Theater Review: Raised in Captivity by Nicky Silver

A parent gets sick or dies; damaged or estranged family members gather. This is the ur-text of present-day American theater. We can't avoid this fundamental plot machine. But we can appreciate what different playwrights do with it.

Dark drama, comedy, absurdity – all are valid approaches. But the talented playwright Nicky Silver tries all three in Raised in Captivity, and perhaps inevitably, though he nails various targets over the course of the longish two-acter, he ultimately gets spun around one too many times and pins the tail on the Led Zeppelin poster.

The play received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Play in 1995, and for a good part of the first act I could understand why: it boasts several very funny scenes, then takes an effective if somewhat confusing turn towards darkness as it draws to a close. Emilie Elizabeth Miller is very droll as Bernadette, the motor-mouthed, weight-obsessed sister. Trailing her sad-sack husband Kip (Bryant Mason), a dissatisfied dentist, she reaches out to her prodigal twin brother Sebastian, but he wants no part of her neuroses, or her hospitality.

Josh Lefkowitz, an actor with sparkling comic timing and the not unrelated ability to draw us in to his state of mind with every phrase of spoken or body language, is the best reason to see this production. theater His Sebastian is an exquisite sad clown, but he's far from a flat character; the changes he undergoes ring affectingly true right through the end of the play.

José Joaquín Pérez is also excellent in two roles: a convicted murderer whose prison correspondence has become Sebastian's only link to the world outside his own miseries, and a male prostitute who takes a liking to Sebastian. Mr. Pérez is a startling, dangerous sort of presence, like a young, more athletic Dustin Hoffman. His hard-edged, damaged characters pull the play towards a level of sinewy, sweaty reality.

Yet this strand is pulled loose by (among other things) Sebastian's shrink, a character who seems to belong in a different play, a shock-romp of some kind. As the fulcrum of the play's absurdist arm, Jennifer Dorr White does all she can with the strange role, but it's so out there that there's ultimately no there there. An excellent actress, she's more convincing and centered in her secondary role, that of the twins' deceased mother, who pays a post-funerary visit to Sebastian with an honestly shocking revelation.

Mr. Mason plays Kip very broadly, doing, similarly, all he can with a role that quickly becomes a one-note song. Both he and Ms. Dorr find themselves yelling a lot, induced by the script to develop their characters by force of will, rather than by organic growth as with Sebastian. Kip is a quintessential type, a character who abandons his unhappy rut and follows his dream, and we go happily with him for a while. But as he proves quite blind to any subtleties or consequences, the light of humor goes out and he loses us. His deliciously addled wife, meanwhile, gets inexplicably calm and rational in Act Two. That's frustrating because one really wants to feel for the sister as deeply as one does for the brother, but the arcs of the characters don't allow it.

With a beginning that makes us laugh a lot, and an ending that's touching and effective, Raised in Captivity does hold the attention. But ultimately it leaves one wondering what exactly one has been attending. There's a good story in here, and the play is ably staged and well acted. But its crafting is too unsettled. Like a cruise in rough water, it doesn't bore, but it leaves one queasily dissatisfied.

Raised in Captivity runs through Feb. 15 at the the Shell Theater, 300 W. 43 St., NYC. Staged by the Red Fern Theatre Company.

Photo of Josh Lefkowitz and Jennifer Dorr White by Nathan Johnson.

It Really Is a New Day Dawning… You Know How I Know?

Got a LoJack warning tonight: “Your vehicle may have been moved without your authorization.” Rushed out through the freezing cold to check on the car: gone. Street lined with TV-shoot signs: No Parking Wednesday. Usually they put these signs up a couple of days in advance, but I guess not this time.

But right there was my friendly neighborhood NYC tow truck driver, busy hooking up another vehicle, so I talked to him. Turns out that when you’re towed because of a movie shoot they don’t take you to the pound and make your life miserable and charge you a lot of money. Instead, they tow you around the neighborhood until they find another spot for you, park you, and put a sticker on your car exempting it from being towed or ticketed for 48 hours. When – hopefully within 48 hours – you discover your car is gone and call the cops or the pound, they tell you where it is. Mine had been moved just to the next street over. I checked and there it was, not only safe and sound but in a perfectly legal spot.

I choose to attribute this surprisingly not-so-awful circumstance to the ascension of Barack Obama.

Theater Review (NYC): Terre Haute by Edmund White

In 1995 Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people and injured over 500 more with a truck bomb in the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism ever committed in the United States. A veteran of the first Gulf War, McVeigh had been a survivalist, a "gun nut," and a conspiracy theory believer, but had no previous criminal record. Yet, outraged by what he considered to be tyrannical acts by the US Government, notably the killing of members of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, TX two years earlier, McVeigh, assisted by just one co-conspirator, took revenge by blowing up a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing, among many others, a number of children from an onsite daycare center.

McVeigh never expressed remorse or fully explained his motivations. But he did pique the interest of writer Gore Vidal, who believed McVeigh should be taken seriously and not dismissed as a crackpot. Impressed by Vidal's articles about him, McVeigh wrote to the writer, and a correspondence ensued.

The letters haven't been published, and the two never met. But what if they had? What if Vidal had visited and interviewed McVeigh on death row, Truman Capote style? This is the conceit of Edmund White's play Terre Haute, currently receiving its New York premiere at the 59E59 Theaters.

The writer, here named James and loosely based on Vidal and on Mr. White himself, is a Europe-dwelling American septuagenarian who is granted a series of short interviews with the condemned man days before his execution. Playing James is the marvelous Peter Eyre, reprising his London performance. The play would be worth seeing just for Eyre's masterful portrayal of the witty, mordant writer coming rapidly to terms with his own mortality. Simultaneously cool and raw, he walks anxiously about the prisoner's screened-in cage, approaching, backing up, sitting, standing, making literal the journalist's search for an "angle" as he tries to coax the bomber – here named Harrison, and played with explosive rigor by the excellent Nick Westrate – to come clean about how the bombing really went down.

It's a rather fanciful presentation, really. In just 80 tense and occasionally funny minutes the two men, one in a drab gray business suit and the other in an orange prison jumpsuit, go through a week's worth of gamesmanship and emotional openings and closings. Some of the dialogue, especially some of the lines given to Harrison, feel contrived and out-of-character, bookish. Nevertheless, a gripping story emerges. If Harrison is a little unbelievable, James, both horrified and turned on by the bomber, worms his clever, hyper-literate, slightly pathetic way into our hearts wisecrack by wisecrack.

As the two characters clash, revealing themselves in all their hurt, some fundamental similarities assert themselves, unexpected alignments between the stooped, fey, oversexed literary gadfly and the ramrod-backed, under-educated, virginal military man. Harrison had been pushed over the edge when his demons of injustice became too personal. Now he helps push James over an edge as well – though James, unlike the terrorist, will live to bear witness to his own fall.

The dark-Americana musical score by Heather Fenoughty heightens the play's "weird America" atmosphere at critical moments. But White's script is sharp and brainy, and one must approach the play with the patience to focus on just two people in just one featureless space.  (The set consists merely of Harrison's cage, a few chairs, and some strewn paper.) Through his creations, inspired by real people but informed by a lifetime of intense observation of the human species, White succeeds in pulling the intellectual and emotional threads together. His tale of two men with hearts as big (for better or worse) as cities ultimately stirs the soul.

Terre Haute continues through Feb. 13 at the 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59 St., Manhattan.

Theater Review (NYC): Die Roten Punkte: Super Musikant

The UNDER St. Marks theater is only a little bit off the beaten track, but it's been home to many an off-the-wall production. For three nights only (closing Saturday Jan. 10), it has hosted another. Tonight is your last chance for a while to catch Die Roten Punkte: Super Musikant – unless you live in Canada – and it’s well worth your $18.

This jolly evening of clever musical buffoonery comes courtesy of "Otto and Astrid Rot," a "brother and sister" from a fantastical land called "Germany." With a backstory suggesting a Teutonic version of the White Stripes, Die Roten Punkte ("The Red Dots") mug and squirm through a set of smart and catchy takeoffs on what they insistently call "rock and roll." Really, though, the music – played on child-size guitars (Otto) and drums (Astrid) – ranges from New Wave and Kraftwerk-era robot music to glam-punk and a drinking song, and more. Meanwhile the siblings' tension-filled banter pokes fun at recovery-movement psychology – an easy target, but a big fat funny one as well.

Perhaps the cleverest song is the duo's lengthy origin story. It's a Nick Cave-style dark fairy tale in which the kids' parents are killed in a tragico-absurd manner. Orphaned, the pair dream of being in the "best band in the world." Now, in their own demented universe, they are. The most impressive number, though, is the Kraftwerk sendup about a "robot with feelings," complete with hilarious 80s music video choreography.

The songs themselves are darn good, and the show is equal parts smart and smartass. At the performance I attended, the duo, being total pros, dealt firmly and funnily, but not meanly, with a smart-alecky kid in the audience who was intent on spoiling one of the main jokes. Also, just as the show was getting started, a woman in the audience shouted a hello to "Astrid" using the actress's real name. Man, people are stupid.

Go, be stupid with the Best Band in the World. Visit their website for information on where they're appearing next.

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

In the hands of a great craftsperson, a humble volume of story and prayer may be re-conceived as a priceless illuminated masterpiece. Witness the Sarajevo Haggadah, a centuries-old volume now counted as one of the most valuable books in the world.

Similarly, in the hands of a fine writer, a slim set of facts about an unusual object can become a powerful and absorbing historical novel. Witness People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March.

The dramatic history of the Sarajevo Haggadah rivals the beauty of its illuminations. Produced in Spain in the 14th century by an unknown artisan, the Haggadah somehow survived the book-burnings of the Inquisition, and was eventually spirited to the thriving Jewish community of Venice. From there, it found its way to Vienna, where, in the 19th century, it was rebound.

Eventually it came to rest to Sarajevo, where (thanks to a brave librarian) it survived Nazi pillaging and now holds pride of place as one of the Bosnian capital's great treasures. But although careful study has revealed much about the Haggadah's provenance, it continues to hold many secrets. From these facts and these secrets, Brooks has woven a fascinating, richly imagined fiction.

Her new novel, People of the Book, works backwards in history. To carry the Haggadah through the centuries, she creates a series of plausibly imagined heroes and scenarios, starting with the horrors of the Holocaust and reaching, finally, all the way back to a beautifully imagined tale of the book's creation.

Framing and setting up the historical sections of the novel is the story of a modern-day book conservator who is pursuing a series of clues, each from a different episode in the Haggadah's odyssey. Hanna Heath's life is something of a soap opera itself. Her adventures in scholarship lead her to international intrigue, romance, and even a secret-princess revelation worthy of a fairy tale.

As Hanna turns into a modest and reluctant action hero, the book as a whole begins to resemble a cross between James Michener's The Source and an Indiana Jones adventure. And I mean both of those in the best possible way.

Hanna's globe-trotting pursuit of the Haggadah's secrets works well as a framing device, but it is in the historical sections that Brooks' storytelling ripens from merely good to transcendent. Each section evokes a colorful, thoroughly believable, emotionally convincing world peopled by complex human beings bathed in vices, diseases, and emotions – all in the space of a short story.

Brooks' writing transports us into these worlds almost as completely as her invented 15th century scribe, David Ben Shoushan, is transported by the marvelous pictures he is incorporating into the Haggadah.

It was in the still of the early hours, when the stars blazed in the black sky, that it happened. His fasting, the chill, the brilliant flare of the lamp: suddenly the letters lifted and swirled into a glorious wheel. His hand flew across the parchment. Every letter was afire. Each character raised itself and danced spinning in the void. And then the letters merged into one great fire, out of which emerged just four, blazing with the glory of the Almighty's holy name. The power and the sweetness of it were too much for Ben Shoushan, and he fainted.

Hanna's own revelations, the personal and the professional, aren't as mystical as that. But she's good company, as Brooks spirits us through the ages on this most excellent adventure.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – D’Haene, June Moris, Back Door Slam

D'Haene, Vinyl

D'Haene's new disc is spring-loaded with hard-locked rhythms, chunky guitar riffing, and metalized melodies sung with a bluesy, soulful inflection. If, vocally, D'Haene tends to be a touch more convincing on more easy-going fare ("Took Me So Long"), that's because of the soulful quality that defines his vocal style.

One of the CD's best points is the way many of the songs surprise you with unexpected bridges and codas, as in "Wouldn't You Like To Know," or with varied flavors like the Latin opening of "Brand New Threads!" The impeccable musicianship and harmony vocals are also a pleasure throughout. The soul influence becomes explicit with the nodding triplets and organ bed of "I'll Be Your Man," though D'Haene's characteristic guitar buzz remains, maintaining consistency with the disk's overall feel. The same thing happens in the jazzy underpinning of "Playin' It Cool," complete with muted trumpet.

Bookended by the hard-rocking "Another Like You" and "My Woman," this set of solid songs and ace playing is worthy listen.

June Moris, White Spot

June Moris' seven-song disc is a hypnotic set; her quavery voice sounds as if it's bubbling up from an underground stream, accompanied by the hum of insects and distant bells ringing. The atmosphere ranges from a strained, thinly angry pounding, slightly reminiscent of PJ Harvey, to a techno coolness, to a thick Brian Eno drone, but Moris' fluty voice carries through all.

It's an effective, even thrilling tactic through the first five songs. On the sixth track, "The Memory," Moris tries for melodramatic balladry, leaving what seems her natural, postmodern sonic habitat, and it doesn't work as well.

At the end one is left, not with melodies to hang a memory on – Moris isn't about that – but with a pleasingly disturbing sense of disquiet. Shivery mission accomplished.

Back Door Slam, Roll Away and Special EP

The blues-rock power trio is dead?… Long live the blues-rock power trio! Back Door Slam is the real thing. The group, which hails from the Isle of Man, may be barely legal in age, but singer-guitarist Davy Knowles has the grown-up, gritty sound, both vocally and on guitar, demanded by the tradition of Clapton, Gov't Mule, and Robert Cray.

A few tasteful acoustic numbers break up the heavy feel of Roll Away, their debut CD. "Too Late" is a pretty power ballad, but even here Knowles's guitar craftsmanship rides front and center. Ably backed up by bassist Adam Jones and drummer Ross Doyle, and fueled by a deep absorption of the electric blues, Knowles' assured riffs and solos would carry the songs even if the writing weren't inherently good.  But in a genre where spectacular playing is sometimes allowed to substitute for songcraft, Back Door Slam's songs stand up well – especially for such a young group.

In addition to Roll Away, a full-length CD of mostly original songs, they've recently released a download-only EP of covers on which they display their more straight-up blues chops. Knowles wails and shreds with brash confidence on a ten-minute live version of "Red House," while the band shows how tight and sharp it can be on John Hiatt's "Riding With the King," the Doors' "Been Down So Long," and a few more.

If there's still a place in the world for guitar heroes and for power trios with a timeless crunch, put Davy Knowles and Back Door Slam on the up-and-coming short list. In a world of hyper-talented young musicians, this is truly impressive stuff, because it feels real.