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/
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SUMMER SHORTS 2019, SERIES B

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

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

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

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

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

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

A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKER’S ISLAND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SQUARE GO

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Written by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair
Directed by Finn den Hertog

Concise, energetic and comically peppered with the syncopations of Scottish teen speak, Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s clever two-hander offers a fresh take on the well-travelled territory of adolescent tribulations.

The action takes place a boy’s room at Hammerston High, a ferociously average school somewhere in generic suburbia. Here, teenager Mark Adrian Kyle Sebastian Brocklehurst (Daniel Portman), who understandably prefers to be called Max, imagines a cheering crowd of adoring fans as he delivers a victory speech in the style of his hero, pro wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage. The daydream is, of course, a coping mechanism. In real life, Max’s prospects are not so bright. He has been challenged to a “square go”, a mano a mano fight wherein two boys – no weapons, bare hands – duke it out to see who is the better man. Max is, understandably, petrified. His opponent is none other than Danny Guthrie (offstage), known throughout the school as “A beast. A legend. A man mountain”, who can make mincemeat out of any opponent. Max’s strawberry lace-munching best friend and ring man Stevie Nimmo (Gavin Jon Wright), tries to psych him up for the fight, but never misses an opportunity to send a bit of insult comedy (or “pish” to use the colloquial term). While the clock ticks ever closer to game time, Max and Stevie break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience, and sometimes encouraging us to participate in the show. Over the course of a whirring 65 minutes, the boys overflow with pubescent zeal as they morph into stuffy physics teacher Dr. Hobbins, school bully Big Jordan, and other key figures, real and imaginary, in their small town lives. As they reconstruct the faux pas that got Max in trouble in the first place, darker shades of the story emerge. It turns out Danny Guthrie is punching back at a world that discriminated against someone he loved, that Max’s need for fantasy is fueled by the dysfunction in his household. All the while, the big confrontation beckons, but an unexpected twist beckons Max and Stevie to take their first steps into a bigger, more daunting proving ground.

Director Finn den Hertog uses the intimate three-quarter round stage to great effect, balancing Wright’s frenetic footwork with Portman’s restless strategizing as in an evenly-matched prizefight. Peter Small’s lighting design is timed to neatly coincide with the script’s one-liners and turns of mood, while Martha Mamo’s props capture both the mundane and fanciful trappings of adolescence. None of it work, of course, without the remarkable rapport between the two actors. Portman and Wright embody the very essence of the disappointments, frictions, laughter and closeness of two outcasts whose mutual misfitness forms the basis of intense- and possibly enduring – friendship.

SQUARE GO continues through June 30, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets https://www.59e59.org/ticket-information/

LONE STAR

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Written by James McLure
Directed by Joe John Battista
Featuring musical guests The Chalks

With the aid of a few graffitied brick walls, a cooler full of beer, a fiddle and a few guitars, plus a generous helping of yeehaw spirit, the gang at the 13th Street Rep manage the challenging task of turning a West Village black box theater into a roadhouse saloon in rural Texas.

To start things off,  proprietor T-Bone (Tony Del Bono) and his slow-on-the-uptake right hand man Pervis (John Constantine) ineptly attempt lay down Angel’s Bar’s ground rules.  A kind of Western edition of Abbott and Costello, the boys can’t seem to get on the same page but somehow manage to take care of business anyway. The writers of this opening skit could stand to punch up the material, but the comedic rapport between Del Bono and Constantine helps set the mood for the show’s first act: a romping, stomping selection of favorites from the illustrious Chalk Sisters.

Judeen (Mary Brienza), Judelle (Kathryn Markey) and Belva (Leenya Rideout), started out as a Christian girl group. But along the rocky back roads of the music business they’ve morphed into a rowdy country bar band whose songs chronicle the colorful misadventures of a trio of strong-willed, outspoken, freewheeling women. Sporting  titles like Mud Flap Mama and Hog Wild & Hog Tied, their ditties are affectionate pastiches of classic Nashville fare. In between the numbers, the gals engage in a bit of sibling rivalry, ribald humor and audience participation games. Rather than take a SNL-like approach to sneering at redneck culture, the sisters encourage the audience to laugh with them as they find Texas-style solutions to the dilemmas life throws at them. The performers (all of whom have impressive Broadway and off-Broadway resumés) craft their lyrics and chord sequences in the tradition of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and other giants of the genre. They have the musical chops to back up their satirical and the theatrical skills to sell their special brand of comedy.

The second half of the show, scripted by the late James McClure, takes place in the porch behind Angel’s Bar. Here, irascible Vietnam veteran Roy (Matt deRogatis), grows increasingly drunk and at odds with the world. His guileless younger brother Ray (Chris Loupos) attempts to keep order, but there’s no telling what Roy might do– especially when he finds out that Cletis (Michael Villastrigo), bullied by Roy since childhood, has exacted a crazy revenge. There are more bombshells coming as Ray divulges a guilty secret that has been weighing heavily on his shoulders. Neither Maynard, Texas nor Roy’s psyche will ever be the same as before the war. But, in true frontier fashion, the men find a way of moving on. Superbly acted and confidently directed by Joe John Battista, the play hits most of its tragicomic notes with precision. There are a few lines that are shouted at high volume when a more deadpan approach might serve the humor better, but overall the work is solid. The only real problem with the show is that, despite McClure’s skill at dialogue and structure, the material itself seems dated. The script was written in 1978, the golden age of the Guy Play, when American theater was energized by raw dramas of salesmen, cowboys and gangsters facing the inevitable obsolescence of  their social archetypes. Today’s audiences have imbibed so much Shepard, Mamet and Tarantino that we can barely shake our poetic-machismo hangovers. If the hair of the dog is what you seek, LONE STAR might be just your poison. For most of us, though, the high octane – and all female- antics of the Chalks feel more relevant.

LONE STAR continues through June 16, 2019 at 13th Street Rep, 50 West 13th Street, New York, New York. Tickets and showtimes: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4056750

MIDNIGHT STREET

Emily Afton, Rafael Jordan, Lenny Wolpe

Created and directed by Arnold L. Cohen

Musical theater is notoriously one of the most collaborative of all popular art forms. Finding the right creative chemistry is challenge, and many efforts fail simply because there are too many cooks in one kitchen. Now and then, though, a show comes along that serves as a reminder of the dangers of having too few chefs. Arnold L. Cohen, though clearly talented, has set himself a daunting task by taking on the duties of composer, lyricist, librettist and director of a new musical. With no collaborators push against him and no source material to help him shape the show’s narrative, Cohen’s imagination is both unfettered and unfocused. As a result, MIDNIGHT STREET’s bright spots and strong lead actress are overshadowed by its lack of structure and selectivity.

The first act of the show is essentially a songbook, with the numbers loosely tied together by a series of soliloquies in which Danielle (Emily Afton) reflects on the life a New York City streetwalker. Both in her songs and her interstitial monologues, she celebrates the independence the job grants her, but also bemoans the loneliness that comes with it. She wraps men around her finger, but prefers to be with other women when she’s off the clock. She rhapsodizes thusly for quite some time before the play’s inciting incident occurs. Two Biblically-named pimps, King Saul (Lenny Wolpe) and Antipas (Rafael Jordan) express their discomfort with Danielle’s enterprise. They run the rackets in this part of town and threaten to harm her if she doesn’t get with their program. They have clearly underestimated Danielle, whose smarts and bravado put her on the winning side of the turf war (though not before Antipas sings and ode to his own badassery and Saul, rather inexplicably, synopsizes the entire history of Jewish persecution in a snappy  monologue).

That’s about all the plot we get. There are moments when specifics are deftly used to make Danielle’s monologues  more vivid: We learn that she began turning tricks in order to find an escape route from her abusive marriage, and we see her brighten when she talks about the ballet classes that afford her a brief respite from stresses of the streets. For the most part, though the show, like its protagonist, seems to walk in circles. It’s hard to believe that only two men, both easily subdued, constitute the only real threat  Danielle has ever had to reckon with.  And she makes little mention of vice cops, venereal disease, competition from other hookers, or johns who get violent or try to  walk away without paying. With those less-than-poetic details missing, she often comes across as an idea of a sex worker rather than a true survivor of the city’s back alleys.

As a melodist, however, Cohen, a Juilliard graduate, exhibits considerable gifts. The show’s tunes range from Tin Pan Alley brightness to moody modernism, and give Afton’s warm soprano voice plenty of blue and dulcet notes to sing. His lyrics, however, could stand to incorporate more of the vernacular of the streets. There are lessons to be learned from Hart, Hammerstein, Porter and other pioneering  rhymesmiths, who energized their verses by keeping their verbal antennae tuned to the language of common speech.

As the saying goes, making a great musical requires its creators to “sweat till the sweat doesn’t show.”  When a lyric feels spontaneous, when a libretto integrates seamlessly with group of songs to move a story forward, it’s a safe bet it took hours of arduous revision to get it to look so easy. In its current stage of development, MIDNIGHT STREET is still a few drafts, and several pints of perspiration, away from Broadway. 

MIDNIGHT STREET opens June 5, 2019 at at Theatre Row Theaters, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Midnight-Street/Overview?&aidTic=ven000193900

CAROLINE’S KITCHEN

6i29M-jYWritten by Torben Betts
Directed by Alastair Whatley

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

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

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

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

NOTHING HERE IS REAL

NHIR-16

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

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

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

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

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

I CARRY YOUR HEART

Written by Georgette Kelly
Directed by Cate Caplin

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

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

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

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

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