STEVE

steve-prod-42Photo credit: Monique Carboni

Written by Mark Gerrard

directed by Cynthia Nixon

As marriage equality becomes the norm, playwrights are turning their attention to all the attendant phenomena of matrimony. Though it ends on a hopeful note, Mark Gerrard’s seriocomic portrait of a middle aged same-sex couple details the inertia, dissatisfaction and friction that have always made monogamy a challenging proposition.

Steve (Matt McGrath), seems like a guy who has it all: a killer apartment, a rich husband, a healthy child, a cadre of good friends with whom he sits around the piano singing show tunes or trades bon mots in trendy restaurants. But beneath the veneer of domestic bliss, there is trouble in this particular paradise. Steve’s little son Zack has been misbehaving, his close friend Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), is beginning to lose her battle with cancer, and his husband Stephen (Malcolm Gets) has been “sexting” with another man. Deciding that two can play at the infidelity game, Steve has a fling with young Argentine waiter Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat). Meanwhile Steve’s friends Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon) are rebooting their relationship by having a hot personal trainer move in with them. As time goes by, everything worsens, including Steve’s midlife crisis and Carrie’s medical condition. Still, longtime friendships prove indestructible, and Steve and company, their sense of humor intact through it all, find a way to navigate life’s inevitable changes.

Director Cynthia Nixon draws charming performances from an adroitly cast ensemble. Allen Moyer’s sets and Eric Southern’s lighting evoke an elegant but confining Manhattan and, in the finale, a breezy, sprawling Fire Island. When it’s cooking, the script delivers a potent cocktail of devastating wit and rueful reflection on the ravages of time. Structurally, though, it feels a bit lopsided. Self-absorbed Steve gets a disproportionate amount of stage time for what he has to say, and the pace stalls at times when he reiterates that he is feeling discontented and uncertain of his future. The deadpan Stephen is far funnier and more sympathetic as he struggles, however imperfectly, to hold his family together.  In one brilliantly written scene, Stephen stands before his Christmas tree juggling a call from his mom, another call from Steve’s Mom, lewd texts from Brian, and impatient texts from Cassie, who waits with Zack for the promised ice cream that Steve was supposed to bring but has, being Steve, forgotten (and judging from the spent look on Steve’s face as he staggers in, that’s not all he’s forgotten). Like a 21st Century edition of Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, Stephen’s plight encapsulates the absurdities of life in our multitasking age. Gerrard sets the writing bar high in scenes like these, and doesn’t always succeed in matching it. In its current draft, STEVE is certainly worthwhile: an evening spent in good company. With a bit of revision, it could be much more.

STEVE continues through January 3, 2016 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. https://www.ticketcentral.com/thenewgroup/online/

SHEAR MADNESS

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Created by Bruce Jordan & Marilyn Abrams

Adapted from the play by Paul Pörtner

Directed by Bruce Jordan

After more than 30 years of successful runs in Boston, Chicago and many other burgs worldwide, this interactive whodunit has finally made its New York debut. Like any newly arrived out-of-towner, the show hasn’t yet fully adapted to Manhattan’s rhythms and sensibilities. It does, however, feature a cast of charming and improv-savvy actors, and with some tuning-up, SHEAR MADNESS has the potential to do well in Gotham.

The play opens with a bit of well-played silent comedy. Shaving cream, shampoo, scissors and other inanimate objects take on a life of their own as tawdry Barbara Demarco (Kate Middleton) and flamboyant Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist), go through the motions of a typical day in the Shear Madness hair salon. Unbeknownst to the hairdressers, customers Mike (Adam Gerber) and Nick (Patrick Noonan), are actually undercover cops investigating a blackmail case. The upstairs neighbor, a once-renowned concert pianist with plenty of money, has received threatening letters. And when she turns up dead, Mike and Nick need some questions answered. Barbara and Tony are, of course,  persons of interest. So are two mysterious clients, sharply-dressed Eddie (Jeremy Kushnier), and Park Avenue patrician Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller). Like a Brooklyn edition of Hercule Poirot, Nick instructs the suspects not to go anywhere. He then breaks the fourth wall and turns the audience into eyewitnesses. Who was absent from the shop when the murder took place? Did anyone see anything suspicious? Of course, clues have been planted all throughout the proceedings, and viewers recall seeing Barbara kissing Eddie, Mrs. Shubert making a cryptic phone call, etc. Based on an audience vote, any one of the four potential culprits might turn out to be the real killer. The cast is ready with a motive and back story for each eventuality.

More than the murder mystery plot line, the comic tension created by the show’s unknown outcome gives the show its theatrical energy. Under Bruce Jordan’s thoroughgoing direction, the actors manage to stay solidly in-character while responding to the wild cards thrown at them by the audience. The resulting spontaneous comedic combustion is far more successful than the show’s scripted witticisms. Jordan and co-creator Marilyn Abrams take a kind of birdshot approach to comedy, peppering the audience with blasts of topical one-liners in the hopes that some of them will land. References to Kim Kardashian, the Spice Girls, and many other pop-culture figures are laced throughout the play, and while some of the material is clever, much of it feels passé. For SHEAR MADNESS to click with Manhattan ticket buyers, its script would benefit from some trimming, shaping and styling.

SHEAR MADNESS continues in an open run at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street New York, NY 10019. Tickets at telecharge.com.

 

 

 

tiger tiger (on the nature of violence)

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Written and directed by Jessica Almasy

Starring Matt Baguth, Kate Benson, Jill Frutkin, Fernando Gonzalez, Hannah Heller, Hannah Kallenbach, David Neal Levin, Teri Madonna, Eliana Mullins, Christopher Nunez, Nazli Sarpkaya and Brendan Titley

There are some interesting metaphors and provocative ambiguities at the center of Jessica Almasy’s kaleidoscopic examination of predatory instinct. There’s also quite a bit of clutter and noise, which mostly serves to obscure – and not in an intriguing, Dadaist way – the author’s intentions.

The plot concerns a group of twenty-somethings, a bit high and looking for adventure, who break into a zoo after hours. Two of them find a quiet place to make out, while the others stand by a tigress’s cage and philosophize about the nature of the cosmos. When one of them approaches the “tiger goddess”, the animal becomes hostile. Escaping her confines, she mauls the man to death. The whole thing is caught on security cameras, but the incompetent zoo cops but can’t figure out if the kids did anything to provoke the tiger, or even if the sex between the other couple was consensual. A TV pundit hosts a show concerning  the event  and callers chime in with opinions. Lots of other things happen as well: Girl scouts looking for thrill go to visit a psychotic cross-dresser, a pill addict encounters a talking tooth (who has the show’s cleverest line), various people spout obscure poetry and there are droll group therapy sessions which, despite the show’s avant garde trappings, feel like territory that’s been ploughed before.

Especially in the earlier scenes, the sound design is so thick and clamorous that the actors are forced to give unsubtle performances in order to be heard. Other beats are intentionally, though not compellingly, played flat, as when the news anchor sits and reads all the parts of a panel discussion as if it were a courtroom transcript (while on a projection screen we are for shown someone with A.D.D. endlessly revising a text message). The sad part of all this randomness is that when Almasy stays on-topic, she does achieve potent theatrical effects. There’s a sensitive monlogue in which the tigress, floating in a kind of afterlife, explains herself to her victim. And there are some erotically-charged scenes involving a courtship between the predator and her prey, and in which a possible rape victiim reaches a climax while telling her aggressor to stop. Here, at last, we have some primal questions: Are human beings attracted to the very things most likely to destroy us? Do we want to be taken, devoured? Do we identify with wild beasts even as we seek to remain safe from them?

These moments show talent and imagination, and it’s a shame that Almasy couldn’t see her way clear to pruning away the play’s more self-indulgent schtick. There’s nothing wrong with challenging an audience, prompting us to work harder to find connections between seemingly unrelated events. But good experimental theater is more than just a receptacle for sundry brain blips. As much, if not moreso than traditional forms, a non-linear presentation requires the author to separate the truly original from the merely weird. Both as a writer and and as a director, Almasy needs to take a more rigorous approach to honing her asthetic and finding the internal rhythms that make for a strong dramatic statement.

tiger tiger (on the nature of violence) continues through  November 21 at Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street, New York, NY 10002. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/171

CUCKOOED

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Written & performed by Mark Thomas

Directed by Emma Callander

Impishly reversing the famous slogan “speak truth to power”, British comedian-anarchist Mark Thomas has had remarkable success in tricking the powerful into making startlingly self-incriminating confessions on camera. He’s doesn’t stop there. Targeting major players in the shadowy world of the military-industrial complex, he has taken part in numerous demonstrations, peace campaigns and speak-outs. Of course,  the powerful have ways of hitting back, and as Thomas discloses in his impassioned new one man show, the results can be devastating.

In an energetic style somewhat reminiscent of Alexei Sayle, Thomas recalls his involvement with the activist group Campaign Against Arms Trade. Designed to foster peace by stymieing large weapons interests, CAAT is largely composed of idealistic students and straight-laced Quakers. It’s therefore a breath of fresh air to have someone with a big personality like Martin Hogbin join the team (Thomas scrupulously leaves out the last name, but it’s easy enough to find on the internet). Raw, working class, funny and outspoken, the charismatic  Martin becomes a great friend to Mark and other members of the group, and a father figure to the younger recruits. They all grow to trust and love Martin, and he’s the last person anyone would suspect of treachery.

Yet in 2003, a Sunday Times article reveals that the defense company  BAE Systems has been running a spy network through a third party. It seems odd that Europe’s largest arms dealer would expend its resources on a small group of studious peaceniks. But CAAT has undeniable evidence that confidential documents have been leaked. In an unusual court decision, BAE admits to having hired an operative to infiltrate the group, and officially promises to desist. This is a bittersweet victory for Mark and company. It’s great that BAE’s public disgrace brings media attention to the evils of the arms trade. It’s not so good for morale. Once the tight-knit CAAT crew knows there is a spy in their midst, things can never be the same– especially when the paper trail leads, unambiguously, to Martin.

Like all artists, a devastated Thomas turns to his work to try and make sense of it all. He talks to many of his colleagues (excerpts from filmed interviews are interspersed throughout the show), and writes down his own recollections of events. A visit to Martin’s home reveals that he’s hardly living in luxury. So if money wasn’t the motivator, what did BAE have on him? Thomas is, to his credit, impeccably fair to Martin, offering repeatedly to let him tell his side of the story. Alas, Hogbin ultimately decides to keep mum. Someone seems to have gotten to him yet again.

It would be comforting to dismiss this story as the paranoid rant of a conspiracy theorist. Sadly, the documentation is incontrovertible, and Thomas goes on to show us interviews with construction workers, teachers, and other ordinary people who have similarly been targets of illegal surveillance, harassment and blacklisting because of their political beliefs.

The show’s core narrative, a kind of loss-of-innocence story, gives the show an emotional spine that makes it a true theater piece rather than just an evening of politically-oriented standup. If it’s intended as a call to action, though, CUCKOOED is not entirely successful. Thomas does not paint a rosy picture of an activist’s life, nor does he attempt to flatter the audience with the good news that we can make the world a better place. He does, however, provide an honest, and ultimately moving glimpse of life in the trenches.

CUCKOOED continues through November 21 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E 59th St, New York, NY 10022 (212) 753-5959

BIG APPLE CIRCUS: THE GRAND TOUR

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Directed by Mark Lonergan

A sense of wonder is a challenging thing to instill in today’s audiences. Yet even the most jaded patrons will find it impossible not to gasp at some of the derring-do displayed in the THE GRAND TOUR,  not to smile at the production’s overall charm, spirit, and panache.

The show’s ingenious framing device is established quickly, as ebullient ringleader John Kennedy Kane prepares the crowd for the journey ahead. The theme here is luxury travel, 1920s style. The concept serves a dual purpose: it helps provide a loose through-line on which to pin the performances, and more importantly, allows the creative staff to add fanciful sonic and visual touches.  Rob Slowik’s orchestra plays selections that evoke exotic locales and jazz age splendor.  Scenic and lighting designer Maruti Evans – whose remarkable storytelling skills are familiar to fans of the Godlight Theater Company – joins forces with costume designer Oana Botez to give the presentation an opulent style reminiscent of vintage travel posters.

A richly varied lineup of acts includes the voluptuous hula hoop artistry of Chiara Anastasini, an innovative juggling routine by Alexander Koblikov, exuberant teeterboard antics from the Dosov Troupe,  feats of physical dexterity by the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats and the aptly named Energy Trio, a truly heart-stopping turn by the Dominguez Brothers on an enormous apparatus called the Wheel of Wonder, and a lyrical aerialist solo dance by Sergey Akimov. The talent pool here is not limited to the human species, and demonstrations of canine agility and equine beauty, choreographed by animal whisperer Jenny Vidbel, are among the show’s most memorable moments. Along the way, clowns Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth add a touch of commedia dell’arte to their wordless portrayals of the pompous steward of a luxury liner and his trickster assistant.

The entire evening vibrates with a refreshing tone of sincerity and joy– the born performer’s deep desire to show the audience a wonderful time. Populist in the best and most timeless sense of the word, these troupers seem grateful that there is still a place where they can do what they love, where their diligently-honed abilities still matter. Both children and media-weary grownups would do well to place a soul-rejuvenating visit to the big top on their holiday season to-do lists.

THE GRAND TOUR continues through January 10, 2016 at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, Amsterdam Avenue  and West 62nd Street, New York, NY 10023. Tickets: https://tickets.bigapplecircus.org/Online/default.asp

THE GIN GAME

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Written by D.L. Coburn

Directed by Leonard Foglia

It’s hard not to be suspicious of revivals like THE GIN GAME. With its single set and two-person cast, a play like this is appealing both to actors’ egos and producers’ bottom lines. And the image of two beloved stage- and-screen veterans beaming from the marquee has “resold” written all over it. Cynical New York theatergoers might easily jump to the conclusion that this is yet another cynically-packaged star vehicle, its marketers stopping just short of printing expiration dates on the poster below the elderly players’ faces.

Thankfully, the production is done with sincerity and skill that all skepticism vanishes from the moment the lights come up. This is a master class in stagecraft, and the minimalistic framework of the play, rather than seeming cheap, serves to give the actors more space to do what they do best. The script, which won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for drama, than just a feelgood story about a friendship between two lovable oldsters. Playwright D.L. Coburn plenty to say about loss, regret, and American society’s apathetic attitude towards the aged.

On the back porch of a rundown nursing home, Weller Martin (James Earl Jones), finds a quiet spot among a pile of old machines and broken furniture. It’s a fitting backdrop, seeing as Weller feels like something of a discard, too. Everyone from his kids to the health care system has tried to dump him on the social scrap heap. Though he seldom gives in to self-pity, Weller is quite aware of what this place is: a temporary storage unit for the the no longer productive but not yet dead. Fonsia Dorsey (Tyson) also feels like an outsider even in this marginilaized world. She receives no visits from her children, and, like Weller, has sunk from a middle class existence into poverty. To pass the time, Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin rummy. Her uncanny winning streak confounds Weller, and his temper begins to boil over. As emotions grow raw, we get a less-than-flattering glimpse of the behavior patterns that bedevilled Weller’s and Fonsia’s relationships with their spouses and kids. It seems unlikely that their friendship will fare any better than their previous intimacies. Still, the gin game goes on: a better alternative, however acrimonious, than solitaire.

The repeated ritual of shuffling, dealing, “knocking” and notating scores gives the play a solid sence of pace and form. Exposition – especially challenging in the two-hander form – is adroitly mixed into the action and rarely feels forced. Director Leonard Foglia capitalizes on the musicality of the card game, and trusts his actors to follow their instincts. With his booming voice and expressive face, Jones potently embodies Dylan Thomas’s dictum, “old age should burn and rave at close of day”. Tyson’s easy command of the stage allows her to provoke peals of laughter and gasps of sympathy with just a delicate gesture or a subtle shift of facial expression. Both actors are generous, consistently supporting, rather than attempting to eclipse, each other’s star turns. Even visually, the two are apt foils: Her lithe, energetic body contrasts neatly with his solid frame and thoughtful movements. In one particularly moving scene, the dialogue stops and the two quietly, tenderly dance to music emanating from the home. Without sentiment, this vignette crystallizes the play’s theme. Unable to alter the past and with no hope for the future, the two outcasts still find ways to make their final purgatory livable.

THE GIN GAME CONTINUES THROUGH January 10, 2016 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street New York, NY 10036. Tickets: 212-239-6200
or 800-543-4835.