Sunday, September 30, 2018

86 (2018-2019): Review: THE NAP (seen September 29, 2018)


This week, the nation’s foremost con artist, Donald J. Trump, blasted the Democratic Party’s attempt to sink Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS nomination as a “con job.” And just today, the New Yorker’s online “Sunday Archive” headlined its anthology of “grifts, cons, and rackets” as “Schemes, Frauds, and Swindles.”

Ben Schnetzer, Max Gordon Moore. Photo: Joan Marcus.
What all this has to do with the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Richard Bean’s (One Man, Two Guvnors) fitfully entertaining British farce, The Nap, which opened a few days ago at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is not for me to divulge. But it does seem there’s something cooking in the zeitgeist.  

The Nap refers to the felt covering on a snooker table, snooker being a pool-like game, created in 19th-century India by British army officers, and widely popular in Great Britain. A large snooker table dominates the stage during those scenes set at a British Legion Snooker Room and those at a Sheffield, Yorkshire, venue where the World Snooker Championship is played out and televised for an audience of over 20 million.
Max Gordon Moore, John Ellison Conlee. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer), the handsome, working-class, vegetarian lad from Sheffield, who will be competing for the championship, explains: “Playing with the nap, the ball will run straight with the natural line. Playing against the nap, the ball can deviate and drift off line. I play straight.” This, in a sense, is the play’s theme as Dylan, who honors the god of snooker, gets tangled up with a shady bunch who have another sort of snookering on their minds.

Occasionally reminiscent of a Joe Orton or Martin McDonough black comedy, The Nap, which premiered in 2016 at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (where the World Snooker Championships are actually held), centers on Dylan’s preparation for the upcoming championship series.

Surrounding him is a rogue’s gallery of colorfully cartoonish characters: his former drug-dealing, bank-robbing dad, Bobby Spokes (John Ellison Conlee), who offers coaching advice; his flashy manager, Tony DanLino (Max Gordon Moore), who takes 20 percent of Dylan’s winnings, plus tax; Mohammed Butt (Bhavesh Patel), claiming to be a security agent needing to confirm Dylan’s integrity via a urine sample; and Eleanor Lavery (Heather Lind), a gorgeously sexy female copper concerned about possible match-fixing.
Ben Schnetzer, Heather Lind. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then there are Stella Spokes (Johanna Day), Dylan’s blowzy, boozy, bottle blonde mother, separated from Bobby; Danny Killeen (Thomas Jay Ryan), Stella’s sleazy, deodorant-avoiding, Irish-accented boyfriend; and the comic pièce de résistance, Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), a heavily made-up, white-suited, transgender woman gangster, with a prosthetic arm, who gets laughs by the tried and true (but overdone here) means of ridiculous malapropisms. One of the better ones goes: “Someone been making allegations? Bobby, are you one the allegators?”
Max Gordon Moore, Johanna Day, Alexandra Billings. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Waxy, who’s been sponsoring Dylan, wants him to repay the boatload of money he owes her by throwing a frame in his championship game, enabling her to place a big bet based on his tanking. This or-else demand tests Dylan’s moral fortitude while setting up a series of comical complications, some of them enacted in a hotel room and Waxy’s tacky country house.
Ben Schnetzer, Johanna Day. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are also a couple of effectively staged snooker sequences presented—along with dryly satirical broadcast commentary—via a huge overhead TV screen showing in live time all the shots being made by Dylan (Schnetzer trained diligently for these) against two wordless competitors (played by US National Snooker champ Ahmed Aly Elsayed). The outcome of the final match is left open, so the ending can vary depending on what happens at a particular performance. These scenes, however carefully prepared, are nonetheless the production’s most riveting.
Max Gordon Moore, Johanna Day, Thomas Jay Ryan, Alexandra Billings. Photo: Joan Marcus.
David Rockwell, flying and sliding his substantial-looking sets up and down, in and out, Justin Townsend, providing perfect lighting, and Kaye Voyce, dressing everyone convincingly, do their best on the visual side. Director Daniel Sullivan, using a mostly American cast speaking with generally reasonable facsimiles of Yorkshire accents, holds the pacing back too much, and the humor always seems bubbling just beneath the surface. It breaks through too rarely, though, to make The Nap as satisfyingly funny as it keeps promising to be.

The best comical moments come when Bobby struggles to cite a forgotten movie title, throwing out one half-remembered hint after another as his listeners eagerly try to connect the dots. But, like Waxy’s mangled vocabulary, or her double entendre name, these bits tend to use a hammer to bang in a comical thumbtack.  
Ahmed Aly Elsayed, Ethan Hova, Ben Schnetzer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Schnetzer’s credible presence helps keep Bean’s don’t-trust-what-you-see plot (redolent of The Sting) from losing too much contact with reality, and there are good turns by several others, especially Conlee and Billings. However, when a game of snooker becomes a play’s most gripping part, it’s hard for an audience not to feel it’s been snookered.


Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through November 11

Friday, September 28, 2018

85 (2018-2019): Review: BERNHARDT/HAMLET (seen September 27, 2018)

“The Divine Miss M Plays the Divine Sarah”

Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, now being given a rumbustious but only partly satisfying Roundabout Theatre Company production, is a mixture of high comedy, theatrical history, dramaturgic satire, and feminist polemic centered on a brief period in the life of French theatrical star Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Playing the Divine Sarah with an eye- and ear-catching mix of vinegar and vigor is the Divine Miss M, that is to say, British actress Janet McTeer, one of today’s most admired stage stars.

In her day, many considered Bernhardt the world’s greatest actress, at least until she was rivaled by Eleanora Duse. She was also one of the most notorious stars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her many love affairs, fashionable clothes, and personal eccentricities, like sleeping in a coffin or keeping a menagerie that included a pet lion, were fodder for public consumption. 

And speaking of consumption, her most famous role, performed hundreds of times, was the tubercular courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, in La Dame aux Camelias, known in English as Camille. 
The point of Bernhardt/Hamlet is to show the middle-aged actress (who was then, like McTeer, in her mid-50s) at that moment in her career where she wanted to move away from playing young women like the dying Marguerite and take on challenges like Hamlet. It was a natural progression, after all, since she had recently succeeded in another breeches role, Musset’s Lorenzaccio.

Of course, female stars playing iconic Shakespearean males were not unknown then, and are now rather common (as Glenda Jackson’s forthcoming King Lear demonstrates) but were rare enough for Bernhardt’s ambition to create a major artistic controversy That controversy (embodied in the presence of a critic named Louis [Tony Carlin]) and its discussion of the values and drawbacks of women playing male roles, would seem to be one raison d’être for the play. Another would be to confront the fear of women’s empowerment. As one man says, “A woman with power is a freak.”
Bernhardt/Hamlet occupies much of its two-hours and 20 minutes backstage and in the star’s dressing room (at Paris’s Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, unnamed in the play), recently leased by the actress (who changed its name from the Théâtre des Nations). Her recent financial setbacks and extravagant lifestyle have necessitated a move to a larger venue than her most recent one.

The year given in the program is 1897, which should more likely be 1898 or 1899 (Hamlet opened in May 1899). Bernhardt, in white blouse and black tights and boots, is rehearsing scenes with a small group of actors. In addition to the one playing Ophelia (Brittany Bradford), there are three men, two of them (Aaron Costa Ganis and Triney Sandoval) playing multiple roles. The rehearsal scenes offer the familiar comical contretemps involving hammy actors, line troubles, and the like. 
Also involved is Benoit-Constant (simply called Constant) Coquelin (Dylan Baker), cast by Rebeck as the Ghost, a secondary role, in Bernhardt’s Hamlet, even though he was already one of France’s top stars at the time. (This appears to be one of a number of dramatic liberties taken in Rebeck’s conflation of events.) One of the play’s most interestingly acted scenes involves Coquelin’s adjusting his overly exaggerated readings to more colloquially natural ones under Bernhardt’s astute direction. 
Another dramatic liberty forms the principal dramatic backbone when it assumes that Bernhardt is having an affair with the dandified playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), married with two young children. She wishes him to write a prose version of Hamlet for her because she has trouble with Shakespeare’s poetry. In reality, her Hamlet was a prose version created by Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob. 
While attempting to do this, Rostand, saying Bernhardt is his muse, keeps referring to a new play he’s working on for her, which those familiar with the period will immediately guess is Cyrano de Bergerac. In one of Rebeck’s fictional devices, he’s thinking of her for Roxanne. There’s even a scene when Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere), visits Bernhardt’s dressing room, not for the reason Bernhardt fears, but to drop off her husband’s manuscript. It’s obviously based on a roughly similar event a couple of years earlier when the wife, Rosamond Gérarde, a respected poet, had presented Bernhardt with the manuscript of Rostand’s La Princesse Lointaine.

The fact that Cyrano was produced in 1897, two years before Bernhardt’s Hamlet, is ignored in Rebeck’s time scheme. That’s because it allows important dramatic revelations to be made in a big scene during which she rejects the innocuous role of Roxanne and launches into a powerful feminist diatribe.

Toward the end, by the way, irrelevant as it is, we get not only a full-fledged scene from Cyrano starring Coquelin, for whom it became the role of a lifetime, but a film of the actual duel scene from the 1899 Bernhardt Hamlet, available here on YouTube.

McTeer gets lots of opportunities to rehearse material from Hamlet, even trying out radical ideas like making physical love to Ophelia. She argues that Hamlet isn’t a bearded 30-year-old, insisting he’s a beardless 19, and that nobody can understand the prince’s heart the way a woman can.

We see her in rehearsal clothes and, ultimately, in a semblance of the billowy costume Bernhardt wore in the role and which Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), who plays a significant role in the play, memorialized in one of his most famous art nouveau posters. 

The episodic play itself, despite Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s brisk direction, meanders through its scenes on the footlit stage (with its ropes, props, and beams), the star’s elaborately decorated dressing room, Rostand’s study, the street outside a café, and so on, all given attractive visual life on Beowulf Boritt’s revolving set. It’s handsomely lit by Bradley King and charmingly garbed in Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes. Rebeck’s dialogue is smart and engaging but the plot lumbers along from scene to scene without much dramatic thrust and laden with lots of talk and numerous emotion-wrought moments.

As expected, McTeer gives a tour de force performance of Bernhardt, whom she resembles not in the least, including the fact that she’s 6’1” and the Divine Sarah was 5’2”. But she has the fire, the gumption, the humor, and the fury, not to mention the voice, the energy, the presence, and the intelligence to make us watch her no matter what she does. 

Most of the rest of the cast offers standard Broadway performances, sturdy, vocally strong, and unremarkable. Dylan Baker, always solid, is not quite the actor to portray so bold a thespian as Coquelin, and Jason Butler Harner flexes his histrionic muscles a bit too obviously. Nick Westrate, however, who portrays Bernhardt’s feckless son, Maurice, has some fine moments with McTeer late in the play.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is a lumpy but often enjoyable play about a theatrical legend, with a feminist message that our current generation will appreciate. In the end, though, the question Bernhardt/Hamlet asks is when will we see McTeer’s Hamlet?


Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 11


84 (2018-2019): Review: BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP: AN ENCOUNTER WITH EMILY DICKINSON (seen September 26, 2018)

"Acting in Concert"

For my review of Because I Could Not Stop please click on THEATER LIFE

Thursday, September 27, 2018

83 (2018-2019): Review: THE TRUE (seen September 25, 2018)

“A Piece of Work”

Midway through The True, Sharr White’s sizzling drama of Albany backroom politics, State Senator Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) tells political operative Dorothea “Polly” Noonan she’s “a piece of work.” And indeed, she is, especially as played by the tempestuous Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie) in the best performance of the budding season.

Michael McKean, Edie Falco, Peter Scolari. Photo: Monique Carboni.

In their scene, Noonan is using all her fine-tuned, rough-edged tools to persuade Nolan, a Democrat, not to run against Albany mayor Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), the Democratic who’s held the office since 1942, in the upcoming 1977 mayoral election.
Edie Falco, Glenn Fitzgerald. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Noonan is a fierce, funny, fearsome, f bomb-dropping woman who has worked for Corning since 1937, and describes herself as his “confidant.” She believes with every corpuscle in her veins in the importance of remaining true to your cause, in this case the system that has long dominated the Albany power structure. And it’s her steamrolling mission to make sure every last Democratic vote goes to “Rasty” Corning. 
Michael McKean, Edie Falco. Photo: Monique Carboni.
But things are not quite that simple. Dan O’Connell, powerful, long-serving chairman of the Albany Democratic Party, has died at 91, robbing Corning of his backing, but giving him the chance to take over his job himself in addition to continuing as mayor. However, another faithful O’Connell power broker, Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), also wants to succeed to O’Connell’s position. 
Austin Cauldwell, Edie Falco. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Stirring the pot on Corning’s behalf is Polly, married to the stable, supportive, non-political Peter (Peter Scolari), but rumored to be the married Corning’s mistress. The “perception” of their relationship appears to be why he decides to cut off his connections with her, despite how important her support and advice is. 
Edie Falco, Peter Scolari. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Sharr’s swiftly spoken, exquisitely gritty, colloquial dialogue captures all the raw force of gloves-off political and marital squabbling. The intricacies of Albany’s political culture—with its Democratic machine, committeemen, ward leaders, patronage, corruption, and so on—are limned with surgical precision, and the stakes for each participant couldn’t be more vividly expressed. 
John Pankow, Edie Falco. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Large doses of humor leaven the atmosphere, as in a wonderful scene during which a callow, 28-year old named Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell) is invited over for a dinner of Irish stew so the enthusiastically optimistic Polly can prep him for the important job of committeeman. As she learns how little he’s aware of his Irish heritage (the Irish were a major Albany demographic) and how disinterested he is in a lifetime political career, Polly’s frustration detonates her emotional TNT with explosive results: “Where’s the dedication? Where’s the fucking dedication?” she erupts. 
Edie Falco, Michael McKean. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Giving the play an even stronger texture of authenticity is that it’s based on actual people, the central figure, Polly Noonan, being the grandmother of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. There are even passing references to the then 11-year-old Kirsten.

Aside from a scene on a car seat and one in Ryan’s shabby home (indicated by a drop), the action transpires in a booklined living room, cleverly designed by Derek McLane, and lovingly lit by Jeff Croiter. With changes behind the upstage archway, it serves handsomely as the home of both the Noonans and the Cornings. 
Edie Falco, Michael McKean, Peter Scolari. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Off-Broadway’s New Group consistently presents star-studded casts, but I’ve had reservations about several of their recent offerings. This one, though, as beautifully directed by Scott Elliott, flawlessly matches the ensemble to its material, creating a production of exceptional honesty in which each actor shines. 

Scolari’s reserved, soft-spoken Peter (not unlike the temperament of his role as Lena Dunham’s dad on Girls) is the perfect balance for the volcanic Polly, while McKean is thoroughly truthful as the aging politician who fears for his career. Cauldwell is winsomely innocent as the naive interviewee, Glenn Fitzgerald is believably browbeaten, and John Pankow knows how to strike with venom when threatened. Even Tracy Shane, in a brief, wordless appearance as Corning’s wife, Betty, makes an impression merely by crossing the stage.

But this is Edie Falco’s show. Looking just this side of dowdy in costumes (thanks to Clint Ramos’s pinpoint perfect designs) that are perhaps meant to suggest homemade garments (she spends a lot of time at a sewing machine), this brilliant actress is a thespian firestorm. She mingles tears, raucous laughter, sarcasm, vulgarity, ferocity, and vulnerability in equal measure. It’s easy to see how such a woman could cow the men around her while simultaneously gaining their respect (or “regard,” as she would say). The times may not have been conducive to women holding high office in Albany politics but Polly Noonan was nonetheless a force to reckon with.

Now and then, longueurs appear in this intermissionless, hour and 45-minuted drama, whose limited action is spread across several months. It nevertheless deserves “regard” for making the story of an election about which few in the audience know anything at all a gripping theatrical experience. And that is true.


Pershing Square Signature Company/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 28

Monday, September 24, 2018

Monday, September 17, 2018

80 (2018-2019): Review: SEPARATE AND EQUAL (seen September 16, 2018)

“Slam Dunk”

Something blood-thumpingly stirring is going on at Theater B at 59E59 Theaters. I’m talking about a remarkably tense, brilliantly acted, amazingly well-staged, and socially compelling play about basketball and race called Separate and Equal, written and directed by Seth Panitch (Alcestis Ascending).

Adrian Badoo, Will Badgett, Steven Bono, Jr., Ross Birdsong. Photo: Jeff Hanson.
Every season brings at least one or two plays about sports but the challenge of successfully simulating an athletic match or game on stage is daunting. Boxing can be staged effectively, of course, and a recent rash of plays has shown how, even without balls (or, sometimes, rackets), tennis matches can be excitingly realized through detailed choreography and sound effects.

Stills and video clips are sometimes used to overcome the problem, especially in plays about complex sports with multiple players, like baseball, football, and basketball. Most such plays look to the drama of off-the-field situations, in locker rooms and elsewhere, rather than to creating the visceral excitement of athletes engaged in extended person-to-person conflict. Even Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, praised for its depiction of a women’s soccer team, focused its rigorous physicality on warmup sessions, not an actual game.

But with Separate and Equal you get equal measures of thrillingly choreographed basketball and powerful human drama about race relations in Jim Crow Alabama, 1951, its inspiration coming from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. By no means a documentary, this uniquely exciting work comes to us from the heart of Dixie, the University of Alabama, which is coproducing it with the aforementioned museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP.

Theater B, normally arranged end-stage style (proscenium orientation without the proscenium), has been cleared out by production designer Matthew Reynolds so that its oblong shape can be converted to a small basketball court, with the audience seated in one or two rows around its perimeter.

Overhead, at either end of the court is a video screen on which, at appropriate moments, images of Jim Crow history are projected, including, on one side, a water fountain labeled “white,” and on the other, one labeled “colored.” That fountain will play a significant role in the course of Panitch’s drama.
Company of Separate and Equal. Photo: Jeff Hanson.
Most of the time, during the pickup game that occupies much of the action, each screen shows a hoop. Although no actual ball is used during the game, when a player makes a shot, a perfectly timed image of a ball enters the screen (kudos to Maya Champion’s media design) and either rebounds or swishes through the hoop, sometimes only after hitting the rim or backboard.

Six teenagers play the game, three black and three white. The former are Calvin (Adrian Badoo), Emmett (James Holloway), and Nathan (Edwin Brown III); the latter are Edgar (Ross Birdsong), Jeff Forrest (Steven Bono, Jr.), and Wesley (Dylan Guy Davis). They differ widely in manner and size, Jeff, for instance, being short and wiry, Nathan very tall and slim, and Wesley fat.

The three black boys are warned in no uncertain terms by Lt. Connor (Ted Barton, in one of several roles), a sadistic, racist cop in the mode of the similarly named Bull Connor, to vacate the court, where they’re only allowed to play for a few hours each week. Faced by the officer’s authority, and that of his slightly more congenial partner, Lt. Dixx (Jeremy Cox), the boys behave submissively. Even more painfully instructive is the groveling on their behalf of Two Snakes (Will Badgett, also covering several roles), an elderly black man, whose Uncle Tom-ism clearly comes from experience.

Soon after, three white boys arrive to use the court and, following the expected taunting by the whites, especially from the hateful Jeff, the boys gradually engage in a full court game, hoping to be able to finish before the cops come round again. During the game, the action occasionally stops, with the actors taking a knee, so to speak, as flashback scenes appear in which we learn a bit about a few characters and the influence of the local KKK.
Adrian Badoo, Ross Birdsong. Photo: Jeff Hanson.
Among them are Wesley and his lawyer father (Barton), an alcoholic whose clients include local blacks, and Calvin, whose mother, Viola (Pamela Afesi), is a maid working for Edgar’s mother, Annabelle (Barbara Wengero), prominent in racist circles. There’s also a vignette about a black Korean War vet (Badgett), lynched by crackers (Barton and Cox) for wearing a U.S. military uniform.

During the game, there’s lots of snarling, race baiting, and other nasty stuff—including bending the rules in favor of the whites on fouls—but the two groups gradually do find relatively common ground and a sprinkling of mutual respect. A violent incident, however, interrupts the emerging equilibrium and reminds us of the time and place. Melodramatic as it might appear, history supports the viability of the disturbing conclusion.

Panitch’s unusually well-honed production has each cast member playing at fever pitch. Most remarkable are the basketball sequences, choreographed in awesome detail by Lawrence M. Jackson, and as gripping as anything on the E. 4th Street court in Greenwich Village. Panitch’s script even includes references to online sources showing the styles of basketball greats like Magic Johnson, Lew Alcindor, Bob Cousy, and Larry Bird, each to be used for a particular character.

The game, accompanied by an original jazz score by Tom Wolfe, is a complexly choreographed feast of dribbling, passing, possession (signaled by clapping one’s hands), blocking, leaps, twists, fakes, falls, fouls, and shots that recreates, purely in mime, the relentless pace and activity of the real thing. It’s a tribute to their well-drilled skill that the six actors, working in such close quarters, don’t crash into each other (or us).

For equal measures of visceral theatricality and racially sensitive drama, Separate and Equal is an 85-minute, NBA/NAACP-worthy show that scores a slam dunk against Jim Crow and the KKK.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 30

Sunday, September 16, 2018

79 (2018-2019): Review: UNRAVELED (seen September 15, 2018)

"A Stitch in Time"

Jennifer Blackmer’s Unraveled is the latest example of a play depicting the emotional toll taken on loved ones by an aging parent’s dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s easy to see why so many playwrights find the subject to be a magnet for potential dramatization. And, while I have no idea if it applies to Blackmer, this is often the case when they themselves are faced with the anguish of having to deal with the mental and physical degradation of someone close. Most of us know people in these circumstances. 
Ladonna Burns, Suzanna Hays (foreground); Kittson O'Neill, Lori Hammel (rear). Photo: Michael Kushner.
The experience is so devastating that playwrights confronting it must often feel the need to purge themselves of their pain by sharing it through the medium of drama. As dozens of recent plays reveal, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the trauma of real life translates successfully to the drama of the stage (or movies).
Blackmer’s Unraveled, a generally uninvolving, 70-minute one-act at the Clurman, adds little to the growing genre of plays on the subject, a list of whose recent examples may be found at the end of this review. This well-worn tale of a grown child coming to grips with a parent’s decline makes a frail attempt at offering something new by having the child, Joy Gallagher (Kittson O’Neill), be a professor of time and space philosophy. This allows the dramatist to serve up some didactic mumbo jumbo, including talk about time travel and other theoretical scientific concerns.
Lori Hammel, Suzanna Hay. Photo: Michael Kushner.
Blackmer’s focus on the fluidity of time inspires the structural approach of simultaneously depicting Joy and her mother, George, as they were in Joy’s childhood and as they are now, with dialogue intertwined across two time zones. This, of course, is a well-known device, used frequently in films, to heighten the pathos by contrasting a lovely past with an ugly present. Likewise, it permits a person to ruminate through memory on the meanings of their personal history.

Unraveled’s action weaves back and forth in time to show Joy, as a girl and an older woman (both played by O’Neill), interacting with her youthful mother, Young George (Lori Hammel), and her aged one, Old George (Suzanna Hay), both of them sometimes seen at the same time. Old George’s ailment, it might be noted, is the aftereffect of chemotherapy she received following a cancer diagnosis.
Suzanna Hay. Photo: Michael Kushner.
Young George is vibrant, well-dressed, attractive, and preoccupied with her gardening. Old George, 60 but looking 80, and cared for by an unusually eloquent hospice nurse, Anna (Ladonna Burns), races about in a nightshift, her white hair disheveled, her behavior ranging from singing “The Age of Aquarius” to flashing her breasts to raging angrily at the daughter she only sometimes recognizes.

The single other character is Joy’s sketchily depicted T.A., a doctoral student named Michael (Maxwell Eddy), in love with her. He’s also the author of a scientific paper on physical “entanglements” introduced out of nowhere toward the end to hint at the plot’s human entanglements.
Maxwell Eddy, Kittson O'Neill. Photo: Michael Kushner/
Joy, self-involved, struggles to come to terms with her mother’s illness, which is affecting her career as well as her relationship with Michael. She’s unwilling to accept that the fading woman before her is her once vivacious mother, which causes friction with the tolerant but increasingly exasperated Anna, who insists she's there as much to help Old George as the reluctant Joy herself. Eventually, Anna helps Joy find joy by teaching her to knit, a craft with obvious metaphorical overtones here. Joy is thus able to find a pathway to acceptance of her mother's condition although her epiphany seems more contrived than earned, lacking the catharsis it should provide.
Suzanna Hay, Kittson O'Neill. Photo: Michael Kushner.
Melpomone Katakalos provides a spare but pretty unit set incorporating several simultaneously present locales—garden, living room, classroom, office—against a backdrop of wooden latticework and hanging wisteria. Kate McGee lights it nicely, especially when she transforms the floral colors. And Elivia Bovenzi has designed clothing that suits the characters, including an outfit for Anna that incorporates touching memories from her previous patients. However, having Old George dressed throughout like a demented harridan is a bit of overkill.

As directed by Kathryn McMillan, the spectrum of performances goes from the high quality of Burns as the loving, no-nonsense nurse and Hay as the raving Old George to less inspired work from the others, particularly O’Neill’s unconvincing Joy. Absent a strong, deeply felt, multilayered performance in this role, the already frayed fabric of Blackmer’s fragile play can do nothing but unravel.

*The following list offers the titles of newly written dementia/Alzheimer’s-related plays (as opposed to revivals, like Three Tall Women) I reviewed since starting this blog in 2012. (Soon, we can add Broadway's The Waverly Gallery to the list.) The majority are concerned with children grappling with a parents’ illness: The Father, Pocatello, Dot, In My Father’s Words, My Mother Has 4 Noses, It Had to Be You, The Last Seder, Too Much, Too Much, Too Many; The Humans; The Outgoing Tide; Her Requiem; Smokefall; 20th Century Blues; Peace for Mary Frances; Good for Otto; In the Body of the World; Animal; Man from Nebraska; The Mother of Invention; Mr. Toole; Isolde; Hey, Jude; Pat Kirkwood Is Angry; I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan; These Halcyon Days; The Great God Pan; The Other Place; The Last Will; Pressing Matters; Sundown, Yellow Moon; and A Persistent Memory. And, of course, there must be some I missed.


Clurman Theatre
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 22