Monday, October 30, 2017

97 (2017-2018): Review: TARTUFFE (seen October 29, 2017)


Molière’s Tartuffe (1647) is universally recognized as one of the greatest classical comedies, a work that is not only funny but satirizes a dangerous social phenomenon, i.e., religious hypocrisy and susceptible believers. You’d never know it, though, from the play’s earnestly solemn, only rarely laugh-provoking revival by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Wild Project.

Photo: Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.
Directed by Craig Smith more as if it were a dour tragicomedy than a brightly satiric comedy—except for a hopelessly inept attempt at farce during the famous seduction scene—the play’s central issue remains painfully pertinent.

I mean, of course, how gullible people can be sucked in by snake oil sellers and refuse to acknowledge what anyone with half a brain can see. At a time when, Donald Trump, one of the greatest con men of all time, is president of the United States, an incisive production of Tartuffe can make a powerful but also hilarious statement on current events.  

Everyone knows the president’s declaration that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his followers would still vote for him. Such hubris is essentially the motive force in Tartuffe, in which an obvious phony, masking as a religious zealot, gains such strong backing from a wealthy family head named Orgon (John Lenartz) and his elderly mother, Madame Pernell (Eileen Glenn), he believes he can get away with anything, and almost does.

Orgon clings tenaciously to his faith in Tartuffe’s authenticity despite the disbelief and ridicule of his wife, Elmire (Elise Stone); his son, Damis (Matt Baguth); his daughter, Mariane (Alicia Marie Beatty); his wise brother Cleante (Ariel Estrada); and, most especially, his cocky, wisecracking servant, Dorine (Morgan Rosse). Only when he actually sees with his own eyes the equivalent of Trump shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, that is,  Tartuffe’s attempt to seduce Elmire, does he finally come to his senses (unlike, so far, POTUS’s base).
Matt Baguth, Morgan Rosse. Photo: Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.
 And, even in this otherwise undernourished production, we greatly appreciate Orgon’s agonized frustration when his mother refuses to hear Orgon’s accusations against her blessed Tartuffe, dismissing them as “rumors,” as her newly enlightened son practically tears his remaining few hairs out at her blindness. Readers with friends and family members who disagree over our current political situation will know just how Orgon’s family feels about their elders' leanings.

John Tyson, John Lenartz, Matt Baguth. Photo: Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.
And when Tartuffe’s illicit activities in trying to fleece the household are uncovered by the throne, audiences should experience something similar to that of anti-Trumpers at today’s news regarding indictments by the special counsel. In Smith’s production, the exposure of Tartuffe’s undoing is presented not by an onstage actor but by an unseen, electronically amplified, “voice of God”-like announcement representing one of Craig’s several ineffective attempts to infuse his otherwise conventional staging with heightened theatricality. 

David Ball’s rhymed verse adaptation occasionally arouses a chuckle, but the overall tone is so serious that the play’s satirical intent is diminished. Orgon is played by Lenartz with such narrow-minded obsessiveness he becomes more a villain than a victim; he’s miles away from the comic edge Orgon’s foolishness requires. Partly, the fault lies in directions like having Act One end with Orgon mounting the impious faker in an orgasmic moment of devotional passion as the lights do weird things and the music (by Ellen Mandel) soars.
Elyse Stone. Photo: Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.
The cast is decidedly uneven. Glenn makes a suitably misguided Madame Pernell, and Stone, her ample bosom pushed up so high she seems to be hiding a pair of bald men in her décolletage, does well enough as Orgon’s wife.
Alicia Marie Beatty, Josh Tyson, Oscar Klausner. Photo: Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.
The others represent a range of hues on the pale to colorless end of the spectrum. Particularly problematic are Rosse’s Dorine and Tyson's Tartuffe. The former should be a sparkplug of comic confidence, not the mousy, whiny high school girl she suggests; the latter comes off as a characterless, heavily tattooed fanatic lacking in charismatic and sexual magnetism, regardless of a program note suggesting the opposite. It's difficult to believe any rational being could be caught in his snares, nor is there any way this guy would ever become a reality TV star. 
Josh Tyson. Photo: Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.
Tartuffe, by the way, is constantly shadowed by his similarly cowled acolyte, Laurant (Oscar Klausner), who later appears in a surprising turn as a bizarrely foppish Loyal. The latter's words are spit out with such a caricaturishly posh, machine-gun paced accent you pay more attention to his prancing antics than to anything he’s saying. On the other hand, he’s probably the production’s most memorable feature.

No set designer is credited with the bare stage approach: three white walls, doorless passages upstage right and left, and decorative projections on each wall by Attilio Rigotti. Tsubasa Kamei did the occasionally heightened lighting. A long table and stools are the only scenic props. The effect, enhanced by Debbi Hobson’s attractive period costumes (sans wigs), is actually in keeping with the simplicity of neoclassical staging in Molière’s time.

But why the cast appears in white dishabille throughout Act Two, the men shirtless or their shirts open to the waist, the women in their undergarments, is a question for the sages. There are at least two times when the cast is instructed to put their clothes back on but, without Ball’s adaptation available, I don’t know if this is in his script or is an unnecessary directorial gimmick. It’s certainly not in Molière.

If anything, one can imagine the actors being stripped of their garments when Tartuffe reveals that he now owns all Orgon’s family’s possessions. Otherwise, it’s a distracting choice further underlining that this Tartuffe has no clothes.


The Wild Project
140 E. 3rd St., NYC
Through November 12

Sunday, October 29, 2017

96 (2017-2018): Review: KNIVES IN HENS (seen October 24, 2017)

“Nothing to Cluck About”

Scottish playwright David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, first staged in 1995, at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, is a poetic love triangle set in a pre-industrial rural village; it’s received multiple international productions in many languages, including a reportedly brilliant one this past summer directed by Yael Farber at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

Robyn Kerr, Shane Taylor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Strongly admired by many, said to be the most produced Scottish play ever apart from Peter Pan, and often called a modern classic, it’s never been done professionally in New York until now. That doesn’t mean New York hasn’t seen it at all. Sarah Benson, the artistic director at the Soho Rep, directed it as her MFA thesis production at Brooklyn College, where I not only saw it in 2003 but can still recall the unusual setting she employed.
Shane Taylor, Robin Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The New York premiere, in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, presented by The Shop, is being given an American twist by director Paul Takacs, who has cast its three roles with actors of color and set the action in what, apart from some 20th-century clothes, could be taken as the postbellum, sharecropper South. Working with choreographer Yasmine Lee, Takacs has crafted a production combining elements of theatricalism and naturalism, but the result is drearily sluggish, uninvolving, and not particularly enlightening. There’s no way a viewing of this production would inspire thoughts of a “modern classic.”
Robyn Kerr, Devin E. Haqq. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The fable-like characters are peasants, the Young Woman (Robyn Kerr), her plowman husband, Pony William (Shane Taylor), and the village miller, Gilbert Horn (Devin E. Haqq). Their story moves between the home and stable of the Young Woman and William and the home of the miller, to whom the locals bring their grain to be ground into flour. For his services, he’s paid with a portion of the flour although he’s suspected of taking more than his share. Thus the Woman’s insistence that he’s evil, and a subtext suggesting a shift toward industrialization that capitalizes on the work of others.

The rough-edged, illiterate William is contrasted with Gilbert, who not only reads books but can write. The uneducated Woman finds herself intrigued by the knowledge Gilbert represents, and the power she feels from acquiring such knowledge, represented not only by her passion for naming things in the world around her, but in understanding what lies beyond their physical existence. (A preoccupation with God pervades the dialogue.)
Robyn Kerr, Devin E. Haqq. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With knowledge, she gains power, which can also be dangerous. My plus-one was quick to note the story of Eve and the apple. Despite the antipathy the Woman, like the other peasants, feels toward the miller, she gets more than her grain ground by him, with unfortunate results for Pony William.
Devin E Haqq, Shane Taylor, Robin Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The audience sits on bleachers only inches from the shallow set, designed by Steven C. Kemp, which is a mere eight feet or so deep and backed by a wall of horizontal wooden planking, with two barely visible planked doors set into it. The miller’s stone grinding wheel, present in some productions, is implied at one striking moment by a wall pattern made visible with the help of Dante Olivia Smith’s exquisite lighting.
Robyn Kerr, Shane Taylor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Little in the production plumbs the potential depths of Harrower’s play. The actors, dressed in scruffy garments of indeterminate vintage by Sydney Gallas, muffle the poetic starkness of the language and fail to do more than communicate the basic narrative. The men, both with shaved heads and well-trimmed beards, resemble each other more than they differ.

One can argue whether the historical circumstances surrounding rural blacks in a postbellum Southern world (definitely not preindustrial) are too well known to apply to Knives in Hens but, even if one overlooks the anachronisms, the choice doesn’t do much to illuminate the drama. Plays like this are usually better when unencumbered by association with any particular time and place.
Shane Taylor, Robyn Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Takacs has contrived several highly theatrical moments but they do little to wake the play’s inner power or clarify its various obscurities. Consider, for example, the choreographed sexual pas de deux between the Woman and the plowman that opens the play (another one comes toward the end), backed by sound designer Toby Jaguar Algya’s music; it’s overlong, not especially original, pretty rather than erotic, and extraneous, since the dialogue following orgasm suggests they’ve been chatting, not making love: “I’m not a field. How’m I a field? What’s a field? Flat. Wet. Black with rain. I’m no field,” she says. “Never said that,” he replies. First words spoken after coitus? I think not.
Devin E. Haqq, Robyn Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Knives in Hens is the kind of play whose ambiguities allow it to assume multiple interpretations in performance. Regardless of which is chosen, its first responsibility must be to engage, not bore. This production is a bore.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through November 12

95 (2017-2018): Review: PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS (seen October 27, 2017)

"A Human Hand Grenade"

For my review of People, Places & Things please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

94 (2017-2018): Review: THE PORTUGUESE KID (seen October 28, 2017)

“Mothers, Marriage, Moonlight, Men—and Donald Trump”

If you’re looking for a profanity-laced, contemporary version of those mildly naughty Broadway sex comedies of the 50s and 60s, like The Seven-Year Itch or Send Me No Flowers, which filled summer stock stages year after year, you might find the world premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid to your liking. Others will hope that this overblown farce is a temporary aberration and that Shanley will soon retrieve the talent that gave us such terrific work as Outside Mullingar, Doubt, and the movie Moonstruck

The Portuguese Kid isn’t Off Broadway but it features Broadway-level stars Jason Alexander (Seinfeld, whose George Costanza seems to live again in his current role) and Sherie Rene Scott (Everyday Rapture) doing their gifted best to keep its sinking attempts at humor afloat by sheer vocal, physical, and charismatic force. Occasionally, a good laugh does bubble up from the depths; not enough, though, to turn the tide in its favor. 
Following tried and true mathematical playwriting principles, Shanley introduces two intertwined couples. One is 50ish Barry Dragonetti (Alexander), a flashily overdressed attorney, son of an Italian father and a Croatian mother, and his 29-year old bimbo wife, Patty (Aimee Carrero); she’s a Latina knockout first seen in a bikini and sarong that makes it tough to look anywhere else when she’s on stage. (William Ivey Long’s costumes are all spot-on.)

The other couple is Atalanta Lagana (Scott), a glamorous, wealthy, 50-year-old widow of Greek ancestry, and her bimbo boy toy, 29-year-old Freddie Imbrosi (Pico Alexander), whose awful poetry is sprinkled with references to moonlight.

Naturally, Barry and Atalanta, who come from Providence, have a long history (she even admits the harmful effect on her husbands of her calling out Barry’s name during sex), as do their bimbo partners. You can see where this is going the minute all the characters have been introduced.

Atalanta, a program note reminds us, was a speedy, Greek mythological princess, who agreed to marry the first man to beat her in a race, the losers to be executed. The eventual winner, helped by the goddess Aphrodite, beat Atalanta by slowing her down when he dropped three golden balls along the route, leading to a happy marriage. On the other hand, Shanley also likens Atalanta to Clytemnestra, who killed her husband, Agamemnon.

Adding fuel to the wavering comic fire, there’s Barry’s smothering mother, Mrs. Dragonetti, whose monstrous dislike for both Atalanta and Patty, ruthlessly expressed in comically toxic sniping, offers Mary Testa an opportunity for one of the larger-than-life hilarious portrayals that are her well-deserved bread and butter.   
The plot, such as it is, concerns what happens when Atalanta hires the shyster Barry to sell her $5.5 million home. Each of the play’s four scenes, thanks to a revolving stage, gets a substantial John Lee Beatty set (efficiently lit by Peter Kaczorowski)—Barry’s office, Atalanta’s bedroom, the porch of Barry’s beach house, Atalanta’s garden. The usual complications, sexual and romantic, arise, with a predictable outcome.
Along the way, the humor—including everyone’s overripe working-class accents—touches on Barry’s sales commission, Atalanta’s widowhood, the fire-breathing Mrs. Dragonetti’s dragonish insults, Barry’s conviction that the Italian-American Freddie is the Portuguese kid who once attacked him, Freddie’s awful poetry and his French-mangling dream of moving to Paris, Barry’s jealousy (there’s even a ridiculous brawl scene resulting in Barry’s priapic embarrassment), and his defense of male prerogatives.
In the latter connection, Shanley, for easy, joke-making, topical relevance, makes Atalanta such a Trump hater that anyone who voted for him would have to be crazy to admit it. Trump again gets the shallow last laugh. 
The Portuguese Kid is old hat, its jokes are uninspired, and it’s all too overstated and laugh-hungry. Fortunately, under Shanley’s unsubtle direction, the cast is highly polished and the energy never flags, even on the two occasions Mrs. Dragonetti celebrates a victory by dancing as the set rolls off beneath her. As in those summer stock days of yore, the audience seemed to be having fun. Some, though, were grateful they didn’t have to groan under their breaths for more than an hour and 40 uninterrupted minutes.


Manhattan Theatre Club/ NY City Center Stage 1
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through December 3

Friday, October 27, 2017

93 (2017-2018): Review: JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN (seen October 26, 2017)

“A Shot in the Ass”

If, like me, you remember the critical hoopla surrounding the original production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Labyrinth Theatre in 2000 but were unable to hop on the A or whatever train to catch it during its brief local run—or in any of its later incarnations elsewhere—I’d advise you to swipe your MetroCard and rumble over to W. 42nd Street for its gripping revival at the Signature Theatre.

Sean Carvajal, Ricardo Chavira, Edi Gathegi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Originally directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and now in the potent hands of Mark Brokaw, the play sets us down mainly in the “23-hour lockdown wing of protective custody on Rikers Island.” The principal image—smartly designed by Riccardo Hernandez, coolly lit by Scott Zielinski, and aurally augmented by M.L. Dogg—is a cinderblock room with two metal cages alongside each other. This is where the most dangerous prisoners are placed, one to each cage, for an hour of daily sunlight and exercise. 

Edi Gathegi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jesus, in two acts running two hours and 10 minutes, is a powerful drama, laced with biting humor. It not only shines a blazing light on the judicial and correctional systems but embraces deeply thoughtful themes of masculinity, faith, guilt, remorse, and responsibility. The chief characters in this five-character drama are Latino Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal) and African American Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi). Both actors of these roles were late replacements—in Carvajal’s case, when previews were beginning—making their accomplishments all the more remarkable

Angel, a bike messenger, is imprisoned after shooting Reverend Kim, a cult leader who ensnared his close friend. Insisting he didn’t intend to kill Kim--who eventually dies of “complications”--because he merely shot him “in the ass,” he struggles to accept the moral consequences of his action. Enraged at his situation, he lashes out at the tough but fair-minded public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio), assigned to his case, who eventually suffers for her involvement. In one of her richest scenes she instructs her client in how to lie. 
Erick Betancourt, Edi Gathegi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Angel’s principal antagonist, though, is Lucius, occupying the lockdown cell next to his. Lucius killed eight people and is anticipating extradition to Florida, where the death sentence awaits. When the sweet-natured guard Charlie D’Amico (Erick Betancourt), who treats Lucius kindly, is fired and replaced by the sadistic Valdez (Ricardo Chavira)—who has a frighteningly particular take on God and morality—Lucius’s life becomes even more hellish. He overcomes his despair, however, by a newfound faith in Jesus and knowledge of the Bible (displayed by a memory feat in which he names each book of the New Testament) that allows him to rise above his suffering. 

The frightened Angel, with no patience for Lucius’s arguments about God, engages in voluble arguments with him. These profanity-laced quarrels, while perhaps suggesting a level of verbal and educational achievement incompatible with these men’s backgrounds, are nonetheless among the most fascinating and engrossing on any New York stage. I kept thinking of how the elderly, distinguished-looking, white-collared priest near me was responding.

Gradually, Angel begins to come to terms not only with God but with an appreciation of what he’s done, while Lucius, who has found his own way of assuming responsibility, is fully prepared to meet his maker.

All the performances are superb, DiMaggio hitting a home run as the sympathetic but scrappy lawyer, Chavira being every inch the cop you love to hate, and Betancourt his perfect counterpart as the one you have to love.

Carvajal and Gathegi give tour-de-force portrayals. They combine outsized acting, vocal power and flexibility, physical vitality, and the ability to exhibit emotions on both grand and subtle scales. Carvajal finds the anger, confusion, and fear in Angel’s heart, while Gathegi makes Lucius’s religious strength so palpable, even when being demeaned by Valdez, you find yourself sympathizing with this showboating serial killer.
Sean Carvajal. Photo: Joan Marcus
Giurgis’s dramaturgy is of the increasingly common variety that relies extensively on direct-address monologues to divulge background information. Theatre, unlike fiction, is typically a form in which action is dramatized, not described, unless the material—like a dramatic adaptation of a novel—is so complex there’s no way to avoid narrative exposition. This aside, Giurgis’s writing, matched by exceptional acting, is so commanding, I can only hope audiences will be hopping the A train with (or without) Jesus to embrace it. 


Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 26

Thursday, October 26, 2017

92 (2017-2018): Review: THE LAST MATCH (seen October 25, 2017)

“Different Strokes”

Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, an enjoyable if knotty new play at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, is the third I’ve seen in the past two years built around the game of tennis. Both, Andy Bragen’s Don’t You Say a Fxxking Word and Neil LaBute’s one-act “Break Point,” underline the competition between two aggressive male players and the interplay between the game and their private lives. Ditto Ziegler's play.
The men in Bragen’s piece are amateurs who play at courts near the FDR drive; the only other characters are their wives. LaBute’s short play features just two characters, a world champion player and his talented but less accomplished rival. Both works include extended sequences of mimed, ball-less tennis playing, Bragen’s with actual rackets, LaBute’s without. Rackets appear in The Last Match but, as in LaBute’s play, the exceptional tennis sequences omit them.

These sequences, brilliantly staged by director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, are among the chief reasons for visiting The Last Match, an occasionally humorous, heartfelt attempt to explore not only the competitive dynamic between two top players but the personal, particularly the romantic and marital, matters that collide with their professional ambitions. 
The athletes—blonde, clean-cut American Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel), 34, dressed in whites, and the mid-20s, dark-haired, bearded, Russian Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mickiewicz)—are competing in the semifinals at the US Open. Their matches are enacted on Tim Macabee’s lovely set, an abstraction showing a gorgeous sky at the rear, nearly 60 stadium-style lights in graduated sizes arching over the stage, scoreboard areas on the audience walls at the sides, and, downstage, a blue floor on which the (net-less) games take place. Bradley King’s excellent lighting and Montana Blanco’s costumes do much to enhance the visuals. 
The play (which premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre) follows a nonlinear structure that allows the characters, in addition to scenes of straightforward dialogue, to speak directly to the audience, telling their stories, while also being able to address another character within these narratives. These thoughts are presumably what’s going on the athletes’ minds during the game, a forced conceit you’d do better to quickly ignore. 
Time is also fluid, with lots of flashbacks during which we get to learn about the men and the history of their previous interactions, including the awe in which Tim—one of the greatest players in history but rumored to be retiring because of a bad back—is held by Sergei. There's also much to discover about their relationships with the principal women in their lives.

For Tim, it’s his wife, Mallory (Zoë Winters), once ranked among the world’s top 20 women players, who gave up her career after getting married, although she now serves as a coach. Much time is taken up with her and Tim’s desire for a child and the pregnancy problems she experiences as a result. For Sergei, it’s Galina (Natalia Payne), a Russian model and would-be actress with a body to die for and a caustic wit that keeps the volatile Sergei in his place. Both women play significant roles in bolstering their men's shaky psyches.
Aside from the gradual revelation of who these people are and what drives them, there’s very little plot, other than who’s winning or losing at any point. The play’s ultimate goal is to express how top-level athletes like these cope with the stresses of aging, injury, pain, success, self-confidence, and the like, while also managing off-court lives that, like everyone’s, confront sensitive issues, like mortality. To put it crudely: even superstars go to the bathroom.

There’s nothing especially unusual or eye-opening about any of these things, which have been treated in many plays and movies, but Ziegler at least gives her actors theatrically vivid things to say and do, and the actors saying and doing them are appealingly expressive. The 95 intermissionless minutes fly by entertainingly enough even if, like me, you have little knowledge of how tennis is scored. Its indefinite finale, though, is not a game-ender to be wished. 
Bethel and Mickiewicz are superbly convincing as fine-tuned, high-strung athletes, their perfectly choreographed, balletically graceful serves and returns timed to realistic thwacks from sound designer Bray Poor. Bethel brings just the right combination of cockiness and sensitivity to Tim to prevent us from disliking him, while Zoë Winters, who gets to do some impressive exercise business, makes Mallory a smart, caring, and sassy complement to Bethel’s Tom.

Mickiewicz, using a sometimes slipping Russian accent, plays Sergei with a stereotypical brashness that can be overbearing but is thankfully offset by Natalia Payne’s sharp-tongued, more authentically accented Galina, who knows just how to keep him in his place. I want to see all these actors again but it’s Payne’s next role I’m really looking forward to.


Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through December 23

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

91 (2017-2018): Review: OCCUPIED TERRITORIES (seen October 20, 2017)

“Stress Test”

Two related, intertwined, competing narratives vie for dominance in Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner’s physically ambitious but otherwise familiar Occupied Territories, now in Theater B at 59E59 Theaters. 

Produced by Theater Alliance of Washington, D.C., which is where it premiered in 2015, and Available Potential Enterprises, the 90-minute work ties horrific memories of the Vietnam War together with a present-day domestic crisis in the life of a mid-40s woman, Jude (co-author Bannon). Its unusual structure is attributable to its having been developed in workshops with the playwrights (one of whom also directed) and a team of actors, at least two of them in the current production.
Nancy Bonner, Kelley Rae O'Donnell. Photo: Colin Hovde.
Theater B has been reconfigured by designer Andrew Cohen so that the audience, mostly in a single row, but with a few seats in a second, surrounds a U-shaped thrust. At the upstage end is a platform and stairs suggesting the cluttered basement of Jude’s father’s home, while the larger, downstage area, is bare. Fronds of jungle foliage, not noticeable at first, hang overhead.
Kelley Rae O'Donnell, Ciela Elliott. Photo: Colin Hovde.
Jude, her younger sister, Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), and Jude’s daughter, Alex (11-year-old Ciela Elliott in a role written for a 15-year-old boy), have gathered in their dad’s basement after his funeral. Jude, broke, stressed, and given to profanity, is there only because she’s been allowed a two-day furlough from the rehab facility at which she’s been recovering from an addiction to painkillers.
Nancy Bannon. Photo: Colin Hovde.
Before long we learn of Jude’s hostility toward her late father, who suffered from PTSD, screamed at his kids, and honored his military camaraderie over his familial closeness. Because he never spoke about his combat experiences, Jude dismisses the idea he might have suffered at all, a character weakness in her that seems totally fabricated to make a dramatic contrast with the sympathetic Helena. (A decision of Helena’s regarding a child she’s adopting is similarly contrived.)

Jude also wishes that Helena, understandably reluctant, would allow Alex, disappointed in her mom, to live with her again once she demonstrates she’s no longer a danger to herself.
Scott Thomas. Photo: Colin Hovde.
As Jude begins looking through her dad’s mementos she comes across materials documenting his service in Vietnam, 45 years earlier, and the scene shifts to the downstage area where we watch her dad, Collins (Cody Robinson, from the original staging), join his platoon on a godforsaken jungle hill.

Soon enough, the innocent, patriotic newbie, who will learn of Jude’s birth during the action, is getting hazed by some of the jaded men, notably by Cpl. Makowski, a cynical, crude, but nonetheless brave soldier nicknamed “Ski” (Scott Thomas).
Diego Aguirre, Cody Robinson. Photo: Colin Hovde.
The action goes back and forth between the army and basement scenes as the emotions in both places intensify. Collins witnesses horrific scenes, including the killing of a Vietnamese woman, followed by the mockery and necrophilic abuse of her corpse. Meanwhile, Collins's daughter, Jude, struggles not to succumb to her addiction.
Dante Bonner, Scott Thomas. Photo: Colin Hovde.
One of the more unusual scenes, occurring as Jude projects slides she’s discovered, is a surrealistically balletic routine—helped greatly by sound designer Matthew M. Nielson and lighting designer Rob Siler—pairing two soldiers, Hawk (Nile Harris) and Hardcore (Nate Yaffe), in an acrobatic pas de deux in which they playfully wrestle, often in slow motion. It’s well enough done but its intention—bombed bodies being thrown in the air? macho pleasure in the joy of combat?—isn’t very clear.  

Sincere and heartfelt as Occupied Territories is in its attempt to convey the legacy of war, whose effects live on in its participants and their progeny, neither its domestic nor wartime scenes are particularly original or believable on a more than soap opera level.
Nile Harris. Photo: Colin Hovde.
The soldiers are stereotypes, their dialogue is hackneyed (like a cliched scene where they fantasize about food), and, for all their superficial naturalism, the army scenes are played so close to the audience (I kept having to move my feet to prevent someone tripping over them) that they reek of artificiality. The play’s resolution, comforting as it may be, feels more forced than organic.

All the performances are professionally sharp but the most distinctive one belongs to the silent, uncredited actor (one of the soldiers) portraying the dead woman, who gets tossed about like a sack of beans while remaining perfectly limp, an extremely difficult thing to do. It will probably occupy a place in my memory long after I’ve forgotten everything else in Occupied Territories.

Note: this review originally speculated that the dead Vietnamese woman was played by Ms. O'Donnell. 


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 East 59th St., NYC
Through November 5