Friday, August 30, 2019

62 (2019-2020): Review: FELIX STARRO (seen August 28, 2019)

"He Played His Part in San Francisco"

In the spring of 2013, the Public Theater produced a dynamic Off-Broadway musical called Here Lies Love, set in the Philippines. It dealt with that Pacific nation’s political situation during the days of Fernando and Imelda Marcos, especially the latter. Cast with a nearly all-Filipino company, it was the product of David Byrne, one-time frontman of the Talking Heads, who’s neither Filipino or Filipino American. 

In fact, until now, we’re informed, no Filipino American has ever written an Off-Broadway musical, so the May-Yi Theater Company’s Felix Starro, with book and lyrics by Philippines-born and raised Jessica Hagedorn, and music by Fabian Obispo, is, in this regard at least, a pioneer.  
Alan Ariano. All photos: Richard Termine.
Unlike Here Lies Love, however, whose infectious title song still bangs around in my head, the much darker Felix Starro is far from sparkling, although its subject matter is provocative enough to unsettle your innards. Based on a short story of the same name by Lysley Tenorio, it tells of the title character (Alan Ariano, appealing but a bit young for the part), an aging specialist in the practice of psychic surgery. That, for the unitiated, is a fraudulent, pseudo-scientific form of faith-healing that enjoyed particular popularity in the Philippines, beginning in the 1940s. It also took root in Brazil, and has had celebrity advocates like Shirley MacLaine, who’s mentioned in the script. 

If you’ve never heard of psychic surgery, or seen video of it in action, now is as good a time as any to check it out on YouTube, including a demonstration by James Rand revealing how it’s done. In brief, the practitioner, using only his bare hands, seems to reach into the patient’s body, drawing blood, and withdrawing the sufferer's “negativities” (Starro’s word)—in the form of bloody tissue—responsible for the patient’s ailment. Most debunkers claim that the patients’ benefits are placebo effects.
Nacho Tambunting.
Felix Starro is set in 1985, when Felix, a well-known but fading psychic surgeon in Baguio City, believing he’s nearing his end, comes to San Francisco with his 19-year-old grandson, Felix Starro, Jr. (Nacho Tambuntang, pleasant), called Junior, whom he’s training to succeed him. The senior Felix’s reputation is such—he was once a glittery TV star (as a flashy musical flashback reminds us)—that many in the Bay Area’s Filipino community want to use his pricey services.
Francisca Munoz, Caitlin Cisco, Alan Ariano, Diane Phelan.
Felix hopes to earn enough money to ensure his final days back home, disregarding the danger he’s in there from a local who holds him responsible for a relative’s death. Felix admits his fraudulence to the skeptical Junior but also believes he has a special gift, one Junior knows he himself does not.
Nacho Tambunting, Francisca Munoz, Alan Ariano.
Although he can afford better lodgings, Felix occupies a shabby hotel room he’s stayed at before because of its nostalgic value. Visitors include a young, gay man (Ryan James Ortega), suffering from AIDS, for which Felix is unable to do anything; a wealthy matron, Mrs. Delgado (Francisca Muñoz); and Crystal (Caitlin Cisco), the pregnant, unwed hotel maid. We actually see Mrs. Delgado undergo the gory procedure, after which she claims that (for the moment at least) all her pains have vanished.  
Francisca Munoz, Alan Ariano, Nacho Tambunting.
Felix’s hoaxes gradually catch up with him and he also finds himself in danger of losing his grandson, whose own need to survive requires him to use means no less fraudulent than his grandfather’s. While Felix is devoted to his homeland, Junior strives to leave its heat, poverty, and backwardness behind and stay, illegally, in the USA. He’s spurred on in this goal by his girlfriend back home, Charma (Diane Phelan), who keeps appearing in his imagination. In a major lapse, we never learn what Charma’s own plans for joining him are.
Francisca Munoz.
As instructed, Junior seeks out a florist named Flora Ramirez (the always excellent Ching Valdes-Aran), whose crooked sideline is getting aliens to pay a heavy price for false American identities. The Junior-Flora plotline therefore introduces the currently hot issue of illegal immigration, but in a shallow, passing way, including filling the rear wall with a projected image (design by Nick Graci) of hundreds of license-like photos. 
Ching Valdes-Aran, Nacho Tambunting.
The issue is more a momentary distraction than a meaningful grappling with the problem. Last I heard, ICE was not currently targeting San Francisco's Filipino immigrants. It's something of a stretch, but what happens in the play can only very loosely be extrapolated to the current situation at our borders. Even if you're a strong immigration advocate, you may not support Junior's strategy.
Francisca Munoz, Nacho Tambunting, and company.
Felix Starro is neither an in-depth look at psychic surgery nor of immigration policies (remember, the show is set in 1985). It also sometimes can’t make up its mind if it’s a musical or a drama. Ma-Yi artistic director Ralph B. Peña has created several theatrically interesting moments but does little to alleviate the straightforward, ploddingly dramatic scenes, which crawl along at a snail’s pace. 
Company of Felix Starro.
Many of the acceptably listenable but largely generic 17 numbers have a familiar Sondheim feeling, using the music to offer narrative information. Others are in various conventional styles with ordinary lyrics that won’t win any prizes for first-class rhyming, although a few songs have enough originality to linger a bit. One that might be cited is “Medley of Maladies,” listing various physical ailments, and Mrs. Delgado’s “Tango of Pain,” with its thumping Latin beat. 

Paolo K. Tirol’s orchestrations for keyboards, guitar, and drums sound fine in the Clurman Theatre’s intimate confines under the musical direction of Ian Miller, and the company’s singing and acting is satisfactory, if uneven. Don’t, however, expect a Lea Salonga to emerge from the ensemble.
Company of Felix Starro.
Brandon Bieber’s choreography, mostly in the form of heightened movement patterns than traditional dance, is well-executed by the small, seven-member ensemble, all of whom—apart from Ariano and Tambunting-- play more than one role. Costume designer Becky Bodurtha thus provides numerous costumes (and wigs) for her busy troupers. 

Felix Starro’s weakest contribution is Marsha Ginsburg’s determinedly dull, sickly green set, intended to suggest the dreary interior of a cheap room but also serving for multiple other locales, inside and out. Even Oliver Wasson's imaginative lighting can do little to alleviate the glumness. An upstage cubicle (functioning as a closet, bathroom, and room entrance) that the actors slide from side to side helps to slightly vary the space but, if any set could be said to be a distracting eyesore when something more abstract and imaginative was called for, this is it. 

If a viable form of psychic surgery for theatre existed where someone could slip their hand into a show’s entrails and pluck out its negativities, Felix Starro would clearly quality as a patient.

Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 21


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

61 (2019-2020): Review: SEA WALL/A LIFE (seen August 27, 2019)

“Fathers, Daughters, Sons”


I was out of the country when this show opened in early August and only caught up with it last night. It originally played at Off Broadway’s Public Theater in the spring, where I reviewed it on March 3, and is now on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre. Since this is, to all intents and purposes, the same production, I’ve reprinted that review below, with one or two minor emendations and bracketed interpolations.  

The programs two one-acts, each for a solo performer—Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal—standing on a rather bleak, mostly empty stage, seem even weaker than I remembered. Whatever emotional and literary values they had in the Public’s far more intimate Newman Theater lose much of their impact at the Hudson, dissipating each play’s already slim, narrative.

The biggest difference from the Off-Broadway version appears to be the increase in both the level of intensity and the amount of comedy Gyllenhaal brings his performance. I don’t deny, though, that the latter registered more with the audience at large than with me or my companion. It almost seemed as if, following the tragic circumstances recounted in Sturridge’s opening play, the audience was willing itself to laugh at every hint of lightness in Gyllenhaal’s amiable presence, even greeting his first appearance with fandom’s familiar whoops of appreciative recognition.

I won’t say more here other than to acknowledge (and I’m aware I’m a bit of an outlier) that the plays made an even milder impression on me than in March and that the reason to see them remains the excellent work of the stars. 
Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Sturridge. All photos: Richard Hubert Smith.
Tom Sturridge (Orphans1984) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Constellations), both exciting leading men of stage and screen, bring audiences at the Public Theater to their feet at the end of Sea Wall/A Life, a bill of back-to-back monologues.

I, however, remained seated. This wasn’t because the excellent actors give anything less than what their previous work would have led one to expect. Instead, it was because—with due respect to these stars’ vibrant presences—I could as easily have listened to their material on an audiobook as seen it on a stage.

Simon Stephens’s (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) “Sea Wall” (written in 2008) and Nick Payne’s (If There Is, I Haven't Found It Yet) “A Life,” each around 45-minutes long (they’re separated by a 15-minute intermission), are performed on the same bare, brick-walled set, designed by Laura Jellinek and lit by Peter Kaczorowski [Guy Hoare on Broadway]. A scarcely used upper level runs across the stage proper, to which it’s connected by a set of stairs, also underused. A piano at right center is used (for a mournful rendition of “Imagine”) only at the end of “A Life.”

The British Sturridge and the American Gyllenhaal, directed by Carrie Cracknell, play ordinary, happily married men, dressed by Kaye Voyce [joined on Broadway, for some reason, by Christopher Peterson] in basic everyday wear. They tell their stories to no one in particular as they try to make sense of events both recent and in the past. Only a small number of other characters figure in their narratives.
Tom Sturridge.
Both plays examine fatherhood, marriage, childbirth, and the care of daughters, both move back and forth in time, both include traumatic events, and both ask existential questions about the meaning of life. They capture moods and incidents in natural-sounding, yet poetically suggestive prose, but, while they explore strong feelings, they possess little dramatic tension.

The “f-word” gets plenty of mileage, especially in “A Life,” which also—despite the concern it and its partner share with death—manages to squeeze a few laughs out of its generally serious substance. About the only chuckle raised by “Sea Wall” comes from Alex’s pride in pronouncing Carquerraine, the name of a French town.
Tom Sturridge.
In “Sea Wall,” Sturridge plays Alex, a British photographer trying to maintain his composure in the wake of a recent tragedy that he gradually reveals. Much of it concerns his father-in-law, an ex-military man and retired math teacher who lives in a village in the south of France. There, Alex, his wife, Helen, and their little girl, Lucy, the apple of her grandpa’s eye, vacation annually, swimming in the Mediterranean.

As he builds toward the climax of his tale, Alex describes his conversations with his father-in-law about the existence of God, a subject about which they politely disagree and that remains a persistent thread to which Alex keeps returning. But, regardless of the grief that would seem the trigger for his story, he continues weaving into it trivia on various subjects, from scuba diving to photography to detective fiction.
Tom Sturridge.
He pays considerable attention to the circumstances of Lucy’s birth, but also describes moments incidental to her getting older and the love she generates. All this is a buildup to the heart-rending event that concludes Alex’s sometimes elegiac rambling and the expression of his hope that we’ll one day understand why such things happen. Nonetheless, for all its assumed depth, “Sea Wall” really doesn’t dive very deeply at all.

In “A Life,” Gyllenhaal is Abe, and his story also devotes much time to the physical circumstances of his child’s birth, as well as to its aftermath. But it also keeps shifting to his own beloved father and the fatal heart disease that struck him when Abe was a teen.
Jake Gyllenhaal.
Whereas Sturridge’s Alex has a modicum of physical freedom, the stage is darkened for Abe’s narrative, isolating him in a spotlight, like a stand-up comic. Perhaps because the director grew bored of him standing in one spot for so long, she has him rush through the audience at one point, with his cell phone flashlight on, before returning to the stage.

Payne’s script is technically more complex than Stephens’s since it is essentially two stories running on parallel tracks. One is the preparation for Abe’s baby’s birth, the birth itself, and its postnatal care. The second concerns Abe’s father’s ailment, death, and—with a message about how much we prepare for birth and how little for death—what came after. Tying the tracks together is Abe’s preoccupation with his lack of confidence in his own fatherhood, and the experience that shows him otherwise.
Jake Gyllenhaal.
The play could as easily have been called, “A Life; A Death”; it once was called “The Art of Dying.” Gyllenhaal is required to make rapid shifts in dialogue to suggest different speakers as well as overlapping chronicles. The nature of the material, however, prevents him from showboating and, all things considered, he renders a rather restrained, yet always truthful, almost conversational performance.

Fans of Sturridge and Gyllenhaal will appreciate the chance to see these stars in the flesh, with eyes trained on only them. But I would have preferred to have had the distraction of, at the least, dramatic action and other actors for these fine actors to play off.

Hudson Theatre
141 W. 44th St., NYC
Through September 29


Sunday, August 25, 2019

60 (2019-2020): Review: BAT OUT OF HELL: THE MUSICAL (seen August 24, 2019)

You've read the reviews. Now read the book. 
THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE, 2012-2013 A Brief Memoir and Reviews

“Sex, Thugs, and Rock and Roll”

I come late to this show, formally called Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, which opened a couple of weeks ago at New York City Center, while I was away. Here for a limited run through September 8, it's already been widely reviewed. Bat Out of Hell, of course, is a buzz-heavy, rock musical founded on the eponymous 1977 album, one of the best-selling of all time (it had two sequels), with Meat Loaf performing the music and lyrics of Jim Steinman.

Its New York version has undergone frequent revisions, personnel changes, and internal production conflicts since the original had its 2017 premiere in Manchester, England, with later stagings in London’s West End, Toronto, and Oberhausen, Germany. A North American tour is said to have been canceled but the show’s journey has had enough twists and turns to suggest it may yet get back on the road.
Tyler Wiltex Jones, William Branner, Andrew Polec. All photos: Little Fang.
Steinman, who’s responsible for the book, has conceived it in the vein of juke-box musicals like Moulin Rouge, where stand-alone songs are squeezed into a narrative, giving them a dramatic context that seeks to move their lyrics out of your head and into concrete situations. Seven of these songs may have been on the same album but their relation to one another, not to mention another dozen (some made famous by singers like Celine Dion), is uncomfortably suggested by being linked in a story very loosely inspired by J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. In fact, Steinman initially considered turning the album into a rock opera called Neverland.
Christine Bennington. 
This approach let’s us hear the indelible sounds of not only "Bat Out of Hell," but “All Revved Up with No Place to Go,” “Dead Ringer for Love,” “For Crying Out Loud,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That,” “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” “Love and Death and the American Guitar,” “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” “Out of the Frying Pan (And into the Fire),” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Wasted Youth,” “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?,” and, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night).” A vivid lyric (regardless of whatever it may mean) in the last, “Would you offer your throat to the wolf with red roses,” becomes the hero’s running query to potential lovers.

Core elements of Barrie’s classic tale have been moved from Victorian London to a dystopian Manhattan, now called Obsidian, where the father of what we remember as the Darling family is transformed into Falco (Bradley Dean), a studly tyrant who looks more like a pop singer in the Tom Jones tradition than the billionaire CEO he depicts. His wife is the glamorous, alcoholic Sloane (Lena Hall), in conflict with her oppressive husband and concerned for the future of their only child.

That would be Raven (Christina Bennington), a rebellious, 17-going on-18 hottie. She resents her father’s restrictions against her leaving their home in a towering skyscraper, suggested by Jon Bousor’s perspective, multifloored setting, with the word Falco emblazoned across its façade. (Not quite Trump and Ivanka, but one can imagine the possibilities.)
Lena Hall, Bradley Dean. 
Peter Pan is envisioned in the person of Strat (the sensational Andrew Polec, who played it in London and Toronto), an 18-year-old in the rock star fashion of a young Roger Daltrey, with wild, blonde hair and eyeliner topping a tall, androgynously slender frame in black leather pants. He’s the leader of an orphaned gang of young scavengers, the Lost (think Barrie’s Lost Boys), living in the post-apocalyptic city’s abandoned tunnels and subways, and decked out in designer Bousor’s punk rock-meets-Mad Max duds, hairdos, and makeup. All are forever young because of something about their DNA having been frozen as a result of chemical warfare.

Among their singing and dancing members are Strat’s gay, child-like friend, Tink (Avionce Hoyle), jealous of Raven for stealing Strat’s affections, and the voluptuous Zahara (Danielle Steers), who also serves as Falco’s maid. Her romance with another gang member, Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), his head shaved except for a blonde forelock, forms one of the subplots.

The muddy plot is further muddied by forcing the songs (when Gareth Owens’s sound design lets you catch the lyrics) to somehow fit the narrative, or vice versa. The action mainly concerns the conflict between Falco (supported by his thuggish militia) and the Lost, whom he believes represent a threat to the wellbeing of his daughter. Tink fares less well than Tinker Bell in the violent proceedings, but, after Strat returns from the dead (don't ask), peace comes to Obsidian.
Andrew Polec, Christine Bennington.
Bat Out of Hell clicks only when its famous songs take over from the pulpy book. To get to them, you have to endure the phony, bland, and unconvincing nonmusical material. With the songs so artificially made to serve the story, this way-overlong, two-hour and 40-minute rock opera-striving tale of teenage rebellion, romantic suffering, and marital discord grows more convoluted, clichéd, confusing, and contrived.

At the end, when the company sings—terrifically, but at notable length—the infectious “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” it sounds great but, contextually, you may wonder what it is that everybody keeps declaring they won't do for love. Reading the lyrics won't necessarily clear it up.

The heavily rhythmic score gets its full complement of stage fog, dazzling (often strobe-driven) lighting (by Patrick Woodroole), confetti blasts, and athletic, music video-style choreography (“adapted by” Kena Gusthart), much of it using robotic, martial arts-type movements. Some numbers make colorful use of a fancy motorcycle and a retro convertible.
Andrew Polec, Christine Bennington.
Jay Scheib’s breathless direction keeps things hopping but his insistence on puerile sexual naughtiness, where line after line is accompanied by humping, licking, and otherwise genitally-directed behavior is irritatingly juvenile. Equally distracting is his backing so much of the action with televised projections of exactly what we’re already seeing live, with a camera operator following the actors around à la the manner of Ivo van Hove.

The cast, though, is first rate. Polec moves, acts, and sings with starbright magnetism and should have a bright future. Tony-winner Hall uses her great voice, good looks, and sense of humor to bring her cartoonish character to vivacious life (not least of which when she strips down to sexy skivvies). The macho Dean (who gets to perform in tight, pink scanties--oh, what actors have to do!) invests enormous passion and a huge voice into his every note and lyric. And Steers has an earthy, Cher-like sound and extraordinary charisma that deserve bigger billing. Bennington, from the West End company, matches gorgeous (although too-mature-for-the-role) looks and vocal talent with not quite so gorgeous acting chops.  

If you’re of a certain generation, the score will be familiar and probably beloved. Like some of the ecstatic, arm-waving fans swarming to the show like bats out of hell, you’ll dig the show's sex, thugs, and rock and roll. If so, three out of three ain’t bad.

New York City Center
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through September 8


Thursday, August 22, 2019

59 (2019-2020): Review: MAKE BELIEVE (seen August 21, 2019)

“Yesterday, When They Were Young”

Nowadays, it’s a little unusual to see a show with challenging roles for kids actually played by children, or at least by ones closely approximating the ages of their characters. This helps make Bess Wohl’s conceptually intriguing Make Believe, at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, quite compelling, especially since—under Michael Greif’s meticulous direction—the four child actors (despite a muffled word or two) are all so darned good.
Casey Hilton, Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Wohl, who has a thing for unique, theatrically clever setups (see Small Mouth Sounds, American Hero), places the four Conlee siblings—Chris (Ryan Foust), 12; Kate (Maren Heary), 10; Addie (Casey Hilton), seven; and Carl (Harrison Fox), five—in the house’s huge attic, excellently designed by David Zinn and exquisitely lit by Ben Stanton. This is their hangout, filled with dolls, a child-size table and chairs, and other playthings, including a substantial playhouse and a “fort” made of cartons and stuff.
Maren Heary, Ryan Foust.
It’s soon apparent that this is a place of refuge from their squabbling, often nasty parents, but it’s also where they create their own make-believe reality by replicating in childlike ways the troubled dynamics of their family life. Chris, who worries that his being "bad" may be why their mom left, and Kate, who fantasizes about being Grace Kelly’s child, are the insult-tossing, alcohol-guzzling parents; Addie is the put-upon baby, who treats her Cabbage Patch doll with the passive-aggressiveness she herself receives; and little Carl, who seems unable to speak, is their affectionate, barking dog.
Ryan Foust, Maren Heary, Casey Hilton.
This routine, already established when the play begins, becomes intensified when it slowly begins to appear—as per phone messages from a hair salon and a neighbor—that their mother has run off, leaving them unattended. Their father is off on one of his business trips and the kids must fend for themselves.

For all their childish innocence and tendency to live more in their imaginations than reality, these kids have a self-sufficient edge, never seeming too worried by their dilemma, and manage to fend for themselves (Chris even somehow managing to lug in sustenance from some outside source).

A series of brief episodes shows how they pass their unsupervised time together, engaging in the usual childhood cruelties and power jockeying, until, in a memorable moment, Kate, dressed in black (spot-on costumes by Emilio Sosa), lights a cigarette and coughs. Instantly, the scene shifts to the same spot 32 years later and young Kate morphs into her older self (Samantha Mathis, just right), also dressed in black and also coughing from a cigarette.
Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Samantha Mathis.
As in the childhood scenes, Wohl here expertly teases out her exposition until we learn why—a funeral—Kate, Carl (Brad Heberlee, effective), and Addie (Susannah Flood, richly expressive) are back in their attic playground. We discover something of the reason for their still living mother’s abandonment, what has happened to each of them, and how troubled they've become. Wohl, filling only 80, intermissionless minutes, is sparing with how much information she doles out. There are things we really would like to know more about but that she refuses to divulge.

A new character, a young man with the same name, Chris (Kim Fischer, nicely done), as his close friend, the oldest sibling, adds both dramatic tang and important information to the ensemble. Meanwhile, everyone (us included) ponders not only the ways in which the ghosts of childhood (the kids, wearing sheets, actually play at being ghosts) continue to haunt their grownup selves but just how much of those memories remain embedded in our consciousness, and how many have been submerged.
Kim Fishcher, Susannah Flood, Samantha Mathis, Brad Heberlee. 
The generally engrossing Make Believe is more concerned with its gimmicky premise, the creation of atmosphere, the revelation of character, and the sussing out of offstage events than it is about actual plotting. Essentially, the plot is little more than a group of well-off siblings being left alone to play make believe for a few days when their mom abandons them. Three decades later, having separated and become relatively successful, they reunite for a funeral and rehash their unhappy lives. Wohl’s writing is, thankfully, crisp and witty, and the beautifully realized performances make it all seem believable enough.

Perhaps the falsest note comes from Carl, no longer verbally constrained, but somewhat rude and otherwise engaged. This is conveyed when he talks to the others while conducting a Bluetooth business conversation on his phone, sometimes making it uncertain who’s being talked to. He then shifts gears, unconvincingly, to try out a speech he’s prepared for the occasion, getting so emotionally carried away that the scene resembles the eleven o’clock number in a Broadway musical. Heberlee is fine but the speech is weakly integrated into what precedes it, depriving it of organic necessity.
Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood.
The issue of child abuse—a mother running away without insuring her children’s wellbeing—is dealt with only superficially. We may learn that the mother is still around three decades later, unforgiven, but her fate is otherwise left unresolved. Not all children will be as resourceful as the Conlees are in such situations, although the father’s return (heard, but not seen) ameliorates the situation somewhat.

Make Believe is, for the most part, thoughtful, touching, and even funny. Its premise is theatrically interesting, and it will have sentimental value for those in whom it sparks thoughts of the difference between who they were as kids and who they've become. Beyond that, its significance as drama begins to fade, suggesting it, too, will soon begin to lodge in the subconscious recesses of our brains.

Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through September 15


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Sunday, August 18, 2019

57 (2019-2020): Review: SUMMER SHORTS: SERIES B (seen August 17, 2019)

"Coming up Shorts"

Series B, the 95-minute program of one-acts that alternates with Series A in the 13th annual Summer Shorts Festival of New American Plays at 59E59 Theaters, is an improvement over its series partner, reviewed here yesterday. Just a small improvement, but one takes one’s pleasures where one finds them. And, like Series A, it's a single gem, coming at the end, that makes the trip to 59th Street worthwhile. (See Series A for design credits.)
Blake DeLong, Christine Spang. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
It kicks off with “Lucky,” by the highly reputed Sharr White (The True, The Other Place), a two-hander that reads much better than it plays in this production, tediously directed by J.J. Kandel, artistic director of the festival's producer, Throughline Artists. Set in a motel on the outskirts of a small American town in 1949, it dramatizes the reunion of a long absent, depressed, World War II veteran, Phil (Blake DeLong), and his wife, Meredith (Christtine Spang).
Blake DeLong, Christine Spang.
Phil has been missing for six years, ever since going off to war. Although he and Meredith shared letters while he was in combat, his whereabouts and doings since then, aside from his being alive and unwounded, have been a mystery. Meredith has made a life for herself, unhappy as it is, boarding at the home of a woman whose son also has not returned. Still young and pretty, she’s not taken up with another man but has nonetheless become a topic of gossip among the catty townspeople.

Aware of Phil’s presence after his arrival to attend the funeral of his father (for some reason, another target of local gossipers)—his mother is still around—Meredith gets drenched rushing to him during a storm. However, his laconic, distant attitude does little to dry her off. The play, more a situation than a drama, chronicles Meredith’s desperate attempt to get her emotionally scarred spouse—he admits to being “broken”—to reconnect with her.

The piece, which opens to a montage of late 40s radio music and commercials (sound by Nick Moore), seeks to capture that moment in postwar America when the country was moving forward at a rapid pace—the boom in television sales symbolizes the national spirit—but some traumatized veterans, like Phil, found themselves adrift amid all the progress.

Very little of that spirit is embodied here, to a great extent because Phil’s taciturn, uncommunicative behavior suggests overweening self-pity, forcing us to wait for something to crack his shell. He doesn’t even bother to wipe the notably distracting shaving cream from his cheeks, nor does his stage partner, although such would have been a tiny symbol of her longing for intimacy.
Blake DeLong, Christine Spang.
Played at a snail’s pace, the lethargic production, for all its hints of Phil’s subdued ardor for Meredith, fails to express the electricity that must be coursing between a still youthful husband and wife who haven’t seen each other for six years. Much of the problem lies with DeLong, who, despite Phil finally having an emotional breakthrough, lacks the theatrical charisma to overcome what, as performed, comes off as little more than boringly solipsistic behavior.
Add caption
More appealing is Nancy Bleemer’s “Providence,” a light comedy set in that Rhode Island city (or the part designated as Northern Providence). There, Michael (Jake Robinson) and Renee (Blair Lewin), a young couple married for three and a half years, are attempting to sleep in his boyhood bedroom the night before his sister’s wedding. For whatever minor comic values it may have, Michael’s family is Italian and Catholic, while Renee is Jewish. A few moments—including their different views of the afterlife—point to potential marital discord but the play never goes there. For all intents and purposes, Michael and Renee seem like any other married couple, down to the personalized games they play with each other.
Blair Lewin, Jake Robinson.
Bleemer squeezes a few laughs out of Renee’s unfamiliarity with Michael’s typically colorful family members, her reactions to Providence’s relative provincialism (what? No allnight drugstores?), and, mostly, her need for Tampax when she feels her period coming on. The chief comic instigator, however, is a third character, Pauly (Nathan Wallace), the clueless, nervous groom who, hearing Renee and Michael’s voices, barges in to their bedroom at 3:00 a.m. to inquire about what he could possibly talk about with his bride.
Nathan Wallace, Jake Robinso, Blair Lewin.
The contrast between the goofy, overacted Pauly, and the cooler, better-educated couple (despite Michael's inability to tell a capon from a cornish hen) detonates a few, well-placed laughs, and the performances are satisfactory (Lewin’s carries the greatest sense of authenticity). However, director Ivey Lowe’s production favors a lowkey, naturalistic approach which, while it helps make the situation more believable and the humor more natural, also has a plodding rhythm that deflates the sprightliness necessary for material like this. 
Jack Mikesell, Ro Boddie. 
Neither of the first two plays, either in their writing or performance, succeeds in making you feel that what’s happening really matters much. The stakes never really seem that high, and we rarely feel invested in the characters or their plights. That, though, is the opposite of my response to Neil LaBute’s “Appomattox,” ironically titled after the location of one of the final battles of the Civil War, when Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to the Union forces. The word isn’t used but its relation to slavery, which is, is palpable.
Jack Mikesell, Ro Boddie.
Although I can’t say I’ve appreciated every LaBute one-act I've seen (a lot), he is, perhaps, the form’s foremost advocate and representative, and “Appomattox,” perfectly directed by Duane Boutté, shows him at the top of his game. It’s also given stingingly excellent performances by its two, well-cast actors. 
Ro Boddie, Jack Mikesell.
Frank (Ro Boddie), who is black, and Joe (Jack Mikesell), white, are bros picknicking and tossing a football around in a large, urban park. Joe finds something on about a Georgetown University college guidance counselor having discovered that one of his own antecedents was a slave whose labors helped finance the very institution at which the counselor is now working.

Joe tells Frank about the students’ plans to raise funds to pay a modest sum as restitution to the descendants of all 272 slaves the place once sold in order to prevent its own financial demise. Joe thinks the idea admirable but Frank isn’t so sure, Aware of the sensitivities involved, he prefers not to get into the weeds about it. He'd rather leave the past in the past and move on into the future.
Ro Boddie, Jack Mikesell.
But Joe’s white, liberal guilt can’t shut the subject down. Frank is sucked into discussing it, even while knowing too well its immense complexities. His knowledge, to Joe’s surprise, gradually emerges as he begins to question just what price tag reparations might require, what form they might take, or, among other issues, just who would be deserving of them.

Frank's wokeness to the issues and deep sensitivity to them, begins to threaten his and Joe’s friendship. It temporarily shuts Joe down, until it doesn’t, moving the men’s relationship to a dangerously higher level when Frank tells Joe just what he personally would desire as reparations from his friend.

LaBute manages in the space of this brief play to condense the issue of slavery reparations into a dynamically tense, thoroughly dramatic, politically charged, and rhetorically informative experience. You may not agree with Frank’s arguments, during which he clearly strains to remain balanced and composed, but you'll be gripped by them and by the actors' emotional honesty as they wrestle with the problem.

Mikesell, as the guilt-ridden, painfully naive Joe, makes a wonderful foil for the remarkably controlled, simmering passions of Boddie.  His Frank, actually, is one of the most expertly realized performances of the season.

Sitting through the first two plays on this bill is small enough reparations to pay for the emotional and intellectual benefits of attending Neil LaBute’s expertly produced, masterful dramatization of a high-stakes issue presented in immediate human terms. It saves Series B from the heap and raises the bar for future one-act playwrights.

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through August 31