HOPE

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Written & performed by Hope Salas
Directed by Erika Latta

A cast of one: check. Autobiographical: check. Dysfunctional family: check. Quick changes of accent and costume, all designed to showcase the performer’s remarkable versatility: check and check.  New York theatergoers have seen this type of one-person presentation so many times that it’s hard to respond with anything other than an eye roll at the prospect of yet another performer running through a menu of eccentric characters and using the stage as a therapist’s couch. Thankfully, the occasional entry in the My Journey genre really does manage to be original and compelling. Thanks to the intriguing visual tone of the show, and the striking stage presence of its star, HOPE rises above the level of the average solo effort.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage, Hope (Hope Salas) self-medicates with booze, casual sex, and compulsive tidying of her tiny Manhattan apartment. This toxic routine is interrupted by an urgent phone call from Hope’s father:  Alice Mae, Hope’s mom, is in the hospital, and the prognosis isn’t good. The incident kickstarts an emotional odyssey for Salas, who, as she confronts her parents’ mortality, feels an intense need to understand what their lives were all about. Matching her childhood recollections with newly discovered details, Hope begins to answer painful questions, like why her mother felt the need to stifle young Hope’s performing aspirations. It turns out Alice, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her drunken father, worried that her energetic daughter would attract the wrong kind of attention.  As Hope’s understanding of her parents’ world increases, she gradually finds the strength to meet her own life challenges.

Salas doesn’t shy away from from the harsh realities of her subject matter, but much of HOPE is also extremely funny. Under Erika Latta’s metronomic direction, Salas develops a self-deprecating tragicomic persona, embellished with fluid physicality and commedia dell’arte style asides. The ever-shifting moods and locations of the story are aided by Marsha Ginsberg’s efficient scenic design and Yuki Nakase’s painterly lighting. The video projections serve the story well in some scenes, such as old photos of Alice smiling through her pain. At other times, though, the projections feel superfluous. The live performance is all that is needed to hold our attention.

HOPE continues through October 13, 2018 at the Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street
New York, New York, Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1535774400000

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BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP: AN ENCOUNTER WITH EMILY DICKINSON

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Written by James Melo
Directed by Donald T. Sanders.

Given the perennial relevance of her writing, and the mystery surrounding her personal life, it’s no surprise that Emily Dickinson is undergoing a cultural reboot. Departing from the dotty-recluse persona found in earlier works like THE BELLE OF AMHERST, recent works have presented a more sensual, independent-minded and witty portrait of the poet. In the 2016 film, A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon portrayed Dickinson as a spirited soul whose prodigious intellect and wild heart refused to be tamed by 19th Century strictures. And in the theater world, director Donald T. Sanders and playwright James Melo have attempted to take a fresh look at Dickinson’s life and work through a multimedia presentation comprised of spoken word, live music and video projection. The results of their effort are uneven, but the production has its share of bright spots.

In keeping with the tone of voice found in such poems as “Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, actress Angelica Page imbues Emily with both childlike spontaneity and pained wisdom. For much of the play, she doesn’t speak at all, but moves about her bedroom alternating between writing, contemplation and eccentric activities like sewing little books in which to secrete her poetry. Musical interludes are provided by Max Barrosa at the piano, Victoria Lewis, Melanie Clapiès, Chieh Fan-Yiu and Ari Evan on strings, and soprano Kristina Bachrach. The chamber pieces, written by pioneering American composer Amy Beach, mirror the shifting moods and searching energy of Emily’s writing. With music pulsing in the background, David Bengali’s  projections depict a host of video imagery, all relevant -metaphorically and/or literally – to Dickinson’s life and creative process. In one sequence, time lapse photography chronicles the life cycle of a flower from blossom to decay. In another, a work of art, sketched by an unseen hand,  grows from a patch abstract lines into a pastoral scene. In yet another, a montage of battlefield tableaux captures the carnage of the Civil War.

All these visual and sonic elements combine to create a collage of ideas that is, if not quite cohesive, at least enjoyable. But there are some missteps along the way. For one, the films are projected on a small, jaggedly- shaped screen that is decorated with a pattern of scribbled notes (presumably a page of Emily’s journal). It works as a set piece,  but when the projected imagery hits the screen, the scrawled letters prove distracting and muddle the beauty of the moving image.  This proves especially problematic in the second act, when the projections become the dominant element of the show. There are odd choices in the script as well. Lines like “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul” are rephrased to sound like spontaneous dinner conversation. The attempt, it seems, is to make Emily less intimidatingly authorish and more accessible to modern audiences, but some of the iambic power of Dickinson’s verse is lost in the process.

All in all, BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP is a technically impressive and sincere tribute to a worthy subject, but it lacks an overall vision to make its disparate elements mesh.

BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP continues October 21, 2018 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: http://www.romanticcentury.org

BELOVED

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Written by Lisa Langseth
Translated by Charlotte Barslund
Directed by Kathy Curtiss

Apparently that old saw about a woman scorned is true. At least it applies to the troubled – yet oddly likable – protagonist of Lisa Langseth’s extended monologue on the destructive power of unfulfilled desire.

Hiding out in her grandparents’ cluttered old cottage, Katarina (Ellinor DiLorenzo) pauses to leaf through a few esoteric books as she readies herself for her next move. Quoting from various philosophers, she assures the audience that she has “chosen the truth”, even if living an authentic life puts her at odds with society. She takes us back to a time when, living in a tiny flat with her unambitious boyfriend Mattias, she longs to escape from her draining, blue collar existence. Things begin to change when a local radio station holds a competition and Katarina wins tickets to the opera. Mattias dozes during the performance, but for Katarina it’s a life changing experience. She begins obsessing over the show’s haunting music, the splendor of the opera house, the elegant people in the audience. She buys classical CDs an expands her sonic horizons. Her  new interests create distance between her and her Mattias, which doesn’t improve when Katarina takes a receptionist job at the local concert hall. It’s an entry level position, but at last she is surrounded by great music and the kind of cultured people she admires. Soon she finds herself assisting Adam, a charismatic young conductor. Adam has a wife and a young child, but that doesn’t stop him from coming on to Katarina. She resists at first, but soon finds herself giving in to his advances. As their illicit romance blossoms, Katarina knows she must get rid of Mattias, and if he won’t go quietly, well, there are other ways. Meanwhile questions arise as to whether Adam sees her as someone special or just one of many extramarital amusements—likely to be a short-lived one if she threatens to complicate his life. This, too puts pressure on Katarina’s none-too-stable psyche. It seems her inner passions, once released, are as dangerous as an uncaged predator.

Though some of the onstage activity feels unnecessary, director Kathy Curtiss mostly keeps the pace going at a decent simmer. DiLorenzo, whose background includes sketch comedy and improv, puts an engagingly eccentric spin on the character and holds our attention for the show’s 75 minutes. But the story seems incomplete— and not in an intriguing, ambiguous way. After all, the basic setup isn’t that different from that of a Lifetime suspense movie. Dissatisfied Young Woman is lured away from Lackluster Mate by suave-but-untrustworthy Married Man. Complications ensue. Of course, like all conventions, these plot tropes can be made fresh, but Langseth’s writing has a pedestrian ring to it. Much of Katarina’s rhetoric is on-the nose, with the meanings of events told to the audience rather than shown (“I don’t know how I managed to live with him”, “Christ, how I’ve changed”). And unlike, say, Shelagh Delaney or Richard Price, Langstreth doesn’t energize her writing with the cadences of life in the working-class world. To be fair, New York audiences are seeing BELOVED in an English edition, and perhaps some of the energy of the original has been lost in translation. In this version, though, it feels like a very good first draft, one whose voice would be clarified and strengthened with further exploration.

BELOVED continues through August 18, 2018 at the Lion Theater,  410 W 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Beloved/

 

SUMMER SHORTS, SERIES B

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Written by Neil LaBute, Eric Lane and Claire Zajdel
Directed by Terry Berliner,  J.J. Kandel and James Rees

After an uneven Series A, SUMMER SHORTS is back on track with a trio of solidly crafted and adventurous entries.

At first the two siblings at the center of Claire Zajdel’s THE PLOT appear to be polar opposites. Frankie (Molly Groome) is a first-year associate in a prestigious law firm who dresses in crisply tailored business attire. Her brother Tyler (Jake Robinson), an IT freelancer, works at his own pace and favors the tech dude’s uniform of loose jeans and a flannel shirt. As the story develops, though, it turns out brother and sister have more in common than appearances would suggest. For one thing, their loving but controlling mom still exerts a potent influence on both their lives. On this particular day, Mom has asked the kids to meet her in a local cemetery to view the new headstone she’s picked out. She has also reserved spots for Tyler and Frankie in the family plot. Clearly Mom is thinks it’s appropriate not only to micromanage her offspring’s lives, but their afterlives as well. Rivalries mingle with affection as the siblings negotiate over whether to let Mom her have her way. Groome, to great comic effect, portrays Frankie as a text book approval seeker who, despite Doing Everything Perfectly, feels that parental validation is perpetually out of reach. Robinson provides her with an apt foil as the maddeningly mellow bro whose go-with-the-flow mentality, ironically, helps ingratiate him to Mom. Though THE PLOT could use a more satisfying finale, its characters are so endearing, their issues so relatable, that a stroll around the graveyard with them proves an enjoyable experience.

IBIS, by Eric Lane, weaves an intriguing tapestry out of the traditions of film noir and naturalistic family drama. Tyrone Martin (Deandre Sevon) has always wondered what happened to his father. Dad left when Tyrone was little, leaving nothing unanswered questions behind. To aid him in his quests, Tyrone engages the service of private detective Sam Spade (Lindsey Broad). Sam claims to have never heard of Humphrey Bogart, but, as in any good mystery, things are not what they seem. As Sam reveals her real name and (somewhat) true story, Tyrone becomes more comfortable sharing what few details he remembers of his father and discussing the coping mechanisms he employed to get through a confusing childhood. As it turns out, Victor Martin (Harold Surratt), is hiding in plain sight. But Tyrone still has a tough road ahead of him. After all these years, father and son seem to have little in common. Yet again, though, appearances prove deceiving. Lane’s dialogue takes a surprisingly lyrical turn in the final scene, which is played with moving honesty by Sevon and Surratt. Greg MacPherson’s moody lighting and Nick Moore’s sound design give the piece a Billy Wilderesque dark elegance.

Neil LaBute’s SPARRING PARTNER centers on an emotional affair between two coworkers. Stealing and extra few minutes before returning to the office, Woman (Joanna Christie) and Man (Keilyn Durrel Jones) linger on a park bench after a takeout lunch. Giddy with the joy of each other’s company, they engage in a movie trivia game (name a film that in which, say, Meryl Streep and Robert Deniro both appear). Woman keeps winning, which only makes Man admire her more. But when it comes to matters of the heart, Woman can’t help but feel like she’s on the losing side. Man, after all, has a wife back home, and though he admits the marriage is a failure, he doesn’t seem ready to call it quits. Soon their idyll is shadowed by questions. What do all these balmy afternoons spent playing trivia games and dancing to Paolo Conte songs really mean to him? Is he really in love with Woman or is he merely trying to recapture the spontaneity and innocence of new love: things that inevitably diminish with time even in the strongest of long term relationships. And is Woman content with stolen moments of happiness? Or is it time to set some boundaries, to insist that there be no more games unless the ante includes commitment? Exercising a light touch, LaBute doesn’t provide easy answers, preferring to let the audience speculate as to how things will turn out. The only certainty is that nothing will change without pain. Jones and Christie, natural in their movements and pure in their emotions, make the plight of their characters reverberate long after the curtain call.

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A continues through September 1, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com.

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A

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Written by Robert O’Hara, Abby Rosebrock and Chris Bohjalian
Directed by Robert O’Hara, Jess Chayes and Alexander Dinelaris

In terms of production values, this year’s first round of SUMMER SHORTS has achieved a new level of technical smoothness. Rebecca Lord-Surrat’s sets, Greg MacPherson’s lighting, and Amy Sutton’s costume design combine to give the show a painterly richness, while Nick Moore’s sound design is so realistic that the sound effect of a snore had people looking around the theater to see who in the audience had dozed off. Scriptwise, though, SERIES A doesn’t offer as strong a selection as in previous years. While all of the show’s three pieces sport provocative premises, none of them quite feel fully realized.

THE LIVING ROOM: A SATIRE, written and directed by Robert O’Hara, at first appears to be a nice two-hander about an ordinary couple spending a casual evening in front of the television set. But soon we learn that Frank (Joel Reuben Ganz) and Judy (Kate Buddeke) are actually aware that they are characters in a play. They seem frightened of their creator, uncertain of what he might inflict on them next, and eager to share their anxiety with the audience. Race plays a part in the proceedings: Frank and Judy keep referring to themselves as the last two Caucasoids on Earth, and flashing back to some apocalyptic era when they were held captive and forced to procreate under the watchful eye of a totalitarian (presumably non-white) regime.  The play’s Pirandellian conceit is put to its best use when commenting on the playwright’s creative process. Has he birthed Frank and Judy merely because a living room play about a white couple has a decent shot at getting produced? Or is using his characters to sort out some personal quandary? Unfortunately, O’Hara takes a discursive approach to his narrative and seems uncertain of his targets. While the play introduces a number of intriguing themes, it’s a few drafts away from delivering the pasquinade its title promises.

KENNY’S TAVERN, written by Abby Rosebrock, takes place a downscale tavern in the tense autumn days leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) teaches at a progressive in school in North Carolina. The irony of working at a “magnet school” isn’t lost on Laura, who feels stuck, like an iron filing, to an untenable situation. She and her mentor Ryan (Stephen Guarino) have feelings for each other that are rapidly moving past platonic. But Ryan is married, and Laura fears that the only solution is for her to leave her present situation. If she abandons her post though, she will turn her back on a promising career as well as depriving her students of the help and inspiration she excells at providing. While Ryan and Laura struggle to untangle their predicament, waitress Jaelyn (Mariah Lee) laments her own disappointing existence. A working-class teen, she has tried on several occasions to increase her upward mobility by gaining acceptance to the magnet school: all to no avail. Laura is quick to remind the young woman that she cursed, complained and otherwise sabotaged herself during her interviews. Their conversation is the Great American Cultural Divide in miniature. Red-staters feel that the political elite won’t listen to them. Liberals, seeing only hate speech and boorish behavior on the right, are loath to reach across the aisle. Common ground seems to be disappearing faster than a polar ice cap. TAVERN has its share of lulls and could to with some trimming, but Rosbrock’s confident style and blending of the personal with the political make it the strongest entry of the evening.

In Chris Bohjalian’s GROUNDED, aviophobic Emily (Grace Experience) takes to the skies to in an effort to overcome her fear of moving forward with her life. Older and wiser flight attendant Karen (K.K. Glick) enjoys hazing her young protégé, but clearly has her best interests at heart. As the two prep for the flight, their converation goes from chatty to confessional. Emily reveals that, after a post-college stint as a barista, she changed careers on the advice of her life coach, Vladimir. Karen suspects there’s more to this picture, and her hunch is confirmed when Emily divulges the discomfiting fact that her relationship with Vladimir, a family friend, was more than just professional. They were having sex, starting when Emily was under age. Karen prompts the young woman to indict her statutory rapist, but Emily fears the collateral damage that might follow. Emily’s parents, Vlad’s wife and kids, would all undeservedly have their lives turned upside down. Still, Emily must find some way to claim her emotional baggage, and with Karen’s help she may be able restore her self-worth to its upright position. The piece has a solid arc, and offers timely insight into some of the reasons why victims of sexual abuse can be reluctant to come forward. Much of the dialogue, however, centers on events that have happened offstage. More emphasis on the present-tense tension between the seasoned pro and the eager novice would help lift the story off the ground.

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A continues through September 1, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com.

TEVYE SERVED RAW

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Written by Sholem Aleichem
Directed by Allen Lewis Rickman

If you only know Tevye the Milkman as the protagonist of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, I urge to you pay a bazukhn to the Playroom Theater, where Sholom Aleichem’s famed Everymensch speaks with unadorned candor in the cadences and idioms of his native tongue.

Using minimal props and costumes, a versatile three-person ensemble (Shane Baker, Allen Lewis Rickman, and Yelena Shmulenson) recreates the joys and vicissitudes of Jewish life in late 19th Century Russia. Vignettes and monologues featuring Tevye, his no-nonsense wife Golde, and their strong-willed daughters form the spine of the show, but there are many other gems – including a bittersweet lullaby – from the Sholom Aleichem catalogue. Fittingly, in the more dramatic scenes, English translations are projected on a screen above the action, so as not to interfere with the rising tension and naturalistic flow of the story. In the comedic sketches, though, Rickman serves as a go-between, delivering expertly timed English renditions of Baker and Shmulenson’s Yiddish rhubarbs: a kind of bilingual one-two punch that serves the material beautifully.

The true star of the show, though, is the mame-loshn itself. Americans are accustomed to  the satisfyingly onomatopoeic zing of words like schmear and chutzpah. But the music of Yiddish has a delicate side too. It is equally adept at expressing lyrical, often mournful aspects of human experience. Sholom Aleichem sought to capture it all, knowing full well that the world he was recording was vanishing as he wrote. In one of the evening’s most poignant scenes, Tevye reveals that he knows it, too. Though he has always gotten along with his gentile neighbors, he knows that antisemitism is never far from the surface. And when the political tide turns, the Dairyman finds himself bidding farewell to the hardscrabble but decent life he and his family have known for generations.

Thankfully, the stories remain, and TEVYE SERVED RAW serves as living proof that Sholom Aleichem deserves a place on the shelf alongside Mark Twain, Dickens and De Maupassant. The show’s creators clearly relish the opportunity to introduce new audiences to his work while making sure existing fans also walk away tsufridn.

TEVYE SERVED RAW continues through August 14, 2018 at the Playroom Theater, 151 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036.  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3483188

THE HOLLOWER

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                                                                                        photo by Hunter Canning

Written by Liza Birkenmeier
Directed by Kristy Dodson

As if planning a career in quirkiness, high school senior Bit (Reyna de Courcy) stomps about her slovenly house bedecked in a motley ensemble of platform shoes, mismatched athletic gear and retro wigs of various colors. She looks like refugee from an Ionesco play by way of a vintage MTV pop video, but it’s hard to blame her for wearing her oddness on her sleeve. She’s just reacting to the topsy-turvy world in which she finds herself. Raised in a cult, Bit escaped with her parents to Scandinavia, and has now been placed in the low-pressure Florida home of laconic hospital worker Otto (Patrena Murray).  Down in the dumps after having been left by her girlfriend, Otto has let her house go to hell and shows little interest in anything other than donuts and whisky. Authorities believe the gifted but low-functioning Bit is likely to thrive in this mellow environment. But Otto, it turns out, is a little too unobtrusive for her young ward’s liking. Once in a while, it would be nice if Otto set some rules, or at least expressed concern when Bit stays out late and doesn’t call. While these tensions simmer, Otto receives a surprise visit from the Pigman (Ryan Wesley Stinnett), a new media mogul whose right arm ends in a hoof rather than a hand and who is prone to fits of oinking when things don’t go his way. Oozing smarm, the porcine impresario, accompanied by his masked assistant Missy (ToriAnne DiFilippo), talks the baffled Otto into participating in an “exposé on middle-aged childless single women.” Bit, meanwhile, enlists the help of Claymation prodigy Wilkin Rush George III (Samuel Im) in creating a “cross-disciplinary” thesis project on the woes of women in colonial-era Canada. The endeavor hits a snag when Bit becomes less interested in her story than in having sex with Wilkin. Mayhem and entropy ensue, along with an intriguing mashup of musical genres from Bit’s post-alternative rock band.

Director Kristy Dodson takes a refreshingly deadpan approach, allowing playwright Liza Birkenmeier’s buzzword-laden dialogue and oddball plot twists to elicit laughs without excess underlining. The cast rises to the task, with De Courcy finding the deeper tones and subtler emotions beneath Bit’s teen vocal fry. Murray, who manages to make Otto likable despite her resigned moodiness, provides an apt foil for both de Courcy’s adolescent edginess and Stinnett’s smiling tyranny. Im vibrates with the naïve arrogance of teenage ambition, while DiFilippo’s Missy communicates effectively without speaking. You-Shin Chen’ scenic design and Max Archimedes Levitt’s costumes help create a wonky universe that blends the flights of fancy with the grimy reality of downscale American life. THE HOLLOWER runs a bit long, and its Absurdist energy loses momentum in the later scenes, but the show’s eccentric bounce, and the fun house mirror Birkenmeier holds up to contemporary culture make it a ride worth taking.

THE HOLLOWER continues through June 9, 2018 at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, New York, New York. Tickets https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3389611?cookie_header=1

REPLAY

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Written and performed by Nicola Wren
Directed by George Chilcott

For a piece that explores grief, loss, and recovery Nicola Wren’s extended monologue is remarkably breezy and charming. Make no mistake, though, Wren hasn’t skimped on her psychological homework. If anything, her light touch and unassuming personality make the show’s catharsis more palpable. As in real life, she doesn’t arrive a breakthrough in one grand deluge of tears, but through the clumsy, exasperating process of sorting out the past and confronting the unknowability of the future.

As the action begins, Wren’s alter ego, a young police officer known only as W, is having a rough time of it. She can’t keep her food down, struggles to prepare for her upcoming sergeant’s exam, and falls violently ill during a routine call.  The problem, as it turns out, isn’t caused by eating dodgy prawns: W has never fully digested the death of her big brother Jamie. Emotions are piqued when W, on the eve of her birthday, receives an unusual package from her mother in Northampton. It contains a cassette tape, recorded by Jamie (voiced by Mark Weinman) but never sent. I was meant for W to listen to on her twelfth birthday, one that Jamie didn’t live long enough to see. The tape contains affectionate well wishes, goofy voices, and a song (“Sit Down” by the Manchester pop band James) of special significance to W and Jamie. It’s not much to go on, but it helps reawaken memories loving, bright, and troubled man her brother truly was, as W repeatedly replays the tape, strange dreams, and odd coincidences begin to occur.  Her police work brings her in contact with others who have lost a loved one to suicide, “Sit Down” comes on the radio, encouraging those “those who feel the breath of sadness” not to give up hope. Even one of her dotty neighbor’s multiple cats seems to be carrying a message for W. As W’s old coping mechanisms come undone, her world becomes a surreal swirl. But being confused also means being open, and when help arrives from an unexpected place, W is ready to accept it.

Weighing in at a lean 60 minutes and composed of brisk, present tense phrases, REPLAY comprises just enough detail to provide a glimpse of the protagonist’s interior life and evoke the thrum of contemporary London. In fact, the script’s only flaw is that Wren provides only sketchy information regarding Jamie’s behavior patterns. W recalls, as a child, hearing her father talk of Jamie’s “good days”, but she seems to have no memory of his bad days. Nor does the adult W, despite her professional training in detection, go about researching clinical depression or gathering clues to help her understand her brother’s world. Nonetheless, W’s inner trajectory gives the endearing Wren, as a performer, plenty to work with. Both as an adult police officer and as her playful childhood self, she vibrates with intelligence and emotional purity. Director George Chilcott, using a three-quarter-round stage to it’s full advantage, giving Wren both room to play and parameters to define the show’s physical and emotional space.

REPLAY continues through May 13, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com

MANGLED BEAMS

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Written by Dawn Jamieson
Directed by Christen Omantra Callahan

Though it’s noticeably under-rehearsed,  there is much to like in Amerinda’s potent examination of New York’s Native American community and its crucial role the building and rebuilding of the city.

It is September of 2001 Brad Martin (Denny Desmarais), is an experienced construction worker, but Sal (Mike Pirozzi), who runs the local hiring hall, won’t put him on a  shift. It doesn’t help that Brad is not in the union and has been known to show up to work soused. But the real problem, of course, is racism. It’s a strange prejudice, considering that Native American workers, many of them “sky walkers” known for their immunity to fear of heights, were valued members of the crews that built the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers and many other iconic New York structures. Nevertheless, according to Sal, the new real estate moguls don’t seem to want them around anymore.Brad’s ex-con little brother Dave (Dylan Carusona) gets around this problem by greasing Sal’s palm. He and his partner-in-crime Joe Cross (Jess Monroe), supplement their meager construction incomes by smuggling cigarettes, Canadian booze, and other black-market items into the city. Ambitious college graduate Greg Linden (Greg Seage), hopes to find a political solution to the discrimination. He attracts media attention and prepares to run for a seat on the Tribal Council back home on the reservation. Greg claims to be fighting for his people, but his girlfriend Becky (Maeve Crispi) has her doubts. Indeed, as he searches for campaign money Greg’s casino-operator father Joe (John Scott-Richardson) seems a little too eager to strike a mutually beneficial deal.

While the battle for equality continues, internecine tensions simmer. Dave and Brad have an uneasy history, while Becky, who once threw Dave aside, begins to give him a second look. Brad returns to AA, hoping it’s not too late to reconcile with his estranged wife Fern (Erin Kelley), and their kids. Interwoven with these conflicts is an internal balancing act, as the characters struggle to choose between city and reservation, tradition and modernity. When the Twin Towers collapse, some of the old social barriers fall with them. Even Sal can no longer afford to discriminate, as the rescue effort will require all hands. High above the wreckage, the beam walkers come face to face with their true natures. Some emerge as heroes, others reveal weakness of character.  All are changed by the crisis, and prompted to find an authentic way of moving forward into an uncertain future.

Scrupulously fair to all its characters, Jamieson’s script skillfully weaves its multiple narratives and themes of cultural and personal dilemmas  into a cohesive statement. There is even a healthy dose of humor to counterbalance the seriousness of the subject matter. As with any large cast play, though, keeping a consistent pace and tone proves challenging. Led by Director Christen Omantra Callahan, a committed, multi-generational ensemble does its best to serve the story, and much of the show is effective. But along with the bright spots there are cues that need to be tightened, entrances and exits that seem too tentative. The heart of MANGLED BEAMS shines through regardless, but the show feels like it’s under construction.

MANGLED BEAMS continues through April 29, 2018 at  the A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street, New York, NY . Tickets: mangledbeams.brownpapertickets.com.

DUTCH MASTERS

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Written by Greg Keller
Directed by Andre Holland

In 1992, place names like “Brooklyn” and “Bronx” still had a potent ring to them. Midtown Manhattan may have been dominated by the yuppie class, but in the lawless Outer Boroughs, serviced by graffiti-ridden letter trains, different rules applied. In decades that followed, broken windows policing, terrorist attacks, gentrification-on-steroids and maverick mayors, changed the face of the city. Taking a look back at the Dinkins era, Greg Keller’s seriocomic two hander serves as a reminder of the volatile vibe that used to define New York, and of the tensions, hopes and inequalities that still simmer beneath the city’s ever-glossier surface.

While riding a northbound D train, two young men meet, seemingly at random. Clean-cut, Caucasian Steve (Jake Horowitz), is on his way home to Riverdale when Eric (Ian Duff), a black man about the same age, plants himself in the adjacent seat and starts talking. Naturally, Steve doesn’t want to appear racist or unhip, but he has the true New Yorker’s reluctance to get mixed up in some stranger’s life- especially one who purports to be a stickup artist. A shrewd manipulator, Eric knows what buttons to push, and Steve finds himself sharing a blunt with his new friend in some unfamiliar section of the Bronx. The eponymous Dutch Masters cigars provide convenient holders for the dope Eric buys on the corner. And the image on the package, of bearded Flemish tradesmen in “ill” buckled hats prompts a wry discourse on the Dutch mafia that used to control New Amsterdam, along with a host of other anecdotes and observations. Eric and Steve seem to be growing closer, especially as they discover a share a passion for rap music and basketball. Their budding friendship barely gets a flourish before Steve, unused to drugs this strong, loses consciousness. He comes to in Eric’s place, a place to which he’s never been yet which, somehow, contains familiar objects. Their meeting, it appears, was anything but accidental. A common past binds them together, and their journey toward a painful but necessary reckoning has just begun.

Unlike most two-person shows, Keller’s script travels spatially as well as psychologically, keeping the audience guessing as to where and Steve and Eric’s adventure will end. The dialogue, for the most part, flows naturally, and when the big reveal happens it feels organic to the story. On a few occasions, the characters sound like mouthpieces for yet another debate on cultural appropriation (“You took my music. The way I walk. The way I talk”, complains Eric, rationalizing his own theft of material objects as minor by comparison). But for the most of DUTCH MASTERS steers clear of clichés, preferring instead to focus on the intersection of the personal and political. And therein lies the plays power. We’re rooting for these guys to, if not become friends, at least find common ground. But at every turn, the social baggage they carry, the insecurity with which the travel through a dangerous world, have the potential to widen the gulf between them.

Director Andre Holland, himself an actor of uncompromising authenticity, draws vulnerable, purely spontaneous performances from Duff and Horowitz. The design style, as befits the story, is understated, with Ntokozo Kunene’s costumes and Xavier Pierce’s lighting evoking a sense of time and place without distracting from the actors’ chemistry. Significantly, Jason Simms’ scenic design goes from suggested to specific once we get to Eric’s apartment. Before Eric even says a word, we see the primness, care and taste with which his late mother adorned the place. Her presence is palpable, as if she’s watching to see whether the dreams she instilled in her son will be fulfilled – or dashed against impossible circumstances.

DUTCH MASTERS continues through April, 21, 2018 at The Wild Project 195 East 3rd Street, New York, NY 10009. Tickets: web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1522555200000