Monday, October 29, 2018

110 (2018-2019): Review: INDIA PALE ALE (seen October 28, 2018)

“Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Ale”

Sometimes the events portrayed in a play and the events of daily life coincide with such unexpected emotional velocity that their confluence affects a theatregoer more powerfully than the play alone might have done. 

Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
That’s what happened to me on December 8, 1980, when, hours after John Lennon’s murder, I saw David Rimmer’s Album, a play in which the music of the Beatles has a crucial role. And it happened yesterday, October 28, 2018, a day after the massacre of Jewish worshipers in their Pittsburgh synagogue, when I attended the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s India Pale Ale. In this uneven but heartwarming drama about Punjabi-Americans, a major plot point is the massacre of Sikh worshipers in their Wisconsin temple (obviously based on an actual 2012 occurrence).

At the play’s conclusion, Deepa (Purva Bedi), mother of two of the leading characters, makes a speech directly to us—it’s already in the script and not added because of its topicality. In it, after pointing to the hatred so many feel toward those of other cultures, she begs for the unity we should feel as fellow Americans, asking repeatedly, “What has to change?” For example, “what has to change among us all so we may grow and learn from each other without tearing each other apart?”
Shazi Raja, Purva Bedi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ordinarily, I’d have considered the speech extraneous, since its point should have been clear from the play itself. As the sniffling (mine included) all around testified, her words couldn’t have been more pertinent, even if preached to the New York choir. Obviously, from the moment the bloody news is delivered on stage, many heads in the theatre began pondering if the show would somehow acknowledge what happened in Pittsburgh.
Purva Bedi, Shazi Raja, Angel Desai. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The question was successfully answered during the curtain call when a cast member stepped forward to commemorate Pittsburgh by reading the names of all the victims. Talk about there not being a dry eye in the house! But that wasn’t all, the actors—as per the script—then proceeded into the aisles to distribute warm, freshly made samosas to every member of the audience, bridging cultural divides as only delicious food can.

The play itself, for all its occasional charms, will remain memorable more for the occasion of its performance than for its contribution to dramatic literature. India Pale Ale, named for an actual hoppy beer style, takes place in Raymond, WI; a Madison, WI, dive bar; and, in extravagantly bright and fantastical pirate costumes (Arnulfo Maldonado, outdoing himself), aboard a pirate ship sailing between Essex, England, and Calcutta in 1823. Each is managed on a spare setting created by Neil Patel, and creatively lit by Ben Stanton, with a floor of wood planking fitted with multiple trap doors.
Sathya Sridharan, Lipica Shah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A high-energy blend of heightened realism and bold fantasy, India Pale Ale concerns the Batras, a family of first- and second-generation Punjabi-descended Sikhs living in the Midwest. When the play begins they’re in the langar (feasting) hall of their gurdwara (temple), preparing a buffet to celebrate the engagement of their dude-like, hip-hoppish son, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan), to the vivacious Lovi (Lipica Shah).
Alok Tewari, Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
We also meet Iggy’s mom, Deepa; her amusingly gossipy cousin, Simran Rayat (Angel Desai); Iggy’s distinguished-looking, bearded and turbaned dad, Sunny (Alok Tewari); Dadi Parminder (Sophia Mahmud), Sunny’s imperious, 90-year-old, Punjabi-speaking mother; and Vishal Singh (Nik Sadhnani), Iggy’s close friend and the ex of the play’s central character, Basminder a.k.a. “Boz” (Shazi Raja), the Batras’ independent-minded, 30-year-old daughter.
Angel Desai, Purva Bedi, Lipica Shah, Alok Tewari. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The festive mood breaks out into a couple of lively company dances (original music and sound design by Elisheba Ittoop) before things turn sour following Boz’s announcement of her intentions. Boz, preoccupied with memories of her late brother, Jol, who died after venturing to India, is also obsessed by the family legend of a pirate ancestor named Brownbeard, who transported beer for the East India Company. The latter’s influence is such that she even slips frequently into a gruff pirate accent with lots of growly “yars.” Infected with these men’s free spirits, she upsets the family apple cart by announcing she’s opening a bar in Madison.
Nate Miller, Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When the play moves there, Boz meets a sweetly shlubby, helpful, beer aficionado, a white guy named Tim (Nate Miller). Tim’s unconvincingly naive questions about the exotic-seeming Boz’s heritage—as if she couldn’t possibly be American-born and -raised (regardless of all the verbal and physical clues she projects)—turn the play into a diverting but notably artificial lesson on Sikh identity. Then, in another clumsy contrivance, Vishal, unable to call because—if you can believe it, Boz, running a business, keeps her phone in the car—bursts in with news of the mass shooting.

Three months later, we’re back in the langar at another feast, this one to celebrate the temple's reopening and to commemorate the tragic victims. This tragedy, though, however catastrophic, is used largely as way of bringing the family—whose patriarch was killed—back together, including lots of comic byplay surrounding the now broken but possibly fixable engagement of Lovi and Iggy, and the initially uncomfortable presence of Tim, who is quickly bathed in the family’s warmth and stuffed with their delicacies.

Will Davis stages (and choreographs) with high spirits, including the overextended but elaborate pirate fantasy that opens Act Two. While fun for a while, it outlasts its welcome and does little to advance the plot. The actors are all good, Shazi Raja being especially promising, but everyone works a little too hard at being amusingly appealing, almost as if to to compensate for their often-exaggerated situations. I smiled more than I laughed but was consistently entertained, even during the more contrived and awkward parts.

One of the production’s distinguishing features is its presentation of characters of Indian descent who, while wearing traditional elements, like head scarves for the women, or, for the young men, bandannas, are familiarly “American” in everything they say and do. This extends from their accents, to the totally secular content of their conversations, regardless of their religious and cultural beliefs (other than the outsider Tim’s being required to wear a bandanna), whose specifics the play mostly ignores.
Sathya Sridharan, Lipica Shah, Nik Sadhnani, Angel Desai, Purva Bedi, Sophia Mahud. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In other words, aside, perhaps, from an early scene in which Deepa and Simran sit on a blanket to prepare food, an “old school” thing, according to Deepa, these could be people of any background, with concerns no different from those of anyone who couldn’t tell a Sikh from a Sioux. On the one hand, this could be a missed opportunity, while on the other it emphasizes the universality of these human beings and how relatively minor their other differences are. 
Sathya Sridharan, Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
India Pale Ale shoots off too many flares in its treatment of family relationships, ethnic identity, a mass shooting, piracy, beer, romantic complications, a woman’s search for independence from the confines of her heritage, food, and multicultural appreciation and understanding. Some of this mixture may not work but when I bit into that delicious samosa—so suggestive of a soft, slightly spicy, triangular knish—I instantly ingested the parts about food and multicultural appreciation.


Manhattan Theatre Club/New York City Center Stage 1
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through November 18

109 (2018-2019): MOTHER OF THE MAID (seen October 26, 2018)

"She Had a Daughter"

For my review of Mother of the Maid please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Thursday, October 25, 2018

107 (2018-2019): Review: SAKINA'S RESTAURANT (seen October 24, 2018)

"Table for One"

Sakina’s Restaurant is a one-man, multiple-character, mostly comic play whose most original feature is that it’s about Indian Muslim immigrants to America. It originally was produced Off Broadway in 1998 and now being revived by its Bombay-born, British-American author and star, Aasif Mandvi. In the years since its premiere, much has happened to Mandvi and his fellow Muslims. On the positive side would be his gaining national prominence as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”; on the negative, the anti-Muslim biases awakened by 9/11. 
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
Sakina’s Restaurant having been written before that fateful day, there’s little in it about religious politics, which is not to say it doesn’t contain self-referential Muslim humor, such as jibes directed at prayer requirements or at an ignorant hooker’s confusion of the religion’s name with a kind of cloth. Instead, it depicts the contrast between, on one hand, the dream of economically deprived immigrants everywhere that America’s streets are paved with gold, and, on the other, the reality they’ll discover when they live here.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
When the play begins, Mandvi appears in the aisle as a heavily accented, wide-eyed, and bushy-tailed young man named Agzi, suitcase in hand, saying goodbye to his mother in India before boarding a plane (he’s the first in his family to do so) bound for America. There, family friends, Hakim and Faridda, are sponsoring him so he can work for them at Sakina’s Restaurant, located at what knowing theatregoers will recognize as a Lower East Side address. Muslim immigration appears to have been a relatively simple procedure in 1998.

After he mounts the stage to finishes his goodbyes, which involves receiving a small stone as a farewell gift, the show curtain—depicting an airmail envelope covered in Gujarati script—whisks away and we’re in a realistic Indian restaurant (designed by Wilson Chin), adorned with Christmas lights (Mary Louise Geiger did the lighting), where Agzi is busily employed as a waiter.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
Before long, he begins introducing five other characters, using costume pieces (courtesy of designer Jen Caprio) taken from a hat rack, spectacles, or other simple devices to help characterize each one. We hear only their half of the conversations, but it’s always clear what the other person is saying.

Over the course of the play’s essentially plotless 80 minutes, we get not only the conventional examples of culture shock so many immigrants have experienced but also insights into the aspirations and disappointments of the family for which Agzi works. Every now and then, Agzi returns to offer an elusive parable somehow related to his experiences. That stone his mother gave him, of course, will reveal its symbolism before the play concludes.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
As he alters his voice, gestures, and expressions, Mandvi first introduces us to Faridda, slaving in the kitchen with her rolling pin as she fends off Hakim’s attempts at “hanky panky” and regrets abandoning her hopes to become a classical Indian dancer. Then we get to know Hakim, struggling to keep his business going while arguing with his teenage daughter, Sakina, about her having become so Americanized she neglects her heritage.

Sakina is suffering from the conflict between her interest in an American boyfriend and the Indian man to whom her parents prearranged her betrothal.  Her fiancé, Ali, driven by his sexual needs to seek a prostitute, is unable to prevent his religious inclinations from commingling with his hormonal ones, And Samir, Sakina’s spoiled younger brother, selfish about his Game Boy, resents everything about India when his family goes there for his grandma’s funeral;
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
While some moments are deeply emotional, Mandvi’s performance is largely comedic, often broadly so. The audience greeted much of it with laughter when I attended. I, though, felt more like the stone in Agzi’s pocket. Culture clashes can make for fine comedy, as so many plays and movies have demonstrated, but Sakina’s Restaurant too often seems clichéd, offering little we haven’t seen or heard in recent years, including in Indian contexts (The Big Sick comes to mind). Thus we have the familiar parental fear that their kids will betray their heritage (remember The Jazz Singer?) for the American way, or that America actually may not be the shining city on the hill longed for by people in hardscrabble countries.
Aasif Mandvi. Photo: Lisa Berg.
At one point, Agzi tries to convince a customer that, using the restaurant’s rating scale of 1-5, the dish he’s ordered as a 5 would be too spicy and should be a 2. “I’m trying to save your life, sir” he insists in one of his best lines. I can’t say how the Zagat Survey would rate Sakina’s Restaurant. But if we're talking about a 1-5 scale measuring theatrical taste, I'd give the play a 2 3/4.


Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through November 11

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Saturday, October 20, 2018

105 (2018-2019): Review: APOLOGIA (seen October 19, 2018)

“The Dinner That Goes Wrong”

Female activists from the 60s are currently storming Off Broadway’s barricades, what with the recently opened Gloria: A Life, starring Christine Lahti as the real-life Gloria Steinem, and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, starring Stockard Channing as the fictional Kristin Miller. I haven’t seen Gloria yet so I’m not sure what, if anything, the plays have in common, but it’s hard not to watch the mildly entertaining if unexceptionally conventional Apologia without thinking of Ms. Steinem.

Campbell’s comedy-drama—with a splash of farce—is primarily attractive for its memorable portrait (and Channing’s performance) of Kristin, a woman in her late sixties, whose life as an art historian and political idealist has not been without collateral damage.

Apologia, originally staged in London in 2009, was revived there last year under Jamie Lloyd’s direction, with Channing receiving rave reviews. She repeats her strong performance in the play’s New York premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre, briskly directed by Daniel Aukin for the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Kristin, an ex-pat American (Campbell rewrote the original British character for Channing), who disdains the shallowness of Americans and American culture, lives in an English countryside cottage, realistically designed by Dane Laffrey. (Bradley King designed the lights and Anita Yavich the costumes). Arriving to celebrate her birthday are her older son, the 40ish Peter (Hugh Dancy, excellent in a thinly drawn role), a banker his mother blames for raping the Third World, and Peter’s American girlfriend, Trudi (Talene Monahon, rather strident), a sincere young woman from Nebraska. The Liberian mask they’ve brought as a gift will generate discussion and come to have thematic, albeit awkwardly contrived, overtones when its provenance is uncovered. 
Also present are Kristin’s gay, witty, English friend, Hugh (John Tillinger, charmingly urbane), who’s been her fellow protest marcher for over 40 years, and Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke, excellent), the stunning, if somewhat shallow, star of a TV series. She’s the girlfriend of Kristin’s slightly younger son, the emotionally damaged Simon (also played by Dancy), who doesn’t show up for a while, giving Kristin something to be nervous about until he arrives. 
Until then, she has lots of other stuff on her plate, although not the chicken she was cooking, since the oven isn’t working. Hugh thus has to order in fish and chips, much to his ultimate gastronomic distress. (Must've been those mushy peas.) The action circles around Kristin’s supercilious reactions to everyone, and theirs to her, especially in relation to her recent book, Apologia, a memoir, in which she discusses things like the art of Giotto. 
The title Apologia is explained by Kristin as meaning “a formal, written defence of one’s opinions or conduct,” and isn’t meant as an apology. There are actually several apologies in the play but getting one from Kristin is no easy thing. Seeking one, though, becomes the play’s core when Peter, and then Simon, furiously express their disappointment at not having been mentioned in her book. This is tied to what they perceive as her selfish abandonment of them as children to their father’s custody when she and he got divorced; her preoccupation with her career and activism are also blamed. Kristin’s explanation is barely an excuse, much less an apology.

Kristin, unable to maintain congeniality, can’t hide her scorn for those she considers cultural yahoos, which may make you want to throttle her. Trudi is American so that’s one strike against her; strike two, she believes in Christianity; and strike three is that she met Peter at a prayer meeting and that he’s showing an interest in religion.
Kristin’s love of Renaissance humanism, even if expressed in a wonderful speech about a Giotto painting showing Mary embracing Christ, has no place for religious belief, as underscored in one of the several scenes intended for discussion and not dramatic action. She may march on behalf of the downtrodden but she shows little patience for those uncommitted to progressive causes.

Then there’s Claire, whose fame and fortune are tied to her success acting in what Kristin keeps denigrating as a soap opera, no matter how earnestly Claire rationalizes it as being on a higher level. Kristin appreciates that Claire once played Nora in an experimental production of A Doll’s House, but, in her narrow world view, she doesn’t think twice about using the word “whore” for anyone making and spending money instead of advancing a cause.

Thus, when Claire reveals how much her high-fashion dress cost (an odd choice to wear to a country cottage, one might think), you can imagine Kristin’s response. The fate of that dress, by the way, will not only provide a note of satisfaction for Kristin but also be yet another pseudo-farcical device inspiring the title of this review. And I haven’t even mentioned the artificiality of the contretemps involving Kristin accidentally answering Claire’s phone.

Kristin is smart and sarcastically funny but she’s not a pleasant person. Stockard Channing, though, makes her believable and even recognizable, a woman who has created, as Claire rather perceptively declares, a “carapace” around her, a shell that protects her from anything that threatens her idealism. 

Apologia, in two acts running two hours and 10 minutes, is loosely structured around character revelations rather than plotting. Some of it seems familiar from other plays (especially the Seagull-like scene between Simon and Kristin as she tends to his injured hand), and not a little comes off as phony and cliched. But it’s never boring, has some worthwhile moments, and, when you get right down to it, Stockard Channing. And, for her presence, no apologies are needed.


Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through December 16

104 (2018-2019): Review: FIREFLIES (seen October 18, 2018)

"The Wings of a Prayer"

For my review of Fireflies please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

103 (2018-2019): Review: ORDINARY DAYS (seen October 18, 2018)

"Four Bites of the Big Apple"

Ordinary Days, Adam Gwon’s bookless, sung-through, chamber musical, is one of those intimate little shows that has gained something of a cult following with its depiction of young strivers seeking love and fulfillment within the bustle of New York City. Following its 2008 premiere in London’s Off West End, it was given an admired Off-Broadway production by Roundabout in 2009 and has had multiple international stagings since then. Its first New York revival, kicking off the Keen Company’s 19th season, is enjoyably well done but nothing notably out of the ordinary. 

Whitney Bashor, Kyle Sherman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Performed on a utilitarian set of black platforming and translucent cube-like enclosures (one of them hiding its piano, reed, and bass orchestra, led by John Bell), it’s about two couples. One is Deb (Sarah Lynn Marion) and Warren (Kyle Sherman), the other is Jason (Marc delaCruz) and Claire (Whitney Bashor). A flip phone reminds us that it’s 2007. 

Warren’s a gay, sweet-natured, somewhat nerdy, aspiring artist who does odd jobs (like cat-sitting and handing out flyers) for a trust fund-wealthy artist. Deb’s a sassy-mouthed grad student who’s at her wit’s end because she’s lost her loosely bound book of research notes for a thesis on Virginia Woolf. Warren finds the notes, notices Deb’s email address, and arranges to meet her at the Metropolitan Museum to return them.

Their bumpy friendship begins when the distressed Deb has a rude (and rather unconvincing) way of showing her appreciation, calling Warren a “fucking weirdo.” Of course, as they discuss art and aspirations, they eventually resolve their mutual issues as they discover “the big picture” of their mutual ambitions.
Kyle Sherman, Sarah Lynn Marion. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Jason and Claire are seriously in love. He lives 14 blocks away and wants to be closer, so they agree on his moving in with her. This, though, causes their relationship to stumble. Because of tensions Claire’s feeling but that we can’t at first fathom, his proposal that they marry causes their break up. Only later, when Claire sings about it, do we learn the sad reason boy has lost girl. Of course, there’s still time before the final curtain for boy to win girl again.
Sarah Lynn Marion, Kyle Sherman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Each couple’s story is enacted separately from the other in alternating scenes. While the couples never actually meet, they now and then pass each other as people occupying the same urban space. The thinness of Gwon’s plotting is not substantially enhanced by these unsurprising characters, nor are the experiences they encounter notably illuminating. It’s all pleasant enough but there’s a been-there, heard-and-seen-that feeling that simply fails to ignite.
Whitney Bashor, Marc delaCruz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The burden of maintaining our interest lies in the sequence of Gwon’s narratively-oriented songs, whose clever lyrics define who’s singing them and provide the expository background. A couple of numbers stand out from the 14 heard in this revival, one of those that most delighted me being “Calm,” a rapid patter song Deb performs while standing in a crowded subway car as she fights to find calm amidst all the pressures she’s feeling.

The excellence of Sarah Lynn Marion’s lightly comic rendition is matched by Whitney Bashor’s moving expression of Claire’s “I’ll Be Here,” the 11 o'clock number in which we learn what’s behind Claire’s commitment issues. Admittedly, despite the reason being a contrivance that expects the knee jerk response it receives, it’s still hard not to feel a lump in your throat when you hear it.

Too many of the other numbers, though, are in the generic, faux-Sondheim mode of narrating rhyming exposition to a steady beat. Their witty lyrics are often a delight but the melodies tend to bleed into one another.
Sarah Lynn Marion, Kyle Sherman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Jonathan Silverstein’s direction elicits all the right emotional notes from his appealing cast, whom he moves about with spirited élan. The performers have charm, fine voices, and the acting skills to bring their songs to life. Visually, though, Steven C. Kemp’s neutral set is too bland, and Anshuman Batia’s lighting, despite his use of marquee light strips, could do more to kick up the effect. Jennifer Paar provides amusingly kooky clothes for Deb and Warren; Claire and Jason, not so much.
Marc delaCruz, Kyle Sherman, Sarah Lynn Marion, Whitney Bashor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
What most catches your eye comes when, near the end of this 80-minute show, Deb and Warren toss dozens of colored pages (his art and her notes) into the air, creating a vivid paper rainstorm. At that moment, the too frequently ordinary Ordinary Days becomes extraordinary.
Kyle Sherman, Sarah Lynn Marion. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 17