Friday, May 31, 2019


Theatre's Leiter Side herewith begins a new feature, all the 500-or-fewer-character excerpts for my reviews posted, month by month, on Each excerpt contains the 
score I gave the show on that site, which corresponds, more or less to the thumbs up or down ratings posted with my reviews on Theatre's Leiter Side or the stars used for them on THEATER LIFE. All shows with scores of at least 85 are shown in green. Links to each review are provided with the excerpts. 


MAY 2019

Those without an ear for these complex, difficult, melodically unfamiliar pieces may be less than satisfied, especially as the dramatic sections they accompany are so seriously lacking in anything comparable…The frequent appearance of puppets…offers no surcease to the boring biography or its plodding presentation…What they do is usually too imprecise to appreciate…There’s little to commend in this misguided production, which has not the slightest iota of dramatic interest or conflict. 

Over the course of an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, Molloy’s frequently brilliant music …fails to sustain interest without the support of an engrossing dramatic script…Some songs are clearly marked “hymn”…but, after a while, the reliance on a cappella gives them all a hymnal feeling… Aside from the choral passages, there’s little interaction…, and only a bare minimum of context for knowing any of these characters as people. Dramatic action is nil, suspense absent, and boredom imminent.


It’s nearly impossible…to tell one minor character from another, or for that matter, even what the increasingly muddled play is about…If you’re ready to watch seven young actresses whose nearly uniformly high-pitched voices barely differ from one another shouting Shakespeare’s lines at Mach speed…, then Schmidt's approach is for you. You may even not squirm as they turn the tragedy’s characters into angst-ridden teenage girls, often completely missing the intent of the lines.


Beautifully produced, gorgeously costumed…extravaganza of clownery, acrobatics, dance, and special effects…Employs remarkable acrobatic choreography…coordinated with…music, both hand-clappingly rhythmic and hauntingly evocative… One can take or leave…Cirque’s clowns…Even those who’ve seen similar acts…will marvel at the audacious ways the familiar routines look fresher…than ever…Perhaps the most unforgettable sight comes…when a slender contortionist demonstrates his incredible…flexibility.

‘The Bigot,’ “a dark comedy”…, is bighearted and topical but it’s also so paint-by-the-numbers predictable that…you won’t need ESP to know how it ends…One needn’t be Oscar Hammerstein II to call it as corny as Kansas in August. Its characters are so one-dimensional they practically disappear when they turn sideways. Without the generally solid performances of its four actors, it would likely fly away on the next gust of wind…A dramatically creaky, fitfully amusing, 90-minute soap opera.

While it contains the seed of a promising drama, and a sharply crafted performance…, too many of its 90 minutes do little more than mark time…Eden’s low-key, slow-paced production, too rarely enlivened by humor, does little to ignite our concern. Mill’s episodic play is simply too talky and desultory, large swaths of it little more than Hester’s depressing soliloquies... If there’s any reason to kill time at ‘Killing Time’ it’s to see Brigit Forsyth’s believable portrait of a dying artist.

The entire cast carries out its rambunctious actions with remarkable comedic energy and aplomb, always maintaining a grounding in reality no matter how farfetched or bizarre their behavior…Don’t expect to find yourself caring much about any of these inane creatures. They’re essentially cartoons, intended not to make you feel or, despite the coating of social import…, even think…Its 90…minutes should give you lots of comic meat to chew on. Just be careful not to choke on all the funny parts.

An intelligent, well-acted, sometimes engrossing, sometimes sleep-inducing, three-hour talkathon…‘Socrates’ is a didactic drama, dramatizing situations we once read of in Plato, and reminding us of why Socrates was such an iconic figure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also something of a theatrical slog, and that its drama is more in the moment to moment exploration of ideas than in the pursuit of a traditional dramatic arc…One might ask Nelson, does it really have to be so damned long?

‘Lockdown’ is essentially preaching to the choir about what they already know from countless films and TV shows…The chief problem presented is how difficult it is to for someone…to earn parole. No answers are provided, though… Making the play as much about the writer’s personal issues as those of the prisoners is problematic and tends to split the play’s focus. Thomas also relies too heavily on monologues spoken directly to the audience… Zenzi Williams… demonstrates a potent stage presence.

Mixes conventional and magic realism in a way that sometimes suggests a mushroom trip. Not a particularly mind-blowing one, though… While the tonal shifts make us question what’s real and what’s not, the dramatic action and characters are rarely inviting enough to inspire making the effort… All the performances are satisfactory but none rises above the script’s most essential requirements, Nor does Shelley Butler’s bland, dully paced direction go the extra mile. 

It softens the blow with regard to just whose life and circumstances it chooses to present…It’s impossible not to leave the theatre wondering how to fix our…system…Plaza and…Owens are…convincing…This idealistic… relationship, as well as the…reminders of the thematic connection to the…biosphere, tends to tamp down the impact of what might otherwise be far more tearjerkingly powerful material. Imperfect as it is, [it] deserves attention for attending to so critical a social and political problem.

A conventional ghost story blended into a chunky, hard-to-swallow smoothie with too many disparate ingredients…Over the course of two, overly long hours, a few scenes provide the kind of superficial thrills we’re more used to in horror movies…than in theatre…When the characters are left to themselves, without the spectral intrusions, things can be dull and talky, with mostly colorless, ploddingly-paced direction…and inconsistent performances (and Thai accents) from the cast.

A generally diverting (if slightly problematic) show…David’s naivete inspires laughs but his ignorance needs a natural comedian to make it seem plausible… In contrast to what I’d heard, I found the book weaker than the score. Funny as it often is, the script is simply too silly and overstated, while each of the 15 songs is musically catchy, with cleverly entertaining lyrics… Whether or not you enter or leave laughing, there’s enough comic material here to get your yocks off in between.

Making it all work to brilliant effect is…Corcoran’s remarkable set—which also turns the surrounding walls into those of a Dublin slum…The unusually well-balanced cast contains too many notable performances…so I’ll note only the stirring performance of Maryann Plunkett as Bessie…Director Charlotte Moore…has made ‘The Plough and the Stars’ a powerhouse of electrifying acting, helping each actor create indelible verbal and physical images that resonate with feeling and meaning.

Piles on exaggerated situations but lacks a well-wrought plot, revels in broad sitcom tropes, and uses boldly raunchy dialogue (with continual iterations of the “n-word”)…Directed…with overly pumped up performances in which quiet moments of human connection are only rarely to be found. Shouting too often substitutes for conversation…Hyperactive staging employs a tiresomely revolving set…that tries to keep pace with the multiple locales but succeeds only in drawing attention to itself.

Unexciting, emotionally uninvolving…Despite its tragic arc, the play incorporates considerable humor; this production, though, too rarely realizes those comical dimensions…Few moments find the right balance between Shepard’s earthy realism and his poetic demands. Natasha Katz’s exquisitely modulated lighting captures the shifting moods much more effectively than the prosaic performances, which sometimes makes it difficult to accept the reality behind the more theatrically exaggerated scenes.

An air of primitive technique masks the great sophistication of the town’s remarkably detailed features…The cameras cut from close-ups to pans to zooms to tracking shots. We…observe the puppeteers manipulating the…lamps to create a panoply of expertly executed…effects...Other than Joe’s loss of boyhood innocence…, the work’s thematic points are never clearly expressed…For anyone interested in puppetry done as devised theatre, and less than an hour to spare,…definitely worth a look-see.

Played with noteworthy naturalness and humor by Brenda Pressley…The play is never clear regarding to whom Constance is talking...As she wanders about (often, it seems, just to break the monotony) or sits in the incomprehensibly large, modern room,… unlike any ICU you’ve ever seen, we hear in her discourse reflections of black-related conflicts regarding proper linguistic and behavioral choices… Some of it clicks but most just floats along. 

Intermittently funny, mostly unsuccessful…A number of implausibilities…So many such contrivances stick in one's critical throat it's impossible to swallow most of what happens in the play… Throughout…, Eisenberg drops foreshadowing bricks that fall so loudly you have a good idea of what’s coming almost as surely as if a gun had been introduced. Nevertheless, when predictability becomes reality, your stomach will churn from what the playwright’s twist of the dial requires Lorraine to do. 

A slight epistolary play, both amusing and touching…Within the interstices of the letters, filled with obviously sincere terms of endearment that attest to their mutual love, we hear of the kind of everyday activities and events that filled Celia’s days, along with comments on the films in she was acting. Laughter strikes now and then, especially when something off-color is discretely alluded to...Most interesting…are the letters describing the filming of ‘Brief Encounter.’

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Monday, May 27, 2019

19 (2019-2020: Review: POSTING LETTERS TO THE MOON (seen May 26, 2019)

“A Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Peter Fleming”

If, like me, you’re a sucker for World War II, British, home front nostalgia (let’s not even get into the American side of the equation), you’re sure to be charmed—if not necessarily overwhelmed—by Posting Letters to the Moon, a slight epistolary play, both amusing and touching, compiled by Lucy Fleming, being shown as part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters.

But if the names Peter Fleming and Celia Johnson mean little or nothing to you, and you can’t tell Noel Coward from Trevor Howard, then you may need to find another play at which to spend your time (this one runs 75 minutes) and money.
Simon Williams, Lucy Fleming. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
I admit that I knew little of Peter (a travel writer best known for Brazilian Adventures and as the brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming) and only a bit more about Celia. The Flemings were the married couple whose wartime letters their actress daughter, Lucy, put together for this presentation, which she reads with her own husband, the actor-writer Simon Williams. He will be recalled by fans of TV’s “Upstairs Downstairs” as the handsome devil James Bellamy.

But what I knew of Dame Celia--that she was the luminous costar (opposite Trevor Howard) of one of the great romantic films of its time, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean--was enough to spark an interest in learning more about her life during the years leading up to that 1945 classic.
Lucy Fleming. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lucy Fleming, wearing slacks, a white, silk top, a pearl necklace, with her ash blonde hair cut short, and Williams, tall, whitehaired, and high-cheekboned, wearing a blue suit with an open-collared shirt, make a decidedly elegant couple as they sit at either side of a vase of flowers on the small stage in Theater C. Their black directors' chairs bear the names of Peter Fleming and Celia Johnson in bold white letters.
Simon Williams. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Following a casual introduction by Williams, the letters are read from lecterns (an occasional stumble can thus be forgiven) in posh accents and perfect diction from which emanate the actors’ obvious class credentials. When necessary, the circumstances behind the letters are explained by one or the other.

Projections on a screen directly behind the actors show, in addition to a picture of the various postmarked envelopes in which the letters were sent, an assortment of interesting photos. Mainly, they’re of either the dashing, uniformed Peter, Johnson herself, or various family members, especially their son, Nicholas, born in 1939.

While Peter was off serving as an intelligence officer in various European cities before being stationed in India and Burma, Celia hosted a large number of family members, several of them displaced because of the conflict, at her rural house. Meanwhile, she made several movies (In Which We Serve, Dear Octopus, This Happy Breed) and worked as an auxiliary member of the local police force. The letters, none of them especially dramatic, were the chief means of correspondence between husband and wife, who barely got to see each other between 1941 and 1945, although a brief encounter late in the war resulted in their second child, Kate, born in 1946. Lucy herself arrived a year later.   

Within the interstices of the letters, filled with obviously sincere terms of endearment that attest to their mutual love, we hear of the kind of everyday activities and events that filled Celia’s days, along with comments on the films in she was acting. Laughter strikes now and then, especially when something off-color is discretely alluded to. The dropping of famous (or once-famous) names, like that of Celia’s close friend, comic actress Joyce Grenfell, stirs the usual light buzz of “ahs” from those who recognize them. Most interesting for many, of course, are the letters describing the filming of Brief Encounter, about which Celia offers lovely personal tidbits, accompanied by several photos.

Obviously, not much of Peter’s work as an intelligence officer is provided in the letters (although we learn some of it from Williams), but he comes off as a rather capable and decent chap. Despite the hardships the couple must have endured, he in the steamy jungles of South Asia, she dealing with multiple relatives (including a brood of 8 kids), with her husband gone for years on the other side of the world, about the only thing of which we hear complaints concern the succession of cooks who come and go in the Johnson household.

Peter Fleming and Celia Johnson exemplify the British stiff-upper-lip pluck that got their country through the war. Nothing very dramatic happens but the letters, which represent a practice rapidly disappearing in the age of emails and texting, are a continual delight to discover and a distinctly sentimental pleasure to hear in the gracefully modulated voices of Lucy Fleming and Simon Williams.

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 2


Sunday, May 26, 2019

18 (2019-2020): Review: MAC BETH (seen May 25, 2019)

“Is This a Mean Girl I See Before Me?”

If you’re a Shakespeare fan considering a visit to the Lortel to see the Red Bull Theater’s production of director Erica Schmidt’s adaption of Macbeth (respelled as Mac Beth), picture this: seven teenage girls, all dressed in parochial school garb—short skirts, suit jackets, high socks, vests, and white shirts with ties (designed by Jessica Pabst)—gather in a grassy junkyard (designed by Catherine Cornell). Around them are an overturned old couch, a metal bathtub, a truck tire, and other odds and ends of detritus. Their mission: to perform a stripped-down version of Macbeth
Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Sharlene Cruz, Annasophia Robb. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Their props are found ones, like the metal rods they use as weapons; four of them play a single role (Macbeth [Isabelle Fuhrman], Lady Macbeth [Ismenia Mendes], Banquo [Ayana Workman], and Macduff [Lily Santiago]) while those playing the three witches (AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, and Sharlene Cruz) assume as many as five additional roles each. These latter avoid differentiating their roles by indications of gender or age, remaining schoolgirls cum witches throughout. Except for a few simple hints, like eyeglasses, it’s nearly impossible, without knowing Macbeth well, to tell one minor character from another, or for that matter, even what the increasingly muddled play is about.
Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Isabelle Fuhrman, Ayana Workman, Sharlene Cruz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Here and there, Shakespeare’s text, to which the performance is mostly faithful, is interrupted by some modern insertion, like turning the porter’s speech about the knocking at the gates into a “knock knock” joke, or having one witch ask another where she got some weird object and being answered, “The science lab.” Cellphone use for texting abounds; there’s lots of girl-girl kissing between Macbeth and his lady; a lengthy sequence is played in a drenching rain; and headbanging pop music (including numbers by BeyoncĂ©, Billie Eilish, and Myley Cyrus) is blasted so everybody can dance frenetically on the junkyard heath.
Company of Mac Beth. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If you’re ready to watch seven young actresses whose nearly uniformly high-pitched voices barely differ from one another shouting Shakespeare’s lines at Mach speed for 90 minutes, then Schmidt's approach is for you. You may even not squirm as they turn the tragedy’s characters into angst-ridden teenage girls, often completely missing the intent of the lines (like Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger” speech), with attitude replacing nuance.
Isabelle Fuhrman, Ismenia Mendes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Sometimes, laughter is the goal, as during the manic banquet scene when Banquo’s ghost appears like a zonked-out zombie, or when, after Macbeth is slain by Macduff (Lily Santiago), the witches silently descend on her corpse with butcher knives and slice away for an eternity until one holds the king's severed head as if she were Perseus with the head of Medusa. What might otherwise be sickening (the head is realistic) instead becomes a sight gag as the witches take group selfies with their trophy, bringing this maimed adaptation to an end.
Ismenia Mendes, Isabelle Fuhrman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Schmidt, whose production follows famed director Tyrone Guthrie’s “Wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to” approach to Shakespeare, occasionally creates striking images on the thrust stage (which now seems a permanent fixture at the reconfigured Lortel). An example is the witches’ cooking of disgusting things in a pot as smoke pours out and, under Jeff Croiter’s dramatic lighting, the rain pelts them while one holds aloft a red umbrella.
Sharlene Cruz, AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Even if the production is seeking to satirize toxic masculinity by having it embodied in the presence of young women, or to otherwise comment on Shakespeare's male-female power issues, one still has to sit through a production in which actresses I’ve seen do far better work are unable to help us take what we’re seeing seriously. Their plentiful earnestness is insufficient for a play over which even seasoned adult professionals often stumble. They excel at representing teens trying to act Shakespeare but not at actually playing Shakespeare. Somewhere, sometime, the audience must forget the interpretation's premise and  become involved in the tragedy of Macbeth; Schmidt's radical approach makes sure that doesn't happen. 
AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick,. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If you’re going to do Macbeth in the guise of a mean girls’ teenage drama, Schmidt's is probably the best way to do it. The question remains, however, despite the interpretive rationales offered in the program notes: Why do it in the first place?
Lily Santiago. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC


Saturday, May 25, 2019

17 (2019-2020): Review: HAPPY TALK (seen May 24, 2019)

“Some Unenchanted Evening”

Chances are the title “Happy Talk” immediately brings to mind the song of that name in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, South Pacific. Though never actually sung, it plays a thematic role in the New Group’s production of actor-playwright Jesse Eisenberg’s only intermittently funny, mostly unsuccessful, eponymous dark comedy, spryly staged by Scott Elliot. Not only is one of the play’s two principal characters, Lorraine (Susan Sarandon, imperfectly cast), playing Bloody Mary (talk about strange casting!) in the local Jewish Community Center’s production of South Pacific, she herself might be said to be a victim (among other things psychological) of a “happy talk” syndrome. 
Marin Ireland, Susan Sarandon. Photo: Monique Carboni.
As the other principal character, Ljuba (Marin Ireland, Summer and Smoke), an accented, Serbian immigrant, observes, Lorraine avoids the pain in her life by trying to smile it away: “You make everything into something happy.  I watch you: is like magic.  Someone say something sad or angry and you just pretend like what they say is happy. Is like you don’t even hear them sometimes.  Is a gift, in some way.” Lorraine’s real gift, if such it could be called, is her ability to ignore the needs of anyone other than herself.
Daniel Oreskes, Susan Sarandon, Nico Santos. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Superficially, her life seems fine. A narcissistic 60-year-old (which the 72-year-old Sarandon pulls off easily), her life is dedicated to acting in community theatre productions, where the fellowship she shares (or believes she does) with her collaborators makes her think of them (if not they of her) as family. Someone who needs always to be the center of attention, and never stops nattering away, she considers herself the group’s indisputable star although she seems only to be cast in supporting roles; her finest accomplishment is cited as the secondary role of Ellen, the soldier’s wife in Miss Saigon. When she sings (a misleading verb) “Bali Ha'i,” you actually need the recorded version that follows to show how it ought to be done.
Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland, Nico Santos. Photo: Monique Carboni.
She wears nice, casual tops (excellent costumes by Clint Ramos) and lives in a comfortable New Jersey house. Its Raymour and Flanigan-style living room (designed by Derek McLane, with suitable lighting by Jeff Croiter)—including posters of her community theatre shows—resembles the generic, white, middle-class beige interior lived in (and satirized) by the black family in the Pulitzer-winning Fairview.
Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland. Photo: Monique Carboni.
However, Lorraine’s mother, Ruthie—offstage and never seen—is seriously declining and, using a buzzer, reliant on the diapering and other services of the pretty, eternally upbeat (speaking of happy talkers), 40-year-old Ljuba. The latter has been both her caretaker and the family’s general factotum for the past six months, and never complains about the demands made by the crabby Ruthie, whom someone calls “a shriveled old cunt.”
Daniel Oreskes, Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland.
Lorraine can’t bear to even look at her mother. And, while she likes to say sweet nothings to her laconic, morose, and sullen lump of a Laze-E-Boy-sitting spouse, Bill, who suffers from MS and ED,  she consigns his most pressing needs to Ljuba. Daniel Oreskes’s (Hir) Bill is vinegary enough to make lemon seem sweet; it's easy to see why.
Marin Ireland, Susan Sarandon, Tedra Millan, Photo: Monique Carboni.,
Lorraine also has a daughter, a hateful misery named Jennifer (Tedra Millan, The Wolves, perfectly nasty), a Noam Chomsky-reading radical, who enters late in the play, despises her mother and her middle-class life, but demonstrates childlike affection for Bill. She even rejects her name in favor of “Darby”:I go by Darby because you gave me a shit name that’s stuck in your antiquated binary bubble.”
Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland, Tedra Millan. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Her irritating presence seems necessary mainly to demonstrate Lorraine’s alienation from her daughter in contrast to Ljuba, desperate to bring her own daughter over from Serbia. It also stresses the ideal mother-daughter relationship Lorraine fantasizes having with Ljuba when Bill and Ruthie are gone. And, of course, there’s the layer of Bloody Mary and her daughter, Liat, in love with Lt. Cable, represented in the Lorraine, Ljuba, Ronny triangle.

A plot develops when Lorraine learns that Ljuba has managed to stash away $15,000 toward paying $30,000 to some TBD man with American citizenship for a green card marriage so she can escape the constraints of her undocumented status. Lorraine, like Yenta the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, makes a match between Ljuba and Ronny (Nico Santos, Crazy Rich Asians, stereotypical but sweet), a flamboyantly gay, Asian-American actor playing Lt. Cable to her Bloody Mary, Ronny lives with his boyfriend but needs the cash. Predictably, Ronny and Lorraine engage in the tiresome, gay trope of quoting Broadway lyrics.

There are a number of implausibilities, like the long, unfunny sequence of taking photos to establish Ronny and Ljuba's ongoing relationship. Oddly, it involves Lorraine’s old Hasselblad instead of the more obvious phone camera most people would use. If it's meant to get laughs, it doesn't. There's also the flaming Ronny’s being cast as the romantic Cable; the ballet scenario Ljuba creates in which she’ll be the romantic heroine and her boss the witch (hint, hint), and so on. So many such contrivances stick in one's critical throat it's impossible to swallow most of what happens in the play.

Throughout this intermissionless, hour-and-45-minute exercise, Eisenberg drops foreshadowing bricks that fall so loudly you have a good idea of what’s coming almost as surely as if a gun had been introduced. Nevertheless, when predictability becomes reality, your stomach will churn from what the playwright’s twist of the dial requires Lorraine to do. We may have had a notion of what was coming but not to the discouragingly exaggerated degree Eisenberg takes it.

Sarandon, for all her intelligence and charisma, seems out of place in this particular household; she captures her role’s darker side but the manic comedy parts fall short. You may even wonder why she chose this vehicle for her first New York stage role in 10 years. Still, you can’t deny viscerally hating Lorraine at the end, which is very much to the star's credit.

Ireland, as Ljuba, sports a totally unconvincing accent and spouts dialogue it’s unlikely would come from this Serbian immigrant. Nonetheless, it's fun to see her take this pleasantly kooky detour into comedy from her usually dour roles in serious dramas. As a friend accurately mentioned, it’s hard not to hear her chipper, high-pitched voice without thinking of Gilda Radner.

Call me a cockeyed optimist but I look forward to some enchanted evening when Jesse Eisenberg will no longer wonder how it feels (younger than springtime, perhaps?) to make us fall in love with a wonderful play. Happy Talk is not nearly that one. 

The Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 16


Wednesday, May 22, 2019