Wednesday, May 30, 2018

21 (2018-2019): Review: PEACE FOR MARY FRANCES (seen May 29, 2018)

"A Slice of Life and Death"

Plays with related subject matter often come in waves, creating what could be called playwriting subgenres. Recent seasons, for example, have seen what might—cheekily, of course—be called dementia porn, boxing porn, and disaster porn. Two current plays, one I reviewed last week and one I saw last night, have revived another subgenre, deathbed porn, plays whose stage time is consumed principally by characters who are dying when the curtain opens and who die (or are just about to) when it closes. Older examples would be Whose Life Is it Anyway? and Wit, while very recent ones are Woman and Scarecrow and Peace for Mary Frances.
Natalie Gold, Lois Smith, Heather Burns. Photo: Monique Carboni.
In Woman and Scarecrow, at the Irish Rep, the eponymous Woman, in her 40s, dies before our eyes over a two hour period, although she does so with such vigor it’s amazing she lasts so long. Mary Frances, the soon-to-be-deceased, 90-year-old heroine of Peace for Mary Frances—the professional playwriting debut of Lily Thorne, a student in Brooklyn College’s MFA playwriting program—takes at least 40 minutes longer to depart this mortal coil. Which is not all for the good, even with the still hearty, eternally luminous, 87-year-old Lois Smith playing Mary Frances. 

Natalie Gold, Lois Smith. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Peace for Mary Frances, produced by the New Group at the Signature’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, is a slice-of-life and death in which a dysfunctional family with the usual love/hate issues faces the imminent passing of their matriarch. Nonny, as she is called, is suffering—not from anything as conventional as cancer or Alzheimer’s—but from a breathing problem that is also causing terrible pains. It’s a situation that—regardless of the specific idiosyncrasies provided here—is one many audience members will definitely recognize from their own experience. 
Paul Lazar, Natalie Gold, J. Smith Cameron. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The action takes place in Mary Frances’s West Hartford ranch house, where we see the living room/kitchen at our left and, on a raised platform at our right, the upstairs bedroom where she spends long stretches in bed, visited by other characters. The usually reliable Dane Laffrey has failed to find a solution to the problem of placing two rooms on different levels on the Griffin’s relatively narrow stage, creating what are probably the worst sightlines of any mainstream show I’ve seen in a long time. 

Chief of Mary Frances’s visitors are her middle-aged daughters, Fanny (Johanna Day, Sweat) and Alice (J. Cameron-Smith, “the Apple plays”), and a son, Eddie (Paul Lazar, Samara). Other family members are Alice’s grown daughters, Rosie (Natalie Gold, TV’s “Succession”), and Helen (Heather Burns, Dawn in the original production of Lobby Hero). There’s also Rosie’s infant, whose frequent squalling adds one more ingredient to sound designer Daniel Kluger’s cues for music, TV shows, rumbling effects, and so on. 
Lois Smith, J. Smith-Cameron, Paul Lazar. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Fanny, a childless, recovering drug addict, with emotional issues, works as a security guard at the YMCA. She shares caretaking duties with Alice, a divorcée who has given up her job as an astrologer to look after Mary Frances (who pays her, thus planting seeds for a dispute). The sisters are also volatile rivals for mom’s affections. The feckless Eddie, a lawyer, looks after Mary Frances’s legal and monetary affairs. These three, with Alice’s daughters—housewife and mother Rosie, unattached, successful TV actress Helen—must cope with how best to navigate the physical, emotional, and medical needs of the ailing Nonny.
Melle Powers, Johanna Day. Photo: Monique Carboni.
As is so often the case in real life, Mary Frances, a widow whose husband—often referred to—died 18 years earlier, is not the most pliable of human beings. Still with her wits about her, she’s quite capable of lashing out at family members who don’t accede to her demands or live up to her requirements, while simultaneously realizing just how much she needs them. As written, directed, and acted, however, her energy level sometimes makes her seem more likely to be on the road to recovery than the one to eternal rest. 
Natalie Gold, J. Smith-Cameron, Mia Katigbak, Brian Miskell. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Thus the conventional setup: a dying, suffering matriarch needs attentive care to make her last days as comfortable as possible, which will require regular doses of morphine. "When in doubt: medicate," goes the mantra. The bickering family is forced to consider placing mom in an institution or opting for hospice care. We learn about the details of hospice care from Bonnie (Mia Katigbak), the nurse assigned to look after Mary Frances, and Michael (Brian Miskell), the psychological social worker who offers his advice. All this material plays like an infomercial on how to provide homecare for a loved one.

Angry flare-ups and dull discussions occupy the self-involved family members, including one fed-up character’s physical attack on another; Mary France fluctuates in her responses to her children and the money she plans to leave them; Clara (Melle Powers), a round-the-clock nurse from Ghana, offers Mary Frances much-needed solace; and time takes its inevitable course.

Directed by the ubiquitous Lila Neugebauer at a ploddingly naturalistic pace, the episodic play’s many scenes slog along, shifting back and forth from the bedroom to the living room, as the conversations hit one expected topic after the other. Even the scene breaks drag: the lights fade slightly, the actors amble off or make prop adjustments, music plays, the lights rise. When a bit of local color is needed, we get a joke (perhaps too strong a word for it) regarding a Jewish neighbor, or, more egregiously, the identification of Mary Frances’s family with the Armenian genocide of 1915.

(That subject, by the way, drives Daybreak, which I reviewed two weeks ago. It belongs to the disaster porn subgenre but also seems to be part of a growing Armenian genocide sub-subgenre; or maybe I feel that way because, by chance, I watched an epic movie last week about that massacre called The Cut.)

Thorne succeeds in condensing the typical quarrels, questions, and confusion surrounding a family’s waiting for a sick, elderly person to die that most people encounter, but that doesn’t mean it all adds up to a compelling play. Since Mary Frances’s fate is sealed, all Thorne can do is to gin up tension by stirring family resentments, particularly those related to the sibling rivalry between the unstable Fanny and the resentful Alice.

Peace for Mary Frances, despite being far too long for its subject, would have been much more painful to sit through with a lesser cast. While its situation is universal, its dramatization is so ordinary it borders on cliché. When peace comes for Mary Frances it does the same for the audience.*

Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 17

*I sat in front of the gracious Jeremy Irons at Peace for Mary Frances and had a nice little chat with him about his excellent recent documentary, Trashed, concerning the huge, worldwide problems of garbage disposal. It proved a more useful icebreaker than gushing over his many acting accomplishments, although he appreciated my mentioning his Masterpiece Theatre performances on "Love for Lydia" very early in his career.

Accompanying him, in addition to his human companions, was his bichon frise/Jack Russell mix, Smudge, who, apparently, follows his master wherever he goes.

Smudge remained silent throughout, pondering the play's ruminations on mortality, but at, at one point in Act II, let out a sharp bark before settling back into his more peaceful mode. His ruff comment came at a not particularly important moment in the proceedings, so it wasn't possible to detect in it a canny canine's critical bow wow directed at the actors. More likely, it was the result of a careless foot coming in contact with one of Smudge's Pinteresque paws.

The Signature should be commended for being so open to audiences of species diversity, although I'd like to be there when Cameron Diaz visits with her Great Dane. I understand, by the way, that the fire hydrant outside the theatre on 42nd St. is designated as gender neutral.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

20 (2018-2019): Review: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE (seen May 26, 2018)

“You Look Like a Monkey, and You Smell Like One Too”

When the current Off-Broadway revival of famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s first play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, opened in mid-April, I had no room to squeeze it into my reviewing schedule. Ordinarily, with so many other shows to cover, I might simply have let it go. I discovered, however, that I had three strong reasons to be interested, so, when another opportunity to see it coincided with an opening on my calendar, I bit.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
My three reasons: 1) the play received mostly warm reviews, including from the Times, and has been drawing a steady stream of theatregoers to its tiny Bond Street venue; 2) it stars Jason O’Connell, whose work I’d admired in Kate Hamill’s adaptations of classic novels, but even more so in his terrific one-man piece The Dork Knight; and 3) a good friend had been intimately involved in the workshop that preceded the play's New York premiere and wanted to see the work after all these years.

Kate McCluggage, Finn Faulconer. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
This friend, Larry Loonin, a director/playwright and one of the unsung stalwarts of the early Off-Off-Broadway movement, tells me he stage managed and carried out various other functions for the workshop, which followed the play’s world premiere in the Cape Cod town of Orleans, at the Orleans Theatre, in 1970.
Kareem M. Lucas. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The play's formal premiere was at Off-Broadway’s Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre), starring Kevin McCarthy and Marsha Mason. It opened in October 1970 and was closed by an Off-Broadway Equity strike. It then moved to what was termed a “limited Broadway” contract at the Edison Theatre, where it ran for 143 performances.
Kate McCluggage, Matt Harrington. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The workshop version had been on Prince Street, and Loonin clearly remembers everything about it, including that it was done as a project supported by Paul Libin and, very likely, the late Ted Mann, of the  Circle in the Square for that company's possible production. Loonin's involvement includes working closely with Vonnegut to organize what was then a highly problematic script.
Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Loonin had to leave the present production after the first act because he wasn’t feeling well, but he pointed out, both in person and, later, on the  phone, a number of significant differences between the workshop script and its final version. I won’t recount the details but can’t resist mentioning one thing.

The standard version—inspired by Ulysses’ homecoming in The Odyssey, with a touch of Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden”—shows the great white hunter, Harold Ryan (O’Connell), a supermacho hero in the Hemingway vein, returning home to his wife, Penelope (Kate MacCluggage), and son, Paul (Finn Faulconer), after being lost in Africa for the past eight years.
Craig Wesley Divino. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
With Ryan considered dead, Penelope is free to marry one of the two men—Dr. Norbert Woodly (Matt Harrington), a physician, and Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas), a vacuum salesman—who have been courting her in her husband’s absence.

Accompanying Ryan is his buddy, Col. Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino), described as the pilot who dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki, killing 75,000 people. The colonel, also considered MIA, so to speak, has been with Ryan all these years. However, according to Loonin, Harper, whom Loonin recalls always being referred to by Vonnegut as the “Agamemnon” character, was originally a third suitor for Penelope’s hand, not Ryan’s buddy in Africa. Perhaps some Vonnegutian sleuth will one day unearth the validity of Loonin’s claims (if it hasn’t already been done).
Kareem M. Lucas, Kate McCluggage. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Having dissipated my critical appetite by munching so greedily on these appetizers, I’ll venture a bite of the entrée. Happy Birthday, Wanda June, written during the Vietnam War, is a satire on conventional American ideals of masculinity and heroism, which revere killing over kindness, and cruelty over compassion (the more benign values being represented by Dr. Woodly, who suffers defenestration for his pains). These notions continue to resonate in our violence-prone, AR-15 world today but are presented by both Vonnegut and this production about as subtly as a Trumpian tweet.
Jason O'Connell, Kate McCluggage. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The play’s quirky style is very much in the absurdist mode then very much in fashion (and still running rampant, as per such recent examples as The Hollower), providing just enough realism to make its more off-the-wall, even fantastical incursions palatable. These latter include, for example, scenes during which the eponymous Wanda June (Charlotte Wise), a child who was killed by an ice cream truck, tells us how nice it is in heaven, or one in which the cast dons straw hats and sings an old vaudeville number in barbershop harmony.
Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The weirdly angled Ryan apartment (designed by Brittany Vasta) itself, with its big game trophy heads mounted on a wall, combines realism and fantasy, including a doorbell that growls like a jungle animal rather than ringing. Jungle sounds, both those created by sound designer Mark Van Hare, and those by the actors themselves, are an integral part of the show. 
Kate McCluggage, Charlotte Wise, Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Unfortunately, and I know I’m an outlier here, this Wheelhouse Theater Company production is overacted, under-funny, and ineffectually directed. The original’s three acts are compressed into two, running a talkatively dreary two hours and 40 minutes. Director Jeff Wise isn’t able to locate the correct pace, leading to a lugubrious lack of tension. He also fails to create a world in which we can accept the plausibility of these offbeat characters and a sense of their commitment to one another.  
Charlotte Wise, Craig Wesley Divino. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The play’s peculiar style requires actors who can walk the tightrope of making their characters fundamentally believable even when what they say and do is unbelievable; sometimes this demands that they convey ever-so-subtle nuances that hint at their complicity in behavior they acknowledge is silly but necessary to get a point across. What we get, instead, is a lot of mugging directed at the audience, essentially asking it to agree with whatever someone on stage is saying.
Jason O'Connell, Kate McCluggage, Matt Harrington. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The kid actors are fine, but, of the adults, only the tall, slender MacCluggage (who doubles as one of Ryan’s late wives, originally covered by a separate actress), finds the right tonal balance between seriousness and farce, sincerity and wit. On the other hand, O’Connell (who also plays a dead Nazi, another role originally played by a different actor) makes the gum-chewing, chauvinistic, misogynistic Ryan so cartoonishly aggressive and obnoxiously apelike (he prefers a partial crouch to standing straight), it’s incomprehensible how anyone, even in the play’s bizarro world, much less the paying audience, wouldn’t do everything in their power to climb the nearest tree.
Finn Faulconer, Kate McCluggage, Jason O'Connell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Yes, the audience chuckled now and then (I even felt spittle from one big laugh fall from behind on my pate), and, yes, there are those mostly positive reviews. Personally, though, I’m afraid I won’t be bringing presents to celebrate Happy Birthday, Wanda June.


Gene Frankel Theatre
24 Bond St., NYC
Through June 2

19 (2018-2019): Review: OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET (seen May 25, 2018)

"A Tisket a Casket; or, Whatever Happened to Sister Rose?"

No sooner do the lights come up on the Ortiz funeral home in Our Lady of 121st Street than we see Victor (the excellent John Procaccino), a gray-haired man in a suit jacket and boxer shorts (where his trousers should be), raging at the top of his lungs.

 As Balthazar (Joey Auzenne, beautifully rough-edged), a whiskey-nipping Latino detective in his mid-30s, stands listening, Victor pours forth a litany of curses on the abusive father of the late nun. With Sister Rose's empty casket sitting right behind them, Victor condemns the man for being “a fuckin piece of dirt, shanty-Irish-mick-fuck father!” Nor does he neglect to suggest that “Demons should shit in his mouth daily.” How, he wonders, could something like this have happened to the beloved Sister Rose? 
Joey Auzenne, John Procaccino. Photo: Monique Carboni.
And thus begins the hilariously potty-mouthed first act of Stephen Adly Giurgis’s black comedy of 2003, now in a superbly acted revival, directed by Phylicia Rashad, at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The casket is empty because someone, leaving no signs of forced entry, stole the corpse (and Victor’s trousers) from the Harlem funeral home where it was on view.

Victor and Balthazar, who has come in response to someone’s call, are former students of Sister Rose, as are all but two of the play’s other ten characters, most of them there for her wake.

By the end of an essentially plotless two hours we will learn only partially about what happened to Sister Rose’s body. However, while it ties Giurgis’s dramatic package in a playwriting bow, the revelation is secondary to the interactions among the work’s memorable rogues’ gallery of eccentrics. One might almost say that Our Lady of 121st Street is, rather than a conventional play, an episodic, dramatic concert in which the songs have been converted to acting arias, including solos, duets, and choral numbers.
Hill Harper, John Doman. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Sister Rose, we learn, was one tough cookie, but, while she might have left physical marks on her more troublesome students, she left a far more permanent mark on their hearts. A series of scenes in the church, funeral parlor, and a bar ensues, each with rippling, sinewy dialogue that commands attention and ignites raucous laughter, introducing us to a succession of pulsing livewires whose connections with others create fiery sparks. 

They include the flashy Walter “Rooftop” Desmond (Hill Harper, dynamic), a voluble, bling-wearing, L.A. radio personality. His inability to abandon soul-baring conversation for the confession he so desperately needs frustrates the legless, and seemingly faithless, Father Lux (John Doman, sensitively low-keyed).
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Paola Lazaro. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Then there’s the gay, African-American lawyer, Flip (Jimmon Cole, convincingly cautious), who doesn’t want his white boyfriend, Gail (Kevin Isola, just right), a second-rate actor, to behave like a “faggot” and thus force Flip out of the closet before his old friends. 
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hill Harper, Dierdre Friel. Photo: Monique Carboni.
We also meet Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, almost unrecognizable in a breakout performance unlike anything I’ve ever seen her do), a sassily smart-mouthed African-American hotty in a tight red dress. Inez is furious with another old friend, the nastily defensive Latina Norca (Paola Lazaro, dangerously edgy), for having slept with Inez’s ex-husband, Rooftop; her interactions with him are similarly explosive. 

Nor can we forget the impeccably crafted and performed duologues of the kindhearted superintendent, Edwin (Erick Betancourt, perfect), and his mentally slow brother, Pinky (Maki Borden, a standout), for whose condition he’s responsible, a debt he pays off by providing personal care. So bound is he by Pinky, he can’t even allow himself to accept the interest in him of Rose's attractive niece, Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuber, impressively real). 

Erick Betancourt, Maki Borden. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Our Lady has loose ends, several vaguely drawn characters, like Victor and Marcia’s friend Sonia (Deirdre Friel), and an uncomfortable depiction of the two gay men. Despite the play’s structural problems, its characters and language are so electric that, even when the laughs subside in the more serious Act II, you remain invested in these damaged souls. 

Joey Auzenne, Jimmon Cole, Hill Harper, John Doman. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Walt Spangler’s set, showing multiple locations against a background of Harlem buildings, is too spread out on the wide stage, dissipating focus, and creating problems that Rashad’s directing doesn’t fully resolve. Keith Parham’s moody lighting and Alexis Forte’s costumes, however, do much to improve the quality of the visuals.

Our Lady of 121st Street is early Guirgis; his later plays, like Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, revived on this same stage this past October, show significant technical improvements. But, even with its flaws, Our Lady, of the nearly 2o plays I’ve reviewed since the 2018-2019 began, is (by a hair) the best.


Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St, NYC
Through June 17


Thursday, May 24, 2018

16 (2018-2019): Review: MOLASSES IN JANUARY (seenMay 16, 2018)

“A Sticky Situation”

If you’re into disaster porn, a few recently opened plays might tempt you to indulge your proclivities. Over at the Beckett you can watch Daybreak, in which victims of the Armenian genocide come to terms with their suffering, while at 59E59 Theaters, where Operation Crucible is playing, you can share the tension of four men buried under a bombed building during the Sheffield Blitz of 1940. Then there's Time's Journey through a Room at A.R.T./New York Theatres, which takes us to Japan a year after the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Nor can we ignore Tremor, another 59E59 offering, in which a couple tries to heal following a bus crash with multiple fatalities.
Anie Delgado, Grace Experience, Lianne Gennaco. Photo: Ryan Krukowski.
If your tastes lean toward something sweeter, like the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, you might visit Molasses in January, an amateurish new musical with book, music, and lyrics by Francine Pellegrino, at the Anne L. Bernstein Theater.

Yes, the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, which was a very real thing. Unfortunately, the show that takes its name from it is, in artistic terms, a disaster of its own. On the positive side, it hasn’t killed or injured anyone, nor has it damaged any property. Moreover, judging from the cheesiness of its production values, it doesn’t carry a huge price tag, nor is it likely to inspire many lawsuits. On the negative side, well . . . where does one begin?

The aforementioned molasses spill occurred in Boston’s North End on January 15, 1919, when over two million gallons of the goo, which had multiple purposes, including the production of explosives and alcohol, burst into the streets from a poorly constructed tank.

Pellegrino, rather than getting into the weeds about the actual disaster and its consequences, chooses instead to tell a banal, clichéd, pre-spill, laugh-an-hour story about a stereotypical Italian-American family of three: Anna (Lianne Gennaco, who resembles Emma Watson and sings in a sweet but thin soprano), a pretty, single mother, and her two kids, living in the North End during the chaos of World War I.

Anarchists, labor organizers, sweatshops anti-Italian bigots, and the like are mixed in with romantic and marital issues, which begin in 1915, with occasional foreshadowing references to the molasses tank and its potential weakness.

About six or seven minutes before the show ends, we learn of the tank’s bursting, which creates a brief flurry of excitement, and of a secondary character’s death. A few facts about the aftermath are delivered by a Narrator (Joe Redman) but you’ll probably want to know more about this catastrophe, which is far more interesting than the show, and which you can read about by clicking here. A good show lies stuck somewhere in the story, struggling to get out, but Molasses in January isn’t it.
Anie Delgado, Daniel Artuso. Photo: Ryan Krukowski.
This is a standard book musical, “done,” according to its press material, “in the traditional musical style of the great American Song Book” (if only). Most of its versatility-challenged nine actors play several roles, including grown actors (Zachary Harris Martin and Anie Delgado) playing children who look as old as their mother. Several cast members have basic dance skills, seen when they perform routines by director-choreographer Whitney Stone on the level of what you might witness at the annual recital of your kid’s neighborhood dance school.

The set, functionally lit by Christina Verde, is an ugly, uncredited combination of brown sheets hung over portions of what seems to be the Bernstein’s permanent arrangement (I’ve seen it there before) of walls and doors, with center steps. The arrangement makes it impossible to tell where any scene is set, inside or out. [A colleague subsequently pointed out to me that the disguised set is the  one used for Perfect Crime, the long-running Off-Broadway show that is currently sharing the space with Molasses in January.]

When, at one moment, one of the sheets is removed to reveal a furnace awkwardly painted on a white sheet (the actors dutifully mime shoveling coal into it), the ridiculousness of the visuals becomes even more apparent. Little better are the uncredited costumes, which include a stovepipe hat and a Bobby-type helmet that look like they come from a party goods store.

Surprisingly, though, the 90-minute, one-intermission show’s promotional video, accessible here, reveals a more appropriate—if clearly low-budget—setting, with some of the same actors but including actual children in the company. I wish I knew what happened along the way from wherever that production was given (if anywhere) before it landed in New York. [I've also learned that the show had a workshop at the Davenport Theatre, on W. 45th Street, which would seem to be where the video was shot.]

What the video displays, however, while still exposing problems in the show’s generic, single piano-accompanied music and lyrics, is far superior to the eye roll-inducing show on W. 50th Street.

Early in the show, Anna discards a hanky by tossing it over her shoulder. The night I went it landed on a lighting instrument over the low-ceilinged stage. Not a single actor bothered to pull it down (despite its possible catching fire) and no one did anything about it until toward the end of the intermission, when a stagehand finally retrieved it. This kind of hanky panky epitomized the dilettantism oozing like molasses from every pore of this gloppy production.


Anne L. Bernstein Theater
210 W. 50th St., NYC
Open run

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

15 (2018-2019): Review: THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE (seen May 21, 2018)

“Dance, Ballerina, Dance”

Dear Readers:

 My review of The Beast in the Jungle is my first for 
for which I will henceforth be reviewing shows in addition to those I cover for THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE and for THE BROADWAY BLOG and THEATER PIZZAZZ.

14 (2018-2019): Review: TREMOR (seen May 22, 2018)

"Peeling the Onion"

Brad Birch’s mostly compelling one-act, Tremor, is one of those onion-like plays in which the playwright keeps peeling back one layer after the other until he gets to the core, presumably at the very end. In Tremor, however, the head-scratching conclusion of this otherwise flavorful onion seems to belong to some other dramatic veggie; it’s more likely to leave a confounding aftertaste than to aid your theatergoing digestion.

Lisa Diveney. Photo: Mark Douet.
Like a number of plays I’ve seen over the past two weeks Tremor—a visitor from the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, Wales, which is part of 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway 2018 festival—looks at the traumatic aftereffects of a catastrophe on a small number of survivors. Here, those survivors are Sophie (Lisa Diveney) and Tom (Paul Rattray, Harald Karstark on Game of Thrones), a thirtyish couple whose romantic relationship ended in the aftermath of a bus crash four years earlier; it killed 32 people but left seven—including Sophie, Tom, and the driver—alive.
Paul Rattray, Lisa Diveney. Photo: Mark Douet.
When the play begins, Sophie has just shown up, unannounced, at Tom’s house, where he’s begun a new life, having married, had a child, and begun a business by selling things online; it’s a job that insulates him from the necessity of having to deal with people face to face. These facts slowly emerge as the skins peel off and we learn, not only about the accident but why Tom is ill at ease in Sophie’s presence, and why she’s chosen to visit him.

While Birch feeds our hunger for the specifics of what happened by sprinkling them like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, the substance of his 65-minute play is essentially a debate between two people trying to come to terms with their reactions to the life-changing disaster that separated them. Precipitating their discussion is Sophie’s revelation that the bus driver is dying of cancer and seeking forgiveness.
Paul Rattray. Photo: Mark Douet.
From this seed sprouts a contentious and heart-wrenching dispute during which a host of emotional and political issues are raised, including forgiveness, justice, the judicial system, the media, guilt, xenophobia, terrorism, and Islamophobia. While much of this sounds primarily UK-instigated, many of its darts strike at American sensibilities as well.
Lisa Diveney. Photo: Mark Douet.
For every reason Sophie puts forth to support her viewpoints, Tom responds with equally cogent and, sometimes, surprising counterarguments. While the play’s multiple issues may sound like playwriting overkill, Birch juggles them sufficiently well to hold our interest if not necessarily to convince us one way or the other about any of them.

The actors, directed by David Mercatali, have nowhere to hide as they pace around on a set by Hayley Grindle that’s little more than a whitish-gray circle resembling the surface of the moon, with only a child’s toy or two, and nary a piece of furniture to cling to or sit on.
Lisa Diveney, Paul Rattray. Photo: Mark Douet.
Rattray, a pleasant-looking guy with a rich Welsh accent, and Diveney, a slender, pretty woman, are fully invested in their roles, regardless of the audience in the tiny venue being only inches away. Their initial insecurities about seeing each other again, and their mutual wariness, evolve into an impassioned questioning and defense of their beliefs.

But no response is afforded Tom’s closing speech. In it, he moves the debate in an unforeseen direction, attributing the tragedy to a cause that, instead of eliciting a rebuttal, offers the puzzling image of Tom bathed in golden light while stretching his arms out like the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro. This is one dramaturgic tremor Tremor could well do without.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 10