THE NEW ONE

THE NEW ONE
Written & performed by Mike Birbiglia
Directed by Seth Barrish

This won’t be a long review. A plethora of words wouldn’t help explain why Mike Birbiglia’s new one-man effort works as well as it does. The show’s strength lies in its simplicity, and its charm comes less from its rather garden-variety premise than from Birbiglia’s unaffected performance style.

Basically, THE NEW ONE is about a lovably insecure guy (Birbiglia) who sees himself as something of an overgrown adolescent and therefore can’t imagine being a dad. Yet when the day arrives, he rises to the challenges of parenting, finding unexpected joy amid all the chaos and exhaustion. That’s pretty much it. So even at an intermission- less 80 minutes, there needs to be plenty of anecdote and invention to put flesh on such a basic narrative skeleton. Thankfully, Birbiglia goes at the task with an expert touch. Though his monologue appears to be stream-of- consciousness, it’s clear that he’s been through numerous drafts, selecting just the right details to stir into the mix and what to leave out. He pokes gentle fun at the baby industry, and confesses that he feels like and intern in his own home as things constantly need to be fetched for mother and baby. And in addition to the usual parenting ordeals, Mike brings his own set of quirks and conditions. We learn, for example, that he suffers from a disorder called RBD (a dangerous form of sleepwalking) and has to sleep in a harness, further complicating the new family’s domestic arrangements. His relationship with his wife, poet Jen Stein, is inevitably upended by the arrival of the new one, but ultimately deepens as they learn the ropes of co-nurturing.

Birbiglia has spent years, both as a standup comedian and a frequent contributor to non-fiction storytelling programs like The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life, honing a comic persona that is both erudite and self-effacing. His ease on stage helps establish an instant rapport with the audience, and though we more or less know where he’s going, we’re still happy to follow along as he takes his first baby steps into the overwhelming universe of fatherhood.

Birbiglia has spent years, both as a standup comedian and a frequent contributor to non-fiction storytelling programs like The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life, honing a comic persona that is both erudite and self-effacing. His ease on stage helps establish an instant rapport with the audience, and though we more or less know where he’s going, we’re still happy to follow along as he takes his first baby steps into the overwhelming universe of fatherhood.

THE NEW ONE continues through January 20, 2019 at the Cort Theater.,
 138 W 48th St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: Broadway.com.

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HYPE MAN

Written by Idris Goodwin
Directed by by Kristan Seemel & Niegel Smith

Whether 19th Century dramatist Christian Friedrich Hebbel would enjoy waving his arms in the air to the infectious hip-hop beats of HYPEMAN is anybody’s guess. But he would certainly have to agree that his most famous maxim, “in a good play, everyone is right”, is adroitly and compassionately embodied in Idris Goodwin’s touching and timely exploration of the rigors of friendship, the power of art and the struggle for social justice.

Rapper Pinnacle (Matt Stango) is on the brink of success. But he feels a little lost without his longtime friend and collaborator Verb (Shakur Tolliver), who‘s gotten into some trouble lately. Thankfully, the hype man (backup rapper and call-and-response leader) has been able to sober up and return to the studio ready to work. Not much music will be made, though, until beatmaker Peep One (Tay Bass), arrives. She’s stuck in traffic, which is not an unusual occurrence. But this time the mess on the highway was caused by a tragic incident. Unarmed teenager Jerrod Davis, in a hurry to help his grandmother with a medical emergency, led the cops on a highspeed chase. When he tried to surrender, he was shot to death by the police. Verb has had enough. There have been far too many Jerrods, and somebody needs to do something. Pinnacle’s reaction is different. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the issues, but right now his focus is on making sure everything goes well when the team travels to New York for a Tonight Show spot.

The performance is a hit, but as the song is wrapping up, Verb throws the audience a curveball by taking of his jacket to reveal a tee shirt with “justice for Jerrod” scrawled on it. Pinnacle finds himself inundated with hateful reactions posted on Twitter and indignant feedback from the law enforcement community. He and Verb, once as close as brothers, find themselves on opposite side of a rift. The hype man’s argument is a valid one: Does the world really need another rap song about girls and money, another braggadocious reboot of the hackneyed street-to-elite-and-rhyming-all-the-way narrative? All the great MC’s spoke truth to power. Why can’t Pinnacle? The rapper’s perspective makes sense, too. The team has struggled in obscurity for years. If they blow it now, they may not get another shot. No one wins if their talents go unrecognized.

Seeing value in both agendas, Peep feels torn. And in her quiet way she, too, has been fighting an uphill battle for equality and inclusion. She loves hip hop, but with all the hypersexualized, even misogynistic, lyrics spat by male rappers, she doesn’t always feel that the genre loves her back. She’s also tired of getting hit on, treated more like a sexual commodity than a colleague. She can’t be sure whether Pinnacle and Verb are part of the solution or of the problem.

As the trio disbands, things take a dark turn. Without his collaborators, Pinnacle is a hollow shell. And Verb, protesting in the streets and clashing with police, wonders if he’s really making a difference. Perhaps the mic is mightier than the picket sign after all. He and Pinnacle would be stronger together than they are apart, and they both know it. But bridging the divide – if it’s even still possible — will take courage and commitment. 

Under Kristan Seemel and Niegel Smith’s economical direction, the show’s quiet beats are as compelling as its high octane musical numbers. Bass, Stango and Tolliver are so deeply in sync as musicians that it would be no surprise to learn thar a record label had signed them on the spot. They bring the same deep connection and joy in performing to the complex, vibrant characters they portray. 

HYPE MAN continues through December 18, 2018 at the Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007. Tickets http://theflea.org/for-audiences/current-season/ 

LIFE X 3

Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jerry Heymann 

A kind of Groundhog Day for the smart set, Yasmina Reza’s jaundiced take on marital relations shows a foursome of educated Parisians reliving the same failed soiree over and over. There are subtle variations in each of the replays, presumably meant to help us see the same events from a different angle. The trope has potential, but the playwright seems to lack a strong sense of purpose. It’s never quite clear what the audience is meant to learn from watching the same petty people keep repeating the same mistakes, or, more importantly, why we’re supposed to care.

In the living room of a prim, middle class apartment, astrophysicist Henry (James Patrick Nelson) and Sonia (Claire Curtis-Ward) bicker over how best to get their young son to go to sleep. Henry seems to think it’s okay to give the boy a few chocolate fingers if it will get him to quiet down. Sonia believes in being firm with kids, and finds Henry’s wishy-washy parenting style annoying. Even more repulsive, in her eyes, is the way her husband sucks up to Hubert Finidori (Dominic Comperatore) a successful fellow scientist whose influence could make or break Henry’s chances for a promotion. As a matter of fact, Hubert and his wife Ines (Leah Curney) are on their way over for dinner. Apparently, neither Sonia nor Henry bothered to mark the date. Or perhaps it’s the Finidoris whose calendar is off. Either way, the surprise is not a welcome one. Sonia is still in her housecoat, there’s nothing in the fridge but Sancerre, and no hors d’oeuvres other than whatever chocolate fingers the child hasn’t already consumed and few bags of a Cheese Doodle-ish snack food called Wotsits. It’s a hostess’s nightmare, made worse by Henry’s groveling and Hubert’s thinly veiled disdain for his struggling colleague. The turning point comes when Hubert coolly delivers the news that Henry’s research paper, the result of years of work, may be irrelevant as another physicist has just published a similar treatise. It’s devastating blow for Henry, and for Sonia it’s further evidence that her husband is an epic schlimazel. In scene two, our Rashomonsters are at it again, with Hubert and Ines are already bickering before they even arrive at the doomed dinner party. As the wine flows, Hubert and Sonia, both so disappointed in their spouses, appear to be kindling an affair. In the third go-round, a more mature, confident Henry takes the publication of a rival research paper in stride. Yet despair still hangs over the scene, perhaps because the universe, reduced to numbers and theories, seems meaningless. (or maybe they’ve all just had too many chocolate fingers).

There are many unanswered questions in this drama, and not in a good, make-you-think, kind of way. Sonia and Henry live in Paris, for heaven’s sake, the very citadel of culinary achievement, yet we’re supposed to believe they can’t figure out how to get food delivered. And why can’t any of these smart people manage enter a social event correctly in their datebooks? It all feels a little too engineered. Likewise, the career and matrimonial frustrations these First Worlders face don’t seem profound enough to warrant all the histrionics. To be fair, many modern dramatists, Chekhov and Beckett among them, are known for having based great works on the dynamics of emotional paralysis. But they understood stuck-ness in a way that Reza doesn’t seem to, or at least they found a way to poeticize the melancholy of thwarted dreams.

That said, the material does offer its superb cast something to work with. In Nelson’s hands the bungling Henry seems more vulnerable than weak, someone we’re willing to root for even at his low moments. Comperatore neatly encapsulates the suave exterior and inner ennui of the disillusioned Hubert. Curtis-Ward manages to find genuine pathos between the beats of Sonia’s I-deserve-better irritability, while Curney is a joy to watch the neglected spouse who grows drunker – and more uncomfortably truthful – as the evening wears on. Director Jerry Heymann nimbly orchestrates their talents,while the painterly set design, costumes and props add an extra layer of luster to the production and highlight distinct moods of each re-exploration of a life measured out it in Whotsits and wine bottles.

LIFE X 3 continues through December 8, 2018 at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street (bet 7th and 8th Avenues) For tickets, call Ovationtix, 1.866.811.4111. 

KING KONG: ALIVE ON BROADWAY

Book by Jack Thorne
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect
Directed & choreographed by Drew McOnie

The temptation to reinvent the quintessential creature feature, billed in its day as “The Most Awesome Thriller of All Time” is understandable. After all, the original King Kong defined movie magic and captivated audiences with its groundbreaking special effects and a story that mashed up mythic allegory and crude Darwinism with emblems of modernity like the Empire State Building. But the world has turned a few times since Kong was billed as its eighth wonder, and any contemporary author attempting to reboot the classic story is faced with two daunting challenges. Firstly, how in the hell do you keep the plot of the original while making it acceptable to today’s sensibilities? Even by 1933 standards, Kong’s gender politics are old-school. Many pre-Code Hollywood films featured street-smart, independent female protagonists,whereas Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) does little but writhe fetchingly as the ape, a raging male libido incarnate, sniffs, ogles, fondles and abducts her: no courtship or consent required. And then there’s the problem of Skull Island’s natives,those drum-pounding, spear-brandishing savages who are so impressed with Ann’s blonde locks and milky skin that they kidnap the “golden woman”and serve her up as an antipasto to appeasement their simian god. Clearly, none of this would fly today, but once you jettison the story’s racism, sexism and imperialism, is it still King Kong? Secondly, in a time when IMAX 3D movies are playing at the mall and hyper-real graphics are available on X Boxes and smart phones, is it still possible to concoct a spectacle capable of filling an audience with awe?

The creative team behind the great ape’s latest incarnation struggles valiantly with the first of these two conundrums. Their efforts yield, to put it gently, uneven results. When it comes to the second question, though, the show is truly breathtaking, so much so that the sense of wonder its gargantuan star provokes almost compensates for the inconsistencies in its score and script.

Like the movie, KKAOB takes place in Depression era Manhattan. But its heroine is decidedly more proactive. Ambitious Ann Darrow, (Christians Pitts) a farmers’ daughter from the Midwest, dreams of being a Broadway star. She auditions tirelessly, but finds the competition fierce and the jobs scarce. Down to her last few pennies, she is loitering in a greasy spoon one night when a waiter tries to get fresh with her. She gives the chap a well-deserved biff on the chin, and the commotion attracts the attention of impresario Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). Denham buys Ann a hot meal, and presents her with an offer to star in his new movie. There’s a catch, of course. The picture will be shot on Skull Island, uncharted terrain rumored to be populated by primordial beasts. It’s sure to be a treacherous journey, but with few prospects on the horizon, Ann decides accept Denham’s proposal. No sooner has the boat launched than tensions begin to simmer. Ann puts up resistance when Denham wants to shoot a test reel of her screaming. Uncomfortable in the role of damsel in distress, she’d rather roar with power than screech in terror. The sailors, too, get tired of doing Denham’s bidding, and Ann again asserts her strength by quelling a potential mutiny. The only person who doesn’t seem to have a problem with Denham’s tyranny is his faithful factotum, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) a gentle soul who takes a liking to Ann. When the crew comes ashore, they find no indigenous people (and therefore no offensive stereotypes) on Skull Island. There are, however, sentient trees, and Ann finds herself bound by grasping vines, unable to escape when the big primate comes to call. As the giant King slowly emerges from the sultry darkness, Ann is awed but not afraid. When he roars, she roars back. More protector than predator, he rescues her from a giant serpent  and she, in turn, uses her homespun wisdom to remedy a wound he has acquired during the fight.

Their bond deepens when Denham has his people tranquilize Kong and ship him to New York, where he’ll become the center piece of a new musical extravaganza. Ann, heartbroken at seeing the majestic animal in chains, wants to walk out on Denham, but the avaricious showman threatens her into fulfilling her contract. Thus, like Kong himself, she is held captive and put on display. Inevitably, though, the need for freedom proves stronger than any psychological or physical bonds imposed by an exploitative system. Liberty may have its price, but both Ann and the King are (and Lumpy, too, in the show’s most skillfully written scene), are willing to take their chances.    

Christiani Pitts is passionate and appealing as the spirited Ann, and impressively holds her own even when playing opposite her 20-foot costar. Lochtefeld, amid the production’s noise and derring-do, manages to turn a small, quiet moment into one of the show’s few poignant beats. They could do better still with stronger material: the songs aren’t particularly memorable, and some of the dialogue is so on-the-nose that the characters begin to feel more like polemics than people. But when the magnificent brainchild of creature designer Sonny Tilders takes the stage, these shortcomings recede into the distance. Kong is not merely a mechanical marvel, but a living, breathing creature endowed with soul. In one particularly heart-stopping moment (in a word, a gorilloquy), the orchestra goes quiet and Kong is alone onstage, his penetrating eyes taking in the audience, his guttural noises expressing more truth than can be found in any of the play’s homilies. It’s the beauty of the beast that keeps this show from becoming the most dreaded of Broadway monstrosities: a colossal turkey.

KING KONG continues through April 14, 2019 at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd & 53rd Streets. Tickets @ Telecharge.com.