Theater Review: Broken Hands

The New York International Fringe Festival, in its tenth season this summer, included over 200 productions by companies from all over the world. Moby Pomerance’s new play Broken Hands was the only one to win two major festival awards, and deservedly so. It’s back for an extended run through Sept. 21. Catch it while you can.

The longish one-act play concerns two brothers trying to get by in London’s East End during in the 1950s, when England was still in the grip of postwar economic hardship. Mick is a mentally challenged boxer who, managed by his brother George, earns enough to keep the pair alive. When one of George’s schemes crosses Scratch, the boss of the boxing racket – played with delicious sliminess by Tom Souhrada – Mick is left at the mercy of Scratch and his gang. It’s a noirish thriller that grabs you by the emotional jugular and doesn’t let go for a second.

Anchoring the excellent cast is Cory Grant, who won the Fringe 2006 Outstanding Actor Award for his portrayal of Mick. Although the role resonates with notable fictional naïfs of the past, from Frankenstein’s monster and Of Mice and Men‘s Lenny to “Mountain” Rivera and Arnie Grape, Grant’s fierce performance – confused, halting, enraged – is its own wonderful animal. Eric Miller’s George embodies the linked love and frustration that claw at the soul of a family member forced into a caretaker’s role; Constance Zaytoun is convincing in what could have been a too-clichéd moll-with-a-heart-of-gold role; and Chuck Bradley brings a wide-eyed, fearful optimism to the scrappy young caretaker Scratch assigns to Mick.

Broken Hands

The fine ensemble work from this excellent cast owes quite a bit to Marc Weitz’s sharp direction and to Pomerance’s electric script, which earned the play the Fringe 2006 Outstanding Playwriting Award. The fast-moving plot, shifting time frames and Cockney accents require close attention, so come wide awake. But do catch this play if you can – it’s a prime example of the top-notch affordable theater New York City offers.

The FringeNYC Encore Series presents a limited number of performances of Broken Hands through Sept. 21 at the Lion Theatre in the Theatre Row Complex, 410 W. 42 St., NYC. Tickets are $18. Call 212-279-4200 or visit Ticket Central online.

Theater Review: Creation: A Clown Show

Creation: A Clown Show is just that: Lucas Caleb Rooney, playing a childlike, imaginative naïf, clowns through a depiction of the Book of Genesis’s creation story using props, lights, sounds (many emitted by himself), and music. The music is played sparingly by Peter Friedland and Javen Tanner like an orchestral Vladimir and Estragon on drums, bass guitar and ukelele. Unlike Harpo Marx, Rooney’s clown also speaks – more than the mostly silent Mr. Bean, but less than the hyperkinetic Pee Wee Herman – in a magnificently facile voice that he uses almost like a musical instrument.


Timmy creates the Universe. (Photo by Jill Jones)

Antically he resembles some of the above-mentioned clowns of the past, but he has his own teddy-bearish clown persona – mugging, banging about, alternately asking the musicians for help and bossing them around, and in the process charming and entertaining the adults in the audience at least as much as the children. As the text is read by a booming, sometimes exasperated offstage voice (Samuel Stricklen), our hero must by hook or by crook (or by hammer and nail) demonstrate the events of the six days of Creation. The point is not whether he succeeds but how he uses his imagination to cast off his initial shyness and fear to become a crowd-pleasing storyteller.

Underneath, it’s a tale of growing up a little and finding one’s voice a lot. On the surface – and what a delightful, madcap surface – it’s a smartly paced, inventive, musical, altogether first-rate family entertainment.

Creation: A Clown Show runs through Sept. 10, 2006, at Theater Five, 311 W. 43 St., NYC.

Theater Review: Anaïs Nin: One of her Lives

Australian playwright Wendy Beckett directs her play Anas Nin: One of her Lives at New York City’s Samuel Beckett Theater in a limited engagement this month. Like her distant relative for whom the theater was named, and like most artists, the prolific Beckett aims to be known through her work. There are others who, though perhaps intending to become artists, actually achieve fame because of how they live their lives.

It is the rare artist, however, whose life truly becomes her art. Such was Anas Nin, a gifted writer of avant-garde and erotic fiction whose most substantial contribution to literature turned out to be her diaries, which run to eleven volumes and cover her life from 1914, when she was eleven, until just a few years before her death in 1977.

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Photo by Richard Termine

If the examined life is worth living, Nin’s must be valued as considerably more than her weight in gold. The erotic content of her writing (and of the life upon which so much of it was based which if they were to make a movie of it would have to be shown on as it’s that sexually explicit) can tend to obscure her artistic accomplishment, but in the end it was her life itself that became her greatest work, making her story ripe for telling and retelling. From Deidre Bair’s scholarly and popular biography to Philip Kaufman’s exploitative film Henry and June, Nin’s life story, particularly her time in Paris in the 1930s with Henry and June Miller, has become part of popular culture.

Beckett evokes Nin’s own language – perfumed as it was with both flowers and pheromones – in the literate, emotional dialogue she gives to the triumvirate in this stylized but passionate and sexy staging. Some scenes can remind people of a Babestation Cams show, if asked to be honest. A little over an hour and a half suffices to relate, primarily from Nin’s (Angela Christian) and secondarily from Henry Miller’s (David Bishins) point of view, the story of their encounter, the famous menage-a-trois, and its breakdown. Interspersed are scenes of Nin’s visits to the psychoanalyst Otto Rank (Rocco Sisto), which at first seem a little gimmicky, but which culminate in a powerful scene in which patient and therapist switch positions. Rank’s personal confessions throw added light on our heroine’s struggle to create work that matters while constructing a life worth living.

Christian centers the talented cast of four. Whether getting drunk and succumbing to June’s seduction, trading passionate readings with Henry, or casting out her prodigal father in a scene that plays like a dream sequence, she’s so focussed we believe every second of her portrayal. The actress’s diminutive size seems to concentrate the extraordinary life force that made Nin the object of Henry’s and June’s affections and the literary world’s fascination, not to mention energized her into keeping two husbands simultaneously for many years. (Her West Coast mate, Rupert Pole, died just days ago at the age of 87, putting Nin back in the news just in time for this production.)

As glamorously portrayed by the tall, slinky Alysia Reiner, June Miller at first overwhelms Nin with her coarse American lust for life, but Nin’s own quieter animating force proves a match for both Millers. Bishins’s Henry explodes onto the stage with a fiery magnetism, reminding one of John Malkovich’s entrance in Burn This but also of the cocksure New York attitude of the young Bruce Willis in the TV series Moonlighting. At times he overdoes the dissonance of poetic language and street-tough machismo, but one appreciates the dangerousness of his performance as a needed foil for Nin’s softer power.

Perhaps particularly in a play about writers, there is a risk of telling instead of showing, and the play’s one real flaw is that Beckett partially gives in to this temptation. The middle of the story seems to drag as Nin’s psychology gets explained instead of dramatized. But for the most part the elements of the play – the gritty performances, the captivating language, the outsize personalities, the beautiful rose-colored set strewn with books and bottles just screaming “I’m Paris, live in me!”, the evocative lighting – make this an effective and worthwhile evening of theater.

Theater Review: Masterpiece (a reading)

Masterpiece, a previously “lost” work of the distinguished contemporary poet, playwright and critic MZ Ribalow, received a reading last night at the National Arts Club in New York City. Erudite and suspenseful, talky and moving, the play begs for a full production – with, one hopes, a cast as good as the foursome that read yesterday.

Based on the true story of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who made a small fortune forging Vermeers in the 1930s and 40s, the plot is part The Sting – with a snooty art critic’s reputation as the mark instead of a crime boss’s money – part “The Gift of the Magi,” minus the gloom – and part thriller. The cast brought Ribalow’s dense and elevated language brightly to life.

Patricia Randell was silky and centered as the forger’s love interest and the story’s moral fulcrum; Dara Coleman, like a young Jeremy Irons, richly embodied the elegant despair of the overlooked Salieri-like near-genius; Tom Kleh’s notes of childish vanity as the duped critic rang unfailingly true; and Victor Slezak, given the best lines and playing them up with exquisite, dry-as-dust timing, nearly stole the show as the police inspector hot on the trail of one of history’s most successful, and seemingly most colorful, frauds.

The script deals easily with complex matters of philosophy and culture: what is authenticity? What is genius and what mere craft? What is the role of the critic? “I paint,” van Meegeren declares, “because to not paint makes me miserable.” There are no villains or heroes in Ribalow’s telling. He stabs at the artist’s as well as the critic’s pretentions: “Actual prison,” the acerbic detective tells the painter, “is not a metaphor to those in it.” The script is loaded with such pithiness, yet its characters touch the heart as powerfully as its language tickles the brain.

Seldom is a simple reading, with actors holding scripts and sitting in chairs, as engaging and entertaining. One wishes producer Pat Flicker Addiss (Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life; Little Women; Shout!) the very best in her efforts to get this wonderful work staged.

Theater Review: Troika: God, Tolstoy & Sophia

From the long and storied life of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina more than one substantial dramatic work could surely be culled. Peter Levy’s Troika: God, Tolstoy & Sophia is not one such, but it is an interesting and crisply written piece about Tolstoy’s last days. The great man’s domestic responsibilities, the sense of social justice that urges him to renounce his possessions, and his religious devotion collide with one another and with the conflicting desires and loyalties of the friends and family members who surround him – particularly his wife, who fears the loss of her inheritance – as his long and titanic life draws to a close in the years before revolution transformed Russia so violently. It is subject matter that lends itself easily to a drama of passions and ideas.

The staging and acting in this production do not serve the script well, however. The actors, for the most part, give one-note performances: Tolstoy (Mike Durell), scowling and bitter; his wife Sophia (Catherine Hennessey), loud, whiny and melodramatic; the publisher Chertkov (Seth D. Rabinowitz), slimily sycophantic; and so on. Only the two youngsters, Kristin Ledingham as Sasha Tolstoy and Mark Comer as the aging writer’s green but wily and romantic new secretary, Bulgakov, show some depth and chemistry in and between their characters. Yet even their love story is constricted by stodgy, uninspired staging.

In short (to use an expression not often associated with Tolstoy), the great author deserves better. Levy captures enough of the old Count’s life and times to hold the viewer’s attention, but this production just makes one wish for more and better.

At the 13th Street Repertory Theater in NYC through June 17.

Theater Review: Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?

Canadian novelist and playwright Trevor Ferguson’s new drama, Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?, is both a chillingly intimate, R-rated portrait of a pair of psychological self-flagellants and a Stoppardian cyclone of words.

The play has three powerful stars: Lina Roessler, who delivers a perfect storm of a performance as the tragically damaged Adrienne; Brett Watson, who starts as a whipped, whiny underbelly but goes brilliantly nova as Ricky, Adrienne’s companion in twisted love; and Ferguson’s language, florid, elegant, and fiery, not so much unrealistic as hyper-real, wholly and precisely expressive of the shared inner world of the two broken geniuses he spreads before us in all their psychological gore.

Compressed into one long afternoon in a messy Paris flat, the action – briskly directed by Robin A. Paterson – reveals the two characters’ relationship from its beginning through what could be its end, all told through hyperkinetic words and actions that cannot be disentangled into the spoken and the done. The play is disturbing and cathartic, familiar and strange.

Secrets are revealed in good dramatic fashion and suspense is built up and released skillfully. (Ferguson’s experience as a writer of mystery novels probably shows here). Some audience members may be dissatisfied as some plot points are left open to interpretation, but I was not. Though some mystery remains, the play is as much about the irreducible and irresistible power of language as it is about the effects of child abuse. The story is as resolved as the subject matter allows.

Roessler, who bears a superficial physical resemblance to Parkey Posey, is astonishingly facile with Ferguson’s squirms and turns of language. With almost supernatural energy she rolls (sometimes literally) through scenelet after scenelet, taking the play’s hard plot turns and abrupt mood shifts without a stumble, staying fluidly real through all the pointed artifice of the text like a fine Shakespearean actor does. She is, in a word, magnificent.

Watson, very nearly her match, shifts easily among his character’s several modes, from sexual submissive to parental stand-in to Prospero-like bard. These two very physical actors are as much the creators of this language-drenched world – where words themselves are soul, fate, and sex – as the playwright. The play, and these two performances, are easily among the best you’ll see on the off-Broadway stage this year.

Through May 21 at Theatre 54 in New York, a bargain at $30. Don’t bring your children. Do bring a sweater; the theater is chilly.

Theater Review: A Jew Grows In Brooklyn

Part cabaret, part stand-up, and part autobiographical monologue, Jake Ehrenreich’s one-man musical comedy A Jew Grows In Brooklyn pays tribute to the Borscht Belt bands and tummlers from whom the actor-comedian-musican – now fiftyish but buoyantly youthful – learned the trade he plies so well.

With comic timing like Jackie Mason, a flat-out beautiful singing voice, and a c.v. ranging from Broadway to rock bands to touring as Ringo in Beatlemania, Ehrenreich is the ideal crossover character – both an examplar of the now-vanished Catskills scene and an assimilated Jew as creator (and performer) of pop culture.

Ehrenreich grew up in the heart of Brooklyn, the child of immigrant Holocaust survivors, and the story of his boyhood and youth – especially the all-important summertime Catskills escape – along with a coda about marriage and fatherhood make up the show’s storyline and its heart. It’s a little like watching someone’s home movies, but with the characters brought vividly to life – and with musical numbers.

The best of those include Aaron Lebedeff’s signature Borscht Belt number “Romania,” a bash-em-up drum solo by Ehrenreich himself on “Sing Sing Sing,” and the cleverest sixties-rock medley you’re ever likely to hear. The band, led by bassist Elysa Sunshine, plays well both musically and as an anchor for Ehrenreich’s rich but skittering performance.

The show is sentimental, in the way of old-fashioned family entertainment. But every time it gets close to being too syrupy, Ehrenreich and his director, Jon Huberth, pull back from the brink. In the end, theater is all about balance, and this show has it just right: lots of humor, sweetness, and contagious song-and-dance energy; a little personal sadness; and a sense of family and cultural history, with its comforts and of course – we’re talking about Jews, after all – its tragedies.

And I didn’t even mention the audience participation. (Hint: Simon Says go see this show.)

Through May 28 at the American Theater of Actors, New York City.

Theater Review: Shiloh Rules by Doris Baizley

Doris Baizley’s play Shiloh Rules is farce in the best sense of the word. With humor – including the physical kind – and high spirits, it shines a light on serious matters of culture and history. It’s an April night’s fever dream of the beasts and angels of war – specifically the American Civil War, and more precisely the women who bore water to the soldiers and nursed the injured and dying during the bloody Battle of Shiloh.

Kate Weiman and Cordis Heard play veteran re-enactors, for the North and South respectively, who have each brought a new recruit to the field. As the older women’s reasons for participating are gradually revealed – each, in very different ways, goes well beyond merely being a history buff – their young protegees (Janine Kyanko and Judi Lewis Ockler) see their own, shallower motivations replaced by sometimes frighteningly transformational depths of involvement. In their most gripping scenes, these four – joined by an African-American park ranger, played by Samarra, who loses her objectivity as her grip on civic order loosens – smoothly convey the easy slippage between self-conscious role-playing and actually becoming the characters they’re portraying.

Kate Weiman as Clara and Janine Kyanko as Meg. Photo by Kila Packett.

Michaela Goldhaber’s fast-paced and artful direction aid the wonderful cast in the creation of this magic. Lights, music, and especially sound help create the fog of war without any actual fog – or even soldiers (although, in a fine Shakespearean touch, the spunky LucyGale Scruggs – as perfectly named as she is played by Ockler – goes undercover as one). The script moves brightly along, vividly painting the characters as it tells their multilayered story. Rounding out the cast, Gwen Eyster sparkles as the Widow Beckwith, an unaligned capitalist who keeps a cool modern eye on the proceedings even as she plays her part in the re-enactment follies. Though there is perhaps a whiff of the Mary Sue about her, the Widow provides a grounding force that helps keep the proceedings honest.

The play isn’t perfect. The way the no-nonsense Ranger Wilson gets drawn into the dialogue and action against her better judgment seems a little forced (though she does get some of the best lines). And the denouement drags as the characters spell out lessons learned and revelations that were in some cases already adequately conveyed by the preceding action, in others not really “earned” at all. But those are minor flaws in an entertaining, thought-provoking, and beautifully acted production.

Through April 9 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, New York City. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: The Accidental Pervert

Improbable as it may sound, comedian/actor/writer Andrew Goffman and director Charles Messina have crafted a one-man play about a porn addict who likes videos from websites similar to Tubev, that’s both heartily funny and genuinely touching. A veteran of the comedy circuit, the indefatigable and charmingly goofy Goffman transforms the stuff of standup into a lighthearted but rich piece of theater. Neither a glorified comedy routine nor a plotless character study, The Accidental Pervert is a real play, albeit with a cast of one.

Goffman handles his uncomfortable subject matter with ease, riding on a powerful voice, penetrating gaze, sweet-but-tough persona, and a comic’s sense of timing. Although, you will spend a large part of the play wishing the main character took a look at Aided by tightly integrated lighting and sound cues and cleverly placed props and clothing, he tells a twisted bildungsroman of a boy who compensates (after a fashion) for an absent father by immersing himself in said parent’s abandoned collection of porn videos; all of them remarkably similar to and the kind of videos you’d see on there. Though not above generating inexpensive laughs with explicit raunchiness and porn-movie pun-titles (the likes of which wouldn’t be far off the names of ones from, he threads the obvious humor into a moving and psychologically aware narrative of sexual awakening, dissipated youth, amorous adventures, true love, and finally marriage and parenthood. Enlivening the monologue with plenty of physical humor and stage business, he captures the audience and pretty much never lets go.

I say “pretty much” because there are isolated moments when the sheer weight of Goffman’s task – carrying the whole story with only his own body and language – seems to get the better of him just a bit, so that a word or phrase is left detached from its context. Also, the last section of the play goes on a little too long, deviating from the overall succinctness. But such minor imperfections do not detract appreciably from this delightful and sparkling piece of work.

At the Triad Theater in New York City through February 24.

Theater Review: Buried Child

It’s one of the oldest dramatic tricks in the book: family or community has deep dark secret; stranger or prodigal son comes to town, kicks up dirt; secret comes out, and devastation (or newfound freedom) ensues. Sam Shepard rode this old horse to his first mainstream commercial success with his 1978 play, Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is now recognized as a landmark of American theater.

But if you’d seen only the current production by the White Horse Theater Company, you wouldn’t peg the play as a classic, or even as a lesser work by a great writer. Staging Buried Child requires balancing modernistic touches of absurdity and magic realism with ancient depths of emotion, and artfully mingling humor and gloom. In spite of the presence of some good elements, the whole of this production fails to powerfully connect, and the fault lies mainly with the staging.

The individually excellent cast, led by Bill Rowley as Dodge, the family patriarch, isn’t directed so as to create the emotionally stifled atmosphere the play would seem to call for. There really isn’t much of an atmosphere at all, in fact (notwithstanding the homey set and evocative lighting). The famous opening scene, where Dodge’s wife Halie (Karen Gibson) harangues him at length from offstage, starts off funny and touching but then seems to drag on forever; the same painfully slow pacing continues throughout the play, contributing to the unwanted sense that each character inhabits a separate world. Shepard isn’t Beckett; this story isn’t about existential angst or alienation – except from the truth.

Rod Sweitzer as Tilden & Ginger Kroll as Shelly
Photo by Joe Bly

The family is certainly not what you’d call a “functional” one, but it is supposed to have made at least some sort of uneasy place for itself in the wake of past tragedy; yet, with the partial exception of Dodge, its members don’t convey here the sense of dull sorrow or resignation that would make us care about them.

The monkeywrench in Shepard’s story is the arrival, after six years’ absence, of grandson Vince (Chris Stetson) with his girlfriend Shelly (Ginger Kroll, whose embodiment of terror, confusion and smarts is quite wonderful). When the family mysteriously fails to recognize Vince, he storms off, leaving Shelly to cope with crotchety Dodge and his half-lunatic eldest son Tilden, who keeps bringing in mysterious crops from a field Dodge hasn’t planted in decades. Second son Bradley (David Look) seems to move in another universe entirely – we’re not even sure why his character exists, and Look’s one-note performance doesn’t help. (Whether his furiously shouting every line was an actor’s or director’s choice, it was a bad one.)

Returning in the third act, the game and talented Stetson delivers Vince’s monologue with conviction, but in a vacuum – we don’t care about him, either, so the audience’s ears are nearly as deaf to his passion as are those of his wrecked family.

Director Cyndy Marion has staged well-received Shepard productions in the past and is evidently something of a specialist in the playwright. But, in spite of the good performances, this Buried Child has too little of Shepard’s sense of creepy mystery and witty snap.

Presented by the White Horse Theater Company at the American Theater of Actors in New York City through Feb. 12, 2006.