SUMMER SHORTS 2019, SERIES B

4brfuYf3

Written by Sharr White, Nancy Bleemer & Neil LaBute
Directed by JJ Kandel, Ivey Lowe & Duane Boutté

Set design by Rebecca Lord-Surratt
Lighting design by Greg MacPherson
Costume design by Amy Sutton
Sound design by Nick Moore
Projection design by Joshua Langman
Prop design by Jenna Snyder and Alexander Wylie

Everyone knows the official story of the “greatest generation”, the hard-working and self- sacrificing Americans who toughed out the Great Depression, bravely fought and won the Second World War, then settled into comfortable lives in the new prosperity. But a closer look reveals cracks in the façade of postwar contentment. Sharr White’s ironically titled LUCKY looks at lives that didn’t fit into the socially convenient narratives of the day. With a storm raging outside, veteran Phil Granger (Blake DeLong) holes up in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of his home town. Unexpectedly, Phil receives a visit from his wife Meredith (Christine Spang), who is interested to know why he keeps disappearing and if he ever plans to return home for good. Phil is evasive, unable to put his feelings into words. Meredith presses further, elaborating on the sorrows of Phil’s mother, the death of his disgraced father (apparently a suspected communist), of her own difficulty at transitioning from the role of a machinist during the war to a shop girl in peace time, and of how Phil’s prolonged absence has made her the butt of small town gossip. Phil has the power to change all this, but he suffers from what we now know as PTSD. Nursing his invisible wounds, he has chosen the life of a drifter rather than return to the wife of whom he now feels unworthy and the civilian life he no longer knows how to lead. There’s nothing in any of the government- issued training manuals about fixing a broken man, but with a little determination Phil and Meredith just might find a way forward. Spang and DeLong give honest and moving performances, but they’re underserved by the oddly stagnant script. Meredith spends a good deal of time unpacking information, but doesn’t vary her tactics much, which make her effort to win her husband back seem half-hearted. And by the time Phil gets around to admitting that he “cracked up” from battle fatigue, the audience has long since figured this out has wearied of waiting for the other shoe to drop. White would do well to shake things up by exploring the idioms of regional speech or examining how people in pain use humor as a coping mechanism: something to vary the tone.

In PROVIDENCE, Michael (Jake Robinson) returns home to Rhode Island for his sister Gina’s wedding. Though he’d like to get some rest before the big day, his wife Renee (Blair Lewin) requires his help. She is in need of a tampon: a tricky problem to solve when all the other family are asleep and none of the stores are open. With slumber a slender possibility, the two get to talking, and details emerge about Michael’s family. Renee feels like something of a secular-Jewish Alice in a Catholic wonderland of eccentric relatives, sauces with mysterious ingredients, and crucifixes adorned with human hair. The conversation is disrupted by a visit from groom-to-be Pauly (Nathan Wallace), who is also suffering from insomnia. Nervous about embarking on the biggest journey of his life, Pauly seeks advice from his more experienced soon-to-be relatives. What’s this marriage thing really all about anyway? How do couples communicate, sustain a healthy relationship, make love last?  Touched by Pauly’s sincerity, Michael and Renee begin by trying to help, but end by wondering if Pauly and Gina, sweethearts since fourth grade, could teach them a thing or two about coupledom. Several years into their marriage, Renee and Michael have thankfully outgrown their newlywed insecurities, but along the way they’ve inevitably lost some of the wonder – the Pauly-ness, you might say – that once made life seem so romantic. Playwright Nancy Bleemer wisely doesn’t spoon feed the audience an easy answer as to whether the passage of time will strengthen or erode the young couple’s bond, preferring instead to let us continue thinking about her vibrant characters long after the curtain goes down. Crisply timed direction and an emotionally honest cast help deliver Bleemer’s affecting blend of comedy and poignancy.

A different kind of relationship angst animates Neil LaBute’s APPOMATTOX. This time it’s a friendship that is put to the test. Buddies Frank (Ro Boddie) and Joe (Jack Mikesell) are out in a pleasant local park, planning to chat, throw a football around, and munch on some (scrupulously healthy) picnic food. But their idyll takes an uncomfortable turn when Joe brings up the recent (factual) news story in which a group of Georgetown students voted to increase their tuition in order to create a scholarship fund for descendants of the slaves that were once owned, and sold, by the University. Joe finds the young people’s action commendable, but Frank has his doubts. After all, the increase in tuition is only $27.20 per student per semester: symbolic, yes, (272 is the number of people sold by Georgetown in 1838), but is that amount really enough? If this is really about payback, shouldn’t it hurt a little? Perhaps it’s better to consign what he calls the “un-make-up-able” things to history and just move one with our lives. With increasingly absurd results, Joe keeps frantically trying to brainstorm reparations ideas that will please his black friend. Frank wishes his oafishly well-meaning white pal would just change the subject, but Joe refuses to let it go. Well then, reasons Frank, if that’s the way it is, game on. He, too, escalates, and soon both men find themselves speeding down that famous paved-with-good-intentions road to hell with little hope of turning back. The script raises important, often unanswerable questions. What exactly is the correct price for a human life, let alone a compensation package for thousands of lives destroyed of a period of 400 years? Should we, as Frank would prefer, put the past behind us, or is it better, as Joe believes, to at least do something to push the conversation in the right direction? LaBute’s point here isn’t to hold a Shavian debate on the pros and cons of slave reparations, but to show America’s dark past, bewildering present and foreboding future can toxify even the most positive of relationships. Smartly, Mikesell and Boddie portray Joe and Frank not as ideologues, but as engaging guys who genuinely like each other and strive for nothing loftier than a little casual bro time. Their rapport makes the story’s painful trajectory all the more resonant.

SUMMER SHORTS 2019, SERIES B continues through August 31 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/summer-shorts-2019-series-b/

Advertisements

A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKER’S ISLAND

1250-33bcb8dc67089cf1bbbc5d8c6d95c2a2

Written by Richard Roy & Eric C. Webb
Directed by Thomas G. Waites

Using only a bare stage and a single actor, Richard Roy’s colorful prison dramedy sports a suspenseful plot and a cast of inmates as compelling as those found in Oz and Orange is the New Black. And it clocks in at under two hours, no time-devouring binge watching required.

Derived from an incident in Roy’s real life, A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND is narrated in energetic first person by Young Rich (Connor Chase Stewart). Growing up in suburban New Jersey, the young man exhibits prodigious talent on the basketball court and the boxing ring, even sparring with Muhammad Ali and contending for the prestigious Golden Gloves. In his early twenties, he trades in his mitts for a new ambition: acting. Here, too, he is successful, scoring parts in Broadway plays and soap operas. His love life is great, too, and he plans to marry his girlfriend as soon as possible. But Rich has a destructive penchant for booze and cocaine, and on one of his wilder benders he loses control of his vehicle and plows into a motorcycle. Sobering up amid a tangle of blood and twisted metal, Rich is arrested and told that the rider of the bike did not survive the crash. His bright future derailed, Rich obtains the services of a good lawyer, but eventually finds his only hope is to cop a plea and prepare himself for a stint in one of America’s most notorious penal colonies.

Now a “fish” (prison jargon for a first-time convict) out of water, Rich finds himself surrounded by a population of mostly black and Hispanic internees from poor or working-class backgrounds. He stands out like a sore thumb, but is thankfully able to find a few allies. Streetwise Saddam shows Rich the ropes, while the charming transgender Shivon develops a crush on the new inmate and keeps a lookout for potential threats. Together with his new associates, Rich quickly masters the art of “juggling”, a form of loansharking in which cigarettes are used as currency. With more economic resources at his disposal than the average prisoner, Rich is able to buy smokes in bulk at the commissary and undercut the price set by rival jugglers. But as his reputation grows, so does his visibility as a target for retaliation. The dominant gang at Rikers is the Latino Express, and its leader, Hector, doesn’t take kindly to the white interloper cutting into his market share. Confrontations follow, and when Hector starts asking questions about Rich, it turns out their histories are intertwined in ways that neither could have predicted. Like characters in a Greek drama, Hector and Rich seem fated to cross paths. After a few close scrapes, Rich becomes more vigilant. He spends most of his time in the relative safety of the offices of the Rikers Review, presided over by the idealistic corrections officer Dillis. The tedium of prison life begins to lift as Rich puts his energy and sense of humor into writing for the paper. But it’s only a matter of time before stark changes take place both inside and outside the walls of Rikers. Reckoning, remorse, catharsis, and redemption beckon. Rich might just come out of this a better man– if he can stay sane.

Tightly constructed and disarmingly tender at times, Roy’s script, co-written with Eric C. Webb, manages to cover a copious amount of narrative ground while never bogging down in extraneous detail.  Under Thomas G. Waites’s allegro direction, Stewart rises with creativity and conviction physical and emotional demands of the role. His odyssey is given extra weight by brief appearances, at the prologue and coda to the show, of the real Richard Roy. Weathered but hopeful, Roy seems determined to live a life of purpose, to give his experience meaning by using it to help and inform others. With the controversial Rikers Island yet again in the news today (see below) his voice can only increase in relevance.

https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/31/us/layleen-polanco-rikers-island-autopsy/index.html

A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND continues through August 31, 2019 at the Producer’s Club 358 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: http://www.brown-papertickets.com/event/4273937

SQUARE GO

jX9i3S3S

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/

LONE STAR

48016112706_46afa4a2e4_o-1280x640

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

CAROLINE’S KITCHEN

6i29M-jYWritten by Torben Betts
Directed by Alastair Whatley

Like the gourmet dishes prepared by the show’s eponymous chef, farce is that is notoriously tricky to get right. The perfect  blend of theatrical exaggeration with a soupcon of realism makes a wild plot plausible and engages the audience in the exploits of a larger-than-life characters. Overdo it, and you end up with over-the-top buffoonery. Go too far in the direction of  raw naturalism and the unique flavor of the genre gets lost. Sorry to say, while there are many fine ingredients in Torben Betts’ mashup of media satire and domestic mayhem, they don’t quite coalesce into a fully satisfying banquet of comedic comestibles.

Something like a UK edition of Martha Stewart, TV chef Caroline Mortimer (Caroline Langrishe) is celebrated for her flawless culinary skills and morally upright character. But her millions of adoring fans are in for a rude awakening when they see the photos a tabloid paper is threatening to publish. Caroline, it turns out, has a penchant for booze, and some cunning paparazzo has captured her losing her decorum on a night out with friends. Caroline’s fast-talking assistant Amanda (Jasmyn Banks) says the pictures aren’t “career ending”, but it’s enough to rattle Caroline (and, of course send her back to the bottle). And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Public image damage control is one thing: hiding an extramarital affair is another. Caroline and handyman Graeme (James Sutton), are carrying a clandestine relationship – no easy task in a house filled with video crew members – and if Caroline’s blowhard husband Mike (Aden Gillett) were to pick up the scent, things could get ugly. Luckily, he’s too busy tippling, flirting with younger women, and reliving his afternoon at the golf course, to take much notice of his wife (clearly that’s one reason she’s been seeking attention elsewhere). Graeme’s unstable wife Sally (Elizabeth Boag) is a different story. She’s on to her husband’s infidelity and is not to be trusted in Caroline’s kitchen, where freshly honed cutlery is close at hand. While all these tensions are simmering, Mike and Caroline’s son, newly graduated from Cambridge, comes home ready to drop a few bombshells of his own. Oh, and a real estate agent is coming over to look at the house— that is, if the premises isn’t already reduced to ash by the flames Caroline has forgotten to turn off in the kitchen.

The cast is full of fine actors, and director Alastair Whatley, aided by the ground plan of James Perkins’s neatly constructed set, manages the play’s cavalcade of entrances and exits with a sure hand. But the show, unfortunately abounds with missed opportunities. For example, there’s a good amount of setup in the first scene regarding the use of the Mortimer household as a set for the show: Caroline’s Kitchen, we’re told, is actually shot in Caroline’s kitchen. It appears that Betts is building to a big finale, in which the celebrity homemaker’s life falls apart on the air.  Yet for some reason, the cameras never arrive. Similarly, we learn that Caroline’s drunkenness is enough to set the muckraking  media ablaze, prompting the expectation that we’re going to see some real sordidness as she nips her way through the evening. Yet outside of a few slurred words, little mayhem results for her growing intoxication. Even the overall tone of the show, for all its mad events, seems oddly subdued– until, about a third of the way through, Mike Mortimer shows up. Of all the characters, Mike feels the most fully realized, perhaps because, as an old white man, he’s an acceptable target for ridicule. Both in Gillen’s freewheeling performance and in his volatile rhetoric (macho bombast one moment, crippling fear of mortality the next), Mike is simultaneously over-the-top and comically, recognizably human. If the same balance could be struck with the other characters, a visit to CAROLINE’S KITCHEN might leave the audience feeling more satiated.

CAROLINE’S KITCHEN continues through May 25, 2019 at 59E59 theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org.

NOTHING HERE IS REAL

NHIR-16

Like a millennial Jimmy Stewart, magician/mentalist Gary Ferrar employs a disarming stammer and easygoing performance style to draw the audience into his world as he cleverly deconstructs the traditions of illusionism. As promised by its title, though, the show isn’t merely about pulling the curtain back to reveal how the tricks are done. Even that trope is turned on its head as Ferrar keeps us guessing as to what pull out of his sleeve next.

For example, in the middle of a tutorial on misdirection, an audience member seemingly  stays one step ahead of Ferrar’s prestidigitation – only to look down and discover his watch is missing. In the extra-sensory portion of the show, Ferrar feigns deep concentration as he divines a specific details about a complete stranger’s life with devastating accuracy. But is this brilliant mentalism, or has Gary merely checked her Facebook feed?  There are many such shell games in NOTHING HERE IS REAL. And just as we think we’ve got it all figured out, objects appear as if commanded purely by thought, sleight-of-hand takes us by surprise, and we’re back to feeling that sense of wonder that keeps audiences, even in the age of smart phones, fascinated by parlor magic.

As Ferrar shares his own personal details (delivered with sincerity whether real or concocted) and breaks down our inhibitions with audience participation games, lines between performer and spectator begin to blur. The result is a pleasantly co-conspiratorial atmosphere: refreshingly lighthearted and different from say, the more hushed and eerie mentalism of Steven Cohen’s CHAMBER MAGIC.

There are times when the magician’s grip on the audience begins to slacken. Some of the bits take a longer time to build than seems necessary, or don’t pack quite the wow factor they might. Thankfully, though, Ferrar’s thought-provoking and playful machinations hit more often than they miss, and his unassuming charm and fresh spin on a classic form make NHIR an evening – for real – well spent.

NOTHING HERE IS REAL continues on select Tuesdays at Oxbow Tavern, 240 Columbus Ave, New York, NY 10023. Tickets: https://www.ahrealmagic.com.

I CARRY YOUR HEART

Written by Georgette Kelly
Directed by Cate Caplin

With uneven, if sometimes moving results, Georgette Kelly’s new drama tracks both the literal and metaphorical journey of a human heart as it leaves one body to give life to another.

An ethereal presence now, noted author Debra Wilder (Dey Young) continues hovering around the world of the living as she prepares for the afterlife. Her estranged daughter Phoebe (Rebi Paganini), hears her mother’s voice as she peruses a manuscript Debra has left for her. The story tells of Debra’s wild years, hitchhiking to Woodstock and living the expat life in Morocco, where Phoebe was conceived. This is the closest Phoebe has ever gotten to truly understanding her mother; the two never got to say goodbye as Debra was already brain dead by the time Phoebe arrived at the medical center. The recipient of Debra’s donated heart is Tess (Dana Scurlock), who recoups in a hospital bed while her bossy-but-caring wife Lydia (Nicole Paloma Sarro) and gentle son Josh (John Anthony Torres) cross their fingers and hope the operation is a success. Debra’s spirit also plays visits to Tess’s bedside, suggesting that she cope with her conflicting emotions by doing something she’s never attempted before: writing.

Complications, both medical and emotional, arise as Phoebe begins an affair with Blake (Nico Piccardo), a sociable young doctor she meets in the hospital waiting room (who also happens to be one of Tess’s physicians). Meanwhile, Tess body begins rejecting the transplanted organ, causing Lydia to freak out and prompting an emergency return to the medical center. Phoebe has her own struggles, as she must step out from her mom’s shadow, find her own voice as a writer, poet, and stop sabotaging her potentially happy relationship with Blake. Eventually, though, Tess does decide to take a chance and start putting her thoughts down on paper. Much to the satisfaction of the phantasmal Debra, the written word becomes the agent of change.

I CARRY YOUR HEART is a tight evening of theater that largely works well. Director Cate Caplin uses the theater’s intimate space skillfully and draws moving performances from a charismatic cast. But the story – ironically enough, given its subject – missing from its center. Phoebe is quick to indict her mother, complaining that she “went away”. True, writers sometimes need to spend time apart from their families in order to meet the demands of the craft. That may have been tough for Phoebe as child, but as an adult it seems odd that she’s so loath to acknowledge her mother’s dedication.With zero help from Phoebe’s father, Debra used her gifts to provide for her family. Had she been an attorney or CEO, she still would have had to serve the two masters of career and family. There’s clearly more to the mother-daughter dynamic here, some reason why they didn’t talk for two years, than what Kelly shows us in this draft of the script. She would do well to consider rendering the parent-child relationship in sharper detail.

I CARRY YOUR HEART continues through April 14, 2019 at 59E59 theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org.

LIFE SUCKS

Written by Aaron Posner
Sort of adapted from UNCLE VANYA by Anton Chekov
Directed by Jeff Wise

Like a plate of gluten-free blinis paired with Skinny Girl vodka, this savory theatrical treat endeavors to cater to modern tastes while retaining the flavor of a familiar Russian delicacy. All the beloved characters are here, as well as the setting and more or less the contours of the plot. But the rhythm of the show, its cultural reference points, and its syncopated take on the poetry of self-reproach are decidedly contemporary. Although the play’s main source material is Chekhov’s, there are other influences at play here. The actors begin, as they might in one of Brecht’s dramas, by speaking directly to the audience and announcing that they are about to put on a play. Throughout the show, they periodically pop open the fourth wall to ask questions of the audience, recite lists of things they love and hate, and comment on the action of the play.

Among the most vocal of the bunch is the titular Vanya (Jeff Biehl) who lives on a rambling, rural estate owned by his brother-in-law Robert (Austin Pendleton), who everyone refers to as The Professor (I’m guessing the allusion to Gilligan’s Island, that most Chekhovian of sitcoms, is not accidental). Along with Sonia (Kimberley Chatterjee), the Prof’s diligent daughter from a previous marriage, Vanya has put his own literary ambitions been aside and devoted himself to taking care of the property. It’s not the most thrilling of lifestyles, but at least it provides Vanya and Sonia with a sense of continuity and purpose. Lately, though, things have been out of whack.The professor has returned to the estate with his stunning young wife Ella (Nadia Bowers), and Vanya, much to Sonia’s chagrin, has started neglecting his work. Dr. Aster (Michael Schantz) who’s been Vanya’s best bud since grade school, has also started paying more frequent visits: ostensibly he’s helping the Professor with his declining health, but really it’s Ella he’s there to see. Sexual tensions simmer as Vanya, murderously angry with the Professor for being a pompous popinjay, lusts after Ella and questions the meaning of his existence. Dr. Aster, murderously angry with himself for being a heavy-drinking workaholic, lusts after Ella and questions the meaning of his existence. Sonia, murderously angry with Ella for being beautiful, lusts after the doctor and questions the meaning of her existence. Ella, murderously angry with everyone for seeing only her beauty, lusts after the doctor and questions her marriage. The professor, murderously angry with the aging process, lusts after his lost youth and questions how much time he has left.

On the less discontented side of the spectrum stands Babs (Barbara Kingsley), a talented ceramicist who seems to have already gone through her share of existential crises and come out the other side; and a childlike neighbor named Pickles (Stacey Linnartz), who is far too openhearted to let past hurts curdle into anger (though she, too, lusts after Ella). In an atmosphere dank with sexual tension,stifled hopes and economic worry, something is bound to erupt. And when the Professor lets fly with a particularly unwelcome piece of news, Vanya reaches his breaking point. In the ensuing mayhem, farce collides with pathos, melancholy with giddy hopefulness, and the question of whether life, suck though it may, is worth living is confronted head on.

Director Jeff Wise could stand to goose the pace a bit in the first act, but nails the perfect tragicomic rhythm in the second. The actors, all ideally cast in their respective parts, are clearly enjoying the rich parts Posner has crafted for them. Their coalescence as an ensemble mirrors the commonality, even love, that exist between the characters even when they do their best to deny it. They may be at each other’s throats, but at least they’re talking. No one here spends the day tweeting or watching kitten videos on YouTube (in the one scene in which a cell phone does appear onstage it feels jarringly incongruous). The very people who appear be the bane of Vanya’s existence may, in the end, be his only path to salvation.

Though his title couldn’t be more diametrically opposite, Posner’s message is much the same as that of another great ode to thwarted ambition, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

LIFE SUCKS continues through April 20, 2019 at The Wild Project, 195 E 3rd Street, New York City, NY 10009. Tickets:https://web.ovationtix.com



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