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

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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

THE CHILDREN

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Written by Lucy Kirkwood

Directed by Robert McDonald

THE CHILDREN seems a curious title for a play in which the characters are all over 65. Perhaps playwright Lucy Kirkwood intends chose the name for the same reason Arthur Miller called his first great morality play ALL MY SONS. Kirkwood isn’t selling any religious agendas, but it’s a safe bet she’s familiar with Exodus 20:5, which states that sins of one generation are visited upon the next. With good reason, the 33-year-old playwright, though compassionate towards her elders, clearly isn’t pleased with the job the stewards of the earth have done so far.

In a farmhouse kitchen somewhere in rural England, two old friends reunite after decades apart. Nothing unusual there, but the conversation Hazel (Deborah Findlay) is having with Rose (Francesca Annis) isn’t limited to small talk.  There are repeated references to a disaster that has affected the area, and Hazel intuits that Rose’s sudden, unannounced visit isn’t just a social call. Then there’s the matter of the blood which has just spattered all over Rose’s blouse. She claims it’s from a nosebleed, but Hazel isn’t easily convinced. Further questions arise when Hazel’s husband Robin (Ron Cook) arrives home. He puts on a show as if he hasn’t seen the prodigal Rose for ages, but again, Hazel doesn’t buy it.  As tensions simmer and generous helpings of turnip wine are consumed, the veneer of British understatement begins to dissolve and grim details emerge about the nature of the recent calamity. Echoing 2011’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, the event in question involved nuclear power plant whose shoddy construction collapsed under the impact of an earthquake and a tidal wave. Homes are flooded, animals die from radiation, coastal towns have had to be evacuated. Unlike other survivors, Hazel, Rose and Robin can’t merely get on with their lives. After all, they’re the nuclear scientists who designed the plant all those years ago. And therein lies the ulterior motive behind Rose’s surprise visit. It’s all too much for Hazel. This woman has disrupted her daily routine, overflowed her toilet and slept with her husband. Hasn’t she done enough?  Yet someone has to take responsibility for the mistakes of the past, and when Robin reveals his own troubling secret, Hazel is forced to let go of her illusions and find a way forward.

Intriguingly, Kirkwood has chosen and unusual approach to a difficult topic. THE CHILDREN is, quite literally, a kitchen sink drama. It takes place in real time, and exposition is skillfully interwoven with present-day banter. Yet the apocalyptic world it portrays resembles is more reminiscent  of dystopian literature than naturalistic theater. The message is clear: yesterday’s sci fi is today’s concrete reality. The characters, both in their scripting and the nuanced performances of the cast, are not at all the scientists-as-socially-inept- brainiacs stereotypes. Refreshingly real, these people are more function like the rest of us, obsessing more over dinner and yoga than fusion theory.  So little hard science appears here, in fact, that the show’s lack of playwright-splaining may leave some viewers confused. If one plays close attention, though, definable features emerges of the coming Armageddon. Director James McDonald understands this balance of the quotidian with the apocalyptic, and keeps the action grounded in the rituals of daily life. Set and costume designer Miriam Buether frames the play in a universe that is both recognizable and unsettlingly odd. Lighting designer Peter Mumford chillingly evokes an encroaching darkness which must, one way of another, be reckoned with.

THE CHILDREN continues through February 28, 2018 at The Samuel J. Friedman Theater,  261 West 47th Street (between Broadway & 8th Ave.) Tickets:  https://www.telecharge.com/Broadway/The-Children/Ticket

A MY NAME IS…

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Directed and choreographed by Stefanie Nelson

Before the performance even begins, director Stefanie Nelson has already begun to make a statement. One of the tunes playing on the mixed tape as the audience files into the theater is “White Rabbit”, Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic update of Lewis Carroll’s famous journey down the rabbit hole. As with all aspects of Nelson’s meticulously constructed meditation on the ravages of dementia, the song wasn’t chosen by accident. In some ways, the protagonist of A MY NAME IS has a lot in common with the literary Alice. Both are desperately lost in a world that increasingly seems devoid of logic and proportion. Both lack the tools to makes sense of it all.

Through a series of vibrant dance pieces, each with a clear mood and tempo established by composer Jonah Kreitner, we see the protagonist in three distinct periods of her life. Emily Tellier, the mature Alice, moves with confidence and restraint, while the vital young Alice, danced by Julia Discenza, seems keen to the world around her. Christine Bonansea plays in her later years, facing a rapid decrease in cognition and memory. The three Alices reveal their personalities through solo dances. They also observe one another and intermingle, sometimes in consort, often at odds. Cameron McKinney, who comes and goes like a phantom, seems to represent Alice’s relationships: the lovers, colleagues, family members and caretakers whose image is becoming unrecognizable.

Red apples abound on the stage, thudding and rolling across the floor and forming painterly patterns against the pristine white of the set. An apple even appears in a video projection, in which the decomposition process is sped up through time lapse photography. It’s an apt metaphor. All living things, from Alice to apples, are subject to what Robert Frost called the “slow smokeless burning of decay”.

Whereas a straightforward drama would walk us through stages mental deterioration, the abstractness and purity of dance allows for a more fluid, less literal approach. The performers bring to their work a sense of discovery, allowing themselves – and ultimately the audience – to step inside of subject most of us find uncomfortable. We begin to see the world through Alice’s eyes. Memories lose their moorings, pieces drop out of familiar narratives, and independence slips out of reach. Even then, there is something vital and human at the core of her experience. She is still Alice, even if she has lost the ability to say so.

A MY NAME IS… ran at 357 West 36th St, New York, New York from December 7-10, 2017. For more information on upcoming performances, check http://www.sndancegroup.org.

 

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND

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Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

Music by Stephen Flaherty

Based on the novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy,

Directed by Michael Arden

First produced in 1990, this darkly hopeful fairy tale sports an impressive list of cultural ingredients. The story incorporates a Shakespearean duo star-crossed lovers, a cast of powerful figures from Caribbean mythology, a dash Zola-esque social realism, and a nobly-doomed heroine worthy of Hans Christian Anderson. Book and lyric writer Lynn Ahrens, working from a novel by Rosa Guy, skillfully blends these disparate flavors into a satisfying narrative stew. The musical menu is, unfortunately, not so zesty, but it’s solid enough to hold the story together and give the singers something to work with.

The eponymous island, located somewhere in the Antilles archipelago is populated by two distinct. The  wealthy side of the island is inhabited by the light-skinned descendants of French colonialists, who live lives of luxury and sport. Down in the village, the indigenous people cling to their own traditions while earning a livelihood for the earth and sea. Though they have little in the way of material goods, the peasants possess a rich tradition of storytelling. On a stormy evening, to comfort a little girl frightened by thunder the townspeople (Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott T. Oliver Reid, and Aurelia Williams) gather together to spin the yarn of a young woman who dares to challenge the island’s never-the-twain-shall-meet attitude towards class.

The tale begins when water god Agwé (Quentin Earl Darrington), unleashes a bitter squall which causes the rivers to overflow. Many towns are destroyed in the deluge, but the life of little a little girl (Emerson Davis) is spared. Safely ensconced in a tree, the child is discovered by villagers Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin). Figuring the gods must have their reasons, the couple adopts the girl and school her in the ways of island life. As she grows to womanhood, though, the inquisitive Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) desires to know more about the outside world. Fascinated by the rich young people who whizz through town in sports cars, Ti Moune beseeches the gods to let her be more like the grande hommes. Hearing her prayer, the gods scoff at Ti Moune’s lofty ambitions. But love goddess Erzulie (Lea Salonga), sees no harm in letting the girl have the happiness she desires. Not to be outdone, death deity Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), places a bet with Erzulie: we’ll see weather love or death is the stronger force. The wager gets interesting when Agwe arranges for Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), the son of prosperous hotelier, to crash his car while driving through Ti Moune’s neighborhood. Against her parents’ wishes, Ti Moune insists on nursing the unconscious Daniel back to health. She falls in love with the lad, and when Papa Ge comes to claim his life, Ti Moune offers hers instead. When Daniel is returned safely to his family’s estate, Euralie and Julian breathe easier. Ti Moune will forget him in time. As usual, though, the young woman has her own ideas, and insists on taking a journey to the rich side of the island. Here, Ti Moune  believes, she and Daniel will live happily ever after. Earth goddess Asaka (Alex Newell) sees to it that Ti Moune reaches her destination safely, but that’s only half the battle. In her zeal, the young woman has reckoned without the rivalry of Daniel’s promised bride (Alysha Deslorieux), the interference of his stern father (David Jennings), and a secret curse that has haunted the Beauxhomme family for generations. And, of course, there’s that rash promise she made to Papa Ge, who isn’t likely to let a debt go uncollected.

Wisely, Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty forgo the typical musical-comedy happy ending in favor of a more sublime finale. Director Michael Arden and choreographer Camille A. Brown use Circle in The Square’s round space creatively, creating a functioning village – replete with live animals – in which to ground the story-within-a-story. The shifting moods and changing locales of the plot are handled with confidence and imagination by set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Costume designer by Clint Ramos uses a palette of rich, warm colors that evoke the exotic flora of the Caribbean. The actors radiate warmth and emotional honesty, and go at the songs with sensitivity and impressive vocal prowess. Innovative casting choices, such as the Dionysian Dandridge in the usually male role of Papa Ge, help to give the material a fresh interpretation.

There is only one respect in which ONCE ON THIS ISLAND falls short of the greatness it might have achieved. The score, though perfectly pleasant, isn’t particularly memorable. There are few catchy melodies and, with the exception of an exhilarating dance sequence, little exploration of Afro-Caribbean musical idioms. Most of the score sounds a bit like Jimmy Buffet: agreeable pop chord sequences with a light seasoning of calypso. It works, but with a more powerful musical spine, ISLAND could go from a great evening of theater to a classic.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND continues in an open run at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W 50th St, New York, NY 10019 Tickets: http://www.onceonthisisland.com/tickets/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MUST

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Written by Charles Cissel

Directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman

The legendary William Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid, has been called many things. Up until now, “self-absorbed” wasn’t one of them. After seeing the Burgess Group’s revisionist take on the famous bandit’s life, audiences may leave the theater wondering if Billy’s biggest problem was that he was born before the age of Facebook. In an effort, apparently, to put a human face on the Bonney myth, Charles Cissel has turned the Kid into a thinker rather than a man of action. It’s an intriguing idea: we already have action-packed movies about the West, why not, in a theater piece, focus on the psychological? It might have worked were it not for the fact that MUST’s central anti-hero engages in excess navel gazing and offers mostly tepid and undramatic responses to the people around him.

As the play begins, Billy (Brendan Dooling) and Pat Garrett (John Clarence Stewart) are cohorts who run various hustles across the saloons and cattle fields of the frontier. The two end up on opposite sides of the law as Billy falls in with a band of outlaws and embarks on his notorious crime spree. Mostly, though, Billy waxes philosophical, lamenting the futility of chasing horizons (as soon as you get there, the horizons’s gone, he muses repeatedly). Along the way, he is visited by apparitions. His dapper father (Marl Elliot Wilson), who abandoned the family when Billy was a boy, now struts about drinking fine whisky and offering vaguely cynical commentary on the nature of manhood. Billy’s self-sacrificing, consumptive mother (Sally Ann Triplett) did her best to raise Billy well, but couldn’t quell his penchant for trouble. For a time, Billy shacks up with Luisa (Meredith Antoian), who seems to be the fugitive’s last chance at happiness. Dooling and Antoian have a good chemistry. But the dialogue mostly stays in the cliché zone, with a petulant Luisa wishing Billy would just settle down and stop chasin’ those durned horizons. Ultimately, Billy begins to sound less like an 1880’s desperado than a 21st Century urbanite in the throes of a quarter-life crisis.

Far more compelling is the subplot involving the Kid’s nemesis. Like Bonney, Garrett is a man haunted by a legend he helped create but can never quite live up to. His transformation from con man to lawman is handled with wit and energy by Stewart, and the dramatic stakes are higher in his scenes with Billy than elsewhere in the play. More stage time devoted to the sheriff, and less to Billy’s ruminations, would have been a stronger choice.

Visually, the show is impressively staged: Alexander Woodward’s scenic design depict a barren but lyrical desert landscape, Zach Blane’s lighting shifts nimbly with the changing moods of the story, and Brooke Cohen Brown’s opulent costumes help to make the characters both true to life and larger than life. Their efforts, though appreciated, are sadly not enough to turn MUST into a must-see.

MUST continues through November 19,2017 at the Theater at St. Clements,

423 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/979546

OCCUPIED TERRITORIES

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Written by Nancy Bannon & Mollye Maxner
Directed  by Mollye Maxner

When people quote General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous maxim, “War is hell”, they’re usually referring to the carnage and chaos of the battlefield. But for many soldiers, the fires of war don’t stop burning after the military campaign has run its course. They rage on inside the veteran’s psyches, consuming their lives, their families, their society. Using dual time frames and a collage of theatrical techniques OCCUPIED TERRITORIES paints a searing – if flawed – portrait of the ongoing repercussions of war.

Single mom Jude Collins (Nancy Bannon), returns to her hometown to bury her father. Jude is due to check into rehab in a couple of days, and hopes to use the time to reconnect with her preteen daughter Alex (Ciela Elliott). Mother-daughter relations are strained, however, as Jude has been unable to really be there for Alex. It’s Jude’s sister Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), that’s been raising the child while Jude attempts to sort her life out. Adding to the tense family dynamic is the fact that Jude and Helena have sharply different views of their late father. To Helena, he was a good man who bore the scars of war as well could be expected. Jude sees him as an unstable and irresponsible father who used his brief tour of duty as an excuse for bad behavior. Slowly, though, Jude’s perspective begins to shift. Left alone in the basement of the old house, she goes through her father’s collection of photos and artifacts from the war. She also helps herself to his prodigious stash of prescription medication. As Jude slides into a reverie, the tromping of combat boots and the voices of soldiers chanting cadence calls is heard. The audience is brought into the scene as the actors march behind the seats and up the aisles of the theater. The action shifts to Vietnam, 1967.

Here we meet the young Private Collins (Cody Robinson) and the guys in his platoon. Even-keeled Lucky (Diego Aguirre) operates a shortwave radio, which Sergeant Ace Andrews (Donte Bonner) uses to alert his superiors that his men can’t hold their position and are running dangerously low on rations, ammunition, and medical kits. Predictably, the hoped-for supply drop is a long time coming, and morale worsens among men who have already seen too many casualties. Particularly caustic is the Brooklyn-born Corporal Michael “Ski” Makowski (Scott Thomas),who gives Collins no end of grief but deep down is actually looking out for the new recruit. Rounding out this motley gang are the garrulous Private Alvarez (Thony Mena), quiet but courageous Hawk (Nile Harris), and the frail Private “Hardcore” Harcourt (Nate Yaffe), who hasn’t spoken since a word the death of his buddy two weeks previous.

Collins, nicknamed “Cornbread” by his peers, carries his Nikon camera everywhere, but it’s his innocent eyes that are really taking in the details. He sees more than his mind can process, especially as the futility of the mission grows clear. In this incomprehensible world, any sense of moral certainty is destroyed and wanton waste of human life becomes the new normal. No one seems to know why this war is being fought in the first place, let alone whether the U.S. has any chance of winning it. And yet the slaughter continues, and the soldiers have only each other to cling to. The love Collins feels for his comrades in arms will supersede all other relationships, and the battle Jude fights for her father’s affections will prove unwinnable.

To a degree, we’ve seen this story before: an ethnically mixed battalion bonding under heavy fire: a young man’s disillusionment in the foxhole. But co-creators Nancy Bannon and Kellye Maxner bring an innovative sensibility to familiar Vietnam story. Stark realism is juxtaposed against lyrical dance sequences and colorful photos of smiling Vietnamese villagers. The show’s immersive approach effects both the audience and the ensemble. Like the G.I.s they portray, the actors coalesce into a group of men whose mutual trust and loyalty are palpable in a physical, immediate way that gives the show’s brutal ending its devastating impact.

Despite these strengths, though, the show suffers from some missteps. For starters, its title is misleading: the term “occupied territories” today refers to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Also, the civilian side of the narrative is considerably less developed than the soldier’s story. More details about the Collins family’s past and present would have given more dimension to the conflicts Jude, Helena and Alex are working through.

Even so, OCCUPIED TERRITORIES’ rough edges are outweighed by its raw performances, well-researched story line and flawlessly choreographed battle scenes. Its images and voices reverberate long after the curtain call.

OCCUPIED TERRITORIES continues through November 5, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: 212-279-4200.

JAMAICA

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Music by Harold Arlen
Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy

Directed & Choreographed by Keith Lee Grant

Music Director & pianist Jameel McKanstry

Bass: Dominic LaMorte
Percussion: Charles Kiger/Ashley Baier
Reeds: Michael Gennari Trumpet: Kurt Marcum

Daring for its time, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s 1957 parable sported an ethnically diverse cast (led by Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban), a calypso-inflected score, and anti-establishment message. 60 years later, the show feels surprisingly fresh, dated only in the sense that its score (originally written for Harry Belafonte) reflect a 1950’s conception of Caribbean songcraft. To modern ears, accustomed to the cadences of reggae and world music, Arlen’s tunes sound more like they originated in the West 40’s than in the West Indies.

Content-wise, however, JAMAICA couldn’t be more relevant. Harburg, blacklisted at the time for refusing to name names, took a jaundiced view of Cold War America, and the show’s book takes aim globalism, disaster relief, nuclear threats, and a host of other topics that still preoccupy us today. Even evolution is skewered, as a group of monkeys, loathe to be associated with anything as uncivilized as mankind, dismiss Darwin’s theory as fake news.

Set on the fictional republic of Pigeon Island, JAMAICA begins with a brief tryst between a local teenage girl and a young American tourist on vacation with his folks. Both sets of parents make it very clear they are not in favor of the romance, but the kids sneak around and do it anyway. Soon the girl discovers she is pregnant, but only after the boy has left the island with no apparent plans to return. Flash forward to 20 years later. Mama (Corea “Cori” Robinson), is reaching a point where she can no longer control her daughter Savannah (Taylor-Rey “T-Rex” Rivera). The young woman’s beauty, and her headstrong ways, have become the talk of the village. She is courted by eligible bachelor Koli (Jason Johnson), the captain of a fishing boat, but Savannah has other ideas about her future. The only island she’s interested in is Manhattan, where she can hobnob with the glitterati and enjoy a lifestyle filled with modern conveniences – if only she can find a way to get there. Her ticket soon arrives in the form of Joe Nashua (Daniel Fergus Tamulonis), an New York businessman seeking to get rich quick in the jewelry business. All he needs is a few divers willing to risk being devoured by sharks in order to harvest Pigeon Island’s rich supply of pearls. While many of the islanders are seduced by Joe’s offer of Yankee dollars, Koli treats his arrival with consternation. In his view, the American clearly doesn’t have the community’s best interests – or Savannah’s – at heart.  Further complications ensue when a fierce tropical storm hits the island, derailing Joe’s entrepreneurial ambitions and throwing the whole social order chaos. In the aftermath of the storm, all the characters reevaluate their priorities and Savannah begins to wonder, like another famous Arlen-Harburg heroine, if there really is no place like home.

With her dynamic personality and impressive vocal range, Rivera makes an ideal choice for the restless Savannah. Johnson’s tough, practical-minded Koli provides her with an apt foil. The supporting players each have a moment to shine, and they go at the task with talent and brio. Robinson’s powerhouse voice and Tamulonis’s tight timing add flavor to the mix, while Chris Price and Barbyly Noël bring their comedic skills to a romantic subplot involving a passionate government clerk and his standoffish desideratum. 12-year old scene stealer Treymal R. McClary is highly enjoyable as the scrappy street philosopher Quico. Under Keith Lee Grant’s snappy, exuberant direction, the ensemble members (Zuheila Jason, Isais Miranda, Yesenia Ortiz, and Hanna Ventura) coalesce into an inviting community. Mary Myers’ costumes burst with Caribbean color and flow easily with the dancers’ movements. There is only one aspect of the production that feels arbitrary. Throughout the evening, the numbers are embellished with video projections (a commonplace element in theater these days). Although animator Edward Corcino has fashioned some inspired imagery, it seems unnecessary to add extra visual layers to theatrical action that is already compelling. Less would have been more. This, however, is a minor drawback in a show that is otherwise “coconut sweet”.

JAMAICA continues through M3 24, 2018 at Harlem Repertory Theatre, 240 East 123rd Street New York, NY 10035. Tickets: 917-697-3555.

 

 

 

UP THE RABBIT HOLE

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Written by Andy Halliday

Directed by G.R. Johnson

Like many autobiographical works, Andy Halliday’s tale of love, addiction and recovery is raw, honest and brave. It also, in places, suffers from the lack of objectivity that affects many writers as they attempt to mold their life experiences into dramatic narratives. There is plenty to like about UP THE RABBIT HOLE, including a strong cast, but both directorially and scriptwise, it’s in need of further development.

Young Jack Harris (Tyler Jones), is having trouble maintaining control of his life. Having moved to New York to pursue a career as a dancer, he now finds unable to work due to an injured hamstring. With no Plan B, Jack finds work as a cater waiter, but most of his earnings go to feeding his worsening cocaine habit. His drug buddies include the glamorous but untrustworthy Timothy (Quinn Coughlin), who purports to be straight but enjoys sexually-tinged roughhousing with Jack. Jack’s adoptive mom Helen (Laralu Smith), though well intentioned, cluelessly feeds her son’s addiction by giving him money. Clearly Jack’s lifestyle is a recipe for self-destruction. Thankfully, though, a glimmer of optimism arrives in the form of a letter confirming that Jack’s biological mom has been located and is eager to meet him. Jack travels to Boston, where Angela (also Laralu Smith) welcomes him into her home. The reunion is a happy one, not least because Jack discovers he has a brother. Bradford (Andrew Glaszek), who is gay and has fought his own battle with addiction, is able to offer Jack a kind of empathy and assistance that his adopted family can’t give him. Upon returning to Manhattan, though, Jack falls back into his toxic behavior patterns, nearly derailing his healthy relationship with theater director Robert Maltin (Peter Gregus). A particularly traumatic event threatens to send Jack into an irreversible downward spiral. But thanks to his newfound support system, it appears there may be hope at the bottom of this Pandora’s Box.

Director G.R. Johnson keeps the actors emotionally honest, but has trouble blocking some of the scenes. There’s too much bouncing around in the scenes where Timothy toys with Jack, which dissipates the frightening tension. Other parts of the play seem overly stagnant, as in the scene when Brad, upon meeting Jack for the first time, stands still for several minutes with his arms crossed: a puzzling image for a guy who’s supposed to be welcoming his long-lost brother into the fold. The double casting of Laralu Smith as both Helen and Angela also poses problems. Smith attempts to individuate the two women without resorting to caricature. But ultimately, the moms just aren’t different enough. They also feel somewhat underwritten as characters. Both mothers get to tell their stories, but no tears are shed, no remorse is shown, and we never really learn how either mother feels about her son’s sexuality. They also never meet, despite a request from Angela to do so, which leaves a narrative thread frustratingly unresolved.

Despite its unevenness, though, UP THE RABBIT HOLE manages, at times to be deeply moving and tenderly funny. We can’t help rooting for Jack, especially with the endearing Jones in the part. And the relationship between Jack and Robert is handled with candor and delicacy, both in the dialogue and in the acting. If the same level of excellence could be matched throughout the show, UTRH would go from a very good production to an unforgettable one.

UP THE RABBIT HOLE continues through October 15, 2017 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003. Tickets: http://tix.smarttix.com/Modules/ Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&SalesEventId=6848&DC=

THE VIOLIN

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Written by Dan McCormick
Directed by Joseph Discher

Tight, traditional and full of testosterone, THE VIOLIN serves as a welcome throwback to the three-man crime dramas that used to dominate the American stage. Like its predecessors, ORPHANS and AMERICAN BUFFALO, Dan McCormick’s naturalistic meditation on greed and loyalty is well-made, fast paced and sports a kind of gritty elegance in its rhythm and language. Unlike Lyle Kessler and David Mamet, though, McCormick endows his characters with charm and warmth, and grants them at least a fighting chance at salvation.

On a dark winter night in a cramped New York tailor shop (meticulously festooned with clutter by set designer Harry Feiner), proprietor Giovanni AKA Gio (Robert LuPone) patiently plies his trade as he has done for decades. What makes tonight different, though, is that a grim anniversary is close at hand. Years ago,  his neighborhood friends Bobby (Peter Bradbury) and Terry (Kevin Isola) lost both of their parents to a murderous vendetta perpetrated by the Irish mob. Since that day, Gio has functioned as a kind of surrogate parent. Sadly, His attempts to instill good values in the boys have borne little fruit. Rather than pursue an education, Bobby, has chosen a life of petty crime. Terry, brain-damaged due to a childhood accident, can’t seem to hold a job at all. Something good, however, has come out of his latest fiasco. While driving a gypsy, Terry has discovered a 1710 Stradivarius that a forgetful passenger abandoned in the back seat. When Bobby discovers the monetary value of such an instrument, he begins hatching a plot to extort a pile of ransom money from its distraught owner. Terry’s hesitant at first, but his big brother’s powers of persuasion are hard to resist. Even Gio, who constantly espouses the virtues of “integra”, has to admit that he has little to show for all his years of toil. A little windfall wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome. With the whole gang on board, Bobby presses forward with the plan. Of course, these guys are hardly criminal masterminds, and unforeseen complications naturally ensue. Relationships are tested and guilty secrets bubble to the surface as the play accelerates to its darkly redemptive conclusion.

Like a jazz trio, the three members of the cast are able to shine individually while remaining deeply tuned to each other’s cadences. Isola, who easily could have played Terry as a stereotypical man child, instead shades his performance with a disarmingly authentic innocence. Likewise, Lupone doesn’t chew the scenery, even in the play’s more explosive moments. His Gio is a man of refinement and aspiration who, because of rough circumstances and poor choices, could never realize his full potential. The kinetic Bradbury is both comical and menacing as he prowls the stage like an animal in search of easy prey. In keeping with their characters’ agendas, director Joseph Discher assigns each actor a specific section of the room. Accustomed to being treated like a child, Isolda’s childlike Terry sits in a corner, impulsively jumping up when he feels an urge to be part of the conversation. Bradbury, as the energetic idea man, is placed at center stage. As the detail-oriented tailor, Lupone moves economically, leaving the safety of his work table only when necessary. It’s a smart bit of staging that subtly alerts the audience to the importance of the moment when he finally does take action. The younger guys can talk all they want. But it’s when Gio’s on the move that we know things are getting serious.

THE VIOLIN continues through October 14, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets (212) 279-4200.