SQUARE GO

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Written by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair
Directed by Finn den Hertog

Concise, energetic and comically peppered with the syncopations of Scottish teen speak, Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s clever two-hander offers a fresh take on the well-travelled territory of adolescent tribulations.

The action takes place a boy’s room at Hammerston High, a ferociously average school somewhere in generic suburbia. Here, teenager Mark Adrian Kyle Sebastian Brocklehurst (Daniel Portman), who understandably prefers to be called Max, imagines a cheering crowd of adoring fans as he delivers a victory speech in the style of his hero, pro wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage. The daydream is, of course, a coping mechanism. In real life, Max’s prospects are not so bright. He has been challenged to a “square go”, a mano a mano fight wherein two boys – no weapons, bare hands – duke it out to see who is the better man. Max is, understandably, petrified. His opponent is none other than Danny Guthrie (offstage), known throughout the school as “A beast. A legend. A man mountain”, who can make mincemeat out of any opponent. Max’s strawberry lace-munching best friend and ring man Stevie Nimmo (Gavin Jon Wright), tries to psych him up for the fight, but never misses an opportunity to send a bit of insult comedy (or “pish” to use the colloquial term). While the clock ticks ever closer to game time, Max and Stevie break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience, and sometimes encouraging us to participate in the show. Over the course of a whirring 65 minutes, the boys overflow with pubescent zeal as they morph into stuffy physics teacher Dr. Hobbins, school bully Big Jordan, and other key figures, real and imaginary, in their small town lives. As they reconstruct the faux pas that got Max in trouble in the first place, darker shades of the story emerge. It turns out Danny Guthrie is punching back at a world that discriminated against someone he loved, that Max’s need for fantasy is fueled by the dysfunction in his household. All the while, the big confrontation beckons, but an unexpected twist beckons Max and Stevie to take their first steps into a bigger, more daunting proving ground.

Director Finn den Hertog uses the intimate three-quarter round stage to great effect, balancing Wright’s frenetic footwork with Portman’s restless strategizing as in an evenly-matched prizefight. Peter Small’s lighting design is timed to neatly coincide with the script’s one-liners and turns of mood, while Martha Mamo’s props capture both the mundane and fanciful trappings of adolescence. None of it work, of course, without the remarkable rapport between the two actors. Portman and Wright embody the very essence of the disappointments, frictions, laughter and closeness of two outcasts whose mutual misfitness forms the basis of intense- and possibly enduring – friendship.

SQUARE GO continues through June 30, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets https://www.59e59.org/ticket-information/

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LONE STAR

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Written by James McLure
Directed by Joe John Battista
Featuring musical guests The Chalks

With the aid of a few graffitied brick walls, a cooler full of beer, a fiddle and a few guitars, plus a generous helping of yeehaw spirit, the gang at the 13th Street Rep manage the challenging task of turning a West Village black box theater into a roadhouse saloon in rural Texas.

To start things off,  proprietor T-Bone (Tony Del Bono) and his slow-on-the-uptake right hand man Pervis (John Constantine) ineptly attempt lay down Angel’s Bar’s ground rules.  A kind of Western edition of Abbott and Costello, the boys can’t seem to get on the same page but somehow manage to take care of business anyway. The writers of this opening skit could stand to punch up the material, but the comedic rapport between Del Bono and Constantine helps set the mood for the show’s first act: a romping, stomping selection of favorites from the illustrious Chalk Sisters.

Judeen (Mary Brienza), Judelle (Kathryn Markey) and Belva (Leenya Rideout), started out as a Christian girl group. But along the rocky back roads of the music business they’ve morphed into a rowdy country bar band whose songs chronicle the colorful misadventures of a trio of strong-willed, outspoken, freewheeling women. Sporting  titles like Mud Flap Mama and Hog Wild & Hog Tied, their ditties are affectionate pastiches of classic Nashville fare. In between the numbers, the gals engage in a bit of sibling rivalry, ribald humor and audience participation games. Rather than take a SNL-like approach to sneering at redneck culture, the sisters encourage the audience to laugh with them as they find Texas-style solutions to the dilemmas life throws at them. The performers (all of whom have impressive Broadway and off-Broadway resumés) craft their lyrics and chord sequences in the tradition of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and other giants of the genre. They have the musical chops to back up their satirical and the theatrical skills to sell their special brand of comedy.

The second half of the show, scripted by the late James McClure, takes place in the porch behind Angel’s Bar. Here, irascible Vietnam veteran Roy (Matt deRogatis), grows increasingly drunk and at odds with the world. His guileless younger brother Ray (Chris Loupos) attempts to keep order, but there’s no telling what Roy might do– especially when he finds out that Cletis (Michael Villastrigo), bullied by Roy since childhood, has exacted a crazy revenge. There are more bombshells coming as Ray divulges a guilty secret that has been weighing heavily on his shoulders. Neither Maynard, Texas nor Roy’s psyche will ever be the same as before the war. But, in true frontier fashion, the men find a way of moving on. Superbly acted and confidently directed by Joe John Battista, the play hits most of its tragicomic notes with precision. There are a few lines that are shouted at high volume when a more deadpan approach might serve the humor better, but overall the work is solid. The only real problem with the show is that, despite McClure’s skill at dialogue and structure, the material itself seems dated. The script was written in 1978, the golden age of the Guy Play, when American theater was energized by raw dramas of salesmen, cowboys and gangsters facing the inevitable obsolescence of  their social archetypes. Today’s audiences have imbibed so much Shepard, Mamet and Tarantino that we can barely shake our poetic-machismo hangovers. If the hair of the dog is what you seek, LONE STAR might be just your poison. For most of us, though, the high octane – and all female- antics of the Chalks feel more relevant.

LONE STAR continues through June 16, 2019 at 13th Street Rep, 50 West 13th Street, New York, New York. Tickets and showtimes: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4056750

MIDNIGHT STREET

Emily Afton, Rafael Jordan, Lenny Wolpe

Created and directed by Arnold L. Cohen

Musical theater is notoriously one of the most collaborative of all popular art forms. Finding the right creative chemistry is challenge, and many efforts fail simply because there are too many cooks in one kitchen. Now and then, though, a show comes along that serves as a reminder of the dangers of having too few chefs. Arnold L. Cohen, though clearly talented, has set himself a daunting task by taking on the duties of composer, lyricist, librettist and director of a new musical. With no collaborators push against him and no source material to help him shape the show’s narrative, Cohen’s imagination is both unfettered and unfocused. As a result, MIDNIGHT STREET’s bright spots and strong lead actress are overshadowed by its lack of structure and selectivity.

The first act of the show is essentially a songbook, with the numbers loosely tied together by a series of soliloquies in which Danielle (Emily Afton) reflects on the life a New York City streetwalker. Both in her songs and her interstitial monologues, she celebrates the independence the job grants her, but also bemoans the loneliness that comes with it. She wraps men around her finger, but prefers to be with other women when she’s off the clock. She rhapsodizes thusly for quite some time before the play’s inciting incident occurs. Two Biblically-named pimps, King Saul (Lenny Wolpe) and Antipas (Rafael Jordan) express their discomfort with Danielle’s enterprise. They run the rackets in this part of town and threaten to harm her if she doesn’t get with their program. They have clearly underestimated Danielle, whose smarts and bravado put her on the winning side of the turf war (though not before Antipas sings and ode to his own badassery and Saul, rather inexplicably, synopsizes the entire history of Jewish persecution in a snappy  monologue).

That’s about all the plot we get. There are moments when specifics are deftly used to make Danielle’s monologues  more vivid: We learn that she began turning tricks in order to find an escape route from her abusive marriage, and we see her brighten when she talks about the ballet classes that afford her a brief respite from stresses of the streets. For the most part, though the show, like its protagonist, seems to walk in circles. It’s hard to believe that only two men, both easily subdued, constitute the only real threat  Danielle has ever had to reckon with.  And she makes little mention of vice cops, venereal disease, competition from other hookers, or johns who get violent or try to  walk away without paying. With those less-than-poetic details missing, she often comes across as an idea of a sex worker rather than a true survivor of the city’s back alleys.

As a melodist, however, Cohen, a Juilliard graduate, exhibits considerable gifts. The show’s tunes range from Tin Pan Alley brightness to moody modernism, and give Afton’s warm soprano voice plenty of blue and dulcet notes to sing. His lyrics, however, could stand to incorporate more of the vernacular of the streets. There are lessons to be learned from Hart, Hammerstein, Porter and other pioneering  rhymesmiths, who energized their verses by keeping their verbal antennae tuned to the language of common speech.

As the saying goes, making a great musical requires its creators to “sweat till the sweat doesn’t show.”  When a lyric feels spontaneous, when a libretto integrates seamlessly with group of songs to move a story forward, it’s a safe bet it took hours of arduous revision to get it to look so easy. In its current stage of development, MIDNIGHT STREET is still a few drafts, and several pints of perspiration, away from Broadway. 

MIDNIGHT STREET opens June 5, 2019 at at Theatre Row Theaters, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Midnight-Street/Overview?&aidTic=ven000193900