Monday, October 31, 2016

Saturday, October 29, 2016

90. Review: TWO CLASS ACTS (October 27, 2016)

"Two Class Problems"

Stars range from 5-1.
As the lobby display of posters for plays by A.R. Gurney at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa reveals, the place has been a veritable home away from home for the playwright, who turns 86 on November 1. Thus it makes perfect sense that the Flea’s closing production at its White Street venue, prior to moving several blocks away to upgraded quarters at 20 Thomas Street, is Two Class Acts, a two-play bill offering the world premieres of “Ajax” and “Squash.”

 The plays are offered in a repertory arrangement, so check the schedule closely if you plan to see them. Regrettably, I recommend them more because they’re your last chance to see a Flea offering at this 20-year-old venue (in a 99-year-old building) than for either's intrinsic quality. Surely, appreciation for the distinguished playwright’s contributions over the years played a large role in their selection; while each is entertaining, neither is up to the standards of Gurney’s best work.

Both plays have to do with a classical lit professor’s inappropriate relationship with an idiosyncratic student, although their plots and subjects differ sharply. For “Ajax,” the downstairs space has been transformed by Jason Sherwood into a lecture hall at a state university, with desk-like tables and chairs surrounding a lectern. The audience is assumed to be the students, and the play begins as the attractive young teacher, Ms. Meg Tucker (Olivia Jampol, alternating with Rachel Lin), is inquiring about a student named Adam Feldman, who’s missed the first couple of classes.

Meg, claiming she’s not a professor but an “adjunct instructor” hired to teach a single course on ancient Greek drama, is a would-be actress with a master’s degree, not in classics but in drama. (Reputable college departments don’t ordinarily hire adjuncts with degrees in other fields; we can chalk it up to dramatic license except that it won't be the only time during the evening when some fact checking might have helped.)
Olivia Jampol. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Adam (Chris Tabet, alternating with Ben Lorenz) emerges from amidst the audience/class and reveals himself to be the kind of loud, obnoxious, yet also talented know-it-all, who crops up periodically in any teacher’s classroom. Meg, despite her initial disdain, finds him so fascinating that she not only lets him occupy valuable class time but even to come on to her in front of everyone else. She also agrees to let him substitute a different assignment for the one the rest of the class is doing. This is Adam's adaptation of Sophocles’ Ajax, which Adam interprets in terms of its title character’s being a victim of PTSD. This isn't such a stretch actually, as the Theater of War project, in which both Ajax and Philoctetes played a part, demonstrates. 
Chris Tabet. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As the episodic, hour-long play, using sound-punctuated blackouts, hurtles forward from scene to scene, Meg keeps making rapid costume changes from one stylish outfit to another (not precisely what you’d expect from a low-paid adjunct but, okay, it's dramatic license). Adam’s Ajax gets a highly lauded school production starring Meg as Ajax’s lover, Tecmessa.

Meanwhile, Adam, a perfectionist, continues to fiddle with the play (and with Meg), which is being prepared for a professional New York production, eventually turning it into a play reflecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and making us wonder about taking that license away). Its pro-Palestinian viewpoint creates a backlash because the school’s administrators fear losing funding from Jewish donors. The fact that Adam himself is Jewish only makes things worse. This dilemma, of course, is rife with dramatic possibilities but it’s far too simplistically dealt with here, and the play dissolves in a whirlpool of improbabilities. 

Jampol and Tabet (both members of the Flea’s young resident company, the Bats) do their enthusiastic best but neither is able to make their characters believable, a problem exacerbated by the difference between their heightened behavior and that of the audience, which is asked to accept the conceit that it shares the same world as the characters.

In “Squash,” yet another student intrudes into the life and psyche of an unwitting classics professor. The time is the 1970s (as the music and clothing quickly reveal) and the professor is a real one, not an adjunct, albeit a year away from tenure. Instead of showing us his first encounter with the troublesome student in a classroom, Gurney places it in a locker room (Trump-free, thank goodness).

The student, Gerald Caskey (Rodney Richardson), who's gay, meets the handsome, Professor Dan Proctor (Dan Amboyer), buff as a Greek god, after watching the latter play squash (a game Dan loves to pontificate about), and confesses that one of the reasons he’s there is to see his naked body. (Rear end alert!) Shocked, the married-with-kids prof abruptly dismisses this sexually challenging interloper.
Dan Amboyer, Rodney Richardson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When Gerald, receiving a C- for his paper (the class is studying Plato's "Symposium"), meets with Dan about it, thinking it’s a reaction to his locker-room comments, Dan explains that the paper ignored the assignment to compare the Greek concepts of love, agape (universal, unconditional love) and eros (love with a sexual component), instead focusing only on eros. Soon enough, though, agape and eros are battling it out in Dan's own psyche as he begins to take an interest in Gerald, while the latter has taken up squash and is finding happiness in a straight affair with his female squash partner. Of course, Dan’s confusion is causing his marriage to Becky (Nicole Lowrence) to begin sliding away.
Rodney Richardson, Dan Amboyer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gurney’s depiction of the fluidity of sexual orientation gets a few laughs but it’s too simplistic and sketchy to be convincing. And we have to take it on faith that Dan would suddenly find himself doubting his masculinity. Yet more dramatic license is required for us to accept Becky's reporting that Dan’s new department head visited their home in order to better learn about the family lives of her faculty, or that Becky called the head to lobby on behalf of Dan’s receiving tenure; the latter, in fact, would be grounds for not granting it at most institutions.

Finally, and it’s a minor point, I’d like to know why Becky, listing Dan’s achievements, says he’s added The Tales of Lady Murasaki to his Great Books course. I assume she means The Tale of Genji, which Lady Murasaki wrote, but it's one more item a fact-checker might have caught.

The performances in “Squash” are polished but not particularly illuminating, and the piece begins to drag well before its court time is up. “Squash” is performed sandwich-style, with the acting area--showing three different locales--running between two opposing sides. All the creative contributions, from Stafford Arima’s direction to Jake DeGroot’s versatile lighting to Sky Switser’s costumes (apart from Meg’s too-fashionable ones in “Ajax”) to Miles Polaski’s sound design, help bolster the plays, but Gurney's’ characters and situations, for all their potential, are too artificial to generate belief.

The new Flea promises to have a space named after A.R. Gurney. Here's hoping it produces the best of this distinguished playwright's work, both past and future. 


The Flea Theater
41 White St., NYC
Through November 14

Saturday, October 22, 2016

89. Review: INNER VOICES (seen October 21, 2016)

“Hear Them Roar”

Stars range from 5-1.

Hopefully, the half-filled house at the TBG Theatre when I saw the delightful new installment in the biannual Inner Voices series was an anomaly, even though there was no presidential debate keeping people home that night. Each program in the series—produced by Premieres under the artistic direction of Pauline Haupt—offers an evening of independent mini-musicals created for solo performers and accompanied by different musicians. Of the three programs I’ve seen over the years, this was, all around, by far the best. And, while each star gives a terrific performance, the one by Nancy Anderson in the middle piece, “The Pen,” is an absolute must-see for every musical theatre aficionado.
T. Oliver Reid. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Unlike “The Pen” and “The Booty Call,” the show’s second and third pieces, which are monologues about a particular character’s own thoughts and behavior as they experience them, the opening work, “Just One Q,” directed by Brad Rouse, is a story about the past, narrated by a third party telling us about other people. Written by Ellen Fitzhugh and composed by Ted Shen, the story, set in 1961, is told to us by an African-American nursing home orderly named Bennie (T. Oliver Reid). He tells of two elderly women at the Broadbend Nursing Home in Arkansas, Bertha and Julynne, with a long history of mutual jealousy, who wrangled while playing Scrabble over things like which of them would be buried next to Mr. Greene Cotton, the man both loved (one was his wife, the other the woman he left her for), and who died when whacked in the head by a hot iron.
T. Oliver Reid. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Benny, dressed in white shirt, pants, and shoes, with a little black bowtie, sings in the first person and as both old ladies, while jazz-like music is played upstage by an ensemble of bass (Mary Ann McSweeney), piano (music director Andrew Resnick), and reeds (Harry Hassell). Reid sings beautifully, has an open and engaging personality, uses a rich Arkansas accent, and makes the most of his not particularly memorable Southern Gothic material.
T. Oliver Reid. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With “The Pen,” sensitively directed by Margot Bordelon, Nancy Anderson offers a truly awesome performance as Laura, a Milwaukee woman who, at first, seems like your average, neatly dressed professional (sensible heels, skirt, buttoned up white blouse, red sweater)—she’s an executive assistant—getting ready to leave for work. But before she can even open the door, she begins to double check her bag to make sure she’s got everything she needs. It’s something most of us have done before departing for the day, and watching her search for her keys, with an almost willful attempt to keep from being too stressed, seems amusing at first.
Nancy Anderson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It gradually dawns on us, however, that there’s something a bit off about her behavior, and pretty soon, when she treats a purple pen she finds in her bag as if it might somehow be carrying something tantamount to the Zika virus, merely because she doesn’t remember it, we realize the depth of this woman’s OCD and germaphobia. Her manic spraying of disinfectant and her wiping clean everything she might touch as she fights to gain self-control so she can get to work on time reach psychologically frightening proportions. As she struggles she recounts details of her work life (as the “Coffee Bitch”) and personal life. The only drawback comes when we wonder how a woman so oppressed by her compulsions can get through all the other days the piece ignores.
Nancy Anderson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The insightful lyrics by Dan Collins and semi-operatic music by Julianne Wick, performed by musical director and pianist Alexander Rovang and guitarist Tom Monkell, perfectly capture the many shifts in Laura’s emotional predicament, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic. It’s hard to conceive of a finer realization of Laura than Anderson’s; with her delicate features and puppy dog eyes she creates an image of fear and trembling so vivid it could be used as a case study in psych classes. The convincing intensity of her acting (including a mastery of physical movement) is greatly heightened by the perfection of her soprano, demonstrating how powerful the elements of music and acting can be when perfectly balanced with one another. This is exceptional work, deserving of a wider audience.
Nancy Anderson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Closing the program, after an intermission, is something quite different but also valuable as a demonstration of the effect of psychological hang-ups on even the most gifted and seemingly normal individuals. In “The Booty Call,” directed by Saheem Ali (who also contributed to the lyrics), Gabe is a versatile, 28-year-old musician-singer working on a demo in his bedroom cum well-equipped recording studio when a phone call from a girl named Sam, inviting him to come over for dinner and what comes naturally, becomes a potential distraction from the work at hand.
Michael Thurber. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Gabe is in the terrifically virtuosic hands of Michael Thurber (music and lyrics), a friendly, likable guy dressed in basic grunge-wear uniform of socks, boxers, and t-shirt, who wrote the music. He actually seems to be composing it as he works out his recent sexual performance issues and comes to terms with what he’s seeking in a relationship. Demonstrating his multifaceted talent on a drum pad, keyboard, synthesizer, huge electric bass, and electric guitar, and using a looping mechanism to record background effects and multiple voices, Thurber performs in multiple genres, including hip hop, rock, and jazz, all of it greatly appealing.
Michael Thurber. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The stage space remains open for each play, with designer Reid Thompson’s different arrangements of door and window frames supported by carefully selected scenic props (a table and chairs with a Scrabble set; a sink and stove with a few items of furniture; a bed and musical equipment). Oliver Wason’s lighting is consistently supportive, and M. Meriwether Snipes’s costumes never falter.

There are only a few performances left and every seat deserves to be filled. These are Inner Voices you’ll want to hear.


TBG Theatre
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through October 29

Friday, October 21, 2016

88. Review: DUAT (seen October 20, 2016)

"All About the Jones Boy"
Stars range from 5-1.

Daniel Alexander Jones. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
As you may know, Soho Rep, one of New York’s most consistently adventurous theatre groups, recently discovered that, because of technicalities regarding its continuing existence in the TriBeCa space it has occupied for a quarter-century, it’s being forced to find a new location. Even had this situation not arisen, its 2016-2017 season opener, Duat, was already booked for the Connelly Theatre on the Lower East Side, while the 46 Walker Street venue was being rented to an outside company. Sadly, that show became a victim of the circumstances and had to close just as it was about to open; happily, a new venue subsequently was found.  
Daniel Alexander Jones. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
This, of course, places Soho Rep in a liminal space, perhaps comparable to the Egyptian afterlife known as Duat, from which Daniel Alexander Jones’s unusual theatrical curiosity takes its name. Jones, a writer-composer-director-performer, also is known by his drag queen name of Jomama Jones, a soul music diva; he made a splash at the Soho Rep in 2011 with Jomama Jones: Radiate, a monologue show with music, backed by two singers. David Rooney suggested in the New York Times that the Jomama character “deserves a stronger narrative arc.” Perhaps this was the spark that ignited his musical play Duat.
Jacques Gerald Colimon, Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Daniel Alexander Jones. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The racially mixed Jones, who identifies as black, has long been obsessed with ancient Egyptian cosmology; each seat in the theatre, in fact, contains an illustrated sheet listing his “Favorite Egyptian Gods,” such as the jackal-headed Anubis, Ma’at, Ra, Isis, Osiris, and so on. The script for Duat is prefaced by 26 pages of material by both Jones and Gale Jackson (a professor at Goddard College), some of it autobiographical but much of it about Egyptian gods and religion.
Tenzin Gund-Morrow. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Jones, who says in Duat that he read every book in his Springfield, Massachusetts, library, writes in high-flown prose, calling the “context” of his work “Afromysticism,” a subject inspired by his preoccupation with the history and contributions of black American culture. He exclaims: “I am compelled by the workings (visible and invisible) of the processes by which the potential becomes the manifest, the melody becomes the song; and by which the song becomes the call to us; and the process by which we, individually and collectively, in the presence of that call respond; and I am compelled by the cosmological and political implications of these workings.” 
Daniel Alexander Jones, Jacques Gerald Colimon. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Fortunately, most theatregoers at Duat will not be reading Jones’s exposition but they’ll be spending two hours and 15 minutes (with an intermission) in his presence. There are, indeed, occasional references to the gods of Egypt and to Duat, and there’s even a strange musical scene in which a masked actor is costumed as Anubis; I leave it to you to decide on their significance, or whatever else Jones has on his teeming, if unfocused, mind. He himself isn’t concerned with whether you understand the play in a conventional sense: “Indeed, if you were to ask at the end, ‘but, what did it mean?’, I might invite you to consider ‘what you experienced.’ Hopefully, the meanings, plural, will unfold within you.” Hopefully.

The play, which Jones wants to be considered “not as a traditional script, but as a performance text,” allows for improvisation at certain points, and most of it, vividly staged by Will Davis, is played directly to the audience. There are a number of infectious songs (by Samora Pinderhughes, Bobby Halverson, and Jones), the dialogue is often elliptical and poetic (or faux-poetic, depending on your tastes), and the lyrics are artfully oblique. An upbeat, even motivational, tone and attitude drive the action, particularly in act two, with its imagery intended to suggest the planting of human seeds, pollination, and eventual flowering.  
Daniel Alexander Jones,Tenzin Gund-Morrow. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The first scene, “Heart,” is set in a library around a long table running parallel with the front of the stage. The nooks and crannies to either side of the auditorium are filled with old reading lamps, plants, and card catalogue files. We meet Daniel (Jones), a dapper, gentle fellow in his 40s; a teenage boy, Jacques (Jacques Gerard Colimon); and the 12-year-old Tenzin (Tenzin Gund-Morrow). The spiffy trio, wearing outfits in beige and brown, are creating a mix-tape of Daniel’s life, using a phonograph, card catalogs, and an overhead projector. 
Kaneza Schall, Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Jacques Gerald Colimon,Toussaint Jeanlouis, Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The boys are younger versions of Daniel, and the narrative –something of a confession urged on by Tenzin’s periodic reminder, “confess”—concerns Daniel’s life, his family, and the love for books fostered by the librarians (Stacey Karen Robinson) at his hometown “Black Library” in the mid-1980s, where he learned about race and class relations, as well as about queerness. Jeffrey Dahmer also played a role, so to speak, in his growing up. References to empowering black musical icons are made, with selections from Diana Ross and Prince. 
Stacey Karen Robinson, Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Kaneza Schaal, Daniel Alexander Jones. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The style changes radically for the cryptically ritualistic second scene, “Black,” which includes Anubis (Toussaint Jeanlouis) and other Egyptian figures, and is described as “a weighing of the human heart” against a feather. Whatever. Its standout moment is when the sweet-voiced Tenzin sings "Supernova."

Act two, “Flower,” blooms, and we’re in a schoolroom, with a table and chairs to either side, a blackboard (green, actually), and three large windows overhead. Jones, now in his Jomama persona, is the kindly, glam-bewigged schoolteacher, Miss Jones, showing off his long-legged figure in stilettos and a form-fitting blue skirt and white blouse. Her job is to hold a school pageant, which she considers a natural progression from Egypt’s ancient Abydos Pageant Play, in which the husk-like heart of Osiris was planted in the ground. The kids perform it wearing wonderful blue, paisley-decorated suits.
Kaneza Schaal,Stacey Karen Robinson, Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Toussaint Jeanlouis. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The most linear and realistic of the show’s scenes, it introduces both the horticultural scientist George Washington Carver (Jeanlouis) and Booker T. Washington (Kaneza Schaal)—“Tuskegee” is written on the board—as part of the pageant, and maintains much of its interest via its songs and their flowery lyrics. As part of the proceedings, the dazzling Jones appears in several full-length diva gowns, and reveals his creamy tenor, as well as a decent falsetto.

Attractively designed by Arnulfo Maldonado (sets), Oana Botez (costumes), and lights (Solomon Weisbard), and uniformly well performed, Duat is the kind of thing Soho Rep has been doing for years. Aficionados of this strain of downtown theatre may flock to it, but, while appreciating bits and pieces, and even laughing now and then, this viewer often longed for a Rosetta Stone to decipher that Jones boy's artistic hieroglyphics. 
Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Jacques Gerald Colimon, Daniel Alexander Jones, Kaneza Schaal, Toussaint Jeanlouis. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.


Connelly Theatre
220 E. 4th St., NYC

Thursday, October 20, 2016

87. Review: TICK, TICK . . . BOOM! (seen October 18, 2016)

“Tick of the Town”

The 1996 death at age 36 of the as yet little-known composer-lyricist-librettist Jonathan Larson, caused by an aortic aneurysm, on the night before the first Off-Broadway preview of his soon-to-be megahit Broadway musical Rent, is one of the most poignant events in recent theatre history. It’s impossible to tell what Larson would have produced in Rent’s wake but the outstanding new revival by the Keen Company of his less well-known autobiographical musical Tick, Tick . . . BOOM!, created years before Rent, gives us an opportunity to confirm, even in this early work, just how rich a talent he possessed.
Ciara Renee, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Created as a “rock monologue” in 1990, when Larson began performing it (under different titles) at a series of Off-Off-Broadway theatres, it was posthumously revised in 2001 by David Auburn (Proof). He converted it into a piece for three actors, one playing the Larson-based Jon and the others portraying both his best friend, Michael, and his girlfriend, Susan, as well as various peripheral roles, including Jon’s parents and agent.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Auburn’s version received an award-winning production at the Jane Street Theatre (its run disturbed by 9/11), with Raúl Esparza as Jon; produced an original cast recording; toured nationally; and had multiple American and international productions. It even received a New York Encores! presentation in 2014 with the pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jon, his Hamilton costar, Leslie Odom, Jr., as Michael, and Karen Olivo as Susan. So, while Tick, Tick . . . BOOM! somehow passed me by (I was never a Rentboy), Jonathan Silverstein’s brilliant staging (abetted by the limited but just-right choreography of Christie O’Grady) at Theatre Row’s Acorn did what its title promises and blew me away.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tick, Tick . . . BOOM! is an “intimate musical,” running an intermissionless hour and a half. Steven Kemp has provided a minimal set (a few pieces of furniture rapidly shifted by the actors) on a mostly bare stage over which hangs an off-kilter structure resembling a graffiti-decorated ceiling with four windows in it (used for terrific lighting effects by Josh Bradford). There's a small, onstage orchestra (piano, percussion, guitar, and bass) led by musical director Joey Chancey. And the tiny cast could barely be bettered, with Nick Blaemire (looking not very unlike Jon’s creator), and George Salazar and Ciara Renée as Michael and Susan.
George Salazar, Ciara Renee, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Explosively talented, with distinctive faces Al Hirschfeld would have loved, this gifted singing-dancing-acting trio takes us on a mostly rock-infused journey through Jon’s travails in 1990 (mostly true, it seems) as he seeks to get a workshop production for his musical Suburbia. Working as a waiter and living in a cruddy, sixth-floor, Soho walkup, Jon, an artsy-looking, suspenders-wearing dude in downtown grunge (the perfect costumes are by Jennifer Paar), is torn between his passion for a career as a musical theatre writer and the lure of a well-paying corporate job. 

Representing the latter is his successful, childhood friend, Michael, a gay man who, as played by George Salazar, is a sweet-faced, slightly husky gent with a well-groomed pompadour; Michael himself made the decision he wants Jon to make by abandoning show biz for a job paying off in tailored suits, luxurious apartments, and fancy cars. Further stressing Jon out is his stylish girlfriend, Susan, a dance teacher (to whom Ciara Renée brings a toothy, 1,000-watt smile), who wants Jon to earn a secure living away from New York so they can raise a family.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The title, as Jon informs us, is the sound of his growing anxiety as he approaches 30 with the looming need to make the choice of his life. By the feel-good conclusion, he’s able to accept his age and play his piano loud enough to drown out the tick-ticks as he joins with his friends in singing that “actions speak louder than words.”
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This schmaltzily clichéd story includes not only a conventional romantic subplot but a development toward the end that seems uncomfortably melodramatic, regardless of whether it actually happened. There’s no escaping the fact that we’re willing to buy all this because of the sad irony we feel at comparing the ambitious ideals of the character Jon with what happened to the real Jon just at the moment when all he’d sacrificed for came true.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Larson’s emotional investment and his verbal and musical imagination go far in turning narrative dross into theatre gold. While not every song is dynamite—several sound similar to other musical theatre numbers—enough are standouts to make them worth waiting for. Larson’s debt to his idol, Stephen Sondheim, is incorporated in the script, including the wonderful song “Sunday,” an homage to the song of that name in Sunday in the Park with George. My least favorite songs are the ones requiring Jon’s Billy Joel-like piano-pounding, while my favorite would probably be a toss-up between Susan’s powerhouse “Come to Your Senses” and the very clever “Therapy,” which grows naturally out of a fraught conversation between Jon and Susan:
George Salazar, Ciara Renee, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This revival of Tick, Tick . . . BOOM! deserves an extended run. But just in case it doesn’t get one I recommend that you hasten down to 42nd Street and see what all the ticking’s about.
Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


Acorn Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 20

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

85. Review: PUBLIC ENEMY (seen October 18, 2016)

“When Lies Trump Truth”
Stars range from 5-1.

What with the news of the inept, perhaps criminal, political response to lead being found in the water of Flint, Michigan, it was only a matter of time before yet another revival of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, also about toxic water, was dredged up to remind us of that great dramatist’s prescience. The 1882 play’s various themes, including the conflict between truth and self-interest and its questions about the validity of majority opinions, remain pertinent, especially at times like these when widespread dissatisfaction with our political leaders and the despoilment of the environment roils the nation.

Robbie Tann, Nilaja Sun, Guiesseppe Jones. Photo: Russ Rowland.
For all their continuing bite and relevance, Ibsen’s ideas are embedded in a dated drama that is difficult to effectively embody on stage, as the dull 2012 Broadway production revealed. This has inspired several updated adaptations that attempt to make his characters and plot more immediate, one example being Scottish playwright David Harrower’s (Blackbird) version, retitled Public Enemy, first done at England’s Young Vic in 2013 and now being presented by the Pearl Theatre Company.

Harrower, while retaining the setting of a small Norwegian town (or so it would appear), has radically revised the script to sound colloquial and look contemporary, with its five acts squeezed into a brisk 90, intermissionless minutes. Harry Feiner’s setting is a wide, paneled room in starkly modernist style, dramatically lit by Marika Kent; its wooden tables and squared-off, uncomfortable-looking chairs, rearranged for each locale, echo the wooden walls.
John Keating, Alex Purcell, Robbie Tann, Jimonn Cole. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The set suggests the cold realities faced by the central character, Dr. Stockmann (Jimonn Cole), when the townspeople—led by Stockmann’s obnoxious brother, the mayor (Guiesseppe Jones)—turn against him after his research shows the water has been poisoned by the tannery of Stockmann’s father-in-law, Kiil (Dominic Cuskern). Since the town hopes to thrive from visitors coming to bathe in its spas, and the cost of fixing the problem is prohibitive, Stockmann, the would-be savior, becomes a public enemy, even the liberal newspapers turning against him. He and his family are attacked but, refusing to leave, he vows to stay on and start a school.
Nilaja Sun, Jimmon Cole. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The essential issues remain in place but everything has been brought to the level of agitprop melodrama. Whatever its value in reducing the play’s themes to a high-school civics class lesson (the first row when I attended was filled with enthusiastic high-school kids), Harrower’s adapting the play to a present-day context simply doesn’t work. It’s not credible for Kiil, for example, to be so ignorant of the fact that bacteria can’t be seen by the naked eye and use that as an excuse to dismiss Stockmann’s claims.

Or for the printer Aslasken (John Keating, usually so interesting but here quirkily unconvincing) to think he can stop Stockmann’s words from getting out by refusing to print them. In fact, all the arguments to stop Stockmann from informing the world of his research become meaningless in the Internet world. A laptop makes its presence known in the staging, but I guess nobody in Norway knows how to use it.
Jimmon Cole and company. Photo: Russ Rowland.
And why doesn’t Stockmann call for additional scientific support for his findings? Is he the only scientist in Norway? And how can the townspeople ignore scientific findings that will cause major health problems merely because to do something about them is too expensive? Won’t the eventual expense of dealing with the results be even worse?
Guiesseppe Jones, Jimmon Cole. Photo: Russ Rowland.
It’s easy to accept the skepticism about scientific evidence in an 1882 context, which would allow the people to rationalize their decision based on inadequate general knowledge. But in 2016? It’s not enough to argue about the ignorance of today’s climate change deniers; that issue, for all its potential relevance on another plane of discussion, doesn’t apply on this one, where the evidence is being presented in advance of the problem it’s intended to prevent, and in public, not in a political backroom.
Company of Public Enemy. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Would an entire town knowingly ignore scientific conclusions and invite potential catastrophe merely because of self-interest when that self-interest is itself bound to be destroyed? It’s questions like these that may drive you crazy as you watch these otherwise clueless people go about their business. On the other hand, there are enough provocative nuggets scattered here and there to stir your thoughtful ire.

The production itself, directed by Hal Brooks, is awkward and overwrought, the acting (or, too often, overacting) mediocre. Cole’s Stockmann has his moments, especially when his anger boils over during his extended speech at a public hearing (staged to make the audience complicit in his downfall), but nothing he does can make this Stockmann other than a cardboard hero. As for the supporting company, some of whom have done much better work before, the less said the better. Best not to become a public enemy, after all.  


Pearl Theatre
555 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 6