OMINOUS MEN

Renoly Santiago , Gus Scharr, Johnny Rivera[3583]

Written by Desi Moreno-Penson
Directed by Lorca Peress

Costume design by Lisa Renee Jordan
Projection design by Jan Hartley
Wig design by John Dallas
Choreography by Jennifer Chin
Sound design by Sun Hee Kil
Lighting design by Kia Rogers
Fight director Carlotta Summers
Scenic design by Jen Varbelow

Take a thick, juicy slice of magical realism, season it with a pinch of Gothic literature, add a soupcon of grand guignol and a dollop of Yiddish folklore, marinate the whole thing in a jazzy Bronx patois, and sear it over the flames of Abe Beam’s infernally discontented New York, and you might get something like the wild banquet currently on offer at the 14th Street Y’s black box theater. A strong contender for Oddest Show of the Season, OMINOUS MEN is not for the squeamish. But for those like their drama served up with piquancy and guts,  Desi Moreno-Penson’s visionary concoction is a dish well worth sampling.

Youngm street-smart Butch (Johnny Rivera), has been hired by the city to act as a caretaker to an old dilapidated tenement in the South Bronx. The job is not exactly a stepping stone to prosperity, but our man has a secret plan. According to local legend, mobster “Big Tony” Carafano used the place as a gambling den where high end clients like the New York Yankees came to test the odds. Skimming off the top, Big Tony stashed a cache of ill-gotten under the floor of the building. Unfortunately for Carafano, he never got a chance to retrieve it. Once his bosses got wise to his pilfering, it was lights out for Tony.  The money, so the story goes, lies untouched like a pirate’s buried treasure in the place where Tony entombed it, just waiting for an enterprising prospector to dig it up. For Butch, money means redemption. He and his wife Merlina have split because of Butch’s heroin addiction and abusive behavior. Now, he claims to have kicked the habit, and he hopes that if he goes back to El Barrio with some money in his pocket, Merlina will give him a second chance.  Of course, it will take a team effort to dig up the booty, so Butch enlists the help of his goofy cousin Goyo (Gus Scharr) and a former Black Panther named Yancy (Russell Jordan), who fled Oakland under suspicious circumstances. It won’t be easy to convince the guys that he’s a trustworthy leader, but that’s hardly Butch’s most pressing problem. He also must contend with unannounced visits from Herschel “Mordy” Mordecai (Howard Pinhasik), a moldy and decidedly unfriendly ghost who mourns a vanished Jewish Bronx and rues the sins that damned him to a crappy afterlife. Speaking a combination of Yiddish and broken English, he shows off his gory stab wounds and cautions Butch that he, too, will come to a bad end if continues to pursue the filthy lucre.

So far, so weird. But that’s only the beginning. Tensions intensify as the blackout of ’77 turns the city into a temporary utopia for looters and nut jobs, while inside the building a shapeshifting entity named Mundoo (Renoly Santiago) bedevils Butch and the gang with his trickster antics. Morphing from one identity to another, Mundoo at first appears to Yancy as a member of the vanished indigenous Siwanoy tribe. He has a very different impact on Mordy, who swears he remembers Mundoo from a Nazi concentration camp. Whatever Mundoo is, he knows how to worm his way into the psyches of the would-be thieves, stirring up doubt and turning the men against each other. The underworld has more surprises in store, including a visitation form white-clad Woman (Gabrielle Lee) from Yancy’s grisly past. For most of us, this would be enough of an impetus to cut and run, but these Bronx-toughened men aren’t easily dissuaded from their goals. They forge ahead into the haunted darkness, heedless of the fact that, in this rumble, the dead have the home turf advantage.

Aided by an imaginative design team, director Lorca Peress creates a seductively spooky landscape evocative of of Henry Fuseli’s nightmare paintings. The actors, clearly thrilled to have such meaty parts to sink their teeth into, navigate the play’s multiple twists with skill and brio, giving us tangible characters to identify with as the plot sinks deeper into madness. Thanks to their emotional intensity,  show unfolds like a piece of music, establishing a rhythm in the early scenes then bringing it to a crescendo as the plot . There are some inconsistencies in the pacing of the show, especially towards its denouement, but these minor flaws are outweigh by the show’s unique blend of funhouse chills, poetic language and cathartic drama. As Halloween and Day of the Dead approacheth, OMINOUS MEN makes an ideal macabre mood-setter.

OMINOUS MEN continues through November 3, 2019 at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: http://14streety.org/ominousmen

NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY

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Written by Chad Beckim
Directed by Shelley Butler

New York theatergoers are notoriously fortunate in that the smorgasbord of entertainment options features such a rich array of choices. But it’s also possible to get one’s fill of shows that strive to earn contemporary epithets like “game-changing”, “deconstructionist”, “immersive” and “non-narrative”. Once in a while, it’s good to be reminded of the fact the traditional family drama can speak to contemporary issues in a satisfying way. This is why, despite its depressing subject matter, Chad Beckim’s probing new exploration of the patterns of addiction is a joy to watch. Solidly written and skillfully played, NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY takes us inside an American small town where the prospects of a bright future, none too bright to begin with, are easily derailed by a worsening opioid epidemic.

Young Clay Taylor (Micheál Richardson) is at a crossroads. He can choose to hang around his rural hometown in Maine, where jobs are scarce and those that are available involve manual labor and scant wages. Or he can go away to college, gambling on the possibility of better days ahead. With the support of his down-to-Earth single mother Susan (Mary Bacon) Clay wisely chooses the latter. At first this working-class kid feels like fish out of water among his well-to-do peers, but Clay studies hard and, for a time, his future looks promising. Unfortunately, things aren’t going so well for Clay’s girlfriend Jess Cross (Talene Monahon). Neglected by her mom and harassed by her stepfather, she can no longer stand to live at home. Mary generously allows Jess to stay in Clay’s old room while he’s away at school. For a time, Jess gets along alright with Mary and her tough but likable daughter Tanya (Adrienne Rose Bengtsson). Soon, though, the Taylors begin to notice some odd behavior from their new housemate. Jess isn’t very sociable and some nights she staggers home looking like a zombie. Jess protests that she’s just tired from working too many shifts at the poultry plant, but Tanya and Mary aren’t buying it. They urge Clay to keep a closer eye on Jess, and when Clay comes home for Thanksgiving, his worst suspicions are confirmed. When the two go to a party, he sees Jess snorting oxy. He begs her to come with him to school, find a job near there and start a new life, but unfortunately his good intentions can’t fix the problem. Jess’s habit goes from bad to worse, and soon she is no longer welcome in the Taylor house. Her brother Jamie (Peter Mark Kendall) intervenes, hoping she’ll snap out of it long enough to reconcile with their cancer-suffering mother before it’s too late. Eventually Clay makes the foolhardy decision to put his academic career on hold and move back home to help Jess recover. If only it were that simple. Rehab offers a ladder out of the slough of addiction, but the rungs prove slippery. And those who try to lift her up run the risk of being dragged down instead. The Robert Frost poem from which the show derives its title makes poignant mention of the Garden of Eden, and indeed Jess is a kind of Eve figure, dangling drugs like a forbidden apple before Clay’s persuadable eyes. She’s too high to care that if he, too succumbs to temptation, their hopes will inevitably, to paraphrase Frost, sink to grief.

Director Shelley Butler uses Jason Simms’ three-quarter-round set design to great effect, never compromising the show’s seamless realism. Rather than have the actors self-consciously “cheat” to the audience, Butler allows them to keep their backs to sections of the audience for long stretches at a time. We genuinely experience the action like a fly on the wall, unaware of any artifice. Beckim’s script takes a straightforward approach, reflecting, but never caricaturing, the cadences of regional speech. Each character gets a turn to articulate his or her world view, often peppered with a resilient sense of humor. Yet the arias feel spontaneous, bubbling organically to the surface as the family negotiates each new calamity. The tragic and the redemptive are woven into the day-to-day, to the point where the opioid crisis, which is typically talked about in superficial soundbites on the evening news, takes on an all-too -human shape. We can’t help but feel that we know the Taylors and the Crosses, that what happens to them could be happening in the house next door. The actors, each aptly cast and uncompromisingly  honest, stirringly embody the show’s real subject: the pained perseverance that, for most Americans, defines daily life.

NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY continues through October 26, 2019 at the Gural Theater 502 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019. Tickets at partialcomfort.org.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE

download (1)Photo credit: Chris Loupos

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Austin Pendleton & Peter Bloch

Stage Management & Sound Design by Jesse Meckl
Scenic Design by Jessie Bonaventure
Lighting Design by Steve Wolf
Costume Design by Arlene’s Costumes
Scrim Design by Jessie Wolfrom

The press release for this RuthStage’s provocative revival of THE GLASS MENAGERIE describes the directors’ take as “inspired by the horror films of Wes Craven”. If that sounds like one of those popular those mixed-genre mashups, fear not. This isn’t Laura Wingfield, Vampire Hunter.  The point here is not to gimmickize Tennessee Williams, but to highlight some of the play’s romantically dark, cinematic undertones. Indeed, the production succeeds admirably in evoking an eerie mood of recollected hurts, though it’s less reminiscent of Craven’s nightmares than of the gothic, chiaroscuro style of early horror masterpieces like James Whale’s Frankenstein and Todd Browning’s Dracula.

The set and costumes are designed in striking black and white, occasionally blooming into color in certain select moments, while much the stage is kept in darkness or charcoal-drawing half-light. Over this murky living room floats a projection of an absent father, who sports the good looks and ingratiating grin of an old-time matinee idol. These spooky trappings prove highly effective in reframing the text, prompting the audience take a fresh look at a work we know backwards and forwards (or like to think we do). The casting choices, too, deviate from the usual stock interpretations, giving the story a new relevance and urgency. Matt De Rogatis’s Tom is virile and rangy, with close cropped hair and the fevered look of a man who can no longer quiet the inner voices that urge him to break away. In the role of Tom’s outspoken mom, the radiant Ginger Grace is refreshingly different from the stout, weary Amandas we’re used to. Rather than a faded southern belle whose best days (if really were as splendid as she claims) are far behind her, here we see a vital, striking woman still in her prime. This makes her all the more of a tragic figure, because she might still be the belle of the ball if not for the poverty and fear that keeps her trapped in the shadows. Alexandra Rose provides an apt foil as the introverted Laura Wingfield. Finding the subtext in the play’s silences, Rose portrays Laura as both genuinely fragile and surreptitiously strong-willed. Despite Amanda’s best efforts, Laura’s quiet obstinacy makes her impossible to control. Rounding out the ensemble is Spencer Scott, who endows Jim the Gentleman Caller with midwestern forthrightness and solidity: qualities that, unfortunately, don’t mesh easily with the eccentric ways of Tom’s family. In keeping with the show’s horror-movie theme, Jim is a bit like the innocent guest who wanders into a haunted house on a rainy night. He’s intrigued by this odd environment, but soon cottons to the realization that escape is the only option.

Directors Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch move the actors fluidly in and out of the gloom as the story requires, and find the human drives beneath the poetic phrasing of Williams’s dialogue. Their touch, along with the vivid energy and emotional rawness of the cast, pumps modern electricity into the bones of a classic drama and confirms its  cathartic potency.  Like doctor Frankenstein, we can exult in the affirmation, “It’s alive!”

THE GLASS MENAGERIE continues through October 20, 2019 at the Wild Project, 195 E 3rd St, New York, NY 10009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM

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Written by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jonathan Kent

In 2016, Parisian playwright Florian Zeller made his Broadway debut THE FATHER, a harrowing examination of the devastation of dementia. Seen through the eyes of its elderly protagonist, the play is composed of a series of repeated scenes, each version slightly varied from the last. Sentences are reshuffled, lines spoken by one character are reiterated by someone new. The father’s recollections become like tiles dropping out of a mosaic, leaving behind more and more gaps until the pattern of his life is no longer discernible. In THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM, the playwright again turns his attention to aging, this time with a long-married couple at the center of the story. As in THE FATHER, Zeller employs techniques like non-linear narratives and conflicting perspectives, but this time around his style is more nuanced, and the tone of the show considerably more hopeful.

The action takes place in the kitchen of a large drafty country house where André (Jonathan Pryce) a noted poet, is learning to live without his recently deceased wife. As forgetful as he is cantankerous, André proves quite a handful for his daughters, down-to-earth Anne (Amanda Drew) and free-spirited Élise (Lisa O’Hare). The best thing for all concerned would be to sell the house and get the old widower the care he needs, but cooperation from Andre is not forthcoming. Nothing unusual about that scenario. But soon the story begins to shift. Now it appears that André has passed away, and his headstrong widow Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) is the one whose future needs to be negotiated by the family. In still other scenes – possibly flashbacks – both parents are alive. But that doesn’t make things any less complicated, especially when Madeleine encounters a mysterious stranger known as The Woman (Lucy Cohu) at the marketplace. Supposedly an old friend of André’s, The Woman cozies up to Madeleine and secures an invitation to the house for tea. With her scarlet lips and form fitting dress, The Woman stands out like a sore thumb in this rustic world of drab colors and dowdy attire. More disturbingly, she spins a colorful yarn about her youth in Paris, when she had a torrid affair with a married writer. The Woman bore the writer a son, raised the child alone with no assistance from the father, and now seeks closure. She’s not asking for recompense, merely an acknowledgment that this actually happened. She claims that the writer in question was André’s friend Georges, but a postmortem perusal of Andre’s diary (yes, he dies again from time to time) indicates there may be more to the story. The family is further rattled by the arrival of Elise’s boyfriend, The Man (James Hillier), whose clean-shaven countenance and sharply attired physique instantly marks him as an outsider. A big city real estate broker with a brusque manner The Man attempts to intervene in the family’s affairs, but succeeds only in creating more problems.

By keeping the setting the same but constantly shuffling the events of the story in a seemingly random order, Zeller is clearly trying to keep guessing. The course of the show’s 80ish minutes, an overarching design begins to emerge. The key to the puzzle, it seems, is this: nothing that we see is actually happening. The characters may be real, but the events occur only in their minds. Thus, one scenario plays out after another a la Rashomon, addressing the anxieties or the different family members. What if my spouse goes before I do? What if my mind, which has served me so well all these years, falls apart? Will my past stay buried or come back to haunt me? The daughters, too, are trying on different outcomes for size as they ready themselves for the inevitable responsibilities they will soon be required to shoulder.

Anthony Ward’s appealingly ramshackle set and Hugh Vanstone’s painterly lighting provide an apt visual metaphor for the fading, bucolic world in which André and Madeleine feel at home. Under Jonathan Kent’s assured direction, the ensemble gels into a convincing family unit; consistent in their characters even as the plot keeps reshaping itself. He could not ask, of course, for two more consummate leads. Pryce attacks the part like a modern-day Lear, roaring frightfully one minute, trembling with disoriented frailty the next. As the smart, laconic Madeleine, Atkins infuses her straightforward dialogue with layers of pained subtext. Fittingly, the script finally affords them a quiet moment, just the two of them, and the two veteran actors play it with a palpable sense of love and authenticity. Here we see André and Madeleine at their most relaxed, momentarily free of the whirligig of unwanted visitors and ostentatiously concerned offspring. At last, they can enjoy the simple pleasures of the rootedness of married life, regardless of what’s to come. In the height of the storm, there is no greater sanctuary.

THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM continues through November 24, 2019 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York NY 10036. Tickets at telecharge.com.