Theater Review (NYC): One Nation Under by Andrea Lepcio

Vital theater can start from the inside and flow outward, its drama rooted in human psychology. Or it can shine a light from the outside world of society and politics into humanity's recesses, revealing them square by square like headlights scouring a country road at night.

Andrea Lepcio's sharp, funny, touching play One Nation Under takes the latter course. The bendable realities of war and class clash and twist with the inflexibilities of ideology, illuminating the lives of a number of complex characters who hail from both sides of "the tracks." It's a play of ideas and characters; and while the latter do embody the former, Lepcio's script and the fine actors in this Three Chicks Theatre production make them real and conflicted people, not the stereotypes that often inhabit stories like this.

It's 2005. A politically conservative and highly principled judge (Olivia Negron) is thrown for a loop when her ne'er-do-well hacker son Eric (Jon Eisworth) enlists with Halliburton for a long tour in Iraq. Having befriended the oily presidential advisor (the very good Joel Haberli) who's vetting her for a possible Supreme Court appointment, Judge Stanton starts to call in favors and spend money to get preferential treatment for her son.

These protections are not available to Darcee Washington, the Bronx reservist (Chanté Lewis of Platanos and Collard Greens) who's been assigned to protect him. While Eric's motives for going to Iraq have to do with breaking free from his mother, Darcee has enlisted because she needs the health benefits for her asthmatic son. The collision between her hardscrabble family and the judge's Park Avenue values is explosive, and the excellent cast delivers on its potential. Negron is marvelous as the judge, and Toks Olagundoye and Chrystal Stone are quiveringly good as the judge's ambitious clerk and the soldier's proud, scrappy sister respectively. Lewis and Eisworth bond cautiously, touchingly, and amusingly, in the corner of the stage representing Fallujah.

Though events turn out somewhat predictably, the path is strewn with small surprises and powerful scenes. Pairs hit it off but ultimately can't stand one another as the rich folks' conservative views grate against the realities of inner-city working-class life. It's all told via a plot that is both mobile and moving, and frequently funny.

Stories "ripped from the headlines" can be formulaic. One Nation Under avoids this trap. Deftly directed by Tye Blue, it's a gripping, superbly paced example of theater's power to reflect our own triumphs and failures more clearly than we can usually see from merely thinking them over, or from pondering the big questions in the security of our living rooms.

Presented by Three Chicks Theatre, through Sept. 13 at Theatre 54, 244 W. 54 St., New York City. For tickets visit Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.

Really Bad Promo Copy

From the archives of the "To Read Makes Our Speaking English Good" Department here at the Indie Round-Up, we present these promotional blurbs from some of the musical artists and music services that have come to our attention.

Musical talent doesn't necessarily require facility with the written word – we understand that. Still, we can make fun of these folks, because their fabulous phrasings were submitted in official press releases or biographies, and written by people whose native language is, presumably, English.

Nevertheless, the band and company names have been changed to protect the stupid.

"Exploding onto the music scene, this amazing new guitarist is storming the industry and catching the music world on fire."

"Barrie, Ontario, Canada hasn't been and still remains an unknown entity when it comes to hip hop venues."
(Hm… nor will it have expected to becoming one upon the future, I guess…)

"Horse Pickle Entertainment, as created and launch a new website to better help unsigned artist and bands of all genres types to promote and sell there music."
(Translated by a computer from the Chinese? I wish. Amazingly, you can actually figure out what they mean. And what a fascinating, original idea it is, too.)

"Once again Big Stomp Gargoyles, the band of illegal rock combatants is embarking on a mission to spread their word by trudging westward to create awareness of who they are and what they represent."

"As the landscape of music is carved throughout time, the work born solely to contribute to that progression is something to be appreciated."

"This record hearkens the classic rock sounds while giving it a kiss of modern sounds that fans of music young and old can get into."

"The band's unique sound unraveled in the studio as their fresh songs were warmed to a timeless glow by vintage sensibility."

"While her years on this earth are few, the directions in which her life has traveled are many aiding in her ability to possess her varying musical personalities."

"I believe our strident career choices have helped us to succeed outside within the industry's new paradigm."

From an indie label: "We are driven to succeed on our own terms and bring new texture to the bland pourage that is the pop music soundscape."

And finally, this modest jewel:

"Carmine Garbanzo is making a name for himself with a songwriting and performance style that's definitely listener-focused."

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Bonet, Jeanrenaud, Citizens, True Heart, Sakata

Deni Bonet, Last Girl on Earth

Deni Bonet has always been more than the in-demand session violinist many know her as. Her new CD shows her, with her clutch of co-writers, in excellent songwriting form.

The arrangements meld 1980s plastic with new-century thump. Local luminaries like Sara Lee and Richard Barone keep everything solidly grounded, but it's the songs that make the disc a keeper: catchy and often humorous, but with a low-churning serious undercurrent tugging on many of the lyrics and musical passages. When Bonet sings "I can't, I can't, I can't get anything done / 'cause I'm having too much fun" in hollowed-out tones, there's a clear feeling of dismay tickling the shiny surface sentiment.

Bonet's strings and accordion take turns with ska-ish horn arrangements, micro-hoedowns, Martha and the Muffins vocal harmonies, and – as her stage directions specify – "moody obligatory violin areas." The result is a tingly jacuzzi of festive adult pop. "I don't need drugs, I don't need help / I'll fuck it up all by myself / Deepak Chopra kiss my ass / I've got advice for you / I say… Fuck it."

Ain't that just darling?

Joan Jeanrenaud, Strange Toys

Sticking with string players, but leaving behind the world of pop music for a moment, I have to mention the new disc from former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. Its fourteen original Jeanrenaud compositions, all centered around her cello, feature plenty of looping and effects, and in some pieces, artfully situated guest musicians. They are compellingly listenable.

There are elements of minimalism, with the repetition that looping encourages. The inventive producer, pc muñoz, contributes beats too. But lyricism dominates many of the pieces, though never of an overly sweet sort, and the pieces are never less than fascinating or at least ear-tickling.

A centerpiece is the 13-minute "Transition," a quartet with a second cellist and two viola da gamba players. It begins with a deep, mournful solo cello line. Counterpoint arrives, then multiple harmonies, building a theme-and-variations movement reminiscent of early French court music a la Marin Marais. A second movement, percussive and moody, is punctuated by growling bow action and propelled by bouncy, disjointed mini-melodies that swell into modernistic, semi-minimalist moans. One half-expects a third movement, but it doesn't arrive; instead, the piece devolves to the original statement and simply dies out. Very effective.

Having grown out of improvisations, the compositions retain a sense of surprise and whimsy despite the composer's precise performances and perfect intonation. "Tug of War," with William Winant providing a kind of continuo on the marimba, is one of the best examples of this – it's like a little psychedelic jam. Winant's vibraphone intervals on "Livre" take me back to the Twilight Zone, and the brief "Blue Kite" is a gem of tight-fisted anxiety, while other pieces, like the lovely, densely woven "Waiting," are more soothing.

Actually, listening to this darn CD is keeping me from getting my work done. Damn you, Joan Jeanrenaud.

Citizens of Contrary Knowledge, You Are What You Wish You Are…

Here's why it's worth going through the hundreds of CDs that come through your intrepid reviewer's metaphorical transom. Sometimes you come across a band, like Citizens of Contrary Knowledge, that can do it all: play, sing, write, and on a more mysterious level, simply connect.

There are a lot of more or less retro influences here: Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, the Eagles, Stone Temple Pilots. But the grainy rock of tracks like "Complicated" and "Lonely Hearts Society" leap out of the speakers with a finely wrought web of sound and words that pays tribute to those influences while making their own musical statement.

The rocker "Spread Your Wings" is both elemental and lyrical, while "Brand New Dance" brings the Prince-like funk. The versatile Chris Barczynski can sing, emote, and scream like the greats. He can deliver ballads like "House of Cards" and "Beautiful Dreamer" as convincingly as he sings the rockers. The rest of the band shines equally brightly, from the ballads to the dynamic, Zeppelin-inspired "Swallow" and the blues-rocker "Wrong Side of the World."

True Heart, The Road

Speaking of the Eagles: True Heart's Ross Vick is able to sing decisively and plaintively at the same time. This magical combination breathes life into his well-crafted pop-rock songs. Though Vick is from Texas, the biggest influence here seems to be Eagles-era California smooth rock. There's definitely some Jackson Browne in his vocal tone.

Jazz-pop changes evoke Steely Dan and even Chicago, though you won't hear anyone blowing through anything here – it's all resolutely guitar and keyboard based (with dead-on bass and drums by James Driscoll and Matt Kellum respectively). Cliches overrun the lyrics, but the lilting pop melodies, sugary vocals, and expert musicality harmlessly absorb them.

Julian Sakata, See?

Another artist heavily influenced by music of the 1970s is Julian Sakata, but his heroes are the darker-tinged, artsier rockers like David Bowie and Elvis Costello (and, going back further, perhaps the Moody Blues). His best songs, like the three that open the disc, and the anthemic "Everything's Beautiful Once," are thick and muscular. Where he falls down, as in "Little Sun," is when his writing is too derivative of current pop hits, and Sakata's baritone vocals start to sound monotonous. Still, the best stuff here is well worth hearing.

Theater Review (NYC): 7 Stories by Morris Panych at the Gene Frankel Theatre

An Everyman undergoing an existential crisis climbs to a seventh-floor ledge and contemplates jumping. But before he can make up his mind, Venetian blinds begin opening onto seven different apartments, revealing the lives and characters within, and the Man is drawn into their dramas and absurdities. Though he knows no one in the building, he's given a drink and a cigarette, hectored, befriended, philosophized at, and accused of all kinds of complicities. Before you know it, nearly an hour and a half has gone by and our antihero is still perched on the ledge.

Will he jump in the end? I won't give that away. Though the play is nearly 20 years years old, and won awards in Vancouver BC, it's fairly obscure and most New York audiences won't know it. As realized by director Greg T. Parente and his Strain Theatre Company, with a skilled cast and crew, it's an entertaining piece of theater.

The denizens of the building, who appear through their narrow windows, are written as eccentric caricatures, not realistic characters. Crisply directed by Parente and played with wit and charm by the cast – each of whom, except for the Man (Erica Terpening-Romeo), plays at least two characters – they represent disparate human elements like religiosity, paranoia, duplicity, obsession, and the wisdom of old age.

The lesson the Man learns in the end results in an effective final set-piece of magic realism. But the lesson itself is conveyed verbally rather than dramatized, and that's the play's flaw; the manic scenes that make up the first two-thirds of the action don't lead, in any clear way, to what happens later.

The playwright, Morris Panych, has a great way with funny lines. "She doesn't actually want me to die," says the old lady of her fatalistic home care nurse, "because then she'd have to fill out a form." "The presence of Dacron," says the wife of the obsessive interior decorator, "gives him the flu."

More to the ultimate point, the old lady warns the Man against running "the risk of a protracted survival"; although she's philosophical and uncomplaining about her own confined life, she urges him to take the plunge. The message is about defying what we perceive as our fated path. Absurdism, like animation on TV, allows the writer to make a point in a way he couldn't otherwise, to make happen what could never "really" happen – with pleasing results.

Standout performances include that of the stunning Alice Kremelberg as the fetishistic Charlotte, and then, transformed by the mere donning of an old nightie, as the old lady. Thomas Patel does a remarkable job of motoring through his extended scene as the young psychiatrist Leonard, though the scene's too long nonetheless (through no fault of his). Toni-Ann Gardiner's nurse is hilarious. Really, the whole cast is quite good.

However, I wasn't delighted with the casting of a woman as the Man. It smacks of expedience rather than making any sort of statement, and while Terpening-Romeo shines during the character's climactic monologue, up until that point the casting against type proves a bit of a distraction. Dressed in an old-fashioned business suit, the Man is a descendant of a Magritte man, or Bartleby the Scrivener – someone adrift in his own questionable existence. That could be anybody, but, as written by Panych and indicated by the costuming, here it's the quintessential male office clerk/drone, lost without a sense of meaning.

You may not leave the theater enlightened, but odds are you'll have had a good time.

Presented by the Strain Theatre Company through Aug. 24 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., NYC. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.