Monday, March 30, 2020


This is Part 2 of a 15-part series based on a recently rediscovered, previously unpublished, 1980 interview I did with the great set designer John Lee Beatty, when he was 32 but already a leader in his field. It can be found by clicking on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Friday, March 27, 2020


Here begins a 15-installment series based on a hitherto lost interview I did in 1980, 40 years ago, with John Lee Beatty, now widely recognized as one the leading stage designers in America. The interview's context is explained in the post, so I'll avoid repeating it here. To read it, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ

Sunday, March 22, 2020


Dear Friends:

I know you’re not expecting any reviews during our current health crisis, which has essentially shut down the entire New York theatre industry. Reviews, of course, will have to wait until things return to a semblance of normalcy. Among the things I’m doing with this sudden abundance of time is organizing my lifelong collection of papers, memorabilia, letters, programs, magazines, and so forth.

If you’re on Facebook, you’ll see my occasional postings of old theatrical photos, with commentary, on the Vintage New York Stage page, as well as the Broadway Babylon page. For those interested in Japanese traditional theatre, I also hope to keep my Kabuki Woogie blog going with occasional postings.

In addition, I’ve begun ruminating about my own theatre experiences, which I’d like to share with a wider audience. I’ve long anticipated the chance to tell the story that follows, "The Night I Met Hamlet." Now that the chance has arrived, I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

I hope to meet you again on the other side of this catastrophe, but, for the nonce, PLEASE STAY SAFE!

With affectionate concern:


To read "The Night I Met Hamlet," please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Guest review 23 (2019-2020): ERASER MOUNTAIN

All theatre in New York, of course, has been closed because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The following is a slightly belated review covering a production that had two performances, February 28 and 29, 2020.   
“What Next”
By John K. Gillespie (guest reviewer) 
All photos: chelfitsch company
We enter the Skirball Center’s performance space to see a stage blanketed with what might appear at first glance to be post-earthquake/tsunami rubble. Taking our seats, however, we see it’s actually household items and implements more or less neatly arranged, like an installation, but rubble nonetheless. It’s the look given to the impending performance by sculptor Kaneuji Teppei, Japanese playwright-director Okada Toshiki’s collaborator on this touring production: lined-up soccer and tennis balls, upside down pans and flower pots, paraphernalia for games, rope, rocks of various sizes, tree limbs, a water fountain, all sorts of pipes, water bottles, appliances, photos/pictures (some of pet cats), a camera on a tripod, and, upstage, the large outline of a house. There is also an annoying nonstop, metallic stream of noise, like something electrical run amok.
That’s the environment for the six actors, who for the rest of the play must step gingerly among the hundreds of objects, sometimes tripping over them. One character picks up a large aluminum bowl, covers his head and takes a siesta. Another holds up a loose tree branch. Yet another is filmed standing still, her image appearing on a narrow screen.
Finally, a character speaks (in Japanese with English supertitles): he’s heard a sound—the annoying squeal striking everyone’s ears?—that he thought was the fridge, but, nope, it was the washing machine. He speaks slowly, his movements stylized in Okada’s signature way, here conveying tentativeness, anomie, passivity. The character thinks the sound might be the washing machine’s filter: “Maybe I could fix it,” he says without conviction, “but there were no instructions in the manual.” No amount of trying helped, so he can’t fix it.

Two characters pick up tennis balls, then replace them. Another character standing outside what might be a tent (perhaps what’s left of a house) speaks as to someone inside, who maybe had died: may he rest in peace. A woman comments that the laundry is 10 minutes away, not near, not far, walkable. She takes her shoes off, dons red socks and red jumpsuit (is she heading toward the radiation zone?).
Everything we’ve heard so far is routine, ordinary. What could it mean to mention fixing something so trivial as a washing machine filter, when people’s homes, city, and lives have been cruelly shaken and swept away? Are these survivors merely attempting to validate their existence by touching or mentioning only what is concrete and right in front of them? Perhaps, at this moment, nothing else is possible. Okada may be attempting to turn such unspeakable despair into images, something concrete, graspable, because whatever words his characters use, they can’t possibly suffice to fill the chasm of their despair, just as the character with the broken water filter, try as he might, can’t fix it.
Okada also has in mind something larger, affecting all Japanese, simultaneously dependent on the machines they’ve acquired yet unable to repair them. Beyond that humbling truth, he’s signaling that their ever-burgeoning, technologically complex economy has so inundated the Japanese psyche that they are now divorced from their elemental, natural selves, hardly able to function without machines propping them up. Okada’s post-performance comments that he wanted his actors to be “half transparent,” indicated to me a histrionic effect calculated to suggest that, even as survivors, they now hardly register in Japan’s hell-bent, visionless economy and amount to little more than additional rubble. Okada’s scope includes more than Japan; we can hardly avoid concluding that all our washing machines have broken down and we can’t fix them.
Meanwhile, the stage rubble is concrete proxy for the post-earthquake/tsunami destruction, certainly, but also for the rubble left by Japan ensnared in the sticky throes of an extremely consumptive capitalism. The whole world, then, is symbolically stumbling through rubble, trying to find something, a system, anything that might work better. Okada may not be saying that, beyond global warming, human greed has caused the earthquake and tsunami but, rather, that it has clearly made the resulting destruction all the more horrific.           
This is not “normal” theatre. Frankly, it’s anti-dramatic. Okada organizes his over-long play with points made through his characters and images over and over. There is no dramatic tension, an aspect most would identify as essential to effective drama. As Part 1 (not Act, as in “normal” theatre) ends, Okada frames a fundamental question about human communication, when a woman says of a man she knew, “I never really shared much of myself with him. Maybe I can now.” But we’re left to wonder whether it’s possible. Does she talk to him? Is he even still alive?

Part 1 ends with the characters gathering under a synthetic tarp. Has the need to wash clothes brought them to the laundry place? Are they starting a new community? We don’t know. The characters return all the items they’re holding to the stage set and exit. It’s a reminder of how Japanese tend to behave in daunting circumstances, recalling the Tokyo homeless with their tidy lean-to structures for sleeping, their footwear neatly placed just outside.
It’s no surprise that the context for this strange performance is the overwhelming catastrophe of March 11, 2011, known as 3/11. That event has joined two others as pivotal in Japan’s modern history: the cataclysmic socio-political upheaval precipitated by Commodore Perry’s two trips to Japan in 1853-54, busting Japan’s long isolation, and the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, hastening WWII’s end.
Fed wrong and/or incomplete information about the Fukushima nuclear fiasco by their government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, Japanese in large numbers lost confidence in their government and attendant institutions. What actually happened, they wondered? Why was the government so slow to respond? Why not tell the truth? Some 16,000 died, not to mention another few thousand injured or missing, and towns were wiped out. Fukushima itself remains cordoned off, access prohibited, its nuclear reactors still not completely shut down. And Japanese began to wonder about the long-term impact not only on the Fukushima area but also on Japan at large, their government, business practice, economic viability, natural environment, and very existence in one of the world’s most earthquake-and-tsunami-prone regions.           
By 2011 Okada and his company, chelfitsch (founded in 1997), already with considerable domestic success, were beginning to garner recognition overseas. However, 3/11 gave him existential pause. Born in 1973 in Yokohama, part of the massive Tokyo metropolis, he grew up in the cradle of Japanese capitalism and its boom economy in the 1980s, but after 3/11, suddenly and with many compatriots, he felt the capitalist pendulum had swung too far, that Japanese economic development was ultimately not ensuring the security and wellbeing of its citizens or of its natural environment. Taking a hard decision, he moved his young family to Kumamoto in the southern island of Kyūshū and began living in a home where environmental consciousness and conservation held sway.           
He continued writing plays, often with a distinctive environmental consciousness, as with Zero Cost House in 2012, partly based on his experience moving to Kumamoto and living communally. Peter Eckersall of CUNY Graduate Center, who knows Okada’s work well, has appropriately called such plays “eco-drama.” Specifically, Eraser Mountain originated with efforts to rebuild the decimated town of Rikuzentakata, near Fukushima. 
Okada questioned the grand plan to restore Rikuzentakata’s Pacific coastline with earth and rocks from nearby mountains to raise that stretch by some 10 meters to prevent potentially recurrent destruction. What would that do, Okada wondered, to the surrounding wildlife and natural areas, notably the mountains that would be largely erased? How about prudently reflecting at greater length on the long-term effects of 3/11, before blindly forging ahead to recreate the town as it was?           
Part 2 of Eraser Mountain strikes a different tone than Part 1. The rubble remains but the annoying, head-splitting noise has stopped. A male character, wondering aloud about what he sees, is confronted by the filmed image of a woman speaking. Okada uses such “eizō (video or image)-theatre” to integrate performance aspects, as with the rubble in Kaneuchi’s collage-like installation set and, here, the now ubiquitous phenomenon of human interaction with a projected human image. 
The woman’s words ensue from the Part 1 idea that we depend on machines—i.e., for her very image—but don’t know how they work or affect us. She raises the issue of time machines, intimating that the government keeps them hidden and, further, that machines may want to be part of the democratic process. The man listening is puzzled. Is this fake news, a conspiracy theory?           
The woman continues, referring to the nature of time, “I hope you can understand,” then, “but, of course, you don’t.” She describes the contrast between the conventional apprehension of time as moving forward, not standing still—that is, clock time (past, present and future), as opposed to state-of-being time (past, present, and future as a single moment). She assumes this man is unable to grasp time as just a state of being, not advancing like a clock ticking. 
She’s certainly right. His skepticism and consternation probably strike us as obvious, especially because the projection is generated from a machine, which we’ve already learned in Part 1 is not reliable and could soon break down: a profound awareness of the reality that Japan’s vaunted, defect-free manufactured products actually break down. We feel the man’s confusion.   
Indeed, in grander terms, Okada intimates that we shouldn’t blindly follow any quick recovery strategy. For example, what if the recovery plan were based on fake news, a shallow conspiracy theory, or so-called received wisdom that now has been shown concretely to have failed? Although not rendered dramatically, Okada’s socio-political conviction is nonetheless powerfully presented here.           
Re-enforcing that conviction, Part 3 takes on an understandably somber mood. In turn a male figure is projected, then in his place a female, then a rock, conveying a feeling that, in rebuilding Rikuzentakata, humans may be no more reliable than the rocks reclaimed from the nearby mountains to raise its shoreline. 
Also projected are objects, like stakes denoting danger zones. Someone says, “From over here we feel we were abandoned,” marking 3/11 as a concrete, existential turning point for those involved. They are not paranoid, they say, as they move 3/11 rubble around on the stage, aimlessly, half-transparently, at times tripping over objects, emphasizing that, without their machines, now defective, they are unsure how to proceed. Tellingly, one character says, “If we were plants, we would have comrades,” emphasizing that they are now victims, all alone, abandoned, without their deceased comrades. What’s next?           
The conclusion is darkly meditative. A gentle voice relates what’s happened and will continue to happen. Where there were rice fields, “there was no audience for rice planting.” As a sort of leitmotif phrase, “there was no audience for . . .” is repeated several times, with respect to other human activities. Similarly, when storms come to the mountains, now erased, “there were no listeners for thunder.” What we see as the light fades out is the characters on the stage continuing to work. There is no end in sight to their work.

Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (New York University)

John K. Gillespie is one of the West’s leading scholar-translators of modern Japanese drama. He’s the co-editor, with Robert T. Rolf, of Alternative Japanese Drama: Ten Plays (University of Hawaii Press, 1992).

Friday, March 13, 2020

Guest Review 23 (2019-2020): Review: WOMEN ON FIRE: STORIES FROM THE FRONTLINE

Dear Readers: This will be the last review posted here until the spread of Covid-19 is considered sufficiently under control to warrant the reopening of the New York theatre. I send you all my best wishes for your continued health and well-being and look forward to once more sharing my reviews with you. Stay healthy. Sam

“Solo Performances, United” ****

By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)
Kathleen Chalfant and company. All photos: Russ Rowland.
It felt like a Prohibition-era secret gathering, only with women’s rights being banned instead of booze. It was the day after International Women’s Day and female power was in the air (as well as all over social media). As soon I entered the theatre, Royal Family Productions’ Women On Fire: Stories From the Frontlines grabbed my attention. 
Gargi Mukherjee. All photos: Russ Rowland.
The venue is in such an unassuming building, I double-checked the address to make sure I was in the right place. A few flights of rickety stairs later, I entered it to be greeted by a burning incense fragrance that my friend and I simultaneously said smelled like Vick’s VapoRub. Once seated, on a chair that was falling apart, I got a good look at the stage. Fifteen actresses were seated in a few rows of chairs behind crime-scene tape, while garbage bags adorned the walls as part of Cheyenne Sykes’s post-apocalyptic-dumpster design. The women chatted among themselves as the audience gathered. 

Women on Fire, written by Chris Henry, features 15 monologues by a rotating cast of actresses, some of whom also rotate which monologue they’ll be performing on a given evening, adding to the intentional anonymity of the stories. Lorna Ventura’s fiery choreography brings additional shaping to many of the pieces.  
 Constance Shulman, Erica Misilo.
The one actress with a more defined and consistent role is Kathleen Chalfant (Tony nominee for the original Angels in America), who hosts the event. She is elegant and radiant in her bright red suit, and begins the production with a no-holds-barred monologue that lists all of the current president’s dirty misdeeds of the past four years. As she screamed her way through it, the audience was effectively pumped, but I was disappointed; the piece sounded more like a meme being read aloud than a story.

Thankfully, the monologues improve as the night progresses. Based on true stories, they are hit or miss in terms of writing and delivery, but all effective in touching on feminist themes from diverse cultural and socio-economic perspectives. A Bangladeshi woman is sexually abused at her eyebrow threading salon, while a white blonde waxes nostalgic on the “boys will be boys” days of sorority hazing.

For me, the most delicious moments involved the marriage of a fabulous actress with fabulous material. The standouts when I attended were coincidentally both delivered by actresses from Orange Is the New Black: Alysia Reiner, who comes out blazing, “If one more person tells me we have to judge artists for their work and not their personal lives . . . ,” and Constance Shulman, as a conflicted woman who believes in gun control and gay marriage but not abortion. She poignantly ponders, “So where does that leave me?” Because 90% of the monologues are preaching to the royal blue choir, I was particularly interested in the several right-bent stories presented with a mix of honesty and confusion.  
Company for Women on Fire.
I want to mention the prop star: a piece of paper held by each actress containing her monologue. Given the rotating cast, many—but not all—of the women glance at it from time to time to get a line. Chris Henry says, “This play is not meant to be perfect. I wanted to create some way that women could pick up a story and read it and it would become art.” Some might call it art; others might call it distracting. I found myself paying too much attention to which women were off-book. 

That said, I applaud Henry for working those pieces of paper into the production so brilliantly. Each woman throws her paper—her story—in a trash can after she’s said her piece. In the end, Chalfant uses a lighter to set them all ablaze, creating not only a powerful visual, but scent. 

The production concludes with an invitation to stay and chat with the cast, with the intention of weaving together more stories and voices. The Covid-19 crisis has closed the show, so I can say only that, if it reopens, Women on Fire will offer some interested theatregoers the multifaceted catharsis they may be seeking.

Royal Family Performing Arts Space
145 W. 46th St., NYC
Closed until further notice

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

181 (2019-2020): Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY (seen March 10, 2020)

"May His Songs Always Be Sung"

There’s so much vigorous handshaking, hugging, kissing, and other forms of human contact in Girl from the North Country, the often thrilling Bob Dylan-scored musical now at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, one can only imagine a backstage area filled with hand sanitizers, soap and water, disinfectants, and other forms of antiviral precautionary items. Sorrowfully, despite the multiple raves the show has garnered—give or take a few nitpicks, like my own, below—it seemed last night that the current health crisis is having an impact. Near me, at the rear of the orchestra, were a number of notably empty seats. 
Caitlin Houlahan, Colton Ryan. All photos: Matt Murphy.
At this point no one knows just how potent an impact the coronavirus epidemic will have on New York theatregoing but I can vouch for the fact that each of the last four shows I’ve seen—all at prime venues—has been far from full, despite good reviews or buzz. I myself, being of advanced age, am going to be cutting back on my theatregoing. As someone who tries to cover as many shows as possible—I’ve reviewed approximately 180 thus far this season—this is a difficult decision, but, unless the health crisis is quickly ameliorated, I suspect more and more like me will be doing the same. Some Broadway shows already have slashed ticket prices in order to make up for the loss in sales.
Colton Ryan, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Mare Winningham, Jay O. Sanders.
If, however, you intend to keep going to the theatre but want to be especially selective, you won’t go wrong by choosing Girl from the North Country. I reviewed it here in October 2018, when it played at the Public, and have adapted that review below to reflect cast changes, alter a sentence here and there, and add a comment or two to what I previously wrote.
Jay O. Sanders.
The many fans of the wonderful Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The WeirThe Night Alive) will no doubt be excited to see a new play by him but music lovers will be even more excited at its incorporation of many classic songs by Minnesota troubadour Bob Dylan. I wish I could say both of these brilliant talents come off equally as well.
Jeannette Bayardelle and company.
What makes Girl from the North Country—now at the Belasco, following its Off-Broadway stay at the Public, itself coming after a hit premiere at London’s Old Vic and a West End transfer—so special, however, is the showcase it provides for one magnificent cover after another of Dylan’s oeuvre. This is thanks largely to the extraordinary orchestrations and arrangements of Simon Hale (with contributions from McPherson himself) and the singing of an exceptional cast.
Mare Winningham, Kimber Elayne Sprawl.
Even if, like me, you find McPherson’s play—set during the Depression in a boarding house in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, in November and December 1934—less than stellar, you’ll probably agree that it serves aptly as a dramatic context into which Dylan’s songs fit beautifully. And that’s regardless of the fact that he was born seven years after the fictional events depicted. Girl from the North Country, named, of course, after a Dylan classic, is so musically agreeable that I’m forced to put my caveats about its dramaturgy aside and recommend it with a five-star rating, whether you’re a Dylan fan or not.
Luba Mason.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of the troubadour’s best-known songs, is not among the 20 sung or played during the show, but “Idiot Wind” is, and the dialogue makes frequent references to the metaphor of the wind’s blowing during the hardscrabble days faced by all the troubled characters. Everything transpires in the confines of Nick (the outstanding Jay O. Sanders, replacing Stephen Bogardus) and Elizabeth Laine’s (Mare Winningham, better than ever) “guesthouse,” most of it taking place around preparations for and consumption of Thanksgiving dinner.
Mare Winningham, Jay O. Sanders.
Nick is deeply in debt and Elizabeth has early onset dementia, which doesn’t stop the otherwise decent Nick from carrying on with Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle, in great voice), a widow waiting for the money her railroad employee husband left her to clear probate. The Laines’ 20-year-old son, Gene (Colton Ryan, superior), is a jobless, alcoholic, would-be writer.
Robert Joy.
In one of the plot elements most difficult to swallow, the Laines’ 19-year-old daughter, Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl, wonderful), is black, abandoned by her parents as an infant and raised by the bighearted Laines. Marianne’s problem is she’s five months pregnant by a Lake Superior boatman who’s sailed off into the Minnesota sunset.
Matt McGrath, Mare Winningham, Todd Almond.
Guests at the house are, in addition to Mrs. Neilsen, the down-and-out Mr. and Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason, each terrific), and their tall, mentally challenged, 30-year-old son, Elias (Todd Almond, excellent). The Burkes are later joined in the middle of the night by a good-looking, black boxer, Joe Scott (Austin Scott, replacing Sydney James Harcourt, very good but looking more like a dancer than a pugilist), and a nasty bible salesman called Reverend Marlowe (Matt McGrath, perfectly seedy in the role earlier played by David Pittu). Each trails unpleasant secrets.
Austin Scott, Kimber Elayne Sprawl.
Filling out the cast of principals are three more characters. One is Dr. Walker (Robert Joy, living up to his name), the substance-abusing local doctor, who also occasionally serves as the Our Town-like narrator, speaking into a standing mic to provide expository background and, at the end, a (posthumous) summary of what happened to the people we’ve met. Then there’s the thickly bearded Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis, spot on), an elderly “shoe mender,” who offers money to make the reluctant Marianne his live-in companion (marriage to her being illegal). Finally, we have Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan, sweetly satisfying), the pretty girl who leaves Gene to marry someone more stable.
Tom Nelis.
This assemblage is further amplified by a gifted four-member, racially mixed, backup-singing and dancing ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, and Chelsea Lee Williams) who represent friends and neighbors. The show’s fluid conventions allow moments when the ensemble members get brief solos, just as the principals often drop their characters to become part of the ensemble’s choral numbers. They may even play musical instruments, as when both Kudisch and Mason demonstrate their drumming skills.
Mare Winningham.
McPherson’s multiple plot strands follow each character, introducing elements of financial loss, substance abuse, abandonment, loneliness, marital stress, sexual longing, adultery, romantic heartbreak, fisticuffs, blackmail, gunfire, and death. McPherson’s skill at creating
colorful characters with tangy dialogue keeps us engaged, even when the situations border on melodramatic contrivance. And some things simply don’t ring true, like having all these 1930s Midwesterners drop so many f-bombs, or an intrusive moment of magic realism when Marianne describes the encounter that led to her pregnancy. 
Marc Kudisch.
Then there’s the racial issue. Given the play’s own emphasis on race-based biases in 1920s and 1930s Duluth (Dr. Walker cites a notorious 1920 lynching), the idea of a black child being raised by white parents while barely raising local eyebrows seems a stretch. Even the entry of the black Joe Scott into the household, and his casual reaction to Marianne’s presence, doesn’t feel right. This air of unreality is further underlined by casting a black actress as Mrs. Nielsen, Nick’s lover, without a single comment about their miscegenation within an otherwise racially charged script.

Elizabeth is as likely to be not only lucid and articulate in one moment as she is in the next to be mentally distracted. Despite Winningham's winning performance, this often makes it confusing as to just how bad her condition is. It’s also a bit much to see Nick, inches from his wife, not only speaking candidly about her to Mrs. Nielsen but openly discussing their affair as if Elizabeth weren’t there. These are just a few of the problems that make McPherson’s script less than it might be.

The playwright’s staging, aided significantly by Lucy Hind’s movement direction, mingles heightened theatricality with Depression-era realism. Sometimes it evokes the feeling of painters like Thomas Hart Benton. However, because of the show’s position between a straight play and a musical, not everyone can avoid overacting to achieve it.

Rae Smith’s open scene design—movable walls, background vistas, and furniture—allows for the omnipresent company to move things about in the semidarkness. Smith’s period costumes are especially on the mark, and little could be done to improve the deftly imaginative lighting of Mark Henderson. Simon Baker’s sound design makes everything easy to listen to.

Some have questioned whether Girl from the North Country is or isn’t a jukebox musical. Of course, it is, given that the script is designed to allow the insertion of multiple, preexisting, songs. There are many kinds of jukebox musicals. This one is the type that fits the songs of a particular performer or writer into a new story, such as Broadway’s Head over Heels, with its Go-Gos’ score used for a plot set in the Middle Ages.
Company of Girl from the North Country.
One of the things that makes Girl from the North Country different is that Dylan’s lyrics often have little to do with the moments they illustrate, or do so only tangentially. Even the title song has nothing to do with the play, at least not directly. When a song is to be sung, the characters don’t do so within a particular dramatic context but, instead, step up to a mic and sing it for the audience. More significant than the songs’ meaning-based specificity is their emotional value, which comes across in the impact made by both their words and music, especially as performed here, where every number sounds freshly minted.
Todd Almond and company.
A CD is available of the London production but I’m looking forward to the Broadway recording, so I can again listen to Jeannette Bayerdelle sing “Went to See the Gypsy,” Kimber Elayne Sprawl perform “Tight Connection to My Heart,” Todd Almond warble “Duquesne Whistle,” and, among so many other gems, Mare Winningham (known mainly as a dramatic actress) do wonders for “Like a Rolling Stone” and, with the company, set your heart racing with “Forever Young.”

To paraphrase a lyric in that last one, may Bob Dylan's songs always be sung. 

Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44th St., NYC
Open run

182 (2019-2020): Review: 72 MILES TO GO . . . (seen March 6, 2020)

"An Immigration Crisis with No End in Sight"

For my review of 72 Miles to Go . . . please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Monday, March 9, 2020

180 (2019-2020): Review: THE HOT WING KING (seen March 8, 2020)

"A Game of Chicken"

Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King, or as it’s pronounced in the script’s often impenetrable, Southern-accented argot, “The Hot Wang Kang,” is a moderately heartwarming, sometimes amusing, occasionally clichéd dramedy with sitcom overtones. Drifting from its central situation, in which five characters, four of them gay, prepare a hot chicken wings recipe, is the aroma of a black Boys in the Band.
Toussaint Jeanlouis, Korey Jackson. All photos: Monique Carboni.
Set in Memphis—the playwright’s home town—in the house shared by Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) and Dwayne (Korey Jackson), who owns it, the play deals with issues of masculinity, gay love, friendship, teamwork, and single parenting as five of the six characters prepare 280 pounds of Cordell’s “Spicy. Cajun. Alfredo. With Bourbon Infused. Crumbled Bacon” recipe. Their hope is to win the $5,000 first prize in a local hot wings contest. 
Cecil Blutcher, Korey Jackson.
Only the comical irresponsibility of the naughty, zingermeister Isom (Sheldon Best), the conventionally flamboyant member of the team, threatens their success. Isom, who spices up the proceedings—let’s just say there’ll be a hot time in some old mouths tonight—is present with his partner, Big Charles (Nicco Annan). The latter is a barber at whose shop Cordell and Dwayne met five years earlier, and who’s more concerned with a TV football game than what’s being tackled in the kitchen, where the real tension is.
Korey Jackson, Toussaint Jeanlouis.
Like the recent Seared, this is another live cooking show, as Cordell’s team carries out his instructions in a realistic kitchen, using apparently real ingredients. Aside from the crowded kitchen, located upstage left in Michael Carnahan’s detailed set, we also see a raised bedroom, a living room, and an outside patio, replete with an offstage basketball hoop visible only to those seated on the audience’s left.
Sheldon Best.
The patio serves various outdoor purposes, related to both the cooking and playing ball (which is done well), but is also where the characters are forced to share their intimate conversations (when they’re not being eavesdropped on).
Nicco Annan, Korey Jackson, Toussant Jeanlouis.
Performed under Steve H. Broadnax III’s buoyant direction, with raucous energy (three men even do a routine to Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much”), the play’s first part is preoccupied with introducing everyone during the lively preparations—jokes and bickering included—for making the hot wings marinade. Eventually, more serious personal matters intrude, forcing a tonal shift as we discover the tensions tying these folks together. Balancing sitcom business and darker issues is a precarious endeavor that the play doesn’t always master.
Nicco Annan, Toussaint Jeanlouis, Korey Jackson, Sheldon Best, Cecil Blutcher.
One important issue is the conflict between Cordell, currently unemployed, and Dwayne, a harried hotel manager, over when Cordell—who left his wife and kids in St. Louis—will be ready to inform his family of his sexuality. It’s not unlike the situation between Sol and Robert in the first season of TV’s “Grace and Frankie.”
Cecil Blutcher, Toussaint Jeanlouis.
Another is the concern of Dwayne about his troubled, 16-year-old nephew, Everett a.k.a. EJ (Cecil Blutcher). He’s the son of Dwayne’s sister, a mentally unstable woman killed by the police as her son watched, for which Dwayne somehow blames himself.
Toussaint Jeanlouis, Nicco Annan.
The boy’s father is TJ (Eric B. Robinson, Jr.), a drug hustler who, for all his faults, worries about being a good father to Everett, who prefers staying with Dwayne. When Dwayne offers his home to EJ, it creates a conflict with Cordell, who opposes the idea. The macho TJ, too, wrestles with it, worried that the men’s gayness will rub off on the boy.
Toussaint Jeanlouis, Korey Jackson, Eric B. Robertson, Nicco Annan, Sheldon Best.
Alan C. Edwards’s versatile lighting, nicely isolating the multiple locales; Emilio Sosa’s character-perfect costumes, including the team’s competition shirts; and Lugman Brown and Robert Kaplowitz’s spirited sound design of musical selections go far to making The Hot Wing King tasty, although not quite enough to sustain a two hour and 20 minute meal.
Eric B. Robertson, Jr., Korey Jackson.
Playwright Hall (Tina—The Tina Turner Musical) definitely knows the slang slung by these homies but many listeners—even those present when titles are projected for the hearing impaired—will find themselves depending more on the expressive acting than the words spoken to follow along closely. But those actors definitely make The Hot Wing King a sweet-tasting, if not particularly hot, concoction that many will enjoy.
Cecil Blutcher, Eric B. Robinson, Jr.
I’m not ready to hand The Hot Wing King first prize but that needn’t prevent anyone from taking a bite out of it to try it for themselves.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 22