Sunday, June 30, 2019

Friday, June 28, 2019

Wednesday, June 26, 2019


“Laugh, Clown, Cry”****

By Aron Canter

From time to time Theatre's Leiter Side will be posting reviews of Off-Off Broadway shows my schedule prevents me from seeing. If you are interested in reviewing Off-Off Broadway, please contact me so we can discuss. I hope you find the expanded coverage useful. Sam Leiter 

The Comedian’s Tragedy, written by Matthew Amendt and directed by Bill McCallum, is a love letter to the theatre, a tribute to all things Greek, and a successful and entertaining evening. A highly imaginative and interesting script is enlivened by strong performances. While the production I attended did not induce much laughter, the evening is undoubtedly fun and the work notably thoughtful.
Anna Sundberg, Sarah Baskin, Ron Menzel, Matthew Amendt, Stephen D'Ambrose, Asma Thabet, Truett Felt and Gary Lowery. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp. 
An amalgamation of more Greek things than I could count, the play is a motley crew of references from the Greek theatre, from Greek mythology, and from Greek history formed into a story about a young comedian—a writer of Greek comedies—named Aris. Aris is, in fact, Aristophanes, the famous Greek comic playwright more of whose plays survive than any of his classical contemporaries, and who is known for speaking directly to the issues of his time. Interestingly, he also recently appeared in Socrates, at the Public Theater.
Matthew Amendt, Julian Remulla. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Aris (Amendt, the playwright), is a sweet and sharp boy who, when the play opens, hates the theatre and mocks its value as an aspect of civic life. We quickly learn that Aris had written a comedy that was poorly received. However, under the inspiration of his cousin Philippus (Julian Remulla), his uncle Themon (Stephen D. Ambrose), and a local Persian woman named Xerxica (Sarah Baskin), Aris takes up the charge to write a tragedy, the highest of the arts.
Ron Menzel, Matthew Amendt. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Amendt performs with charm and energy. He has written for himself, and his company, a great deal of lovely dialogue and monologues with strong imagery. Ron Mendel performs as the Chorus Leader—both as a one-man Greek Chorus and with his own hidden role in the play. He also is the conniving, professorial drama teacher of most of the Athenian youths. As Themon, Ambrose performs with intelligent conviction and clear speech. 
Matthew Amendt. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The Access Theater’s long, relatively shallow performance space is mostly empty, with half-Greek, half-comic book-style posters plastered across the walls. Rather than dressing the actors in togas, set and costume designer Izzy Fields has created a quasi-Appalachian look that creates the sense of a Mediterranean, distant time. Fields adds effective touches to many of the costumes, such as having the war veteran, Themon, wear old medals that keep falling off his chest, with a dirty blindfold covering his eyes.
Matthew Amendt with Asma Thabet, Truett Felt and Anna Sundberg. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The entire production is filled with such small yet clever touches. Because all the performers communicate with energy and clarity, the images speak volumes. Near the end of Act One, Amendt provides a wonderful monologue in verse filled with floral and mythic themes. He navigates the verse with impressive dexterity. The dialogue is firm, well-shaped, and keeps things moving.

The play, as noted earlier, is in many ways a love letter to the theatre. Aris falls back in love with tragedy, and as he does, he performs monologues on why the medium matters. The Chorus Leader is given a number of speeches that essentially elucidate the power of live performance. Cleon, the antagonist, effectively played by Anna Sundberg, and Baskin, as Xerxica, each expresses the importance of the theatre to civic life, Xerxica through affirmation, Cleon through denial. The play itself is sneakily metatheatrical but you’ll have to see it to learn how.

As a novice fan of Greek history, I had fun living in this fictional Greek world. Those better acquainted with the background will be even more delighted.

Access Theater
380 Broadway, 4th Floor
Through July 6

Aron Canter studied theatre theory and alternative performance at The New School and is working toward an Art History masters at Hunter College. He has been a theatre and art critic, a supernumerary at The Metropolitan Opera, and currently works as a medical professional.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

36 (2019-2020): Review: THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (seen June 21, 2019)

“A Taste of Honey”

There’s a lot of buzz, most of it good, about The Secret Life of Bees, a sweet-as-honey musical realization of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling 2002 novel of that name, now at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. The book was also adapted into a 2008 film starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keys. 
Elizabeth Teeter and Manoel Felciano. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Set in the American South in 1964, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s a tale of racial injustice, political suffrage, interracial romance, coming of age, the search for maternal love, the power of faith, and the empowerment of black women in defiance of the white patriarchy’s suppression. An all-star creative team weaves these themes together, evocative direction being offered by Sam Gold (Fun Home), a strong script by Pulitzer-winner Lynn Nottage (Sweat), potent lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam), and an often-thrilling score by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening).
LaChanze, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The story, occupying a two-act structure that lasts two and a half hours, centers on self-centered (at first), 14-year-old Lily Owens (Elizabeth Teeter, impressive), with dreams of being a writer, from the fictional town of Sayvon, South Carolina. Her father, T. Ray (Mandel Feliciano, very good), blames her for the death of her mother, who died when the much younger Lily picked up a gun that went off. She feels not only great guilt but a wrenching yearning for her mother’s arms. 
Saycon Sengbloh, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.
T. Ray treats her cruelly, punishing even minor infractions by forcing her to kneel on gravel till her knees are raw. She and the family’s snuff-using black housekeeper, Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh, sensational), injured by local rednecks (Joe Cassidy, Matt DeAngelis) when she attempts to register to vote, run off together, landing in the town of Tiburon, North Carolina. There, Lily notices honey jars for sale with the image on them of a black Madonna, the same image as on a postcard from her mother.
    Eisa Davis, Vita E. Cleveland, Romelda Teron Benjamin, Saycon Sengbloh, Anastacia McCleskey, Nathaniel Stampley, LaChanze, and Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.

This leads her and Rosaleen to an apiary, where they are cared for and given work by the sisters May (Anastacia McCleskey, wonderful), June (Eisa Davis, outstanding), and August Boatright (LaChanze, exceptional). The latter is the well-educated family leader, allowing literary references to abound (Rosaleen is given Jane Eyre to read). These determined, independent black women have created a prosperous beekeeping business despite their racist surroundings. Lily forms a bond with another worker, Zach (Brett Gray, excellent), a black boy with aspirations of becoming a lawyer, but their budding attraction will have to contend with 1964 prejudices.
Anastacica McCleskey, LaChanze. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The sisters, and those associated with them, worship the statue (actually, a ship’s figurehead found floating in a river) of the black Mary that signifies their honey brand, but also symbolizes maternal love. The scenes expressing the awe in which the statue is held (when the darkened stage glitters with candles) are among the most moving in the play. Lily’s mother had a deep connection with the sisters, which will eventually be revealed.
LaChanze, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Other dramatic incidents that move the tale toward its conclusion include the outcome of a suit for the affections of the sour June (she can’t get over a jilting at the altar) by the tenacious school principal Neal (Nathaniel Stampley, perfection), who refuses to accept her constant rejections; Zach’s arrest while driving by white cops in a scene similar to the kinds of incidents that continue to roil our society; and T. Ray’s discovery of Lily’s whereabouts.
Brett Gray, Elizabeth Teeter. Photo: Ahron 
Gold’s beautifully staged production uses the increasingly common, simplified approach (as in Fun Home) of an essentially bare stage (design by Mimi Lien), its naked brick walls exposed, and its locales indicated by selected furnishings and props (like the stacks of realistic honey trays) carried off and on with choreographic precision by the actors. Beekeeping smokers play a part as well, providing an organic way of introducing hazy effects as the actors create clouds of smoke with them. Also charming are the bees themselves—golden, trinket-like creatures dangling from wires on rods manipulated by three performers. 
Eisa Davis, Nathanial Stampley. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The actors, even when not in a scene, remain visible, of course, and some—as in the shows of John Doyle—also play musical instruments. The principal musicians are visible along either side wall, one of them, a remarkable hand drum player, Vita E. Cleveland, also participating as part of the acting ensemble. 
 Saycon Sengbloh, Nathaniel Stampley, Eisa Davis, Anastacia McCleskey, & LaChanze. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Jane Cox’s lighting, Dede Ayite’s costumes, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design couldn’t be better blended. Chris Walker’s choreographic arrangements are often stunning in how honestly they express the characters’ feelings through movement, especially during the rapturous worship scenes. 
LaChanze, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, Vita E. Cleveland, Elizabeth Teeter, Romelda Teron Benjamin. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The Secret Life of Bees provides a musically fulfilling theatre experience supported by a compelling, straightforward narrative that includes parental abuse, religious ecstasy, sexual awakening, romantic fulfillment, and virulent prejudice, including police brutality. It sticks fairly close to the novel but offers a few variations, like the fate of May, or the circumstances of Zach’s arrest. 
Eisa Davis, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, Vita E. Cleveland, LaChanze, Anastacia McCleskey, Nathaniel Stampley, Romelda Teron Benjamin, Saycon Sengbloh. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Sheik’s music, exceptionally well played and orchestrated, runs from jazz to blues to gospel to country, providing a succession of effective, affecting songs for the remarkably big-voiced, perfectly matched company.

Each actor brings conviction and depth to their roles. The book contains many things familiar from multiple other depictions of the Civil Rights years, and it sometimes teeters on the sentimental. Nonetheless, its expert presentation makes it all seem newly minted. The Secret Life of Bees has plenty of sting in its tail but it soothes as well with an unforgettable taste of honey. 
Linda Gross Theater/Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through July 21


35 (2019-2020): Review: A STRANGE LOOP (seen June 20, 2019)

“Identity Heft”

A Strange Loop, a new, raucously profane, satirical, Off-Broadway musical comedy at Playwrights Horizons, is a sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, and sometimes comic cry of angst about a fat, black, gay man writing a musical comedy about a fat, black, gay man writing a musical comedy about being a fat, black, gay man writing a musical comedy, etc.
James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, Larry Owens (in red jacket and hat), Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison, L Morgan Lee. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In its metatheatrical way, its self-involved main character, the nearly 26-year-old Usher (the exceptional Larry Owens, and no, not that Usher), resembles photos of Michael R. Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson), who wrote the book, lyrics, and music. He says in his program note that the work “is not formally autobiographical” while confessing to having thoughts similar to Usher’s while writing it.
Antwayn Hopper, Larry Owens (in front). Photo: Joan Marcus.
He also notes how often his name has confused others about his identity; the same is true of his appearance, which has led people (black and white) to confuse him with the playwright/director Robert O’Hara. This, he says, has only further encouraged his preoccupation with establishing his own identity. And identity is at the heart of A Strange Loop, a show that, as Usher explains, takes its title from Douglas Hofstadter’s cognitive science term:

It’s basically about how your sense of self is just a set of meaningless symbols in your brain pushing up or down through one level of abstraction to another but always winding up right back where they started? It’s the idea that your ability to conceive of yourself as an ‘I’ is kind of an illusion? But the fact that you can recognize the illusion kind of proves that it exists kind of?

Get it? Whatever.

John-Andrew Morrison, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, L Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper, Jason Veasey. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Like the paintings of M.C. Escher, the narrative (and some of the music) keeps looping back on itself. But the term also refers to a song by Liz Phair, whose lyrics aren’t particularly loopy. The latter connection seems more attuned to Usher’s preoccupation with his “inner white girl,” that is, the undue influence on his own music of that by white-girl singer-song writers like Phair, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos because of the freedom these artists represent as opposed to his own hang-ups as a gay, black boy in thrall to his mother.
L Morgan Lee, James Jackson, Jr., Jason Veasey, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper, John-Michael Lyles. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Usher, a red-tunicked usher at Disney’s The Lion King—frequently alluded to when names like Mufasa, Nala, Rafiki, Sarabi, and Scar are attributed to his family members—is a Detroit-raised songwriter living in New York with a bigtime student debt. He’s struggling to create a “big, black and queer-ass Broadway show” that avoids the compromises a black artist, who wants to write something “unapologetically black” has to make to appeal to white audiences, critics, and backers.
L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper, Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr. Photo: Joan Marcus.
At one point, he’ll be forced by necessity to compromise when he’s asked to ghostwrite a gospel opera on behalf of moviemaker Tyler Perry, whose work his family adores (because he writes about “real life”), but which Usher despises as “crap” and “hack buffoonery.” Much of the show’s humor comes from how certain characters in Usher’s life parody the broadly stereotypical Tyler style.

Usher feels worthless because, while “starved for black affirmation and affection,” he’s unable to find a suitable black partner, his hookups mainly being white, like the meth-using Inwood guy who does it to him from behind. It’s a raunchy scene reminiscent of a much funnier one in Torch Song Trilogy.
John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens. Photo: Joan Marcus.
He suffers from the towering guilt of having been raised by God-fearing people (including his scripture-spouting mother), who reject his “homosexsh’alities,” worry over his sinful life, and reject his artistic aspirations. He also can’t avoid reminders of a friend who died of AIDS and ponders if he can possibly change or is just “stuck with who I am.”
John-Andrew Morrison, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A Strange Loop explores his anxieties in what the script calls “daily self-loathings” by representing them as an ensemble of six singing, dancing, and acting Thoughts. These are performed by the ultra-versatile L. Morgan Lee (the only female), James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, and Antwayn Hopper. It’s hard not to feel that the play is a therapeutic exercise designed to exorcize Jackson’s demons.
James Jackson, Jr., Larry Owens, L Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Each—helped by Montana Levi Blanco’s many costumes—takes on two or more caricaturish roles, including Usher’s pious mother and alcoholic father, an imaginary Mr. Right he meets on the subway, a doctor, an agent, and a lover. There are also fanciful appearances by such black luminaries as Harriet Tubman, Carter G. Woodson, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and others, even “Twelve Years a Slave.”
Jason Veasey, Larry Owens. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Usher and his Thoughts sing and dance his problems in a highly theatricalized format creatively staged by Stephen Brackett and vividly choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, flashily lit by Jen Schriever, makes use of door-sized, neon-outlined cubicles that are either placed upstage next to one another or sent to opposite sides of the stage.

Toward the end there’s a surprising, if not absolutely necessary, scenic shift to Usher’s parents’ more naturalistic, overcrowded home, with a church setting directly overhead. Usher now takes on the role of a fiery pastor (of the Quasi-Africana Church of God in Christ), castigating gays by declaring AIDS to be God’s punishment for their transgressions.

The music is heavily rhythmic; the lyrics emotionally expressive, didactically inclined, and narratively thin; the language often filthy (anal sex and fellatio, less delicately expressed, get the lion’s share); the “n-words” and “fag” references endemic; and the familiar African-American allusions (like Popeye’s chicken) common.

A Strange Loop is highly polished, and the multitalented Larry Owens makes a splashy New York debut in a tour-de-force performance. Because of its treatment of black, gay identity, it’s the kind of play that will provoke reams of socio-political discussion by those more qualified to discuss it than I.
L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper (behind him), Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Regardless of how well directed, designed, and performed A Strange Loop is, or how often it inserts woke references (like vers bottom, intersectionality, code-switching, second-wave feminism, and so forth), the troubles of its solipsistic hero lack the stamina to keep one in the loop for an uninterrupted interest over an hour and 45 minutes.

Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 28


Thursday, June 20, 2019

34 (2019-2020): Review: TONI STONE (seen June 14, 2019)

“A Quality Start”

Toni Stone (born Marcenia Lyle Stone in St. Paul, Minnesota; 1921-1996), the first woman to play with men in organized baseball, played on a variety of levels from the 1930s through the early 1950s. She pitched as a teenager but her adult career was as an infielder. Regardless, Lydia R. Diamond’s fascinating new eponymous play about a largely forgotten pioneer could well be described by the pitching term of “quality start.”

Wikipedia says a quality start is “a statistic for a starting pitcher defined as a game in which the pitcher completes at least six innings and permits no more than three earned runs.” Thus, Toni Stone, based on Martha Ackerman’s book Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, is neither a perfect game nor a grand slam but it’s a good enough revelation of a pathbreaking athlete and her times to qualify as a quality start, pitcher or no. (It also happens to be the second Toni Stone play, Roger Nieboer's Tomboy Toni having been produced at St. Paul's History Theater in 1996.)

The two-act play, which runs around two hours and ten minutes, is overlong, like a game that goes into extra innings but, for most of its duration, Pam McKinnon’s imaginative staging, supplemented by the incisive choreography of Camille A. Brown, keeps the ball spinning and the actors moving, with considerable baseball-like business: mimed ball-throwing and catching, bat swinging (and accompanying sound effects), and so on. Baseball implements, like catcher's masks, are used for multiple purposes. Often, someone playing an umpire adds emphasis by calling strikes. 

It helps greatly that McKinnon and Brown’s team of nine African-American players is of major league-level acting ability, most of them playing a single position (“character,” I should say), with occasional shifts to someone else (including white folks). 
When necessary to suggest another character, an actor will usually hint at the change by donning a symbolic item of clothing, even to play a woman; in one gender flipping portrayal, though, Kenn E. Head, playing Millie, a female friend of Toni’s, does it in full drag, but seriously and not for laughs. (The excellent costumes are by Dede Ayite.) April Matthis, playing Toni in a memorable, award-level performance, is the only actual woman in the company. (She took over the role from Uzo Aduba last year when the latter left because of a scheduling conflict.)

Diamond’s approach is metatheatrical, as Toni Stone (1921-1996), slides through her autobiographical tale, both narrating to us and interacting with the other players in highlight moments from her story. With a couple of exceptions, everyone continues wearing the baseball uniforms of the Indianapolis Clowns, an important team in the Negro American League.

Stone, who’d been playing with semipro teams, including barnstorming ones, joined the Clowns (replacing Hank Aaron, of all players!) when she was 32, in 1953. It was this job that broke the barrier against mainstream, female pros, although she still had to deal with a lack of respect for her abilities and too great an emphasis on her gender. 

(Her accomplishment, by the way, isn't to be confused with that of the women who played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded in 1948 exclusively for female players. It was the inspiration for the movie A League of Their Own.)
The action takes place during the mid-20th-century years when major league baseball was transitioning from all-white teams to the inclusion of black players, beginning with Jackie Robinson, who is often mentioned in the dialogue. This revolutionary situation, of course, signaled the imminent end of the Negro Leagues and is likely responsible for allowing the door to open enough so that a female player could slip in (there would be two more afterward).

The play’s baseball players appear to be a jumble of reality and fiction. King Tut (Phillip James Brannon) and Jimmy Wilkes, were actual people. The former is depicted as a capable player while the real person of that name, a.k.a. “the clown prince of baseball,” is said to have had only seven plate appearances in his career, his three decades in the game being primarily as a comedian.

Spec Beebop [sic] (Daniel J. Bryant), another baseball funmaker, who teamed up with Tut, was a nonplaying dwarf (his name spelled Bebop, not Beebop); in Toni Stone he’s a short, overweight, bespectacled athlete with a professorial bent, who jokes about his substantial male endowment. (Al Schact, of course, was the “clown prince” of major league baseball.)

I’m unable to verify the existence of player-coach Woody Bush (Ezra Knight), whose name doesn’t appear in this alphabetical list of Negro League players, which is also the case with Elzie Marshall (Jonathan Burke), the handsome guy whose ladies man-attitude Toni sees through as a subterfuge for his homosexuality.
The core of Toni Stone concerns the obstacles put in the way of a black female athlete who played as well as any male but who had to go to great lengths to prove she could do so with them on the same field. She had to battle sexist attitudes from owners and teammates, who often saw her more as a publicity stunt than as a viable player. At the same time, like her male teammates, she also had to battle the period’s virulent racism, which the play doesn’t hesitate to present.

Toni is smart, quick-witted, and resistant to guff, but good-natured and confident, as prone to profanity as her teammates, and anything but a victim. When needing to take refuge from slings and arrows, she retreats into a recital of the statistics of the players—black and white—of the day and shortly before, as references to the likes of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth attest. For some reason, however, no years are cited to clarify the statistics cited. The play presents Toni as remarkably well-versed in baseball stats but stumped by typical classroom mathematics. (It’s not mentioned but Toni’s two-year Negro Leagues career—including a season with the Kansas City Monarchs—ended with a batting average of .243.)

Matthis’s performance delivers on every count, being both personable, formidable, and funny. She’s emotionally and intellectually pointed that you forgive her for lacking the physical stature of a professional ballplayer, or for the slight hitch in her swing when she handles a bat.

Toni Stone delves into the biographical weeds of its subject, introducing not only Toni Stone’s mother; her Irish Catholic priest; Syd Pollock, the white owner of the Clowns; Millie, the prostitute who became her close friend (Toni sometimes having had to sleep at brothels when nowhere else was available in Jim Crow towns), and one-time star catcher and later baseball mentor, Gabby Street. 
Of considerable importance is the four decades-older, San Francisco-politician/saloon owner Auralious Alberga (Harry Blanks), who falls in love with and marries her, but eventually has second thoughts about his wife being a professional ballplayer.

Toni Stone is enacted on a set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) whose upper reaches are lined with large, stadium-style lights (effectively used by designer Allen Lee Hughes), and whose acting area is a dirt-colored wooden floor backed by low, bleacher type seats. Strangely, no green is present in the scheme.

Whether or not Toni Stone wins any pennants, it comes close enough to hitting it out of the park to make it an early season contender.  

Laura Pels Theatre/Roundabout Theatre Company
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through August 11


33 (2019-2020): Review: THE MOUNTAINS LOOK DIFFERENT (seen June 13, 2019)

"Slippery Slopes"

For my review of The Mountains Look Different please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

32 (2019-2020): Review: THE GREAT NOVEL (seen June 19, 2019)

"Some Plays Are Born Not So Great"
Amina Henry’s The Great Novel, a 95-minute play in the Flea’s Siggy space, directed by Sarah Norris, is the latest project from the New Light Theater Project (Breeders). Henry, a product of Brooklyn College’s highly lauded MFA Playwriting program, has written what is, in essence, a conventional play that she and her director have gussied up with unnecessary, pseudo-absurdist distractions. These provide an artistic gloss that does little to elevate its style or substance.
MaryKathryn Kopp, Tabatha Gayle, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Bertha (Nikki E. Walker) is a Jamaica-born, New York-raised black woman who has been working for ten years as a maid for the Brennans, a privileged Upper East Side white family. This includes the businessman father, Dick (Joshua Bermudez); his teenage daughters, Charlotte (MaryKathryn Kopp) and Anne (Tabatha Gayle); and his 23-year-old son, Saul (Michael Aguirre).

To represent their home, scene designer An-Lin Dauber has filled in the spaces between the brick pillars, which form a permanent backdrop on the Siggy’s wide, shallow stage, with sheer, white curtains. The set itself is little more than posh-looking, antique furniture, a fireplace with a mantel, and a mirror-like, lozenge-shaped wall decoration on which scene titles are projected. Near the play’s end, tropical vegetation (lushly lit by Christina Tang) can be seen when the curtains are pulled aside.
Tabatha Gayle, Joshua Bermudez, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Dick, whose name probably is intended as a jokey slur on his vacant character (it’s his disaffected son’s preferred salutation, rather than “Dad”), is mourning the loss of his wife, who died a year earlier. He’s content to let Bertha handle the parental care of his kids, as well as every trivial household chore (like winding the clock, despite references to today’s world), while ignoring her as a human being.
Michael Aguirre, Joshua Bermudez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Seventeen-year-old Charlotte, an obnoxious, spoiled, drama queen, turns everything into a melodrama about herself. Anne, the most normal child, is a 13-year-old suffering from an insistent cold; she serves mainly as a convenient target for her selfish sister’s rants. Like her sister, she traipses through the play in a white peignoir (costumes by Mari Taylor), regardless of the time of day.
Oghenero Ghaje, MaryKathryn Kopp. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Saul is a substance-abusing, self-hating, feckless loser. Apart from Bertha, the only other family outsider is Potter (Oghenero Gbaje), Charlotte’s British-accented boyfriend and schoolmate, whom she, romantic to the point of delusion, considers her “lover.”
Michael Aguirre, Tabathat Gayle, MaryKathryn Kopp. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Bertha, burdened by her six-days-a-week job and the numerous responsibilities it entails, wants more time to write what she believes will be a great novel, although she hasn’t a clue about what its subject. When we first meet her, she’s struggling not only to jot down the first sentence, she doesn’t even know who her characters will be, what they look like, or what their story will be. From what we’re shown, Bertha seems to have neither the imagination, knowledge, nor skill to write even a short story, much less a novel; on the other hand, she’s familiar with the stereotypical tropes of classic British literature. She thus settles for writing about the Brennans, noting, to our incredulity, how “interesting” they are.
Madeline McCray, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
But then a ghost appears to tell her otherwise. This is her late Granny (Madeline McCray), a colorfully overstated, Jamaican-accented woman in Caribbean garb, who watches over and disapproves of Bertha’s choices, insisting that she must write a novel about her own family in Jamaica. She herself keeps providing anecdotal and atmospheric background. How lucky to have a dead amanuensis available to do all one’s research, wouldn’t you say?
Madeline McCray. Photo: Hunter Canning.
There’s nothing especially ghostly about her (aside from no one but Bertha being able to see her) and, for some reason, she often says her lines directly to us as well as to her granddaughter. Granny is a clumsy device for expressing Bertha’s internal thought processes, giving her someone other than the Brennans with whom to examine her options and to offer advice, such as that she make money by stealing an objet d’art favored by Dick’s late wife.
Joshua Bermudez, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Ultimately, Bertha has had enough. A climactic scene at the end with Dick allows her to get everything off her chest so she can return to her cultural roots (and accent) and write the novel Granny has been insisting on all along.
Nikki E. Walker, Madeline McCray. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Perhaps to pump some blood into this rather anemic tale, director Norris has the actors play everything in a heightened style that attempts to comment on their characters but that results in what could most politely be called overacting. Very little of what they do helps the audience make an investment in the basic reality of the action, since it’s hard to care about cartoons. Here and there something truthful emerges. I also guess you could say that Kopp’s Charlotte accurately limns the nasal tones of what resemble those of a vapid Valley Girl, even with the occasional vocal fry. Charlotte, of course, is a New Yorker, but one takes what one can get.
Tabatha Gayle, Nikki E. Walker. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Just as disturbing is the choice to have the multiethnic cast wear partial whiteface makeup. Henry explains in the script that race and ethnicity are social constructs, so she’s inspired to make an experiment “to draw attention to the social construction of race by having all actors, except for Granny, in white face.” This is intended to underline the irrelevance of race in the casting and signify “the diverse racial and ethnic tapestry of the world.”

This may be a noble ideal but, in practice, it only works against itself. The Great Novel is a play in which a black woman works for a white family but it actually never specifically introduces the issue of race; with some slight revision, it could as easily be about a Polish maid. And it certainly doesn’t need this annoyingly distracting “Day of Absence” convention, which draws attention to something outside the play’s scope.

When you see a multiethnic cast—apart from those playing Bertha and Granny—with the upper half of their faces painted white (the white actors included), you see actors who look like clowns, their already exaggerated acting even further reduced to caricature, and the reality of what they’re expressing seriously compromised.

Add it all up and, I’m afraid, The Great Novel becomes anything but a great, much less a good, play.

Flea Theatre/The Siggy
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through June 29