EINSTEIN’S DREAMS

scenic design ISABEL MENGYUAN LE costume design SIDNEY SHANNON lighting design HERRICK GOLDMAN sound design KEVIN HEARD projection design DAVID BENGALI props design SEAN FRANK
                                                                                                                                                                                 Photo by Richard Termine

Book and lyrics by Joanne Sydney Lessner
Music and lyrics by Joshua Rosenblum
Based on the novel Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. All Rights Reserved.
Directed by Cara Reichel

Composed of lyrical meditations on the nature of time and the universe, Alan Lightman’s fictional account of the young Albert Einstein’s early theoretical explorations is hardly the type of book that cries out to be made into a musical. Then again, Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum aren’t your typical musical theater writing team. Best known for FERMAT’S LAST TANGO, (the very title of which is an inside joke requiring knowledge of both mathematical history and 1970’s art house cinema), this risk-taking duo has a history tackling political and esoteric subject matter. Here, their task is to explore the life of the mind (one of the most notoriously complex and extraordinary minds in human history at that) through song and spectacle, and to make the whole thing as entertaining as it thought-provoking. This is no easy task: To dumb the story down would be a disservice to Lightman’s novel and to its subject, but to craft an  inscrutable or self-consciously erudite piece of “theater art” would serve only to alienate the audience and obscure the truth of the text. Remarkably, Lessner and Rosenblum navigate this Scylla and Charybdis with admirable skill and brio, aided in their efforts by a likable and gifted cast, a rich musical palette, and a dazzlingly inventive design team.

The story begins in in Berne, Switzerland , where a discontented Einstein (Zal Owen) whiles his days away working as a clerk in a patent office. The job enables Albert to support his young family, but the work clearly doesn’t hold his interest. Quite literally a clock watcher, Albert only feels alive when attempting to codify the true nature of time, a process that requires him to subdue his conscious mind and let his dreams be his guide. As he meanders through a colorful fantasy world, he falls in love with the elegant, mysterious Josette, (Alexandra Silber), yet there always seems to be something in the way of their romance. They apparently live in different time frames, and Albert’s questions receive only cryptic replies from his new paramour. Soon it becomes apparent that Einstein’s dreams aren’t mere flights of fancy. They contain clues as to the nature of the universe. One dream examines how society would behave if time itself were about to end. In another, people watch their futures play out in several different potential scenarios, each of which seem equally plausible (physicist Hugh Everett and others would later develop this concept into the Many Worlds Theory). Other reveries show time flowing backwards, explore a world in which no one ever dies (it gets a bit crowded), or focus on the mixed emotions felt by parents who, try as they might, can’t stop time from catapulting their children into adulthood. Glimpses of Einstein’s future life appear, as he leaves the Old World charm of Switzerland for drably efficient wartime America and helps usher in the Atomic Age. While Einstein vanishes into his nightly wonderland, his situation back on Earth grows increasingly dire. Hours spent napping at the office mean less time at home, and his long absences take their toll on his marriage to Mileva (Tess Primack). His superiors at the patent office aren’t too thrilled with young Einstein either. His habit of falling asleep at his desk and his lack of attention to his work put him at odds with Mr. Klausen, (Michael McCoy) his punctilious boss. Fellow patent clerk Michele Besso (Brennan Caldwell) wonders if his friend is going crazy. But Besso’s astute wife Anna (Lisa Helmi Johanson) finds Al’s theories charming (it’s all relative). Einstein persists in his belief that the world will one day embrace his theories, but time, as it’s measured in Berne, is running out. Theories notwithstanding, Einstein’s real world problems will have to be sorted out.

The form of the play poses certain challenges, as the stakes are lower in a dream than in real life. We know Albert will wake up in one piece. Smartly, though, the writers don’t overtax the premise. The show is performed without an intermission and clocks in at a trim 95 minutes despite a good sized number of songs. Backed by Rosenblum’s classically-inspired melodies and Tim Peierls’ lush orchestrations, Lessner’s lyrics show remarkable skill and imagination. Her virtuosity is particularly evident in numbers like “Now Backwards Moving Is Time”, in which the characters express their thoughts in reverse, and “Love Is Not a Science”, which abounds with triple and quadruple rhymes as Besso and Albert whimsically bemoan the fact that mathematical postulates are useless in matters of the heart. Throughout the song catalog, Lessner manages to deftly compress complicated concepts into understandable and charming verses.

Director Cara Reichel and associate director Dax Valdes move the actors in and out of the play’s real and imaginary locations with the precision of a Swiss clock, while Herrick Goldman’s lights and David Bengali’s projections nimbly create a series of specific color palettes and symbolic touches for each of Einstein’s miniature odysseys. Sidney Shannon’s costumes reflect the last vestiges of a quaint, early 20th Century Europe that will soon be energized by innovation and consumed by the tides of war and barbarism. Last but far from least, Isabel Mengyuan Le’s set delights the eye and gives a physical form to the circular, linear, multilayered  and evanescent nature of time that so fascinated the show’s namesake.

Audiences desiring a more conventional protagonist-vs-obstacle take on the musical form may find the show a bit wanting in meat-and-potatoes storytelling. But for those who crave a nourishing and tasteful mezze plate for the mind, an evening spent attending EINSTEIN’S DREAMS will be time well spent.

EINSTEIN’S DREAMS continues through December 14 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/einsteins-dreams/#schedule-and-tickets

MOLLY SWEENEY

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Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

Dramatist Brian Friel set his best-known play, DANCING AT LUGHNASA, in a small country cottage that seemed too small to contain the energies of work, music, dance and love that keeps a family going even through hard times and thwarted desires.  In the more somber e MOLLY SWEENEY, Friel again leavens his dialogue with the cadences of rural Ireland. But the play’s framework allows for little in the way of physical movement or interaction between characters. As in a prose piece read aloud, we get accounts, rather than embodiments, of action and incident. When the characters dance, they describe the experience in the past tense.

The titular Molly (Pamela Sabaugh) sits in the center, flanked by the men in her life: her husband Frank (Tommy Schrider), and her eye surgeon Mr. Rice (Paul O’Brien).  The first monologue belongs to Molly, who recalls a happy childhood in the coastal community of Ballybeg. She was close to her father, a judge in the local court system, who fostered in Molly a sense of independence. Sharpening her other senses, Molly grew up learning to recognize different flowers by their shape and odor, to determine her location by touching nearby objects. Much to her mother’s chagrin, her father refused to send her to a school for the blind, but Molly was determined to successfully navigate a world built for sighted people. Carrying her forthright mentality into adulthood, she finds a job and a home to call her own, makes a few friends, and enjoys physical activities, especially  swimming in the ocean. Dating naturally follows, and she ends up marrying the peripatetic Frank. Here’s where things get complicated.

Blessed with high intelligence but not a lot of common sense, Frank has tried his hand at numerous careers but could never make anything stick. In one instance, he attempted to make a living as a fromager. After exhaustive research, he arranged to have what the thought were the world’s finest goats flown specially from the middle east. But his plans  curdled, so to speak, when he discovered that these goats were unable to adapt to their new time zone and wouldn’t give enough milk to pay for themselves. In some ways, his marriage to Molly becomes a new iteration of his Iranian goat project. Frank calculates how a blind person encounters the physical world, and prepares a plan for Molly’s new life in the event that, after experimental surgery, her sight is restored. Similarly, Mr. Rice, though not lacking in compassion, sees Molly largely as a shot at redemption. Once a rising star in the medical world, he has faded into obscurity while watching his fellow scientists gain accolades. His comeback dreams will come true if he pulls off the modern miracle of curing Molly’s disability. What none of the characters – including Molly – are able to foresee is how dramatically her world will change if the operations succeeds.

Sure enough, though everyone is happy at the outcome of the operation, Molly discovers that vision can be a mixed blessing.  Swimming, once Molly’s great source of sensual fulfillment, feels less inspiring now that sight is involved. When Molly sees the type flowers she once gathered her dad, she discovers they’re not as pretty as they were in her mind’s eye. Depression follows, and Frank and Mr. Rice, once so eager to contribute to Molly’s progress, are now powerless to help. As an uncertain future looms, relationships are challenged, and Molly’s path to happiness, ironically, seems to be slipping further out of sight.

Though it’s a bit stereotypical (men are fixers, women are feelers) the plight of Molly and her men is an intriguing one. Blindness as a metaphor runs throughout the story. In his early career, Mr. Rice tells us, he was enamored of with his own medical prowess that he failed to notice that his wife (now, understandably, his ex) felt neglected. Similarly, the quixotic Frank fancies himself a man of vision, but is heavily blinkered when it comes to letting reality sink in.

Under Jonathan Silverstein’s sensitive direction, all three actors make the most of Friel’s intelligent and lilting language. But there are details of the story that seem glaringly absent. For example, we learn little about Frank and Molly’s lovemaking: how it felt when she was blind, how it changed with sight. They don’t quite seem like a real couple. Also the interpolated-soliloquy format keeps the audience at a safe remove.  If the actors had been reading from scripts propped up on music stands, it wouldn’t make much difference. The choice of such a framework is a puzzling one, and seems to work against the theme. After all, Molly is nothing if not tactile. She has learned to make her way in the world using her sense of touch. Yet we have to wait until the curtain call to see the actors make any kind of physical contact. A more theatrical, less literary approach might have helped the story land with more emotional impact.

MOLLY SWEENEY continues through November 16, 2019 at Theatre Row Theaters,
410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Ticket: www.telecharge.com

OMINOUS MEN

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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. 

 

 

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.