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

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THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES

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Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Jacqueline Stone

Popular among UK playwrights, the extended-monologue, or “plovel” approach to storytelling seems to be catching on in America. Essentially the lovechild of a play and a novel, a plovel is a performance piece that is spoken by an actor, but constructed as a work of prose fiction. As the narrator interacts with other characters or travels to different settings, we get a description of the scene, rather than a physical manifestation of it. Even dialogue is handled by one actor playing all the parts, with phrases like “he says” or “I answer” following the lines. Shows that use the plovel technique, of course, offer something very different – and often less satisfying – than multi-actor treatments of the same themes. But a skilled writer can work within the limitations of the idiom, even taking advantage of prose’s ability to easily shift locations and articulate the narrator’s inner thoughts. Trying his hand at this form, playwright Adam Rapp brings his usual flair for creating vibrant characters and probing raw emotions. He is less successful when it comes to choosing a theatrical framework for the show. Elements like a surrealistic set, eerie lighting and brief appearance of an extra character seem designed to give the show a distinctive style, but in the end prove more distracting than thought-provoking.

Performer Carolyn Molloy, who brings charm and honesty to the part, plays 16-year-old Bernadette. Reading though her diary, she talks of her relationship with her boyfriend Michael, her friendship with his father Wayne, who is dying of cancer, of her unexpected pregnancy, her divorcing parents, her adventures in New York and Connecticut, and ultimately of the decisions that will shape her future. Along the way, she begins to understand her place in the life cycle and she compares her vital body to Wayne’s deteriorating one, and to the potential new life within her. It’s familiar territory, but the refreshingly plain and candid tone of the script keeps Bernadette’s story from becoming cliché. There is no stereotypical teen angst or teary life-lesson melodrama here, just an unadorned depiction of the curiosity that enables Bernadette to drink in the details of the world around her, the thrumming libido that leads her into the arms of an older man, the quiet but unflagging drive to become her own woman.

Given the gentle potency of the protagonist’s voice, it’s all the more puzzling that Rapp and director Jacqueline Stone seems so hell-bent on placing obstacles between her and the audience. Martin Andrew’s set, though certainly attractive, sports red lights and a gauze curtain that obscures separates Molloy’s facial expressions. Similarly, the Maintenance Man (Robert James Hickey) stays onstage so briefly we don’t get much of a clue as to what he’s supposed to symbolize. If the idea is to provoke a kind of distanciation effect, it needs to be done with a greater sense of purpose. As it is, these Avant-garde touches feel superfluous, as if someone squirted a blob of Brechti-wip topping on a dish that already has all the flavor it needs. THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES would work fine on a bare stage, and what edge it has comes from the bright, wandering teenaged psyche we see laid bare before us. At heart, it’s a coming of age story, told in straightforward, affecting language. That may not be the newest idea in town, but it works better than its creators seem to trust. Serving it straight would be a stronger choice.

EDGE OF OUR BODIES continues through April 22, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets at ticket-central.com

EDUCATION

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Written by Brian Dykstra
Directed by Margarett Perry

As a famous playwriting maxim goes, “start your scenes late and get out early”. Brian Dykstra gets it, and in the first act of his timely exploration of free speech and youth activism in 21st Century America, he skillfully airdrops the audience into a personal-slash-ideological conflict already in motion.

Due to what some adults see as transgressive behavior, high school senior Mick (Wesley T. Jones), has been called into the principal’s office. His provocative entry in the school art competition consists of an American flag suspended over a Bunsen burner, with a can of lighter fluid nearby. Mick hasn’t actually set fire to the flag, but his intention was clear enough. Responsible for both school safety and community standards, Principal Kirks (Bruce Faulk), grills the young man as to the thinking (or lack thereof) behind this sudden outburst creative of expression. Mick, of course, knows more than any grownup (what 17-year-old doesn’t?) and launches into a trite tirade on everything that’s wrong with The System. The principal’s responses are more cynical than authoritarian (“What, nothing on gay marriage?”), but he’s still required to mete out an appropriate punishment.  Mick will be suspended for three days and banned from participating in -or even attending the upcoming Art Fair. Worse, Kirks calls him a “little bitch” and chides him for having spent so little money and effort on this project. It’s not what Mick -or the audience – is expecting. Kirks isn’t preaching conformity, he’s ridiculing Mick for his lack of commitment. If you’re going to create something incendiary, at least do it right. Art demands sacrifice, kiddo.

While Mick plots his magnum opus, his girlfriend Bekka (Jane West), struggles with her own First Amendment problems. She’s been participating in local poetry slams, and her latest ode – not without justification – is full of F bombs. Kirks decides lets it go, as long as she keeps the offending material off school grounds. But Bekka’s ordeal is hardly relieved. She still has to deal with her devoutly Christian mother, Sandy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), who does not approve of young ladies using foul language. Her father, a firm believer in “domestic discipline”, punishes disobedience with physical abuse. Nevertheless, Bekka’s rebellious streak remains strong, as does her ideological kinship with Mick.  He will need Bella’s help in order to launch sneak his project into the Art Fair, and she bravely obliges. This time the art piece involves destroying an icon even more sacrosanct than the red-white-and-blue, and Mick and Bekka are expecting a push back. Thankfully, and Mick’s uncle Gordon (Matthew Boston), a liberal atheist who once studied law, is ready and able to duke it out with the establishment. Yet even he is unprepared the conflagration that engulfs what was once a placid community.

Unfortunately, though the issues remain compelling throughout the play, the energy cools in the later scenes as the debate becomes one-sided.  Clever Gordon easily backs his opponents into corners, and Mick’s iconoclastic agenda rarely meets with a cogent counter-argument. Eventually even the caustic Kirks softens, using his own life as an object lesson in the perils of compromise. Regardless of the playwright’s individual stance, a more evenly pitched battle of ideals would make for a more dynamic evening of theater. “In a good play, everyone is right,” is another writing adage worth heeding.

Despite these drawbacks, Dykstra’s humor and humanity, expertly mined by an appealing cast under Margarett Perry’s brisk direction, distinguish EDUCATION from many less-inspired topical dramas.  But it has the potential to cut deeper, to fulfill its promise of bringing the dynamics of the classic problem play to the trenches of today’s culture wars.  More of a flavor of Ibsen and Shaw, and a soupçon less of John Hughes, would give it the kick it needs.

EDUCATION continues through April 8, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com.

LATER LIFE

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Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

Well served by the perennially solid Keen Company, A. R. Gurney’s Clinton-era seriocomedy pins its astute psychological insights to a clever theatrical conceit. As the two romantic leads carry the main story line, two versatile supporting players stretch their acting muscles (and the wardrobe department’s ingenuity) as they morph into cavalcade of incidental characters. The production falls just a hair shy of the crisply timed delivery the material demands. But it will no doubt tighten during the run as the actors – all of them equipped with remarkable comedic skills- become more accustomed to the show’s myriad costume changes and entrance cues. As for the script, it’s old school in the best sense of the word. Taking in place in real time and in a single setting, the story unfolds naturally, with just a hint of farcicality, like a splash of crème to cassis in a glass of champagne, to keep things interesting.

On a balmy night in Boston, dapper Austin (Laurence Lau), attends an elegant soiree held in a swanky apartment overlooking the harbor. His fashion-conscious friend Sally (Jodie Markell in the first of her many roles) tells Austin to wait on the rooftop patio while she fetches a friend she wants him to meet. Austin scarcely has time to take in the view before his reverie is punctured by the arrival of Jimmy (Liam Craig in the first of his many roles), an eccentric college professor who sermonizes on the virtues of smoking even as he struggles to give it up. There are many such episodes throughout the next 90 minutes, as a series of endearingly odd party guests wander out to the roof, disrupting the growing intimacy between Austin and Ruth (Barbara Garrick). At first, the two seem to be, as Sally predicted, perfect for each other. But as the evening wears on, they discover they have profound differences as well. For their budding romance to have a chance, Austin will have to overcome his New England stuffiness, Ruth to resist the impulse to reunite with her dangerous-but-exciting ex-husband. Large questions loom as well. Does later life bring greater self-awareness and therefore better odds of getting it right? Or are we, like Jimmy and his cigarettes, fated to repeat old patterns even when we’re old enough to know better?

Jonathan Silverstein, handles the story’s blend brightness and melancholy with a light, but never timid touch. Steven Kemp’s set and David Lander’s lights vividly underscore the story’s shifting moods, making the rooftop background a kind of character in its own right. Jennifer Paar’s opulent costumes speak volumes about the personalities and social training of a sprightly Ruth, staid Austin, and motley host of revelers. Wig and hair artists Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas rise to the show’s challenges with panache and precision.

LATER LIFE continues through April 4, 2018 at The Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Aves) New York, NY 10036. Tickets at http://www.telecharge.com.

THE LONELIEST NUMBER

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Written by Lizzie Vieh
Directed by Maria Dizzia

The course of true love never did run smooth. In fact, for the denizens of Lizzie Vieh’s confounding universe, even arranging a casual kinky encounter can be fraught with hazards.

John (Maurice Jones) Wendy (Leigh Williams) have reached an impasse in their marriage. The initial passion that drew them together has cooled, and because a bout with testicular cancer has rendered John infertile, they haven’t been able to start a family.  Desperate to liven up their intimacy, the couple decide to experiment with threesomes. The way some couples decide what to see on movie night, they take turns choosing third partners. Wendy’s picks eccentric (possibly mildly autistic) coworker Kevin (Justin Yorio), whose social awkwardness makes John uncomfortable. As it turns out, Kevin is up for the ménage a trois, but for the wrong reasons. He’s deeply in love with Wendy, and will do anything to be close to her. This wasn’t in the plan, but Wendy likes being desired and begins seeing Kevin on the sly. Further complications arise when it’s John’s turn to choose. Free-spirited Arianne (Cassandra Paras), is game for some polyamory, but Wendy begins to lose her nerve. What she really wants, it seems, is out of the marriage. But when John’s illness returns and Kevin’s dark side emerges, she is forced to search her soul for the right answer.

Intriguingly, the male characters are more emotionally available than the women in the play. John, especially, careens to extremes of feeling as both his marriage and his health become increasingly unstable. Under Maria Dizzia’s bold direction, Jones throws himself into the role with powerful rawness and vulnerability. In less mercurial but equally challenging roles, Williams, Yorio and Paras maintain the honesty and spontaneity the material demands. Vieh’s script is tender and insightful, and the issues it probes are timely. But there’s potential here for further exploration of the characters’ drives and desires. It never becomes clear what Wendy’s looking for as she channel surfs through different life choices. And Arianne is likable, but, outside of a brief sermon on the virtues of eco-friendly dry cleaning, exhibits almost zero passion. As it is, THE LONELIEST NUMBER is a moving evening of theater. A more fully-rendered cast of characters would raise it to a higher level.

THE LONELIEST NUMBER continues through March 10, 2018,  at The Flamboyán Theater at the Clemente Soto Vélez Center, 107 Suffolk Street, in Manhattan. For tickets, call 646-299-2140 or visit http://www.amios.nyc.

TIME STANDS STILL

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Written by Donald Marguiles
Directed by Jerry Heymann

TIME STANDS STILL made its New York debut in January of 2010. Though it sported a cast of A listers, the material wasn’t well served by the production. Something of the nuances of Donald Marguiles’s multilayered script were overwhelmed by the size of the show’s Broadway venue. The script plays better in an intimate venue, and audiences who were underwhelmed by the original production will discover new relevance, rawness and humor the New Light Theater’s heartfelt revival.

After suffering a near-fatal injury, photojournalist Sarah (Nancy Nagrant), returns home to Brooklyn to recuperate. Her boyfriend James (John Long), a war correspondent and freelance writer, tries to help as much as possible. But the relationship between them is as strained as it is loving. For one thing, James is burdened by guilt. He and Sarah worked side by side overseas, James filing dispatches while she took photos, until a nervous breakdown forced him to flee the war zone. Having abandoned her, he now seeks to be the man he failed to be. Sarah, too, suffers from feelings of remorse and secret grief. While James was away, she allowed her relationship with Tariq, a local interpreter (a “fixer” in press jargon), to become more than just professional. The affair did not end because of loyalty to James, but because Tariq was killed in the same blast that wounded Sarah. One thing that wasn’t destroyed is Sarah’s work, and when close friend Richard (Ross DeGraw) drops by for a visit, he’s wowed by the new pictures. A photo editor at a major magazine, Richard believes he can help James and Sarah to turn their war reportage into book. James worries that it’s too soon, but for Sarah the only way forward is by doing what she’s always done. Just as she readies herself to get back into the action, James finds himself infused with newfound desire for home and stability. After all, Richard and his pregnant wife Mandy (Assol Abdullina), seem happy (even if she is half his age). Renewing their commitment, Sarah and James decide to tie the knot, but the way forward is more fraught than a minefield. Simmering resentments and deep disagreements threaten to topple everything they’ve built.

The script goes to both painful and tenderly funny places as these intelligent, troubled characters navigate the intersection of personal and polemical. Both Sarah and James wonder if, for its righteous intent, their work even has any relevance anymore. Does anything really change? Or do readers linger only briefly on what Mandy calls “bummer stories”, before moving on to puff pieces and celebrity profiles? Does pointing a camera at tragedy commemorate, or merely exploit the sufferers? These questions are borderline unanswerable, but they refuse to go away.

Under Jerry Heymann’s tight direction, the little battles fought in the living rooms and kitchens no longer seem trivial. In their own way, domestic negotiations are as important as the larger crises raging in the world. Nagrant movingly captures Sarah’s battered idealism, her unspoken hurts, the blend of romanticism and trench-worn toughness with which she pursues her calling. Equally compelling, Long embodies James’s disillusion and resilience, his ambivalent relationship with the high ideals that both drive and drain him. The two leads receive ample support from the supporting cast. DeGraw strikes both the fatherly and conniving aspects of and editor’s persona with equal authenticity. As the uncorrupted Mandy, Abdullina provides both comic relief and a voice of hope. Brian Dudkiewicz’s sets Ashleigh Poteat lighting add realism and panache to this memorable production.

TIME STAND STILL continues through February 24, 2018 at 13th Street Rep,  50 W 13th Street New York, NY 10011 between 5th and 6th Avenues. Tickets: tssplay. brown-papertickets.com

THE CHEKHOV DREAMS

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Written by John McKinney
Directed by Leslie Kincaid Burby

Though it’s in need of some judicious trimming, John McKinney’s engagingly surreal romcom largely succeeds in building a delectable Dagwood sandwich of multiple genres, archetypes and conventions. The play’s premise and tone bring to mind both the metaphysical mayhem of BLITHE SPIRIT and the fantasy-vs-reality tension of PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM. But THE CHEKHOV DREAMS takes these themes to unexpected, often lyrical places, and the wit and tenderness with which McKinney renders his vibrant characters  give the audience both an enjoyable ride and something to talk about after the curtain falls.

Ever since the untimely death of his fiancé Kate, Jeremy (Dana Watkins), has been living a life of purposeless squalor. Living on an inheritance, he seldom cleans – let alone leaves – his apartment, and avoids any meaningful connection with other people. He only feels alive in his dreams, where he and Kate (Elizabeth Inghram) are reunited. These nocturnal rendezvous have a dark undercurrent, though. Kate wants Jeremy to commit suicide, so he can join her in the afterlife. A tug of war ensues as Jeremy’s hedonistic brother Eddie (Christian Ryan) attempts to pull him towards life. The opposite of mopey Jeremy, Eddie leads a life of perpetual motion, indulging his voracious appetite for booze, cocaine and kinky sex clubs. At Eddie’s insistence, Jeremy gets back to work on his unfinished novella and enrolls in an acting class. His scene partner Chrissy (Charlotte Stoiber), is sincere and enthusiastic, but the material they’re assigned, proves problematic. It’s a scene from THE SEAGULL, and Jeremy can’t stand Chekhov. In one of the play’s funniest diatribes, he takes the Russian master to task for his ponderous plots, morose characters and florid dialogue. Still, Chrissy manages to convince him to make an effort: the words are supposed to be empty on the page. It’s up to the actors breathe life into them as they find the emotional truth of the scene. For Jeremy and newly-engaged Chrissy, that truth is an uncomfortable one. Like Trigorin and Nina, they are falling in love. Once the possessive Kate finds out about the new woman in Jeremy’s life, she ratchets up her tactics. No longer content to stay on her side of the consciousness line, she begins popping up unexpectedly in the real world as well. Even sleep brings scant from stress, as Jeremey’s reveries with Kate are increasingly disrupted by none other than the good Dr. Chekhov himself (Rik Walter). With his nerves in a state of emergency, our troubled protagonist must figure out a way simultaneously find an ending for his book, unearth the real meaning of the SEAGULL scene, and free himself from the seductive grip of his otherworldly lover’s icy fingers. That’s a hell of a to do list, and it’s no wonder he’s tempted to opt for oblivion instead. Luckily, both the subconscious and everyday worlds have a few more tricks up their respective sleeves.

Under Leslie Kincaid Burby’s thoroughgoing direction, the actors remain scrupulously devoted to Chekov’s admonition not to act, but to feel. Balancing disarming vulnerability with sharp comedic skills, Watkins provides the show with a solid emotional core. His understated intensity is adroitly counterbalanced by Ingrham’s cold allure and Stoiber’s winning spontaneity, as well the broader drollery of Ryan and Walter. They are given a fanciful and picturesque world to play in thanks to Scott Aronow’s protean set design, A. Christina Giannini’s opulent costumes, and Diana Duecker’s mood-enhancing lighting.

THE CHEKHOV DREAMS continues through Feb 17, 2018 at The Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, Between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York NY 10036.

Tickets: https:// http://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Chekhov-Dreams/Overview?&aid=ven000193900

DIVINE HORSEMEN

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Written and directed by Paul Calderon

Co-directed by Katherine Calderon

A kind of AMERICAN BUFFALO simmered in the flavors and rhythms of the barrio, Paul Calderon’s gritty crime drama puts a fresh spin on the heist-gone-wrong genre. Beginning on a surreal note, DIVINE HORSEMEN’s prologue shows Jojo (Sebastian Mitre) committing seppuku while images of video superheroes, salsa musicians, and other elements of his addled psyche. Jojo’s suicide is but one of many casualties that have devastated the neighborhood’s old guard. Hardly anything remains of crew that used to hang out at the Caballeros Divinos social club, and the few who have managed to sidestep death and imprisonment are finding it harder and harder to make a buck, let alone get a little respect. Iffy (David Zayas), runs a candy store that proves an easy target for robbers. Dapper Willie (Paul Calderon), ekes out a living as a thug-for-hire. Among other rackets, Iffy and Willie kidnap dogs and return them for reward money. It’s a distasteful business, especially when the less desirable dogs have to be euthanized with baseball bats.

Prospects don’t seem much brighter for the younger generation. Benny (Robert Lee Leng), who was once a promising baseball pitcher, is now reduced to seducing and bilking older women. Unfortunately, it’s not enough: Benny owes money to a local loan shark, and is running out of time to pay it back. All three of these desperate men could use a break, and one finally arrives in an unexpected place. Jojo, it turns out, left behind a huge cache of mint-condition comic books and baseball cards. Benny convinces Iffy and Willie to help him make the most of this treasure trove of collectibles, but there is, of course, a catch. To get all that swag out of Jojo’s crib, the gang will have to sneak past his autistic little brother Raffi (David Deblinger). This proves challenging, especially when Raffi turns up at the social club at the worst possible time. Easily provoked and prone to wild tantrums, Raffi is more dangerous than a loaded gun. This volatile situation inevitably descends into madness, as the men find themselves forced to make split-second decisions in a world where human life has less value than an old issue of Spiderman.

Calderon’s dialogue captures the cadences and embellishments that distinguish New York Street-speak. He and Zayas make the most of their staccato exchanges and imagistic monologues, while also embodying the physicality of their archetypes. Zayas lumbers about the stage like a weary combat veteran who has seen too much bloodshed. He is nimbly counterbalanced by the agile Calderon, who moves with the grace and lethality of a prizefighter in his prime.

For all it’s vitality, DIVINE HORSEMEN is still in a raw stage of its development. It needs a more even pace, and a smoother execution of its fight choreography. Most likely, though, if the production gets the longer, better-funded run it deserves, these rough edges will correct themselves in time.

DIVINE HORSEMEN continues through January 27, 2018 at the Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, New York, NY 10013. Tickets: https://divinehorsemen.brownpapertickets.com/

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

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Written by James Haigney, Neal Labute & Carter Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Always worth a look,  LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL varies from year to year in length and tone. This year’s edition is, in the best sense of the word, leaner than in previous years. The energy seldom lags, and all three cherry-picked one acts are provocative, timely and adroitly crafted.

The plot of Neil LaBute’s HATE CRIME unfolds like a James M. Cain novel. Man 2 (Chauncy Thomas) paces in his luxury hotel room, watching, appropriately enough, a documentary about alpha male animals in the wild. He is joined by likeable Man 1(Spencer Sickmann), his devoted lover who brings coffee, Danish pastries and smiles. Man 2 is understandably anxious. He wants to make sure the scheme the two of them are hatching goes off without a hitch. Here’s how it works: Man 2 is going to marry a wealthy older man. Right after the wedding, Man 2 will murder the old guy and make it look like a gay bashing incident. He and Man 1 will then live happily ever after on the dead man’s life insurance. As the two conspirators rehearse the plan, they begin to reveal symptoms of the nagging self-contempt – exacerbated by society’s biases- that leads to aberrant behavior. The play feels like Scene One of a larger story, and it would be interesting to where this 21st Century Double Indemnity would go if it were expanded to a full-length piece. As it is, we’re left with a cliff hanger. But, as always, LaBute’s mordant writing is well served by the short form. The dynamic between coolly predatory leader and eager protégé is expertly mined for both laughs and chills by Thomas and Sickmann.

In WINTER BREAK, by James Haigney, religious conversion divides an American family. Christened Joanna, a high-achieving college student (Kelly Schaschl) now insists on being called Aisha. Having adopted Sufism as her guiding influence in life, she wears a head scarf and is planning a trip to Turkey to study the Koran. Aisha’s Episcopalian mom Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) is worried she’ll throw away her education. Her brother Bailey (Sickmann), takes a more extreme view, going as far as calling Aisha’s Facebook friends “sadistic, Nazi, anti-Semitic, homophobic delusional fanatics.” Aisha argues back, pointing out that life in the status-driven west is largely devoid of real meaning and that the “freedoms” most Americans enjoy amount to little more than empty self-indulgence. The real agenda behind the conflict is, of course, as personal as it is ideological; Aisha’s need for a sense of self is as strong as Kitty and Bailey’s fear of losing her. The action stalls somewhat as the hysterical Bailey and exasperated Aisha hit the same emotional notes too many times. When it’s cooking, though, Haigney’s intelligent script shows remarkable insight and compassion in its even-handed treatment of both sides of the debate.

The most innovative entry of the evening is Carter W. Lewis’s PERCENTAGE AMERICA,
which ruthlessly skewers a host of contemporary phenomena from online dating to presidential tweets. After meeting though a matchmaking website, Arial (Dornfeld) and Andrew (Thomas) discover they have a lot in common: Both have posted horribly misleading information on their profiles. The smart thing to do would be to call the whole thing off. Yet, once the pretense is dropped, both parties feel an exhilarating sense of relief. Honesty, they learn, can be a potent aphrodisiac. This discovery leads Arial to suggest that she and Andrew experiment with what she considers a kinky activity: deciphering the evening news. Amid all the hype, there has to be some truth, provided one is brave enough to look for it. The top story the news outlets concerns a preadolescent girl (Schaschl) who has broken into the White House rose garden and seemingly berated the president using obscene language. Dubbed variously “The Whore in The Garden”, “The Rose Garden Terrorist” and host of other epithets, the young girl becomes the object of rampant speculation. Like a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein, dig through the dirt, consult clandestine sources build their own narrative – and discover that the truth is not for the faint of heart. Lewis’s razor-sharp satire comes to life as Dornfeld and Thomas throw themselves into their roles with farcical zeal. Schachl balances their antics with arresting vulnerability as the story speeds to its dark, and unexpectedly touching, conclusion.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 4, 2018 at 59E59Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison & Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/index.php

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN

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Written and performed by Joanne Hartstone

Directed by Vince Fusco

We all know fame has its dark side. Some show business luminaries reach the pinnacle of stardom only to topple to tragic depths, others simply fade with time. For many aspiring actors though, success proves elusive, and Hollywood can be a very lonely place for those who remain stuck on Obscurity Boulevard. In an affectionate, if flawed tribute to the screen sirens – and wannabes – of yesteryear, dynamic writer-performer Joanne Hartstone puts her considerable skills to work exploring the emotional hills and canyons of 1940’s Los Angeles.

The story begins in Saint Louis, where little Evelyn Edwards is born into a working-class family. After the death of her mother and the collapse of the stock market, Evelyn and her father are destitute and have to move to a “Hooverville” community. Eventually, Dad’s fortunes improve and the family departs the shanty town for a room in a comfortable home. The landlady is fond of playing the piano, and Evelyn learns to sing and dance. She spends her pocket money at the pictures, and soon learns all about the lives of the great leading ladies. She even develops a morbid fascination with starlets whose lives ended sadly, like Jean Harlow, and Peg Entwistle (who actually did jump off the Hollywood sign).  World War II brings a boost to the economy, and Evelyn’s father hears that Los Angeles is “about to become the boomtown of all boomtowns”. The timing couldn’t be better. Evelyn is 18, comely, and ready to try her luck in show business. Now known as Evie, the enterprising young ingenue takes a job as a studio messenger and dances with GI’s at the famous Hollywood canteen, goes on auditions, takes dance lessons, and rubs shoulders with a number of Hollywood notables. Yet somehow the doors to stardom refuse to open for her. Getting past the gatekeepers will require a sacrifice: one the girl from Missouri isn’t sure she’s willing to make.

Hartstone’s writing is concise and vividly descriptive, packed with images that evoke the bustling atmosphere of golden age Hollywood. Her well-researched script is populated with entertaining archetypes, including real life figures like actor Alan Hale, studio exec Jules C. Stein and the infamous Scotty Bowers, a pimp who catered on the downlow to both gay and straight celebrities. Plotwise, though, some of the show’s potential goes untapped. We’re told that things don’t end well for Evelyn’s father, who appears to be mixed up in some shady business. And the young actress herself dips her toe into the L.A. underworld. Yet the play ends before these darker plot elements have a chance to cook. It’s a puzzling choice. If Evie’s life is like a movie, why not make it a film noir?

As a performer, Hartstone and embodies both the vulnerability of a struggling artist and the independent moxie of the quintessential Swing Era dame. However, she needs a bit more guidance from director Vince Fusco, who should bring out the subtler notes in her performance. Most of Evie’s lines are delivered in the same high vocal register, with a melodramatic warble added for emphasis. At first the affectation makes sense: Evie knows she’s something of a cliché: a naive Hollywood hopeful playing the part of Naive Hollywood Hopeful. It’s only natural that she imitates the stylized speech patterns of the heroines she admires. Over the course of 70 minutes, though, the conceit wears thin. A softer, less affected approach might have played better in the Cino Theater’s intimate space. Despite these missteps, Hartstone’s warmth and charisma shines through and she is clearly a talent to watch. Unlike her alter ego, she really does have the skills, sensuality, and drive to become a star. With a little more trust in her gift, and in her audience, she could be ready for her close-up.

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN continues through January 21, 2018 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets) New York, NY 10003. Telephone: (212) 254-1109.

Tickets: https://www.smarttix.com /Modules/Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&DateSelected=&SalesEventId=7047