Thursday, June 28, 2018

39 (2018-2019): Review: SKINTIGHT (seen June 27, 2018)

“Age before Beauty; Beauty before Age”

Once again, as with the currently running Log Cabin, a crowd-pleasing playwright with a whipsaw wit is poking and prodding beneath the skin of our sexual preferences and prejudices to see how much they can get away with before the audience cries “Enough!” I refer to Skintight, Joshua Harmon’s entertaining but thinly plotted new play at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. Harmon, whose Bad Jews, Significant Other, and Admissions have, over the past half dozen years, propelled the 35-year-old dramatist to theatrical prominence, suggests, among other things that, regardless of what conventional society thinks of the unconventional nature of a personal relationship, it’s okay as long as it hurts no one and those involved are in love. 
Skintight, often very funny and often very not, tells of Jodi Isaac (Broadway diva Idina Menzel, glowing in a non-singing role), an attractive California lawyer in her late 40s, whose husband has left her for a much younger woman, and who flies in to New York so she can celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. Dad, no ordinary septuagenarian, is Elliot Isaac, a rich, world-famous fashion designer in the Calvin Klein-Ralph Lauren mold.

As portrayed by Jack Wetherall, he’s as trim as a model, wears cool, black duds, including sleeveless shirts that show off his arms, has dyed blond hair, and feeds his ravenous vanity with regular shots of Botox. His age-defying appearance and disinterest in his own birthday milestone notwithstanding, Elliot, like his daughter, is very much aware that the years are slipping by. 
The rather glum Elliot, not thrilled about Jodi’s presence, lives with his 50-years-younger partner, Trey (Will Brittain), a ripped, 20-year-old, Southern-accented, street-smart but undereducated boy toy from Oklahoma. Their pad is a magazine layout-worthy duplex on the West Village’s Horatio Street, which prompts a string of Horatio Alger references. These not only tie that 19th-century writer’s rags-to-riches stories to the love affair of Trey and Elliot—who even gifts the youth with a Rolex worth close to half a million bucks—but to Elliot’s background as the Jewish child of Hungarian immigrants (like Calvin Klein’s father), who rose from Brooklyn poverty to international fame and fortune. 
Also present is Jodi’s 20-year-old, trés gay son, Benji (Eli Gelb), taking courses in queer studies and Yiddish culture in, if you can buy it, Budapest, Hungary, where he’s gone to find his Nazi-decimated family’s roots. Harmon mines this material for laughs, sometimes unearned, as when Jodi, despite being a successful lawyer, must continuously be reminded that Benji’s studying Yiddish culture doesn’t mean he knows Yiddish. Finally, there are the comic maid, Orsolya (Cynthia Mace), conveniently Hungarian; and the handsome, robotically polite butler, Jeff (Stephen Carrasco), about whose own past with Elliot we eventually learn a thing or two. 
The two-act script, which runs two hours and 15 minutes, is mainly about character interactions, covering such things as Jodi's power struggle with Trey (her own son's age) for Elliot’s affections and her efforts to bring a sense of normalcy into the dysfunctional family dynamic. There's also Trey’s sexual ambivalence to consider, revealed during a scene when, wearing nothing but a jock strap, he’s alone with the shy but very curious Benji, who knows of Trey’s past as a porn actor. 
Harmon also covers the much-discussed difference between inner versus and outer beauty; Hungarian anti-Semitism; the transactional nature of all human relationships, loving and otherwise; Trey’s defense of his challenged integrity; and Elliot’s jealousy of his own grandson. While a disproportionate number of laughs are generated by penis jokes, a couple of them are worth waiting for. 
Skintight is mildly daring in its depiction of a love affair between two men five decades apart. Elliot’s heartfelt explanation of what he feels, which comes late in the play and feels anything but organic, is largely based on his attraction to Trey’s youthful beauty, to his very “hotness.” Earlier, he waxes poetic on his lover’s skin, which he describes as if it were sheets to sleep on (a chilling image, one might think, for the son of Holocaust survivors). It not only alters the light comic atmosphere but could as easily be used to defend pedophilia. Shave a couple of years from Trey and the audience would include members of the North American Man/Boy Love Association

Lauren Halpern’s setting for Elliot’s modernist townhouse, with its ultra-high, skylighted ceiling and floating, concrete staircase (the site of some sprightly sight gags) set against granite-like walls, is an eye-popper. One wonders, though, why, given Elliot’s profession, not a single work of art is visible. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are perfect for the play’s fashion-conscious characters, and Pat Collins does her lighting magic to capture the changing moods and times of day. 
Under Daniel Aukin’s clever, insightful direction, Menzel proves to be a deft, charismatic comedienne, although Jodi can be gratingly self-centered. Wetherall plays the gay Elliot straight, which is to say he maintains a sense of dignified reality and never overplays.
The curly-mopped Gelb, using a delightfully fey singsong delivery, makes the spoiled Benji both knowing and sweetly innocent, while the muscular Brittain—in a role that calls to mind Billy Magnussen’s Spike in Durang’s Masha, Vanya, Sonia, and Spike—is a find, nicely balancing the role’s outré, and even obnoxious, elements with convincing sincerity. And both Mace and Carrasco make the most of their secondary roles.
If you’re looking for something lightly amusing with familiar social issues coursing beneath a polished veneer of sexual naughtiness, Skintight should prove a good fit.


Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St.
Through August 26

38 (2018-2019): Review: THE PROPERTY (seen June 26, 2018)


For my review of The Property please click on THEATER LIFE.

Monday, June 25, 2018

37 (2018-2019): Review: LOG CABIN (seen June 21, 2018)

“The Cis-Boys, Cis-Girls, Gays, Lesbians, and Trans Guys and Girls in the Band”

Log Cabin, Jordan Harrison’s new play at Playwrights Horizons, is a lot funnier than his glum but much-lauded—if not on this blog—Marjorie Prime at the same venue in 2015. It packs a sizable number of laughs into its intermissionless 90 minutes, but its episodic, skeletal plot, populated by skin-deep characters preoccupied by issues of gender identity, only fitfully overcomes the impression of it being a cable-TV sitcom pilot. 

Cindy Cheung, Dolly Wells, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
That impression is further highlighted by the presence of the popular Jessie Tyler Ferguson, whose characterization of Ezra, a breathless, lightly effeminate, sardonically wisecracking, gay man, is considerably like that of Mitchell Pritchett, the breathless, lightly effeminate, sardonically wisecracking, gay man he’s been playing on TV’s “Modern Family” for years.
Cindy Cheung, Dolly Wells. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In Harrison’s formulaic equation, Ezra, a writer, is married to Chris (Phillip James Brannon), occupation vague, a black man from a privileged background in Wichita, KS. Their best friends are the British Julia a.k.a. Jules (Dolly Wells) and her high-earning, Asian-American (at least here) wife, Pam (Cindy Cheung). The other adults are Ezra’s childhood friend, Henry (Ian Harvie), previously known as Helen, a transgender man whose verbose young girlfriend, Myna (Talene Monahon), has a thing for trans guys. And then there are the kids.
Ian Harvie, Dolly Wells, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon, Cindy Cheung. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The action takes place mostly in the women’s Brooklyn apartment, which, judging by a subway scene, is likely in Fort Greene. Allen Moyer’s stylish setting—with its 15-foot tall, laddered bookcases, islanded kitchen, and brand new roof garden entered via a window on an exposed-brick wall—suggests an old place expensively redone. Placed on a turntable, the set, handsomely lit by Russell H. Champs, smoothly transitions to a child’s bedroom or Chris and Ezra’s bedroom, as needed.
Phillip; James Brannon, Dolly Wells, Talene Monahon, Cindy Cheung, Jessie Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Taking place in a series of scenes ranging over five years from 2012 to 2017, Log Cabin is largely devoted to clever chatter, mainly about what it’s like to be an “outsider,” usually in the context of gender identity, but also—although not deeply examined—racially. Chris notes, for example, that “The world is changing too fast for people to understand,” so the characters do their best to try to make sense of how such changes are affecting them. Much attention is also paid to the way in which various identities within the LGBT community view each other (hint: it's not necessarily favorable). 
Talene Monahon, Ian Harvie, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One plotline concerns Pam and Jules decision to go “shopping for sperm” so Pam can conceive a child, the result being a baby named Hartley. The plot thickens slightly, in more ways than one, when Henry arrives with Myna, the millennial girl he picked up at some Burning Man-like gathering. After Myna—in a scene that stretches credulity—overhears something she shouldn’t, she’s gone, and the bearded, butch Henry, who still has his uterus, becomes vulnerable to a request by Ezra and Chris for him to bear their child. 
Phillip James Brannon, Jessie Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Apart from this setup—other than another farfetched contrivance that, for a time, separates Ezra and Chris—not much of consequence happens. Instead, the characters hang out over drinks, cheese, and quince paste, chewing over their particular sexual preferences, revealing their limitations in understanding other behaviors, covering the political implications of modern gender attitudes and choices, examining the evolving vocabulary (like the term “cis”), and expressing thoughts and feelings about things the meaning of normalcy.
Dolly Wells, Ian Harvie. :Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all their inherent seriousness, these discussions are intended to be entertaining, not profound, and raise questions more than they answer them. Sometimes the talk goes the throw-in-the-kitchen-sink route, touching on social media “likes,” consumerism, income distribution, and even the meaning of evil. The unexpected outcome of the latter detour, though, in which Ezra complains that “this country has become too liberal,” and suggests that “liberalism is a kind of mass conformity” appears to be Harrison’s hint that Ezra is a Log Cabin Republican, thus providing a reason for the otherwise baffling title.
Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Joan Marcus.
On the other hand, what little we see of Ezra’s reaction to the 2016 presidential election is anything but elated; the election itself is a minor motif that seems little more than a red herring used to establish a time period and remind a New York audience of its own disappointment.

A touch of whimsical, if only passingly funny, novelty intrudes when Hartley, who has worried his moms by taking longer than usual to begin talking, is played by the grownup Harvie as a generally contradictory partner in imaginary conversations with both Jules and Pam when they need to fill their respective voids. This allows the infant to say, while chatting about a bedtime story: “It’s a little schematic, don’t you think? You could bury the bedtime message better.” Later, when Chris and Ezra’s baby is born, the elder Hartley mentors the newborn during their own philosophical colloquy about what the future holds in store.

A fine cast, costumed by Jessica Pabst in modish clothes to represent the characters' privileged status, is directed by Pam McKinnon to stoke the play’s comic embers for as many laughs as it can get. For my taste, though, there’s a bit too much mutual hugging and stroking when the friends lounge about, as if we must continually be reminded of how much these nontraditional couples love each other.

Within the otherwise polished ensemble, the most intriguing presence is that of Ian Harvie, himself a trans man, as both Henry and Hartley. He makes Henry convincingly real, although, as written, Henry’s agreement to become a mother/father (or whatever) comes too easily for someone who’s undergone two years of transitioning and will have to lay off his beloved hormones. As baby Hartley, Harvie’s matter-of-fact reactions help make those quirky scenes click,

Jordan Harrison is a wit to watch. Here’s hoping that, next time out, he can house his precious gift for rousing laughter in a sturdier structure than Log Cabin.


Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 15

Sunday, June 24, 2018

36 (2018): Review: A BLANKET OF DUST (seen June 22, 2018)


Richard Squires’s A Blanket of Dust is the newest addition to the small but slowly growing list of plays about the World Trade Center attack of 9/11. Like its predecessors, it’s heartfelt but inadequate. A partial list, offered here, which misses Bikeman and a one-act, “The Sentinels,” gives an idea of the angles various playwrights have used in tackling a subject whose tragic enormity needs the vision of a Tony Kushner to draw great drama from it. 

The Flea Theatre, now on Thomas Street, is only blocks away from the actual events but, apart from the play’s first few minutes, the poignancy of that proximity quickly fades as the action devolves into an implausible drama based on a questionable argument and filled with sturm und drang. During those early minutes, a woman named Diane Crane (Angela Pierce, Oslo) engages in a fraught phone call with her husband, Sam, whose voice we hear calling from the North Tower after it’s been hit. This is a promising scene, showing Squires’s ability to create dramatic tension, but what follows diminishes rather than enlarges the significance of the disaster. 
Angela Pierce, James Patrick Nelson. Photo: Sharon Kinsella.
Diane is the daughter of liberal US Senator Walter Crane (Anthony Newfield) and his well-put-together wife, Vanessa (Alison Fraser, a standout in First Daughter Suite), and sister of Washington Post journalist Charlie Crane (James Patrick Nelson). Distraught over the loss of her loving husband, she soon buys into the conspiracy theory that—based on allegedly scientific evidence—the attack on the twin towers was not the work of foreign terrorists. Instead, it was carried out by agents of the US government as part of a plan to amp up its Islamophobic agenda in the Middle East.
Anthony Newfield, Alison Fraser. Photo: Remy.
Diane’s beliefs, which intensify over a period of twenty years as she relentlessly determines to uncover her husband’s murderers, eventually put her in conflict with dark forces, such as the FBI (Kelsey Rainwater and Peter J. Romano) and former CIA director Adam Black (Brad Bellamy) and his wife, Esther (Peggy J. Scott). The Blacks’ son, Andrew (Tommy Schrider), a political activist-bookstore owner-entertainer who shares Diane’s views, becomes her lover, and, in an act of political defiance, immolates himself in front of the White House. I presume we’re supposed to consider this a courageous response to the powers-that-be.

By the end of the episodic, hour and a half play, Diane, who is framed as a modern Antigone, will post a declaration of "J'Accuse" before performing an act of self-sacrifice in the name of her cause. Antigone fights the state (Creon) for an established filial principle; Diane is a would-be martyr for a belief I suspect most audiences will consider nuts, even those still furious about the possibility that the Bush administration deviously manipulated 9/11 to provide a reason to invade Iraq.

Her choice is not only unlikely to change the dynamic against which she's been protesting for 20 years but also will do nothing to find those she considered responsible for Sam's death. The more one thinks about it, the crazier it becomes. As Melanie McFarland notes in her Salon review of TV's "Westworld": "The problem with kamikaze acts is that those who commit them don't get to see if their mission succeeds."
Tommy Schrider. Photo: Sharon Kinsella.
If you’re inclined to accept deep state theories and the notion that what happened on September 11, 2001, was not the work of Islamic terrorists but something carried out by neo-cons needing a reason to go to war, you may find A Blanket of Dust a brave attempt to speak to your concerns. If you believe such theories are total B.S. made up by trolls who fantasize the worst scenarios in order to satisfy their complete lack of faith in governmental integrity (a conviction not without merit), you’ll find it impossible to lend credence to the plot and characters. And if you’re undecided, you may think there’s at least a smidgen of something to ponder in Diane and Andrew’s claims, even if the play in which they’re embedded is otherwise unpersuasive.

Regardless, once the play’s central question is established, it fails to develop in a sufficiently compelling way, going over and over the same thing as one brick wall rears up behind the other in Diane’s quest. Ultimately, Andrew and Diane’s fates seem more like dramatic contrivances than organic necessities, making it impossible to either sympathize with or condone their choices.

Daisy Long’s multi-cued lighting, which uses multiple fluorescent light tubes on the black stage right wall, is unable to compensate adequately for Brendan Boston’s blandly antiseptic setting, equipped with half-a-dozen white, wooden chairs backed by a tall, hospital-like white curtain, and a door set into a piece of wall. The shoestring production does everything it can to deny the action a sense of place or atmosphere.

And, while most of Christopher Metzger’s costumes are acceptable (albeit showing no obvious concession to two decades of style changes), Diane’s awkward outfit of cropped pants, ankle boots, black and white-striped over-blouse, and poorly matched, poncho-like jacket doesn’t do her any favors in the style department.
Angela Pierce. Photo: Sharon Kinsella.
Director Christopher Murrah provides some momentarily interesting theatrical touches but his ensemble never fully succeeds in making a case for the plot’s reality. Angela Pierce offers a professional stab at creating something real from a credibility-challenged role, and most of the supporting cast, burdened with one-dimensional roles, are satisfactory; disappointingly, two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser, delivers her Southern (?) accented lines with a clenched jaw that makes her sometimes sound like she has a mouth full of molasses.
Alison Fraser. Photo: Jonathan Slaff.
Several reviews have called A Blanket of Dust thought provoking. That it is, although the thoughts provoked may not be the intended ones.


Flea Theater
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through June 30

Thursday, June 21, 2018

35 (2018-2019): Review: CONFLICT (seen June 19, 2018)

“Bolsheviks and Women”

The Mint Theatre, dedicated to the resuscitation of worthy but forgotten or neglected plays, has come up with an unexpectedly interesting, politically-based, British romantic dramedy from 1925.  Despite its positive reception in London, actor-director-playwright (and social activist) Miles Malleson’s (The Mint's Yours Unfaithfully) play never made it to Broadway and is only now receiving its New York premiere.
Jessie Shelton, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Conflict, not to be confused with a 1929 American play of the same title starring Spencer Tracy, was filmed in 1931 as The Woman Between. In another instance of simultaneously identical titles, that also was the name of an American movie made the very same year. Both the British film and play share political and sexual themes considered audacious for the day.

The setup is a quite neat one: the woman between, as the movie calls her, is Lady Dare Bellingdon (Jessie Shelton), the sheltered, upper-class daughter of the wealthy Lord Bellingdon (Graeme Malcolm). Dare, a fitting name for a flapper who flaunts contemporary morality, finds herself at the center of a political and romantic conflict involving Major Sir Ronald Clive, D.S.O. (Henry Clarke), called variously Clive or Ronnie, and Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck).
Jessie Shelton, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Clive, a Conservative running for a seat in Parliament, and Dare have been lovers and bed partners for a couple of years, although the stuffy Bellingdon, a supporter of Clive, is unaware of the intimate part of their relationship. Given Clive’s ambitions, of course, it might have potentially scandalous overtones. Clive would like to get married but Dare isn’t sure enough of her feelings to consider it.
Graeme Malcolm, Jeremy Beck, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The third leg of the triangle, Tom, once a respected classmate of Clive’s at Cambridge, has been reduced to the status of a beggar because of a series of personal misfortunes. Caught by Bellingdon and Clive breaking into the former’s house in search of food, he embarrassedly explains the reasons for his downfall. Before being forced to leave, he’s given food, whiskey, and cash by the crabby but kind Bellingdon and the more sympathetic Clive.
Graeme Malcolm. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The sums they provide turn out to be more than the modestly generous amount they admit to, and when we next hear from Tom he’s used the money to turn his life around and is now running for Parliament as the Labour Party candidate opposing his old chum Clive.
Janis Walker, Jessie Shelton. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Meanwhile, Dare, having met Tom, is fascinated by him. Her naïve understanding of politics, which inclines her toward Bellingdon and Clive’s conservative views, get seriously shaken up when she gets to know Tom’s socialist thoughts better. The situation, which also introduces Dare’s best friend, Mrs. Tremayne (Jasmin Walker), to assist in the exposition, thus provides ample room for the principals to air their political viewpoints.
Jessie Shelton, Janis Walker. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
It’s quite fascinating, nearly 100 years after the play was written, to hear 1925 characters talk about things like wealth distribution, personal responsibility for one’s situation in life, the masses’ need for proper housing and food, socialism’s alleged bias toward competition, the danger of overturning long-established principles, and other issues that continue to separate conservatives and progressives. At such moments, Conflict seems as if it were written yesterday. Malleson clearly favors the leftist arguments but does his best to keep the debate balanced
Jessie Shelton, Jeremy Beck, Graeme Malcolm. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Yes, there are mildly dated elements, like Clive’s chauvinistic dismissal of Dare’s political interests, or Bellingdon’s dismay at learning that his enlightened daughter may not be an exemplar of honor and purity: “I liked it,” she boldly admits when her affair is revealed. But such behavior is organic to the era and easy to appreciate within that context.
Graeme Malcolm, Jessie Shelton. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Weakest of the scenes is one between Tom and Dare in his room. Jenn Thompson’s direction keeps things quiet and underplayed as the two feel each other out. However, the slow pacing, pauses, and restraint seem at odds with the tension we should be feeling, especially when Tom’s  exposition of his socialist ideals begin affecting Dare’s convictions.
Jeremy Beck, Jessie Shelton. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
In the script, Tom comes off as something of a firebrand; on stage, Beck’s mousy rectitude suggests that he’s doused the flame for fear of singeing his listener’s delicate ears. And with so little sexual chemistry bubbling, it’s not easy to picture this couple getting beyond the simple kiss that climaxes their encounter.
Jessie Shelton, Jeremy Beck. Photo: Todd Cerveris. 
Thompson’s physically attractive production is set in John McDermott’s suitably posh drawing room, one half of which is efficiently converted to and from a bed-sitting room when needed. Mary Louise Geiger lights everything prettily and Martha Hally provides costumes that, while not always precisely accurate for the men, very nicely capture the fashionable look of 1920s hats, dresses, and gloves for the women.
Graeme Malcolm, Jeremy Beck, Henry Clarke. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The actors offer the equivalent of a quality stock company performance, smooth and capable, but unexceptional, with varyingly acceptable or consistent British accents. Still the performances are sufficient unto the purpose of keeping us glued to the narrative and its ideas.

The lanky Malcolm’s imperious Bellingdon, equipped with John Bolton’s mustache, is suitably bellicose yet parentally perplexed, while Clarke’s impeccably well-groomed Clive embodies all those well-mannered, fluty British gentlemen in 1930s films. Walker’s Mrs. Tremayne is satisfactory, Shelton shows spirit and intelligence as the upstart daughter with an independent turn of mind, but Beck, a Mint regular, lacks the charisma that Tom should radiate.

Conflict is a slightly flawed gem but the theatre season glows more brightly for the Mint’s having dug it up.


Theatre Row/Beckett Theatre
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 21

34 (2018-2019): Review: VITALY: AN EVENING OF WONDERS (seen June 18, 2018)

"Grand Illusions"

For my review of Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders please click on Theater Life.

33 (2018-2019): Review: LONESOME BLUES (seen June 20, 2018)

"One Sweet Lemon"

With the York Theatre’s elevator still out of order, you have to descend four flights of steps to reach its latest production, Lonesome Blues, down in the depths of St. Peter’s Church. There are some uplifting moments in the show itself but not enough to return you to street level, for which, if you wish, another elevator is available to do the job.

Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lonesome Blues is the young season’s second bio-dramatic revelation of the life and music of a now largely forgotten singing artist. A few blocks away, at 59E59 Theaters, French chanteuse Suzy Solidor is being resuscitated by Jessica Walker in All I Want Is One Night. At the York, in Lonesome Blues, actor, director, and writer Akin Babatundé is reincarnating the life of sightless blues warbler, Lemon Henry “Blind Lemon” Jefferson.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Babatundé previously portrayed him in his more substantially developed bio-musical, Blind Lemon Blues, seen briefly at the York, and elsewhere, in 2007, followed by a full staging at the York in 2009. Blind Lemon Blues itself was the outgrowth of an even larger-scale show called Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues, produced in 2001.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Texas bluesman Jefferson (1893-1929) died at 36, considerably younger than whatever Babatundé’s age checks in at. Discovered by a talent scout on a Dallas street corner in 1925, Jefferson enjoyed a sensational four years of success, recording over 80 “race” songs, as they were called, and having an indelible influence on many great soul singers who followed in his wake, like Lead Belly (mentioned often) and B.B. King. August Wilson once considered dramatizing Blind Lemon’s life but shifted instead to Ma Rainey when he failed to uncover enough background on the singer.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For the production, directed by Katherine Owens, designer James Morgan (the York’s artistic director) has removed the theatre's stage and proscenium, placing the action on the actual floor. The acting area thus opened up is far more expansive than anything I’ve seen here before although it’s perhaps unnecessary for such an intimate show, whose only performers are Babatundé and, at stage left, the brilliant guitarist David Weiss.
Akin Babatundé.,Dave Weiss. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The rear wall is covered with what seems a photo mural of a brick wall with a filled-in archway. Although it looks like a back alley, it’s intended to be outside a Chicago train station on a cold Chicago day in 1929, with a few pieces of luggage, and some dried leaves scattered on the ground.

Babatundé narrates a script he co-wrote with Alan Govenar depicting the mood-shifting Blind Lemon waiting for a ride as, nearing death, he reminisces about his life and career. A stout man with a shaved head, Babatundé wears a period ensemble designed by Gelacio Eric Gibson: round-rimmed, dark glasses, a black coat, tieless white shirt, and long white scarf, donning and doffing a black fedora as he moves about. A cane serves as a useful prop; when it’s held as a guitar we can’t help but wish Babatundé, like Jefferson, could accompany himself.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
His narrative, delivered in a thick Southern drawl, is sketchy and poetic, with a number of sequences in which Babatundé changes his voice to play various characters. For all its contemporary and personal references, though, the script plays second fiddle to over 30 songs. Some are heard only in snatches, some are sung acapella, and most will be unfamiliar to any but musical historians.

The average theatregoer will appreciate hearing a small number of standards, like “Rock Island Line” and “Motherless Child” (given an especially poignant interpretation). Most of the blues songs, like “Deep Elum Blues,” “Elm Street Blues,” “Got the Blues,” and “Christmas Eve Blues” are in the classic vein, but this creates a sense of repetitiveness over the course of the show’s intermissionless hour and 25 minutes.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Babatundé is impressive, with a broad and expressive range going from bass to falsetto, a flexibility he employs both in song and speech. The production around him is simple, with only Steve Woods’s supple lighting changes to enhance the physical aspects. Projections of period images might help make this a less visually boring work.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In essence, however well-performed and historically interesting it is, Lonesome Blues's disconnected and barely dramatic tale, which references the singer’s romantic life as well as his professional one, is coupled with too many similar songs. The result is a biographically inflected blues concert for aficionados, not the wider public.. 


York Theatre
619 Lexington Ave., NYC
Through July 1