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. 

 

 

THOUGHTS & PRAYERS

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Created & directed by Lauren Hlubny
Produced by Danse Theatre Surreality

Though occasionally heavy handed, Lauren Hlubny’s meditation on the challenges of contemporary life is both visually arresting and refreshingly unpredictable in its musical flights of invention. Even before the action begins, tension, albeit comedic in tone, is already palpable. The orchestra’s suit-waring horn section (Guy Dellacave, Josh Lang and Galo Morales), takes the stage like a cheerful boy band, currying applause from the audience. Called “Congress” in the show’s program, the guys represent the glad-handing element of our political culture. The string section, or “Activists” (Sergio Muñoz, Charlotte Munn-Wood, and Lena Vidulich), are clad in flowing clothes and skeptical expressions, sneering at what they see as the politicians’ insincerity.

After a turbulent overture, there we move to the small apartment of a young couple, Dana (Emma Factor) and Felix (Thomas Giles, who also composed the show’s searching and lively score). Poking gentle fun at millennial culture, the scene, cleverly written by Alexis Roblan, touches on a variety of trending social concerns from the environment to mental health. Clearly Dana want to make a difference, but it’s hard to know if starting an environmental vlog will do any good, and whether it’s okay to drink almond milk when there’s a water crisis in California. Dana and Felix will repeat the scene twice more, speaking the same lines but with a very different tone as they struggle to cope with mass shootings, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, government malfeasance and personal tragedy.

Luther Frank’s fluid lighting and scenic design combine with Tyler Barnett’s expressive costumes to create pictorially arresting framework for Hlubny’s choreography. Extremes of tenderness and violence, destruction and rebirth are expressed through a haunting series of tableaux, culminating in a tentatively optimistic denouement. As we watch the people from opposite sides begin communicate, using the language of music, we get the feeling all is not lost. Hlubny seems to be saying that, even in the midst of chaos and destruction, our better angels are still hard at work. Let’s hope she’s right.

THOUGHTS & PRAYERS ran from September 20-29, 2019 at TADA! Youth Theatre, 15 W 28th Street, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10001. For information on upcoming shows click here: https://dansetheatresurreality.org/upcoming-performances.

DECKY DOES A BRONCO

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Photo by Daniel Davila

Written by Douglas Maxwell
Directed by Ethan Nienaber
Assistant director Morgan Hahn

Set design…………… Diggle
Lighting design…..Aidan Marshall
Sound design………Cody Hom
Costumes…………….Susanne Houstle

When it comes to boyhood, everything that really matters happens on the playground. At least that’s how it through the lens of adulthood, with the mixed blessing of a greater knowledge of the world and its discontents.

Cody Robinson, who gave a starkly memorable performance in 2017’s Vietnam drama OCCUPIED TERRITORIES, stars as both the grownup and nine-year-old incarnations of the plays haunted protagonist. While adult David narrates the story, he revisits the swing set in his home town of Girvan, Scotland where the innocence-shattering events took place. Memories spring noisily to life as David’s childhood friends come barreling into view, vibrating with the unselfconsciously quirky hardihood of preadolescence. David’s cousin, Barry (Kennedy Kanagawa), who spends the summers in Girvan, obsessively times his bike rides so he can maximize his playground time and still make it home by dinnertime. O’Neil (Graham Baker) moves about the yard with a bad boy swagger that awes the other kids. Chrissy (David Gow) and Decky (Misha Osherovich) are the best of friends who express their affection by constantly fighting. David finds the whole thing a bit odd, but hey, that’s life at the swings. One of the gang’s favorite activities is a knuckleheaded stunt called “broncoing” that involves jumping off the fast-moving swing at just the right time, so that the chains will coil around the top beam and make a cool noise. Runty Decky can’t seem to master the art of the bronco, which makes him the object of some razzing (or, in their parlance “taking the mickey”) by the other boys. One afternoon, the teasing goes too far and Decky storms off, threatening to join the army and never return. What happens next sends shocks throughout the community and abruptly brings the boys’ childhood to an end. Everything that matters happens on the playground, including things that David, all these years later, can barely process.

The show’s deceptively simple (and remarkably durable) set provides a solid framework the action and adds the clank of its chains to the rhythms of the boy’s rowdy rituals. Making ample use of the space director Ethan Nienaber captures all the raw, startling contradictions of childhood, sometimes breaking into lyrical dance sequences accompanied by popular music of the early 80’s. In lesser hands, the conceit of adults playing children would feel artificial or cutesy, but Robinson and company bring a keenly-observed authenticity to their roles, never forcing a response from the audience. These boys are three dimensional beings. Like all of us, they are as fragile as they are resilient: practical schemers one moment, magical thinkers the next. Maxwell’s dialogue uncannily captures the cadences, the mad protocols playground life as well as the poignant simplicity of kid-logic (When, for example, David hears there was a lady at Decky’s house crying, he wonders if perhaps she’d been watching The Waltons). All too soon, though, the boys will reach a point where the old explanations no longer suffice. The experience of watching the sense of safety ebb from their faces will be difficult to forget.

DECKY DOES A BRONCO ran from September 6 through 21, 2019 at the  The Royal Family Performing Arts Space is located at 145 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. For more information visit https://www.deckydoesabronco.com.

ONLY YESTERDAY

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                                                                                                                                                                                              Photo by Carol Rosegg

Written by Bob Stevens
Directed by Carol Dunne

Based on a real incident, Bob Stevens’ affection tribute to the Beatles examines a moment a when the Fab Four – rock itself, for that matter – began maturing from a passing fad to an important voice for change.

It is 1964, the height of pop music’s British Invasion, and the Beatles, the world’s biggest band at the time, are set to play to a sold-out show at Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl. But Hurricane Dora has forced the lads to postpone the concert. Their road manager (Christopher Flockton) books a hotel in Key West, with George and Ringo sequestered in one room, Paul (Tommy Crawford) and John (Christopher Sears) in another. With throngs of rabid fans outside the inn, it isn’t safe for the boys to go outside. And they can’t pull in any English-speaking stations on the radio or “telly”, so they’re stuck with only each other for amusement. They fill up the time by horsing around and breaking out their guitars to strum a few of their faves by the likes of Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent.

Their antics are disrupted from time to time as journalists call in for some good-natured abuse from the boys, and one resourceful fan (Olivia Swayze) succeeds in getting as far as the air vent above the room. A more serious problem develops as word arrives of a troubling action taken by the Bowl’s proprietors. Florida is a southern state, which means the arena’s management plans to seat black audience members in a different section than whites. The lads, especially John, are having none of this: if the audience is segregated, there will be no show. This incident prompts a debate about whether writing silly love songs is a worthwhile pursuit in a world full so clearly of turmoil. While the mop-top Liverpudlians were busy strumming their way into the hearts of screaming schoolgirls, Bob Dylan and others were playing to a discerning audience who emphasized poetry and social criticism over danceable beats and crooning vocals. After having gotten high with Bob Dylan in New York, John believes the times are a-changin’, and the Beatles had better change with them. If they don’t, they’ll soon be only yesterday’s news. Paul demurs, but clearly John has set the gears clicking in his mind.

Weary of confinement and lubricated by alcohol from the hotel bar, the boys begin to open up about the deep wounds they carry inside. Both have lost their mothers at a young age. Paul coped by shutting down, John by lashing out (both would later pay tribute to their mothers in the lyrics of their songs). This is the first time they’ve been able to talk about it, and the feeling is palpable that the experience is a turning point in the development of their friendship and creative partnership.

Stevens’s trim, lively script deftly mingles the personal with the histori, with Michael Ganio’s detailed set evoking a beige Cold War world for whom rock and roll must have felt like a plasma infusion. Crawford and Sears wisely steer clear of strict impersonation, preferring instead to keep their acting choices spontaneous and natural. Flockton brings a touch of classic British comedy to his portrayal of the exasperated factotum, saddled with keeping the young “tossers” out of trouble, while Swayze is both appealing and ominous as the groupie who reminds the Beatles just how fickle their teen fans can be.

With all these positive ingredients, though, the show still feels more like an affectionate tribute than a deeply felt emotional journey. Carol Dunne directs with a light hand, so much so that the stakes don’t always feel high enough to keep us invested in the story. If the idea is to show us a glimpse of the real men behind the Fab Four image, it would be helpful to get a stronger dose of Lennon’s anger and self-protective wit, McCartney’s quiet stoicism, and of the roiling intellect that informed the band’s groundbreaking musical achievements. For Beatle aficionados, ONLY YESTERDAY will serve a welcome addition to the growing body of work inspired by the lives and songs of Lennon and McCartney. Judged purely as theater, it’s a well-crafted, agreeable production: perfectly entertaining, but not a must-see.

ONLY YESTERDAY continues through September 29, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/only-yesterday

TECH SUPPORT

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Written & directed by Debra Whitfield

Remember Somewhere in Time, featuring Jane Seymour and the late Christopher Reeve at the peak of their talent and beauty? How about Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells falls in love with a forthright bank clerk while chasing Jack the Ripper across 1970s San Francisco? The once popular time-travel-meets-romance subgenre is due for a 21st Century reboot, and playwright/director Debra Whitfield is just the person to do it. Bringing a decidedly contemporary sensibility to her an era-hopping heroine search for fulfillment, Whitfield examines both our gadget-addicted society and the evolution of women’s rights over the past century.

TECH SUPPORT begins with scenario we’ve all found ourselves acting out at one time or another. Antique bookseller Pamela Stark (Margot White) having one of those days where absolutely all of her “smart” devices simply refuse to work. She calls tech support, but only succeeds in getting stuck in circuitous maze of automated option menus. When she finally reaches Chip (Ryan Avalos) she is overjoyed just to hear a human voice.  Opening up to Chip, Pam admits she feels nostalgic for a time “when going viral meant catching a communicable disease and trolls were just dolls with funny hair”. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. After accidentally pressing the wrong button  Pam enters a surreal swirl of digital imagery and finds herself, like a modern-day Dorothy, plopped into the center of an unfamiliar world.

The creatures she encounters here, though, are hardly munchkins. They’re just regular Americans in old-fashioned garb. Slowly Pamela comes realizes what’s happened. She’s in the same location, but the year is 1919. In this slower-paced milieu, people’s demeanor is far more hospitable and polite than what we’re used to in 2019. Yet the atmosphere is no less politically charged. Two energetic young ladies, Grace (Lauriel Friedman) and Maisie (Leanne Cabrera) are busy demonstrating in favor of a controversial new policy proposal: votes for women. Affable boarding house proprietor Charlie Blackwell (Mark Lotito) jokes about this new proposal, but seems fine with the fact that women’s suffrage has already passed in New York (the imminent  ban on alcohol is more irksome to Charlie). He’s actually a decent sort, old school views notwithstanding, and has seen his share of personal tragedy. Pamela takes him up on his offer of a job and a room, and for a moment it looks like she might just find contentment among these kindhearted villagers. Then along comes an unpleasant reminder of just how much those seemingly simpler times differed from ours. When unmarried Maisie finds out she’s pregnant by her boyfriend Chip (Avalos), her options look bleak, possibly even life-threatening. While attempting to counsel and comfort Maisie, Pamela inadvertantly activates the time machine again and…

She lands in 1946. The war is over and the American economy is booming. Women, who got out of the home and went to work while the men fought overseas, are feeling a new sense of power. Grace, older but no less vital, is rising rapidly in the political sphere. The demands of the job have taken their toll on her marriage to Charlie, but neither one wants to throw in the towel just yet. Pamela helps by taking a job on the campaign alongside Maisie’s son, Chip Junior (also Avalos). The two banter, flirt, go on dates and – uh oh! – fall in love. Panicked at the thought of that this inter-era romance can’t possibly work, Pamela jumps to disco-driven 1977. A more vocal form of feminism is now taking flight as embodied by ERA activists Lupe and Tori (Cabrera and Friedman) and the now famous Senator Grace Blackwell. But all is not well at campaign headquarters. Here the story enters It’s A Wonderful Life territory as Pam confronts the aging Chip, Jr., clearly a man whose destiny would have been different his one true love hadn’t chosen to time-jump out of his life at the worst possible moment. Pam is faced with a dilemma. Should she chronoport to 2020 and let the whole escapade vanish like a dream? Or go back and fix the midcentury mess she left behind? This time Tech Support can’t help. Pamela will have to silence her electronics and listen to that still, small voice inside.

Both in her script and direction, Whitfield wrings laughs and tenderness out of the culture clash between her FOMO-driven protagonist and the practitioners of a more thoughtfully-paced way of life. The cast, anchored by White’s endearing Pamela, bring warmth and wit to their sociological and personal arcs. The story’s journey through history is made colorful and convincing by the well-researched and visually appealing achievements of the gifted design team.  To be sure, there are a few puzzling aspects of TECH SUPPORTS’s take on American history. For example, the only time men we see men getting handsy or inappropriate with their female colleagues is in the supposedly more liberated Seventies. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the notion that something of chivalry and courtship was lost as greater equality was gained, as journalist Kay Hymowitz and others have posited. But we don’t get as much exploration here as the topic deserves. This minor complaint aside, though, TECH SUPPORT does a marvelous job of delivering a much-needed reminder that, regardless of the times, the human heart is the only smart device any of us really need. Or, as H.G. Wells declares in Time After Time “Every age is the same. It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.”

Scenic Design ……………………………..Natalie Taylor Hart
Costume Design …………………………Janice O’Donnell
Lighting Design ………………………….Deborah Constantine
Sound Design ……………………………..Ed Matthew
Sound Design Consultant …………..Carlene Stober
Projection Design ……………………….Elliott Forrest
Hair & Make-up Design ………………Inga Thrasher
Prop Master ………………………………..Cyrus Newitt
Dramaturge …………………………………Benjamin Viertel
Casting ………………………………………..Stephanie Klapper, CSA

Photo credit: Russ Rowland

TECH SUPPORT continues through Sept 21, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park & Madison Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAC WELLMAN: PERFECT CATASTROPHES

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BAD PENNY directed by Kristan Seemel

Scenic Designer…………………………………………………………………..Frank J. Oliva
Costume Designer…………………………………………………………Barbara Erin Delo
Lighting Designer…………………………………………………..Becky Heisler McCarthy
Sound Designer……………………………………………………………………..Emma Wilk
Properties Master …………………………………………………………..Patricia Marjorie

SINCERITY FOREVER directed by Dina Vovsi

Scenic Designer………………………………………………………………………..Jian Jung
Costume Designer………………………………………………………………….Emily White
Lighting Designer…………………………………………………………………..Daisy Long
Sound Designer………………………………………………………………….Keenan Hurley

Mac Wellman, a noted envelope pusher in the 1990’s, is seldom seen these days on off-Broadway stages. The Flea’s SEASON OF ANARCHY festival provokes mixed emotions as to whether Wellman is playwright worth revisiting. Certainly his verbal pyrotechnics and narrative inventions offer a lively alternative to traditional approaches to stagecraft, and audiences craving an American spin on the Absurdist traditions of Ionesco and Becket will feel well fed by the the festivals one act offerings. But there’s no overlooking the fact that theater has changed significantly in the past 20 years, and much of Wellman’s writing today feels more quaintly cerebral than bracingly avant-garde.

Both BAD PENNY and SINCERITY FOREVER focus on a kind of imminent reckoning between humanity and darker forces from another plane of existence. The characters seem to be intuitively ratcheting up their idiosyncratic demeanor in anticipation of a coming event, in much the same way that animals are said to behave erratically when they sense an incipient earthquake. The set design of PENNY simulates a public park, equipped with blankets, picnic tables and a concession stand. The actors are cleverly interspersed with the audience, so you never know who’s going to suddenly jump up and start participating in the action. Man #1 (Joseph Huffman) hails from Big Ugly, Montana and, not surprisingly, has plenty to say about the Big Ugly things that have happened in his life. At the moment, he’s coping with a flat tire, which he has rolled into the park to get a better look at the damage. Eccentric Woman #1 (Emma Orme) gives the young westerner grief, but Brooklyn-accented Woman #2 (Bailie de Lacy), insist the stranger  ought to be treated hospitably. Seated on a plastic cooler, Man #2 (Alex J. Moreno) gets his two cents in, while sportily Man #3 ) Lambert Tamin) wanders about the park questioning the meaning of life. The multiple voices of the characters form a cacophonous collage of sound, and in time their jeremiads are joined by a rhythmic Chorus (Caroline Banks, Dana Placentra, and Katelyn Sabet). Religious, philosophical, flirtatious, civic, bombastic, or all of the above (this is New York, after all), the rants build to a ritualistic climax as a hooded green figure (Ryan Wesley Stinnett) – who, rather refreshingly, doesn’t speak – arrives on the scene to ferry some unlucky soul to the next world. His selection seems random, but then that’s part of the point. The park dwellers may prefer to believe they can make sense of their world through language, but the cosmos, as always, has the last word.

SINCERITY FOREVER begins with two small town high school girls (Charly Dannis and Malena Pennycook) chatting away in front of a mirror as they put on makeup and fix their hair. Their concerns are typical teen fare: who’s cool, who isn’t, who has a crush on whom, plus a bit of idle pondering about the way the world works. The scene takes a dark turn when the two don the final element of their wardrobes: the iconic white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. On the other side of  town a group of grungy outcasts who call themselves the Furballs (Zac Porter and Neysa Lozano) gather to sound off on all the things they hate (including each other).  In a trope reminiscent of Tom Stoppard, two male Kluxers Nate DeCook  and Vince Ryne play out the same scene, with largely the same dialogue, as the girls. This time the gossip leads to flirtation and the boys begin making out. The notion of gay Klansmen is undeniably provocative, but Wellman doesn’t stop there. An apocalypse looms as one of the boys recalls his father’s last words (“She dark!”).  Daddy was referring to Jesus H. Christ (Amber Jaunai), who materializes in town to bring judgement to the wicked. Naturally, a black female Nazarene is destined to be greeted with less than a warm welcome by the racist townspeople, most of whom prefer to thump the Bible than to try to live by its tenets. As the inevitable confrontation draws nearer, tensions erupt in a kind of verbal Vesuvius.

Both plays feature strong ensembles and intriguing staging (though, of the two directors, Kristan Seemel is somewhat more successful than Dina Vovsi at getting the actors’ gears to mesh). The design teams adds ingenious touches to help immerse the audience in a comically apocalyptic universe. The material itself, though, is only partially satisfying. Wellman’s logorrhea, even in the short form, wears thin over time. By the end of each fable, the onslaught of rhetoric no longer rings with the clarity of a keenly-observed examination of communication breakdowns in modern society. It begins to sound more like the neurotic tape loop spinning inside the hyperactive mind – albeit an exceptional one – of a writer chained to his desk. Less dependence on deus ex machina endings, and a deeper dive into character dynamics, would help boost the relevance of his work for our time.

MAC WELLMAN: PERFECT CATASTROPHES continues through November 1, 2019 at The Flea Theater 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007. Phone: 212-226-0051. 

CONTACT HIGH

Gabriella Marzetta, Kyle Reid Hass (1)

Book, music & lyrics by Kyle Reid Hass & Jeremy Swanton
Directed by Kyle Reid Hass

Nothing comes easily for the students at Fairview High School. In today’s failure-phobic climate, senior year is an acid test, a chance to take hold of the future before it takes puts a choke hold on you. Benjamin (Jeremy Swanton), has a good enough grade point average to get into his dream college, but the only way he can afford ivy league tuition is by peddling heroin to his fellow students. His partner in crime Jean Simon (Gabriella Marzetta), has a less lofty goal in mind. She wants to take back the $10,000 adult gangster Trix (Dana Norris) has shorted her and Benjamin during one of their transactions. Adding to the atmosphere of anxiety is the mysterious disappearance of Fairview student Tommy Wheeler. No one seems to know what happened to him (or if they do, they’re not talking), and only Tommy’s best friend Karen (Laura Thoresen) makes much effort to get to the bottom of it.

Karen and Benjamin belong to the Science Alliance, an elite club in which brainy students prepare to showcase their game-changing inventions at a big statewide competition. The most brilliant of the scientific hopefuls is Hayley Walter Keys (Kyle Reid Hass). But the Science Alliance has voted to boot him out of the club for his flaky behavior. Too bad he’s already spent thousands of dollars on illegal parts for his project, and now owes money to a shadowy weapons dealer named The Warlock. Desperate for cash, he pleads with Jean to put in a good word with her boss, gun-toting drug lord  Landon Casey.  As Jean soon learns, Haley’s scientific mind makes him an ideal co-conspirator.  As they cook up a plot to reclaim  Trix’s closely guarded loot, Jean and Haley discover they have more in common than meets the eye. He suffers from haphephobia, a rare disorder which causes him to react violently when another person, even accidentally, physically touches him. This condition has made him a pariah at school and a convenient suspect in the Wheeler case. Jean suffers from a more common affliction: she has become addicted to the heroin she slings. Although the two may not seem like natural allies, their shared struggle with inner demons (contact for him, high for her), puts them on the path to friendship. While their bond deepens, Benjamin becomes more embroiled in Landon’s criminal syndicate. Back on campus, the impending science fair brings out the best and worst in the clubbers, while grief counselor Brandi Orphan (Norris) sets up shop, ostensibly in an effort to help the kids cope with Tommy’s disappearance but more likely hoping to advance a hidden agenda. All these tensions inevitably erupt with tragic consequences, although there  does appear to be hope at the bottom of this Pandora’s Box of 21st Century problems. The kids, those left standing, learn that sometimes being good is a worthier goal than trying to be perfect.

Sympathetic characters and a solid structure keep the show moving briskly. In the  second act especially,  the writers neatly wring comedy relief from Brandi’s hollow shrinkspeak and from the antics of the overzealous science kids (especially the underutilized Iyana Colby).  But there are missed opportunities here as well. The story  suffers a bit from Breakfast Club Syndrome, in which grownups, seen only through a teenoscope, appear to be either uncool clods or one-dimensional antagonists. The score, too, could stand to take more risks. To be sure, Swanton and Hass  know their craft. The lyrics elucidate the characters’ wants and the rhymes are clean (a rare pleasure in a time when HAMILTON’s dollar-father, hungry-country  near rhymes are considered the gold standard). Nevertheless, too many of the songs focus on adolescent self-seriousness, and  most are built around familiar pop-hymnal chord sequences. Rarely do the numbers soar to memorable melodic heights or descend to the down-and-dirty depths of rock and roll. With all the influences at play in contemporary popular music, one would think the youth of today would move to a more varied and vivid soundtrack. 

All in all, CONTACT HIGH adds up to a sincere effort by a promising young creative team—not quite the emotional journey or generational anthem contained in the seeds of its premise. Like their protagonists, though, Swanton and Hass, if they persevere, will get where they need to go .

CONTACT HIGH continues through September 7, 2019 at Theater 511, located at 511 West 54th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://ci.ovationtix.com/35107/
production/1014717