Saturday, March 30, 2019

Guest Review 1 (2018-2019): THE WORLD INSIDE ME (seen March 30, 2019)

"Two Sucked-Thumbs Up"****

By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)

With this review, Theatre's Leiter Side begins the posting of guest reviews for shows I'm not able to get to, mainly those in the Off-Off Broadway arena.

Like many other miniature audience members at the 10 A.M. production of The World Inside Me, my pint-sized plus-one, who is, in fact, one year old, stepped into a theatre for the first time. While musical activities and classes for toddlers are growing in popularity, this production introduces little ones to the theatregoing experience of watching a staged show complete with lights, music, choreography, and performers. Brought to the New Victory Theater by Spellbound Theatre, the performance is targeted to kids two and under (there’s a separate version for kids ages two-to-four).

The World Inside. Photo: Charles Osgood.
A loosely educational show that explores the human body—for example, kids are invited to Velcro neurons onto a plushy brain—The World Inside Me doesn’t make too much of a fuss over “teaching” and focuses more on interactive play, movement, and tactical exploration. A nine-month-old might have few takeaways about the workings of intestines, but he’ll have a ball rolling around, well, balls (supercool mirrored ones, like the one in the photo).  

You’ll want to arrive a good half-hour early, as the entertainment begins before the show’s official start time. Outside the theatre there’s a room set up as a sensory play space themed around the human body, offering something-for-everyone activities ranging from crawling structures and a toy station to a reading nook and music corner. This space acts as a smart way to get the little ones situated and comfortable before moving into the theatre for the performance.

Inside, the audience is invited to sit on cushioned seats on the floor surrounding an illuminated white stage (children and adults must leave shoes in an outside cubby if they wish to walk on the stage). Again, the kids are allowed a few minutes to get settled and explore before the performers begin to sing.
The World Inside Me. Photo: Charles Osgood.
The cast is comprised of co-creators Sarah Folkins, whose bright sign language seamlessly complements her vocal performance; Melana Lloyd, whose artful movement draws the crowd; and W.T. McRae, who gets points for making my little date, Mateo, smile when he sang his name. Rounding out the ensemble is composer/lyricist Jono Waldman. Catch him in the corner with his banjo as he improvises comical lyrics throughout the production, largely in response to the kids’ activity: “Thanks for bringing your own ball.”

Lauren Jost’s direction shows a demonstrated understanding of engaging wee ones along with their grown-ups. In between several set musical numbers, the cast interacts one-on-one with children and their caregivers while Waldman strums lightly in the background. Just when these interludes start to lag, the lights change and another song begins, reeling the kids back into the narrative.  

Will Bishop is responsible for the neat scenic design that involves light-up, chase-able footprints and video projections of dancing figures, as well as props like the large doctor’s kit—complete with giant Band-Aids—accompanying a song about boo-boos. The actors, donning white coats and stethoscopes, garner laughs when attempting to listen to audience members’ heartbeats through their shins, shoulders, and so on. When one of the actors came around to me, the little guy on my lap let out a cry (perhaps he was experiencing PPSD: post-pediatrician stress disorder). 
The World Inside Me. Photo: Charles Osgood.
Another little boy wore a pout as he stood before an actor singing about his boo-boo. “He’s worried,” his older brother explained, much to the delight of the crowd. As the babies engaged with the performers—darting to the stage, chasing balls, letting out squeals, and desperately trying to sneak behind the backdrop—it became apparent that they were part of the entertainment, creating a sort of show within the show. 

And not just for the adults; for as many toddlers as there were roaming the stage, there were about as many who opted to stay seated and watch, as my own little date did. The young observers appeared wholly engaged; there was an impressively small amount of crying, and a break area for those who needed one.

The most magical moment in this 30-minute (just right!) show was an astounding instance of silence. As the cast engaged in rhythmic breathing, the audience was briefly entranced and didn’t make a peep. That’s no small feat when you’re talking about a whole lotta babies. The little ones may not remember that moment, but I hope their parents do and make a return trip to the stage. As New Victory Theater President & CEO Cora Cahan writes in her program letter, “The sooner kids are introduced to the joy of theatergoing, the more likely they are to want to come back.”

The Duke on 42nd Street
229 W42nd St., NYC
Through April 7

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her husband Joe, kids Theo and Melody, and three muses cats. @elyseorecchio

197 (2018-2019): Review: SMART BLONDE (seen March 30, 2019)

“Not Born Yesterday”

The smart blonde who gives her name to this modest but only fitfully effective little biomusical at 59E59 Theaters is Judy Holliday, a singer-actress-comedienne born Judith Tuvim (meaning “holiday”). She was Jewish, hailed from Sunnyside, Queens, and died in 1965 of breast cancer, at 44. When I was growing up in the 40s and 50s, Holliday was a household name even though her fame was largely centered on two roles.

Andréa Burns. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The first was Billie Dawn, the presumably dumb blonde with a broad New York accent who turns out to be a genius in the rough in Garson Kanin’s 1946 Broadway play Born Yesterday; it’s a part that won her an Academy Award for the 1950 movie version. Then came the Tony for her next most famous part, phone operator Ella Peterson in Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s 1956 Broadway musical, The Bells Are Ringing, a role she repeated in the 1960 film.
Jonathan Spivey, Andréa Burns. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In Smart Blonde, Willy Holtzman has concocted a chamber musical taking place in 1964, in a music studio (realistically designed by Tony Ferierri), where Judy (Andréa Burns, On Your Feet), preparing to make a record, is having trouble because something’s weighing on her mind. As her memories begin to crowd in, the session becomes Holtzman’s framing device for taking us on a through-the-years (without year markers, though) overview of Judy’s life, the transitions marked by Alan Edwards’s many lighting cues.
Andrea Bianchi, Andréa Burns. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Her accompanist, Bernie (Jonathan Spivey), her copyist, Ruthie (Andrea Bianchi), and her recording engineer, Elliott (Mark Lotito) morph from one person in her life to another, although their 1964 clothes (by Michael McDonald) change only in minor ways from role to role.

Among the people we meet are Judy’s parents, Abe (Spivey) and Helen (Bianchi); her Uncle Joe (Lotito), whose communist leanings influence her political beliefs; movie producer Darryl Zanuck (Spivey), whose roaming hands introduce her to Hollywood casting practices; songwriters Comden (Lotito) and Green (Bianchi); a leftwing cop named Yetta Cohn (Bianchi), with whom she has a more than platonic friendship; and another movie producer, the brash Harry Cohn (Spivey), who criticizes her for being fat.
Andréa Burns, Jonathan Spivey, Mark Lotito. Andrea Bianchi. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Other famous names involved include Garson Kanin (Spivey) and his wife, actress Ruth Gordon (Bianchi); clarinetist David Oppenheim (Lotito), whom she married, had a boy with, and divorced; actor Jack Lemmon (Spivey); director George Cukor (Lotito); and even Marilyn Monroe (Bianchi), who visits her backstage after Judy does a routine inspired by Monroe’s “I Wanna Be Loved By arYou.”

We get brief accounts of Judy’s career milestones, her considerable intelligence (an IQ of 172), her being named a Communist sympathizer by Red Channels and her consequent blacklisting, her romantic and marital issues, and her illness. The narrative is leavened every now and then by one of 10 musical interpolations.

She warbles several less-familiar numbers, such as “What’s the Rush” and “It Must Be Christmas,” whose lyrics she wrote to the music of her post-divorce boyfriend, jazz musician Gerry Mulligan (Lotito). But the emphasis is on classics like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” and “What’ll I Do.”
Andréa Burns. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Plays and movies about the blacklisting, which prevented so many talented people from getting work in movies or broadcast entertainment, are fairly common. Seeing yet another celebrity being cross-examined by politicians—perhaps the play’s central scene—is anything but novel. What stands out here, however, is Judy’s decision to play the situation as Billie Dawn, which throws the men off the scent. (The script says Cohn paid $10,000 to get her off the blacklist.)

Since director Peter Flynn’s episodic production rushes by in 90 minutes, it can’t avoid superficiality, or the sense that we’re missing important things. One thing I definitely missed--its absence probably connected to rights issues--is the lack of a single song from Bells Are Ringing. It would have been nice to hear Burns render a tune like “The Party’s Over,” which you can see Holliday herself do here on YouTube. On the other hand, Burns performs what she’s given with Holliday-like charm. She has a sweet personality and big smile, and, while she looks nothing like the original, really nails her speaking voice, with its pronounced Big Apple vowels and the high-pitched, comical harshness Holliday often employed when her characters were upset.
Burns’s supporting company lacks the versatility to cover their many roles with anything other than workmanlike portrayals. They exaggerate their portrayals of the Jewish show biz types, none of them ringing true. Bianchi, otherwise the best of the trio, doesn’t come close to what should be her standout moment, as Marilyn Monroe, losing all that marvelous creature’s delectable naturalness in favor what comes off as a sashaying, self-consciously grand star in the Gloria Swanson tradition.

Unless you’re a Judy Holliday fan, I’d take a take a pass on this only passably entertaining show.

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through April 13


Friday, March 29, 2019

196 (2018-2019): Review: AIN'T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS (seen March 28, 2019)

“They’re Gonna Make You Love Them (Oh, Yes, They Will)”

For my review of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations please click on Theater Life.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

195 (2018-2019): Review: THE CAKE (seen March 27, 2019)

“Very Fine People”

Bekah Brunstetter’s light and fluffy The Cake, which closes this weekend, gets what nutritional value it has from a few sweetly topical ingredients. It’s a well-intentioned slice of gay-themed dramatic pastry obviously inspired by the notorious case of the Colorado baker (and others) who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because of his religious beliefs. 
Debra Jo Rupp. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As crisply directed by Lynne Meadow, The Cake—originally produced by the Echo Theatre Company, Los Angeles, and now at the Manhattan Theatre Club—is more a good-natured, mildly didactic, 90-minute, sit-com treatment of a serious situation than a dramatic take on the historic case that went to the Supreme Court, where the baker’s position was upheld.

It stars the still-adorable Debra Jo Rupp (TV’s That ‘70s Show, Friends) as a chatty, middle-aged, Winston-Salem, NC, baker, Della, who’s preparing to be a contestant on a reality TV show called “The Great American Baking Show.” Thrilled by the opportunity, and by the show’s handsome host, with his king-like voice, she frequently primps her bouffant blondness as she rehearses how she’ll behave on TV, talking to the host while preparing her concoctions.
Debora Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson, Marinda Anderson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Arriving one day at Della’s Sweets, her boutique-y cake shop, is a young, African-American woman, Macy (Marinda Anderson), from New York, who’s interviewing Della for an article. Entering a little later is Macy’s girlfriend, Jen (Genevieve Angelson), a white woman who now lives in Brooklyn but grew up locally. Jen’s so close to Della, her late mother’s best friend, the women consider each other family. 

Jen and Macy are in town to get married and they want Della to make their wedding cake. Della, thrilled to be tasked with creating a cake for what she initially thinks are bride and groom nuptials, does her best to disguise her shock when she realizes it’s a bride and bride affair.

Bound by what she later claims are her religious beliefs, she doesn’t refuse on those grounds but claims she’s so booked with other orders she hasn’t the time to bake their cake. Her bigotry, though, seems more the result of innocent cultural habit than of twisted ignorance. Even so, considering her relationship to Jen, and what we keep hearing about her goodness, it seems forced and inorganic.

Jen, although hurt, is so ultra-nice and forgiving that, in the interest of getting happily married in her hometown, she’s willing to move on and not further disrupt a longtime family friendship. The argumentative Macy, though, a former high school debater, gets heated; a healthy foody, she also gets worked up about eating cake and rails against gluten and sugar. (Take a guess where that is going). 
Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Also involved is Della’s redneck husband, Tim (Dan Daily, who also does the TV host’s voiceovers), a plumber whose undue influence on Della is partly responsible for her backing off from baking the cake. Mixed into the batter of these developments is the cooling (frosting?) of Tim and Della’s sexual relations, 

At the end, what comes out of the playwright’s oven (especially a squirmy bedroom scene between Tim and Della) is as inedible as her dramatic construction, like how she gets people offstage so others can be alone for one-on-one conversations. Nor does the naughty little secret Della reveals to Tim taste right. 
Marinda Anderson, Genevieve Angelson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The concerning issue of a business owner’s right to reject requests from those with whose private lives they claim to have religious objections is muffled by Brunstetter’s focus not so much on the problem’s broader dimensions but on the circumstances of specific characters tied to one another by prior personal relationships. Some mild jokes about the different values of liberal Northerners and conservative Southerners (noted in the plethora of Bible Belt-themed billboards) provide icing, but the play’s pursuit of laughter sometimes seems more urgent than anything much deeper.

Debra Jo Rupp, Dan Daily. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Watching The Cake, in fact, was often like viewing a TV sitcom with a straight face and wondering what the people on the laugh track are finding funny. I heard many short bursts of laughter but nary a one from anyone nearby.

Master designer John Lee Beatty has created a set showing several locales, mainly two bedrooms, one at either side, that appear and vanish on turntables. These also roll into to place so the entire stage is filled with Della’s bakery, its shelves stacked with scrumptious-looking creations that lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg now and them illuminates from within, among other charming effects.

The work of Angelson, Anderson, and Daily is satisfactory but it’s Rupp’s pleasing presence as the conflicted baker-housewife, whose growth the play charts, that provides what flavor this confection has. At one point, Della says she tried a gluten-free cake once and “it tasted like the back of my mouth after I have a good cry.” The Cake doesn’t taste like that but I doubt it would make it on “The Great American Baking Show.”

City Center Stage 1/Manhattan Theatre Club
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through March 31


194 (2018-2019): Review: THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR (seen March 26, 2019)


Julius Caesar has become one of the most regularly revived of Shakespeare’s plays locally in recent years, along with Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, A Winter’s Tale, and Twelfth Night. Its reflection of contemporary political concerns has never been sharper, a consideration that made Oskar Eustis’s 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production, with Caesar a doppelganger for Donald Trump, nationally notorious.
Citizens at the Feast of Lupercal. Photo: Henry Grossman.
As with that and so many other contemporary versions, the vivid but imperfect one now holding the stage at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, under the First Folio title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, is in modern dress. Originally staged by Shana Cooper at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February 2017, it comes to New York, under the aegis of Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), with a cast of 17, eight of whom were in the Oregon production. 
James Barbour, Rocco Sisto. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Cooper provides a swift-moving, clearly spoken staging, with the kind of directorial interpolations we’ve come to expect in Shakespeare revivals. For example, anxious to demonstrate the impact of the play’s developments not only on men but on women, she supplements the presence of Shakespeare’s female characters—Brutus’ wife Portia (Merritt Janson) and Caesar’s wife Calphurnia (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart)—by casting actresses as Cicero (Emily Dorsch), the Soothsayer (Michelle Hurst), and Artemidorous (Juliana Sass), their gender undisguised.
Merritt Janson, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Her thrust-stage set, designed by Sybil Wickersheimer, is a rather unattractive, ambiguous backdrop of tall, unadorned, white walls, partly sheet rock and partly curtains, some of it crumbling, some of it marked by cracks that show it verging on collapse. Parts of it will fall, loudly, perhaps suggesting the downfall of the Roman state (which actually was far from that crisis).
Citizens of Rome. Photo: Gerry Goodstein. 
Whatever it’s meant to represent, it’s from an upper edge that Brutus (Brandon J. Dirden), surrounded by masked plebeians, and with everyone’s lower half hidden, delivers his grand oration at Caesar’s funeral. The effect, I’m afraid, resembles a hand-puppet show.
Rocco Sisto, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
And why, one wonders, is so much space occupied by stacks of what look like fresh sheet-rock, some even providing brief bridgeways to outer parts of the stage? There also are similarly vague, cloth-wrapped structures whose presence distracts more than they attract.
Matthew Amendt (Cassius), Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Raquel Barreto’s costumes are nearly as ambiguous, only a few characters dressed in a way that clearly distinguishes the political leaders from the plebs. Brutus even appears for a time in a t-shirt and hoody, while slacks, shirts, and vests replace business suits for most.
Benjamin Bonenfant, James Barbour. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The action being set during the mid-March Lupercal festivities, the plebs get to carry on in masks and mop-like wigs. Given the general updating,one can’t help thinking what it would have looked like to see their drunken behavior tied to St. Patrick’s Day carousing. For the battles that occupy the play’s second half, the actors dress in a loose assortment of what could pass as found military garments, a camo shirt here, camo pants there, and so on.
Matthew Amendt, Stephen Michael Spencer (Caska). Photo: Henry Grossman.
Those battles, the production’s highlights, actually solve the problem of the play’s usually boring second half. That, of course, is what follows Caesar’s (Rocco Sisto) assassination to focus on the consequent strife between the forces led, respectively, by Brutus and Mark Antony (Jason Barbour), with the involvement of Lepidus (Liam Craig) and Octavius (Benjamin Bonenfont). Shakespeare’s words have been trimmed so Cooper and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch can concentrate on lots of physical activity.
Stephen Michael Spencer, Benjamin Bonenfant. Photo: Henry Grossman.
A considerable amount of the last hour of this well-over two-hour production therefore consists of dynamically choreographed combat activity in which nearly the entire cast, holding daggers, does martial arts thrusts, twists, and kicks. Accompanying them is an excitingly rhythmic score by Paul J. Prendergast, with Christopher Akerland’s dramatic lighting making a significant contribution.
Company of Julius Caesar. Photo: Gerry Goodstein..
Sometimes they divide into rival factions, other times the entire ensemble faces us as a single unit. Until most of them drop when shot from somewhere out front, you can’t help but appreciate the cardio workout everyone is getting. Which doesn’t answer the question as to where those sudden bursts of artillery fire are coming from—I don’t recall seeing any guns—or why these hapless combatants think all those fancy dagger thrusts are going to overpower bullets.
Brandon J. Dirden, Rocco Sisto. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Caesar’s assassination is bloody but not particularly novel while the killing by the mob of the Poet Cinna (Galen Molk), whose name, tragically, is the same as a conspirator, is theatrically interesting. The killers lay out a large sheet of plastic, red liquid is poured on it, Cinna lies down on the sheet, and the actors stomp loudly, each stomp symbolizing a stab wound, as Cinna flails about and becomes increasingly covered in “blood.” While it does offer visual interest, it’s also a moment that takes precedence in one’s memory over more important parts of Shakespeare’s play.
Galen Molk. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Overall, the acting is strong, with intense performances by Dirden as Brutus and Barbour as Antony, each delivering their famous speeches with passion and intelligence, although the nod goes to the latter. Partly that’s because of his freedom to move around, while Brutus is confined to that distant rooftop (?).
James Barbour, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Rocco Sisto. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
As with the entire cast, each speaks in as naturalistic, non-rhetorical a fashion as possible, finding multiple meaningful transitions and insights in their lines. Sisto is a smooth, self-confident Caesar, with a touch of smarminess betraying how powerful he feels. Thankfully, he needn’t do anything Trump-like for us to get the point.
Julian Remulla, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar once more demonstrates the eternal universality of Shakespeare’s writing. The existence of dictatorial leaders (potential and actual) around the world today offers sufficient reason for revivals of the play (it not necessarily in such quick succession). So will it be true when these leaders are no longer with us.

Polonsky Shakespeare Center/Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through April 28


193 (2018-2019): Review: JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (seen March 27, 2019)

“The Whole World’s in a Terrible State of Chassis”

Five and a quarter years ago, in December 2013, I reviewed the Irish Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, under Charlotte Moore’s direction, of Juno and the Paycock, starring J. Cameron Smith and Ciarán O’Reilly as the eponymous married couple. The Irish Rep has again revived the play, this time with Neil Pepe directing, as part of its not-to-be missed, three-play O’Casey cycle, which got off to a magnificent start with The Shadow of a Gunman and will soon add The Plough and the Stars. The new Juno and the Paycock stars Maryann Plunkett as Juno but O’Reilly returns as the Paycock, while several others from the previous cast join them, namely, Ed Malone as Johnny Boyle, Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, John Keating as Joxer Daly, and James Russell as Charles Bentham.
The following review combines comment on the current production with liberal helpings from my earlier coverage.   
Maryann Plunkett, Ciarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
"Paycock" (peacock) is only one of the many thickly Irish-accented words spoken in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s latest revival of Juno and the Paycock, Sean O’Casey’s 1924 tragicomedy set in Dublin’s slums in 1922 during Ireland’s bloody Civil War, the so-called Troubles. Director Neil Pepe has brought energy and life to this naturalistically dire, unsentimentally satiric picture of a troubled family held together by its long-suffering but resilient matriarch.
Sarah Street, Ed Malone, Maryann Plunkett. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It’s not a perfect production, but it’s about as good a one as any American company can be expected to offer, especially one ensconced in a physically limited Off-Broadway venue. Interestingly, the new production turns the entire theatre, including the passageway to the auditorium, into the crumbling tenement in which the Boyles and their colorful neighbors reside. Laundry hangs over the audience’s heads, the audience right wall is fitted with bricks, a door, and windows, and even the small, offstage area, visible at stage right only to those seated on the audience left side, looks believably like the hall outside the door to the Boyle’s flat. 
Maryann Plunkett, Sarah Street, Ed Malone. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
As expected of any production at this invaluable institution, the accents, atmosphere, and emotional atmosphere of 1922 Dublin are captured with loving authenticity. The oddly situated stage demands creative readjustments to accommodate O’Casey’s requirements. Nevertheless, we get—through Charlie Corcoran’s naturalistic set design, Michael Gottlieb’s sensitive lighting, Linda Fisher and David Toser’s period-perfect costumes, and Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab’s sound design—a true enough sense of the peeling-wallpaper, tattered-clothing shabbiness in which “Captain” Jack Boyle; his wife, Juno; his daughter, Mary (Sarah Street); and his son, Johnny (Ed Malone) are forced to live. 
Maryann Plunkett, Sarah Street. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
 This is a world of drunks and liars, “prognosticators and procrastinators,” as Jack, the eponymous “paycock,” calls them, ignoring how closely he himself fits the bill; a world of financial hardship, laziness, guilt, loyalty and betrayal, love and dishonor, debt, inhumanity, and a religious faith drilled so deeply into human souls as to allow questioning but never abandonment of belief in God’s existence. 
Maryann Plunkett, Ciarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It is also a place of dreams of a better life, for these people and for Ireland, and, even in characters as lowly as Jack and his shifty drinking “butty” Joxer (John Keating), O’Casey manages to plant the seeds of poetry, which blossom in his language like flowers from the manure of despair. Pepe’s production, to a satisfying degree, captures this complex world, in which booze, dancing, and singing mingle with pain, anguish, and suffering, belief does battle with skepticism, and human decency, ever in short supply, gleams like the full moon when it emerges.
Harry Smith, Sarah Street. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Juno and the Paycock is rich in character and incident, and, despite its closeness to a particular time and place, hasn’t lost its universality and power. In The Irish Dramatic Movement, Una Ellis-Fermor, writing of it and O’Casey’s other early plays, notes that “he reveals, almost as though unconscious of the novelty of his picture, the easy, vigorous, expressive speech and action of people in continual and inescapable contact with their fellows; the mixture of good-fellowship and protective, selfish indifference. His people reveal now the distracted, unstable habits of mind that spring from continual stimulus and a procession of minor excitements, now the seemingly callous detachment, the bleak and lonely obstinacy that is a stronger personality’s resistance to this bombardment directed upon its attention and emotion.” 
John Keating, Robert Langdon Lloyd. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
These words suggest the difficulty actors face in successfully realizing such a world. In the 2013 version, I thought that even the best of the company tended to push a bit too hard in Act One, threatening the veracity of O’Casey’s naturalistic world. I felt otherwise this time, finding the actors to be honest and sincere from the start, with the production benefiting from many carefully molded performances, even in the smaller roles. 

Ed Malone, Sarah Street, James Russell, Maryann PlunkettCiarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ciarán O’Reilly excels as Capt. Boyle, the blustery, shiftless, blarney-spouting head of the household, regaling the world with his fantasies about once being a world traveling sailor, and complaining of leg pains whenever the possibility of work arises. Maryann Plunkett, like her predecessor, is superb as Juno, the pious, decent, stalwart wife and mother, who has no truck with Jack’s foolishness yet is herself foolish enough to entrust him with handling affairs after the family learns of a fortune it presumably has inherited. 
John Keating, Maryann Plunkett, Ciarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Each actor brings true conviction to their demanding roles, he as the drink-sodden loudmouth, she as the maternal force constantly fighting an uphill battle against his eternal malingering and ignorance, while also facing the problems created by Mary’s romantic affairs and the physically and psychologically damaged Johnny's fears regarding retribution for his actions in the political strife. 
Meg Hennessy, Ūna Clancy, Maryann Plunkett, Michael Mellamphy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The supporting players include Harry Smith, who turns in a commendable job as Jerry Devine, the union man who loves Mary but turns her down when he learns of her pregnancy. As Charles Bentham, the schoolteacher who gets Mary pregnant only to abandon her, James Russell is suitably supercilious, while Sarah Street’s Mary is simple and believable in one of the less flamboyant roles. More colorful is Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, who once again creates a strong impression, both comic and serious, in her several scenes. Ūna Clancy as Mrs. Tancred, stoically mourning the death of her son, makes the most of her brief appearance, as does the always delightful Robert Langdon Lloyd, here playing Needle Nugent, the tailor.  
Ciarán O’Reilly, John Keating. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In 2013, I was less impressed by John Keating's Joxer and Ed Malone’s Johnny. Keating’s interpretation of Joxer, constantly spouting aphorisms and calling everything “daarlin,” has grown deeper, and, while he still plays broadly, it seems to fit much better now and he no longer misses the subtle lyricism and humor given by O’Casey even to this creepy character. Malone’s Johnny, who lost an arm and was shot in the hip during the conflict, still seems too whiny and unsympathetic. He also appears a bit too old for the part.  
Terry Donnelly, Ed Malone, John Keating, Ciarán O’Reilly, Maryann Plunkett, John Keating. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
O’Casey often fills Jack Boyle’s mouth with mangled eloquence, as when he asks, “I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question—what is the moon, what is the stars?” Whatever they are, they’re shining on this revival, belying Jack’s favorite mantra, “The whole world’s in a terrible state of chassis.”  

Irish Repertory Theatre

132 W. 22nd St., NYC

Through May 25