SHEAR MADNESS

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Created by Bruce Jordan & Marilyn Abrams

Adapted from the play by Paul Pörtner

Directed by Bruce Jordan

After more than 30 years of successful runs in Boston, Chicago and many other burgs worldwide, this interactive whodunit has finally made its New York debut. Like any newly arrived out-of-towner, the show hasn’t yet fully adapted to Manhattan’s rhythms and sensibilities. It does, however, feature a cast of charming and improv-savvy actors, and with some tuning-up, SHEAR MADNESS has the potential to do well in Gotham.

The play opens with a bit of well-played silent comedy. Shaving cream, shampoo, scissors and other inanimate objects take on a life of their own as tawdry Barbara Demarco (Kate Middleton) and flamboyant Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist), go through the motions of a typical day in the Shear Madness hair salon. Unbeknownst to the hairdressers, customers Mike (Adam Gerber) and Nick (Patrick Noonan), are actually undercover cops investigating a blackmail case. The upstairs neighbor, a once-renowned concert pianist with plenty of money, has received threatening letters. And when she turns up dead, Mike and Nick need some questions answered. Barbara and Tony are, of course,  persons of interest. So are two mysterious clients, sharply-dressed Eddie (Jeremy Kushnier), and Park Avenue patrician Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller). Like a Brooklyn edition of Hercule Poirot, Nick instructs the suspects not to go anywhere. He then breaks the fourth wall and turns the audience into eyewitnesses. Who was absent from the shop when the murder took place? Did anyone see anything suspicious? Of course, clues have been planted all throughout the proceedings, and viewers recall seeing Barbara kissing Eddie, Mrs. Shubert making a cryptic phone call, etc. Based on an audience vote, any one of the four potential culprits might turn out to be the real killer. The cast is ready with a motive and back story for each eventuality.

More than the murder mystery plot line, the comic tension created by the show’s unknown outcome gives the show its theatrical energy. Under Bruce Jordan’s thoroughgoing direction, the actors manage to stay solidly in-character while responding to the wild cards thrown at them by the audience. The resulting spontaneous comedic combustion is far more successful than the show’s scripted witticisms. Jordan and co-creator Marilyn Abrams take a kind of birdshot approach to comedy, peppering the audience with blasts of topical one-liners in the hopes that some of them will land. References to Kim Kardashian, the Spice Girls, and many other pop-culture figures are laced throughout the play, and while some of the material is clever, much of it feels passé. For SHEAR MADNESS to click with Manhattan ticket buyers, its script would benefit from some trimming, shaping and styling.

SHEAR MADNESS continues in an open run at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street New York, NY 10019. Tickets at telecharge.com.

 

 

 

tiger tiger (on the nature of violence)

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Written and directed by Jessica Almasy

Starring Matt Baguth, Kate Benson, Jill Frutkin, Fernando Gonzalez, Hannah Heller, Hannah Kallenbach, David Neal Levin, Teri Madonna, Eliana Mullins, Christopher Nunez, Nazli Sarpkaya and Brendan Titley

There are some interesting metaphors and provocative ambiguities at the center of Jessica Almasy’s kaleidoscopic examination of predatory instinct. There’s also quite a bit of clutter and noise, which mostly serves to obscure – and not in an intriguing, Dadaist way – the author’s intentions.

The plot concerns a group of twenty-somethings, a bit high and looking for adventure, who break into a zoo after hours. Two of them find a quiet place to make out, while the others stand by a tigress’s cage and philosophize about the nature of the cosmos. When one of them approaches the “tiger goddess”, the animal becomes hostile. Escaping her confines, she mauls the man to death. The whole thing is caught on security cameras, but the incompetent zoo cops but can’t figure out if the kids did anything to provoke the tiger, or even if the sex between the other couple was consensual. A TV pundit hosts a show concerning  the event  and callers chime in with opinions. Lots of other things happen as well: Girl scouts looking for thrill go to visit a psychotic cross-dresser, a pill addict encounters a talking tooth (who has the show’s cleverest line), various people spout obscure poetry and there are droll group therapy sessions which, despite the show’s avant garde trappings, feel like territory that’s been ploughed before.

Especially in the earlier scenes, the sound design is so thick and clamorous that the actors are forced to give unsubtle performances in order to be heard. Other beats are intentionally, though not compellingly, played flat, as when the news anchor sits and reads all the parts of a panel discussion as if it were a courtroom transcript (while on a projection screen we are for shown someone with A.D.D. endlessly revising a text message). The sad part of all this randomness is that when Almasy stays on-topic, she does achieve potent theatrical effects. There’s a sensitive monlogue in which the tigress, floating in a kind of afterlife, explains herself to her victim. And there are some erotically-charged scenes involving a courtship between the predator and her prey, and in which a possible rape victiim reaches a climax while telling her aggressor to stop. Here, at last, we have some primal questions: Are human beings attracted to the very things most likely to destroy us? Do we want to be taken, devoured? Do we identify with wild beasts even as we seek to remain safe from them?

These moments show talent and imagination, and it’s a shame that Almasy couldn’t see her way clear to pruning away the play’s more self-indulgent schtick. There’s nothing wrong with challenging an audience, prompting us to work harder to find connections between seemingly unrelated events. But good experimental theater is more than just a receptacle for sundry brain blips. As much, if not moreso than traditional forms, a non-linear presentation requires the author to separate the truly original from the merely weird. Both as a writer and and as a director, Almasy needs to take a more rigorous approach to honing her asthetic and finding the internal rhythms that make for a strong dramatic statement.

tiger tiger (on the nature of violence) continues through  November 21 at Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street, New York, NY 10002. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/171

CUCKOOED

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Written & performed by Mark Thomas

Directed by Emma Callander

Impishly reversing the famous slogan “speak truth to power”, British comedian-anarchist Mark Thomas has had remarkable success in tricking the powerful into making startlingly self-incriminating confessions on camera. He’s doesn’t stop there. Targeting major players in the shadowy world of the military-industrial complex, he has taken part in numerous demonstrations, peace campaigns and speak-outs. Of course,  the powerful have ways of hitting back, and as Thomas discloses in his impassioned new one man show, the results can be devastating.

In an energetic style somewhat reminiscent of Alexei Sayle, Thomas recalls his involvement with the activist group Campaign Against Arms Trade. Designed to foster peace by stymieing large weapons interests, CAAT is largely composed of idealistic students and straight-laced Quakers. It’s therefore a breath of fresh air to have someone with a big personality like Martin Hogbin join the team (Thomas scrupulously leaves out the last name, but it’s easy enough to find on the internet). Raw, working class, funny and outspoken, the charismatic  Martin becomes a great friend to Mark and other members of the group, and a father figure to the younger recruits. They all grow to trust and love Martin, and he’s the last person anyone would suspect of treachery.

Yet in 2003, a Sunday Times article reveals that the defense company  BAE Systems has been running a spy network through a third party. It seems odd that Europe’s largest arms dealer would expend its resources on a small group of studious peaceniks. But CAAT has undeniable evidence that confidential documents have been leaked. In an unusual court decision, BAE admits to having hired an operative to infiltrate the group, and officially promises to desist. This is a bittersweet victory for Mark and company. It’s great that BAE’s public disgrace brings media attention to the evils of the arms trade. It’s not so good for morale. Once the tight-knit CAAT crew knows there is a spy in their midst, things can never be the same– especially when the paper trail leads, unambiguously, to Martin.

Like all artists, a devastated Thomas turns to his work to try and make sense of it all. He talks to many of his colleagues (excerpts from filmed interviews are interspersed throughout the show), and writes down his own recollections of events. A visit to Martin’s home reveals that he’s hardly living in luxury. So if money wasn’t the motivator, what did BAE have on him? Thomas is, to his credit, impeccably fair to Martin, offering repeatedly to let him tell his side of the story. Alas, Hogbin ultimately decides to keep mum. Someone seems to have gotten to him yet again.

It would be comforting to dismiss this story as the paranoid rant of a conspiracy theorist. Sadly, the documentation is incontrovertible, and Thomas goes on to show us interviews with construction workers, teachers, and other ordinary people who have similarly been targets of illegal surveillance, harassment and blacklisting because of their political beliefs.

The show’s core narrative, a kind of loss-of-innocence story, gives the show an emotional spine that makes it a true theater piece rather than just an evening of politically-oriented standup. If it’s intended as a call to action, though, CUCKOOED is not entirely successful. Thomas does not paint a rosy picture of an activist’s life, nor does he attempt to flatter the audience with the good news that we can make the world a better place. He does, however, provide an honest, and ultimately moving glimpse of life in the trenches.

CUCKOOED continues through November 21 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E 59th St, New York, NY 10022 (212) 753-5959

BIG APPLE CIRCUS: THE GRAND TOUR

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Directed by Mark Lonergan

A sense of wonder is a challenging thing to instill in today’s audiences. Yet even the most jaded patrons will find it impossible not to gasp at some of the derring-do displayed in the THE GRAND TOUR,  not to smile at the production’s overall charm, spirit, and panache.

The show’s ingenious framing device is established quickly, as ebullient ringleader John Kennedy Kane prepares the crowd for the journey ahead. The theme here is luxury travel, 1920s style. The concept serves a dual purpose: it helps provide a loose through-line on which to pin the performances, and more importantly, allows the creative staff to add fanciful sonic and visual touches.  Rob Slowik’s orchestra plays selections that evoke exotic locales and jazz age splendor.  Scenic and lighting designer Maruti Evans – whose remarkable storytelling skills are familiar to fans of the Godlight Theater Company – joins forces with costume designer Oana Botez to give the presentation an opulent style reminiscent of vintage travel posters.

A richly varied lineup of acts includes the voluptuous hula hoop artistry of Chiara Anastasini, an innovative juggling routine by Alexander Koblikov, exuberant teeterboard antics from the Dosov Troupe,  feats of physical dexterity by the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats and the aptly named Energy Trio, a truly heart-stopping turn by the Dominguez Brothers on an enormous apparatus called the Wheel of Wonder, and a lyrical aerialist solo dance by Sergey Akimov. The talent pool here is not limited to the human species, and demonstrations of canine agility and equine beauty, choreographed by animal whisperer Jenny Vidbel, are among the show’s most memorable moments. Along the way, clowns Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth add a touch of commedia dell’arte to their wordless portrayals of the pompous steward of a luxury liner and his trickster assistant.

The entire evening vibrates with a refreshing tone of sincerity and joy– the born performer’s deep desire to show the audience a wonderful time. Populist in the best and most timeless sense of the word, these troupers seem grateful that there is still a place where they can do what they love, where their diligently-honed abilities still matter. Both children and media-weary grownups would do well to place a soul-rejuvenating visit to the big top on their holiday season to-do lists.

THE GRAND TOUR continues through January 10, 2016 at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, Amsterdam Avenue  and West 62nd Street, New York, NY 10023. Tickets: https://tickets.bigapplecircus.org/Online/default.asp

THE GIN GAME

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Written by D.L. Coburn

Directed by Leonard Foglia

It’s hard not to be suspicious of revivals like THE GIN GAME. With its single set and two-person cast, a play like this is appealing both to actors’ egos and producers’ bottom lines. And the image of two beloved stage- and-screen veterans beaming from the marquee has “resold” written all over it. Cynical New York theatergoers might easily jump to the conclusion that this is yet another cynically-packaged star vehicle, its marketers stopping just short of printing expiration dates on the poster below the elderly players’ faces.

Thankfully, the production is done with sincerity and skill that all skepticism vanishes from the moment the lights come up. This is a master class in stagecraft, and the minimalistic framework of the play, rather than seeming cheap, serves to give the actors more space to do what they do best. The script, which won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for drama, than just a feelgood story about a friendship between two lovable oldsters. Playwright D.L. Coburn plenty to say about loss, regret, and American society’s apathetic attitude towards the aged.

On the back porch of a rundown nursing home, Weller Martin (James Earl Jones), finds a quiet spot among a pile of old machines and broken furniture. It’s a fitting backdrop, seeing as Weller feels like something of a discard, too. Everyone from his kids to the health care system has tried to dump him on the social scrap heap. Though he seldom gives in to self-pity, Weller is quite aware of what this place is: a temporary storage unit for the the no longer productive but not yet dead. Fonsia Dorsey (Tyson) also feels like an outsider even in this marginilaized world. She receives no visits from her children, and, like Weller, has sunk from a middle class existence into poverty. To pass the time, Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin rummy. Her uncanny winning streak confounds Weller, and his temper begins to boil over. As emotions grow raw, we get a less-than-flattering glimpse of the behavior patterns that bedevilled Weller’s and Fonsia’s relationships with their spouses and kids. It seems unlikely that their friendship will fare any better than their previous intimacies. Still, the gin game goes on: a better alternative, however acrimonious, than solitaire.

The repeated ritual of shuffling, dealing, “knocking” and notating scores gives the play a solid sence of pace and form. Exposition – especially challenging in the two-hander form – is adroitly mixed into the action and rarely feels forced. Director Leonard Foglia capitalizes on the musicality of the card game, and trusts his actors to follow their instincts. With his booming voice and expressive face, Jones potently embodies Dylan Thomas’s dictum, “old age should burn and rave at close of day”. Tyson’s easy command of the stage allows her to provoke peals of laughter and gasps of sympathy with just a delicate gesture or a subtle shift of facial expression. Both actors are generous, consistently supporting, rather than attempting to eclipse, each other’s star turns. Even visually, the two are apt foils: Her lithe, energetic body contrasts neatly with his solid frame and thoughtful movements. In one particularly moving scene, the dialogue stops and the two quietly, tenderly dance to music emanating from the home. Without sentiment, this vignette crystallizes the play’s theme. Unable to alter the past and with no hope for the future, the two outcasts still find ways to make their final purgatory livable.

THE GIN GAME CONTINUES THROUGH January 10, 2016 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street New York, NY 10036. Tickets: 212-239-6200
or 800-543-4835.

FOOL FOR LOVE

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Written by Sam Shepard

Directed by Daniel Aukin

In the blasted heath of the post-Vietnam America, the music of life seems to veer from a country-western torch song to a dissonant modernist dirge. Virile antiheroes wander in search of a lost world. They know they’re archetypes. They also know that the mythic landscape to which they belong is disappearing below their cowboy boots. We are in Sam Shepard country.

One of his leaner efforts, FOOL FOR LOVE exhibits much of Shepard’s trademark physicality and macabre lyricism, but is free of the discursive quality found in some of his longer works. At first the premise feels like a familiar relationship dynamic: the prodigal male rationalizes, the woman berates, demands contrition, then gradually forgives. But as submerged truths being to bubble to the surface, the story takes a turn toward Greek tragedy. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, and the illusion of free will is beaten into submission by the fact of fate.

In a seedy desert motel, May (Nina Arianda), attempts to rebuild her life after broken promises have derailed her dreams. Understandably, she isn’t thrilled when Eddie (Sam Rockwell) ambles back into her life. After all, he’s the man responsible, in her view, for all those shattered hopes. Though she brutally recriminates him, May can’t seem to make a clean break with Eddie: there is too much history between them. Eddie, too, seems unable to exist without May. As he practices swinging his lariat ( a hazardous activity in the confines of a hotel room), he paints a rosy picture of the life he and May could have together. Once upon a time, the two dreamed of buying a ranch back in their home town. Now Eddie says he’s ready to make the move. May isn’t having it. She wants to get on with her new life, which includes a new job and a potential boyfriend, Martin (Tom Pelphrey). As the saying goes though, we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us. Something deep inside keeps May and Eddie psychologically lassoed together. The story behind their bond is revealed gradually, as a voice from another time resounds from the edge of the stage. The Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) is an introjection in Eddie’s psyche. He isn’t really there, but his influence is undeniable. As he muses, a disturbing picture emerges of the troubled origins and dark future of May and Eddie’s star-crossed relationship.

Rockwell and Arianda, thoroughly in synch as befits the story, take turns dominating the stage. Both jump wholeheartedly into their roles, balancing restless kineticism with grace, intelligence and dry wit. Weiss, who gets the lion’s share of the Shepardian dithyrambs, wrings mournful music out of his soliloquies. As the guileless Martin, Pelphrey not only provides an apt foil for Rockwell’s comedic persona, but poignantly embodies the wholesome, straightforward life that May craves but will never attain. Dane Laffrey’s scenic design and Justin Townsend’s lighting evoke a film noir-esque sense of secrecy and despair. Director Daniel Aukin, in tune with the play’s internal rhythms, skillfully controls the pacing to maximize the dizzying highs and somber lows of the doomed couple’s emotional rollercoaster.

FOOL FOR LOVE continues through December 13, 2015 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre  261 West 47th Street, Between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York NY 10036. Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.

WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF….

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Written by John S. Anastasi

Directed by Kathleen Turner

Not so long ago, the premise of WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF… would have sounded farfetched. Today, the idea of a same-sex couple confronting the fact that one of them furtively identifies as opposite-sex seems entirely feasible, a recognizable part of the 21st Century’s social fabric. Something akin to a transgender Annie Hall, John S. Anastasi’s timely drama offers a bittersweet, compassionate take on the challenges of love in our complicated era.

Having gone through a painful coming-out process, aspiring writer Addison (Rebecca Brooksher) is glad to have finally found happiness with her partner Danya (Sofia Jean Gomez). Just as they are getting ready to adopt a baby, though, complications arise. Deep down Danya doesn’t really identify as a lesbian. She loves women, yes, but she loves them as a man. Fearful of losing Addison, Danya hesitates before signing up for gender reassignment surgery. Dr. Gerard (Roya Shanks) is the best in the business. But she has limited patience with Danya’s lack of commitment. There’s also the problem of how to pay for it. Although Danya is a successful attorney, the exorbitant fees involved are beyond her capabilities. For help, Danya turns to her mom, Victoria Pruitt (Kathleen Turner). Unlike Addison’s parents, Victoria has accepted the fact that her daughter is a lesbian, but now must wrap her head around this new change. One thing Victoria isn’t good at, though, is keeping secrets. A slip of the tongue outs Danya, and she and Addison are finally forced to face the music.

The script poses a number of provocative questions. Is it possible to remain in love with someone who retains the “same soul, same eyes” even in a radically different body? It is best to be true to oneself at any cost? In the end, there are no easy answers, only human beings trying to sort it all out. At times, the dialogue feels a bit too on-the-nose, with emotional details spoken aloud that might be better expressed in subtext. Overall, though, Anastasi’s fairness to his characters outweighs his occasional missteps. The most affecting scenes are the ones in which primal emotions manifest in physical actions, as when Danya beats her chest, desperately trying to communicate that the female breasts that are beautiful to Addison are abhorrent to her. Turner, who stepped in during the rehearsal process to replace the original director, does an admirable job of keeping her actors authentic and keyed into one another. Gomez is particularly impressive as she transitions from Danya to Daniel. There are a few scenes in which excess motion distracts from the narrative, but it is likely that the timing will tighten organically during the run of the show. The story’s transitions of time, place and mood are enhanced by Brian Prather’s sets, Tristan Raines’s costumes and Zach Blane’s lighting design.

WOULD YOU STILL LOVE ME IF continues through October 26 at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, between 8th  and 9th Avenues, New York NY 10019. Tickets: (212) 239-6200.

SPRING AWAKENING

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Music by Duncan Sheik

Book and Lyrics Steven Sater

Directed by Michael Arden

Choreographed by Spencer Liff

Unusual even for a modern musical, SPRING AWAKENING takes a candid look at subjects like underage sex (both gay and straight), unplanned pregnancies, backdoor abortions, suicide, masturbation, and sadomasochism. Thankfully, though, the show isn’t content merely to score points by breaking taboos.

Playwright Frank Wedekind, ahead of his time, had a keen understanding of the cadences of teenage speech and the conflicting priorities that accompany adolescence. Wedekind had an axe to grind against the moral hypocrisy of his day, and his cautionary tale hinges on the dangers of denying young people crucial knowledge. Yet even in our information-glutted epoch, its un-sanitized, compassionate portrayal of troubled youth remains relevant.

In a rural town in 19th Century Germany, boys and girls are educated separately. As puberty begins to alter their bodies and activate their imaginations, the kids begin searching for answers as to what happens next. Receiving little help from their stern teachers and puritanical parents, they turn to the only adults who can help: Goethe, Shakespeare, and a few medical books that explain anatomy. Melchior (Austin P. McKenzie), is a bit better better off than his peers. He does well in school and his mother (Marlee Matlin) encourages him to read what he likes. His less fortunate friend Moritz (Daniel N. Durant, voiced by Alex Boniello) is a dismal student whose domineering father (Russell Harvard) makes it clear that failure is not an option. Martha (Treshelle Edmond/Kathryn Gallagher) lives in an abusive home from which she is too young to escape. Wendla Bergmann (Sandra Mae Fran, voiced by Katie Boeck), rapidly budding into womanhood, can no longer be the little girl her doting mother (Camryn Manheim) wants her to be. Her curiosity, like a wound, worsens when ignored. Ilse (Krysta Rodriguez) has managed to free herself from parental domination— only to eke out a squalid existence among a band of libertines known as the town’s “artist colony”. Only Hanschen (Andy Mientus) seems to know who he is and what to do about it. He boldly approaches another boy, Ernst (Joshua Castille /Van Hughes in for Daniel David Stewart), who, as it turns out, returns the attraction. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for this tidal wave of libidinous energy to clash with the strict moral framework of the village. Focused on propriety over empathy, the adults ineptly attempt to regain control. Their efforts result in a tragic peripeteia, and very innocence they purport to be protecting is shattered by the unintended consequences of their actions.

Transferred from Deaf West Theater in Los Angeles, this lively revival features an eager, charismatic young cast that minimizes the story’s melodramatic elements and highlights its honesty, humor and tenderness. Seamlessly synchronized, the ensemble consists of both hearing and deaf performers.  The deaf actors use American Sing Language to articulate the dialogue and lyrics, while their voices are provided by hearing counterparts. In many cases, the sign language itself becomes a kind of dance, with active hands that reach, caress and thrust to give inflection to the text.

The talent and enthusiasm of the actors is, in fact, so infectious that it’s easy to overlook the production’s main weakness: its score. Reflective of composer Duncan Sheik’s pop-radio background, the show’s musical style seems out of place in Wilhelmine Germany. Anachronisms, of course, can work in musical theater (the music of Fifth Century England didn’t sound much like the score of CAMELOT). But a score should always encapsulate the story’s theme. Rather than a generic idea of teen angst, a more effective choice would be to find a musical metaphor for the conflict between the strict formality of outdated customs and the discordant stirrings of the children’s psyches.

Still, if the songs don’t quite embody the dangerous sexuality that animates Wedekind’s script, the spirit of the original is well represented by Sater’s lean book and by Director Michael Arden’s sensitive direction. Lighting designer Ben Stanton evokes the rapidly-shifting moods and hues of a world seen through adolescent eyes.

SPRING AWAKENING continues through Jan 24, 2016 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: 877-250-2929

CONVERSATIONS WITH MY MOLESTER

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Written and performed by Michael Mack

Directed by Daniel Gidron

After years of coverups and innuendo, the Catholic church appears to finally be ready to take responsibility for the atrocious history of sex crimes perpetrated by priests. Pope Francis’s public statements and historic meeting with survivors of abuse helped to open a much-needed dialogue on this crucial issue. For real healing to take place though, the victims’ stories need to be heard. Speaking from personal experience, writer-performer Michael Mack has crafted a searing, painful, but ultimately hopeful account of his childhood trauma and decades-long quest for closure.

Shading his performance with subtle changes in body language and tone of voice, Mack begins his story with boyhood recollections of the splendor of church. Speaking with wide-eyed innocence, he remembers his earliest ambition: He wants to be a priest when he grows up. An eager pupil, Michael volunteers at the Sacred Heart church when his family moves to the small town of Brevard, North Carolina. On one occasion, he is alone in the church doing chores, when a much-beloved pastor walks in. Claiming to need help with costumes for an upcoming pageant, the preacher lures Michael into a secret room where the life-changing violation takes place. Like many victims, Michael obeys the adult perpetrator’s instructions to keep quiet. He is bewildered when the pastor suddenly disappears, and none of the grownups offer any explanation. It’s not until years later, that Michael puts two and two together. The rape itself is made doubly horrific by the callous secrecy exhibited by the church authorities. Thankfully, Michael’s shame and anger do not lead him to perpetuate the cycle of abuse. When the opportunity arises, he resists the temptation to take advantage of a child (although he suffers tremendous guilt for even considering it). In time, he finds a healthy outlet for his emotions. He embarks on a search for the man who owes him answers. Though the conversation doesn’t happen quite the way he imagined, the truths he unearths along the way enable him to finally come to grips with the unthinkable and to emerge with a sense of his own identity and his own role in shaping the future of the Church.

As in the Gospel of John, the truth is what finally sets Michael free. And as the audience bears witness to his confession, the burden tangibly lifts from his shoulders. Both in performance and content, CONVERSATIONS WITH MY MOLESTER is remarkably free of self-pity and soapboxing, preferring instead to tell the story as it happened and let the audience feel the impact. Much of the narrative, of course, is hard to listen to, but Mack’s descriptions of the events are neither sanitized nor gratuitously graphic. Under Daniel Gidron’s direction, Mack displays a disarming vulnerability and likability that make the show theatrically powerful as well as socially relevant. Peter C. Lewis’s fluid lighting effects help underscore the show’s many transitions in time, place and mood.

CONVERSATIONS WITH MY MOLESTER continues through October 11 at The Bridge Theatre, Columbus Circle, NYC, 244 West 54th Street, 12th Floor (between Broadway and 8th Avenue) New York, NY 10019. Tickets and additional information: http://www.michaelmacklive.com

FULFILLMENT

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photo by Hunter Vanning 

Written by Thomas Bradshaw

Directed by Ethan McSweeny

The two guys rocking out to an old Neil Young song are Black men. The violent thug in the hoodie is a White guy. Typical of Thomas Bradshaw, these images turn social stereotypes upside down, only to spin them again into new patterns. There are other Bradshaw trademarks here, like nudity and sex (some of it a tad kinky), and a violent climax. But FULFILLMENT also represents something of a departure for off- Broadway’s new enfant terrible. His eccentric, provocative style is still in full flower, but this time the play’s macabre tone and biting ironies are given added impact by the leanness of its structure and the appeal of its sincere but self-destructive protagonist.

Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is moving up in the world. He’s just bought a luxury apartment and draws a high salary as an associate in a high-powered law firm. Before he can start enjoying his success, though, doubts begin to creep into Michael’s mind. His cantankerous upstairs neighbor (Jeff Biehl), a stay-at-home dad,  lets his kid make noise at all hours of the night. Moreover, Michael’s new girlfriend Sarah (Susannah Flood), who also works at the law practice, is convinced that the company’s leadership is racist. That would explain why Michael, despite his work ethic and achievements, has not been made a partner. Michael angrily confronts his boss Mark (Peter McCabe) only to be told that race has nothing to do with it. It’s Michael’s drinking that’s the problem. Choosing AA over rehab, he embarks on a life of sobriety and spiritual enlightenment. As is often the case, it works– for a while. As work stress and conflicts with the neighbor intensify, Michael’s demons inevitably raise their heads again. This time, neither Sarah nor Michael’s best friend Simon (Christian Conn) can stop the coming conflagration.

Akinngabe’s sensitive performance humanizes Michael’s fruitless struggle to find fulfillment in a bottle, in sex, in material success or New Age religion. By turns likable, frightening, innocent and fastidious, he captures alcoholic behavior with empathetic accuracy. Akinngabe is aided by a versatile supporting cast, which also includes Otoja Abit as a laidback NBA star and Denny Dillon in multiple roles. Director Ethan McSweeny capably evokes an eerie modern world in which the racists are hard to distinguish from the equal-opportunity sadists. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design creates a chilling, sterile atmosphere of empty opulence. The show’s only major weak point its uneven pacing. The script is  largely composed of short scenes, like a screenplay, and the multitude of complicated set changes between the scenes sometimes disrupts the flow of the story. A faster, more fluid approach would help tighten the play’s suspense and strengthen its emotional impact.

FULFILLMENT continues through October 19 at The Flea Theater 41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets) New York, New York. Tickets https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/14/