AFTER

Written by Michael McKeever
Directed by Joe Brancato

It’s an all-too-familiar pattern. A senseless act of violence claims the lives of innocent people. Reporters swarm the scene, pundits burnish their best expressions of deep concern as panel discussions dominate the airwaves, politicians bluster about gun regulation, vigils are held for the fallen. And then, with little fanfare, the whole event passes out of the news cycle as some new atrocity or scandal captures the media’s attention. What we rarely see is the private suffering, the unthinkable burden that must be carried by the families of both victims and perpetrators in the wake of a tragedy. With remarkable psychological insight, Michael McKeever takes a bold and compassionate look at the private hell behind the headlines.

AFTER takes place in the type of community that, until recently, would never have been thought of as a dangerous place to raise kids. Brian Prather’s stately set tells us that the people to who to whom this living room belongs are affluent but not ostentatious, proud but reserved, people accustomed to a certain degree of security and continuity. Tellingly, the decor includes a hunting trophy and a collection of antique rifles. But the effect isn’t meant to be menacing. It’s all part of a country squire ambience cultivated by dashing, prosperous Tate Campbell (Michael Frederic) and his trim, fashionable wife Julia (Mia Matthews). The two stand out in contrast to their reluctant visitors, Alan and Connie Beckman (Bill Phillips and Denise Cormier), whose prim respectability tells us they are well-off enough to live in suburbia, but don’t go in for top-salon hairstyles and designer duds (Gregory Gale’s meticulously detailed costumes are character studies in themselves). Class tension remains an undercurrent in the dynamic between the two couples, but the tension in the room is caused by something far more urgent. Kyle, the Campbell’s teenage son, has sent a troubling text message to the Beckman’s boy Matthew. Though Matthew himself wanted nothing to do with it, Connie and Alan, having accidentally seen the text, felt compelled to notify the high school principal. This could mean suspension for Kyle. Depending on one’s point of view, the text could constitute or real threat or, as Tate believes, just a case of standard, if stupid, teen behavior.

Friends for years, the Campbells and Beckmans are loath to enter into a confrontation, but something must be done. Despite the presence of Julia’s level-headed sister Val (Jolie Curtsinger), the ensuing debate burns away a the characters’ veneer of civility, and repressed aggressions bubble to the surface. Leaving the husbands out of it this time, the women attempt to patch things up. Their efforts are stalled by Connie’s prickliness and Julia’s indignation at being judged. Nevertheless, they seem to be edging toward common ground, united by a deep concern for the welfare of their kids. Then, with one sudden phone call, the life they once knew is suddenly blown apart. In the play’s devastating last act, the parents must reconcile themselves to the truth of what has happened to their children. Their worst fears have been realized, but not in away that anyone could have predicted. The text was only the tip of the iceberg, and none of the adults had any idea of the unrelenting hell their children were living in. Neither side can claim a moral victory, and both the interventionist Beckmans and the laissez-faire Campbells are unable to comprehend how their parenting styles – however imperfect – could have led to this.

Similar in premise to Yasmina Reza’s GOD OF CARNAGE (though far more powerful), McKeever’s script adroitly builds tension and seamlessly braids exposition with argument. Under Joe Brancato’s taut direction, the cast accomplishes the challenging feat of being deeply in sync as actors while playing characters who can’t get on the same page. The production is mercifully free of tearful ostentation and big epiphanies. In fact, the very lack of a catharsis drives home the starkness of the situation. For these shattered characters, heartbreak can never be purged, only borne in endless silence.   

AFTER continues through April 14, 2019, at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues. Tickets: www.59e59.org/shows

DADDY

Written by Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by Danya Taymor

As the lights come up on the Matt Saunders’s opulent set, the sinewy, shimmering figure that rises from the moonlit swimming pool looks, for all the world, like a renaissance statue come to life. The resemblance is hardly coincidental. The beautiful body belongs to aspiring Franklin (Ronald Peet). The pool belongs to Andre (Alan Cumming), an independently wealthy art collector. The two have just met, and though Franklin feels a strong attraction to Andre, he worries that the middle-aged aesthete may see him as just another possession, like the Twomblys and Basquiats that adorn his fancy manse in the Hollywood Hills. More troublingly, Andre demands to be called “master” during their dominant-submissive sex games. Has Franklin just been purchased by a wealthy white landowner?

Certainly, Franklin’s friends Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), voice a high degree of skepticism about Franklin’s new “daddy”. But they’re not above sipping Andre’s champagne,basking by his pool, or using his Seamless account to order sushi. Though troubled by Max’s comments, Franklin stays with Andre, and the question of who’s taking advantage of who gets a bit more ambiguous. Franklin, has, in effect found a patron, and at last has time and space to work a series of soft sculptures featuring black male doll-bodies in various costumes and social roles. In today’s context-hungry art world, the figures turn out to be catnip to Andre’s collector cronies. Ebullient gallery owner Alessia (Hari Nef) is over the moon, but Franklin’s Bible-thumping mother Zora (Charlayne Woodard) isn’t sold. She seems okay with her son being gay, but frequently clashes with Andre and sees nothing in Franklin’s art other than a crafty method of separating pretentious white people from their money. Conspicuously absent from all of this is Franklin’s real father, and therein lies the inner torment that both fuels the young artist’s creative process and threatens to push him towards a psychotic break. In the play’s surreal third act, Franklin finds his mind awash with nightmarish thoughts and images that will never cease until he finds some way to confront his painful past.

At heart DADDY is actually a solidly-crafted, traditional play. It takes place largely on a single set, with logic-based entrances and exits, clear dramatic stakes and exposition revealed through dialogue. Max and Bellamy function as a kind of Greek chorus, while Zora provides the catalyst that prompts the hero’s catharsis. But playwright Jeremy O. Harris isn’t content to let the story unfold organically. The evening sports plenty of spectacle, including startling lighting and sound effects and appearances by a gospel choir (Carrie Comprere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu), which at one point accompanies Cumming in a rendition of George Michael’s R&B hit “Father Figure”. They sound great, of course, but, as with many of the show’s embellishment accoutrements, the song only serves reiterate what we’ve already seen. Either these non-naturalistic elements need to be put to more effective use or, better yet, Harris should trust that his skillful, potent dialogue and topnotch cast are strong enough to deliver the desired emotional punch. Likewise, director Danya Taymor seems to be struggling to arrive at a style. Rather than have the actors move with purpose, she often directs them to pace and pirouette about the stage between lines. Like Harris, she needs reminding that less is more.

DADDY continues through March 31, 2019 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets at ticket-central.com

ULTRAVIOLENCE

Written by Sam Kahn
Directed by Roxana Kadyrova

Music Design by Vanessa Gould
Choreography by Derek Stratton
Scenic Design by Kellyann Hee
Graphics by Vladimir Gusev
Video DP Justin A. Gonçalves
Video Editor Justin A. Gonçalves
Video AC  Lyle Parsons
Lighting design by Joan Racho-Jansen
Sound design by  Gabo Lizardo

Sly Fennec Productions’ eerily lyrical meditation on youthful angst is a feast for the eyes; and not just because of its attractive young cast. The show’s moody lighting, atmospheric score, fluid set design and abstract video projections combine to turn Eris Evolution’s cabaret space into a dreamlike demimonde in which danger lurks beneath pretty surfaces.

The story begins innocently enough. Laura (Annie Hägg) shares a New York apartment with fellow twenty-something Page (Deya Danielle). The two have been friends since college, and protective Laura can’t believe her brother Ed (Michael Coppola) who she considers a knucklehead, ever succeeded in dating someone as magnificent as Laura. The relationship didn’t last, and of course Laura blames Ed. But he maintains it was Page’s mental health issues that got in the way. While the siblings bicker, Page attempts to cope with the clinical depression that hobbles her effort to transition from bartending to full-time acting. Into this tense atmosphere lopes James (Michael Tyler) a Californian drifter who everyone has heard having noisy sex with upstairs neighbor Karen (Whitney Harris). James’s high cheekbones, lithe torso and rock star hairdo magnetize the women, and his disarmingly casual style helps ingratiate him to the group. What the gang fails to realize, though, is that the tall dark stranger is not merely a self-confessed narcissist, but a homicidal psychopath. Thankfully, James’ acts of ultraviolence aren’t depicted with grisly literalism, but with sly choreography that makes them all the creepier.  In the show’s second act, Page tries to make a new life in a new city with a new guy (Derek Stratton). But little signals let her know that her James is on the move again, his seductive darkness is asserting its hold over her once more.

After a compelling first act, the show’s momentum slows a bit as the narrator’s role shifts from discontented Laura to apathetic Page. We can understand some of Page’s ambivalence about James, but at times she sounds less like a judgment-averse millennial than a 90’s style Whateverist. Boredom alone doesn’t seem quite enough of a motivating force to turn an ambitious young woman – even a depressed one – into a killer’s concubine. James, too, comes across a rather lackadaisical monster. He doesn’t seem to get any particular thrill out his diabolical actions, nor has it occurred to him that law enforcement agencies and the families of the victims will come looking for answers at some point. It’s understandable that playwright Sam Kahn didn’t want to resort to the “lethal-cat-and-mouse-game” clichés that populate Hollywood treatments of the subject. But finding some way to up the dramatic stakes would make for a more satisfying denouement.

Nevertheless, Kahn’s sharp dialogue and vibrant characters give the strong, committed cast plenty to work with, and director Roxana Kadyrova nimbly blends the production’s imagistic and narrative elements into a cohesive, memorable whole. Sly Fennec is clearly a company to watch: one whose aesthetic is sure to develop in delightful and astonishing ways.   

ULTRAVIOLENCE ran from Mar 12 through March 16, 2019 at Eris Evolution, 167 Graham Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11206. For information and upcoming events check here: https://www.slyfennec.com/

IMAGINING MADOFF

Written by Deb Margolin
Directed by Jerry Heymann

When Bernard Madoff was arrested in 2008, the very DNA of the financial system was called into question. The sheer volume of the scam was staggering. Billions of dollars had gone AWOL, thousands of lives were shattered. And all the while, our trusted regulatory agencies had ignored the red flags and questionable math that characterized Madoff’s bogus business transactions. The entire world was shaken by the aftershocks of the scandal, but in Jewish circles, the Madoff debacle took on an even deeper significance. Fears arose that the image of the Ponzi schemer would be used validate antisemitic stereotypes of greedy, conniving Hebrews, and that Jews, historically a popular target of conspiracy theories, would be scapegoated for the Great Recession. More painfully still, many of Madoff’s targets were themselves Jewish, and even charitable institutions like Hadassah were plundered without mercy. Jews who had invested with Madoff were hit with a double whammy: not only did they suffer grievous monetary losses, but had to also cope with the unthinkability of being betrayed by one of their own. The police term for this phenomenon is “affinity fraud”: a category of chicanery in which a con artist uses his cultural, religious or ethnic identity to gain entrée into a specific community, as Madoff did among the well-to-do Jewry of New York City and Palm Beach.

In the aptly titled IMAGINING MADOFF, playwright Deb Margolin muses on what may have transpired between Bernie (Jeremiah Kissel) and one of his high-profile victims, the fictional poet Solomon Galkin (Gerry Bamman). Reminiscent of the late Elie Wiesel, whose private holdings and non-profit foundation were devastated by Madoff’s treachery, Galkin is a Talmudic scholar and a Holocaust survivor. The essence of piousness and generosity, he seeks only to do good in the world. At first, he would seem to have nothing much in common with Bernard. Yet the two enjoy talking and drinking, pondering the nature of the universe and what the Torah says about humanity’s role in it. Each man is subtly maneuvering the other. Sol seeks to enlighten his spiritually undernourished friend, while the fraudulent financier uses a hard-to-get seduction strategy, knowing that the idea of an “exclusive” investment club will whet Solomon’s appetite. For a moment, it seems as if Galkin may win the battle for Madoff’s soul after all. When he winds his tefillin around Bernie’s wrist, something odd happens. A “small perfect pain” enters Madoff’s head, as if the ancient traditions are awakening some long dormant godliness within. In the end though, Madoff returns to his old habits.  He worships no god other than money, and the sacrifices it demands of him are as severe any in the Old Testament.

In between the scenes with Galkin, there are short monologues in which post-conviction Madoff, confined to a prison cell, justifies his actions to an unseen reporter. The action also shifts now and then to a courtroom, where Madoff’s secretary (Jenny Allen), seems credible as she testifies that nothing usual seemed to be going on at the office. She, too, struggles to find a moral center in a world where, merely by telling the truth, she may be defending a monster.

All three actors deliver solid performances, with Bamman’s plummy European baritone providing an effective foil for Kissel’s staccato New Yorkese. Margolin gives them plenty to work with, and the rhythm and intelligence of her dialogue keeps the audience engaged in the Galkin-Madoff relationship even though we already know the outcome.

Unfortunately, the script – though never boring – stops short of exploring some of the tougher truths of the Madoff scandal. Questions linger as to why so many of Madoff’s marks failed to look under the hood, why they chose to hand over their life savings rather than pursue a more conservative investment strategy. Perhaps Madoff seemed like the right kind of capitalist: a classically American (and classically Jewish) example of a man of humble origins rose to the top through hard work and smart maneuvering. Or was it those the lure of easy profits, the ego boost of being on the winning side, that kept his investors on the hook? Could there be a touch of avarice in all of us, even a man like Galkin? It’s understandable that Margolin didn’t want to blame the victim. But it might have been a stronger choice to fully render the duo as a yin and yang design: A quintessentially righteous man as the mirror image of a starkly immoral man, each containing a touch of its opposite.

Interestingly enough, the state with the highest per capita incidence of affinity fraud is not New York or Florida, but Mormon-heavy Utah. Yes, the Jewishness of the Madoff Experience is one of its salient features. But dramatizing its details also serves as a reminder that, in these morally muddy times, no one is same from ganeffs.

IMAGINING MADOFF continues through March 23, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY, between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org