Theater Review (NYC): North at La Mama

Ready for something different? North is a different kind of show, and that's appropriate, as it's the creation of Heather Christian, a different kind of singer.

Neither a drama nor a musical, North consists of an hour of music on a white-decked stage, with several dance segments, a shadow puppet number, and striking, if unexplained, visual and sonic imagery. Ms. Christian's band of musician-dancers, the Arbornauts, first enter, marionette-like, amid a series of blackouts, and the songspiel begins with Ms. Christian playing Chopin on a grand piano, which leads into a beautiful song by The Decemberists called "The Engine Driver."

Here it becomes apparent that Ms. Christian – in the most general sense, a singer-songwriter – is fundamentally a voice fetishist. Like pop singer Regina Spektor but to a much greater extreme, she makes her voice a self-referential and autoerotic object rather than an instrument through which thoughts and feelings are expressed. The expression here, the drama, is in the musical arrangements and the staging.

Whether the star's alternately breathy, nasal, infantilized, and heavily vibrating vocalizations strike you as interesting or annoying will determine to a great extent how much you enjoy the avant-garde entertainment she has devised. The songs themselves, some her own and some covers, are set with sometimes lovely, sometimes howling, occasionally bewildering arrangements and in some cases, curiously alluring choreography and evocative video. The snowy, angelic, dreamy, outlandish costumes and white-clad set suggest a winter landscape; there is a recurring theme of an airline flight; and the order of the songs feels vaguely meaningful. But otherwise the cantata has no story.

Ms. Christian's own piano-based compositions tend to be sparely written art songs and mood pieces that climax dramatically. The other four musicians play trumpet, clarinet, violin, electric guitar, melodica, and drums, and despite some out-of-tune playing (intentional? I couldn't tell) the impassioned builds are very effective. Set among the singer's own compositions are an assortment of classical and pop covers (Debussy, the Beatles), which carry most of the musical hooks.

For many singer-songwriters, it's dangerous to place your own compositions among recognized masterworks for fear they'll suffer by comparison. But here the atmospheric staging and the strange vocalizing take some of the burden off the songs themselves, and we are left with an impression that we have witnessed a sensational event while half-asleep or drugged. North continues through Feb. 2 at La Mama.

Theater Review (NYC): The Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance, one of Gilbert & Sullivan's most popular light operas, has just a couple more performances this go-round at City Center, and you ought to catch it if you can. Dazzling staging and choreography, superb singing, and an emphasis on rich, zany humor add up to an exhilarating evening for all ages. If you're like me you won't want it to end.

Purists might find a little too much stage business – mugging, gesturing and the like – for their tastes, but if you're a Gilbert & Sullivan "purist" you should probably be going back to chill school anyway. This New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production is a sheer delight.

The soprano Laurelyn Watson Chase, a NYGASP veteran, brings her fluid coloratura voice and a bright-eyed but knowing wink to the role of Mabel. She's matched in vocal skill and acting warmth by newcomer Colm Fitzmaurice, an operatic tenor who turns out to be a natural for the demanding but relatively "straight" role of Frederic, the "poor wand'ring one" whose devotion to "duty" will lead him anywhere – for or against his own principles.

The cast also includes the very droll Stephen Quint as Major-General Stanley, a Howard Stern-bewigged David Wannen as the boastful but too soft-hearted Pirate King, and the ball-of-fire alto Angela Smith as Ruth, the Pirate Maid-of-all-work. From these leads, down through the featured performers (like the delightful David Macaluso as the Pirate King's right hand man), all the way to the least-featured company members, the entire cast flounces and leaps about Lou Anne Gilleland's imaginative set, in Gail J. Wofford's fanciful costumes, with what seems the greatest of ease. In fact the whole production is made to look easy, which it assuredly is not.

This is no doubt due in part to the company's long experience. Some of these performers have been with NYGASP for a quarter of a century. Almost all have considerable Gilbert & Sullivan experience. And it shows.

There are just two more performances of NYGASP's Pirates of Penzance at City Center this winter season. (It is playing in repertory through January 13.) For tickets visit the City Center website or call (212) 581-1212.

Theater Review (NYC): The Honor and the Glory of Whaling: Following the Northern Star at La Mama

Following the Northern Star is the second in Michael Gorman’s trilogy of plays about drug addiction in the New England fishing community. “A new Recovery model,” the playwright has explained, “emphasizes the return of the recovering addict to the community and the sharing of his or her story, as opposed to the anonymity model of Alcoholics Anonymous for instance.” (Emphasis mine.)

“Sharing of story” can mean two things, telling or showing. Telling, which may work brilliantly as therapy, isn’t generally what’s called for on the stage, where, not coincidentally, it’s called a “show.” The excellent opening scenes of this play indeed show much promise – but then, alas, the telling takes over.

The production takes full advantage of the large, versatile space of the La Mama Annex. The introductory scenes occur in a big pool of blue at some distance from the audience, and on a “bridge” far to the rear, but with the hall’s fine acoustics we have no trouble understanding the exposition. Three childhood friends play fishing-boat, but one, Robbie, is haunted by the specter of his alcoholic father. Then a couple of inland high school kids, Guy and Maria, banter winningly about their futures. Engineered by Gorman’s smart, hope-charged dialogue, these scenes brim with life.

Aided by haunting live music, the first act carries on into a present day in which the bookish Guy, shunning college, has followed his dream and begun to learn the trade of a commercial fisherman. The locals, including the charismatic but still troubled Robbie, live the stereotypically scrappy life of a hard-working, hard-drinking deep-sea fishing community. If Bruce Springsteen had grown up in a place like New Bedford he might have written characters like these. “Rich people,” Robbie says, “they can afford to fail. We have to succeed.”

But times are hard. While Robbie pursues his dreams of big catches, and recovers from the loss of more than one boat, his childhood friends Johnny and Therese both take jobs on land. Robbie, played with scabrous intensity by Michael Kimball, shares the spotlight with the set, most notably a wonderful, big rolling boat.

But the experimental goodies, which include cracks in the fourth wall and other conceptual elements, declamations, and dance, can’t rescue the thin plot. “I’m trying to make ends meet,” Therese says to her now-husband Robbie, “and you’re after the big score.” Throughout, adult Robbie’s psyche is revealed by explication, not action. The second act drags on and on; even the return of the delightful Maria (Ruth Coughlin) can’t save it. The sailor Ray (the excellent J. Paul Guimont), a heretofore minor character, launches into a gigantic monologue which, by the time it eventually goes somewhere, has thoroughly tried the viewer’s patience. The wretched extremes of emotion that flay Robbie, Johnny, Ray, and Therese as the plot unfolds feel unearned.

Maybe you need to have been to hell (and hopefully back), like the drug addicts who inspired the playwright, to get what’s going on here. But a play should create its own world, not demand familiarity with one that may be alien to most viewers. It’s fine to show us these miserable, drug-addicted men. But you have to make us care about them as people. The long speeches, drenched in moralizing and metaphors, left me impatient, wanting plot, dramatic interaction among the characters, something.

The staging is clever, interesting, and impressive. And, as evidenced by the first third of the play, Gorman can create vivid characters, and write snappy dialogue that walks the fine line between magic realism and real realism. In this play he has dragged men who’ve hit bottom onto the stage, kicking and screaming. But he hasn’t shown us how they got into such terrible trouble, or made us care about them.

Through Jan. 6 at La Mama.

Theater/Cabaret Review (NYC): Ben Rauch is Horace Vanderveer

Ben Rauch is Horace Vanderveer!!! Sounds corny, but this (mostly) one-man cabaret act is funny, sweet, and irresistibly entertaining. A superb singer and showman, Rauch puts all his talents into his never-say-die character – a struggling actor and Jersey boy with oversized teeth, a blindingly sunny attitude, and a resume – dotted with misspellings – filled with understudy roles with the likes of the Temple Shalom Players.

Utterly convinced of his superior talent and Broadway destiny, the unfailingly optimistic Horace gambols from center stage to the piano to the xylophone and back, supported by an excellent four-piece band and his own faintly absurd charisma. Tying together his numbers with funny bits of “autobiography,” Rauch uses the Horace character both to convey his love for Broadway musicals and to spoof them. Never breaking character – Horace speaks in a silly accent, something like a pastiche of Hollywood-Austrian, Low Countries, and Dr. Evil – Rauch/Horace convincingly works into his storyline a series of Broadway showstoppers from a variety of hit shows like Annie Get Your Gun, Godspell, Wicked, and Les Miserables. (His xylophone transcription from Rent is priceless – and I don’t even like Rent.)

Running about an hour and 20 minutes, the show has just the right length (and spunk) for a family audience. In fact Horace has a gaggle of teenage girls backing him up on stage during several numbers. Ben Rauch wrote the show himself, along with Melissa Rauch and Winston Beigel. Director Miles Phillips keeps the action nonstop, making it a crowd-pleaser all the way.

Reserve now – there are only two more chances to catch this show: Dec. 10 at 9 PM and Dec. 15 at 2 PM. At the Laurie Beechman Theater in the West Bank Cafe.

Theater Review (NYC): Scapin by Molière

Just off Times Square, a perfect cast is bringing Scapin, Molière’s nutty reversal-of-fortune farce, to life with such antic gusto that the four walls of the tiny Turtle’s Shell Theater can hardly contain it.

Puppets, singalongs, balloon animals, mugging, pratfalls, paddlings – it could almost be a kids’ show, and you certainly could take your kids to this uproarious Scapin. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper and less stressful than a trip to FAO Schwarz or to see the Rockettes.

This is the world premiere of Scott McCrea’s new English translation of Molière’s 17th century comedy. The three-act Les Fourberies de Scapin (literally “Scapin’s Schemings” or “Scapin’s Impostures”) is here reshaped into an economical two-act form, with the title shortened as well but the story and the craziness intact.

The players are all very good, but more than that, they are perfectly cast, and superbly directed by Shawn Rozsa. Scapin is played by Spencer Aste, who inhabits the role of the scheming, social-climbing valet to the hilt. The misbehaving scions of two well-heeled families enlist the clever servant to help them out of their respective amorous predicaments. Playing the sons off the fathers, the weaselly Scapin finesses trick after trick, and just when you think his web of deceit is about to crash down on top of him, well – just remember this is a comedy, not a tragedy.

I mentioned that you could bring your kids. The enthusiastic and very talented cast turned the audience of adults at last night’s show into a gaggle of giddy oversized boys and girls. (I even caught one of my fellow reviewers laughing, and we’re a bunch of seriously gloomy gusses, let me tell you.) Priceless cartoonish touches dot the fast-moving plot, riding the shoulders of the broad physical comedy. A big one is the setting, which has been moved from cosmopolitan Naples to a small Italian town on a festival day. A musician-clown leads us through the proceedings as if we’re an audience at a tiny circus. (For a second I pictured Zampano, from Fellini’s La Strada, turned inside-out into a figure of delightful, rather than dark, amusement.)

A nervous Léandre (the tall, reedy Nico Evers-Swindell) pulls out a piece of knitting to calm his nerves. Later his father Geronte (a tiny, mincing John Freimann) emerges from a sack – fan first. The ladies, including the regal Hyacinte (Maya Rosewood) and the frisky Zerbinette (Catherine Wronowksi), mug shamelessly, as do the pure-at-heart Octave (Matt Luceno) and his sad-sack pal Silvestre (Jonathan M. Castro), while Octave’s father Argante (Roger Grunwald) limps stiffly about Keven Lock’s funhouse set, perpetually grouchy, pulling on his beard.

Commedia dell’arte, with its related forms, is far from moribund. We see its spirit alive and well in modern analogues, most often on television, in sketch shows like Kids in the Hall and British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous. But nothing beats the high-spirited hijinks of a play like Scapin seen live. This holiday season, revisit – or discover – Molière. Good for what ails ya, I promise.

Tickets are $18, online at TheaterMania or call (866) 811-4111. Through Dec. 22 at the Turtle’s Shell Theater, Times Square.

Theater Review (NYC): The Puppetmaster of Lodz

With apologies to John Lennon, war is never over, not even if you want it. Case in point: Samuel Finkelbaum, a Holocaust survivor holed up in a one-room flat in occupied Berlin five years after the end of World War II. An imaginative showman and puppeteer with a tendency towards megalomania, Finkel refuses to believe the war is over, and won’t come out of his room. He’s paranoid, delusional, and patently insane, but as imagined by the French playwright Gilles Ségal and animated by the actor Robert Zukerman, he merits our full sympathy and attention for an hour and 45 minutes, intermission-free.

The plot of The Puppetmaster of Lodz could be summed up in two or three sentences, but I’m not going to do it, for two reasons. First: it would be a meaningless exercise unless I gave away the ending. Second: it’s not a very good plot. It doesn’t really make sense. And it’s not why the play is worth seeing.

Finkel is on stage all the time. Much of the action is just between him and his assortment of puppets. The puppets stand in for people from his past: wife, father, doctor, Rabbi, and a whole clothesline of concentration camp inmates. Finkel operates the puppets mostly by moving them directly, though he refers to them as marionettes, and like all good puppeteers, he imbues his dolls with vivid personalities and pathos. Robert Zuckerman in The Puppetmaster of Lodz 1 And like many who came out of the concentration camps alive, he’s burdened by survivor’s guilt, the ins and outs of which he explores through word and action with his puppet characters. The playwright asks whether, in the face of our seemingly endless parade of mini-massacres and mini-genocides echoing the Holocaust through the ages, we are “anesthetized[d] so that we are prevented from reacting, prevented from being moved to rebel?”

Ségal answers (in his program notes) that “facing the encroaching rise of barbarities, we have an obligation to continue to live, to continue to sing, to be happy, to laugh, to laugh, to laugh!” He lives this motto through the complex, disturbing, larger-than-life yet shiveringly weak character of the puppetmaster. And we do, at times, laugh with Finkel, and at the antics of the outside world trying to get him to come out. But the exhortation to live and celebrate is not a simple matter. Finkel asks the big, troubling questions: how can a Jew continue to believe in God after the Holocaust? How can you trust your fellow man? How can you go on living when your loved ones have been brutally destroyed?

War is never over. Even a particular war, one that ended half a century ago, isn’t over. It isn’t over for Finkelbaum in 1950, though Germany has long since surrendered and Berlin is occupied by the Allies. Robert Zuckerman in The Puppetmaster of Lodz 2 It isn’t over for the playwright, who made him up in 1985. It isn’t over for the theater company reviving the play in 2007. And it cannot be over for the audience (the house was packed on a Monday night) watching the drama unfold.

Zukerman’s grand, captivating performance is buoyed by an excellent supporting cast. Suzanne Toren is convincingly caring as the humane, frustrated concierge. Herbert Rubens is grave and avuncular as an old friend who comes looking for the reclusive puppetmaster. Daniel Damiano amuses in multiple smaller roles. Sharing the spotlight with Zukerman are a wonderful set (by Roman Tatarowicz), agile direction by Bruce Levitt, a superb translation by Sara O’Connor, and the puppets, designed by Ralph Lee.

Will Finkel ever get to put on his great puppet masterpiece for an audience of free people? We don’t know, and now we’re back out on the street – the play is over. But the war is never over. Art and imagination – whether Ségal’s invention, or the puppetmaster’s tragic, funny, macabre doll stories, or our reactions to both – can keep the war at bay, for a little while anyway. But they also keep old wars alive, on the stages of our theaters and in the rages of our memories. Perhaps we need them to do this.

For ages 14 and up. Through Dec. 23 at the ArcLight Theater, 152 W. 71 St. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444. Photos by Jim Baldassare.

Theater Review (NYC): Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

Reduce we all our lessons unto this:
To die, sweet Spenser, therefore live we all;
Spenser, all live to die, and rise to fall.

Though considerably abridged, this new production of Christopher Marlowe's historical masterwork is generally well played, dramatically sound, and true to the fatalistic moral (above) spoken by the tutor Baldock at the end of Act IV.

At that moment Edward, though still technically the reigning monarch of England, has gone on the run from his rebellious land barons, who've become sick of the frivolous King draining the treasury to favor his relatively low-born companions. Who is still loyal to Edward? Who will betray whom? As always in English history, what will France do? Characters switch sides and switch back, from motives both honorable (occasionally) and base (usually) in Marlowe's bloody tale of the scandalous early 14th century reign of Edward II, the Gay King.

Marlowe's play remains popular and vivid after more than 400 years for two reasons. It is a great play, with language that at times rivals Shakespeare's. As important, it is one of the few great works of classical literature whose protagonists are, essentially openly, homosexual. (Marlowe, probably gay himself, didn't make this up; the King's proclivities appear to have been generally acknowledged in his own time.) But this production wisely takes the amorous nature of Edward's relationship with the Gascon knight, Gaveston, as a given, and stresses the more proximate cause of his downfall: power politics.

Power, if not politics, was lacking at the start of the performance I saw. It was only the second night of the run, so the weakness was probably attributable to jitters; after a few scenes, the cast found its rhythm and the bulk of the play ran smoothly. Jason Summers portrayed Edward initially as something of a psychotic, sort of a Caligula without the brutality. His love for Gaveston seemed at first more obsessive than heartfelt, his subsequent grief rather mild and stately. But as the King's torturous downfall accelerated, Summers found the passion behind Edward's vanity, and he had several big, heartbreaking scenes. Torn by the barons' ultimate demand that he relinquish his crown, his wail – "No, no, no, no," wrenched the gut marvelously. As Marlowe's stage direction goes: The KING rageth. And he doth.

Edward IINick Fondulis played Gaveston effectively as a sulky, childish rogue, even more vain than Edward and a flamboyant foil to the King's more tightly packed personality. He is a sensitive, showy brute who intrigues us without meriting our sympathy. Further over-the-topness came in the person of Spenser the Younger, whom Edward elevates to favor after Galveston's downfall, here played by Kristian Lazzaro with a shrill smarminess that amused at first but eventually grew a little tiresome. (Spenser the Elder was among a number of relatively minor characters dispensed with in this version.)

Casting women as several of the important lords (and having the characters played as women) worked nicely and even added a bit to the intricacies of the story's sexual politics. It also provided an opportunity for costume designer David Withrow to display his cleverness. All the costumes, in fact, were impressively inventive. Withrow combined an assortment of pieces of modern couture into garb that no one ever wore in real life but still suggested archaic courtly dress.

Neither a period nor a modern-dress Edward II, the production felt lifted out of time. Queen Isabella's purple dress was luridly beautiful; Gaveston's leather-and-chains outfit was a glorious sight gag; and the murderer Lightborn's terrifying get-up made the play's climactic killing all the more dreadful. (Cary Hite displayed notable range, appropriately chewing the scenery as the terrifying assassin and also as the cowed Bishop of Coventry.)

Royal announcements were staged as press conferences; amusing TV news broadcasts filled us in on some of the off-stage (or elided) action; a grand, modern-style conference table served as all-purpose scenery and furniture; and effective lighting and sound effects carried us neatly through battles and chases. Director Tom Berger has come up with a conception of the classic play that's both modern and true.

Through Dec. 16 at the 14th Street Y Theatre, 344 W. 14 St, NYC. Staged by the (re:) Directions Theatre. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.

Theater Review (NYC): IXOMIA by Eric Sanders

IXOMIA: an imaginary town. IXOMIA: an entertainingly odd, and oddly entertaining, play by Eric Sanders, presented as part of the Crown Point Festival.

This cleverly staged, funny work may not be as innovative as it thinks it is, but it’s a lot of fun. In its crude tomfoolery and brightly fake local color, it’s a bit like Spamalot; in absurdity, it suggests Tzara; in spirit it recalls Futurism, which looked forward with a rush to technological and social advancement. “Recalls Futurism” sounds like a strange phrase, but it fits, because the town of Ixomia inhabits a limbo state that feels like a hundred years ago.

After a colorful, computer-generated light show is projected on a white canopy above the audience, an ensemble cast takes the stage to introduce us, in a quick succession of scenes, to an assortment of townspeople preparing for their first direct elections. But, alas and alack, the devil comes to town, bringing stylized and symbolic death and destruction.

“Liberal media” are hawked as such. A proper gentleman threatens a child-woman named Angel. Irish, Jewish, and Chinese stereotypes are flagrantly celebrated. A charismatic politician falls to his death. The story, such as it is, suggests a political allegory, but at heart it seems only glancingly political. Mostly it’s dreamlike. Bits of reality collide with absurdities. The former make the characters interesting; the latter make us laugh, as does the persistent scatological and sexual humor.

An onstage narrator intones stage directions like “As Satta [sp?] drowns, music from the inside of an oak tree plays,” and “[He] goes to follow, but freezes, and shatters into 1000 pieces.” “Can you see in the dark?” asks Deke, the hapless election worker whom the lascivious devil has targeted. “Only when it’s lit from behind,” she replies. “I love it from behind.”

Sparkplug performances, fizzy lighting and staging, and rich sound design make the show a treat for the eye and ear. (The only technical flaw was that early on, the music cues occasionally drowned out the dialogue.) The innovative set consists mostly of a room-sized structure in the shape of a church, which is pushed around the stage to form varied rooms and houses as needed, both interiors and exteriors.

Each night of the Festival features not just a theatrical work but short films and live music as well. So for your money you get diverse stimulation, and even some Bitcoin. What is Bitcoin, you may be asking yourself? It’s an alternative payment form, kind of like digital cash, that they accept. And you get to spend an evening at the Abrons Art Center, which is at the historic Henry Street Settlement. It’s worth a trip to the deep Lower East Side just for the building.

IXOMIA runs through November 10, but not every day, so check the schedule. The Festival itself runs through November 17.

Theater Review (NYC): Love of a Pig by Leslie Caveny

Leslie Caveny’s experience writing for television is evident in her sparkling new comedy, Love of a Pig. Like a well-written sitcom episode, it boasts fast pacing, short, sharp exchanges, minimal time between laughs, and one dramatic decrescendo into touching quietude. What makes it special is that it extends the best features of scripted TV comedy over an hour-plus of live action, without losing focus or shine.

Also like a sitcom plot, the play is built upon a hackneyed premise. The aptly, drably named Jenny Brown (Dana Brooke), a twenty-something violin grad student, can’t get a date. There’s nothing wrong with her appearance or personality; rather, she’s locked in a cycle of low self-esteem and high self-consciousness that makes her an Invisible Girl when it comes to attracting Joe (Steven Strobel), a brooding, self-absorbed bassist, while blinding her to signals from a guy who does find her appealing.

Pretty common stuff. But Caveny, director D. H. Johnson, and the sprightly, almost scarily talented cast spin it into a perfect piece of salty-sweet fun.

The play is simultaneously an ensemble piece and a star turn for Dana Brooke, whose tour de force of a performance is a controlled explosion of emotional movements and colors. The other seven actors play a variety of roles, some more or less realistic, some clownish and even puppetlike – from barfly to mailman to fellow students to door (yes, door). David Nelson is delightfully squirmy as the bitter, over-sensitive music instructor, and Jenny Greer is hilarious as our heroine’s lightheaded teenage sister, but there are no weak links in the cast or the production as a whole.

Credit must go to the director for keeping the proceedings so peppery and brisk. Yet despite all the vigorous action, cute business, and a facile ending, there’s enough substance that you feel you’ve been in the company of real people with realistic problems, behaving just as kindly and cluelessly as your own friends and acquaintances.

Except these folks are funnier. Much, much funnier.

Wednesdays through Sundays through Oct. 28 at the 45th Street Theatre. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.

Theater Review (NYC): I Used to Write on Walls by Bekah Brunstetter

The prolific Bekah Brunstetter has written another fine play, and this time I can say that without any caveats. I Used to Write on Walls is funny, deep, innovative, and affecting on several levels. Brunstetter’s central skill of creating painfully real female characters is truly put to the test in this play, where there are seven of them and no ensemble scenes. She not only meets but surpasses her own test.

A lonely, fat policewoman, a suicidally insecure makeup artist, and a beautiful spoken-word performer all fall for a California surfer dude (Jeff Berg) who’s in New York City on a “rad, rad philosophical journey” to right humanity’s wrongs. Immature, untrustworthy, and stupid, the ridiculous Trevor is plainly nobody’s Mr. Right. Yet with an easy charm, good looks, and a few sweet words, he divests the women of their judgment as easily as he gets them out of their clothes.

Even Georgia (Levita Shaurice), the sharp, self-aware poet, can’t help wanting more from Trevor than he is obviously prepared to give. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the overweight, 34-year-old Diane (Maggie Hamilton, with exquisite comic timing) falls for his sweet-talk. Or that self-hating Joanne (Darcie Champagne), whose debilitating anxiety visibly quivers just under her bubbly surface, clings, literally for dear life, to his childish optimism.

Trevor may be a two- and three-timing Lothario, and worse, but Berg invests the difficult role with a raw, scabrous humanity. His stereotypical faux-clever pronouncements and absurd insensitivity make us laugh as easily as he makes the women melt. When Joanne confesses, “I was gonna kill myself, right before we met,” his fascinated response is, “Really? How?”

But when he meets his match, in the person of the overripe, nutty, and possibly dangerous Mona (Ellen David), the blubbering little boy within is revealed. On stage a great deal of the time, Berg makes Trevor an entertaining and, against all odds, very human villain. The real enemy, Brunstetter is telling us, is the pressure women put on themselves to be and look perfect, and the too-often impossible dream of matching what you want with what you have.

Yet the playwright doesn’t heavy-handedly blame “society” or “male-dominated culture” for her women’s plight. Each in her own way, the women reveal their weaknesses; they are fully realized people at the mercy of a complexity of forces, some programmed right into their own natures.

Rachel Dorfman and Mary Round are very good in mother roles, and Chelsey Shannon persuades as eleven-year-old Anna, who represents, in a magical-realist sort of way, how women – at least in Brunstetter’s convincing vision – start out life: on one level, pure and innocent, but already bearing the ova of corrupton and disappointment. From Anna’s mother’s heartbreakingly funny toss-off line – “Don’t look directly at me, it burns” – through Diane’s sad and hilarious voicemail confession, the Fellini-esque tableau at the end of Act I, Trevor’s breakdown, and Georgia’s genuinely poetic, Chorus-like coda, I Used to Write on Walls is the work of a playwright coming into full mastery.

Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 27 at the Gene Frankel Theatre Underground, 24 Bond St. between Lafayette and Bowery, NYC. Tickets online or call 212-868-4444. Mature language and themes.

Theater Review (NYC): The Lady Swims Today, with Robert Funaro of The Sopranos

H. G. Brown’s new heist tale centers on Eddie Hajazi, a charmer with a cruel streak who needs a crew to help him pull off a big maritime heist. Played with sleazy suavity by Robert Funaro (known to many as Eugene Pontecorvo on The Sopranos), Eddie artfully appeals to the needs and the dreams of three local men. Mal (Robert Sheridan) is a former contraband runner gone straight, now trying to make a settled life for himself and his new wife, Bev (Vivienne Leheny), as a modest innkeeper. George (Gordon Silva) tends bar at Mal’s place, and Harley (Jack Rodgerson) is a piano-playing dockworker down on his luck. Three women complicate the scheme: the hardworking, morally centered Bev; Harley’s girl Alice (Kelli K. Barnett), an oversexed stripper with a heart of gold; and most of all, Bev’s friend Joyce (Kate Udall), a sultry newspaper writer.

Even these colorful characters are almost upstaged, early on, by Joseph Spirito’s spectacular set. Though Mal and Bev are slowly renovating the inn, the barroom where the action takes place is a character of its own. The stained wood sings with color and history, while the wall decor and the jukebox (stocked only with oldies) define a worn and comfortable sailors’ haven. Luckily, Brown’s snappy dialogue and director Stephen Sunderlin’s brisk staging keep us focused on the action.

Act I’s character introductions and set-up scenes boast a sprightly, slightly elevated dialogue that’s reminiscent of Lanford Wilson’s (think Hot L Baltimore), but delivered by the cast in a way that sometimes crosses the line from animated into hammy. It feels to me as if director and cast are a bit hamstrung (no pun intended) by an inconsistency of tone. The script is part gangsters-and-molls (think Key Largo) and part late 20th century TV comedy-drama. One wishes it would go all the way in one direction or the other. This flaw prevents the play rising above clever entertainment to become higher art.

Joyce, the writer, is the epitome of this conflict. Though Udall fleshes her out with a rich and funny performance, she’s an anachronism in a story that’s meant to take place in 1984. Some of her speeches feel like a nostalgic 1940s High Hollywood take on journalistic intrepidity. On the other hand, Udall and Barnett play out their scenes of drunken female bonding with vigorous humor, and both their characters attain a level of depth that’s a credit to their performances, the playwright’s skill with characterization, and the director’s vision.

I also found Eddie’s roguish appeal to the women difficult to credit. As played by Funari, his charm is so patently artificial that one would expect even a hard case like Alice to see right through it. The philosophical Mal and even the bitter Harley have no trouble discerning Eddie’s rascality, only casting their lot with him out of acknowledged greedy or desperate motivations. And Bev, the moral center of the play, wants no part of his scheming.

The show is quite entertaining despite those flaws. Its length and pacing are exactly right, and it has some wrenching moments – especially in the women’s scenes – where the raw underside of humanity is exposed to the wind and the sea spray that you can almost feel through the windows of the weathered barroom of the Carney Hook Marina Motel.

Through Oct. 21 at the Tada! Theater, 15 W. 28 St., NYC. Tickets online or call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 (toll free).

Theater Review (NYC): Such Good Friends at the New York Musical Theatre Festival

Broadway stars Liz Larsen (Hairspray, Most Happy Fella) and Brad Oscar (The Producers) lead a deep and snappy ensemble in Noel Katz's new musical about the cast and crew of a 1950s TV variety show. Shades of The Dick Van Dyke Show, of course; but the center of gravity here is not the writer, but the star, Dottie Francis (Larsen), who mugs and chirps and pratfalls and Streisands through a bravura performance as a professional "funny girl" whose career, along with those of her long-running crew, is threatened by the pressure to name names at the McCarthy hearings.

The first act zips along on the glamour and good times of live television's golden age. Dottie, her director Gabe (Oscar), head writer Danny (a sad-eyed Jeff Talbott), and choreographer Donald (the swift-footed Dirk Lumbard) whip up skits and bits like they were cream pies. The team's peppery wit and talent, carried along on Katz's nimble lyrics and sweetly smart period music, engender what seems an endless font of joy for both creators and audience.

The only thorn in their side is the presence of the show's corporate sponsor – or, more precisely, a corporate nephew, Kenneth, played by Joshua James Campbell, who invests the part with a touching combination of goofiness and soul. But he's fallen for the ingenue Virginia Pepper (the delightful Shannon O'Bryan), so the team conspires to send the pair off to the Catskills on a fake scouting mission. That's the occasion for "Mountain Air," one of the many funny, brief, gusty, pointed musical numbers that push the story along through Act I.

Marc Bruni's staging flows brilliantly. At a couple of the scene transitions you almost catch your breath in appreciation, as if at an unexpected rhyme. Wendy Seyb's choreography takes advantage of the cast's energy and skill, and Larsen is just brilliant at "bad" dancing.

Act I ends with the clever "Court Jester," a song-and-dance number in which the team disguises a send-up of the McCarthy hearings as a manic tale from a mythical kingdom (Shades, here, of the Murder of Gonzaga in Hamlet. But there have been plays within plays – and shows about showbiz – for centuries. No reason to stop now).

The story, and with it the energy, peter out in Act II after the principals appear before McCarthy's committee. One successfully plays dumb; another names names; a third refuses to do so and hence can no longer work on the show. Without her essential team – the "good friends" of the title – Dottie can only soldier on miserably.

The plot gets wavy. An old performing partner of Dottie's (Lynne Wintersteller), trying to break into the new medium of TV, has, it turns out, appeared before the committee too – but was it her testimony, or the Jester sketch, that led to the subpoenaing of our heroes and heroine? I couldn't tell. More important, some of the story elements so winningly threaded through the first act just fray. While both Dottie and Danny are meted out some sort of moral fate, Oscar's Borscht Belt character – so jovially played and cannily developed – doesn't get one. The damned if you do, damned if you don't aspect of the McCarthy blacklists is explored a bit in Danny's denouement, but our emotional investment in Gabe gets no payoff, and we need that for symmetry and satisfaction.

We've also come to care about Kenneth and Virginia and their budding love story, but it's summarily dispensed with. Meanwhile the moral/political side of the story, earlier handled with a deft balance of reality and send-up in numbers like "You're a Red" and the court jester sequence, becomes heavy-handed in a number called "Some Kind of Hero," which lands with a thud as Katz's sense of balance deserts him along with his lyrical gifts.

Finally, the show ends indecisively. It feels like it needs either a big bittersweet finale, or some sort of shocking downer, but it gets neither, sullenly and suddenly closing up shop with a pout.

Such Good Friends as it stands is about three-fifths of a wonderful, old-style musical. Act I alone is worth the price of admission, and so is Larsen's performance. The whole cast is picture perfect (though Talbott's singing voice could use some technological boosting when it's paired with Oscar's stronger one). The music capably evokes the style and sensibility of the old standards of the period, and the simple and effective scene design comfortably houses the action, including Seyb's witty choreography. The sharp and sometimes brilliant dialogue, especially during the team's writing sessions, is still echoing in my ears.

One hopes the producers get the opportunity to punch up Act II and turn this into the smash it could be.

You can hear a few musical selections here.

Through Oct. 6 at the Julia Miles Theatre, 424 W. 55 St., NYC. Tickets (just $20) online at the New York Musical Theatre Festival website or call 212-352-3101.

2007 New York Innovative Theatre Awards

The New York Innovative Theatre (NYIT) Awards were presented last night at a semi-star-studded event. It was my first time attending the awards and I was quite impressed with the sheer size and grandness of the show. When you think “Off-Off-Broadway” you think theaters that seat fewer than 100, presenting plays with extremely low budgets, so being at FIT’s huge Haft Auditorium – filled almost to capacity – was quite a change.

Production numbers, big-screen video feeds, and beautiful dresses lit up the stage. Julie Halston was the funniest awards show host I’ve seen in some time – which isn’t saying much, actually, so I’ll put it this way: Julie Halston was seriously funny. (Photo credit: Marc Goldberg for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards)

Julie Halston

I was pleased to see that f-ckplays got some nominations, as did Brian Linden for his portrayal of Sparkish in The Country Wife, which also got nods, not surprisingly, for costume and set design.

“Off-Off-Broadway” isn’t the best-defined term in the world. You can draw the line between Off- and Off-Off- based on theater size, budget, or other factors. It would be nice to see a list of every production that NYIT considered eligible. I wouldn’t want to be the person tasked with maintaining such a list, though. The NYC small-theater scene is big and seems to sprawl everywhere. The Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, for example – which received a Stewardship Award, presented by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn – serves almost 400 theater companies, more than half of which count as Off-Off-Broadway. But in any case, judging from the energy and attendance at the awards show last night, the scene is clearly thriving.

Here is the complete list of nominees and winners.

Theater Review (NYC): Virtuosa: Clara Schumann in Words and Music

“Remember: art above all.”

That was the credo in Clara Wieck’s childhood home, as her tyrannical father ruthlessly prepared his prodigy daughter for a career as a star concert pianist. (“No dolls for a budding virtuosa.”) Her marriage to and musical partnership with the brilliant but mentally ill composer and critic Robert Schumann, her lifelong friendship with Johannes Brahms, Clara’s own (now increasingly respected) compositions, and her perseverance in an exhausting, independent concert career through her many years of widow- and single-motherhood have made her both a romantic figure and a proto-feminist heroine.

Recent decades have seen growing recognition of Clara Schumann’s importance to musical history beyond her roles as interpreter and muse for two of the 19th century’s most important (male) composers. Clara literally takes center stage in Virtuosa, Diane Seymour’s excellent new play with music.

Katrina Ferguson, whose warm yet brittle intensity reminded me a little of Cherry Jones, gives a bravura portrayal of the pianist-composer from girlhood through the first 50 years of her long career. (Born in 1819, Schumann played her last public concert in 1891.) Ferguson’s riveting interpretation encompasses the gamut of human emotion and experience. She and director Bruce Roach have chosen a big, declamatory acting style that works perfectly for the demanding role, which calls for Ferguson, all by herself, to both dramatize and provide the exposition for an entire life story that features outsized (though historical) characters.

Ferguson is Clara most of the time, but she speaks as her father, and Robert Schumann, and Brahms, as needed. Even more impressively, she conjures them even in dramatic scenes where she is just Clara: protecting a less musically gifted sibling from an angry Herr Wieck; excitedly leading Schumann and Brahms on a hike through the countryside; reacting with careful sensitivity to an unexpected marriage proposal; and, most touchingly, paying a heartrending visit to an incapacitated Robert at the asylum where his increasing lunacy has forced her to send him. (His symptoms are now thought to have been caused by syphillis and mercury poisoning.)

Ferguson’s self-conscious, captivating, highly enjoyable performance is paired with live music by concert pianist Allison Brewster Franzetti. Dressed just like Acting Clara, Pianist Clara sits onstage at a grand piano, playing, at appropriate times in the text, works by both Schumanns as well as Brahms and Chopin. Some pieces are presented as at a concert; others function as a musical score. The acoustics in the boxy 45th Street Theatre were not ideal for piano music, especially the dense, arpeggiated tone clusters found in many of these Romantic works. But the composers’ passion and Franzetti’s interpretive skill both shone through. Especially powerful were selections from Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2 and Carnaval Op. 9, and Brahms’s Scherzo Op. 4.

Seymour’s script smoothly incorporates diary entries along with dramatized scenes, as well as two simple conceits: Clara tranquilly recollecting her life, and the pianist addressing adoring audiences all over Europe. It all adds up to a gaudy, shamelessly theatrical work, hence a bit old-fashioned, but a compelling and crowd-pleasing way to tell this classic story: romantic, elevated, and true. “Art above all” – art, the great distiller of life.

Virtuosa was presented as part of the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival. (Performances 9/19 and 9/20 only.)

Theater Review (NYC): A New Television Arrives, Finally by Kevin Mandel

It’s pretty hard to imagine a more difficult role for an actor to play… than a television.

Television can contain everything and give us the whole universe. Voracious and all-encompassing, it conveys not only every kind of information, but every kind of experience – or at least audiovisual representations, which, for many experiences, are the only versions we’ll ever have. So – though I admit I’ve never had occasion to think about this before – it’s pretty hard to imagine a more difficult role for an actor to play… than a television.

A New Television Arrives, Finally demands a tour de force performance from its central figure, Television, and it got one from Emmy winner Tom Pelphrey last night. (On alternate nights, British actor Victor Villar-Hauser assumes the role instead.) Taking an absurd premise to stratospheric heights of excess, it is also the sort of work that defies standard critical rhetoric. That won’t stop me from wholeheartedly recommending this powerful, innovative play.

Playwright Kevin Mandel cites as inspirations David Rabe’s Hurlyburly – presumably for its characters’ attempts to find meaning in lives that seem empty – and Ionesco (shorthand for the Theater of the Absurd), an obvious source given the play’s loopy premise. But when he references Shakespeare, he’s not just paying the default homage to the Bard that all English-language playwrights can safely pay. Mandel’s theme may be an existential (what he calls “spiritual”) crisis, but his language is what gives the play its force, and he has created the perfect outlet for his roaring cyclone of words in the character of Television.

Played by Pelphrey with gargantuan presence and jaw-dropping chops, Television turns up at a small apartment where Man (played, last night, by the listed understudy, Ari Vigoda) lolls about nursing a supposed stomach flu that’s been keeping him home from work. Really, of course, it’s an existential affliction manifesting as depression, and as it turns out, his fiancee, Woman (Kate Russell), is sharing the crisis, but dealing with it by storming about and cursing the world rather than withdrawing from it.

The two clearly love one another on some level. But, unable to connect physically, they come alive only when the fascinating, maddening, inspiring, hurtful, demagogic, and, eventually, violently psychotic Television engages them. Spewing metaphysics-steeped information about science, sports, eroticism, nature, business, history, politics, personality, war, and most of all, Nonsense (you can hear the capital “N”), the red-suited Joker evokes enthusiasm and hope, first in Man, and then, expressed more desperately, in Woman. Like a crazed prophet, he captivates and provokes them with surrealistic tales of political groups who “champion the benefits of Nonsense” or embrace an anti-ambition platform; of desolation shattered by the approach of a “Love Armageddon”; of child abuse, rape, raw eroticism. (A couple of a certain age walked out of the theater at this point. Whether the whole scene turned them off, or just the gloating repetition of the word “vagina,” was unclear.)

A New Television Arrives, Finally
Kate Russell as Woman, Tom Pelphrey as Television and Ari Vigoda as Man. Photos courtesy of DARR Publicity/David Gibbs.

Then he torments them with insults and picks at their wounds: “You ghosts,” he hollers, you “pathetic, trembling, ghastly cowards.” Egos crushed, they open up to him in a bizarre sort of new-age acting exercise, and finally succeed in physically connecting.

But the next morning…

No, you’ll have to see the play to find out whether things actually wrap up that neatly in the end. And unless you can’t handle the word “vagina,” see it you should. Though a bit overlong, it’s funny, a little dangerous, and blessed with glorious language. Pelphrey gives a ravishing performance. (I may try to see it again, on one of Villar-Hauser’s nights.) Russell is quietly real and, when called for, bitterly explosive as Woman; Vigoda (officially the understudy) is droll and touching as Man; and together the pair make a humble, scurrying sort of magic as they’re bullied, seduced, and, at least seemingly, elevated by the cataclysm called Television – that all-knowing, godlike entity who rules the living rooms, the rooms where we live, in the homes of all but the most contrary of us.

Written by Kevin Mandel, directed by Kevin Kittle. Get tickets online or call (800) 838-3006. Through September 30 at Theatre 54 in New York.

Theater Review (NYC): You May Go Now by Bekah Brunstetter

Bekah Brunstetter’s play To Nineveh was honored with a New York Innovative Theater award last year, and she is one of the many talented brains responsible for the recent f*ckplays extravaganza. Her new full-length drama, You May Go Now, is getting a bang-up staging this month at the 45th Street Theatre.

A work of psychological suspense fed by humor and fantasy, darkly and fluidly directed by Geordie Broadwater, the new play fascinates but sometimes confuses. Dottie is raising her teenage daughter Betty to be an avatar of the perfect 1950s housewife. Yet right away something’s clearly cockeyed: the time, apparently, is actually the Great Depression. And there’s a peculiar lesbian/child abuse thing going on (which never quite gels). Then, suddenly, Dottie is kicking Betty out of the house on her eighteenth birthday. All Betty has are a couple of suitcases, an accumulation of Stepford-worthy housewife training (“Speak in a low, soothing voice. Don’t ask him questions about his actions, or question his judgment or integrity”), and a final brittle word of advice:

“You will get off the bus and go to some sort of dining establishment and make eyes. Someone will find you.”

It’s like a horror movie: violent shoving, a snowstorm, desperate, monstrous banging on the door, and finally, silence – peace and quiet for Dottie, who has transformed before our eyes from tyrannically passive-aggressive mom to psychotic monster à la Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes.

In a beautifully crafted transition, suddenly it’s the present day – or is it the 70s? (Again, the time cues confuse.) In any case, the agile Ginger Eckert, who plays Dottie, is suddenly a modern woman who sits around the house trying to write a novel and can’t find her way around the kitchen. So, she’s now playing the grown-up Betty, a generation later – right? Or not. And why does her depressed husband Robert (Ben Vershbow) keep making funny, absurd entrances? And why does Betty come back the very next day, and why isn’t Dottie upset about it?

Melinda Helfrich and Ginger Eckert. Photo by Rachel Roberts.

Act II resolves some, though not all, of the mysteries. The play’s fault is that while it tells a deliciously meaty story, the bones of the plot could use some propping up or some further organization. In spite of that, it is effectively suspenseful. The sound design subtly sets the moods, and the lighting is brilliantly designed, especially during a late scene where Betty stays up all night reading a revelatory PowerPoint presentation on a ghostly-glowing Mac laptop, brought by Philip, a mysterious stranger Betty meets at the bus stop (Justin Blanchard, in a whisperingly intense performance). The changing colors on the screen light Betty’s face, and finally the sunrise shows redly through the kitchen window, lighting up long-hidden truths.

The production has many positives, but Melinda Helfrich’s funny, touching, and superbly focussed portrayal of Betty is its single greatest asset. The rest of the cast does have fine moments, and Eckert has much more: her adroit handling of what is, in all but actual fact, a dual role, is worthy of note. When Robert, devastated by bad medical news, proposes adopting a child, Dottie’s passive-aggressive refusal – mostly silent – is a marvel to behold. But Helfrich lights up the stage every moment she’s on it. Flitting about, hiding in the shadows like a small child, lighting up at Philip’s appearance, defending her mother from a perceived threat (who is Philip, anyway?), she’s a small revelation.

Upstairs at the 45th Street Theatre, through Sept. 29. Tickets at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101 or, outside NYC, call toll-free (866) 811-4111.

Theater Review (NYC): Victor Woo: The Average Asian American at the Fringe Festival

Musicals scored by singer-songwriters are hot these days, at least in theory, but the success of Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening hasn’t guaranteed anything for similar efforts. Patty Griffin’s 10 Million Miles, for example, didn’t get great reviews and ran for only a month off-Broadway. As with Mamma Mia and the many pop-nostalgia musicals that followed it, one brilliantly successful case does not guarantee a payday for others of the same ilk.

A musical has to work as a piece of theater, of course; good music isn’t enough (that’s why they invented concerts). Audiences, and to a lesser extent critics, have to like the whole show, not just one aspect. Spring Awakening is a great show because it’s a good story staged wonderfully well and told with exciting music that fits. Sheik uses the vocabulary of pop music, but the show is a modern-style musical, with songs that exist entirely to serve the story. Hummability isn’t even a secondary goal.

It’s hard to make theater out of today’s pop, because most current songwriting is confessional rather than character-based. Songwriters like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and, to a degree, Patty Griffin, write songs from the points of view of different characters with interesting narratives. But such songwriters are rare.

Kevin So is a singer-songwriter who, like the above mentioned artists, doesn’t just express feelings but also tells tales and sketches characters. Until now that had been captured most explicitly in his 2003 two-CD concept album, Leaving the Lights On, which tells the R&B-inflected story of a Chinese-American boy who doesn’t want to go to college and become an engineer or a doctor, but instead dreams of becoming a rock star. So’s unusual ability to frame vivid characters and settings in catchy, sophisticated pop tunes makes his songs ideal for the stage, and a fine musical has now been crafted from them.

(Full disclosure: I was previously familiar with many of the songs in the show, having, in the past, played in Kevin So’s band.)

Victor Woo: The Average Asian American is receiving an ambitious, joyful, and even somewhat star-studded maiden voyage by the Present Company as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. It successfully combines the narrative flow of a show like Spring Awakening (or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical) with an original-music version of something like the pop-hummable Jersey Boys. The show is a little rough around the edges, but that’s to be expected of any full-scale musical done on a Fringe timetable. With a little more polish it could be a smash, and not just with the downtown hipsters who populate the Fringe audience.

To begin with, the production boasts some heavy-hitting performances. Francis Jue is a veteran of Broadway productions such as M. Butterfly and Thoroughly Modern Millie. He turns Stanley Woo, the father, into infinitely more than the long-suffering immigrant stereotype that his twelve-hour days, Chinese restaurant, and dream of sending his son to Harvard might suggest. Looking vulnerable with his slim figure and plain, clean white dress shirt, he conveys all the complex feelings of a father with old-world values trying to make a good life for his family in a new world of struggle. He threads aching colors through the intense “The Hand That Feeds,” the haunting “Stanley Woo,” and the rocking “Streets of Chinatown” among other numbers, and is just as powerful and touching in his spoken scenes.

Christine Toy Johnson, another Broadway veteran, has less to do in the role of the mother, but her lovely voice and graceful presence make touching moments of “Call it a Day” and “If It Were Up To Me.” Robert Pendilla lends a sweet tenor and a big-hearted suavity to the role of Henry, the hard, street-savvy youth who buckles under the ever-optimistic Victor’s onslaught of friendliness. Michelle Rios, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Nedra McClyde and others have effective scenes in smaller roles, and the sheer energy that pours from the stage during the numerous ensemble numbers is a pleasure to take in.

At the center of it all is Victor, played with a sly fusion of mugging and gravity by Raymond J. Lee (who has appeared on Broadway in Mamma Mia). Lee’s precise singing voice has only modest power, but his expressive face and elastic energy more than make up for it. In his hands Victor becomes both down-to-earth and larger than life, whether he’s playing twelve (at the start) or mid-twenties (by the end).


McKinley Belcher III, Nedra McClyde, and Raymond J. Lee in Victor Woo: The Average Asian American. Photo by John Mazlish.

In short, a strong cast, a good live band, and an unusually excellent book (by the director, Kevin Merritt) give blooming life to So’s crafty and inspired songs. The choreography, by JD Aubrey Smith and Akim Funk Buddha, tickles the eye, and sometimes dazzles, as in “New Sensation,” where a group of robotic record executives debate Victor’s star potential.

It doesn’t matter whether Victor achieves his dreams in the end. The journey is the key, as he eventually explains to his mother. One of the show’s strengths is the way it tells the father’s story and the son’s in parallel, with equal sympathy and sensitivity. This examination of two generations makes the show much deeper and richer than it would have been if was just about a kid dreaming of stardom. There’s a lot of autobiography in these songs and this show, but, far from being a confessional, it’s a wise, personal, informed exploration of family, of love’s power and its limits, and of growing up.

Kevin So can be a wordy songsmith. While that’s appropriate for Victor’s hip-hop mileu, it requires extremely precise timing from the performers and close listening by the audience. Some of the tempos seemed a little faster than necessary – there were places where the lyrics got lost in the rush, generally through no fault of the performers. The show has a lot of numbers, but they’re punchy ones, and the story moves rapidly; the play is not in danger of being too long. Slowing parts of it up a bit would help make it more universally accessible (especially considering the non-inner-city tourists on whom Broadway depends).

At the Village Theater, 158 Bleecker St., NYC. Ticket information here or call (212) 279-4488. The final two performances are Thursday, August 23 at 4 PM and Saturday, August 25 at 1:15 PM.

Theater Review (NYC): Long Distance

Long Distance is a new short-story adaptation from The Ateh Theater Group, the team responsible for the recent stage version of Kelly Link’s story “The Girl Detective.” But while that play was gaily zany, the new show – a tryptich of one-acts based on stories by Judy Budnitz – is more of a downer. Tales of decay and death usually are.

The first playlet, Visitors, is the most lighthearted, a quirky and funny tale of family dysfunction that accelerates towards the macabre. The uptight and dreadfully nervous Meredith (Elizabeth Neptune) awaits an impending visit from her parents, who keep calling from the road as they slip into deepening trouble. But the mother (Sara Montgomery) is such a cornpone stereotype that we don’t care much what happens to her, while the increasingly freaked-out Meredith is so mean to her boyfriend Parrish (Jake Thomas) that we find it hard to drum up sympathy for her either. Fortunately, Neptune’s precisely focussed performance and Dunlap’s deadpan direction keep the action tight as it careens towards a jolting finale.

Flush (you can read the original story here) sweetens its gloomy subject matter – breast cancer, and a family in which it runs – with a swirl of absurd humor, and makes its curious point about blurred identities. But despite a touching and perfectly calibrated performance by Diana Lynn Drew as Leah, a fearful mother who turns avoidance into an art form, and solid work from the rest of the cast, it’s ultimately just plain depressing.

Skin Care is sad too, yet it’s the best of the three one-acts. Here Dunlap seems to get the tone just right; perhaps this story simply lends itself most readily to the stage. It’s a fairy tale, really, starring Montgomery as Jessica, a girl who goes away to college but fails to take the advice of her fretful older sister (Neptune again, here taking paralyzing panic to a scary extreme). Naturally Jessica contracts leprosy, with surprising and revelatory results, and Montgomery’s silent scenes with her props of illness are the emotional perigee of the production.


In Budnitz’s world, many things aren’t entirely what they seem. When did Parrish suddenly start wearing glasses? Did Leah really see a fish in the toilet? But in this set of adaptations it’s the finale, Skin Care – the one in which the absurdity is essential rather than decorative – that gives us the clearest look into the hearts of the terrified, tyrannical, blood-and-guts-beautiful women who people Judy Budnitz’s unique imagination.

That’s Mr. Editor to You

I’m now officially the Theater Editor of Blogcritics, the fine online magazine where I have been posting my music and theater reviews and sundry spewings since (holy garbanzo beans, can it be???) 2004.

Drunk with power, I can now impose my tyrannical editorial will upon naked, quivering sentences written by other human beings in the fullness of their hearts. The gargantuan responsibility is hitting me like three-quarters of a ton of ancient Roman bricks. Perhaps a cup of coffee is called for.

Theater Review: bombs in your mouth at the Fringe Festival, NYC

The premise is right out of Playwrighting 101: kin gather after a death in the family, the past is dredged up, sparks fly. In the one-act variant, it’s two siblings who clash over past wrongs, and then, if they’re lucky, one or both shucks off a rotted skin and emerges into a fresh phase of life.

Something told me Corey Patrick’s take on this old trope would rise above cliché, and I was right. bombs in your mouth (sic) is a jewel of a play, laugh-out-loud funny and slyly touching.

Transparently directed by Joseph Ward, and beautifully acted by the author and the wonderful Cass Buggé, the play finds half-siblings Danny and Lilly reunited, after six years, in their Minnesota hometown upon their father’s death. Danny, who has taken care of the old man through a slow and painful mental decline, naturally resents Lilly for having decamped to New York for a glamorous advertising career.

The demon is in the details, which Patrick and Buggé slowly reveal during a series of scenes powered by alcohol, anger, infantile banter replayed from childhood, and a revelatory roll of toilet paper. The concept of the story may be tried and true, but the execution is thoroughly up-to-date. Most important, the actors inhabit their characters so thoroughly, and execute Patrick’s prickly, raunchy dialogue so seemingly instinctually, that there’s hardly a moment in which the audience feels detached from the action.

bombs in your mouth
Cass Buggé and Corey Patrick in bombs in your mouth. Photo by John Scott.

Danny, the pugilistic, working-class Bob Newhart, and Cass, the nattily dressed and icily sexy Upper West Side stinging nettle, couldn’t be more different on the surface – they don’t even look related – but completely convince as a typical modern family distilled to the nth degree of humor. They have just one parent in common, and have taken very different paths, but retain their familial resentments and a hint of love in spite of themselves. Cass’s unexpected revelations about her mental state and her career and Danny’s tales of their father’s decline work as plot devices the way shocks and car chases do in a good action movie.

What we learn about the characters may be dimly rooted in the past, but the meaning behind the action is refreshingly present. The now, not the then, is what draws us in. That’s what makes Patrick’s take on this old story new. Brought to life in this excellent production, it’s the best two-character play I’ve seen since Trevor Ferguson’s Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?, and a distinct highlight of this year’s Fringe Festival.

At the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre in New York City. Performances through August 24. Tickets online at the Fringe website, or call 212-279-4488 or 888-FringeNYC (outside NY).