Theater Review: I’m in Love with Your Wife with Ron Palillo

Alex Goldberg’s new farce I’m in Love with Your Wife doesn’t quite know how far over the edge of absurdity it wants to go, but it has a lot of fun sort of not quite going there. An excellent ensemble cast under the direction of Tom Wojtunik happily, and for the most part nimbly, sends up love triangles, modern angst, celebrity worship, psychotherapy, and even life as a struggling actor.

The play is made up of three sections, the first of which is a fast-paced, near-perfect comic gem. Gary, an overworked schlemiel of an insurance adjuster, just wants to get some work done. Persistently interrupting his drab day are his demanding wife (via telephone) and his gabby assistant Bethany, and later his smooth-talking friend Paul and, separately, Paul’s steamroller wife Gail. Both of the latter have disturbing personal news for the hapless Gary. Naturally, zaniness ensues.

Gary is played by craggy beanstalk Ean Sheehy, who clearly relishes the role of straight man and victim of circumstance. His pained reactions as his character’s life spins out of control are hilariously hyper-real, and stop just short of becoming distractingly sad.

The second scene brings Gary to his psychotherapist’s office. Dr. Feldberg is played by Ron Palillo of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, whose famous ditzy nerd persona has matured (if that’s the right word) into a boisterous middle-aged nebbish resembling a less hyperactive, but slightly insane, Woody Allen. Simultaneously a quack and not a quack, Dr. Feldberg thinks Gary’s tales of his absurd life are delusions.

I'm in Love with Your Wife
Ean Sheehy and Ron Palillo in I’m in Love with Your Wife

Gary convinces the therapist to come to a dinner party with Paul and Gail to observe the craziness firsthand. But Dr. Feldberg needs a date so no one will guess he’s Gary’s therapist. Enter Ruth (the delightfully showy Marion Wood), a struggling thespian desperate for an audience. The final scene, naturally, is the dinner party, where Gary’s too-foxy wife exerts her over-the-top magnetism over all concerned. Zaniness ensues.

Monica Yudovich as Bethany shows what a gifted comedian she is, and Shane Jacobsen hams up the role of Paul with infectious energy. Katie Kreisler makes Gail a dynamo of cinematic haughtiness, updated for an age of unrestrained sexuality. Half Ellen DeGeneres and half Mo Gaffney, she’s a towering, rock-solid presence. Of zaniness, of course.

Thanks to tight staging, a confident and generous cast, and a democratic script full of dizzy twists, this quick-witted piece revels in its shallowness, and a good time is had by all (except Gary).

Through August 3 at the Jewel Box Theater in New York City, but don’t wait because there are only a handful of performances left. Part of the Midtown Theater Festival. Tickets at SmartTix or call (212) 868-4444.

Theater Review: Richard III

In their current production of Richard III, Shakespeare’s most over-the-top masterpiece, the Nicu’s Spoon company takes the adventurous step of casting a disabled actor in the title role. Henry Holden drags and clanks about the stage using crutches and an artificial leg, diminutive (though not hunchbacked), leather-faced, red-eyed, suitably monstrous but painfully human. Director Heidi Lauren Duke doesn’t need to take liberties with the text to show how Richard’s evil nature could have come from a lifetime of being shunned for his deformity. And she and Holden make good use of the crutches, the leg, and the actor’s entire frame as in-your-face props.

As a Shakespearean actor, Mr. Holden has limitations. He can’t (or chooses not to) reconcile his angular New York accent with the rhythms of the text. This becomes a bigger issue in conjunction with the production’s other innovation: Holden speaks Richard’s lines only when alone on stage. In dialogue, another actor, standing in the corner with a lamp and a book, reads Richard’s parts while Holden mimes.

On the strength of his voicings, Andrew Hutcheson, who does the line readings, seems a fine actor, and I would really like to see him in a full-fledged classical theater role. But the contrast between Holden’s New York speech patterns and Hutcheson’s beautiful enunciation of “standard American” Shakespeare-speak is distracting.

Also, because Hutcheson is so good, the eye is too often drawn to him when it should be focussed on the physical Richard on the stage – but that Richard is mum. The idea is to make Richard’s two-faced nature explicit. But in a small box theater, where the audience is practically in the midst of the action, the conceit stumbles. It might work better in a larger theater with a proscenium stage.

In other ways the production makes very good use of the space. Victoria Roxo’s set design and Steven Wolf’s lighting adeptly turn the floor from throne room into Tower prison into battlefield. There’s very little stage furniture – just a small archway and a couple of things to sit on. One of the latter, in synchronicity with the new Transformers movie, changes splendidly from a chair into a stepladder. Their stolid woodenness, along with Richard’s crutches and leg, emphasize the pure physicality of the action, which heightens the sense of immediacy in the production’s best scenes, many of which occur in the latter half of the play: Richard’s crowning; his eerie dream sequence; the powerfully and silently played later murders; and the battle scene and Richard’s final comeuppance.

For these and other crucial moments, Sarah Gromko provides an eclectic and effective palette of music, from Renaissance dances to ambient synthesized sounds to punk rock and death metal. This is not one of those modern-dress Shakespeares where people are trying too hard to modernize. Harsh rock music, piercings, leather pants and so forth reflect and enhance the mood of this grim, bloody story.

Richard III

The bard gets mixed results from this cast. Amber Allison is powerfully touching as Lady Anne. Simultaneously solid and reedy, she does well in a range of smaller roles too, although her femininity makes her portrayal of the murderer Tyrell a little hard to believe. (It’s difficult to entirely avoid that kind of problem when putting on a play like this with a small cast.) Meanwhile, movie producers who’d like, but can’t afford, Orlando Bloom might want to take a look at the talented Jason Loughlin, who brings gravity and luminous magnetism to the roles of Clarence and Richmond.

But Wynne Anders, as the spectral and half-mad Queen Margaret (dressed up here like Mimi on The Drew Carey Show), chews her lines to the point of lockjaw, playing Margaret as so continuously thick with anger that Shakespeare’s language gets mired in the venom like bugs in amber. There’s over-the-top, and then there’s fallen off the cliff. And in the important role of Queen Elizabeth, Rebecca Challis pours out her lines so fast they are often incomprehensible. One really wishes she’d slow down just a little, because she’s obviously very talented. Elizabeth is the emotional center of the play, and Challis is brilliantly emotional.

Finally, Jim Williams is a curious case. As Buckingham, Richard’s co-conspirator, he’s lightweight and uninteresting. As King Edward he’s spectacular. Verily, the head spins.

There’s a good deal to like about the production, especially in the second half when tension mounts and the pace quickens. Duke, along with the imaginative fight choreographer S. Barton-Farcas and the intent, muscular, and highly mobile cast, convincingly evoke an England darkened by Margaret’s curses. One’s heart is wrung by the passions of Ann and Elizabeth and the dying King Edward, and one can almost hear the armies massed along the coast. And, as the producers intended, we come to know a Richard whose disability has engulfed and twisted his character. If only one could focus more surely on the man himself, crutching across the stage.

Through July 29 at the Spoon Theater, NYC. Tickets online or call 212-352-3103.

Ah, the Wide Open Spaces… of the Weston Playhouse

Dateline: Weston VT. The first thing you notice about the Weston Playhouse, after the lovely building and waterside setting, is the legroom in the theater. This, if nothing else, tells you that you are far from the dark warrens and wailing sirens of New York City and its performance spaces.

The 200-seat theater is full and pleasantly buzzing for Sunday night’s performance of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). The audience of regular folks, young kids, centenarians, summer-home people, and possibly even some true locals, comes ready to laugh. And if the play is really funny, which this one certainly is, you can laugh yourself right out of your seats and onto the floor in front of you. There’s that much room.

Weston Playhouse

The excellent cast of three included Sam Lloyd, Jr., nephew of the famous movie actor Christopher Lloyd. I’m told the casts of these shows are always this good. They sell darned good ginger cookies at intermission, too. (Not the cast.) I recommend catching a show at the Weston Playhouse if you’re traveling in New England.

Theater Review: The Hunt for Treasure

The Hunt for Treasure, a cute two-character play with flashes of wit, owes much of its humor to the comic timing of its excellent cast, Avery Pearson and John Calvin Kelly. Essentially a clown piece, it follows the adventures of the antic, attention-starved Jason (Pearson) and his reluctant, sad-eyed straight-man friend Mark (pun intended?) (Kelly), who find a treasure map in a public park and set off to find the X that marks the spot.

Though funny, the play doesn’t seem to know quite what it is. Godot-style existentialism? Check. Gross-out humor? Check. Irony? Check. The writing is sharp and the actors make the most of every bit. But their exchanges of game-playing and banter, replete with shameless mugging and adolescent whininess, often do feel more like separate bits than a progression that tells a story.

On the plus side, the blurred intentions set up an effective twist ending. Though the action seems to take place in a sort of existential limbo, we suspend our disbelief and enjoy not only the crazy energy but also, within limits, the vague sense of confusion. Then, the distinctive and touching ending helps make sense of what has seemed odd and nonsensical.

The downside is flab around the middle. In this play, which is only an hour long but has two authors, the strands of farce (the majority) and feeling (an essential leavening agent) aren’t entirely woven together. Hence, through no fault of the invigorating performances, the action sags. Unsure to what degree the world of the play is supposed to reflect the real world, we lose our sense of how much we want to care about the characters.

From the reaction of the tipsy opening night audience, which was full of friends and cohorts (including a lady who repeated every funny line out loud), you wouldn’t have guessed The Hunt for Treasure to be anything but comic genius from start to finish. It’s not. But it is fun, and in Pearson and Kelly it boasts two sharp and winning presences.

Through July 8 at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, NYC. Tickets online at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.

Theater Review: The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero

Marissa Kamin’s The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero is about as up-to-the-minute as a play can be. It’s too sweet to feel edgy, but via sharp, racy dialogue, sparkling performances, and immersion in the culture of the YouTube-and-bulimia generation, we witness the pressure-cooker of twenty-first century teenage life with what feels like scary accuracy.

Like an episode of Law and Order, the play seems “ripped from the headlines.” Gillian Jacobs gives a broadly acted yet finely tuned performance as Girl, a high school senior with spectacular test scores and a stellar record who nonetheless has to worry about whether she’ll get into an Ivy League school as she hopes to (and as her father expects). Meanwhile the pressure to be fashionable, thin, pretty, and sexually active – but not slutty – squeezes her from another angle. Bulimia, cutting, and drug abuse jostle with celebrity worship, blog culture, Facebook-style social networking, and academic pressure, in a nobody-wins battle for the frayed souls of Girl and her schoolmates.

Kamin, along with director Ben Rimalower, cleverly uses artificial forms to show us an unfortunately all-too-real world. Girl and her more carefree and effusive friend, Girl Chorus (the charming, elfin Anna Chlumsky of the My Girl movies) emerge from snappy, highly distilled dialogue as vividly sympathetic child-women. “Which diet are you going to do?” “I don’t know… Moderation?” (Hysterical laughter.) The script is full of such pithy if not actually deep bon mots. “The world is just a big high school, except that instead of popular kids there are celebrities.” These transparent quips flow from the stage in such numbers and with such good cheer that they add up to something affecting.


Brian J. Smith, Gillian Jacobs and Christopher Sloan in The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero. Photo by Monique Carboni.

The funny and versatile Christopher Sloan and Brian J. Smith mug through an assortment of (mostly) male roles, while the impossibly perky Kate Reinders – who’s done the Kristin Chenoweth part in Wicked on Broadway (and it’s obvious why) – is perfectly cast as Superstar, a Barbie-doll figure who functions as a sort of modern god or elemental force, a combination club-kid celeb and game show host who mentors and hectors Girl through her social evolution.

As brilliantly honed as any of the human characters is Wilson Chin’s wonderful, red-themed set. The simple, symmetrical design, abetted by superior lighting, morphs effortlessly from teenager’s room to dance club to college campus and back. During the nightclub scenes there’s even some deliciously dry-eyed dancing. Deft blocking, def music, and transitional video cues combine with Kamin’s machine-gun dialogue to propel the action along at TV-commercial speed. (Even a smoke alarm that interrupted the play and sent audience, cast and crew outside to mill about on the sidewalk for half an hour didn’t faze the actors, who picked right up where they left off.)

Amid the cyber-vaudevillian razzmatazz, one can overlook the serious situation the play is actually about – but not entirely. As depicted here, things are pretty terrible for today’s high school kids, even – or especially – suburban high achievers. Are we wrong for enjoying ourselves at their expense at the theater? Well – no actual teenagers are injured during the production. Which brings us to the evening’s only significant flaw, the ending, also ripped from the headlines. It’s more a droop than the shock that was probably intended. Still, on almost every count it’s worth seeing this top-notch cast in an exhilirating and thoroughly current piece of stagecraft.

Through July 1 at the DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15 St., NYC. For tickets click here or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Theater Review: Dark of the Moon

Mystery and love, two of the great themes and pleasures of the theater (and life), are also essential foodstuffs for writing about theater. You can smell the love in every molecule of air in a small off- or off-off-Broadway theater, particularly in a staging by a young company of a play with a large cast. These kids aren’t doing it for the money, though the production and the acting may be highly professional. They love being with each other and they love the theater. You can’t miss that.

That love goes a long way towards solving the mystery, too – the mystery of why they are doing it when they obviously aren’t getting paid much, if anything. But a deeper question remains: what makes the task of acting out a play such a powerful thing that it induces all that hard work with no promise of material gain, and so beautiful as to foster all that love?

Howard Richardson and William Berney’s Dark of the Moon, set in 1920s Appalachia, is about the very things that make theater itself such a joyful mystery – love, singing, dancing, fear. Since its 1940s Broadway run, the play – a strange mélange of Romeo and Juliet, Dracula, creation myths, “The Little Mermaid” (the original, sad story), and for you modern kids, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the difficult love life of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – has been popular in school productions (so I’m told) but is rarely revived professionally. This was my first experience of it. Judging from reviews of earlier productions, either I personally am unusually prone to liking the play, or this is a superior staging.

The story takes place in two worlds. “Up the mountain,” the realm of witches and conjurers, intersects now and again with the valley where the regular folk live. Like fictional picturesque country peoples everywhere, these superstitious Smoky Mountain humans love to sing and dance. The story is very loosely pulled from the ancient ballad “Barbara Allen,” though the authors made up their own myth about the character: John, a witch boy, wants to become human so he can be with Barbara, a randy human girl he’s fallen in love with. You can take the witch off the mountain, but can you take all the darkness out of the witch?

Director Ian Crawford and his energetic cast power through the play’s strange rhythms with conviction, vision, and talent. The result is a dark, troublesome, moving love story. There’s lots of song, though it isn’t a musical. There are puppets, but it’s not for children. There’s a wedding, and humor, but it’s not a comedy, and there’s a revival meeting at which a most “un-Christian” thing occurs.

Dark of the Moon

John (the very game and suitably intense Noah Dunham) makes his initial “deal with the Devil” in a long opening scene that feels like a Yeats play – incantatory, unreal, portentious. Conjur Man and Conjur Woman are played by puppets run by four actors each speaking in unison, a startling and effective conceit. The witches, for their part, move low to the ground, slinky and sensuous but somehow cold and reptilian too. Then suddenly we’re at a barn dance in the valley where the humans are whooping it up, until Uncle Smelicue (the entertaining but anachronistically dressed Adam Fujita) notes that “it ain’t no natural night for a dance.” (The cast’s southern drawl is pretty steady and convincing.)

Singing songs is one of these poor folks’ favorite daily pleasures, from songs about hooch to songs about old folk tales and superstitions. The Allens’ house has a whole wall of musical instruments. Song is more than cheer, though – it’s fate. The story a song tells – and whether it’s sung to the end, or interrupted – matter a great deal in this odd world.

Another favorite activity, of course, is sex, without which – as in much of life – there’d be no story to tell. The youngsters indulge in it in spite of the powerful presence of the Church, which is represented by the charismatic Preacher Haggler (Jake Thomas). Jessica Howell, as Ms. Metcalf, adorably plays up her character’s crush on the Preacher, quite stealing her scenes. Yet not much worse can be said of a person than that “she pleasured herself [referring to sex, not masturbation] before she were married.”

And that is the sin of Barbara Allen, who is played by the radiant Sarah Hayes Donnell with pitch-perfect characterization. The adults’ overweening desire to see Barbara married – not for her happiness, but for their own honor – helps enable the love story and spreads the responsibility for everything that happens – like in Romeo and Juliet.

The supporting cast find the nuances in their characters, too. It’s too big a cast to mention them all. Barbara’s brother Floyd (Brendan Norton) is an endearing whiner, and Matthew Hadley does nicely as John’s rival, a pugilistic tough who is also easily frightened. Amanda Peck is funny and fiery as the reluctantly religious Edna Summey, and Katey Parker and Chris Masullo find the complexities in the elder Allens (though they look too young for the roles).

This play is often looked down on as a confused work with plebian sentiments, but in this interpretation, its only significant flaw is a second-act plot convolution on the supernatural side of things which delays the ending – which, when it comes, is played most feelingly by Donnell and Dunham. On the whole the show is a smashing success. Colorful and effectively paced staging, good acting, and youthful energy march this offbeat play right into time, and into tune. The result is a big, cathartic drama, messy with the joy, the mystery, and the love of theater.

Through July 7 at chashama (217 E. 42 St, NYC). Tickets online at Smarttix or call 212-279-4200.

Theater Review: Penetrator

It’s the most basic plot recipe in theater: take a family; add a visitor, usually unexpected, who’s been away for some time; stir vigorously; then watch as secrets from the past bubble to the surface and the family’s settled existence boils over.

Originality comes from the details. The “family” in Anthony Nielson’s Penetrator is a pair of twenty-something housemates: Max (Michael Mason), a lanky slacker and cokehead addicted to video games, and Alan (Jared Culverhouse), an overweight working stiff with a stunted social life. Though real friends, the two seem unable or unwilling to fully mature, and their friendship manifests in adolescent gross-out humor and shared pop culture references. (You can find similar characters in Judd Apatow’s current film Knocked Up.)

The Working Man’s Clothes theater company – the vibrant outfit responsible for the recent fuckplays – has effectively revised this powerful 1993 British one-act for a present-day American setting. Max’s childhood pal Woody turns up at Max and Alan’s cramped New York City apartment. A solider returned, under mysterious circumstances, from the Iraq War, Woody is as mentally fucked up as the paranoid fantasies he describes – to an extreme that makes him almost seem like a ghost or a figment of some kind, pushing the play from the roommates’ antic realism into the realm of the bizarre (and scary).

Cole Wimpee in Penetrator. Photo by Julie Rossman.

In fact the play becomes a not entirely realistic psychological thriller. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Fortunately the actors are so skilled that they can pull us with them through the transition, and bring to life the tension of Nielson’s script. Mason and Culverhouse make their characters so real they mesmerize. Wimpee makes Woody genuinely terrifying. In effect, the play takes props and action common to horror films and hurls them right into what feels like our living room.

As a result one leaves the theater feeling almost viscerally disturbed, but more from the action on stage than from any deeper message. We don’t need the theater to tell us that the human psyche – especially the male version – is a fragile thing, nor do we need to hold yet another mirror up to nature to know that war is both an internal and an external hell. But theater, typically, isn’t about lessons. We go because we want to be touched at a gut level, affected more presently than we can be by any other art. Penetrator more than does the trick.

Through June 23 at the American Place Theater in New York. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. For mature audiences.

Theater Review: North of Providence

It is unusual for a one-act play that runs less than an hour to be given its own production, especially in New York City, where production costs are enormous. Edward Allan Baker’s North of Providence, however, now in a revival by Small Pond Entertainment at Altered Stages, earns its focus. It’s a well directed and powerfully played full evening’s worth of drama in a single act.

Before I discuss why the play is worth seeing, I must mention a few doubts of which I am giving it the benefit. Perhaps because it was the first preview, the cast of two took a while to find the rhythm of their dialogue. The script is weighed down a bit by some awkward explication during its slow-build set-up. The otherwise excellent Chad Meador drifts in and out of a North Providence dialect that he hasn’t mastered anyway (Yvonne Roen has a better time with it).

Meador and Roen, as directed by Glory Sims Bowen, barrel through these distractions to bring Baker’s prickly, tightly wound family drama to life. The plot is basic: struggling, with some success, to make a good life for herself and her family after being dealt a poor hand, Carol returns to her parents’ run-down home to try to convince Bobbie, her only brother in a family of sisters, to come to the hospital where their father is dying.

Chad Meador in North of Providence
Chad Meador in North of Providence

As Carol tries to break through to her brooding, dismissive, and none too articulate sibling, baring her soul in the process, we come to learn what lies behind the anger (and the love) that drives her. Even more dramatically, we, along with Carol, learn the devastating secret that has turned Bobbie into the drunken, possibly suicidal recluse who won’t visit his dying father and thinks nothing of swiping the cash from his sister’s purse.

Along the way we’re treated to a number of sharply dramatic moments, but the very best may be the quietest: the simple admission by the emotionally exhausted Bobbie that, yes, he’s hungry, and there might be some food in the fridge Carol could fix for him. The resulting, rather sad-looking bologna sandwich channels more emotion than one could ever expect from such a humble object. By the end, we’re as chewed up as the sandwich, as torn up as the porn magazines Carol hurls at Bobbie, and as worn out as he is. Catharsis achieved.

The bedraggled one-room set effectively mirrors both the disintegration of the family and Bobbie’s claustrophobic, drink-addled life. A musical soundtrack evokes the mid-1980s setting, but the story could be taking place anywhere, and almost anywhen, in America. Unfortunately New York is the only place you can see this production. But that’s the nature of theater – you, and the actors, have to be there. And your reward for showing up is to feel the floorboards shake, smell the aftershave, and be touched in a way that can never quite happen at the movies.

Through June 3. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: An Octopus Love Story

Jane (Kelli Holsopple) is so insecure she leaves the lights on when she goes out “so everything’s how I remember it when I get back.” Desperate for assurance, she leads on a smitten male co-worker (Eric Kuehnemann) even though she has a live-in lover, the arrogant Tosh (Jenny Greer). Tosh is so controlling she won’t even let Jane indulge her taste for guilty pleasure movies and comfort food. (“She caught me once, on a Cactus Flower and Tater Tot night.”) Lacking confidence, Jane puts up with the emotional abuse.

Meanwhile, Danny (Josh Tyson), a sweet-natured, gauntly handsome waiter, has far too little ambition to satisfy his old friend Alex (Michael Cyril Creighton), who also happens to be Tosh’s partner at a public relations firm. Danny toys with the idea of graduate school, without a clear idea of what he might want to study. But the two PR pros have cooked up a novel plan for the shiftless Jane and Danny, who have never met: have them get married while publicly avowing their homosexuality, thereby calling attention to the absurdity of laws that grant two opposite-sex strangers the benefits of marriage while denying the same benefits to a loving, committed same-sex couple.

If I were writing about a sitcom, the next sentence would naturally be: “Hilarity ensues.” But playwright Delaney Britt Brewer has serious things to say here, though they’re not the ones you might expect. Speckled with funny moments and clever dialogue, the play is fundamentally about how unexpected, and how unstorybooklike, love can be. With its topical plot, flawed and fully realized characters, and direction as smooth and transparent as glass, it is both timely and universal.

Unafraid of controversy, Brewer digs into the complexities of emotions and gay identity. As Jane and Danny develop mutual affection, Alex – whose own feelings for Danny may be deeper than he has let on – lashes out at his friend for betraying the cause. But how much is love responsible for the plan’s backfiring, and how much is it Alex and Tosh’s just desserts for manipulating their friends for a “higher” cause? Danny finds the guts to defend himself: “Don’t try to stop it because it doesn’t fit your image. That would be the ultimate malevolence.”

Tosh, too, may have had a hidden motive for the arrangement, besides the political protest. Touting her Ivy League and Mensa credentials while committing malapropisms (“I’m glad you two have endeavored such a close friendship”), she proves in the end – as Danny tells a heartbroken Jane – “pathetic,” if entertainingly so from our standpoint.

An Octopus Love Story
(L-R): Kelli Holsopple & Jenny Greer. Photo by Mike Klar.

The central image that gives the play its name is emblematic of Brewer’s ability to merge higher concepts with slightly elevated but believable dialogue. Jane tells Danny that, like the animal of the title, “I climbed out of the tank…to be with you,” knowing it wasn’t an environment she could live in. “If I could find another octopus in the tank…I would choose that over you.” The flowering of Jane’s courage, and to a lesser extent Danny’s, forms the backbone of the story, and Holsopple’s bravura performance locks it all together, with more than able counterbalance from Tyson and excellent performances from Creighton and Greer, both of whom make the most of their scenes.

The supporting cast also includes Krista Sutton as Jane’s stepmother, a former beauty queen who reveals an unexpected richness of character while representing the essential goodness of the human heart, and Andrew Dawson as a creepy fundamentalist bigot who is nonetheless – like the play – disturbingly smart and human.

An Octopus Love Story is presented by Kids With Guns and runs through May 20 at the Center Stage Theater in New York City. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: f-ckplays

Do not be put off by the overtly provocative title. fuckplays is real theater and serious business – seriously funny, for one thing. The eight short plays that comprise it are all about sex, but unlike the real thing may do, they neither disappoint nor try too hard. It’s an evening of real excitement, putting one in mind of headier eras in picturesque countries where live theater had the power to make audiences go nuts.

In the screechingly funny opening salvo, Joshua Hill’s The Impotence of Being Ernest, two juddering fops transform a conversation with frank but unremarkable subject matter into sidesplitting absurdity. It’s a hilarious demonstration of the way language, enlivened by razor-sharp acting, can make a scrap of conversation into something bigger and even more delightfully ridiculous than life.

Marriage Play by Bekah Brunstetter takes on the affection problems that married couples often develop, but places them in the context of gustatory gluttony and wide-angle humor. Erin McCarson and Jared Culverhouse are a sitcom couple boiled to the nth degree, randy and sad, voluptuous and touching. Their nostalgia for more innocent times leads them unexpectedly to a happy, absurd and silly breakthrough.

The production takes a sharp turn in Casey Wimpee’s Arms and the Octopus. This remarkable play gives a wrenching twist to an Islamic terrorist’s myth of heaven. As his joyous dream ratchets into nightmare, Amir (the agile, acidic Julian James Mohamed) is literally and figuratively torn apart by a trio of Sirens (led by the assured Kaci Gober) who Just Aren’t Having It. Despite its serious subject matter, the deep, powerful little play maintains the manic energy that preceded it – as well as a measure of the humor, though here it becomes the scary sort.

(L to R) Kaci Gober, Eboni Hogan and Elizabeth Kensek as the ‘virgins’ in Julian James Mohamed’s harem in f**kplays at the Ohio Theatre and Galapagos Art Space, March 28-April 27, 2007. Photo by Reedfa.

Act One closes with an original and funny take on the games of intimacy and distance that lovers play. In Justin Cooper’s Wood, a socially hapless ventriloquist (Steven Strobel) uses his… no, I can’t give it away. But Amy Lynn Stewart is certainly one of the more convincing and entertaining nymphomaniacs you’ll see on the stage.

The road gets a little bumpy in the second act. Greg Romero’s Sharpen My Dick is like a little circus gone horribly wrong – it makes no sense, but it’s funny and entertaining. Candy Room by William Charles Mery loses a bit of momentum as it sketches some stereotypical New York characters and relationships. Aiming for the quivering underbelly of vapid TV shows like Friends, it isn’t sharply realized enough to hit the mark. Even so, it has some quite funny moments, and it has excellent music by Linda Dowdell.

The dark matter of Kyle Jarrow’s noirish The Saddest Thing in the History of World is brightened by appropriately dry performances by Michael Mason and Elliotte Crowell. Its played-sort-of-for-laughs gore brings us to the evening’s closer: Eric Sanders’s gross, lunatic 1.1-1.7. Directed by Stephen Brackett, who recently did such an admirable job with the flawed Hotel Oracle, this crazily inventive two-character play is a miniature epic of nauseating foulness – and true love. Told in a stutter of short scenes, with nothing but plain words, between Richie (Cole Wimpee) and Donna (Nell Mooney) – two heroic performers – the play gives new meaning to the phrase “disgustingly sweet.” Cathartic, nay, emetic, it’s simply brilliant.

Bolstering the strong material and uniformly good performances is solid directorial talent. Each playlet has its own director, including some very accomplished ones like Thomas Caruso and NYIT Best Director Award winner Isaac Byrne. Equally important are the loose transitions, which create a celebratory atmosphere that makes the audience part of the show. All told, fuckplays is an embarrassment of seriously sexed-up riches.

fuckplays moves to Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn starting this Friday and runs Fridays only through April 27. Tickets at SmartTix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Jean Genet’s The Balcony

The playwright and novelist Jean Genet may be as famous for his life as for his work. His early stints in jail certainly informed his stagecraft. The Balcony, a claustrophobic acting-out of the interchangeability of illusion and reality, is no exception.

Genet’s best known play, The Blacks, directed by Gene Frankel (RIP), had the longest off-Broadway run of any straight play in the 1960s. The Balcony, too, has a notable history that includes – after various international bannings – a 1960 Peter Brook production in Paris, and a New York debut at Circle in the Square which starred Nancy Marchand and Sylvia Miles. However, while it is interesting as a psychological study and says something about its times, as drama it’s lacking.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed up very quickly: when a violent revolution deposes the authorities, a group of role-players from a whorehouse-dungeon get drafted to fulfill the functions of the characters they’ve been play-acting. In this unabridged production the story runs three and a half hours, including an intermission. It is educational, but not edifying, to see the fulness of what Genet intended, since much of the play, including almost the entire second act, is an incoherent jumble.

It’s not the fault of the new translation – by the director, Barbara Vann – which seems fluid enough. Vann also plays the demanding, central role of Madame Irma, with a stinky-sweet, dilapidated grandeur that, early on, rivets the attention. Within the relatively safe haven of her “House of Illusion” – a combination whorehouse and S&M role-playing dungeon, warrened with mirrors, costumes and sets – the “girls,” still much in demand amidst the chaos outside, press on providing their services while Madame anxiously awaits the arrival of the Chief of Police and his assurance of protection.

The patrons, as much as the staff, are under no illusions about their illusions. “My being a Judge,” says the pompous “Judge” to the girl who works his scene, “is an emanation of your being a thief.” But to some of the “girls” their roles become more than mere jobs. Carmen (Louise Martin) talks about her favorite role while helping with the accounts, declaiming to the fidgety, reality-dependent Irma that “Your bookkeeping wll never replace my apparition.” “I have my games,” Irma fires back, “and you have your orgies of the heart.”

Meanwhile Chantal (the stunning Shruti Shah) has left the whorehouse and become a living symbol of the revolution. We all tread the line between reality and illusion.

Yes, we get it. The three opening scenes – the best part of the play – make the point quite well. The mincing, effulgent, vain Bishop; the proud Judge who wants to dominate but also to be dominated, just a little; and the silver-tongued, half-mad General who makes his whore his horse – all bloviate effectively about the psychological and philosophical meaning of their roleplay. It’s just the sort of thing an intellectual in prison would have plenty of time to ponder (and, in this case, note down).

It’s also not the fault of the performances. There is amateurishness in a few of the minor roles, but the central characters come vividly, indeed campily, to life. In particular, Peter Schmitz’s old coot of a “General” is a fascinatingly bizarre character, and Martin has several wonderful speeches. A choreographed conversation in Act II has an effective elegance, while Ron Dreyer as the brothel’s assistant/man-about-the-house brings a touchingly cloddish sadness to his scenes.

The early role-playing scenes contain most of the S&M elements that scandalized audiences and authorities of the 1950s. By today’s standards, they are so tame as to be barely noticeable; what a difference a half-century makes. For the homoerotic elements, one must wait till very near the end, by which time one has grown too impatient to care. After the too-long scene that makes up the second half of Act I, and the interminable political grandstanding of Act II, broken only by occasional flashes of humor and clarity, we just want to escape the prison with Genet and get out into the world, even if the streets are running with blood.

The Medicine Show Theatre in New York City presents The Balcony through April 21. Tickets online at SmartTix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Desire in the Suburbs

Frederic Glover’s new play takes place in the present day, but hangs, not on the modern hooks of irony or experiment, but on the old-fashioned dramatic values of – wait for it – wait for it –


Also wit. And – whaddyacallem – oh yeah. Characters.

Ed (Timothy Scott Harris) is a 39-year-old unemployed lawyer and smoldering misanthrope who’s moved back in with his philandering, law-professor father (Baz Snider) and the latter’s alluring, fortyish new wife (Dee Dee Friedman). What’s the secret in Jenny’s past, and does she have hidden motives? Will Ed and Jenny’s flirtation turn into something more? Should Jenny believe the father, or the son, about her new family’s possibly dark history?

And will the play obey Chekhov’s rule that if you hang a rifle on the wall in the first act, it must be fired later?

Most of all, the suspense lies in the psychology of the bitter, sarcastic Ed. Balding and round-shouldered but physically intimidating, furiously lifting weights like the prison inmate he feels like, this deliciously creepy bolt of jealousy lopes about his father’s suburban kingdom like a modern Richard III. He wants his father’s big Westchester house, the girl, and the successful, settled life. But is his tragic flaw his jealousy, or is it the putative mental illness he may or may not have inherited from his mysteriously vanished mother? (Did she run off years ago, as Ed’s father, Mike, insists? Or is she in the urn on the mantelpiece?)

Desire in the Suburbs
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

In the relatively straight role of the father, Snider conveys the fragility of modern enlightened manhood – cool cucumber outside, jalapeno of rage inside. The stolid academic with the radical past worries about his unstable son and is – at least academically – in touch with his feelings, but in the face of Oedipal confrontation his self-awareness devolves to primitive anger and tyranny. In perhaps the most challenging role as Jenny, the fulcrum of the conflict, Friedman is subtly brilliant even – or especially – during her near-silent scenes while the boys squabble over her loyalties. She does more with a tight nod, or a sudden, leering smile, than some might accomplish with extravagant speechifying.

In an inventive variation on in-the-round staging, director Kathleen Brant and scenic designer Tim Gobeliewski seat the audience on two opposite sides of a single wide set which efficiently represents the kitchen and living room. In this way they are able to suggest a spacious, comfortable house in a small off-off-Broadway space. As the actors enter and exit through and around the audience, the perspective shifts and the fourth wall is thinned but not eliminated. The resulting feeling of intimacy enhances the tension.

Harris’s Ed is a rich, fascinating invention, a character that could become a classic. I even thought of John Malkovich as Pale in Burn This. With their more than able cast and crew, Glover and Brant have bred a big winner.

Through March 31 at the Workshop Theater in New York City. Call 212-695-4173 for reservations, or buy tickets online.

Theater Review: Hotel Oracle by Bixby Elliot

Bixby Elliot‘s new play Hotel Oracle starts with the standard fictional convention of putting a group of seemingly ordinary strangers into an extraordinary situation. Here, though, it’s not a disaster or a crime, but a fantastical grafting of ancient myth onto modern life. A group of travelers, hoping for answers to their Big Questions from a mysterious modern sibyl, reveal their troubles and motivations as they get to know each other.

The play has a number of well-written and powerfully staged scenes, some of which are very funny. Interesting dramatic ideas, wonderful set design by Nick Vaughan, and a good cast conspired to make me really want to like the play. But it’s a jumble. Elliot has tried to cram in so many ideas and inspirations that the play loses focus and leaves us with unanswered questions – not the ineffable kind, but the plot-related kind that we normally expect to have answered.

At one moment we seem to be in the “real” world of modern science and The New York Times, and the next there seems to be a fascist dystopia out there. Modern medical explanations for religious visions, as exemplified by the brilliant but mentally unstable Lucy (Tessa Gibbons), are fascinating, but what do they have to do with the half-absurd, half-mysterious Oracle that actually figures in the play? The hotel clerk (the charming Paul Keany) has an interesting hobby, but is it supposed to map in some way to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice? Unclear.

Hotel Oracle
Katie Honaker and Tessa Gibbons. Photo by Rebecca Holladay.

The playwright’s potential, the actors’ abilities, and director Stephen Brackett’s careful sensitivity are evident in a number of places, such as the masterfully comic early scene between the nosy, pregnant Angie (the fabulous Katie Honaker) and the lonely reporter Madeline (Deb Martin); the truly scary ending of Act I; and the powerful and tricky piece of stagecraft in which Mack, the con man (Jim Kane), bares his difficult, angry soul. Angie’s monologue about why she’s afraid of the water is a brilliant showcase of both Elliot’s sharp ear for the rhythms of speech and Honaker’s magnetic and elastic talent. And the whole thing with the Post-It notes is, let’s just say, highly original.

This is the work of a playwright with a quiver full of penetrating arrows who – in this case, at least – just needs better aim.

Through March 31 at Walkerspace in New York City. For tickets call (212) 352-3101 or order online.

Theater Review: Kander and Ebb’s The Happy Time

Octogenarian Tony winner George S. Irving is anchoring a sprightly cast in a revival of Kander and Ebb’s neglected musical The Happy Time at the McGinn-Casale Theater in New York City. Like the larger-scale Encores! series at City Center (something! about this type of production! seems to demand! exclamation points!), Musicals Tonight! presents neglected and forgotten musicals in “staged concert” format. I have some comments on the format, in which the cast holds their scripts while performing, but first, to the matter at hand: The Happy Time.

First produced in 1968, the show was Kander and Ebb’s follow-up to their breakout hit Cabaret. The score is quite pleasing and includes some really lovely tunes, including “I Don’t Remember You” and “Please Stay.” Irving, who now plays Grandpère, was a member of the original cast. Here he has a blast playing the gruff but lovable dirty old paterfamilias of a bickering Québécois family that’s sent into a tizzy by the return of prodigal son Jacques (Timothy Warmen).

Though Jacques hesitantly reconnects with his old flame Laurie (the graceful, angel-voiced Sarah Solie), the story’s main relationship is the one between him and his pubescent nephew Bibi (David Geinosky), who yearns to escape his teasing schoolmates and strict father into something like Jacques’s glamorous photographer’s life. As a substitute for a central love story, this relationship works a little weirdly. Warmen, despite some stagey awkwardness early on (and an excessive vibrato), eventually invests Jacques with depth, and Geinosky gives a touching and generous performance as the boy, but the bawdy humor that hops up much of Act I also bestows some unwanted creepiness on the two male leads’ mutual affection. Jacques also suffers an identity crisis that, at least to twenty-first century eyes, suggests a possibly unintended double meaning.

Since Bibi is only thirteen or so, we don’t quite know how to take some of these cues. Fortunately Geinosky (a grown actor) is good at portraying the confusions of adolescence. And the story is fundamentally about how people grow up, and what happens when some people don’t.

There’s plenty of drama in growing up – it’s probably the second most common theme of the stories we tell. But this particular telling lacks the crisp pace and transparent narrative flow that make a great Broadway musical. In the second act, when the father-son-uncle conflict becomes explicit, the drama draws neatly towards completion, but because of the early ambiguity and the show’s length, we look back quizzically on the opening scenes, which is not an intended effect.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a story that follows an arc from lightness and humor to darkness and complexity, but our journey from Jacques’s homey introduction to the bittersweet closing set-piece is too long and meandering. Our expectations, and, to a degree, our interest in the characters get dispersed. Five songs cut from the Broadway show were restored for this production, hence the length of the evening. Some songs, as my companion pointed out, didn’t serve to further the action. (Probably those are the ones that had been originally cut.)

However, it’s nice to hear Kander and Ebb’s entire score, and I’m not sorry I did. In fact, for the music alone I can recommend this production. Winning performances from a well-rounded cast, and the presence of the aged but still sharp and hilarious George S. Irving, help bring the delicious music – flawed story in tow – to life. Larry Daggett as the drunken brother is especially droll. Charly Seamon displays brassy power in the vaudeville number, which is only one of the vehicles for director Thomas Mills’s limber choreography.

But the choreography is also where the format’s weakness is most evident. The actors carry around script binders and refer to them for lines, sometimes even lyrics. This, despite their valiant efforts to work around it, interferes with the flow of the action. I know that in this format the actors aren’t expected to have entirely memorized their parts. But I don’t quite understand how, if there’s enough rehearsal time to learn Kander and Ebb’s tunes with their playful melodies and time changes, and to get down all the cues and blocking and movement and dancing, there isn’t time to learn the lines too. It’s not halfway between a staged reading and a full-on production – it’s much closer to the latter. Hence the strangeness. Admittedly, it’s the first time I’ve seen this sort of production, and I’d welcome any enlightenment.

Through March 18. Call (212) 868-4444 or order tickets online.

Theater Review: Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams

There’s no law that says a small space can’t hold a big production, and Terry Schreiber’s revival of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth thinks big. It has to, to accommodate the play’s large themes, outsize characters, and grand poetic speeches, all vintage Williams.

Drifter Chance Wayne returns to his Southern home town intending to reclaim his one true love, Heavenly Finley, who happens to be the daughter of the corrupt, bigoted local political boss. Chance’s secret weapon is aging actress Alexandra del Lago, who, believing she has blown her last comeback attempt, has “disguised” herself as the “Princess Kosmonopolis” and adopted Chance as caretaker/gigolo. He hopes to use her connections to further his own failed acting career and bring his true love with him. The South’s last stand against federally enforced desegregation is the backdrop. Violence occurs both on and offstage, both physical and psychic.

Get the feeling the story doesn’t end well?

Yes, the play is a tragedy, at least for most of the characters. Though quite funny in places, it moves slowly, like a stately pageant, through three acts and three-plus hours – a rich story with big, exaggerated personalities. Paul Newman and Geraldine Page created the roles of Chance and the Princess in the original 1959 Broadway production, and starred in the 1961 movie. Irene Worth won a Tony in the latter role in a 1975 revival, which also starred Christopher Walken. Schreiber doesn’t have the big names at his disposal that Elia Kazan and Edwin Sherin did, and not surprisingly, this production’s most significant strengths and weaknesses both lie in its casting.

Sweet Bird of Youth 2

The role of the half-crazed Princess is gloriously larger-than-life, and Joanna Bayless, more than up to the challenge, knocks it out of the park. Whether outmaneuvering Chance in a prolonged battle of wills, hyperventilating in what would today be called a severe anxiety attack, or suffering an embarrassing public collapse, she takes complete command of her every scene. Bayless bares the humanity behind the haughtiness, simultaneously embodying proud grande dame and lost, sick soul.

As Chance, Eric Watson Williams seems lost too, but not in a good way. Though he looks the part, he doesn’t come off as the charming, virile scoundrel he’s supposed to be. He seems stiff, sure of his lines but uncertain of his rhythm (and his Southern accent). As a result we find Chance hard to sympathize with – he should be a complex character, a cynical dreamer, but he lacks focus. Only in his almost wordless final scene does he come fully to life. Then we glimpse the depths to which Chance Wayne’s peripatetic life has really taken him.

Sweet Bird of Youth 1

David Donahoe as Boss Finley dominates his scenes as effectively as Bayless does hers. Cocksure, hypocritical, spitting mad, fiercely protective of his daughter’s honor even while using her for political gain, the stalwart separatist seems as real as a lynch-post. Timothy Weinert also does good work as Finley’s fiery son, while Shelley Virginia is the picture of tragedy as the ruined Heavenly. Andrea Jackson makes a swaggering Miss Lucy, and Jack Drucker and Margo Goodman do well with important small roles. Effective lighting and sets, and dreamy, if somewhat repetitive, jazz music add to the drowsy backwater atmosphere established by the calculatedly lazy pace Schreiber sets. Though not the very best of Tennessee Williams, it’s a powerful piece that just needs some more power at its center.

Through March 18 at the T. Schreiber Studio in New York City. Tickets at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.

Theater Review: The Girl Detective

As you all know, we’re all for showing off smaller authors and bring attention to their deserving work. This is why we always encourage you guys reading to look at some short story prompts and work on your writing skills – we love finding new talent! This is why we were so eager to start this book. We’ve only just found the author and wanted to see what she had to offer. Reading “The Girl Detective,” a celebrated short story by Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner Kelly Link, one might see potential for either a wonderful or a terrible stage adaptation. Although full of surprising imagery in motion, with fantastic settings, colorful characters, dancing language and dancing people, the story ultimately succeeds because of the author’s narrative voice.

That unique slant or sheen is important in any kind of prose but absolutely essential to a short story. Link’s tale, like the best fairy stories ancient or modern, casts an unbroken word-spell. It’s an experimental, unconventionally plotted story that hangs together on the strength of a narrative voice that says things like this: “Someone else is dreaming about the house they lived in as a child. The girl detective breaks off a bit of their house. It pools in her mouth like honey.” Can that cool style translate to a setting where the narration and dialogue are split among a big cast of actors, and an audience must be engaged?

The answer, happily, is yes. Thanks to crisp direction, winning performances by a talented cast, and above all, brilliant choreography, the Ateh Theater Group’s production, at the beautiful Connelly Theater in Manhattan’s East Village, is a pleasure.

Adhering closely to the text of the story, the show starts off in chilly fashion. In fact, one fears one is in for an evening of stiff, postmodern conceptualizing, as the cast pops in and out delivering lines like they’re hot potatoes. It might have been opening night jitters, or simply the viewer needing to adjust to the disjointed rhythm of a non-traditional narrative – probably a bit of both. Then, a few minutes in, the tap-dancing bank robbers breeze on stage.

Led by Birthday (the buoyant Alexis Grausz, who has the makings of a Broadway star), the dancers set the humorous and playful tone that infuse the rest of the story even in its more somber moments. Show and audience find their rhythm and suddenly warm up. The game is afoot.

The plot, such as it is, has to do with the title character – played with regal innocence by the tall, spectral Kathryn Ekblad – searching for her missing mother while trailed by the nameless narrator (Ben Wood). He’s a combination of stalker ex-boyfriend, wood nymph, and Ariel from The Tempest. The two are only marginally “leads,” though, in a production driven by crisp pacing, divine dancing, and an ensemble of actors (who clearly love working together) making the most of their in-and-out parts. With clever lighting and a few props the stage becomes, alternately, the Girl Detective’s neighborhood, her house, a Chinese restaurant, and the clubby Underworld, which is more Folies Bergère than Hades. But the show-stopper is a scene in which our heroine, who “eats dreams” (instead of food), darts among a mass of many people’s dreams come to life. It’s real theater magic.

What all of it means is open to interpretation, but by sticking closely to the original text the director, Bridgette Dunlap, has preserved the story’s tone. Link’s tale also has many layers, which, for the most part, also survive the transition. Is an explicit telling of the Persephone and Demeter myth – implicit in the original story – necessary? Does it have to be pointed out on stage that in fairy and fantasy tales, child heroes almost always lack at least one parent? Unclear. But in an adult show that also has kid appeal, some amount of explanation may be a plus. Certainly, the wonderful dancing and funny stage business help make the show a pleasure for all ages, in spite of the “mature themes” warning on the poster. This reviewer’s inner child, for one, was as amused as his critical brain was tickled.

Through March 17 at the Connelly Theater in New York. Call 212-352-3101 for tickets or get them online.

Theater Review: Cycle

How distant, really, is “classic” modern theater (Pirandello, Beckett, Stoppard) from Vaudeville? In time, not so much. In theme – maybe not so much either. Isn’t it all basically clowning? Who are Pirandello’s six searching characters, who are Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if not clowns? Aren’t they all shadows of humans, seeking by means of antic dispositions a way through the wall? Pinocchios all, striving, or at least sighing, to be real people?

In Cycle, Rose Courtney’s new, antic play with music, six dislocated vaudevillians need a muse so they can continue to exist. It’s not clear how they choose (or conjure) her, but the exquisitely named Charlotte Shrubsole (played just as exquisitely by the playwright) has one frantic day to find the Secret of Success while bicycling through New York City. Scampering in and out of Charlotte’s adventures, constantly thinking on their feet, the desperate vaudevillians take on various roles: voice coach, talent agent, audition buddy, blind date – trying to shepherd her towards Success, whatever that is. Less fixed characters than representative spirits loaded with character, the six attempt to keep Charlotte’s eyes on the prize without exposing her to their separate world, which would be crossing a kind of fourth wall.

Rose Courtney and Michael Leydon Campbell in Cycle.
Photo credit: Martine Malle

The script is so picture-perfect and brightly executed, the music (by veteran accompanist and music director Rachel Kaufman) so seamlessly integrated, you don’t even notice the play as a work of craft. The story’s vagueness presents a small problem. But fortunately, in addition to limpid writing and joyous music, the production abounds in manic energy, precision staging (by director Craig Carlisle and choreographer Laura Sheehy), and on-stage talent.

Michael Leydon Campbell and J.T. Arbogast attack their array of parts with outsize glee, while Krista Braun wears commanding haughtiness like a young Glenn Close. Sarah Hund charms as violin-playing Fran and goes bigger-than-life as Charlotte’s mother. Eric Zuckerman, as the troupe’s Doubting Thomas, does nicely with relatively thankless roles, and the adorable Halley Zien manages with very few words to steal a few very funny scenes. The cast is as adept with quotations from Shakespeare, Chekhov, and medieval morality plays as they are with physical humor and the playwright’s comic banter.

Centering the action, Ms. Courtney spices up her ingenue’s wide-eyed intensity with a tiny dash of Sex and the City knowingness – just enough to make the character come alive without breaking the absurdist integrity of what is really a piece of meta-theater. It doesn’t matter that the show is, on a literal level, one big actors’ in-joke. In a culture where entertainers are both royalty and psychic balm, actors’ in-jokes are everyone’s jokes, just as Shakespeare’s poetry and Chekhov’s prose are everyone’s music.

Through March 3 at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City. Call (212) 279-4200 or order tickets at

Theater Review: The Country Wife by William Wycherly

Banned for 170 years because of its licentious plot and language so bawdy it would have made Shakespeare blush, William Wycherly’s 1675 farce The Country Wife – a favorite of Charles II – has, in our post-Victorian age, returned to popularity in all its dirty glory. HoNkBarK!’s ambitious new production eschews sociological analysis in favor of playing it mostly straight, which, in this case, puts the focus squarely on the play’s bent zaniness.

Based loosely on several earlier plays, including Molière’s more mannerly School For Husbands and School For Wives, Wycherly’s intricately plotted comedy weaves together three strands. The title character (Kristin Price), a young, sexually ripe naïf, is seduced by the profane charms of city life, much to the consternation of her jealous middle-aged husband (Ray Rodriguez). The object of her affections is Horner (Richard Haratine), a libertine gentleman who has spread a rumor that he’s become impotent, so as to be trusted alone with London’s desperate housewives. Meanwhile Horner’s pal Harcourt falls in love with the principled Alithea (Linda Jones), who is, alas, betrothed to the outrageously foppish Sparkish (Brian Linden).

How it all turns out isn’t important; it’s the wit that counts. Indeed Horner and his friends are self-conscious Wits, out-flowering each other’s similes and engaging the audience in panicky asides as they get entangled in their own absurd tricks. Linden is hilarious as the ridiculous but ultimately sympathetic fop who only thinks he can match wits with the smarter gentlemen, Price charms as the innocent but surprisingly resourceful country wife, and Haratine commands the stage as Horner, the hyper-confident cuckold-maker. The fast pace and continuous barrage of flamboyant dialogue demands close attention, but the play would be too long if paced more slowly. Crisply directed by John Ficarra and extravagantly costumed by Karl A. Ruckdeschel, the able and enthusiastic cast dances through the complex plot with the precise timing of an OK Go video.

The production, on this preview weekend, was still a little rough around the edges. The live baroque-style music suffered from weak wit and imperfect performance, while the lovely scenery, which consisted entirely of paintings – some cleverly applied to window shades – balked now and again. But as the production is quite ambitious for off-off-Broadway, with complex material, a large cast, and spectacular costuming, I found these flaws mostly forgivable and the play a nearly unqualified delight.

The student of theater will detect the influence of both Shakespeare and Molière in Wycherly’s flowery language and precise dissection of human foibles, and in turn find echoes of The Country Wife in farces and comedies of manners down to modern times – from Wodehouse to Ayckbourne, Monty Python to Gilligan’s Island. But this play is a good time in and of itself. No special knowledge of Restoration England is needed, for the human comedy, as captured by Wycherly’s barbed quill, has changed little since his time.

Through January 27 at the McGinn Cazale Theatre on Broadway & 76th St. in New York City.

Theater Review: Love, Death, and Interior Decorating (two one-act plays by Keith Boynton)

Though not long out of college, playwright Keith Boynton has a marvelously clever and pointed way with words. “Stoppardian” has become a cliche, but there is a pithiness and playfulness in his dialogue that suggests happy inspiration from the great wordsmiths of the modern stage. Boynton puts this facility in the service of two stories, on the surface quite different, but underneath betraying parallel narrative flow and concerns. The result is a resonant evening of theater, although the two approaches – one story quotidian, the other mythically grand – do not, ultimately, succeed equally well.

The first play, Walls, is a taut, tense and funny two-character dramatization of what would seem a rather unremarkable situation. An old flame returns, complicating the life of a woman who is trying to get over her father’s recent death by throwing herself into renovating his house. Carter (Mike LaVoie), the clean-cut interloper, hides his emotions behind a wit that’s too ready for his own good, but as the dance of words progresses we begin to see the fragile nobility that made Gail (Joan Kubicek) like him so much in the first place. With their sturdy, snappy performances these two robust actors fully inhabit the aggressive dialogue, compacting its larger-than-life directness and its writerly cleverness into refreshingly homey art. Thus the magic of theater. These two characters deserve each other – in a good way. Just the right length, the story ends with a satisfying punch. Directed fluidly by the author, the play is a small gem.

Mike Lavoie and Joan Kubicek in Walls. Photo courtesy of DARR Publicity

The second play, The Quotable Assassin, is a period drama in which the life of a condemned revolutionary, Simon (Boynton), is spared temporarily through the influence of Lucia (Roya Shanks), a popular novelist who wishes to base her latest work on his life. During a series of prison-cell interviews, defenses break down on both sides. Shanks is utterly convincing as the hyper-cultured, emotionally pent-up celebrity author who, Capote-like, bonds fatefully with her murderous subject. Her inner struggles play out in her every expression and gesture. She’s an absolute joy. Boynton, however, makes his character rather too self-consciously charismatic, embracing his own elevated language so lovingly that instead of living through the words he turns speech into an end in itself. While this makes for an entertaining character, sometimes fascinating and always fun to watch and listen to, we don’t see in his idealistic smartass the likeable side that Lucia sees.

There’s also a late plot twist that seems unnecessary (and makes the play too long). Like the perfectly paced Walls, The Quotable Assassin is fundamentally a painfully human story of self-discovery that ends with a sad but hopeful departure. Unlike Walls, it suffers from overreach, outgrowing the confines of its one-act format. There’s a wonderful, tight little play in it, but Boynton and the director (his mother, the cartoonist-writer-musician Sandra Boynton), haven’t quite teased it out.

Nonetheless, this is a very worthwhile evening of theater, enlivened by inspired performances, sharp dialogue, and depth of thought.

Through Nov. 18 at Altered Stages in NYC. Tickets available at TheaterMania.

Theater Review: The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project

With The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project, Barbara Bosch and Mark Ringer have pulled off a neat trick: giving a fresh twist to Hamlet, while presenting a true, cathartic, and very good production of Shakespeare’s most iconic and psychologically complex play.

Interrupting the action of the play with quotes from four centuries of Hamlet commentary sounds like it would be awkward or too cerebral, but turns out to have been a small stroke of genius. Delivered by the actors (who step out of character at opportune moments) from sources as diverse as Voltaire, Freud, and Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent recent biography Will in the World, the commentary, far from coming off as a self-conscious meta-theatrical device, is interesting and often just plain funny. The idea, according to the program notes, is to place the play “in juxtaposition with the critical response it has inspired” and create “an irreverent and scholarly study of Hamlet.” That it does, but the result is not a dry experiment but a first-class entertainment.

The cast of nine, solid from top to bottom, is the foremost cause of that success. It seems almost unfair to single out any performance. Bosch pushes her actors to find the conversational rhythms in Shakespeare’s poetry, and they do so with amazing success. The few exceptions to the naturalism, like Rand Mitchell’s herky-jerky Ghost and Antonio Edward Suarez’s mugging Guildenstern and Osric, provide satisfying doses of oddity and broad humor.

Natasha Piletich’s heartbreaking Ophelia deserves a special mention, not because she outshines others in the cast, but because what she does with her part is unusual. Often the heroine’s madness is played as a result of weakness of character; she becomes a fluttery, ghostlike lunatic. In this production, by contrast, over-the-edge Ophelia is just a tiny step from sane Ophelia; from her dark eyes the exact same person looks out. It seems natural to witness such a spirited, dangerously emotional person – a type we’ve all met in real life – addled by extreme grief. Piletich’s performance makes this difficult character more real than any recent interpretation that comes to mind.

The Hamlet Project

Can one review Hamlet without saying something about the lead? Suffice it to say that Peter Husovsky is thoroughly convincing as Shakespeare’s haughty, tragically troubled, and in this case surprisingly funny prince of indecision. He gets able support from Maeve McGuire, who plays Gertrude as a real mother rather than a psychological construct, and Bob Adrian as a gangsterish but desperately tormented Claudius. Bryan Webster holds down the story’s emotional center as the loyal Horatio, and co-adapter Mark Ringer fulfills the comic promise of the blowhard Polonius even without the benefit of the “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech – one of the more obvious of the many cuts.

Those abbreviations, and the fast pacing, allow the play to clock in at under two hours even with the commentary. I highly recommend this production for all ages and tastes – except, perhaps, for someone unfamiliar with the play, who should to see an uncut (or less cut) version – sans knowing commentary – first. This clever and lively adaptation with its capital cast deserves to be filling a much larger theater than the tiny off-off-Broadway space in which it plays until October 29. If you’re going to be in New York any time this month, get thee to a phone or a computer (you’re already on your computer, aren’t you?) and get a ticket.

Tickets ($18, students $10) for The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project are available at TheaterMania or by calling 212-352-3101.