Theater Review: Figaro/Figaro

This extended Figar-anza with music is an exercise in extremes and an interesting concept. Unfortunately, half is also an ordeal.

Two Figaros for one low off-off-Broadway price — sounds like a good deal, right? Playwright Eric Overmyer adapted and concatenated Beaumarchais' original Marriage of Figaro (the play on which the famous Mozart opera is based) and a rather dark 20th century sequel, Figaro Gets a Divorce, into one extended Figar-anza — with music. It's a long night, an exercise in extremes, and an interesting concept. Unfortunately, half is also an ordeal.

In the 1930s, the German-language playwright Ödön von Horváth wrote a time-transposed sequel to The Marriage of Figaro. In Figaro Gets a Divorce, the Count, the Countess, the steward Figaro, and his wife Susanna have fled a 20th century Communist revolution into an efficiently run, unnamed but Germanic-style neighboring country. While the fallen Count enters a downward spiral of gambling and depression, Figaro returns to barbering in a small town. But marital issues and conflicting ideals push the barber and Susanna apart, and she ends up alone, waitressing in a cafe.

Transporting Beaumarchais' colorful characters, who are more emblematic than realistic, into a modern, bourgeois, somber-hued world, exploring what happens to the fallen nobility, and examining how the various servant characters at home and abroad might retain or transfer their loyalties is an interesting idea. But either von Horváth's play is very bad, or it has been adapted very badly.

Knowing a bit of Eric Overmyer's work, and judging from the high quality of his adaptation of the Marriage, which forms the first act of this production, I suspect the fault to lie with von Horváth's original work. (I was not familiar with it prior to this production.) Once the characters are situated in their new universe and some parameters are established, the story, such as it is, flies every which way. Each scene seems a disconnected vignette, and we quickly cease to care about those once-lovable characters. The political philosophy that gets poured on doesn't make up for it; it's facile and not effectively dramatized.  On top of all that, inexpertly played music and some goofy costume choices make a poorly conceived work seem poorly executed as well.

That's a pity, because, with nimble help from director Erin Smiley, Mr. Overmyer begins the evening with a clever, cheery, mostly well-played, compressed telling of the original late 18th century play, adorned with musical themes from Mozart's famous opera. The music comes from supporting cast members who double on an assortment of instruments, marching in and out, annoying the main characters — it's silly but quite funny.

More important, the leads are solid. Teddy Alvaro makes a witty and energetic (if a little too modern-ironic) Figaro, Ralph Petrarca a wry and funny Count Almaviva, and Kathryn Elisabeth Lawson a spry and winsome Cherubino.  Gillian Wiggin's Susanna is especially delightful; in this telling she bears the greatest dramatic weight, along with her share of the comic, and does it wonderfully well.  She alone makes the dreadful second half faintly bearable.

Fortunately, at off-off-Broadway prices, you will get your money's worth just from the first half. It's a minor tour de force of distilled, manic storytelling, expertly directed and nicely played. As for what Stephen King might call the evening's "dark half," enough said.

Through March 22 at the 14th Street Theater, 344 W. 14 St, NYC. Staged by the (re:) Directions Theatre Company. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.

Theater Review: The Question House

What if there were a house in which only questions could be spoken?

What if there were a house in which only questions could be spoken? Does that sound, well, Jewish? What if I told you that the premise is that Harvey Krytz (Howard Green) had a rabbinical vision some 40 years ago, and has operated out of these mystical quarters ever since? Wouldn't you agree that he might need young assistants?

But wouldn't it be hard for them to remember the questions-only rule, or to resist rebelling against it? And then wouldn't they then suffer an unpleasantly biblical fate?

Could it be that this show is pretty much just an extended comedy skit? Then again, if it's fresh, crisply paced, and doesn't overstay its welcome, what's wrong with an extended comedy skit? How could Mr. Green, along with Cam Kornman (who plays his long-suffering helper, Margaret), be anything but delightful? And could they ask for support more solid than that provided by the funny Nick DeSimone as an unfortunate job applicant, and the glorious Snezhana Chernova as a defiant aide? theater (Is it disconcerting to see a character called "Miss Bingham" played by an actress with a Russian accent? Well, haven't you already figured out that this play is, after all, an exercise in absurdity?)

Does Ms. Chernova have a fan club? If so, can I join?

When you get right down to it, isn't it all about the fun playwright Tara Dairman has with the constant tension (and the humor) engendered by her conceit? Who'll slip up? Who'll escape from the Question House? Will we? Will you?

Can you find time to see The Question House before the Frigid Festival ends on March 8? Will you believe me when I say that you'll have a fun time?

(I couldn't be the first reviewer of The Question House to review it "in kind," could I? Does it matter? In any case, how'm I doing?

Theater Review: The Hefner Monologues by John Hefner at the Frigid Festival

Embarrassing moments, funny situations, life-changing experiences, and revelations in the life of a young man with a very famous relative.

Every year I look forward to the Frigid Festival, and finally it's here.

That's a lie. In actuality, every year (this is their third) Frigid sneaks up on me, and all of a sudden there are all these interesting little productions happening all at once, and hardly any time to see them. Some are locally grown, but many are touring shows that drift about the continent, attempting to take root at whatever festivals they can get into. (A bit like bands, come to think of it). If I had no other responsibilities, I'd take the 12 days off and just hang around the East Village going from one Frigid show to the next.

John Hefner's The Hefner Monologues both is and isn't what you might guess from the title. Yes, it's monologues; no, they're not separate or independent. Yes, it's a guy named Hefner talking about his own life; no, his stories are neither fictionalized nor gaudily embellished (at least, he is able to convince us as much).

As personal tales are wont to, these include embarrassing moments, funny situations, life-changing experiences, revelations. We see Mr. Hefner in childhood, adolescence, and college years. One lesson learned: it's often the "silly little things" that make all the difference, things like finding you have a clean tissue to offer a pretty girl who's crying. theater Another lesson: being related to a famously unique celebrity (Mr. Hefner is a relation of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner) can be a curse, but the curse can also be lifted.

Mr. Hefner's non-relationship with his famous cousin is the surface element that holds the hour-long piece together, but what really makes the show more than a sequence of set-pieces is threefold. First, Mr. Hefner has skilfully woven the stories into a contiguous narrative whole. Second is the serious side of the subject matter, mainly the actor's attempts to deal with a difficult family legacy unrelated to the famous cousin. The third is the sheer force of Mr. Hefner's personality, which in this case is another way of saying his talent as an actor. While the stories may be true and unembellished, the delivery is bigger than life, often nearing (but never going over) the top.

Ah, "the top": that famous theatrical promontory which we all know when we see, but can never fully define. Mr. Hefner's presentation is almost too big for the tiny theater he's in. But one wouldn't want him to tone it down, any more than one would expect his famous relation to ever be anything other than the icon of indulgent excess he is. The Hefner Monologues is a modest-sized piece with a very big heart, and well worth your modest investment.

At the Red Room, 85 E. 4th St., in repertory as part of the Frigid Festival through March 8. See the schedule for dates and times.

Theater Review (NYC): Soul Samurai by Qui Nguyen

Soul Samurai is one long, sustained blast of urban adrenaline.

Feeling overly soft and cuddly? Dulled by the long winter? Need to pump yourself full of urban adrenaline? Soul Samurai is one long, sustained blast of the stuff. With unflagging energy and nary an ounce of dramatic flab, playwright/fight director Qui Nguyen riffs on post-apocalyptic science fiction, Fangoria horror (specifically vampire lore), blaxploitation films, karate movies, samurai/ninja subcultures, and gangsta rap bravado. His take on popular culture leans heavily towards fan-geekdom, and so of course it's also sexy, and full of noisy joy.

Combining cinematic vividness and let's-get-physical stagecraft, Soul Samurai boasts more fight scenes than the complete works of Shakespeare, or so it seems. It has a youthful, athletic cast with more energy than a solar flare, and talent to match.

At first one wonders whether the show can sustain the pace established by the opening fight between the gang leader of a fantastical post-war Brooklyn (Sheldon Best, ice-cool), and the brash but lovable b-boy Cert (the happily scene-stealing Paco Tolson). Our hero, Dewdrop (the sharp Maureen Sebastian) quickly appears, and the fight is over. theater Cert gloats: "See, nobody messes with the Cert and the Dewdrop. I told you, you fucked up motherfucker, we'ze the baddest, we'ze the prettiest, we'ze the g.d. finest!" The more serious-minded Dewdrop chastises him: "The fuck you doing, bozu?" "I'm talking smack," he replies. "Talking smack is the best part."

With that, Nguyen is off and running. Amidst the elaborate choreography, larger-than-life characterizations, projections and lighting effects, vivid underworld sets, and urban music (of several eras), talking smack is still the best part. Nguyen is mad-skilled at creating urban-speak characters who through their use of language are fleshed out realistically before us while sending themselves up at the same time.

With few props, the production team creates a mythical gangland NYC reminiscent of Escape from New York or a 21st century dystopian video game. It's no accident that the comparisons which leap to mind are cinematic. This is theater for an audience raised in front of the screen. It's like a kick-ass sci-fi martial arts flick, but better, because stunt doubles, video trickery, and digital manipulation have no place here.

What is expertly manipulated is the storytelling, far from linear but perfectly clear. The plot is a simple revenge story. A gang of bloodsuckers has killed Dewdrop's lover, Sally December (Bonnie Sherman). Dewdrop swears to kill them back. But first she must train for combat. Years pass. Finally ready, she earns passage from the shogun of Manhattan (Jon Hoche, very funny in multiple roles) over the bridge to "Brooknam," reluctantly towing the besotted Cert, who, in trusty sidekick fashion, ends up proving invaluable.

theaterThe cast of five act, do battle, and move equally well; they're gutsy and dexterous. There are bright lights, puppets, funny videos, music and dance, and maybe, just maybe, one too many fight scenes. Director Robert Ross Parker, together with the playwright, who has staged those excellent fight scenes, creates blast after blast of happy energy.

There are many aspects worthy of note: the sweeping choreography during the first "Interlude" (actually a comic book-style origin story); Dewdrop and Sally's meet-cute scene; Hoche's turn as an arrogant preacher; and the climactic slow-motion battle between Dewdrop and her ultimate nemesis (who that turns out to be, I won't give away), to name a few.

The show has a lot of swearing, and a bit of graphic sex talk, so it's not appropriate for wee ones, but aside from that, audiences of any age should have a grand time seeing this supercharged piece of underworld hotness.

Soul Samurai plays through March 15 at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave., NYC.

Photos by Jim Baldassare.  First photo: Paco Tolson and Maureen Sebastian.  Second photo: Bonnie Sherman.

Theater Review: Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays by David Johnston

One of Broadway's more exciting offerings this month is being served way down at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway, an off-off-Broadway house several miles south of the official "Broadway" district. Up three long, ancient wooden flights of stairs in a former sweatshop, a superb drama of international intrigue is playing.  And literally speaking, it's on Broadway.  So there.

Conversations on Russian Literature has all the elements of the great suspense stories of our age: two characters sitting in a park talking.

This one-act is the second and more substantial half of an evening of plays by David Johnston. Sitting on park benches — not even taking a walk in the woods — an American negotiator (Jonna McElrath) and an old Russian general (Frank Anderson) toss hot potatoes back and forth: their intellectual pursuits (hence the title), their personal histories, their own place in history, their practical and inner motivations for meeting.

By itself, this play is worth more than the price of admission. Skilfully, with music-perfect pacing, and with huge help from two superb performances and Gary Shrader's subtle, unobtrusive direction, the playwright reveals who these players really are and what brings them to this strange crossroads.

The setting is very specific: "The Patriarchs Pond in Moscow, Summer 2004, early evening." The time is important — less than two years after the Moscow theater hostage crisis, a turning point in Russian history, in which the authorities used an "unknown chemical agent" to free hundreds of hostages from Chechen terrorists. theater But one needs only a dim awareness of recent Russian history to appreciate this tense, funny production, just as one doesn't need to be familiar with the works of Turgenev, Bulgakov, or Chekhov, all of which are referenced as these two unforgettable characters probe for each others' soft spots. While very intellectually and historically aware, this play stands on its own merits.

The evening begins, however, with a playlet for which some knowledge of Russian theater (specifically Chekhov) is needed. But the cheap jokes and spirited performances in Play Russia aren't enough to make it more than very modestly amusing even as an in-joke. As a piece of meta-theater, it's no The Actor's Nightmare. Fortunately, the play is short, and the two works that follow it are better. In the swiftly paced, slightly experimental For Those Of Us Who Have Lived In France, two historical figures and one stereotypical middle-American housewife explain why they wish they could go to France and are sad they can't. David Lapkin's impression of Henry Kissinger is particularly amusing.

Johnston's mastery of the link between humor and pathos becomes seriously clear in Mothra is Waiting. theater A nightclub sister act has gotten old, to the point where drag queens are parodying it. One sister is ready to grab her last chance for a better life, while the other insists — screechingly — on waiting for the giant moth of the title to come and take her back to the island where the sisters once reigned as princesses. (Familiarity with classic Japanese monster movies is recommended!) It's a finely wrought absurdist miniature that leads us to expect much of the longer play that follows intermission. We are not disappointed. Don't miss this highlight of the winter season down on lower, lower Broadway.

Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays by David Johnston continues through Saturday, March 7, with performances Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM. Performances are at the Access Theater (380 Broadway, just north of White Street). Tickets are $18 ($10 during previews) and are available by calling SmartTix at 212-868-4444, or online.

Theater Review: The Wendigo

I went to see the Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's The Wendigo with some trepidation. How would Algernon Blackwood's classic horror tale of the Canadian woods translate to the stage? Like his predecessor Poe, Blackwood wrote meticulous and fairly dense prose, and the tale for which he is best known earns its frightfulness through the vividly descriptive power of his language. Too, as with "The Wendigo"'s direct modern descendant, The Blair Witch Project, not much actually happens in it.

Two Brits and two local guides head into the deep woods to hunt moose. One of the guides, Defago, believes too deeply in the Wendigo, a mythical Algonquin figure of terror. When it calls his name, he goes off with it and undergoes an awful transformation.

The story's power lies in its evocation of mysterious primeval forces that may yet lurk in the depths of the forest in spite of human civilization. Such tales electrify our fur by pricking at our most primitive, arboreal fear: that of becoming prey. Dr. Cathcart (Eric Gratton) represents the psychological approach, insisting that the strange goings-on are the result of mental instability brought on by the wilderness. "The Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction." But finally the psychologist's science can't completely explain what's happened.

Blair Witch took a modern approach to this kind of story, made possible by the medium of film: it placed the audience behind the eyes of the characters. One can't do that in the theater, of course. But one might imagine staging a wordy story like "The Wendigo" by turning it inside out, snaking deep into the minds of the characters in some other way. Playwright Eric Sanders has chosen to tell the story straight, though. Essentially true to the action of the original, his 45-minute version relies heavily, as did the original story, on atmosphere. Here it's created by the trusty trappings of B-movie horrordom: insistent sound effects, spooky music, sudden and extreme lighting changes, a murky forest set – along with that modern theatrical staple, projection.

An able, creative crew handles all these elements with gusto. But in playing it straight Sanders also depends on a lot of narration. Early on, director Matthew Hancock has the young seminarian Simpson (Nick Merritt) storming about the stage as he describes action that we're not seeing. There's nothing wrong with a little narration – that's partly what a Greek chorus was for, after all. But in a play this short, I wished for more showing and less telling.

Maybe that's a lot to ask of a tale in which mood and suggestion are so important, and in which (as in Blair Witch) the "monster" is never really seen. But something was distinctly missing here, and it wasn't from Hancock's direction or from the performances, which were good all around. Of note was Kurt Uy, who plays Defago with a gruff, dark touchiness and a lasered focus. As soon as he appeared, I thought: that man is Defago. And with its direct telling, this production is "The Wendigo." But it's "The Wendigo" minus the rich texture of Blackwood's prose, and the special effects don't fully make up for that.

The Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's production of The Wendigo runs through Feb. 28 at the Medicine Show Theatre, 549 W. 52 St. Tickets at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.

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.

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.

Theater Review (NYC): The Klezmer Nutcracker

The Klezmer Nutcracker is an amusing play for children that mixes chanukah traditions and Jewish music with klezmerized themes from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. The story, by Ellen Kushner (host of Public Radio's "Sound and Spirit" program) and based on her children's book The Golden Dreydl, won't win any awards for originality, but its winning characters and enthusiastic cast held the kids' attention at the performance I saw.

Bored young Sara (the spunky Danielle Strauss), down with a case of pubescent existential angst, is given, not an enchanted nutcracker, but a magical Golden Dreydl that becomes the Dreydl Princess (the graceful Melana L. Lloyd). This ballerina-like waif takes Sara to a magical kingdom ruled by her parents, Solomon and Sheba – not the biblical or historical characters, but a benevolent sort of Father and Mother Time who oversee a fairyland of Fools, talking animals, and demons who are more funny than scary.

When the demons snatch the Princess, the Tree of Life is threatened, and with it all of Creation… or something. The plot flops around a bit, with story points merely stated, and references and themes flying by at breakneck speed – rather like the Fool, who guides Sara through the enchanted land attempting to rescue the Princess. Dan J. Gordon plays the Fool with a big, loose-jointed nod to Ray Bolger's Scarecrow, and indeed kids may notice strong parallels to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps even more than to the original Nutcracker ballet.

This isn't a ballet, and parents of budding ballerinas should probably mention that fact ahead of time so kids' expectations aren't set unfairly. Nor is it a musical – it's a play with music. Chanukah songs are sung, and there's some boisterous choreography by Dax Valdes, set to recorded music that uses Tchaikovsky's themes transmogrified very cleverly by David Harris and Michael McLaughlin for the fabulous Shirim Klezmer Orchestra.

Most inventive of all is a wonderful Peacock scene, where the talking, preening bird is played by one actress (the amusingly brash Lindsey Levine) while a group of actor-dancers plays her feathers, all making one organism. This sort of thing is the true magic of the theater, the reason to take kids out to a show rather than plop them in front of a DVD.

The Klezmer Nutcracker runs Saturdays and Sundays at 11 AM and 1 PM through Jan. 3, 2009 at the Vital Theatr, 2162 Broadway (at 76th St.), 4th Floor, New York. Call 212-579-0528.

Opera Review (NYC): Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by The Dido Project at the Samsung Experience

Henry Purcell's 1689 Dido and Aeneas was one of the earliest English operas and is considered one of the composer's masterworks. It runs only an hour but is a true opera. Though the story, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, is a tragedy, Thursday night's performance at the Samsung Experience in the Time Warner Center was a joy, and one of an unusual sort.

The Dido Project comprises a group of singers and the Sybarite Chamber Players under the sparkling direction of Pat Diamond. They've transposed Purcell's Baroque opera about the Queen of Carthage and the hero Aeneas, with its libretto by the Irish poet and playwright Nahum Tate, to the modern boardroom. This Dido is the CEO of a major corporation, while Aeneas, rather than literally shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, is a tycoon on the verge of economic collapse and in need of a business partner to merge with.

A bit surprisingly, the tale lends itself quite well to the updated setting. One reason is the story's resonance with the modern-day capitalist themes of independence and overwork, particularly for women. This opera is, and always has been, all about women. Indeed, its only major male role is Aeneas himself.

Another factor was the physical setting and the use of technology (I use the past tense because this was a one-time performance, though the group has plans for further events). Many modern theatrical productions use video to enhance or comment on the live action, but usually the screens or projections are fitted after the fact into a space designed mainly for live performance. The Samsung Experience at the Time Warner Center, on the other hand, is a showroom for the company's technology, particularly its screens and other video kit – a "10,000-square-foot interactive emporium of virtual reality experiences and technology."

You are surrounded by video. You walk through video to get to the performance space. You pass computers with interactive displays. Bright lighting and shiny equipment give a science-fictiony sheen to the whole environment. Everything is by Samsung, of course, including the two large screens that framed the stage displaying CNN-like "news" and commentary on the story we were witnessing. The backdrop too consisted of a large multi-panel screen, showing an image of the globe, slowly changing color like a Christmas display, reinforcing the sense that we're in a universe of nonstop worldwide news and action.

The video commentary, complete with a news crawl, was clever and funny and helped to both carry and clarify the story (I liked the novel use of the Windows "blue screen of death"). Its only disadvantage was that it replaced what in some opera performances would have been a display of supertitles. Even in an English-language opera like this one, the words can at times be hard to understand, given the strong vibrato of the female voices and the sometimes unexpected (to modern ears) phrasing of a 17th century libretto.

Still, though the audience may have missed some lines, the singers, with their top-notch voices and fine acting, made the essentials quite clear. And it is a story of essentials.

Dido loves Aeneas, but is reluctant to declare it until her sister (here an executive assistant) Belinda prods her. But three witches who hate Dido and want to ruin her life trick Aeneas into leaving town to fulfill his destiny of founding Rome (here, he is starting a new business venture without Dido). He changes his mind, but too late – Dido's heart has been irreparably broken and, more to the point, her pride fatally wounded: "To your promis'd empire fly/And let forsaken Dido die."

Blythe Gaissert conveyed Dido's sadness ("Peace and I are strangers grown") and precipitous fall with solemn, queenly magnetism. Her voice is strong, supple, almost buttery, and in the famous death scene, which was effectively video-assisted, she was moving and a little funny at the same time. Elena O'Connor as Belinda seemed slightly tentative of voice at first but quickly claimed the full measure of the role, singing beautifully while at the same time clowning divinely.

Alex Loustion was winning as the Second Woman, a more important role than its generic name makes it sound; she did a beautiful job with the lovely aria "Oft she visits this lone mountain." David Adam Moore brought a smooth, strong baritone, impeccable diction, and excellent acting skills to the relatively thankless role of Aeneas (this is a play about women, remember). Sarah Heltzel and Annie Pennies made fine witches, and Jessica Medoff-Bunchman was perfectly spectacular as the Sorceress (the head witch) – if she doesn't have a fan club, someone should start one.

The small Sybarite Chamber Players orchestra played with heart, precision, and even at certain moments a smoky intensity. Purcell's wonderful music lost nothing in the translation of the action to a setting of cutting-edge technology. Along with the musicians themselves, conducted by William Hobbs from the harpsichord, Daryl Bornstein's sound design must get some credit for this.

No more performances of Dido and Aeneas are immediately scheduled; I'm sure they'll be posted at the Dido Project's website when they are. As for the Samsung Experience, you can check it out any time you're in New York – it's right in the upscale mall at Columbus Circle known as the Time Warner Center.  A visit to a bright, shiny, holiday-dressed mall in the heart of the greatest city in the world is surprisingly cheering in these tough times. The next live event in the space is an appearance by comedian Mike Birbiglia on Dec. 10 from 4-6 PM.

Theater Review (NYC): Zero by Danny and Robert O’Connor

Things are bigger in Texas, and people live life a little slower. Maybe they just need more time to take it all in, since there's so much of it.

Zero, an import from Dallas (it has also played in Chicago), reflects something of that vast Lone Star spirit. For a one-man play, it's bigger than a lot of what we're used to here in frenetic New York City. Parts of it go a shade or two too slow for my caffeinated heart to beat to. The twenty-somethings whom Danny O'Connor brings to life on stage spend their days sloshed in beer, tequila, and Jagermeister instead of coffee and protein shakes.

There's no denying the craft, stamina, and supersized ambition of the play's primary power source. O'Connor, on stage by his Lone Star lonesome for over two hours, plays six different characters, sometimes three at a time, while working through two separate storylines. All of them are precisely eight years out of high school, but he defines them with easy changes in accent, demeanor, and posture, loading each with personality in the process. Yet O'Connor sketches in their details just enough to make us want to know more about them; we'd like to see deeper into them than their war stories, their obsession with a high school flame, their drinking to excess.

The occasion for the main storyline is the return of Alex, one of the high school buddies, from the Iraq War. Alex reflects the play's origin: O'Connor and his brother Robert collaborated on the script long-distance during the latter's service in Iraq. Then, after his second tour, Robert committed suicide.

That grim backstory doesn't make the play a downer, though. To the contrary, it's pretty jolly, especially considering its protagonists' inability to achieve satisfaction, the low-level sadness underlining their lives. They are all, in various ways, the "zeros" of the title, although only boisterous Sam, the group's "good ole boy," refers to himself that way. "High school's with us forever, dude," he tells his actor pal Len, who has quit trying to make a career of what he loves.

Sam, despite being something of a caricature, is the best fleshed out of the three drinking buddies. Eternally trapped in sarcasm, he waxes philosophical: "Some people just aren't meant to follow their dreams." Yet in context, his bittersweet bluster is more humorous than sad, and that's a good thing, because the play's funny lines and body language and the intermittent outrageousness are what keep things moving as well as they do.

It's in the scenes where Sam, Len, and Alex get together that the action slows. O'Connor plays all three parts nimbly, but a lack of crispness in the dialogue bogs us down. By contrast, he transports us in high style when he's "by himself" – in the wordless opening, when Len wakes up from a humongous hangover and tries sourly to get the day going with a lot of help from a bottle of water and a toilet; in the monologues from James and Gabe, a preening metrosexual and a sad sack, whose planned night out constitutes the secondary storyline; in the hysterically pretentious performance piece by "Malthazar," who cracks us up even as we realize that his kind is a pretty easy target.

Zero is an impressive performance, and an enjoyable evening out, but one that would be more enjoyable if it were trimmed or tightened. Look out for Danny O'Connor; this fine, Texas-sized actor and monologist is a darn sight more than the sum of his "zero" parts.

At the Roy Arias Theatre 2, 616 Ninth Ave. at 44th St., NYC, through Dec. 30. For tickets please visit Theatermania or call 866-811-4111. For more information visit the Zero website.

Theater Review (NYC): Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, Presented by the Queen’s Company

The all-female Queen's Company updates the classics with a modern pop-culture sensibility, while remaining true to the language, the story, and the groove of the original text. With a comedy like Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, this gang is also funny as hell. In fact, I laughed so much I got a headache. Damn you, Queen's Company.

One might imagine that Twelfth Night, with its cross-dressing plot and high ribaldry, would be perfect – or else problematic – for an all-female troupe. In fact, it is neither. The cast is overall so skilled, and directed so cleverly by Rebecca Patterson, that we hardly sense the non-traditional casting at all. The production succeeds entirely on the same merits as would any good Shakespearean staging, whether cast with men and women, with all men as in Shakespeare's time, or with the women of the QC.

It's been three years since I last saw one of this group's productions. Since that time they've maintained their energy while building their skills even further. Patterson's staging conceptions are brisk as ever, but have deepened, with increased subtlety. The cuts are judicious. The actors' line reading choices serve both clarity and high spirits. And the musical numbers just have to be seen to be believed.


It's a good thing she has excellent castmates to play off of, otherwise Aysan Çelik might steal the whole show. Her dart-sharp, hilarious Malvolio preens and pouts and struts, carrying us along with every move or glance. She even pulls her weight when she's not on the stage, merely being talked about. Carey Urban, who played Kate with panache in the company's Taming of the Shrew, makes a flouncy and tangy Olivia, and Virginia Baeta is a delightful, gamine-like Viola. Only Gisele Richardson's Sir Toby Belch could be improved – though it's a physically spot-on performance (and she's done up like a riotously drunken Al Sharpton), the lines are sometimes lost in swallowed diction.

Feeling drowned in our gloomy economic times? Get shipwrecked with Viola and her brother Sebastian (the elfin Amy Driesler) in the court of Duke Orsino (the regal Frances Uku) and his fool, Feste (the sly Natalie Lebert). A dip into The Queen's Company's singing, dancing, and fully Shakespearean version of fanciful Illyria is just the tonic for troubled days like these.

Twelfth Night plays through Nov. 23 at Urban Stages, 259 W. 30 St., NYC. For tickets visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. For more information visit the Queen's Company online.


Photo (L-R): Carey Urban as Olivia (center) and the angels (beginning at lower left & going clockwise) Valerie Redd, Kari Nicole Washington, Gisele Richardson and Karen Berthel. Photo credit: John Santerre

Theater Review (NYC): Oh, Whistle…: Two Ghost Stories by M R James

Starting this year, I'm adopting my Left Coast colleague Bob Machray's tradition of attending a Halloween-themed performance every Samhain season. I'm happy to report that my new custom has begun robustly, with a delightfully diverting evening spent in the company of Mr. R M Lloyd Parry. A marvelous reader and actor, this gentleman simply sits in a chair, surrounded by the leathery accoutrements of a bookish professor's study, and tells us two spooky supernatural tales by M R James, the great writer of English ghost stories.

Professor James, who lived from 1862 to 1936, was a master of English prose. His sentences weave patterns both elegant and forceful, often taking unexpected turns into obscure, frightening, or funny corners of the supernatural and the psychological. Listening to Mr. Parry read "The Ash Tree" and "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" brought me back to my first, youthful plunge into Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles." It also brought to mind the dark imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, although Poe's American characters are far more rough-and-ready than James's tweedy dons and landed gentry.

Parry starts with an avuncular mien but can also grow spectral before our very eyes, especially with the stage lit only by a few candles. (A tiny bit of stage lighting would have illuminated his face a little more without spoiling the effect.) He makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and tap into your childish sense of wonder. The technique and staging – a solo performer who both narrates and brings multiple characters to life in order to tell a taut but wild story – also recalls Patrick Stewart's wonderful solo performances of A Christmas Carol.

When Patrick Stewart brings a show to America, of course, it's bound for a Broadway stage. Oh, Whistle is being performed in the 30-seat black-box space at the 78th Street Theatre Lab. And the theater was not full. There are four more performances of this award-winning show (it won The Dracula Society's Hamilton Deane Award for best dramatic presentation in the Gothic genre, no less). Nov. 5th through the 8th are your last chances.

Go, fill up this tiny place, and make some noise while ye may. Soon enough the spookiness of the Halloween season will be gone, and in its place the sugary and far less evocative homeyness of Thanksgiving. Don't let Thanksgiving happen to you! Not, anyway, without first immersing yourself in the spooky mind of M R James, the master of the English ghost story.

Oh, Whistle…: Two Ghost Stories by M R James is directed and performed by R M Lloyd Parry. The final four performances run from Nov. 5-8 at 7:30 PM. On Nov. 7 there is an additional 10 PM performance of two different stories. Purchase tickets online or call 212-362-0329. Visit the Nunkie Theatre Company's website for more information on Mr. Parry's performances.

Theater Review (NYC): The Pumpkin Pie Show

I wanted to see The Pumpkin Pie Show because it's the long-running product of the fevered brain of Clay McLeod Chapman, who wrote the script of the remarkable musical Hostage Song. While the two shows couldn't be much more different in mood and presentation, both dig for the gory innards of the human soul.

Hostage Song was a drama with rock music about two Western hostages in Iraq crawling towards a twisted kind of redemption, blindfolded the entire time. Pumpkin Pie is a series of stories written by Chapman and performed by Hanna Cheek (who was so good in Hostage Song) and Chapman himself. Stories are what they are called, and although they are for the most part monologues, stories is perhaps the best word. Each of the tales marries the narrative movement of a short story with the distinct first-person voice of a dramatic monologue.

At each show the two actors perform a different half dozen or so out of a total of fourteen stories they've honed over the past ten years. At the outset, actors and audience don't know which we're going to get, so each show is different. But the tales (at least the six I saw) have in common a strong element of the macabre, and usually a good dose of humor too.

The cast, Cheek especially, are good at transforming themselves into a variety of twisted characters – an overly attached mom, a drunk bridesmaid, a creepy guy who lives under a pier – and the unrelatedness of the tales gives the evening something of the air of an exercise session. But the tales cast their spells effectively, plunging the audience into Chapman's often disturbing, sometimes sickening, and occasionally touching theme park of weirdness. We overuse the roller coaster analogy – for adventure movies and the like – but The Pumpkin Pie Show really is like a thrill ride, full of creepy delights, alternately tickling your brain and turning your stomach. You must be this tall to enter.

Thursdays through Saturdays through Nov. 1 at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, NYC, with a special expanded performance on Halloween night. Get tickets online or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review (NYC): To Barcelona! by Michael Niederman

It's 1937. Three idealistic New York City workers (and card-carrying Communists) have traveled to the French-Spanish border. They're about to cross into Spain to join up with the government in its doomed struggle against Franco's fascist revolution.

Michael Niederman has written this new play rather like an old-fashioned melodrama. Emotionally charged, suspenseful, and tackling big issues, its style and structure are well suited to the subject. Indeed, Niederman sets the tone with a lengthy story by the excitable Albert (Gregory Lay) about an inspiring performance he attended of a play by Clifford Odets. Yet at first we think we're hearing about a union meeting; only as Albert's description unfolds do we realize he's been under the spell of the theater. This effect has a magic of its own.

In a rustic inn (beautifully designed by Blair Mielnik) the three friends get drunk and disorderly as they shore up their courage to enter Spain the following day. As they alternate between reinforcing each others' resolve and arguing passionately, their differing revolutionary shadings become clear.  To Barcelona Press Photo 14 Albert has the most fiery personality, but he prefers revolution from within the system. The steadier but more radical Leonard (the charismatic Alex Emanuel, who calls to mind a young Ronald Reagan) believes violent overthrow is needed. Meek Carl (Marty Keiser) has a more conflicted soul.

The arrival of a mysterious American stranger – another useful theatrical cliche – further exposes their rifts. Is he a fellow-traveler, or some kind of spy?

Act I frolics along like a roller coaster. Despite the serious subject matter, it's very funny. Lay is especially brilliant as Albert – brash, loud, so excitable he literally collapses. His volatility gives a few scares to the Waitress, a relatively small but key role played by Anna Gutto, who was good in the recent Sa Ka La and shows enormous depth here, speaking only in French while trying to communicate with three scruffy and unpredictable Americans who don't speak a word of it.

Act II shows us the edgy Albert and the vulnerable Carl on their own. Here the role of Carl expands into the play's second really meaty one. He's a Hungarian immigrant struggling mightily between his socialist ideals and his simple desire for a family and a decent life in his adopted United States. The stranger, Marion Welch (an effective Eric Rice) with his influence on Carl becomes the engine of the plot. To Barcelona Press Photo 10 As the new day dawns, will Carl join his friends as they head off, very likely to their deaths on a battlefield in a strange land?

The long scene between Marion and Carl is the one section that didn't quite work for me. The intensity and cunning with which Marion pushes and plays Carl feels like it's contrived for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, like the rest of the play, the scene is acted very well; Keiser is especially impressive and touching, and we do eventually learn what Marion is up to (and it rings true).

According to the program notes, Niederman aimed with this play to honor his own grandfather and the thousands of other Americans who illegally went to Spain to fight against Franco. They viewed their struggle, and we can view that point in history, as a crucial moment at which Fascism might, conceivably, have been stopped before the nightmares to follow became inevitable. With this old-fashioned, powerful play, it's safe to say that the playwright has achieved his goal.

To Barcelona! runs through Oct. 26 at the Workshop Theater, 312 W. 36 St., NYC. Tickets are $18.00 ($12.00 students/seniors) at Theatermania or call 212-352-3101.  Photo credits: Erica Parise.

Theater Review (NYC): Sa Ka La by Jon Fosse

Oslo Elsewhere is a theater company specializing in bringing Norwegian plays to US stages (and vice versa) in new translations. Its current production of Jon Fosse's Sa Ka La is the first time the work has been seen in the US. The company bills the play as "about syllables and expectations, preserving time and wasting it."

That statement is true enough as far as it goes – the title does come from the nonsense syllables uttered by the central figure, Mom (Kathryn Kates), who's been hospitalized by a massive stroke on her 60th birthday. But the deep subject of the story is distance. Fosse, through director Sarah Cameron Sunde's witty translation, effectively explores the distances between even the closest family members. Sunde makes those gulfs manifest by physically separating actors during key exchanges, while cleverly staging alternating scenes, which occur in two settings, in and around each other.

Using the occasion of an illness or death to gather a family and thus set a play's action in motion is one of the oldest and commonest tricks in the dramatist's book. But that's because it has a tendency to work. And Fosse has a very distinct delivery. His language is minimalist and repetitive, Beckettian and (to use a musical analogy) Reichian. The pacing (at least in this production) is slow, sometimes agonizingly so. It's probably safe to say that if you like Ingmar Bergman movies, you'll appreciate this play, but if you don't, there's a good chance you won't.

Marielle Heller and Birgit Huppuch in Sa Ka La
Slow pace isn't the only thing distinctly Scandinavian about the play. Leaving aside the Ibsen references, a certain Nordic stiffness and reserve is manifest, particularly in the character of the older daughter, Hilde (Birgit Huppuch), whose embrace of her more emotional sister Nora (Marielle Heller) in Mom's hospital room positively bleeds excruciating hesitancy and discomfort. That reserve is also found in the short lines of dialogue that dominate the script, clanging with Anglo-Saxon hardness. And it extends even to the funny scenes between the sons-in-law, who, uninformed of Mom's stroke, wait uncomfortably, like Vladmir and Estragon, for their mother-in-law to arrive, with their wives, for her own party.

Henning: Yah that's how we met / yah / we married sisters / you the youngest / and I the oldest

Johannes: That's what happened / yah / [Johannes walks over to the window, stands next to Henning and looks out] / What a beautiful day / [short pause] / it was a beautiful day / the day she turned sixty / [somewhat short pause] / that's good / [somewhat short pause] / because we do love her / don't we

Frank Harts and Raymond McAnally, the two fine actors who play Henning and Johannes respectively, generate a lot of laughs with their arch delivery of passages like this. Their early repartee provides a humorous counterfoil to the sometimes overly drawn-out scenes in the hospital, where the daughters' helplessness in the face of their mother's precipitous decline rides a wave between heartrending and frustrating.

As Mom sleeps, wakes, and utters her nonsense syllables, wordless yet fraught with human feeling, we're moved equally by Hilde's icy repression and Nora's flowery anguish. Yet Mom's personality somehow comes across just as powerfully as those of her putatively more articulate daughters.  That's a testament to Kates's remarkable performance in a role that includes a lot of sleeping, never lets her get out of bed, and permits her no actual words – only syllables and stroke-mangled facial expressions. She's painful to watch, and utterly convincing.

Raymond McAnally in Sa Ka La
We're left with some open questions. Trine, an old family friend, arrives for the party with her new husband. Why, though she is the sisters' age, did she end up in a lasting friendship with Mom? The fact is raised as if it might be a key to understanding the family dynamic, yet it's never addressed.

The frequent use of the syllable "Yah" (halfway between Norwegian "Ja" and American "Yeah") effectively ties all the characters together and replaces the usual "Um"'s and "Well"'s and "Y'know"'s of American idiom. But we can't help pausing to wonder whether it's carried over from the original Norwegian, and if so, what did it mean there?

When a third sibling, Ola, eventually arrives – even more painfully detached from his feelings than Hilde – is his old-fashioned three-piece suit meant to indicate a setting some time in the pre-cell phone past? And does that explain why the characters aren't phoning one another at the first sign of lateness or uncertainty, the way 21st century folks normally do?

Sunde leaves the characters from one scene on stage while the next takes place, with the actors brushing past each other and even occasionally touching, across time and awareness, producing a spooky tingle. In the hospital scenes, the actors string out their lines across what seems every fiber of their beings.  They do the same with their pregnant pauses. Meanwhile, back at the house, the in-laws and friends verbally dance around their mutual discomfort. Through it all, repetition, sometimes excessive, infantilizes the stricken family, especially the daughters.  This process rings harshly true, and is thrown into even higher relief by the light of their mother's tragic reduction to a creature of nonsense syllables.

Finally, the production values are high, matching the skill of the excellent cast.

Problematic but thought-provoking, and intermittently fascinating, funny, and insufferable, Sa Ka La is – or maybe isn't – a good introduction to the work of a major Scandinavian artist. Fosse doesn't like to explain his plays. Explaining isn't the point.

Sa Ka La runs through Sept. 27 at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker St. For tickets and further information, click here or call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or (outside the NY metro area) at (800) 432-7250.

Photos by Jim Baldassare. 1. Marielle Heller and Birgit Huppuch 2. Raymond McAnally

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.

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.

Theater Review (NYC): Bouffon Glass Menajoree

Just as there are all sorts of dramatic traditions, from Elizabethan to operatic to Noh, so are there multiple styles of clowning. One that we hear relatively little about, despite its continued presence in popular culture (from the early films of John Waters, for example, and Cirque du Soleil), is the French bouffon tradition. This began, so it is said, when the deformed, insane, or simply very ugly were banished from society but allowed back into town on festivals solely to entertain.

Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, is the best-known bouffon character today, and Lynn Berg, one-third of the cast of Bouffon Glass Menajoree, wears a silly prosthetic hunchback in his role as Tom in this very funny parody of the Tennessee Williams classic. The original Glass Menagerie doesn't get too many serious professional productions – at least here in jaded New York – precisely because it's so well known and integrated into the artistic consciousness. But Williams's tale of a lame girl and her family's desperate hopes for a "gentleman caller" is as ripe for parody as his swampy settings are for decay and disaster, and this production takes the unicorn fully by the horn.

Playing well off Berg's manic Tom is the superb Audrey Crabtree, who reinterprets the repressed, shy Laura as a nightmarish figure in blood and white, half evil zombie and half Crazy Mary. Afflicted with a respiratory disease and a lame leg, Laura makes a perfect bouffon character to begin with, and Crabtree pounds the stuffing out of the character with insane glee.

Bouffon Glass Menajoree

The third leg of the stool is Aimee German as Amanda, padded to giant size and obsessed with her own past as a magnet for gentleman callers. From the moment the three climb out of their box and begin spreading their net of horrendous dysfunction over the helpless audience, this excellent cast, directed by Eric Davis who clearly knows his clowning, has us in its loud, obscene power. It's grotesque in the original and best sense of the word.

Those familiar with the original play may be wondering: what of Jim, the gentleman caller who finally does pay a visit to shy Laura? Jim's still here – played by a member of the audience. This works quite well, and indeed there's a fair amount of audience participation throughout. But not to worry, there's no blue paint involved, and no real danger, just a thrilling whiff of it.

Go see the Bouffon Glass Menajoree (and maybe grab a cup of coffee first, it's a late start). It runs through Aug. 29, Fridays only, at the Green Room at 45 Bleecker Theatre. Visit the show's website for tickets, or call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 inside the NY metro area, outside at (800) 432-7250.