FOOL FOR LOVE

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Written by Sam Shepard

Directed by Daniel Aukin

In the blasted heath of the post-Vietnam America, the music of life seems to veer from a country-western torch song to a dissonant modernist dirge. Virile antiheroes wander in search of a lost world. They know they’re archetypes. They also know that the mythic landscape to which they belong is disappearing below their cowboy boots. We are in Sam Shepard country.

One of his leaner efforts, FOOL FOR LOVE exhibits much of Shepard’s trademark physicality and macabre lyricism, but is free of the discursive quality found in some of his longer works. At first the premise feels like a familiar relationship dynamic: the prodigal male rationalizes, the woman berates, demands contrition, then gradually forgives. But as submerged truths being to bubble to the surface, the story takes a turn toward Greek tragedy. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, and the illusion of free will is beaten into submission by the fact of fate.

In a seedy desert motel, May (Nina Arianda), attempts to rebuild her life after broken promises have derailed her dreams. Understandably, she isn’t thrilled when Eddie (Sam Rockwell) ambles back into her life. After all, he’s the man responsible, in her view, for all those shattered hopes. Though she brutally recriminates him, May can’t seem to make a clean break with Eddie: there is too much history between them. Eddie, too, seems unable to exist without May. As he practices swinging his lariat ( a hazardous activity in the confines of a hotel room), he paints a rosy picture of the life he and May could have together. Once upon a time, the two dreamed of buying a ranch back in their home town. Now Eddie says he’s ready to make the move. May isn’t having it. She wants to get on with her new life, which includes a new job and a potential boyfriend, Martin (Tom Pelphrey). As the saying goes though, we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us. Something deep inside keeps May and Eddie psychologically lassoed together. The story behind their bond is revealed gradually, as a voice from another time resounds from the edge of the stage. The Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) is an introjection in Eddie’s psyche. He isn’t really there, but his influence is undeniable. As he muses, a disturbing picture emerges of the troubled origins and dark future of May and Eddie’s star-crossed relationship.

Rockwell and Arianda, thoroughly in synch as befits the story, take turns dominating the stage. Both jump wholeheartedly into their roles, balancing restless kineticism with grace, intelligence and dry wit. Weiss, who gets the lion’s share of the Shepardian dithyrambs, wrings mournful music out of his soliloquies. As the guileless Martin, Pelphrey not only provides an apt foil for Rockwell’s comedic persona, but poignantly embodies the wholesome, straightforward life that May craves but will never attain. Dane Laffrey’s scenic design and Justin Townsend’s lighting evoke a film noir-esque sense of secrecy and despair. Director Daniel Aukin, in tune with the play’s internal rhythms, skillfully controls the pacing to maximize the dizzying highs and somber lows of the doomed couple’s emotional rollercoaster.

FOOL FOR LOVE continues through December 13, 2015 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre  261 West 47th Street, Between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York NY 10036. Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF….

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Written by John S. Anastasi

Directed by Kathleen Turner

Not so long ago, the premise of WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF… would have sounded farfetched. Today, the idea of a same-sex couple confronting the fact that one of them furtively identifies as opposite-sex seems entirely feasible, a recognizable part of the 21st Century’s social fabric. Something akin to a transgender Annie Hall, John S. Anastasi’s timely drama offers a bittersweet, compassionate take on the challenges of love in our complicated era.

Having gone through a painful coming-out process, aspiring writer Addison (Rebecca Brooksher) is glad to have finally found happiness with her partner Danya (Sofia Jean Gomez). Just as they are getting ready to adopt a baby, though, complications arise. Deep down Danya doesn’t really identify as a lesbian. She loves women, yes, but she loves them as a man. Fearful of losing Addison, Danya hesitates before signing up for gender reassignment surgery. Dr. Gerard (Roya Shanks) is the best in the business. But she has limited patience with Danya’s lack of commitment. There’s also the problem of how to pay for it. Although Danya is a successful attorney, the exorbitant fees involved are beyond her capabilities. For help, Danya turns to her mom, Victoria Pruitt (Kathleen Turner). Unlike Addison’s parents, Victoria has accepted the fact that her daughter is a lesbian, but now must wrap her head around this new change. One thing Victoria isn’t good at, though, is keeping secrets. A slip of the tongue outs Danya, and she and Addison are finally forced to face the music.

The script poses a number of provocative questions. Is it possible to remain in love with someone who retains the “same soul, same eyes” even in a radically different body? It is best to be true to oneself at any cost? In the end, there are no easy answers, only human beings trying to sort it all out. At times, the dialogue feels a bit too on-the-nose, with emotional details spoken aloud that might be better expressed in subtext. Overall, though, Anastasi’s fairness to his characters outweighs his occasional missteps. The most affecting scenes are the ones in which primal emotions manifest in physical actions, as when Danya beats her chest, desperately trying to communicate that the female breasts that are beautiful to Addison are abhorrent to her. Turner, who stepped in during the rehearsal process to replace the original director, does an admirable job of keeping her actors authentic and keyed into one another. Gomez is particularly impressive as she transitions from Danya to Daniel. There are a few scenes in which excess motion distracts from the narrative, but it is likely that the timing will tighten organically during the run of the show. The story’s transitions of time, place and mood are enhanced by Brian Prather’s sets, Tristan Raines’s costumes and Zach Blane’s lighting design.

WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF continues through October 26 at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, between 8th  and 9th Avenues, New York NY 10019. Tickets: (212) 239-6200.

SPRING AWAKENING

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Music by Duncan Sheik

Book and Lyrics Steven Sater

Directed by Michael Arden

Choreographed by Spencer Liff

Unusual even for a modern musical, SPRING AWAKENING takes a candid look at subjects like underage sex (both gay and straight), unplanned pregnancies, backdoor abortions, suicide, masturbation, and sadomasochism. Thankfully, though, the show isn’t content merely to score points by breaking taboos.

Playwright Frank Wedekind, ahead of his time, had a keen understanding of the cadences of teenage speech and the conflicting priorities that accompany adolescence. Wedekind had an axe to grind against the moral hypocrisy of his day, and his cautionary tale hinges on the dangers of denying young people crucial knowledge. Yet even in our information-glutted epoch, its un-sanitized, compassionate portrayal of troubled youth remains relevant.

In a rural town in 19th Century Germany, boys and girls are educated separately. As puberty begins to alter their bodies and activate their imaginations, the kids begin searching for answers as to what happens next. Receiving little help from their stern teachers and puritanical parents, they turn to the only adults who can help: Goethe, Shakespeare, and a few medical books that explain anatomy. Melchior (Austin P. McKenzie), is a bit better better off than his peers. He does well in school and his mother (Marlee Matlin) encourages him to read what he likes. His less fortunate friend Moritz (Daniel N. Durant, voiced by Alex Boniello) is a dismal student whose domineering father (Russell Harvard) makes it clear that failure is not an option. Martha (Treshelle Edmond/Kathryn Gallagher) lives in an abusive home from which she is too young to escape. Wendla Bergmann (Sandra Mae Fran, voiced by Katie Boeck), rapidly budding into womanhood, can no longer be the little girl her doting mother (Camryn Manheim) wants her to be. Her curiosity, like a wound, worsens when ignored. Ilse (Krysta Rodriguez) has managed to free herself from parental domination— only to eke out a squalid existence among a band of libertines known as the town’s “artist colony”. Only Hanschen (Andy Mientus) seems to know who he is and what to do about it. He boldly approaches another boy, Ernst (Joshua Castille /Van Hughes in for Daniel David Stewart), who, as it turns out, returns the attraction. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for this tidal wave of libidinous energy to clash with the strict moral framework of the village. Focused on propriety over empathy, the adults ineptly attempt to regain control. Their efforts result in a tragic peripeteia, and very innocence they purport to be protecting is shattered by the unintended consequences of their actions.

Transferred from Deaf West Theater in Los Angeles, this lively revival features an eager, charismatic young cast that minimizes the story’s melodramatic elements and highlights its honesty, humor and tenderness. Seamlessly synchronized, the ensemble consists of both hearing and deaf performers.  The deaf actors use American Sing Language to articulate the dialogue and lyrics, while their voices are provided by hearing counterparts. In many cases, the sign language itself becomes a kind of dance, with active hands that reach, caress and thrust to give inflection to the text.

The talent and enthusiasm of the actors is, in fact, so infectious that it’s easy to overlook the production’s main weakness: its score. Reflective of composer Duncan Sheik’s pop-radio background, the show’s musical style seems out of place in Wilhelmine Germany. Anachronisms, of course, can work in musical theater (the music of Fifth Century England didn’t sound much like the score of CAMELOT). But a score should always encapsulate the story’s theme. Rather than a generic idea of teen angst, a more effective choice would be to find a musical metaphor for the conflict between the strict formality of outdated customs and the discordant stirrings of the children’s psyches.

Still, if the songs don’t quite embody the dangerous sexuality that animates Wedekind’s script, the spirit of the original is well represented by Sater’s lean book and by Director Michael Arden’s sensitive direction. Lighting designer Ben Stanton evokes the rapidly-shifting moods and hues of a world seen through adolescent eyes.

SPRING AWAKENING continues through Jan 24, 2016 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: 877-250-2929

CONVERSATIONS WITH MY MOLESTER

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Written and performed by Michael Mack

Directed by Daniel Gidron

After years of coverups and innuendo, the Catholic church appears to finally be ready to take responsibility for the atrocious history of sex crimes perpetrated by priests. Pope Francis’s public statements and historic meeting with survivors of abuse helped to open a much-needed dialogue on this crucial issue. For real healing to take place though, the victims’ stories need to be heard. Speaking from personal experience, writer-performer Michael Mack has crafted a searing, painful, but ultimately hopeful account of his childhood trauma and decades-long quest for closure.

Shading his performance with subtle changes in body language and tone of voice, Mack begins his story with boyhood recollections of the splendor of church. Speaking with wide-eyed innocence, he remembers his earliest ambition: He wants to be a priest when he grows up. An eager pupil, Michael volunteers at the Sacred Heart church when his family moves to the small town of Brevard, North Carolina. On one occasion, he is alone in the church doing chores, when a much-beloved pastor walks in. Claiming to need help with costumes for an upcoming pageant, the preacher lures Michael into a secret room where the life-changing violation takes place. Like many victims, Michael obeys the adult perpetrator’s instructions to keep quiet. He is bewildered when the pastor suddenly disappears, and none of the grownups offer any explanation. It’s not until years later, that Michael puts two and two together. The rape itself is made doubly horrific by the callous secrecy exhibited by the church authorities. Thankfully, Michael’s shame and anger do not lead him to perpetuate the cycle of abuse. When the opportunity arises, he resists the temptation to take advantage of a child (although he suffers tremendous guilt for even considering it). In time, he finds a healthy outlet for his emotions. He embarks on a search for the man who owes him answers. Though the conversation doesn’t happen quite the way he imagined, the truths he unearths along the way enable him to finally come to grips with the unthinkable and to emerge with a sense of his own identity and his own role in shaping the future of the Church.

As in the Gospel of John, the truth is what finally sets Michael free. And as the audience bears witness to his confession, the burden tangibly lifts from his shoulders. Both in performance and content, CONVERSATIONS WITH MY MOLESTER is remarkably free of self-pity and soapboxing, preferring instead to tell the story as it happened and let the audience feel the impact. Much of the narrative, of course, is hard to listen to, but Mack’s descriptions of the events are neither sanitized nor gratuitously graphic. Under Daniel Gidron’s direction, Mack displays a disarming vulnerability and likability that make the show theatrically powerful as well as socially relevant. Peter C. Lewis’s fluid lighting effects help underscore the show’s many transitions in time, place and mood.

CONVERSATIONS WITH MY MOLESTER continues through October 11 at The Bridge Theatre, Columbus Circle, NYC, 244 West 54th Street, 12th Floor (between Broadway and 8th Avenue) New York, NY 10019. Tickets and additional information: http://www.michaelmacklive.com

FULFILLMENT

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photo by Hunter Vanning 

Written by Thomas Bradshaw

Directed by Ethan McSweeny

The two guys rocking out to an old Neil Young song are Black men. The violent thug in the hoodie is a White guy. Typical of Thomas Bradshaw, these images turn social stereotypes upside down, only to spin them again into new patterns. There are other Bradshaw trademarks here, like nudity and sex (some of it a tad kinky), and a violent climax. But FULFILLMENT also represents something of a departure for off- Broadway’s new enfant terrible. His eccentric, provocative style is still in full flower, but this time the play’s macabre tone and biting ironies are given added impact by the leanness of its structure and the appeal of its sincere but self-destructive protagonist.

Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is moving up in the world. He’s just bought a luxury apartment and draws a high salary as an associate in a high-powered law firm. Before he can start enjoying his success, though, doubts begin to creep into Michael’s mind. His cantankerous upstairs neighbor (Jeff Biehl), a stay-at-home dad,  lets his kid make noise at all hours of the night. Moreover, Michael’s new girlfriend Sarah (Susannah Flood), who also works at the law practice, is convinced that the company’s leadership is racist. That would explain why Michael, despite his work ethic and achievements, has not been made a partner. Michael angrily confronts his boss Mark (Peter McCabe) only to be told that race has nothing to do with it. It’s Michael’s drinking that’s the problem. Choosing AA over rehab, he embarks on a life of sobriety and spiritual enlightenment. As is often the case, it works– for a while. As work stress and conflicts with the neighbor intensify, Michael’s demons inevitably raise their heads again. This time, neither Sarah nor Michael’s best friend Simon (Christian Conn) can stop the coming conflagration.

Akinngabe’s sensitive performance humanizes Michael’s fruitless struggle to find fulfillment in a bottle, in sex, in material success or New Age religion. By turns likable, frightening, innocent and fastidious, he captures alcoholic behavior with empathetic accuracy. Akinngabe is aided by a versatile supporting cast, which also includes Otoja Abit as a laidback NBA star and Denny Dillon in multiple roles. Director Ethan McSweeny capably evokes an eerie modern world in which the racists are hard to distinguish from the equal-opportunity sadists. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design creates a chilling, sterile atmosphere of empty opulence. The show’s only major weak point its uneven pacing. The script is  largely composed of short scenes, like a screenplay, and the multitude of complicated set changes between the scenes sometimes disrupts the flow of the story. A faster, more fluid approach would help tighten the play’s suspense and strengthen its emotional impact.

FULFILLMENT continues through October 19 at The Flea Theater 41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets) New York, New York. Tickets https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/14/

THE BEST OF RULE OF 7 X7

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Written by Chiara Atik, Brett Epstein, Catya McMullen, Donaldo Prescod, Colin Waitt, Dan McCabe, and Jenny Morris

Directed by Brad Anderson, David Delany, Kristin McCarthy Parker, Michael Raine,  Joel Soren, and Courtney Ulrich

Featuring William Barnet IV, Lydian Blossom, Madeleine Bundy Jessie Cannizzaro, Brett Epstein, Eric Folks Alex Haynes, Alex Herrald, Rory Kulz, Drew Lewis, Rachel Lin, Evan Maltby Andy Miller, Zac Moon Donaldo Prescod, Max Reinhardsen Ariana Siegel, Ryan Stinnett Olivia Stoker, and Mariette Strauss

Limitations can often be a writer’s best friend. Spearheaded by writer-performer Brett Epstein, the RULE OF 7 X 7 project forces its participants to, in effect, think inside the box. Each one of the participating seven playwrights is allowed to devise one rule. Once these are confirmed, all seven writers must stick to all seven of the rules. Rising to the challenges posed by quirky requisites like “a list of seven somethings”, the authors have come up with ingenious solutions that make for a lively, often touching, potpourri of bit-sized narratives.

Naturally, some of the stories feature topics that are foremost in the minds of millenials. CHRIS SULLIVAN GOES ON A DATE by Chiara Atik and DICK BLIZZARD by Catya McMullen, examine the vicissitudes of intimacy in the age of eHarmony and Tinder (an epoch sometimes called the “dating apocalypse”). “Representation” by Brett Epstein looks at early-career tribulations as two striving actors go through a soul-battering audition process.

Other pieces explore the odd byroads and backwaters of the American landscape. In BLACK PEOPLE ARE DANGEROUS by Donaldo Prescod, a hitchhiker wonders if she’s just being racist, or if the Black guy at the wheel really is the cannibalistic mass murderer the police are looking for. And in Colin Waitt’s PILOT LIGHT three eccentric brothers deal with a family dilemma as only Minnesotans can. Other writers put an Absurdist spin on everyday situations: Dan McCabe holds a funhouse mirror to relationship inertia as chartered accountant Lloyd struggles to communicate with his beloved Sprinkles, who only speaks Clown-ese. Jenny Morris’s ON MY HONOR jumps back and forth in time as a motley group of former Girl Scouts mourn the death of one of their own.

This being a Best Of show, the quality of the work is uniformly strong. The actors are confident, well-rehearsed and skilled at blending farce with poignancy. The directors make adroit use of minimal materials to swiftly create the disparate narrative worlds of the different plays. Lightning quick scene changes help move the evening along smoothly, and at the ticket price of only $10 to $12 (including a free drink!) RULE OF 7 X 7 is a deal that can’t be beat.

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