suffering; meanwhile, Robert, drawn both to their debate and to the soccer game, watches quietly.  Eventually, a kind of rapprochement brings the immediate conflict to an end, but the result of the soccer match portends further danger as the lights go dark. If we’re not being polarized over one thing, McCafferty seems to be saying, wait a few seconds and there’ll be something else to fight over.
Patrick O'Kane. Photo: James Higgins.
Quietly is emotionally rich and beautifully acted, with thick Irish brogues, under Fay’s carefully orchestrated direction, but, even at little more than an hour in length, its drama and surprises begin to dissipate. The concept is stimulating but in practice is hard to sustain. Still, one wonders, what would a play be like about a present-day terrorist seeking reconciliation with a victim 35 years from now? If they keep killing themselves, though, there’s no way we’ll ever know.


Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through September 25

Thursday, August 18, 2016

51. Review: LUNT AND FONTANNE: THE CELESTIALS OF BROADWAY--Fringe NYC (seen August 17, 2016)

"When Broadway's Lights Grow Dim"
Stars range from 5-1.
They were among the brightest lights on Broadway but Alfred Lunt (1892) and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983)—the Lunts—starred in only one Hollywood film (The Guardsman, 1931, adapted from a hit comedy the Lunts had done in 1924) and cameoed (as themselves) in another (Stage Door Canteen, 1943). During their heyday, the New York stage was providing the film industry with one thespian luminary after another—Gable, Bogart, Tracy, Hepburn, Davis, Robinson, Cagney, etc., etc.—but the Lunts were reluctant to leave the footlights for the kliegs.  

Alison Murphy, Mark E. Lang. Photo: Siggi Ragmar.
Although the American-born Lunt and the British-born Fontanne were excellent artists in their own right, their uniqueness lay in their persistent pairing in Broadway play after Broadway play, making them the most famous married couple in American acting history. (The closest equivalents might be Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, but these actors more often performed without their spouses than with them.)
Alison Murphy, Mark E. Lang. Photo: M.P. Myers.
Theatre geeks will know of the Lunts, of course, and anyone who’s seen a play at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, named after them in 1958 when they opened there in Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, is at least familiar with their names if not their reputations; for many others, they might as well be Samuel J. Friedman. The general public, I suspect, has as little knowledge of them as those students someone recently interviewed who had no idea of who fought the Civil War. I never saw the Lunts in person, but, growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, I was very familiar with them; I remember my excitement when they performed twice in TV specials, first in The Great Sebastians (1957), and next when they played Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (1965).

In Lunt and Fontanne, an offering of this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, Mark E. Lang has attempted to compress the lives and art of these fabled players into an hour and a half one-act in which Lang plays Lunt and his real-life spouse, Alison Murphy, covers Fontanne; they also play several other characters, mostly celebrities. The time covered is roughly from when they fell in love and married in 1922 to the opening night of The Visit in 1958. 

Unlike the recent Lunts-based play Ten Chimneys, about a specific moment in their lives, it’s a more or less by-the-numbers biodrama that combines dramatized scenes from the stars’ private life, with expository monologues and, most interesting, scenes from several of the plays (frequently produced by the Theatre Guild) that made the Lunts the Lunts. The best of these is constructed as a rehearsal of The Taming of the Shrew during which their real-life personalities intrude on their role-playing, a situation the play later acknowledges influenced Cole Porter when he wrote Kiss Me, Kate.

An attempt is made to wring some drama out of the Lunts’ personal lives, but, despite a through-line concerning Alfred’s lack of self-confidence, the childless couple (her preference) lived a relatively untroubled life. As any Luntian knows, their summers were spent enjoying the pleasures of Lunt’s sprawling family home and farm in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, now a visitors’ shrine to their careers. They bickered about whether to sign a big Hollywood contract—he was tempted by the money, she found movie acting boring and artistically stultifying. They bravely ventured onto the London stage during World War II in order to bring their lauded performances of Sherwood’s uplifting war drama There Shall Be No Night (1940) to the besieged city’s theatregoers. And they fretted about being passé when the postwar years brought a new kind of realistic acting (think the Method) to the stage; Lunt was disappointed when turned down for the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Names and play titles are dropped prolifically in Lunt and Fontanne and, with selective costume elements (thanks to designers Viviane Galloway and Jessa-Raye Court) taken from nearby hat stands, we get to see theatre notables Nöel Coward, Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and even a mumbling Marlon Brando. Neither Lang nor Murphy, however, is a gifted impressionist so we accept their impersonations at face value, pasting our own memories of these stars (those of us who still remember) over their flaccid representations. The actors, who bear no resemblance to the Lunts, are professionally smooth, but lack the charisma, polish, and charm of the originals; those who have no idea of what the Lunts were like—dated staginess and all—should check out the film of The Guardsman, a clip of which can be found here.

Lunt and Fontanne: The Celestials of Broadway offers a conventional overview of the careers of two great stars the lights of whose memories have dimmed, partly because they refused the lure and lucre of Hollywood. It may prove catnip for those interested in the work and lives of these legendary actors, but, without performances even closely approximating the originals, it remains a pleasant, educational, but ultimately superficial exercise in theatrical nostalgia.


64E4 Mainstage
64 E. 4th St., NYC
Through August 27

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

50. Review: HONOUR: CONFESSIONS OF A MUMBAI COURTESAN--Fringe NYC (seen August 16, 2016)

"Mumbai Jumbai"
Stars range from 5-1.

The first thing my companion and I wanted to know as we emerged onto E. 4th Street after seeing Dipti Mehta’s NYC Fringe offering, Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan, was how much the other had comprehended of what we’d just heard. Then, as we walked toward the subway, a woman who had seen us at the show stopped us to check if we, too, had had trouble following the piece. We weren’t alone!

Dipti Mehta.
Mehta’s provocative one-woman piece is about half a dozen denizens of a Mumbai brothel: Rani, a 16-year-old on the verge of becoming a professional whore; Chameli, her madam-like mother; Shyam, a sleazy pimp; Laal, a “fat, rich, old guy”; Pandit Rama, a lecherous Brahmin priest; and Meena, a transgendered person (hijra) claiming to be “half man, half woman.” It has a great deal going for it in both its subject matter and Mehta’s versatile performance. 
Dipti Mehta. Photo: Kyle Rosenberg.
Unhappily, it has her speaking a mumbo jumbo patois using huge swaths of Indian-accented dialogue, replete with colorfully broken English and Hindi; too often, communication is gone with the monsoon. When she switches from English to Hindi and back again, as she often does, you may not even be sure where one ends and the other begins. It's also often hard to keep up with who's talking at many moments because of the rapid-fire character switches. And it's a shame that the seriously muffled, recorded voice-over segments (sound design: Matt Bittner), which contain material from the Mahabharata about the tragic love of Draupadi (serving as a poetic avatar of Rani) for Karna, are so aurally fuzzy, weakening the impact of Mehta’s accompanying them with the vivid gestures, facial expressions, and movements of classical Indian dance.

The play is related to the hot topic of sexual slavery but its story is not about trafficking per se. It’s a look at the world of Indian prostitution through the tale of a specific individual, Rani, growing up the daughter of a mother, Chameli, who was forced into prostitution by her father at 13, and of how Rani—who longs for love with one man—has no choice in India’s social system but to become a sex worker like her mother. Chameli, knowing there’s no alternative, must behave cruelly to Rani in order so that she may at least become a courtesan, rather than a lowly prostitute. Chameli’s tragedy is that she must be her own daughter’s pimp when bargaining with a client for the highest price she can get for the privilege of taking Rani’s virginity, or her “honour,” as the play puts it.
Dipti Mehta. Photo: Kyle Rosenberg.
Most of what is said is directed either to the audience or to an unseen and unheard American female filmmaker who has been paying Chameli for the right to observe life in the brothel. This brings to mind the excellent 2004 documentary Born into Brothels about a similar situation in Kolkata. Regardless, the subject is rarely covered in the New York theatre, and Mehta has done very well by offering what amounts to a dramatized case study; a coda set some years after the main events is also included. Honour takes pride in being presented in partnership with Apne Aap, “an international organization dedicated to the saving of young girls from the very sex trade this play is about.” 

Honour, it should be emphasized, isn’t didactic agitprop; much of it is human and funny, although it never manages to be as heartbreaking as the subject might suggest. It’s set in a whorehouse so you can expect a heavy dose of unabashed sexual humor and language. When Rani first sees the audience, she says: "Hello! How the fuck did you get up here?" A minute later, she's teaching us the local swear words. We even learn that the place we're in is called Fuck Lane. 

The Mumbai-born and raised Mehta, a dark-haired beauty dressed in tight pants, swirling skirt, silk sash running aslant across her breasts, ankle bracelets, and other accoutrements of Indian dance (costume consultant: Scott Westervelt), is an accomplished actress-dancer who trained in bharatanatyam and kathak while studying for her doctorate at the University of Arizona (she has a PhD in cellular and molecular biology and does cancer research at Sloan Kettering).
Dipti Mehta.
Although a photo of a previous production displays a colorful, if minimalist, set of hanging laundry and projections, director Mark Cirnigliaro is, unfortunately, forced to strip the work down to its fundamentals for the Fringe (where multiple shows share the same venues): a chair on a black stage, three musicians (two drummers and a singer) seated on the floor against a wall, and a musician at a synthesizer up left (the original music is by Rhythm Tuleo). Jason Flamos makes the most of his limited lighting palette.

What makes Honour most unusual as a solo piece, in addition to its subject matter, is that its performer/writer is able to tell its tale by employing her considerable dance skills to make each character entertainingly larger than life, although occasionally lapsing into cartoonishness; I especially liked her characterization of the handsome, cocksure pimp, chain-smoking his bidi cigarettes. Using Monica Kapoor’s expert choreography, Mehta employs not just traditional dance to portray her people—for each of whom she radically alters her voice and posture—but even introduces chunks of Bollywood terpsichore. 

If Mehta and her director could fix its problems of verbal clarity, Honour would deserve an extended run somewhere. Right now, it remains a work in progress, albeit an honorable one.

Wow Café
59-61 E. 4th St., NYC
Through August 27

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

49. Review: STILL NOT (seen August 15, 2016)

"Rue Story"*

A fan was blowing on the audience early in the performance I saw of Harrison Bryan’s unexceptional Still Not at WOW Café in the East Village, where it’s playing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival; I’m not certain but it seems to have been turned off or put on low soon after (perhaps because of the noise) making the hot and steamy, un-air-conditioned venue even more oppressive on one of this summer’s most sultry nights. Melting as I was, I was more concerned about the play’s two actors (one of them the playwright himself) dressed in clothes better suited to a day in spring or autumn than a sticky New York night.  

Shelby Hightower, Harrison Bryan. Photo: Jay Zawack.
The play—set outdoors at a park bench—makes no seasonal references (other than to the imminence of rain) so I wished someone had made a last-minute decision to change the costumes to something more summery. Of course, such considerations might have barely arisen if the play were better written or acted; under the circumstances, though, it was hard not to think that what the sweating actors really wanted was a bucket of cold water thrown on them. (And I don’t mean this review.)

Bryan’s hour and 15-minute play is a desultory, boy-meets-girl comedy featuring an anonymous young man and woman, Him (Bryan) and Her (Shelby Hightower). As noted, this is a park bench play, like so many others since Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story opened that Pandora’s box for playwrights. They meet when Him notices that the eternally vacant park bench he passes on his way home from the office is occupied by a pretty young woman. A mild flirtation begins between the shy but persistent Him and the reluctant Her; she resists his goofily gentle wooing because she’s waiting for the boyfriend with whom she’s just broken up (for which she feels guilty) to come along at any minute. 

The same basic situation is then repeated in five more scenes, each on the day after the preceding scene, with Her rooted to the bench, waiting like Didi and Gogo for the Godot that never arrives, and Him becoming increasingly frustrated by her stubbornness. (The costumes, be it noted, remain the same throughout, even though a little imagination could have provided some variety without delaying the scene transitions.)
Shelby Hightower, Harrison Bryan. Photo: Jay Zawack.
The couple’s conversation offers little more than banal small talk, almost as if they have nothing to share with one another than their feelings and accounts of their dreams. Barely any external reference to the world outside their cocoons is broached; this couple makes tedium a sport worthy of the Olympics. The play’s dramatic arc, despite minor flare-ups into potential drama, is as flat as a day-old Coke, and by day three you’re already counting how many days remain. There’s a mildly interesting plot twist at the end, but at that juncture you’re simply happy the thing is over and everyone can head for the showers.
Harrison Bryan. Photo: Jay Zawack.
Still Not began as a scene Bryan wrote for an MFA class at Boston University and, while fiction, was inspired by his romantic relationship with his fellow student, Hightower, who has remained with the piece as it’s evolved over the past few years, even after she and Bryan split. Clearly, the difficulty of finding and sustaining love is the play’s driving theme but Bryan needs to go deeper than he has here, with more compelling circumstances and characters, to make such cliched material work.

Whatever the up and down circumstances of their personal relationship, neither Bryan nor Hightower is sufficiently believable or charming in these uninteresting roles. Trying hard to be natural they instead fall into mannered cuteness, the kind where every transition seems to have been given a subtext that the actors feel compelled to express physically. The result comes close to mugging. Perhaps director Rory Lance allowed this because he believed it added necessary spice to a bland script. Still Not, however, still does not click.

As the audience departed each member was given an ice-cold bottle of water. These were perfect for us but too late for the play.

*In deference to my friendship with someone involved in this production, I'm refraining from using a thumbs up/down icon for it.


Wow Café
59-61 E. 4th St., NYC
Through August 22



Tuesday, August 9, 2016

48. Review: TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (seen August 6, 2016)

“All in Love and War's Not Fair"

Stars range from 5-1.
Daniel Sullivan’s testosterone-fueled, buff-bodied production of Troilus and Cressida for Shakespeare in the Park (that venerable institution’s third revival of the play) serves the noble purpose of giving work to a cast of nearly 30 actors, well-known and otherwise.  They work valiantly to make this satirical “problem” play less problematic; Shakespeare’s script, however, during which two stories (drawn from Homer and Chaucer) vie for attention, neither with a truly admirable character to root for, remains mired in its own internal conflicts, like the war that composes its background.

Corey Stoll, Alex Breaux. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One plotline follows the story of the Trojan War during the seventh of its 10 years; the war, of course, was fought to retrieve Helen (Tala Ashe, who doubles as Hector's spouse, Andromache ), the beauteous wife of the Greek, Menelaus (Forrest Malloy), after she was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris (Maurice Jones). The chief focus among the Greeks is on the rivalry between the powerful lummox Ajax (Alex Breaux) and the thuggish Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), who’s been moping in his tent, refusing to fight. He eventually attributes this to a request from Polyxena, the Trojan princess he loves (along with his “masculine whore” Patroclus [Tom Pecinka]).
Anftre Burnap, John Glover, Ismenia Mendes. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Overseeing the Greeks is their general, Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson), served by his hoary advisor, Nestor, played—despite the references to his advanced age—by James Edward Hyland as a an aging combatant still proud of his vigor. And stirring things up is the crafty, philosophical Ulysses, performed by Corey Stoll in oddly out-of-place spectacles, business suit, and cuffs tucked into combat boots, like a hybrid civilian-soldier.
John Douglss Thompson, Sanjit De Silva (as Aeneas), Edward James Hyland (seated). Photo: Joan Marcus.
The other plotline follows the efforts of the sleazy, white-suited, pandering Pandarus (John Glover, clomping about with a cane and an annoyingly distracting limp)the old uncle of the beautiful Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), daughter of the Trojan priest Calchas (Miguel Perez)—to arrange a liaison between his niece and the young Trojan prince, Troilus (Andrew Burnap). The lovers swear to be faithful but, after a night of love, this comes to naught when Cressida’s father, Calchas (Miguel Perez, who doubles as Priam), who’s joined the Greeks, arranges an exchange for her with a captured Trojan.  
Alex Breaux, Corey Stoll, Zach Appelman, Edward James Hyland. Photo; Joan Marcus.
While visiting the Greek camp, Troilus, aided by Ulysses, discovers Cressida canoodling with the Greek Diomedes (Zach Appelman). Unlike Romeo and Juliet, to whom Troilus and Cressida are sometimes compared, lust, not love is the power driving these lovers. Ultimately, the plot threads join, the Greeks and Trojans battle, and Troilus’ older brother, Hector (Bill Heck), the great Trojan hope, is treacherously slain by Achilles’ followers at his command. 
Maurice Jones (2nd from lef), Tala Ashe, John Glover. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sullivan’s staging, which sets the play in the present-day world, accentuates its antiwar message, a directorial approach that became increasingly common during the Vietnam years. Here, the Greek military wear sand-colored, American camo and the Trojans Special Ops-like black. Updating Shakespeare’s military characters to modern times can sometimes be illuminating, but the attempt to underline the playwright’s skepticism toward war and heroism by tying the Trojan War, however vaguely, to the current Middle East quagmire, represents a false equivalency. The point could as easily, and less confusingly, be made in traditional period costumes.
Zach Appelman, Sanjit De Silva, Maurice Jones (right). Photo: Joan Marcus.
On the one hand, thanks to the excellence of the smoke-filled battle scenes (which can be credited, at least in part, to fight directors Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet), the martial action, both mano a mano and by bands of opposing soldiers, is theatrically exciting. On the other, it’s impossible not to wonder—given the weaponry—why the war’s taking so damned long to end. Had Homer’s soldiers fought with firepower like this it would have been over in months. It almost seems that, until the explosive mêlée that ends the play (with guns fired directly at the audience), the only fighting has been in conventional hand to hand style. Where have those bullets been for seven years? (An arranged bout between Ajax and Hector resembles mixed martial arts.)  The very reason these heroes—men like Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), Ajax, and Hector—earned their reputations is because of their personal combat skills, the kind that are meaningless when firearms are introduced.
Ismenia Mendex, Andrew Burnap, John Glover. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The three-hour production is acted with energy, clarity, vigor, and understanding. Cancelmi, who replaced David Harbour as Achilles after that actor suffered—I’m not making this up—a torn Achilles tendon during a fight scene, gives his tattooed, bare-torsoed, unshaven, but nevertheless eloquent hero an edge of macho crudity. The approach captures the coarseness, moral as well as physical, of men at war. Breaux, who's making a career of roles that display his ripped physique (he was the swimmer in Red Speedo), does well by the brutish Ajax even though he’d probably have made a better Achilles and Cancelmi a more convincing Ajax.

Heck gives the finest performance, making Hector a believably conflicted warrior, one who professes nobility but is reduced to savagery; Heck makes every second of his limited stage time count. Max Casella as Thersites, the scurvy, cynical, always raging slave, also deserves notice. Thersites, the voice of ugly truth, is one of Shakespeare's most demanding roles, mingling anger with humor, but it's hard to laugh at what he says. Casella plays him vividly like a ratlike, aging, New York street urchin.
Tala Ashe, Bill Heck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
David Zinn has created a functional set of upstage panels and girders that can be swung around into new configurations; his costumes are satisfactory but, apart from several nonmilitary wardrobes, limited by the range of modern combat wear. Robert Weitzel displays an excellent lighting palette, and positive additions are made by Mark Menard’s sound design and Dan Moses Schreier’s intense music. Sullivan keeps things moving, even at the loss of subtlety, but can’t resist the occasional gimmickry intrusion, like having Pandarus and Cressida review the Greek army passing by, hidden from us, on a laptop screen.
Andrew Burnap, Bill Heck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One of the problems facing Shakespeareans is whether Troilus and Cressida ever was staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It has wonderful moments, brilliant language, bawdy humor, and vivid characters; it also bears relevant satirical messages about war and the corrupting power of lust. As Sullivan's competent but not especially memorable revival demonstrates, though, these disparate qualities aren’t enough to overcome a production whose most distinctive scenes belong in a Rambo movie.
Maurice Jones (2nd from left), Bill Heck, Miguel Perez. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Troilus and Cressida
Delacorte Theater/Shakespeare in the Park
Central Park at 82nd St., NYC
Through August 14