Thursday, September 28, 2017

75 (2017-2018): Review: AS YOU LIKE IT (seen September 22, 2017)

“Bard du Jour”

For my review of As You Like It please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

74 (2017-2018): Review: BREEDERS (seen September 27, 2017)

“Not Habitat Forming”

In Dan Giles’s Breeders, an award-winning dark comedy seen earlier in San Francisco, Dean (Jacob Perkins) and Mikey (Alton Alburo) are gay partners in their late 30s who’ve been together since they were 19 and are adopting a baby as soon its mother, a friend named Zoë, gives birth. Mikey, the sole breadwinner, goes off to work while Dean (whose previous job is never mentioned) has agreed to be the stay-at-home partner, preparing for the new arrival.
Jacob Perkins, Alton Alburo. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Also occupying the apartment is a plastic habitat, home to Jason (Fernando Gonzales) and Tyson (Lea McKenna-Garcia), a pair of hamsters. Dean and Mikey, who thought they were both male, first realize they're male and female when Jason mounts Tyson. Watching them go at it soon stirs Dean’s insecurity about his own situation with Mikey.

Lea McKenna-Carcia, Fernando Gonzalez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The scenes alternate between the humans and the animals, the former focusing on things like Dean’s fears about becoming a parent, of losing his freedom to become a boringly normalized gay dad like Neil Patrick Harris, or the need for affirmation he gets by hooking up with a guy (Gonzalez, in a nice shift from his hamster persona) he meets online to satisfy his urge to have his toes sucked. (If had a yucky scene score I’d give this one 100%.)

The rodent business looks at the very human hamsters and the changes in their affections—including the dominant Tyson’s poking the love-starved Jason’s eye out, among even more nasty things—after Tyson becomes pregnant and gives birth (as we watch) to a litter of nine pups.

As the couples bicker about their emotional and sexual needs, their thoughts on escape, and their feelings about the responsibilities of parenthood, we get to compare and contrast their relationships. The overriding subject is the permutations of love, even among inanimate objects.
Alton Alburo, Jacob Perkins, Lea McKenna-Garcia, Fernando Gonzalez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Giles’s dialogue, deftly humorous on the page, too often fails to register on stage in Jaki Bradley’s languorously directed production, played for quiet naturalism at such low energy you want to offer even the human characters nutrient pellets. There are cute moments scattered through the generally static action but the actors, despite the apparent honesty of their work, need more comic charisma to satisfy the play’s demands. Garcia, as the moody Tyson, and Gonzalez as the love-addled Jason come closest to the play’s needs.
Alton Alburo, Jacob Perkins. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The 85-minute play takes place on Brian Dudkiewicz’s neutral set: a circular platform (with a matching disc overhead), backed by two semicircular upstage screens. The platform’s dominated by a sofa bed that the actors—in time to Ben Vigus’s playful sound design—revolve to move the action back and forth between the human and the animal domiciles.
Alton Alburo, Jacob Perkins. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Although Oona Curley’s lighting helps, a set that allowed the animal habitat and the apartment to blend better might have made a stronger metaphorical statement. Genevieve V. Beller’s passable costumes provide casual office wear (no tie) for Mikey and basic grunge for the bearded Dean, while the rodents are carefully nonliteral in what look like tan flight suits touched up here and there with white fleece.

Breeders—which concludes, nicely, with the surrogate mother (also played by Garcia) as a woman trying hard not to glance at the newborn cradled next to her in Dean’s arms—has potential but it’s only intermittently realized in this low-intensity New Light Theater Project production. Here’s hoping it’ll breed livelier versions elsewhere.


Access Theatre
380 Broadway, NYC
Through October 14

Friday, September 22, 2017

73 (2017-2018): Review: KPOP (seen September 19, 2017)

“The Good Korean Explosion”

North Korean missile launches may be occupying the headlines but South Korea is responsible for the sonic blasts emanating nightly from the elaborate Ars Nova/Ma-Yi Theatre Company/Woodshed Collective production of Kpop at the sleekly modern A.R.T./New York Theatres in Hell’s Kitchen.
Conceived by the Woodshed Collective and Jason Kim, this is a truly immersive venture (or adventure) into the world of Kpop (or K-Pop), the South Korean musical genre that has become an international sensation over the past several decades (think Psy and “Gangnam Style”). Creatively directed by Teddy Bergman, this ambitious musical occupies a huge amount of space divided into a labyrinth of well-constructed hallways leading to a variety of rooms where the dramatic action (the show’s weakest element) plays out.  
James Seol. Photo: Ben Arons.
The genius behind the design and construction is Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, while Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew has outdone herself in illuminating the complex arrangement with her often dazzling lighting.

When you enter the lobby you receive a colored wristband and then proceed upstairs to a cavernous, black room with a raised stage in the middle and smaller platforms ringing the space. Posters of fictional Kpop idols line the walls. A cash bar awaits the thirsty both before the show and during the grand finale.
James Saito, Vanessa Kai. Photo: Ben Arons.
Unless you can find a box or platform to sit on, you’ll be on your feet for most of Kpop’s over two and a half intermissionless hours; if you’re lucky, you can grab something to perch on for a few minutes here and there. Be sure to wear comfortable clothes and shoes and be prepared to sit on the floor when asked.
Vanessa Kai. Photo: Ben Arons.
Early in the proceedings, at scattered moments during the show, and, especially, during the grand finale, you’re treated to some awesomely performed, dynamically choreographed (by Jennifer Weber), original Kpop numbers (by Helen Park and Max Vernon). They’re in the hands of a sensational company of singer-dancer-actors, mostly of Korean descent, and ranging from adorable to (like Sun Hye Park’s Callie) drop-dead gorgeous. Tricia Barsamian’s costumes, especially for the more glam-oriented numbers, will knock your socks off.
John Yi, Joomin Hwang, Jason Tam, Jiho Kang, Jinwoo Jung. Photo: Ben Arons.
The premise is introduced by Jerry (James Seol), a representative of the Crossover agency, whose goal is to “launch rockets into the American market,” that is, to facilitate the crossover of Kpop to American fandom, which he says we can help him do. (This is ultimately ignored.) To help us understand the fuss, he tells us we’ll be taken on a tour of the multi-floor KPOP Station owned by JTM Entertainment, a Kpop company run by the middle-aged husband and wife team, Moon (James Saito) and Ruby (Vanessa Kai), she a former pop star.
Jason Tam. Photo: Ben Arons.
To facilitate the tour of what is also referred to as the KPOP Factory, the audience is divided into groups of 20 or so according to the color of their wristbands. The groups are then led to one “Focus Group Room” after the other to inspect this “pop star boot camp,” where, in several scenes, they’re flies on the wall as the performers are put through their paces by their coaches or discuss things among themselves or with a company superior. 

It’s not long before we realize that these performers are meant to represent the artificial products of an exploitative factory line that portrays itself as having the best interests of its products in mind but insists on robotic replication and has no compunctions about replacing them when the next promising new idol comes along.
kpop company. Photo: Ben Arons.
While much of what’s shown is seen by each group, if not in the same order, it seems that a few bits are not. The major ones my group viewed included several interviews with performers as well as their interactions with a demanding choreographer (Ebony Williams); an equally rigorous vocal coach (Amanda Morton); a businesslike plastic surgeon, Dr. Park (David Shih); and Ruby, the doyenne. Ruby’s scene is set in the eccentric lair of JTM’s 26-year-old, Beyoncé-like diva, MwE (the exquisite, sparklingly gifted Ashley Park), and the focus is on the star’s annoyance that her standing is threatened by the arrival of a younger successor, Jessica/Sonoma (Julia Abueva).
Katie Lee Hill, Deborah Kim, Sun Hye Park, Julia Abueva, Cathy Ang, Susannah Kim. Photo: Ben Arons.
There’s also a substantive scene showing an argument about artistic choices within the boy group, F8 (pronounced Fate; the girl group is Special K), during which Korean-American intercultural issues are foregrounded. Jason Tam, as Epic, a character with an American dad and a Korean mom, shines.

Occasionally, the audience is asked to briefly participate, which may make some people squirm. The scenes themselves, in their attempt to seem spontaneous and real, are too self-consciously artificial; it’s extremely difficult to believe in the friction that often erupts among company members, with the rest of us looking on, our presence being given little more than lip service.
Ashley Park. Photo: Ben Arons.
There’s a ballad or two, but most of the music, sung largely in English but with many infusions of Korean, is in the raucous, unrestrained, thumpingly rhythmic, dance-inciting style associated with the production numbers of American stars like Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, Niki Minaj, and the like, or pop groups on the order of Fifth Harmony or One Dimension.

It combines many types of pop music, including hip-hop, and allows for lavish choreography, eye-popping lighting, and a pounding sound that all but blurs the lyrics. You get to experience a real onslaught of it in the show’s final sequence, as you stand in the crowd, maybe with a beer in your hand, and shout out at the power vocals or the spinning body of an acrobatic breakdancer.
Joomin Hwang (bottom seated on floor left), John Yi (midlevel left), Jinwoo Jung (top), Jiho Kang (pink hair), Jason Tam (arms crossed). Photo: Ben Arons.
Putting its length, physical discomfort, and shallow dramatics aside, this is a show that’s bound to appeal to a younger demographic. Eardrums aside, it’s a safer bet than anything Kim Jong-un can provide from his half of the Korean peninsula. And no one wants to hear the kind of Kpop he claims he’s able to produce.


A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 W. 53rd St., NYC
Through October 7

Thursday, September 21, 2017

72 (2017-2018): Review: THE VIOLIN (seen September 20, 2017)

“Out of Tune”

Three dim bulbs of varying wattage gather in a shabby, realistically cluttered shop owned by the oldest of them. They plan a shady job that will net them a load of dough. As in all such deals, though, things don’t go exactly according to plan That, of course, is the essential setup of David Mamet’s 1976 American Buffalo. It's also what drives Dan McCormick’s far less memorable three-hander, The Violin, now being presented by the Directors Company at 59E59 Theaters.
Kevin Isola, Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In American Buffalo the object of the conspirators’ greedy affection is, as its title informs us, a rare buffalo nickel; the title of The Violin alludes to what its crooks have their eyes on, a 1710 Stradivarius left behind in the cab the dimmest bulb, a doofus named Terry (Kevin Isola), was driving one freezing winter night before he decided to quit the job he’d only just begun. His reason? The itching of his palms told him money was coming his way . . . “Big time.”

Kevin Isola, Robert LuPone, Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Terry, a pathetically hopeful smile plastered on his face, is the mentally challenged younger brother of the Lower East Side hustler Bobby (Peter Bradbury), a crude smartass who hangs out with Terry at the crumbling Avenue A tailor shop of family friend Gio (Robert LuPone). Terry and Bobby share a love-hate relationship tied to issues regarding the loss of their late father and mother, a story about which the deeply involved Gio will inevitably fill in the details.
Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
After first threatening to smash the instrument Terry found, Bobby realizes it’s worth $4 million; how he learns this is never explained. When he discovers that the violin’s owner is desperate to recover it, Bobby, himself the son of a mobster, begins plotting how to extort a huge payoff for its return. This precipitates the play’s central action involving not only the logistics of the exchange but the moral and legal consequences.
Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The white-haired Gio, older and wiser, a bachelor whose greatest pleasure is listening to old records of Italian opera (creating a job for sound designer Hao Bai), has dedicated his life to the humble trade in which he takes great pride (hard to accept in what’s shown of Gio’s skills), regardless of its emotional and monetary constraints. He’s the voice of reason, warning against the consequences of what the aggressively stupid Bobby, aided by the puppy-like Terry, are planning. Until he isn’t. Which is before he is again.
Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In a sense, this is an existential melodrama about how our choices define us; Gio’s dialogue, in particular, is rife with references to the choices each of the men has made. Everything that happens in the plot is put in the context of a choice, good or bad. At one point, Gio says:

And a lot’a times in this life ya have to fight for what ya believe, to stand up to people. ‘Cause there’s always gonna be someone who don’t like your choices in life.  Especially when your choices makes theirs look bad.
Kevin Isola, Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Eventually, Gio delivers an aria-like speech containing a big reveal in which he discloses his most significant choice, one that has had a major impact on all three of their lives.

The Violin is about as old-fashioned, formulaic, and predictable as they come; it is straightforward naturalism without any of the fanciful, dreamlike incursions with which so many of today’s playwrights like to distract us. The ending can be surmised at least two-thirds of the way through. Given its locale, a rundown tailor shop on Avenue A (perfectly realized in Harry Feiner’s wonderfully dilapidated set), and the working class backgrounds of its characters, the play’s language is sometimes coarse. Never, though, does it rise to the level of poetic profanity on which American Buffalo’s floats. And never does it make its far-fetched dramatics convincing.
Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone, Kevin Isola. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The characters, who look right in Michael McDonald’s costumes, are anything but consistent; Terry may be slow but uses words like "epiphany" and is quick enough to shoot off a John Wayne riposte with perfect timing. Still, there’s no way a guy like this, who doesn’t know what a tampon is and begins chewing on one he finds, could ever get a job driving a New York cab.

The occasionally eloquent Gio, capable of rattling off all the legal reasons for not carrying out the caper, is not only capable of malapropisms like calling macular degeneration “immaculate degenerate” but of making a choice that goes entirely against everything he stands for. Dramatic exigency takes precedence over dramatic honesty.
Kevin Isola, Robert LuPone, Peter Bradbury. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Under Joseph Discher’s direction, the pacing and energy maintain attention but there are too many times that the vastly experienced actors seem to be wearing signs saying, “Look, I’m acting.” You admire their technical facility but they push too hard to be fully believable; a large part of the blame rests with the insufficiently credible characters they’re playing.
Kevin Isola, Robert LuPone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
During the play, Terry tries playing the violin he’s found. Like his playing, Dan McCormick’s The Violin is seriously out of tune.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 14

Monday, September 18, 2017

71 (2017-2018): Review: CHARM (seen September 16, 2017)

"Its Title Fits"

Philip Dawkins’s lively, touching, if imperfect, comedy, now in an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel following its premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, rocks a colorful variation of a familiar format: a teacher (usually gifted) meets a disparate class of socially or educationally challenged students, helps them overcome their difficulties via unorthodox ideas, is briefly stymied by personal or bureaucratic problems, and inspires his or her students to discover themselves and become the best they can be. Think Dead Poets Society, The Primary English Class, History Boys, Freedom Writers, School of Rock, or To Sir with Love, and so on and so forth.
Kelli Simpkins, Sandra Caldwell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Charm’s inspiration comes from the real-life experiences of a black, transgender woman, Miss (a.k.a. Mama) Gloria Allen, who took a non-paying teaching job at a Chicago LGBTQ community center to reach/teach an unruly bunch of poor, transgender students with low self-esteem. Her subject: proper social behavior. Call it etiquette, call it “charm,” as Allen does, it’s an unlikely subject to introduce to a motley group like those shown here, seven students, from their teens to their 20s, ranging across the spectrum of indeterminate sexuality and uniquely flamboyant appearance and behavior.
Michael Lorz,, Hailie Sahar, Sandra Caldwell, Lauren F. Walker, Michael David Baldwin, Jojo Brown. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mama (Sandra Caldwell), hired by the mannish female supervisor D (Kelli Simpkins)—who warns her that “tranny” is a politically incorrect expression—is a classy, 67-year-old who transitioned at 48 and considers herself “living history” for her students to learn from. She’s immaculately dressed and coiffed (in a stylish wig), beautifully spoken, physically graceful, a role model for the principals of politesse; in this context, it’s a matter of knowing how to put people at their ease by being charming. The valuable payoff is mutual love and respect.
Jojo Brown, Michael Lorz. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mama’s pedagogical bible, which she totes to class until it’s stolen, is a book of Emily Post’s rules on social behavior. The class, on the other hand, is a wild assortment of loud, raucous, foul-mouthed, self-centered young people whose idiosyncratic clothing, hair, and makeup doesn’t necessarily signal their biological or preferred gender identity.
Marquise Vilson, Mary Irene Diven. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The characters allow for different ways of envisioning them, apparent when one studies photos of the Northlight production. As seen in New York, Beta (Marquise Vilson) is a bearded, shaven-headed African American, wearing shades and garbed in gangsta black; Logan (Michael Lorz) is a pencil-thin, pretty, teenage blond in skintight slacks, walking the high wire between boy and girl; Ariella (Hailie Sahar) is a bosomy, gaudily dressed ho in ultra-flashy kinky boots; Lady (Marky Irene Diven) is long-haired, frumpy, and white, unable to determine their (the proper pronoun here) identity; Jonelle (Jojo Brown) is tall and gangly in sequined minis with black angel wings; Donnie (Michael David Baldwin) and Victoria (Lauren F. Walker) are a cisgender black couple struggling, among other things, with issues of mutual respect. MCC’s perfect casting, which respects the identities of its actors, is likely to offer some surprises.
Lauren F. Walker, Sandra Caldwell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all the students’ initial misbehavior and rudeness, Mama’s steely resolve to wrangle them manages to tame their more egregious excesses; we grow to love their eccentricities and admire how they address the difficulties they face. As in most such stories, Mama’s methods bring her into conflict with the LBGTQ establishment, D, when a negative newspaper interview with one of the students appears. The contrast in these characters’ views offers the play’s most compelling insights. Mama even has a medical episode that allows for a classically schmaltzy conclusion in her hospital room.
Sandra Caldwell, Hailie Sahar. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Charm is classic feel-good territory where you end up wanting to cuddle folks you may first have thought of as oddities, the kind of extreme people who, unless you belong to the club, most of us are unlikely to encounter except when sharing public transport.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s institutional classroom set is well lit by Ben Stanton, who gets to show his tricks in the fantasy bits, while Oana Botez’s striking costumes go all out to capture each character’s stylistic individuality. Will Davis’s upbeat direction enlivens the production, which includes some wonderful fantasy sequences, like an imagined tea party dance, and a hospital dream scene. He’s unable, however, to solve an awkward staging problem when he has two people exit into a doorless oblivion at left so they won’t run into an eavesdropper listening at the only door.

Mama turns the spotlight at one point on the word “fabulous,” but you need only watch Sandra Caldwell’s exceptional, award-level performance to understand its meaning. She does everything right, bringing heart-tugging humanity to the empathetic Mama, maintaining consistent naturalness, and never faltering in the expression of truth, strength, and vulnerability.

Charm’s formulaic and predictable storytelling (including hoary devices like that eavesdropping bit) require polite critical wrist slaps. They don't, however, diminish the play's big heart or lower its huge entertainment value, especially as expressed in the exemplary ensemble’s shining performances. Each actor makes us feel that, in their futures, their characters will add something to the charm bracelet of life. 
Sandra Caldwell. Photo: Joan Marcus.


Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through October 8

70 (2017-2018): Review: RHINOCEROS (seen September 16, 2017)

“The Horns of a Dilemma”

There was a time, around a half-century ago, when Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco, who wrote in French, was the talk of the theatre world. His serio-comic plays exceeded the bounds of their nonrealistic style to make audiences laugh at the absurdism of man’s existence while scratching their heads over his deeper meanings.

Caraid O'Brien. Photo: Pedro Hernandez.
One of his most popular plays was Rhinoceros (1959), which became a regular standby at regional and college theatres following its 1961 Broadway debut starring Zero Mostel as Jean in an awesome, Tony Award-winning performance. I can still remember the sheer force of the scene in which Mostel virtually became a rhinoceros before our eyes.

The current New Yiddish Rep revival at the Castillo Theatre, is, as the company’s name suggests, in Yiddish (translated by Eli Rosen, who plays Jean), a first for the play; English surtitles make it easy to follow. This production follows a not widely noticed, very modestly received, summer of 2016 revival by the Seeing Place Theater. 
Eli Rosen, Luzer Twersky. Photo: Pedro Hernandez.
It’s easy enough to agree that the play’s focus is and will remain apposite, i.e., the tendency of people to become sucked up into mass movements such that their individuality is sacrificed, not to mention the difficulty of resisting that suction. It can refer to anything conceived of as a mob mentality, from fascism (hinted at here by a goose-stepping character) to communism to Trumpism, which, at the moment, would seem to be its most beckoning target. 

Translator Rosen suggests in his program note that the play can even be seen as critical of Hasidic Jews whose religious dogmatism prevents them from casting off their orthodox constraints. 

It’s also true that Ionesco’s choice to express this human tendency to succumb to mob psychology by showing the participants of a French town becoming rhinoceroses is a deliciously theatrical one that offers directors and actors wonderful opportunities for interesting performances.

However, the production runs two hours and, lacking anything even approaching first-class direction and acting, it rapidly descends into a lengthy talkfest (even with its three acts trimmed, as here, to two); its occasional comic dialogue can do little to prevent the second act, which is basically an escalation of what we already learned in Act One, from crushing boredom. In fact, the most thrilling moment, Jean’s transformation, comes toward the end of Act One, after which he vanishes.

The sad fact, and I won’t belabor it, is that the New Yiddish Rep production—set design (if you could call it that) by Moshe Yassur and David Mandelbaum, costumes by Susannah Norris-Lindsay, lighting by Evan Kerr, and sound (perhaps the best ingredient) by Jesse Freedman—is simply unworthy of the play. Only if Rhinoceros is on your bucket list of famous plays you’ve never seen might you find a visit worth your while.  

Yassur’s slapdash direction only exacerbates the campus-level quality of most of his actors, whose greatest accomplishment is that they speak such excellent Yiddish. This is a language reportedly dying yet that keeps bouncing back to life in productions like this and those by the far more accomplished National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

The 12 actors, especially Luzer Twersky as Berenger, Rosen as Jean, and Malky Goldman as Daisy, deliver their lines (projected in English on the set’s walls) with consistent, but not well-regulated, energy and point; nonetheless, working on a bare stage with little but two unadorned gray walls and a few chairs (surely a budget issue), they and their comrades can do little to look or behave naturally or compose themselves in interesting arrangements.

The blocking is about as clumsy and unorchestrated as can be imagined; the actors, unsure of themselves, stand around or move aimlessly; there’s no sense of place; and the pacing is erratic: the result is artistically dismal.

Oh, well. Why keep beating a dead rhino?


Castillo Theatre
343 W. 42nd St., NYC