Theater/Burlesque Review (NYC): Revealed

One of the great things about being a writer is getting invited to all sorts of interesting events, including some that fall outside the categories you’re used to. Like, say, an evening of lovely women taking off their clothes.

“Burlesque” originally meant a comedic, parodic style of variety show, of which striptease was only one element. Nowadays, although there is a serious “New Burlesque” movement out there somewhere, from my standpoint the non-titillating aspects seem to have dropped off, and we’re left with striptease. That’s the case, at least, in the burlesque shows I’ve seen in New York City. This form of burlesque can be closely compared to the dances you may find being preformed by Perth Strippers in Australia and around the world.

The other night I had the pleasure of experiencing Revealed, a monthly show at Under St. Marks, a little theater at St. Marks Place and First Avenue (complete with bar) that I’ve started to think of as a home away from home. It’s a warm, divey little spot, perfect for burlesque. In Revealed the artistes show more skin than in most shows, hence the title: yes, there’s full nudity, and I for one approve, but the best part of the fun is in the gaudy creativity on display.

Gigi La Femme - Photo by Luke Ratray

Costumes and props are important, of course. Ms. Tickle, who had the most fabulous getup, made her reverse striptease into one of the sexiest numbers, walking on stage totally naked and then putting on her costume ver-r-ry slowly. Miss Ruby Valentine had great fun with plush boas, Gigi La Femme spanked herself, and so on. Scenarios are a big part of it. Kobayashi Maru had the most inventive act. Not to give it away, I’ll just say that her soundtrack came from a classic science fiction film, and unlike the other acts, it wasn’t music.

The puritanical busybodies of times past and present have it all wrong. Nothing about the naked human body is corrupting or immoral; quite the opposite. Yes, there are depressing strip clubs out there and a variety of pornography websites online like to name just one of them, but in a burlesque striptease show the performers have all the power.

Striptease and raucous humor go naturally together. The engaging Bastard Keith is a jolly host (he’s funny and he can sing, too!), but half the best lines are shouted out from the gonzo audience. If you’d like to be part of the gonzo, Revealed runs the third Wednesday of every month at 10 PM. Tickets are available online or call (212) 868-4444.

You can also get more information at the show’s Myspace page, where you’ll find links to the performers’ individual pages. The fetching Creamy Stevens, for example, the “child of slaughterhouse workers” who hails “from some decayed hamlet in Washington State,” “learned she loved to entertain through making children cry at the juvenile detention center where she spent most of her teens.” Fictional biographies aside, everyone does seem to end up in New York eventually.

Amidst the ongoing destruction of what was once a funky, creative stew-pot of a way of life, tucked between the chain stores and rich-people-only developments that are taking over the city faster than you can say “My dog was electrocuted by a manhole cover!”, places like Under St. Marks hosting shows like Revealed persist, giving hope for the creative energy and street life of the, um, naked city.

Photo credit: Photo of Gigi La Femme by Luke Ratray

Theater Review (NYC): All Kinds of Shifty Villains: A Carnival Noir

With their new theater piece, writer Robert Attenweiler and director Rachel Klein set out to combine the noirish flavor and tropes of the gangster genre with the circus/clown tradition. They’ve succeeded: All Kinds of Shifty Villains is an oddball play, but an entertaining one.

Fair warning: at the beginning, I hated the play. It began unpromisingly, with a musical number sung inaudibly by Precious Jones (Elizabeth Stewart), the story’s stereotypical femme fatale. Then, for the first couple of scenes, as we were introduced to philosophical tough-guy gumshoe Max Quarterhorse (Joe Stipek) and a batch of seedier types, I felt at sea, unable to fix on anything. Uneven acting didn’t help, and Stewart’s singing wasn’t the only thing hard to hear: some dialogue got swallowed by the Kraine Theater, thanks to certain actors’ lack of projection. (A rattling air conditioner didn’t help, but it wasn’t entirely to blame).

Gradually, though, the play won me over. It has two big things going for it: Attenweiler’s writing, and Klein’s funny, inventive, and occasionally eye-opening choreography – not as in dancing, but as in stylized and sometimes acrobatic movement, especially fight scenes and love scenes. Here much credit goes to the cast; standouts include Kari Warchock as Therese “Terry” Trueblood, Max’s loyal assistant, and Bret Haines, who plays the bearish half of a pair of lowlife brothers whom Max hits up for information. But the whole cast is good in this area. Together with the presence of a mysterious and vaguely sinister clown, the choreographed movement represents the circus element of this hybrid story.

As for the writing, it’s sharp and funny. “Will you be stepping into this sack of your own accord,” the brothers ask Terry as they kidnap her, “or must I produce a bludgeon?” Max, the detective, has just quit smoking, and his withdrawal symptoms take the form of hallucinations, which are sometimes amusingly acted out but often merely suggested by his absurd non sequiturs, which keep us enjoyably guessing. The suggestion of magic realism that comes from the evident lunacy mixes in interesting ways with the screwball comic action and Guy-Noirish set pieces, and holding it all together is Stipak, whose Max is a pretty strong focal point for the broad-ranging action. And he’s not the only nutcase in the house. “Something’s coming,” Max warns. “If it’s not what I think, at least it will be something else.”

So true, Max Quarterhorse. So true.

All Kinds of Shifty Villains runs Thursday-Sunday through June 28 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4 St., NYC. Tickets online at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.

Theater Review (NYC): Three on a Couch by Carl Djerassi

Scientist-playwright Carl Djerassi’s fourth play premiered in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (under the title Ego) but has not received an American production until now. I’m delighted to report that Redshift Productions’ new Off Broadway staging does absolute justice to this intelligent, witty, and very funny concoction of noir, psychodrama, and clowning.

Djerassi is an emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the inventor of the birth control pill. He’s one of our culture’s premiere crossover figures between the worlds of art and science. I figured I’d mention all that, since it’s what one does. But he is also, quite independently of any other accomplishments, a playwright of the first order.

In Three on a Couch Stephen Marx, a famous novelist, fakes his own death in order to read the obituaries and critical appreciations he knows will follow. More than that, he is inspired by the real-life Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa to create “heteronyms,” alter egos to publish works in different styles for an audience meant not to know that the books all come from the same brain.

Sadly for Stephen, his original self cannot disappear without leaving a very large loose end: his wife, the sultry Miriam, who is at least Stephen’s match in force of personality and wit. The action takes place in the office of Dr. Theodore Hofmann, Stephen’s Freudian psychoanalyst. Played with antic clowning by the wonderful Brad Frazier, Theo is the glue that holds the plot together, and that’s critical because the plot is tricky and a little bit shaky in one or two places – but that hardly matters.

The pleasures of this longish one-act play begin immediately, with Theo attempting some very funny stylized acrobatics between his stool and his analysand’s couch, where Stephen lies apparently asleep. This business symbolically suggests the shrink’s attempts to “reach” his difficult patient, but it also opens up Theo’s character to our amused and sympathetic eyes: he is himself a very troubled man.

His role as confidante to Stephen and Miriam, initially professional and then personal, serves superficially to grease the gears of their story, yet on another level the therapist’s inner life is the very subject of the play. He’s on stage for almost all of the action, and his pursuit of his craft, with all his peccadilloes and insecurities, is the intellectual heart and soul of the work, at least in this production, carefully directed by Elena Araoz, stunningly lit by Justin Townsend, and luxuriously costumed by Chloe Chapin.

Theo is both an iconic shrink and a shrinking violet. He knows the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis as well as anyone, but is incapable – at least with Stephen – of maintaining objectivity, of keeping his cool. Between sessions and meetings with the husband and wife, he repeatedly tries to persuade his answering machine that he is master of his domain, yet all it does is stare back at him with its single blinking red eye. No analyst could possibly function in this way in real life, but the entire play is consistently absurd, both larger and smaller than life. By the end Theo does achieve a surprising sort of catharsis aided by (of all things) Susan Zeeman Rogers’s simple but clever set design. We cheer him rather like we cheer Georges in Act I of Sunday in the Park with George, a character Theo oddly resembles in some ways.

Mark Pinter plays Stephen with a pomposity so hearty it’s believable, in the over-agitated way a Seinfeld character seems “real”; Lori Funk is equally larger than life as the vengeful wife. Lush and noirish, Arielle Edwards and David Thomas’s music and sound dance us from scene to scene and state of mind to state of mind. The director has her cast play brilliantly with the fourth wall; the action is speckled with telling details like Theo bending into the stage light to read a letter, Miriam violently batting her eyelashes for much too long, husband and wife pounding out all the lines of a dramatic private scene while looking only at the audience. All told, it’s a full-throated sounding out of the possibilities of live theater.

Given the story’s psychological setting, I could quibble with how certain motivations are explained. But this play, and this production, hardly leave room for such quibbles. Both are superior in every way.

Three on a Couch runs through June 22 at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., NYC. For tickets visit the theater’s website or call (212) 691-1555.

Stars Honor Bill Withers and Our Time, an Artistic Home for People Who Stutter

Possibly the most inspiring course I took in college was a study of W. B. Yeats. The professor, Jack Kelleher, was knowledgeable, but more important, he was passionate about the subject. But he had a severe stutter, and sometimes sitting in class listening to him lecture was a painful thing.

Professor Kelleher's stutter vanished when he recited the poetry. He even sang for us once or twice (some of Yeats's verse was written to go with traditional melodies). Our Time 1Reciting and singing he had no trace of a speech impediment. Later I learned that many stutterers don't stutter when they sing.

Last night's star-studded Our Time gala honoring Bill Withers brought this, and many other lessons about stutterers, home to a big happy audience of family, friends, and donors.  Our Time Theatre Company is a performing arts organization for kids who stutter. Most of us at some point in our lives have met someone who stutters, but stuttering kids who don't get emotional support often shut down and stay quiet, so we might not know when we see them. An estimated one percent of the population stutters.

Bill Withers is famous for his hits: "Lean On Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lovely Day," "Use Me," and more. It turns out he also stuttered badly as a youngster. A lot of entertainment royalty turned out to honor him and to celebrate the achievements of Our Time. Providing "an artistic home for people who stutter," the organization has enabled and inspired many a kid to literally find their voices.

Some of the kids who took the stage to speak, emcee, recite, sing, or rap had mostly overcome Our Time 2their stutters, but many had not. Some had been in the Our Time program for years, but Our Time is not a therapist. To the contrary, it's a place where stutterers are given all the time they need to express their thoughts – hence the name "Our Time."  No one will interrupt them, finish their sentences, make fun of them, or assume they're stupid because they're slow to speak.

The love and energy on the stage proved what a good cause it was. The gala raised well over $200,000 for the organization. A whole bevy of stars took the stage together with the Our Time kids, performing songs of Bill Withers (who made a grand speech towards the end) along with songs and poems written by the kids. Rosie Perez, Ed Sherrin, Sam Waterston, Jesse L. Martin, Mandy Patinkin, Lauren Ambrose, Daryl Hall, Daphne Rubin-Vega, cast members from Spring Awakening, and other notables made appearances.

With all that, the most affecting thing was a rather humble and quiet speech made by a teenager named Andre Gillyard, who told a story – Our Time 3echoed by Bill Withers himself – of giving up, shutting down, just figuring he'd never amount to anything – and then having a fateful moment of discovery. 

For Gillyard, it was seeing something in the newspaper about Our Time, which has been active for seven years now. For Withers, many years earlier, it was meeting a local shopkeeper who simply showed patience and compassion. But look at that simple noun in the first sentence of the previous paragraph: "speech." Mr. Gillyard, a teenager with a still distinct stutter, made a moving and extremely well-written speech any high school valedictorian would have been proud of. He made a speech. We listened, we heard, we cheered. What more needs to be said?

Find out about Our Time's theater program, and their new summer camp, at their website or call (212) 414-9696.

1. Mandy Patinkin, Ed Sherrin, and Sam Waterston with Our Time kids
2. Bill Withers with Our Time kids and Spring Awakening cast members
3. Daryl Hall leads celebrities and Our Time kids in a rousing rendition of "Lean On Me"

Theater Review (NYC): Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music and The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis

Mortals Theater and Gray Lady Entertainment, Inc. are to be commended for giving these two obscure one-act plays by Arthur Kopit their first New York production. With strains of realism floating through absurdity, the plays document Kopit's early direction as a playwright. He became famous for other works, notably Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad and, later, Indians and Wings. These two one-acts, much less well known, carry the prevailing tenor of their Cold War milieu in interesting ways.

As entertainment for 21st century audiences, their merit is less certain. Chamber Music, which opens the evening, has aged the better of the two. Absurdity and insanity, its twin plot drivers, are always with us and never go out of style, though asylums like the one depicted have fallen somewhat out of favor. As in Ken Kesey's roughly contemporaneous One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the inmates of a loony bin noisily reverberate with the officially sanctioned craziness and violence of the "normal" world outside.

Eight women who think they are various important historical figures — one of whom, the play faintly suggests, might actually be Amelia Earhart — meet to consider their response to a perceived threat of an attack by the men's ward. Gaveled to a semblance of order by "Susan B. Anthony," the sulking, bickering group wades through their personal delusions to concoct together a series of increasingly insane plans. Here Kopit reflects Cold War paranoia much as Rod Serling did in many of his Twilight Zone teleplays, if more symbolically.

The precise identities the women have adopted (besides Anthony and Earhart, they are Gertrude Stein, Contanze Mozart, Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella of Spain, the explorer Osa Johnson, and the silent-film actress Pearl White) seem to matter less than the fact that they represent women who broke paternalistic molds. The roles do, however, encourage a batch of stirring performances, including Julianna Nelson's as the glamorous movie star and Laura Spaeth as Woman in Queenly Spanish Garb.

Was Kopit making the point that women who assert power are perceived as, in some sense, crazy? That message would have resonated more powerfully half a century ago than it does today, but as staged by director Robert F. Cole and acted by the talented company, the play's emotional weight — increased, rather than lightened, by the absurdity of the story — overwhelms whatever may be outmoded about it. The main theme is timeless: humanity's ugliness (as evidenced by repression, fear, and violence) coexists with the beauty that people can create and embody, from Mozart's heavenly music and Pearl White's heavenly body to Joan's purity of heart and Isabella's regal silence.

The second play, The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis, opens with the grouchy president of a country club belittling his wife over the phone with a series of misogynistic insults of the "take my wife, please" ilk. Later, after witnessing a sequence of directionless grousing, bickering, and bloviating, the mens' clubhouse literally crumbles around its helpless officers, as an unseen bevy of underwear-spurning women invade the mens' space with mad tennis skills and violent propensities. Resistance is futile – but are the women declaring their independence and value as human beings, or are they just out to destroy the safe, private world of the menfolk who've held them down? Kopit doesn't say.

Almost to a man, these fellows are unlikable and obnoxious. The sole exception is sad funnyman Max (the excellent Bill Krakauer), but he is obsequious and obsolete, and no one in this all-male group represents any positive aspect of manhood. General misanthropy, not misogyny, turns out to be the guiding vector of the play. With characters so unpleasant, the slow build of the action becomes a problem. Perhaps tighter direction would have helped, but I found the play overall to be unfocused and uninspiring.

That said, the friend who attended with me had the opposite reaction, finding it funnier and more compelling than Chamber Music, so your mileage may vary. The production continues at the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York City through April 27. For reservations visit Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.

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Theater Review (NYC): Dirt

There are two compelling reasons to see the new production of Dirt at Under St. Marks. First: after this important play's current run, it's off to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and who knows if or when it'll be back in New York. Second: Austrian-American actor Christopher John Domig's performance is one of those in which a play and an actor's work within the play seem inextricably bound.

Certainly, another actor could perform this one-man show, but while you're watching Domig, you can't imagine it. (Domig is actually responsible for having the play translated into English from the original German, in which the title is Dreck.)

Sad (Domig) is an illegal Iraqi immigrant working as a peddler in a western city. Paul Dvorak's potent translation suggests that the city is New York, but it could be anywhere in the West. Created by Austrian playwright Robert Schneider in the early 1990s in response to the first Iraq war, the character of Sad (short for Saddam) could be any alienated immigrant from a non-first-world country transplanted to any rich city.

On another level, though, Sad's monologue hits very specific targets. Domig's complete fusion with his character makes him a particular kind of Everyman, displaced and struggling, but induced to bottle up his anger and turn it against himself.

DirtThe monologue is punctuated by the phrase "I have no right to…" Sad feels he has no right to shout, to use public toilets, even to sit. "I'd never sit down on a park bench in this city."  Yet, in a tricky and sometimes scary game with the audience, he continually accuses himself of lying. Is his name even Saddam? "The truth is never elegant," he says, and though that may not always be the case for us, we accept — we know — that it is for him.

Whoever he is, he knows he cannot be loved, so he invites hatred and abuse instead because at least it's something. The blatant racism of Austria, circa 1992, may not have an exact corollary in New York City in 2008 — neither does the presence of public toilets, incidentally — but that's all the more reason to see the play now and explore this particular heart of darkness; it's easy to forget that it is always lurking.

The "story" is all interior to Sad's mind, yet the play feels as closely plotted as if it were a cleverly made, multi-character drama. The themes and repetitions in Schneider's language suggest a carefully constructed musical piece, a sonata or symphony. (The action is aided by subtle sound design by Greg Brostrom.) "My name is Sad, but I am not sad…"

When you leave the theater, you're thinking about the excellent performance and the fine writing, but after sleeping on it, you're left thinking, rather gloomily, about what it all means, and how startlingly relevant it remains even though it was written after a different and much smaller war.

Dirt runs through April 26 at Under St. Marks, NYC. Get tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.

Photo Credit: Jordan Craven

Theater Review (NYC): Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley

Shakespeare's history plays not only dramatized the lives and deaths of some of Britain's most legendary monarchs, they have also had some influence on the nature of those legends. The playwright's versions of the likes of Prince Hal and Richard III are eternally bound up with the real histories of the personages they represent.

Given Shakespeare's huge and unparalleled accomplishment, one wonders what he might have done with the character of Elizabeth I, who reigned during his own lifetime. Though the Queen gave her name to the theatrical movement of which Shakespeare was the greatest exemplar – Elizabethan drama – Shakespeare and his contemporaries naturally could not, for political reasons if nothing else, put her on stage. (Unless you count her christening in Henry VIII!)

Still, Elizabeth was one of the most fascinating, larger than life, legendary figures in all of English history, and although another Shakespeare hasn't come along, writers of subsequent eras have dramatized her countless times — from the opera stage to television and everywhere in between. Outlandish and magnificent, Elizabeth's famed persona has also attracted some of our greatest actresses to the role, especially in the screen era, beginning with Sarah Bernhardt in the 1911 silent film The Loves of Queen Elizabeth. Her broad legend has been able to encompass depictions of many kinds: gritty and tragic (Bette Davis, twice); vibrant and opulently sensual (Cate Blanchett in Shekhar Kapur's two spectacular films); grandly comic (Dame Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love); even ridiculous (Miranda Richardson in Blackadder, Series II).

Portraying Elizabeth on stage must be an even greater challenge. Stephanie Barton-Farcas, currently starring in Timothy Findley's new play Elizabeth Rex, proves she's fully up to it. Barton-Farcas is also the artistic director of Nicu's Spoon, which is presenting the New York premiere of this big, ambitious play. While Barton-Farcas may have absorbed nuances from some of the great screen performances of the past century, her Elizabeth is strong and distinct.

Elizabeth Rex

Playwright Timothy Findley took on an intriguing and challenging task with this play. The time is 1601. It's the night before the scheduled execution of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a former favorite of the Queen's, to whom she had been famously, romantically linked. To prevent rioting by Essex's supporters, a curfew is imposed, which (in Findley's conceit) traps Shakespeare (Scott Nogi) and some of his company in the royal barn for the night. The players have just performed Much Ado About Nothing for the Court and they begin Act I in post-performance hyperdrive, joking and prancing about, quaffing ale and getting bawdy with their cockney costume mistress (Rebecca Challis).

Through a bit of contrivance Findley has Her Majesty herself turn up in the barn, attended by a young lady of the court (Melanie Horton) and the elderly Lady Anne, Countess of Henslowe (played in grandly droll style – even while asleep – by Broadway veteran Merle Louise). All hell gets pent up, only to break loose gradually as Ned Lowenscroft (Michael DiGioia), a player who specializes in female roles and is dying of "the pox," refuses to pander to the Queen. Instead he engages her in a dangerous emotional game.

Lowenscroft is sure there's a woman somewhere inside the icon, despite her having remained pure and unmarried for the sake of England. The Queen takes up the flamboyant actor's gauntlet, challenging him to show "the man" inside his effeminate manner. The process by which these two marvelous characters wear down each others' enamel is the play's dramatic center.

The rest of the characters are mostly "character roles," and the excellent cast has a lot of fun with them. There's a weakness or two, but this ensemble piece is a good deal stronger than its weakest link. Bill Galarno presents a heartwarming aging jester, while Oliver Conant as the Falstaffian Luddy Beddoes reminded me of deep-voiced British actor Brian Blessed. Andrew Hutcheson, who was so good in the company's Richard III last year, does a nicely understated portrayal of the big Irish leading man Jack Edmund, who's just played Benedick for the Queen but won't bow to her. (Ireland figured importantly in Essex's rebellion.) Sammy Mena has a remarkable turn as a bear – a wonderfully conflicted creature, half feral howling, half fearful hiding.

But it is Barton-Farcas and DiGioia who keep things focused, and it's well that they are so good, because after the fast pace of Act I, Act II begins to bog down. I believe this lies with the direction and not the play itself. The structure seemed strong; it was the slow pace that bothered me. It's a long drama (for modern audiences, anyway), and playing it slowly nudged some scenes towards melodrama. The play has enough meat to it; there's no need to give the actors license to chew.

All in all, all's well that ends well (except for poor Essex, of course). Unlike in a Shakespeare history, no one here dies on stage, at least.  This substantial and rather difficult play uses Shakespeare's milieu to gamely confront matters of gender and sexuality. Nicu's Spoon proves an excellent utensil for the task.

At the Spoon Theater through April 19. Tickets online or call (866) 811-4111.

Theater Review (NYC): Hostage Song

Recent years have witnessed some of the most nightmarish events you'll ever see on the TV news. The fates of some of the Western hostages taken by "insurgents" during the early years of the Iraq war would seem unlikely candidates for the musical stage.

Hostage Song defies those odds. Clay McLeod Chapman's taut script follows the travails of two hostages, Jennifer (Hanna Cheek) and Jim (Paul Thureen): cut off from their jobs and families, bound and blindfolded, they struggle towards a peculiar transcendence rooted in their utter degradation. It sounds crazy, but in the event it's touching, funny, gripping, and ultimately, yes, transcendent theater.

Kyle Jarrow's darkly powerful pop-rock songs do not always further the story as in a traditional musical. They illuminate the characters' states of mind and emotional history, but sometimes stand apart from the action. Given the Beckettian out-of-time feel of the hostages' closed world, this isn't, however, the flaw it would be in a different kind of story. And in other places, the songs do carry character development and some action; it is partially through song, for example, that Jennifer and Jim's developing feelings for each other, transference-based as they are, are shown to be nevertheless honest and true. Their extreme situation wrenches them into a space so unreal that erupting into song seems as sensible as anything else.

Hanna Cheek and Abe Goldfarb in "Hostage Song"
Hanna Cheek and Abe Goldfarb. Photo by Samantha Marble.

The Kraine Theater's good-sized stage gives visionary director Oliver Butler room to position the band on stage while leaving plenty of room for his captives to crawl about in the front. Butler's use of space is a subtle but important aspect of the play's power. So are Amanda Rehbein's set design and Sean Tribble's costumes. For example, while nearly all the action we see is interior to the characters – there is no graphic violence whatsoever – a simple costume change, from drab grey to orange jumpsuits, evokes what their captors are doing and what's going on in the wider world. The mere taking off of a cap turns a scary authoritarian figure into Jim's young son. A battered file cabinet lying on its side performs multiple duties as a prop that's both utilitarian and symbolic. Butler even uses to advantage the big difference in height between his leads.

"It'll never be another Rent," my theatergoing companion remarked, but she meant because of the subject matter, not the music. Another Rent is certainly not what Chapman and Jarrow meant to create here. It is, however, remarkable that within the show's horrific framework the time-honored threads of good theater vibrate strongly. The main characters' families are called forth. Played, in imaginative and imaginary scenes, by the solid supporting cast, they deepen our understanding of the fragile human beings Cheek and Thureen create so vividly for us. A relationship, almost a romance, develops. Though its central events are "ripped from the headlines," every other aspect of this production is blatantly artificial. The result, through the magic of art, is something forceful, disturbing, and hyper-real.

Hostage Song runs through April 26 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4th St., NYC. Tickets available online or call (212) 868-4444.

Theater Review (NYC): Almost An Evening by Ethan Coen, with F. Murray Abraham and Mark Linn-Baker

Big names go a long way. Multiple-Oscar winner Ethan Coen is so big right now, especially after No Country for Old Men, that success has seemed almost a foregone conclusion for his Off-Broadway debut as a playwright. (Foregone in New York, anyway, where we especially love our Coen Brothers for living here and not in Hollywood.) With F. Murray Abraham and Mark Linn-Baker heading up the cast, the play would have had to have been quite bad to fail.

Almost an Evening is a triptych of short, funny plays that deal with deep matters in a consciously shallow manner. Together they constitute an enjoyable but very slight "almost evening" of theater that, without the big names attached, probably wouldn't have had the legs to move from its original Atlantic Theater Company home to its new, larger Bleecker Street home.

In Waiting, a nebbish-everyman (Joey Slotnick) waits, and waits, through a comic version of a bureaucratic nightmare. Slow-paced, it feels like a 78-rpm Monty Python sketch played at 33 1/3, with a tiny plot like those old-fashioned multi-panel New Yorker cartoons.

In the closing play, Debate, the primal, foul-mouthed God Who Judges (Abraham) and the buttoned-up God Who Loves (Linn-Baker) "debate" sin and man's relationship to God. Mark Linn-Baker and F. Murray Abraham in Almost an Evening/Debate Absurdities ensue, some silly, some clever. Abraham's thundering Jehovah is hilarious, like George Carlin in his prime but even rougher. It's a real treat seeing these two masterful actors spar. Not much of a play, though. Which is not to imply that it claims to be. Far from it, as the later scenes make clear.

In terms of stagecraft, the middle piece, Four Benches, is the best. Unlike the other two, which play quite smoothly, it is written and directed awkwardly. It's sketchlike. A central scene is too long. J.R. Horne in Almost an Evening/Four Benches But, though funny, its humor depends less on "business" and more on character, and it has a touch of of the dark quality that pulses through the Coen Brothers' films.

It's a fairly simple story of a disenchanted British spy (the superb Tim Hopper) searching for more meaning in his life. There's a real plot involving characters with some depth. It's a truism, with an emphasis on the "true," that a character growing and changing before us is what really draws us into a drama. Or a comedy, for that matter. Even if that change is practically all that happens, theater happens.

Almost An Evening runs through June 1 at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street.

Photo Credits: Photos by Doug Hamilton. 1. Mark Linn-Baker and F. Murray Abraham in Debate 2. J.R. Horne in Four Benches

Theater Review (NYC): A (Tooth) Fairy Tale

The Vital Theatre Company's A (Tooth) Fairy Tale is a charming little musical for kids, with a simple story by Ben H. Winters and credible songs by Rick Hip-Flores. Running weekends at the Soho Playhouse, it concerns a Tooth Fairy afflicted with ennui, a ten-year-old boy chafing under an excess of rules, and a daring switcheroo.

The point of the play is to entertain kids with song and dance and humorous business, and that it does. Secondarily, it provides a moral the story illustrates quite neatly, though it's delivered with a heavy hand. (Hint: it begins with "golden" and ends with "rule.") The talented, energetic cast is boisterous enough to keep the attention of the little ones (down to age four), while making the characters interesting and sympathetic enough for the bigger children (up to age twelve, as advertised, although I suspect real ‘tweens would find the show too babyish).

The story itself, it must be said, is a little lumpy. My theatergoing companion, aged eight and therefore smack in the middle of the intended age group, had some follow-up questions I couldn't answer. Either I'm not very sharp, or she had identified holes in the plot. (A bit of both, actually.)

This didn't seem to reduce her enjoyment, though, or that of the many other kids of various ages in the house. A tiny girl sitting behind me squealed in delight when Santa Claus appeared. Yes – Santa in springtime! Things really do go topsy-turvy in this tale.

It seems that by giving her magic scepter to Samuel and abdicating her tooth-collecting duties, the Fairy has screwed something up big-time in the cosmic order of things. It takes a special council of the heavies of faerydom — from Old Saint Nick and the Easter Bunny right down to the mop-headed Boogeyman — to figure out how to set things right.

The cast of seven switches adroitly between their human roles (in most cases, several each) and magical ones. Without looking at the program, it would be hard to keep track of how many actual actors were in the cast, and that's good. You're supposed to get caught up in this sort of play, lost in the world it creates. That's the most important thing, and this well-staged entertainment gets the important stuff right.

A (Tooth) Fairy Tale plays Saturdays and Sundays at noon through May 25. For reservations visit the Vital Theater online or call (212) 691-1555.

Theater Review (NYC): TBA by Carla Ching

Carla Ching's new play, TBA, directed by Denyse Owens, is one of the central productions of Second Generation's celebration of its eleventh year. Of the production's fine qualities, first mention should go to it star, Lloyd Suh, an actor of remarkable talent, concentration, comic timing, and stamina.

Suh plays Silas Park, a Korean-American writer on the verge of major literary success. Obsessing over Maya (the excellent Michi Barall), the ex-girlfriend he still loves, Silas has withdrawn to his small East Village apartment and won't come out, even when solicited by Darren, an enthusiastic literary agent played by the droll Dustin Chinn, so hyperactive he constantly trips over his lines but so amusing you don't care.

Evoked effectively by Nick Francone's dusty-looking, dirty-window-laden set, Silas's humble but homey pad holds nearly all the action. This consists of Silas's interactions with Maya, with the agent, with his adoptive brother Finn (the solid J. Julian Christopher), and with Maxie, a restaurant worker who befriends the shut-in from the sidewalk below his window.

Next to Silas, Maxie is the play's most interesting character. She is played with assurance by Nedra McClyde, who I saw last year in Victor Woo. Here, rather than being asked to dance and sing, McClyde plays an intensely emotional woman with some secrets of her own. Her infiltration of Silas's rather wobbly orbit seems at first a forced plot device, but that changes.

"I don't like people, Darren," Silas tells the agent early on. "They freak me out." But much more than that – and much less – lies behind Silas's retreat into his urban version of hermithood, and it is the playwright's skill in holding things back and revealing them slowly and effectively that keeps the story, which might have been claustrophobic, flowing and tense.

Unfortunately this knack deserts her during a stretch of the second act, collapsing a chunk of the play into a flat, dry talkfest. The act could do with some cold-eyed tightening up. But a lovely final scene helps redeem it.

Ching is a gifted writer, both in the elevated style expressed by her writer-characters and in the everyday conversations she writes for all her creations. Now and then the shifts between poetic and realistic language feel a little abrupt or misplaced, as in the voicemail messages Silas leaves for Maya, which sometimes resemble the words of a melodramatic adolescent more than those of a successful literary figure in his thirties, much less of a normal man. But mostly, Ching's language leaps and twirls like the movements of a finely trained, gifted athlete. It shoots and usually scores. Quite often it's very funny.

Silas's tough-guy brother Finn, though less technically articulate than Silas the writer or Maya the actress, is a creature entirely of language. He arrives late in Act I to spur the plot, but stays to complete Ching's world of words. Played powerfully by Mr. Christopher, Finn, short for Phineas, is a street-hardened Latino with previously unsuspected stores of intellectual power. This angry, emotional creature bears a whiff of the Tennessee Williams type of tragic figure.

Suh is on stage for just about the entire two-hour play. Moving fluidly from a dry, comedic mode through various forms of squirming discomfort and pain, he even delivers a beautifully written, Shakespearean-style explanatory monologue with quiet conviction. In that and numerous other moments, Ching's poetic vision finds fulfillment in Suh's masterful performance.

Through April 5 at the Milagro Theater inside the CSV Cultural Center. Order tickets online or call (212) 352-3101. If you go… arrive early and try to grab front row seats, as the theater has a bit of a legroom shortage.

Theater Review (NYC): Great Hymn of Thanksgiving and Conversation Storm at the Frigid Festival

The art of theater has flourished for thousands of years, but it never runs out of room for experimentation. Three talented artists have combined to realize two separate but conceptually related experimental pieces by Rick Burkhardt as part of the New York Frigid Festival.

Great Hymn of Thanksgiving, which takes up the first third or so of the hour-long show, bridges the gap between musical and meta-theatrical performance. Three actor-musicians – Burkhardt, Ryan Higgins, and Andy Gricevich – sit around a table playing percussion and sometimes vocalizing. A few of their instruments are standard ones – cymbals, a zither, a triangle – but they're often not played in the usual way, and much of the sound comes from objects "found" at the table – dishes, cutlery, bowls, and glasses filled with water.

One gets the sense that there's some internal logic to the sequence of quiet, slow sections and loud cacophonies of rattling and table-pounding, but if there is, it isn't easily teased out. It doesn't help that one loses patience during some of the near-silent sections. The spoken parts include evocative elements such as a quiet litany of Iraqi war dead, but these seem cobbled in with little if any context. On the whole, it's an interesting piece that has one at the edge of one's seat at times, but would have more impact if it stepped more lively, or were compressed into a shorter time-frame.

The Iraq war references take on more meaning as the second part begins. Conversation Storm is a play about three high school friends, now in their thirties, sitting in a restaurant revisiting the intellectual debates of their youth with a discussion about whether torture is ever justified. Self-consciously acting in a play, giving each other director's notes and stage directions, and lecturing the audience, they dig ever deeper into a psychological game where they try to break each others' will until it no longer seems a game. Nightmarish imagery and plain sophistry are both enlisted to challenge moral principles; we are gripped; tables turn. But the deliberately fractured action careens between genuinely dramatic intensity and inexplicable weirdness.

Like the musical portion of the show, this part would benefit from some tightening up; I frequently lost patience with the insistent distractions from what the characters were actually doing to each other, especially in the latter part of the play where it stopped making an effort to engage the audience. No doubt Burkhardt is diluting the emotional power of his piece on purpose. But if it is to make a statement, I wasn't sure what the statement was (perhaps the dehumanizing effect of torture, but that hardly needs saying) – and if it was primarily for effect, the effect was disconcerting and not always engagingly so. All experiments are valid in art, and theater – the most visceral and potentially powerful of all the arts – is ground zero for the cutting edge. But this edge didn't cut evenly.

Presented by Horse Trade and EXIT Theater, through March 9 in repertory at the Frigid Festival. At the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4 St. (across the street from La Mama).

Theater Review (NYC): STUCK! at the Frigid Festival

The Frigid Festival is one of those idealistic, from-the-grassroots alternatives to bigger, more corporate events such as the Fringe Festivals. In this self-described "celebration of independent theater," all box office income goes to the actual productions, while the Festival rather cutely passes the tip bucket for itself.

A one-woman play written and performed by Jennie Franks, STUCK! is a fine example of the kind of (literally) underground theater that flourishes in the context of an event like the Frigid. Kiki, a no-longer-young suburbanite with children and a jittery marriage, is trying – with a faint air of desperation – to maintain a cosmopolitan social life by staying on top of fashion trends and clinging to an Upper West Side lifestyle. Her frazzled morning slams to a halt when she gets locked in the basement bathroom of a Starbucks, with little more than a weak cell phone signal, a giant turd, and her own insecure inner narrative.

Expectedly, Kiki lays her neuroses out for us as she talks herself through her unsanitary ordeal. Unexpectedly, breaches in the fourth wall toy with the audience's assumptions, as the character of Kiki flowers into a bearer of social and political commentary. Ms. Franks' convincing New Yorker morphs into the character of the actress herself (complete with British accent) and back. The first of these shifts disturbs and discomforts the audience, but as the play progresses they become sort of the point, and although last night's fairly sizable crowd contained a lot of Frigid supporters and friends, the cheers for Ms. Franks at the end of her original little piece weren't just friendly, but well-deserved.

The Frigid productions are all supposed to be under one hour, and with their tiny budgets it's not too surprising that quite a few are solo shows like this one. But while small in scale they are large in creative energy. I attended a "Snapshots" presentation last week, where each of a dozen productions staged a five-minute taste, and I'm going to try and catch at least a couple more. You can check out the whole schedule here.

Presented by <a href="" target="_blank">Horse Trade</a> and EXIT Theater, through March 9 in repertory at the Frigid Festival. At the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4 St. (across the street from La Mama).

Theater Review (Brooklyn, NY): Macbeth with Patrick Stewart

I used to say Patrick Stewart was responsible for one of the great theater experiences of my life. Now I have to say TV's Captain Picard was behind two of them.

In Stewart's solo version of A Christmas Carol, which he performed on Broadway for several winters during the 1990s, there was only one man on stage telling/enacting the classic Dickens tale. But the production didn't shout "tour de force" or feel tricky in any way. He made our experience of the story warm, enthralling, and genuinely wonderful.

The contrast between that touching and generous performance and his current role shows that for a man with such an unmistakable voice, Stewart has a large range. But before I get to the Scottish Play, a further word about the actor. American critics often describe him as best known in the US for his Star Trek character. That's true in one sense, but in another it's not. Star Trek fans are notoriously geeky, which, by definition, means intensely curious about the object of their geekdom. I'd wager the great majority of them know as much about the shows' stars as they do about the warp drive. Any self-respecting Trekker knows William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are both Jewish, Majel Barrett was Gene Roddenberry's wife, and Patrick Stewart had a respected career as a Shakespearean actor in England, to which he returned after the long run of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The sexagenarian actor has expressed regret that he's now too old ever to play Hamlet. It's safe to say it doesn't matter, though, now that we have his Macbeth. In the vicious Scottish king, the actor finds a deathly torment of indecision, though it's more compressed in time than the Dane's. Once the murders have commenced, fate grabs the Macbeths by their bloody shirts, and there's nothing they can do about what they do, besides wail and gnash their teeth.

Rupert Goold's ambitious Chichester Festival Theatre production, in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 22, is one of the great Macbeths of our time, and if it's not the greatest in recent memory I'd be amazed. Stewart and the extraordinarily intense Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) lead a uniformly excellent ensemble. And speaking of uniforms, the fascist/Stalinist setting isn't the first for this play, but it works well. Macbeth is, after all, about terror and totalitarianism. This aspect of the production also comments, without having to make a point of it, on the second Bush Administration's disastrous power grab.

What's more striking, in terms of modernity, is the heavy use of rear-projection video and loud sound effects. These are well integrated, and so effective in adding to the impact that one feels Shakespeare would have approved wholeheartedly.

Everything great theater can be and do, this production is and does. It has absolutely top-notch acting, of course, but also flair and humor and bonechilling thrills. I was sure they'd found some tricky way to suddenly and drastically lower the temperature in the theater as the terrifying image of Banquo's ghost ended the first half. In one of many inventive bits of staging, the Weird Sisters aren't outdoor hags but creepy hospital nurses, and the ghastly way they give Macbeth their second set of predictions really shocks. In another, MacDuff's family is murdered in a stunning stop-motion sequence.

Yet some of the play's most iconic scenes, like Lady Macbeth's guilt-wracked sleepwalk and Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, are played beautifully straight. With the possible exception of a few specific video images, all the effects seem integral and necessary, part of a complete and consistent and totally captivating vision of the play. This Macbeth is a theatrical spectacle in the true, best sense.

Theater Review (NYC): The Play About the Naked Guy

David Bell’s breezy, witty, colorful comedy The Play About the Naked Guy cleverly sends up Off- and Off-Off-Broadway and takes a hilarious poke at the gay nightclub scene as well. If that leads you to imagine a lot of in-jokes and self-referential gags, you’re right, but don’t let that deter you from seeing this delicious confection. Gay or straight, backstage insider or casual playgoer, you’ll come out in a jolly mood.

The one-liners and flashy bits zip rapidly by, but if you miss one, six even better ones are on the way.

Eddie: Pleasure doing business with you, Mrs. Anderson.

Mrs. Anderson: Those were my husband’s final words.

The plot may be a little Swiss Cheesy, but no matter. The Integrity Players are in dire straits: down to three company members, they can’t draw an audience to their “lesser known classics,” but Artistic Director Dan (Jason Schuchman) refuses to compromise his principles and do anything more commercial. nakedguy3He and his wife Amanda (Stacy Mayer) have a baby on the way and no money to raise it, unless they give up their artistic dream and cave in to Amanda’s overbearing mother (the hilariously regal Ellen Reilly), who’s about to withdraw her funding of the failing company.

Harold (Wayne Henry), Integrity’s third remaining member, is an actor with great talent but a sad personal life. His loneliness leads him to a club where he meets the Bialystock-like Eddie Russini (Christopher Borg), a producer who’s grown rich on gimmicky, gay-themed stage shows like “Naked Boys Running Around Naked”. nakedguy1 With his two preening minions in tow (the screechingly funny Christopher Sloan and Chad Austin), and a haughty porn star like the ones you sometimes see on (Dan Amboyer) ready to take the lead role that would otherwise have been Harold’s, Eddie may just be the struggling Integrity Players’ saviour – but at what cost?

Kit: I have a new master! And his name is Uta Hagen!

With a lot of help from director Tom Wojtunik and a fine cast and crew, Bell has created an entertainment that’s sweet-natured and smart, very funny with just the needed touches of touchingness. He plays each of his plot strands fully through – the coming out story (as is sometimes seen in raunchier fashion on, the love elements, the character development – even as he mocks his characters, the crass and the pretentious alike. Sometimes Bell seemed to be reading my critic’s mind; his spoof of small theater companies’ invariably vapid mission statements is priceless.

Insider references aside, The Play About the Naked Guy is a show for all of us – all of us grown-ups, anyway. Might want to leave the little ‘uns at home for this one.

Presented by the Emerging Artists Theater at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, which ably plays itself in this production, in repertory through March 2. Buy tickets online or call (866) 811-4111.

Theater Review (NYC): Conjur Woman: A Folk Opera

What better way to start observing Black History Month than to take in Sheila Dabney's spellbinding performance of Conjur Woman, Beatrice Manley's one-act folk opera. Backed by music performed on stage by the redoubtable Yukio Tsuji (guitar and percussion) and Jasper McGruder (harmonica and percussion), with tunes composed by the performers along with LaMama's founder, Ellen Stewart, Dabney belts out the Conjur Woman's tale of woe in a series of songs and hollers that vividly suggest the music of slavery times.

Conjur Woman turns her husband into a tree so the slave traders won't get him. Alas, she can't save him from the sawmill. That's the story in an acornshell. But what a telling. Jun Maeda's simple, beautiful set of jagged wooden walls changes color and mood from song to song (Jeff Tapper's lighting design is superb), serving as both cabin and woods. With a little bag of charms and herbs, a rope, and the passion in her rich, piercing, worldly-dark voice, Dabney takes us into the heart of darkness.

Conjur Woman
Background musicians left to right: Harry Mann on the mystical bass, Jasper McGruder, and Yukio Tsuji, backing Shelia Dabney. Photo by Brian Dilg.

The simple story roils with irony and allegory. Conjur Woman's magic is so strong it gives her power over nature itself – but only in her homeworld. Foreign gods (Christianity, modernity) render her charms inert. "God don't like that," she admits of her conjuring. But later: "God be with me in my hatred. God bring him back to me, God keep us together, God take us out of here." But even invoking the Christian God by three names (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) can't help her, and at the sawmill, the "machine ain't got feelings. Can't conjur machine."

We, however, are made to feel the full force of the conjuring. This isn't "Poof, you're a tree." Conjur Woman sings us a visceral description of how the man's body, part by part, becomes tree, and her image of his eyes still visible behind the wood, shining in silent terror as he's chopped into boards, is harrowing. This magic spell is no plot device; it's the substance and grain of the story.

Though drawn from the black experience, the music through which the tale is told – and the show as whole, staged by La Mama's Resident Director, George Ferencz – should resonate with any thinking being. The gulf between the "old ways" of wonder and nature and the new ways of technology is evident in cultures the world over. Though many centuries old, the battle is still with us, ever raging, if sometimes obscured by day-to-day life, inside our simian brains. Conjur Woman is a deep draught of wise wonder and emotional magic, with a mesmerizing central performance by the remarkable Shelia Dabney.

Through Feb. 10 at The Annex at La Mama. 66 E. 4 St., NYC. Visit Ovationtix online for tickets, or call (866) 811-4111.

Theater Review (Bronx, NY): Agnes of God

America, 1979. Ten grim syllables indeed. One sign of the Me Generation's ascendancy was the vogue for, and faith in, psychiatry as panacea. Through its many flavors and techniques, this alluring semi-science promised the self-grokking and inner peace that had become elusive amidst the brittle secularism of the age and the unfettering of the greed that we could already smell in the air.

A deeply psychological play like Agnes of God might not have been plotted to depend on a technique like hypnotism if it were written today. And Dr. Martha Livingston, the court-appointed psychiatrist tasked with determining a young, visionary nun's competency to stand trial for the murder of her newborn, might not have been written as so indulgently self-analytical.

Despite that dated aspect, the play's overall dramatic soundness makes it still effective, and its theme – faith and unbelief, the scientific vs. the miraculous – resonates strongly in this new century of militant Islam and Dawkinsian atheism. Center Stage Community Playhouse's new revival, staged in a spacious converted chapel, does well by John Pielmeier's claustrophobic, but intermittently funny, three-character play.

Agnes of God at Center Stage Community Playhouse
Ruth Chiamulera, Keri Seymour, and Pauline Walsh in Agnes of God

The story was made known to a wider audience through Norman Jewison's 1985 film version that starred Jane Fonda, Meg Tilly, and, in the meaty role of Mother Miriam Ruth, Anne Bancroft. Bancroft's seething performance, and before that, Geraldine Page's famous, Tony-nominated portrayal on Broadway, might seem tough to live up to, but the relatively unknown Pauline Walsh has a grand time with the part here, speedily banishing any famous ghosts.

The play's outward mysteries are straightforward: who fathered Sister Agnes's baby, and who killed it? But the unfolding of the old nun's own character forms a powerful parallel to the whodunit, and Walsh plays that power like a rope through her fingers, easily untangling the script's knottiness, with the able help of Ruth Chiamulera as Dr. Livingston. If, in the end, Mother Miriam is rather more, and rather less, than the kindly, worldly old nun she first appeared to be, we are grateful to have been so artfully misled.

The role of the "holy innocent" Sister Agnes is full of gristle too, and Keri Seymour bites bravely into it. Frightened out of her mind, hemmed in by the demons of her childhood, shifting from denial to release, from small and meek to towering and angry and back, Sister Agnes is simultaneously an ancient archetype – the visionary, stigmatic ascetic – and a creature of her psychologically aware times. Covered in a flowing white habit, with (like Mother Miriam) only the center of her face showing, she shocks and smolders, as does this production, thoughtfully directed by Tal Aviezer. Definitely worth the subway ride to the Bronx.

Performances are Feb. 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, and 10 at Foster Hall, 2474 Westchester Ave. in the Bronx (Westchester Square stop on the 6 train). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sunday matinees at 2. General admission $18, Senior and Student $15. $2 discount on General Admission tickets for Bronx Cultural Card holders. For reservations call (718) 823-6434 or email [email protected].  Caution: cigarettes are smoked on stage.

Theater Review (NYC): Glimpses of the Moon at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel

Glimpses of the Moon is a new but charmingly old-fashioned “jazz age musical.” Based on a novel by Edith Wharton, it was written specifically for the Algonquin Hotel’s famous Oak Room. As soon as we hear composer John Mercurio’s first, Gershiwinian piano chords and see Lisa Zinni’s authentic-looking costumes, we settle comfortably into the 1920s, and the bright-eyed cast and almost Wodehouse-like plot do nothing to dispel the spell.

A musical comedy of manners, Glimpses tells a jaunty little story that’s very specific to its time. In the Roaring Twenties, divorce was newly acceptable. almost fashionable, and women in particular were beginning to wriggle out of some of the chains of social convention. Susy Branch (Xanadu‘s Patti Murin) and the perfectly named Nick Lansing (Stephen Plunkett, with Michael Minarek taking over on Feb. 19) are moneyless social climbers who’ve attached themselves rather precariously to high society. Their scheme, to marry for convenience and live off their pricey wedding gifts until they can find wealthy “real” spouses, intersects with the lives of their high-living friends, who include Streffy, a British fop with little money but a handy property in Maine, and Ellie and Nelson Vanderlyn, a rich older couple with a New York City brownstone and a Newport mansion.

Glimpses of the Moon

If you’re envisioning elaborate sets, stop. There are no sets, not even a stage, just a small space in front of the piano. The Oak Room is a cabaret supper club, not a theater. This is pointed up during the number “Right Here, Right Now,” set at the Oak Room itself (of 1922) and sung by a different guest performer at each show. (Last night it was KT Sullivan; Susan Lucci and Joyce DeWitt are among those coming up.)

Director Marc Bruni uses the small central space and the room’s shape cleverly, keeping the action tightly controlled and more or less intelligible, though those seated at the far ends of the room may have missed some of the lyrics during the faster sections. In general the actors’ unamplified voices carried Tajlei Levis’s witty lyrics loudly enough, which is important, for they are sharp and precise, with occasionally Cowardly turns of phrase.

Ms. Murin is sweetly disarming as Susy. Her Disney-perfect voice contrasts nicely with the knowing alto of Beth Glover, who steals many scenes as the riper Ellie. Ellie’s social independence takes a hard-hearted form, but she gets the funniest lines, particularly in the hilarious number “Letters to Nelson.” For his part, the clueless Nelson (Daren Kelly) makes much of the show’s one ultimately sad development, in “Tell Her I’m Happy.” Mr. Plunkett, as Nick, is suitably unprepossessing, but it is the scholarly young swain’s celebration of the Vanderlyns’ Newport manse as the perfect place to get started writing his novel that sets the story’s moral conflict in motion.

Algonquin Hotel, EntranceAct II opens with a comical boating accident that suddenly makes the dandyish Streffy into the Earl he’s always pined to be, giving Mr. Peters, who plays him with an intense, absurd, and very funny grace, the opportunity to bring down the house with “Terrible News.” A shopping scene in B. Altman’s has Ellie make the ambitious but stuffy Coral over into a more glamorous creature, the better to make off with Nick. I suspect you’re beginning to get the picture.The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel

Mr. Mercurio interprets his own music on the piano. He has collaborated before with Ms. Levis, and the partnership results in songs that trip lightly through the ears – and, to some degree, the eras. The chords and rhythms evoke jazz age music, but big sustained vocal blasts at climactic moments suggest modern-day, corporate Broadway. Though designed for this limited space, the show could certainly do well in a bigger setting. But the elegant, dark-paneled Oak Room suits the show’s jazz age finery just fine.

Through March 10, Mondays only. For tickets, visit the show’s website or call (212) 419-9331.

Theater Review (NYC): Fabrik

After an extensive run through Norway, where it originated, a powerful little piece of theater called Fabrik, subtitled The Legend of M. Rabinowitz, has landed in New York City. A historical drama about Norwegian Jews prior to and during the Holocaust, Fabrik is told through puppetry, music, miniatures, and masks, but its power lies in its fusion of crafty stage magic with a near-minimalist – dare I say Lutheran? – economy of narrative.

The Wakka Wakka Ensemble's three talented puppeteers and whip-smart production team present the true story of Moritz Rabinowitz, who immigrated from Poland to Norway in 1911. Starting with very little, he eventually became a prominent businessman with a chain of clothing stores. But he was also a prolific writer of articles attacking anti-Semitism and warning Norwegians about the rise of Hitler. Upon the German invasion of Norway in 1940, Rabinowitz's volubility caused the Nazis to perceive him as the leader of the local Jewish resistance.

Fabrik010This is an edge-of-your-seat production, and waiting to learn whether Moritz will escape the Nazis is the least of the reasons for the suspense. Scenes of commerce, domesticity, battle, singing, dancing, and the play's centerpiece, a lovely and terrifying dream sequence, flow smoothly one into the next, but from moment to moment we almost never know what's coming. In the midst of every kind of theatrical artifice, we are completely swept up in the reality of the story.

This, I know, is a big reason people use puppetry and other distancing techniques. Just as storylines that wouldn't work on a live-action sitcom can feel touching and real on The Simpsons, puppets can create a magical space that frees our minds in a way live actors – because we feel their presence so viscerally – cannot.

Fabrik003The Wakka Wakka Ensemble masterfully employs fabrication to sharpen history's blurry reality, and not only through their puppets and masks, evocative and magnetic as those are. Blasting through a darkened theater, a German spotlight seeks out the puppet-boat on which puppet-Moritz has purchased an attempt at escape to England. The air over the stage has become the water of the harbor merely through sound and the motion of the puppet figures and puppet props. In another scene on another scale, a miniature Nazi ship slides into the miniature town's miniature harbor, and I literally saw the tiny vessel bobbing in the "water," though it wasn't bobbing at all.

A brutal Nazi guard is nothing but a pair of boots – no more is needed. A murderous-looking mask stunningly personifies the evil behind the infamous, fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And so on. It feels pedestrian and a little bit wrong to even be picking out such moments, since the play is so seamless. Indeed, the production itself felt like such a team effort that the printed program's failure to list which ensemble members were the actual puppeteers, and the identities of all of the many characters they portrayed, seemed not just okay but appropriate. But I hope they give you a sense of Fabrik's many small marvels, and of why it is well worth seeing.

Through Feb. 17 at Urban Stages Theatre, 259 W. 30 St., NYC. Tickets online at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.

Photo captions: 1. THE RABINOWITZ FAMILY, l to r, JOHANNA (wife), EDITH (daughter) and MORITZ. 2. MORITZ RABINOWITZ facing boots and DAVID ARKEMA. Photo credit: Nordland Visual Theatre

Theater Review (NYC): Wanda’s World

Aimed at “the tween in all of us,” the brash, sparkling new musical Wanda’s World lives up to its billing splendidly. Director-choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett fashions Beth Falcone’s rock and pop-inspired tunes into a series of colorful song-and-dance numbers that tug the ear, delight the eye, and yank you through the story in spite of yourself.

It’s a story with universal kid appeal, including for the kids who still live inside adults. Thirteen-year-old Wanda, played by a petite firecracker named Sandie Rosa, has a rich imaginative life: she stars in her own TV show, but only in her bedroom, attended solely by her loyal dog Spangles (Chris Vettel). In real life, Wanda is starting at a new school and terrified of not making any friends. An additional, more unusual problem magnifies her fears, and things look grim when we’re introduced to the cliquey kids she’s going to be thrown in with.

A number called “She’s So Last Week” exemplifies the show’s cleverness, as the popular girls quiz Wanda on what bands she likes and so forth. Putting on a friendly front, cheerleader Jenny Hightower (Jennifer Bowles) undercuts the newcomer with every other line. Meanwhile, football star and straight-A heartthrob Ty Belvedere (the superb tenor James Royce Edwards) is running for class president. In his number “What’s Not to Like?” he extols his own perfect virtues while allowing a peek at the good heart inside. When jealous P.J. Dunbar (Leo Ash Evens) prods Wanda and her videocamera to pursue Ty to his house for a post-game interview, a dangerous, if not very original, scheme is afoot.

It’s a feel-good tale that actually makes you feel good, not icky. Encouraged by a pair of sympathetic teachers, played twinkly-eyed by Broadway veteran Valerie Wright and the delightful Mr. Vettel, Wanda’s true talents and social skills emerge. The “villians” get their comeuppance without cruelty, and there’s even a romantic side plot furthered by a couple of charming cups of coffee. Though directed pointedly at “tweens” – kids roughly ten to twelve – the show mostly held the attention of my not-quite-eight year old companion, who “liked the dog” but also, as it turned out later at “how was the show?” time, had followed most of the fairly complex plot and was anxious to relate it.

Wanda's World

The performances are excellent, with not a single weak link. A few colorfully painted pieces of furniture and backdrop video effects create the necessary schoolyard, TV studio, and bedroom sets, while Aaron Spivey’s inventive lighting and Jennifer Caprio’s wonderful costumes are almost supporting characters of their own, especially during the appropriately garish and slightly scary Halloween Dance segment. Only a small technical problem with one of the microphones (and the small stage) reminded us that we weren’t seeing a full-on Broadway production.

Speaking of Broadway, Wanda’s World is rather long for a one-act; it would take only a modest expansion to turn it into a two-act fit for the Broadway stage. It has all the ingredients. The spoken scenes – written by Eric H. Weinberger, who cooked up the story with Ms. Falcone – are just long enough to advance the plot and give us needed breathers between the highly energized musical numbers. And the limber cast delivers it all with kid-friendly, enlarged realism.

The music itself relies on kicked-up but fluid modern rock arrangements of a fairly small number of easy-to-grasp themes. It’s not easy to write and arrange music that seems to effortlessly balance simplicity and fun with originality and musical literacy. Ms. Falcone, with musical director Douglas Oberhamer, has done so.

In short, this romp of a show is a pure delight, appropriate for any but the smallest children, and for any adult with a yen for fun. Wanda’s World, presented by Amas Musical Theatre, plays through Feb. 10 at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45 St., NYC. Tickets at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.