MANGLED BEAMS

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Written by Dawn Jamieson
Directed by Christen Omantra Callahan

Though it’s noticeably under-rehearsed,  there is much to like in Amerinda’s potent examination of New York’s Native American community and its crucial role the building and rebuilding of the city.

It is September of 2001 Brad Martin (Denny Desmarais), is an experienced construction worker, but Sal (Mike Pirozzi), who runs the local hiring hall, won’t put him on a  shift. It doesn’t help that Brad is not in the union and has been known to show up to work soused. But the real problem, of course, is racism. It’s a strange prejudice, considering that Native American workers, many of them “sky walkers” known for their immunity to fear of heights, were valued members of the crews that built the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers and many other iconic New York structures. Nevertheless, according to Sal, the new real estate moguls don’t seem to want them around anymore.Brad’s ex-con little brother Dave (Dylan Carusona) gets around this problem by greasing Sal’s palm. He and his partner-in-crime Joe Cross (Jess Monroe), supplement their meager construction incomes by smuggling cigarettes, Canadian booze, and other black-market items into the city. Ambitious college graduate Greg Linden (Greg Seage), hopes to find a political solution to the discrimination. He attracts media attention and prepares to run for a seat on the Tribal Council back home on the reservation. Greg claims to be fighting for his people, but his girlfriend Becky (Maeve Crispi) has her doubts. Indeed, as he searches for campaign money Greg’s casino-operator father Joe (John Scott-Richardson) seems a little too eager to strike a mutually beneficial deal.

While the battle for equality continues, internecine tensions simmer. Dave and Brad have an uneasy history, while Becky, who once threw Dave aside, begins to give him a second look. Brad returns to AA, hoping it’s not too late to reconcile with his estranged wife Fern (Erin Kelley), and their kids. Interwoven with these conflicts is an internal balancing act, as the characters struggle to choose between city and reservation, tradition and modernity. When the Twin Towers collapse, some of the old social barriers fall with them. Even Sal can no longer afford to discriminate, as the rescue effort will require all hands. High above the wreckage, the beam walkers come face to face with their true natures. Some emerge as heroes, others reveal weakness of character.  All are changed by the crisis, and prompted to find an authentic way of moving forward into an uncertain future.

Scrupulously fair to all its characters, Jamieson’s script skillfully weaves its multiple narratives and themes of cultural and personal dilemmas  into a cohesive statement. There is even a healthy dose of humor to counterbalance the seriousness of the subject matter. As with any large cast play, though, keeping a consistent pace and tone proves challenging. Led by Director Christen Omantra Callahan, a committed, multi-generational ensemble does its best to serve the story, and much of the show is effective. But along with the bright spots there are cues that need to be tightened, entrances and exits that seem too tentative. The heart of MANGLED BEAMS shines through regardless, but the show feels like it’s under construction.

MANGLED BEAMS continues through April 29, 2018 at  the A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street, New York, NY . Tickets: mangledbeams.brownpapertickets.com.

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DUTCH MASTERS

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Written by Greg Keller
Directed by Andre Holland

In 1992, place names like “Brooklyn” and “Bronx” still had a potent ring to them. Midtown Manhattan may have been dominated by the yuppie class, but in the lawless Outer Boroughs, serviced by graffiti-ridden letter trains, different rules applied. In decades that followed, broken windows policing, terrorist attacks, gentrification-on-steroids and maverick mayors, changed the face of the city. Taking a look back at the Dinkins era, Greg Keller’s seriocomic two hander serves as a reminder of the volatile vibe that used to define New York, and of the tensions, hopes and inequalities that still simmer beneath the city’s ever-glossier surface.

While riding a northbound D train, two young men meet, seemingly at random. Clean-cut, Caucasian Steve (Jake Horowitz), is on his way home to Riverdale when Eric (Ian Duff), a black man about the same age, plants himself in the adjacent seat and starts talking. Naturally, Steve doesn’t want to appear racist or unhip, but he has the true New Yorker’s reluctance to get mixed up in some stranger’s life- especially one who purports to be a stickup artist. A shrewd manipulator, Eric knows what buttons to push, and Steve finds himself sharing a blunt with his new friend in some unfamiliar section of the Bronx. The eponymous Dutch Masters cigars provide convenient holders for the dope Eric buys on the corner. And the image on the package, of bearded Flemish tradesmen in “ill” buckled hats prompts a wry discourse on the Dutch mafia that used to control New Amsterdam, along with a host of other anecdotes and observations. Eric and Steve seem to be growing closer, especially as they discover a share a passion for rap music and basketball. Their budding friendship barely gets a flourish before Steve, unused to drugs this strong, loses consciousness. He comes to in Eric’s place, a place to which he’s never been yet which, somehow, contains familiar objects. Their meeting, it appears, was anything but accidental. A common past binds them together, and their journey toward a painful but necessary reckoning has just begun.

Unlike most two-person shows, Keller’s script travels spatially as well as psychologically, keeping the audience guessing as to where and Steve and Eric’s adventure will end. The dialogue, for the most part, flows naturally, and when the big reveal happens it feels organic to the story. On a few occasions, the characters sound like mouthpieces for yet another debate on cultural appropriation (“You took my music. The way I walk. The way I talk”, complains Eric, rationalizing his own theft of material objects as minor by comparison). But for the most of DUTCH MASTERS steers clear of clichés, preferring instead to focus on the intersection of the personal and political. And therein lies the plays power. We’re rooting for these guys to, if not become friends, at least find common ground. But at every turn, the social baggage they carry, the insecurity with which the travel through a dangerous world, have the potential to widen the gulf between them.

Director Andre Holland, himself an actor of uncompromising authenticity, draws vulnerable, purely spontaneous performances from Duff and Horowitz. The design style, as befits the story, is understated, with Ntokozo Kunene’s costumes and Xavier Pierce’s lighting evoking a sense of time and place without distracting from the actors’ chemistry. Significantly, Jason Simms’ scenic design goes from suggested to specific once we get to Eric’s apartment. Before Eric even says a word, we see the primness, care and taste with which his late mother adorned the place. Her presence is palpable, as if she’s watching to see whether the dreams she instilled in her son will be fulfilled – or dashed against impossible circumstances.

DUTCH MASTERS continues through April, 21, 2018 at The Wild Project 195 East 3rd Street, New York, NY 10009. Tickets: web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1522555200000

THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES

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Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Jacqueline Stone

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

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

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

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

EDUCATION

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Written by Brian Dykstra
Directed by Margarett Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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