MY PERFECT MIND

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Written by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter & Edward Petherbridge

Directed by Kathryn Hunter

Days away from fulfilling his lifelong dream of performing the title role in KING LEAR, veteran actor Edward Petherbridge was afflicted with two strokes. Though it took time to get some of his motor functions back, Petherbridge, remarkably, retained every word of the play. MY PERFECT MIND is the story of his journey back to health and the eventual fruition of his theatrical aspirations.

Well, sort of. The subject is, after all,  Petherbridge’s mind, not his “life story” in the traditional sense. And minds don’t move linearly. The narrative weaves in and out from past to present, through the England of Edward’s childhood to a 21st Century rehearsal hall in New Zealand, even to the afterlife, where Sir Laurence Olivier offers a few choice words of advice. The mercurial Paul Hunter plays, with unflagging zeal, all the characters other than Edward. The cavalcade includes – among others – an zany neuroscientist, an ebullient theater impresario, and a Romanian immigrant working as a housekeeper despite having received a high level of education on her home country. The theatrical “fourth wall” is expanded and collapsed as easily as a gentleman’s umbrella as the two seasoned performers meditate on the nature of theater itself. These quirky encounters are accompanied by generous helpings of the Bard, and Petherbridge fuels his Lear with a musicality and psychological spontaneity that illuminates the potency and evergreen relevance of Shakespeare’s poetry.

In the age of tell-all biographies, it’s refreshing to see this novel approach to the act of self-examination. And if the story meanders a bit too much for its own good, the eccentric charm of the actors mitigates the lack of cohesion. .As Petherbridge rummages through his mental attic, he strikes the occasional  note of gentle melancholy. Ultimately though, he emerges from the process with few regrets. Reflecting on all the ups and downs, false starts and fleeting glories of his career, he seems secure in the belief that a life in the theater is a life well spent.

MY PERFECT MIND continues through June 28, 2015 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.ORG.

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THE OLD MASTERS

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Written by Sam Marks

Directed by Brandon Stock

What makes one artist more valid than another? And who decides? Often the art world seems to care more about the “narrative” of the artist’s life than what’s actually on the canvas. Pictures with real merit are less likely to fetch high sums than those by artists whose biographies (preferably tragic) make interesting reading.

At least that’s what struggling painter Ben Schmitt (Rory Kulz) tells himself. After one disappointing gallery show, he has settled for a secure, but unglamorous job as an at lecturer. It’s a practical move, seeing as Ben and architect Olive (Alesandra Nahodil), have just bought a fixer-upper home and are expecting a baby. But Ben isn’t quite ready to hang up his ambitions and settle into middle class parenthood. Underneath his laidback exterior, there’s still a part of him that wants – needs – to be an art star. The desires are piqued when he receives a visit from Lara (Adelind Horan). Lara dates Ben’s old friend loft mate Henry, also an aspiring painter. Back in the day, the three of them shared the bohemian life and dreamt of taking the culture by storm. Now, Henry has disappeared, leaving behind a body of interesting work and a note instructing Lara to seek Ben’s expert opinion. The work proves extremely marketable, in part because of alcoholic, self-taught Henry’s “outsider” mystique. Money rolls in, and working-class Lara – now the spokesperson for the vanished artist – finds herself hobnobbing with the intelligentsia. Ben is torn. He’s excited by the attention his friend’s work is getting, but he wishes it were happening to him. He begins drawing furiously, and paying less and less attention to Olive and the complications of her pregnancy. As his passion increases, a dormant attraction to Lara is awakened. Ben’s despair leads him to resort to desperate measures, and in the ensuing conflagration secrets are revealed, relationships are tested and Ben and Olive’s world (sometimes literally) begins to crumble.

THE OLD MASTERS is well-constructed, suspenseful, and often charmingly funny. Playwright Sam Marks scores some accurate points about the trendy insubstantiality of today’s art rhetoric, and his characters are smart and three- dimensional. The actors, too, resist the temptation to default to caricature, and keep their characters archetypal but real. As the play nears its conclusion, though, Marks and director Brandon Stock bring the tone of the show to a shrill boil. The intensity doesn’t seem warranted, and it’s hard to care about the characters as they walk around crazily venting their anger. The quieter moments are more successful, and when Ben and Olive really connect there’s a feeling that something is truly at stake. Less time devoted to Ben’s manic conniving and more to his bond with Olive – a bond his ego threatens to sever – would lend more depth to the play’s compelling blend of acute cultural observation and dramatic tension.

THE OLD MASTERS continues until June 28, at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street, New York, New York. 2015. Tickets: web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/942171

INJUNCTION GRANTED

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Written by the Editorial Board of the Living Newspaper

Directed by Alex Roe

Though it lasted only a few years, The Federal Theater Project had an impact that can still be felt some 70-plus years after its demise. Producer Hallie Flanagan’s visionary program helped launch the careers of many show biz luminaries, and brought theater to communities where affordable live performances had previously been a rarity. Like much state-sponsored art, the FTP’s productions sometimes tried a bit too hard to be socially medicinal. But, as this lively revival of INJUNCTION GRANTED shows, they could also be entertaining.

As the play begins, a magician (Nathaniel P. Claridad), a dancer (Lorinne Lampert), an electrician (Cliff Miller), an acrobat (Kendall Rileigh) and an accordion player (Perri Yaniv) are suddenly silenced by bad news. Like many Americans, they’ve been handed a pink slip, their professional lives derailed by an ailing economy. Luckily, things look up as Roosevelt’s New Deal policies put people from all walks of life back to work. The arts are no exception, and soon our protagonists find themselves back in their natural habitat. Joined by a character called The Living Newspaper (actor uncredited) they fittingly choose the history of American labor relations as the topic of their show. Beginning with the indentured servants of the Colonial era, the show rockets through time to the modern 20th Century, referencing Bacon’s Rebellion, the Molly Maguires, the formation of the American Federation of Labor, the Haymarket Riot and many other significant incidents in the long – and often violent – struggle for worker’s rights. As the play’s poster suggests, the conflict becomes a kind of fast-moving sparring match between management and labor. Each side uses the legal system to strike blows against the opposition. Management is the heavier hitter, but scrappy Labor has a few good one-two combinations. There’s really no clear champion, but there are enough favorable injunctions granted to keep the proletariat on its feet and determined to go the distance.

Director Alex Roe makes inventive use of the Metropolitan Playhouse’s black box space and gives the show a circus-like vibrancy. The actors, clearly relishing their myriad metamorphoses, tirelessly embody laborers, farmers, tycoons, politicians, journalists, attorneys and a host of other citizens. If anything, the evening suffers from a few too many lightning-quick vignettes. It’s not the fault of the production, of the script itself. Less a living newspaper than a dancing encyclopedia, the narrative compresses so many events into a short space of time that significant details are often omitted. Still, INJUNCTION GRANTED adds up to something more than just a quaint relic of a bygone era. It’s didactic, yes, but it its buoyant theatricality keeps it from feeling antiquated. Viewers are, however, advised hold on to their programs and do some additional Wikipedia searching on their own.

INJUNCTION GRANTED continues through June 28 at The Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E 4th St, New York, NY 10009. Tickets: metropolitanplayhouse.org/tickets

CUDDLES

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Written by Joseph Wilde

Directed by Rebecca Atkinson-Lord

With her all-black wardrobe and crimson lips, businesswoman Tabby (Rendah Heywood) looks a bit like a B movie Transylvanian. But it’s her little sister Eve (Carla Langley) who actually is a vampire. At least, that’s the role she accepts in the complicated contract between the two siblings. While Tabby goes is out working, Eve stays shut up in a dingy room with fairy tales and Harry Potter novels providing her only connection to the outside world.  Like all members of her species, she cannot go out in the daylight and requires regular feedings of human blood. Tabby opens her veins now and then, but she’s hardly a model nurturer. In fact, she forces Eve lives in abject squalor. Wearing the same grubby tee shirt an knickers day after day, Eve never bathes and uses two buckets (color-coded for each body function) instead of a toilet. Psychologically, too, Tabby  maintains tight supervision over her sister’s behavior. Questions on certain topics are forbidden, and physical affection is carefully quantified. Obviously, a bizarre family system like this one can only hold for so long. Eva’s in her teens now: not so easily managed. And Tabby has found a fellow she’s interested in dating. It’s unlikely Tabby’s new boyfriend will understand her situation, and she grows increasingly desperate as Eva threatens to destroy her one chance at happiness. Tables turn and long-held secrets bubble to the surface as the play careens toward its harrowing conclusion.

Although it’s ostensibly a vampire play, the moral question CUDDLES posits has more in common with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” than with Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Who is the bigger monster here, the creature, or its creator? Wisely, playwright  Joseph Wilde doesn’t spoon feed us the answer, but lets the allegorical echoes reverberate as we watch the creepy interplay between the two women. From a logical perspective, there are some holes in the plot. Even after Eve’s origin story is revealed, there’s still no explanation as to why Tabby feels the need to keep her in such subhuman surroundings. Looked at metaphorically, though, the Eve represents a frighteningly real phenomenon. We’re all haunted by our past mistakes, and often we construct emotional attics wherein we try – in vain – to hide our demons.

Director Rebecca Atkinson-Lord highlights this psychical realism by keeping the cast grounded and authentic. Heywood’s encapsulates Tabby’s appetite for authority as well as the vulnerability and fear that prompts her to seek control. Langley is both frighteningly volatile and heartbreakingly sympathetic as the needy woman-child whose hunger has been ignored for too long. The dankness and despair of Eve’s secluded world is eerily evoked by James Turner’s scenic design and Pablo Baz’s lighting.

CUDDLES continues through June 28, 2015 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.ORG.

THE SPOILS

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Written by Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Scott Elliott

The title of writer/actor Jesse Eisenberg’s new meditation on contemporary culture is open to interpretation. THE SPOILS, as in “spoils of war” appears to be a reference to the privilege we, as Westerners, enjoy as a result of our military and economic position in the world. It’s also an apt description of its central character, an obnoxious rich kid who is favored by society yet can’t seem to find his place in it.

Ben (Eisenberg), lives in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment his prosperous father has bought for him. Though he’s intelligent and full of energy, he can’t seem to find the right outlet for his drive. Repulsed by the business world, Ben has tried to follow a more artistic path. But his short stint at NYU Film School didn’t go so well. Now, he pretty much just sits around smoking weed and lying about some cinematic opus he’s working on. His roommate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar) is quite the opposite. A business student, Kalyan is eager to participate in the great American profit-making machine. He believes (perhaps naively) that it can be used for good instead of evil. He’s also warm, engaging and accomplished (in his home country of Nepal, he was a respected author).
Kalyan is hopelessly devoted to his girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram) while Ben pines for his childhood crush Sarah Newburg (Erin Darke). There’s little chance of their being together, though, as Sarah has just gotten engaged to bourgeois banker Ned (Michael Zegen), who is also a grade school acquaintance of Ben’s. Sneering at the banality of Ned’s life choices, Ben concocts a plan to drive a wedge between him and Sarah. He and Kalyan host a dinner party for Ned and Sarah, during which Ben attempts to win points by peppering the conversation with snide comments. The plan backfires as Kalyan discovers he has a lot more in common with Ben’s friends than with Ben himself. Left out of the new clique, Ben ratchets up his tactics. As his despair deepens, his behavior escalates from ordinary obnoxiousness to a full-blown conflagration. Counteroffensives follow, and layers of civility are scorched away to reveal long-hidden truths.

As annoying as Ben is, its hard not to empathize with him on some level. He’s stuck. He can’t recapture his childhood, nor does he want any part of the drab hamster wheel we call the adult world. Even so, his unpleasantness proves a bit much over the course of two acts. The play might benefit from less stage time devoted to Ben’s rants and more to Kalyan, whose internal conflicts are equally compelling. Still, the script’s occasional excesses are outweighed by its blend of comic energy and raw, uncomfortably real emotion. Eisenberg’s dialogue is fresh, clever and insightful, and vibrates with the cadences of contemporary speech. Under Scott Elliott’s sensitive direction, the actors are keyed in to each other and navigate the plots twists with spontaneity and grace. Derek McLane’s detailed set neatly frames the action and embodies the affluent world that both protects and smothers its inhabitants.

THE SPOILS continues through June 28 at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street New York, NY 10036 Tickets and information: thenewgroup.org

SOMETHING ROTTEN

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Music and Lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick
Book  by  Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell

Although it suffers from some noticeable inconsistencies, SOMETHING ROTTEN largely delivers the evening of fun that its cartoony poster promises. Some of the show’s myriad gags are fresh and clever, while others feel phoned in. But the energy of the cast remains unflaggingly consistent all throughout, and the show’s quirky plot and bouncy score compensate for its less successful beats.

The setting is Renaissance England, where struggling theater director Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James) is desperate for a hit. He and his industrious wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff) can barely make ends meet. Unfortunately for Nick, all of Europe is agog over Stratford’s new literary sensation, William Shakespeare (Christian Borle). What the bard’s rabid fans don’t realize, though, is that his best ballads are actually plagiarized. The real author is Nick’s bashful little brother Nigel (John Cariani), who has humbly sent his work to Shakespeare in the hopes of getting a few pointers. Nigel’s problems don’t stop there, though. The young poet pines for Portia (Kate Reinders), but cannot be with her as her Puritan papa (Brooks Ashmanskas) disapproves of their union. Luckily, the more Nigel suffers, the better his writing becomes. Nick recognizes his brother’s talent, and enlists his help in fashioning a theatrical event that will turn the tables and put the Bottoms on top. But what kind of show will do the trick? Nick seeks out a soothsayer (Brad Oscar), who prophesies that the biggest thing in ever in theater will be something called “musicals”. A kaleidoscopic vision follows, and Nick is hooked on this strange new medium’s possibilities. Moneylender Shylock (Gerry Vichi) gets on board and soon the rehearsals start. Of course, the process of getting a musical off the ground never did run smooth, and there are plenty of comedic catastrophes before Nick and Nigel’s revels are ended.

Librettists Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell aren’t aiming for sophisticated satire on the level of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY or THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. They’re after a more basic form of parody, which, when it works, is riotously entertaining. Just about every significant musical ever created is lampooned here, and audiences who miss the occasional reference are sure to understand scads of others. There are plenty of pop culture tropes as well: Shakespeare, replete with black leather breeches and candle-waving groupies, is the very quintessence of a rock ‘n’ roll star. Where the script goes astray is in its broader comedy beats. It’s not that the sexual double entendres and obvious puns are too vulgar (after all, the Bard himself was not above a few bawdy japes). But there are too many bits here that feel extraneous to the story and wear thin upon repetition.

Whatever the play’s shortcomings, the fault is certainly not in its stars. Borle nimbly embodies both the outward cool and inner insecurity of the charismatic Will. James radiates ambition and cunning as the consummate showman in search of a smash. They are aided by a charming supporting cast and by a design team that adds visual whimsy to the show’s cavalcade of spoofs. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps the momentum chugging along, and the strikes the right balance between irreverence and affection for the legendary balladeers and impresarios of musical theater.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

SOMETHING ROTTEN continues in an open run at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York,  New York. Tickets: Broadwayworld.com