DADDY

Written by Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by Danya Taymor

As the lights come up on the Matt Saunders’s opulent set, the sinewy, shimmering figure that rises from the moonlit swimming pool looks, for all the world, like a renaissance statue come to life. The resemblance is hardly coincidental. The beautiful body belongs to aspiring Franklin (Ronald Peet). The pool belongs to Andre (Alan Cumming), an independently wealthy art collector. The two have just met, and though Franklin feels a strong attraction to Andre, he worries that the middle-aged aesthete may see him as just another possession, like the Twomblys and Basquiats that adorn his fancy manse in the Hollywood Hills. More troublingly, Andre demands to be called “master” during their dominant-submissive sex games. Has Franklin just been purchased by a wealthy white landowner?

Certainly, Franklin’s friends Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), voice a high degree of skepticism about Franklin’s new “daddy”. But they’re not above sipping Andre’s champagne,basking by his pool, or using his Seamless account to order sushi. Though troubled by Max’s comments, Franklin stays with Andre, and the question of who’s taking advantage of who gets a bit more ambiguous. Franklin, has, in effect found a patron, and at last has time and space to work a series of soft sculptures featuring black male doll-bodies in various costumes and social roles. In today’s context-hungry art world, the figures turn out to be catnip to Andre’s collector cronies. Ebullient gallery owner Alessia (Hari Nef) is over the moon, but Franklin’s Bible-thumping mother Zora (Charlayne Woodard) isn’t sold. She seems okay with her son being gay, but frequently clashes with Andre and sees nothing in Franklin’s art other than a crafty method of separating pretentious white people from their money. Conspicuously absent from all of this is Franklin’s real father, and therein lies the inner torment that both fuels the young artist’s creative process and threatens to push him towards a psychotic break. In the play’s surreal third act, Franklin finds his mind awash with nightmarish thoughts and images that will never cease until he finds some way to confront his painful past.

At heart DADDY is actually a solidly-crafted, traditional play. It takes place largely on a single set, with logic-based entrances and exits, clear dramatic stakes and exposition revealed through dialogue. Max and Bellamy function as a kind of Greek chorus, while Zora provides the catalyst that prompts the hero’s catharsis. But playwright Jeremy O. Harris isn’t content to let the story unfold organically. The evening sports plenty of spectacle, including startling lighting and sound effects and appearances by a gospel choir (Carrie Comprere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu), which at one point accompanies Cumming in a rendition of George Michael’s R&B hit “Father Figure”. They sound great, of course, but, as with many of the show’s embellishment accoutrements, the song only serves reiterate what we’ve already seen. Either these non-naturalistic elements need to be put to more effective use or, better yet, Harris should trust that his skillful, potent dialogue and topnotch cast are strong enough to deliver the desired emotional punch. Likewise, director Danya Taymor seems to be struggling to arrive at a style. Rather than have the actors move with purpose, she often directs them to pace and pirouette about the stage between lines. Like Harris, she needs reminding that less is more.

DADDY continues through March 31, 2019 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets at ticket-central.com

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ULTRAVIOLENCE

Written by Sam Kahn
Directed by Roxana Kadyrova

Music Design by Vanessa Gould
Choreography by Derek Stratton
Scenic Design by Kellyann Hee
Graphics by Vladimir Gusev
Video DP Justin A. Gonçalves
Video Editor Justin A. Gonçalves
Video AC  Lyle Parsons
Lighting design by Joan Racho-Jansen
Sound design by  Gabo Lizardo

Sly Fennec Productions’ eerily lyrical meditation on youthful angst is a feast for the eyes; and not just because of its attractive young cast. The show’s moody lighting, atmospheric score, fluid set design and abstract video projections combine to turn Eris Evolution’s cabaret space into a dreamlike demimonde in which danger lurks beneath pretty surfaces.

The story begins innocently enough. Laura (Annie Hägg) shares a New York apartment with fellow twenty-something Page (Deya Danielle). The two have been friends since college, and protective Laura can’t believe her brother Ed (Michael Coppola) who she considers a knucklehead, ever succeeded in dating someone as magnificent as Laura. The relationship didn’t last, and of course Laura blames Ed. But he maintains it was Page’s mental health issues that got in the way. While the siblings bicker, Page attempts to cope with the clinical depression that hobbles her effort to transition from bartending to full-time acting. Into this tense atmosphere lopes James (Michael Tyler) a Californian drifter who everyone has heard having noisy sex with upstairs neighbor Karen (Whitney Harris). James’s high cheekbones, lithe torso and rock star hairdo magnetize the women, and his disarmingly casual style helps ingratiate him to the group. What the gang fails to realize, though, is that the tall dark stranger is not merely a self-confessed narcissist, but a homicidal psychopath. Thankfully, James’ acts of ultraviolence aren’t depicted with grisly literalism, but with sly choreography that makes them all the creepier.  In the show’s second act, Page tries to make a new life in a new city with a new guy (Derek Stratton). But little signals let her know that her James is on the move again, his seductive darkness is asserting its hold over her once more.

After a compelling first act, the show’s momentum slows a bit as the narrator’s role shifts from discontented Laura to apathetic Page. We can understand some of Page’s ambivalence about James, but at times she sounds less like a judgment-averse millennial than a 90’s style Whateverist. Boredom alone doesn’t seem quite enough of a motivating force to turn an ambitious young woman – even a depressed one – into a killer’s concubine. James, too, comes across a rather lackadaisical monster. He doesn’t seem to get any particular thrill out his diabolical actions, nor has it occurred to him that law enforcement agencies and the families of the victims will come looking for answers at some point. It’s understandable that playwright Sam Kahn didn’t want to resort to the “lethal-cat-and-mouse-game” clichés that populate Hollywood treatments of the subject. But finding some way to up the dramatic stakes would make for a more satisfying denouement.

Nevertheless, Kahn’s sharp dialogue and vibrant characters give the strong, committed cast plenty to work with, and director Roxana Kadyrova nimbly blends the production’s imagistic and narrative elements into a cohesive, memorable whole. Sly Fennec is clearly a company to watch: one whose aesthetic is sure to develop in delightful and astonishing ways.   

ULTRAVIOLENCE ran from Mar 12 through March 16, 2019 at Eris Evolution, 167 Graham Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11206. For information and upcoming events check here: https://www.slyfennec.com/

IMAGINING MADOFF

Written by Deb Margolin
Directed by Jerry Heymann

When Bernard Madoff was arrested in 2008, the very DNA of the financial system was called into question. The sheer volume of the scam was staggering. Billions of dollars had gone AWOL, thousands of lives were shattered. And all the while, our trusted regulatory agencies had ignored the red flags and questionable math that characterized Madoff’s bogus business transactions. The entire world was shaken by the aftershocks of the scandal, but in Jewish circles, the Madoff debacle took on an even deeper significance. Fears arose that the image of the Ponzi schemer would be used validate antisemitic stereotypes of greedy, conniving Hebrews, and that Jews, historically a popular target of conspiracy theories, would be scapegoated for the Great Recession. More painfully still, many of Madoff’s targets were themselves Jewish, and even charitable institutions like Hadassah were plundered without mercy. Jews who had invested with Madoff were hit with a double whammy: not only did they suffer grievous monetary losses, but had to also cope with the unthinkability of being betrayed by one of their own. The police term for this phenomenon is “affinity fraud”: a category of chicanery in which a con artist uses his cultural, religious or ethnic identity to gain entrée into a specific community, as Madoff did among the well-to-do Jewry of New York City and Palm Beach.

In the aptly titled IMAGINING MADOFF, playwright Deb Margolin muses on what may have transpired between Bernie (Jeremiah Kissel) and one of his high-profile victims, the fictional poet Solomon Galkin (Gerry Bamman). Reminiscent of the late Elie Wiesel, whose private holdings and non-profit foundation were devastated by Madoff’s treachery, Galkin is a Talmudic scholar and a Holocaust survivor. The essence of piousness and generosity, he seeks only to do good in the world. At first, he would seem to have nothing much in common with Bernard. Yet the two enjoy talking and drinking, pondering the nature of the universe and what the Torah says about humanity’s role in it. Each man is subtly maneuvering the other. Sol seeks to enlighten his spiritually undernourished friend, while the fraudulent financier uses a hard-to-get seduction strategy, knowing that the idea of an “exclusive” investment club will whet Solomon’s appetite. For a moment, it seems as if Galkin may win the battle for Madoff’s soul after all. When he winds his tefillin around Bernie’s wrist, something odd happens. A “small perfect pain” enters Madoff’s head, as if the ancient traditions are awakening some long dormant godliness within. In the end though, Madoff returns to his old habits.  He worships no god other than money, and the sacrifices it demands of him are as severe any in the Old Testament.

In between the scenes with Galkin, there are short monologues in which post-conviction Madoff, confined to a prison cell, justifies his actions to an unseen reporter. The action also shifts now and then to a courtroom, where Madoff’s secretary (Jenny Allen), seems credible as she testifies that nothing usual seemed to be going on at the office. She, too, struggles to find a moral center in a world where, merely by telling the truth, she may be defending a monster.

All three actors deliver solid performances, with Bamman’s plummy European baritone providing an effective foil for Kissel’s staccato New Yorkese. Margolin gives them plenty to work with, and the rhythm and intelligence of her dialogue keeps the audience engaged in the Galkin-Madoff relationship even though we already know the outcome.

Unfortunately, the script – though never boring – stops short of exploring some of the tougher truths of the Madoff scandal. Questions linger as to why so many of Madoff’s marks failed to look under the hood, why they chose to hand over their life savings rather than pursue a more conservative investment strategy. Perhaps Madoff seemed like the right kind of capitalist: a classically American (and classically Jewish) example of a man of humble origins rose to the top through hard work and smart maneuvering. Or was it those the lure of easy profits, the ego boost of being on the winning side, that kept his investors on the hook? Could there be a touch of avarice in all of us, even a man like Galkin? It’s understandable that Margolin didn’t want to blame the victim. But it might have been a stronger choice to fully render the duo as a yin and yang design: A quintessentially righteous man as the mirror image of a starkly immoral man, each containing a touch of its opposite.

Interestingly enough, the state with the highest per capita incidence of affinity fraud is not New York or Florida, but Mormon-heavy Utah. Yes, the Jewishness of the Madoff Experience is one of its salient features. But dramatizing its details also serves as a reminder that, in these morally muddy times, no one is same from ganeffs.

IMAGINING MADOFF continues through March 23, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY, between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Directed & conducted by Albert Bergeret

The third in the duo’s legendary series of collaborations, Gilbert and Sullivan’s exuberant sendup of Victorian pomp wastes no time in plunging its audience into the world of topsyturvydom. The title alone radiates sheer silliness, as Penzance, a cheery seaside resort town, was hardly a breeding ground for bloodthirsty privateers. Of course, that’s only the beginning of the show’s many spins on Victorian narrative conventions.

In keeping with the customs of the time, loyal nursemaid Ruth (Angela Christine Smith) has dutifully consigned her young ward Frederic to a professional apprenticeship. Due to Ruth’s impaired  hearing, though, the lad did not become a pilot-in-training, but rather a pirate-in-training. Lucky for him, the buccaneers, led by the Pirate King (Matthew Wages), are hardly the most murderous of men. They look impressive, but their gentlemanly nature prevents them from harming the defenseless. Nevertheless, adult Frederic (Carter Lynch), having just turned 21, feels he must repudiate his pirate pals and join the ranks of polite society. He even plans to marry but, having never laid eyes on any female personage other than Ruth, doubts his ability to select an appropriate bride. No sooner has he voiced his lament than a bevy of eligible maidens cheerily alights on the shore. Naturally, they’re as curious about Frederic as he is about them. He and Mabel (Katie Dixon) fall in love, and are Ali set to sail towards a sunny future. But complications lurk around every turn. It turns out Frederic’s contract with the pirate crew runs out on his 21st birthday, not his 21st year. Since he was born on a leap year, the wedding plans will have to be put on hold for about, oh, 63 more years. Little help comes from Mabel’s dad Stanley (David Macaluso). Though he’s the very model of a modern major general (you might say he’s also the father of the modern patter song), he isn’t quite sure he and his men are up to a scrimmage with the infamous Pirates. Of course, there are more twists to come, some involving the bungling, if vocally gifted, police force commended by a melancholy sergeant (David Auxier).  

Given its age (140, this year), it’s remarkable how modern PIRATES feels. The production boosts the plays’s relevance by adding a few anachronistic touches (bunny slippers, New Years Eve hats, even a sly Trump reference), but for the most part it’s the cast’s commitment and confluence of talents, coupled with the opulent set and costume design, that brings the evergreen material to rollicking life. From Auxier’s Ray Bolgeresque dance moves to Malacuso’s verbal dexterity, Wages’ charismatic roguery to Smith’s winsome sauciness, the cavalcade of wit and slapstick keeps coming. Of course, all this drollery would mean little if it weren’t counterbalanced by a sincere approach to the show’s romantic storyline.  Lynch’s beguiling innocence and pluck make him an ideal protagonist, while Dixon’s agile soprano turns ballads like the lilting “Poor Wandering One” into showstoppers. Director/conductor Albert Bergeret moves his baton at the ideal tempo: allegro, but never rushed.

THE PIRATES OF PENANCE ran through December 30, 2018 at the Kaye Playhouse. Check here for information on upcoming shows: https://nygasp.org

THE NEW ONE

THE NEW ONE
Written & performed by Mike Birbiglia
Directed by Seth Barrish

This won’t be a long review. A plethora of words wouldn’t help explain why Mike Birbiglia’s new one-man effort works as well as it does. The show’s strength lies in its simplicity, and its charm comes less from its rather garden-variety premise than from Birbiglia’s unaffected performance style.

Basically, THE NEW ONE is about a lovably insecure guy (Birbiglia) who sees himself as something of an overgrown adolescent and therefore can’t imagine being a dad. Yet when the day arrives, he rises to the challenges of parenting, finding unexpected joy amid all the chaos and exhaustion. That’s pretty much it. So even at an intermission- less 80 minutes, there needs to be plenty of anecdote and invention to put flesh on such a basic narrative skeleton. Thankfully, Birbiglia goes at the task with an expert touch. Though his monologue appears to be stream-of- consciousness, it’s clear that he’s been through numerous drafts, selecting just the right details to stir into the mix and what to leave out. He pokes gentle fun at the baby industry, and confesses that he feels like and intern in his own home as things constantly need to be fetched for mother and baby. And in addition to the usual parenting ordeals, Mike brings his own set of quirks and conditions. We learn, for example, that he suffers from a disorder called RBD (a dangerous form of sleepwalking) and has to sleep in a harness, further complicating the new family’s domestic arrangements. His relationship with his wife, poet Jen Stein, is inevitably upended by the arrival of the new one, but ultimately deepens as they learn the ropes of co-nurturing.

Birbiglia has spent years, both as a standup comedian and a frequent contributor to non-fiction storytelling programs like The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life, honing a comic persona that is both erudite and self-effacing. His ease on stage helps establish an instant rapport with the audience, and though we more or less know where he’s going, we’re still happy to follow along as he takes his first baby steps into the overwhelming universe of fatherhood.

Birbiglia has spent years, both as a standup comedian and a frequent contributor to non-fiction storytelling programs like The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life, honing a comic persona that is both erudite and self-effacing. His ease on stage helps establish an instant rapport with the audience, and though we more or less know where he’s going, we’re still happy to follow along as he takes his first baby steps into the overwhelming universe of fatherhood.

THE NEW ONE continues through January 20, 2019 at the Cort Theater.,
 138 W 48th St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: Broadway.com.

HYPE MAN

Written by Idris Goodwin
Directed by by Kristan Seemel & Niegel Smith

Whether 19th Century dramatist Christian Friedrich Hebbel would enjoy waving his arms in the air to the infectious hip-hop beats of HYPEMAN is anybody’s guess. But he would certainly have to agree that his most famous maxim, “in a good play, everyone is right”, is adroitly and compassionately embodied in Idris Goodwin’s touching and timely exploration of the rigors of friendship, the power of art and the struggle for social justice.

Rapper Pinnacle (Matt Stango) is on the brink of success. But he feels a little lost without his longtime friend and collaborator Verb (Shakur Tolliver), who‘s gotten into some trouble lately. Thankfully, the hype man (backup rapper and call-and-response leader) has been able to sober up and return to the studio ready to work. Not much music will be made, though, until beatmaker Peep One (Tay Bass), arrives. She’s stuck in traffic, which is not an unusual occurrence. But this time the mess on the highway was caused by a tragic incident. Unarmed teenager Jerrod Davis, in a hurry to help his grandmother with a medical emergency, led the cops on a highspeed chase. When he tried to surrender, he was shot to death by the police. Verb has had enough. There have been far too many Jerrods, and somebody needs to do something. Pinnacle’s reaction is different. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the issues, but right now his focus is on making sure everything goes well when the team travels to New York for a Tonight Show spot.

The performance is a hit, but as the song is wrapping up, Verb throws the audience a curveball by taking of his jacket to reveal a tee shirt with “justice for Jerrod” scrawled on it. Pinnacle finds himself inundated with hateful reactions posted on Twitter and indignant feedback from the law enforcement community. He and Verb, once as close as brothers, find themselves on opposite side of a rift. The hype man’s argument is a valid one: Does the world really need another rap song about girls and money, another braggadocious reboot of the hackneyed street-to-elite-and-rhyming-all-the-way narrative? All the great MC’s spoke truth to power. Why can’t Pinnacle? The rapper’s perspective makes sense, too. The team has struggled in obscurity for years. If they blow it now, they may not get another shot. No one wins if their talents go unrecognized.

Seeing value in both agendas, Peep feels torn. And in her quiet way she, too, has been fighting an uphill battle for equality and inclusion. She loves hip hop, but with all the hypersexualized, even misogynistic, lyrics spat by male rappers, she doesn’t always feel that the genre loves her back. She’s also tired of getting hit on, treated more like a sexual commodity than a colleague. She can’t be sure whether Pinnacle and Verb are part of the solution or of the problem.

As the trio disbands, things take a dark turn. Without his collaborators, Pinnacle is a hollow shell. And Verb, protesting in the streets and clashing with police, wonders if he’s really making a difference. Perhaps the mic is mightier than the picket sign after all. He and Pinnacle would be stronger together than they are apart, and they both know it. But bridging the divide – if it’s even still possible — will take courage and commitment. 

Under Kristan Seemel and Niegel Smith’s economical direction, the show’s quiet beats are as compelling as its high octane musical numbers. Bass, Stango and Tolliver are so deeply in sync as musicians that it would be no surprise to learn thar a record label had signed them on the spot. They bring the same deep connection and joy in performing to the complex, vibrant characters they portray. 

HYPE MAN continues through December 18, 2018 at the Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007. Tickets http://theflea.org/for-audiences/current-season/ 

LIFE X 3

Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jerry Heymann 

A kind of Groundhog Day for the smart set, Yasmina Reza’s jaundiced take on marital relations shows a foursome of educated Parisians reliving the same failed soiree over and over. There are subtle variations in each of the replays, presumably meant to help us see the same events from a different angle. The trope has potential, but the playwright seems to lack a strong sense of purpose. It’s never quite clear what the audience is meant to learn from watching the same petty people keep repeating the same mistakes, or, more importantly, why we’re supposed to care.

In the living room of a prim, middle class apartment, astrophysicist Henry (James Patrick Nelson) and Sonia (Claire Curtis-Ward) bicker over how best to get their young son to go to sleep. Henry seems to think it’s okay to give the boy a few chocolate fingers if it will get him to quiet down. Sonia believes in being firm with kids, and finds Henry’s wishy-washy parenting style annoying. Even more repulsive, in her eyes, is the way her husband sucks up to Hubert Finidori (Dominic Comperatore) a successful fellow scientist whose influence could make or break Henry’s chances for a promotion. As a matter of fact, Hubert and his wife Ines (Leah Curney) are on their way over for dinner. Apparently, neither Sonia nor Henry bothered to mark the date. Or perhaps it’s the Finidoris whose calendar is off. Either way, the surprise is not a welcome one. Sonia is still in her housecoat, there’s nothing in the fridge but Sancerre, and no hors d’oeuvres other than whatever chocolate fingers the child hasn’t already consumed and few bags of a Cheese Doodle-ish snack food called Wotsits. It’s a hostess’s nightmare, made worse by Henry’s groveling and Hubert’s thinly veiled disdain for his struggling colleague. The turning point comes when Hubert coolly delivers the news that Henry’s research paper, the result of years of work, may be irrelevant as another physicist has just published a similar treatise. It’s devastating blow for Henry, and for Sonia it’s further evidence that her husband is an epic schlimazel. In scene two, our Rashomonsters are at it again, with Hubert and Ines are already bickering before they even arrive at the doomed dinner party. As the wine flows, Hubert and Sonia, both so disappointed in their spouses, appear to be kindling an affair. In the third go-round, a more mature, confident Henry takes the publication of a rival research paper in stride. Yet despair still hangs over the scene, perhaps because the universe, reduced to numbers and theories, seems meaningless. (or maybe they’ve all just had too many chocolate fingers).

There are many unanswered questions in this drama, and not in a good, make-you-think, kind of way. Sonia and Henry live in Paris, for heaven’s sake, the very citadel of culinary achievement, yet we’re supposed to believe they can’t figure out how to get food delivered. And why can’t any of these smart people manage enter a social event correctly in their datebooks? It all feels a little too engineered. Likewise, the career and matrimonial frustrations these First Worlders face don’t seem profound enough to warrant all the histrionics. To be fair, many modern dramatists, Chekhov and Beckett among them, are known for having based great works on the dynamics of emotional paralysis. But they understood stuck-ness in a way that Reza doesn’t seem to, or at least they found a way to poeticize the melancholy of thwarted dreams.

That said, the material does offer its superb cast something to work with. In Nelson’s hands the bungling Henry seems more vulnerable than weak, someone we’re willing to root for even at his low moments. Comperatore neatly encapsulates the suave exterior and inner ennui of the disillusioned Hubert. Curtis-Ward manages to find genuine pathos between the beats of Sonia’s I-deserve-better irritability, while Curney is a joy to watch the neglected spouse who grows drunker – and more uncomfortably truthful – as the evening wears on. Director Jerry Heymann nimbly orchestrates their talents,while the painterly set design, costumes and props add an extra layer of luster to the production and highlight distinct moods of each re-exploration of a life measured out it in Whotsits and wine bottles.

LIFE X 3 continues through December 8, 2018 at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street (bet 7th and 8th Avenues) For tickets, call Ovationtix, 1.866.811.4111. 

KING KONG: ALIVE ON BROADWAY

Book by Jack Thorne
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect
Directed & choreographed by Drew McOnie

The temptation to reinvent the quintessential creature feature, billed in its day as “The Most Awesome Thriller of All Time” is understandable. After all, the original King Kong defined movie magic and captivated audiences with its groundbreaking special effects and a story that mashed up mythic allegory and crude Darwinism with emblems of modernity like the Empire State Building. But the world has turned a few times since Kong was billed as its eighth wonder, and any contemporary author attempting to reboot the classic story is faced with two daunting challenges. Firstly, how in the hell do you keep the plot of the original while making it acceptable to today’s sensibilities? Even by 1933 standards, Kong’s gender politics are old-school. Many pre-Code Hollywood films featured street-smart, independent female protagonists,whereas Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) does little but writhe fetchingly as the ape, a raging male libido incarnate, sniffs, ogles, fondles and abducts her: no courtship or consent required. And then there’s the problem of Skull Island’s natives,those drum-pounding, spear-brandishing savages who are so impressed with Ann’s blonde locks and milky skin that they kidnap the “golden woman”and serve her up as an antipasto to appeasement their simian god. Clearly, none of this would fly today, but once you jettison the story’s racism, sexism and imperialism, is it still King Kong? Secondly, in a time when IMAX 3D movies are playing at the mall and hyper-real graphics are available on X Boxes and smart phones, is it still possible to concoct a spectacle capable of filling an audience with awe?

The creative team behind the great ape’s latest incarnation struggles valiantly with the first of these two conundrums. Their efforts yield, to put it gently, uneven results. When it comes to the second question, though, the show is truly breathtaking, so much so that the sense of wonder its gargantuan star provokes almost compensates for the inconsistencies in its score and script.

Like the movie, KKAOB takes place in Depression era Manhattan. But its heroine is decidedly more proactive. Ambitious Ann Darrow, (Christians Pitts) a farmers’ daughter from the Midwest, dreams of being a Broadway star. She auditions tirelessly, but finds the competition fierce and the jobs scarce. Down to her last few pennies, she is loitering in a greasy spoon one night when a waiter tries to get fresh with her. She gives the chap a well-deserved biff on the chin, and the commotion attracts the attention of impresario Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). Denham buys Ann a hot meal, and presents her with an offer to star in his new movie. There’s a catch, of course. The picture will be shot on Skull Island, uncharted terrain rumored to be populated by primordial beasts. It’s sure to be a treacherous journey, but with few prospects on the horizon, Ann decides accept Denham’s proposal. No sooner has the boat launched than tensions begin to simmer. Ann puts up resistance when Denham wants to shoot a test reel of her screaming. Uncomfortable in the role of damsel in distress, she’d rather roar with power than screech in terror. The sailors, too, get tired of doing Denham’s bidding, and Ann again asserts her strength by quelling a potential mutiny. The only person who doesn’t seem to have a problem with Denham’s tyranny is his faithful factotum, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) a gentle soul who takes a liking to Ann. When the crew comes ashore, they find no indigenous people (and therefore no offensive stereotypes) on Skull Island. There are, however, sentient trees, and Ann finds herself bound by grasping vines, unable to escape when the big primate comes to call. As the giant King slowly emerges from the sultry darkness, Ann is awed but not afraid. When he roars, she roars back. More protector than predator, he rescues her from a giant serpent  and she, in turn, uses her homespun wisdom to remedy a wound he has acquired during the fight.

Their bond deepens when Denham has his people tranquilize Kong and ship him to New York, where he’ll become the center piece of a new musical extravaganza. Ann, heartbroken at seeing the majestic animal in chains, wants to walk out on Denham, but the avaricious showman threatens her into fulfilling her contract. Thus, like Kong himself, she is held captive and put on display. Inevitably, though, the need for freedom proves stronger than any psychological or physical bonds imposed by an exploitative system. Liberty may have its price, but both Ann and the King are (and Lumpy, too, in the show’s most skillfully written scene), are willing to take their chances.    

Christiani Pitts is passionate and appealing as the spirited Ann, and impressively holds her own even when playing opposite her 20-foot costar. Lochtefeld, amid the production’s noise and derring-do, manages to turn a small, quiet moment into one of the show’s few poignant beats. They could do better still with stronger material: the songs aren’t particularly memorable, and some of the dialogue is so on-the-nose that the characters begin to feel more like polemics than people. But when the magnificent brainchild of creature designer Sonny Tilders takes the stage, these shortcomings recede into the distance. Kong is not merely a mechanical marvel, but a living, breathing creature endowed with soul. In one particularly heart-stopping moment (in a word, a gorilloquy), the orchestra goes quiet and Kong is alone onstage, his penetrating eyes taking in the audience, his guttural noises expressing more truth than can be found in any of the play’s homilies. It’s the beauty of the beast that keeps this show from becoming the most dreaded of Broadway monstrosities: a colossal turkey.

KING KONG continues through April 14, 2019 at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd & 53rd Streets. Tickets @ Telecharge.com.

THE YEOMAN OF THE GUARD

Written by W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan

Directed by Albert Bergeret

If the kickoff show is any indication, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players are set to have a grand 44th season. Both in terms of production values and the level of performance, YEOMAN OF THE GUARD serves as a reminder of the enduring warmth and brilliance of the G&S catalogue and as a master class for aspiring musical theater practitioners. YEOMAN, though no less erudite than the boys’ more iconic pieces, represents something of a departure from their customary cocktail of social criticism and farcical derring-do. Here, Gilbert controls his urge to syllable-binge and rarely uses the story to hold a mirror to the hypocrisies of late Victorian society. Instead, he spins a fanciful, bittersweet yarn about the machinations of love, requited and otherwise. Sullivan’s score is rich with soaring arias, catchy melodies and even a nod here and there to English folk and madrigal traditions.

Set in 16th Century England the story concerns the dashing Colonel Fairfax (Daniel Greenwood), whose interest in alchemy has landed him in the Tower of London (one man’s science, is apparently another man’s sorcery). It’s all part of an evil scheme perpetrated by Fairfax’s avaricious cousin Sir Clarence Plotwhistle, who stands to inherit the entire family estate if Fairfax dies unmarried. As the Colonel awaits execution, his buddy Sergeant Merryll (Richard Holmes) cooks up a plan to sneak him out of the tower and find him a bride, thereby foiling Plotwhistle’s plot. The Sergeant’s daughter Phoebe (Abigail Benke) is only too happy to volunteer, as she has a thing for Fairfax. As complications ensue, more characters are roped into the scheme, including head jailer Wilfred (Matthew Wages), who has a thing for Phoebe, and then there’s the tower’s housekeeper Dame Carruthers (Angela Christine Smith), who has a thing for Sergeant Merryll, and of course roving Jester Jack Point (James Mills), who has a thing for his bandmate Elsie Maynard (Laurelyn Watson Chase). As the folderol thickens, identities are switched, passions intensify and unexpected allegiances are forged. No heads are severed, of course, but not all hearts escape unscathed.

The mellifluous voices and razor-sharp comedic skills of the cast are matched only by the painterly splendor of the scenic design, costumes and lighting (the day I saw it, the set itself got a round of applause). David Auxier’s seamless choreography and Albert Bergeret’s assured direction highlight both the robust and somber turns of the story with equal skill.

Up next, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE promises to provide a spirited antidote to the between-the-holidays doldrums. Both diehard fans and the G&S curious are urged to check it out. Click here for affordable ticket options and subscriptions: https://nygasp.org/current-season/

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE

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Written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Directed by Jeff Wise

Though the term “toxic masculinity” wasn’t in wide usage in 1970, there’s little doubt as to where Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was aiming his rage when he penned this absurdist meditation on war, gender and class in mid-century America. In a nation battered by defeat in Vietnam, political assassinations at home, and a host of other social upheavals, it’s easy to understand why Vonnegut – himself a WWII veteran and POW- sought to blow up the outdated norms that had gotten us into this mess.

In a luxury New York festooned with hunting trophies, Penelope Ryan (Kate MacCluggage) struggles to move on with her life. Her husband, big game hunter and decorated war veteran Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell) has disappeared while searching for diamonds in the Amazon. He’s been gone long enough to be considered legally dead, and Penelope is open to the idea of remarrying. Her suitors include boring-but-decent vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas) and peacenik intellectual Dr. Norbert Woodley (Matt Harrington). Penelope’s son Paul (Finn Faulconer) doesn’t approve of either of the guys, especially the “fairy” doctor. He believes his dad will come home someday. This seems unlikely, as Harold and his trusted pilot Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino) can hardly survived eight years in the rain forest. As fate would have it, though, Paul is right. Ryan and Looseleaf come marching home again and Penelope is forced to adjust yet another set of unexpected circumstances. Part John Wayne, part British Imperialist Explorer (and more than a hint of Hemingway, the dominant image of Great American Author at the time), Ryan seems to be expecting a hero’s welcome. But he’s in for a rude awakening. In his absence, the world has changed in ways he could never have predicted. No longer interested in playing the beta female, Penelope refuses wait on Ryan and locks the bedroom door when he tries to initiate sex. Likewise Dr. Woodley, whose hands have never held anything more dangerous than a violin, seems to be the kind of guy that gets respect these days. Unlike Nazis and rhinos, these new social foes can’t simply be felled with a bullet or a knife. Ryan will have to adopt new strategies, or face the fact that his societal species is now on the endangered list. As these conflict simmer, a few fanciful touches are thrown into the mix.  Several scenes take place in heaven, where Hitler, Jesus, Einstein and a little girl named Wanda June (Charlotte Wise/ Brie Zimmer) engage in a lively game of shuffleboard (apparently the admission requirements aren’t as high as we’ve been led to believe).

One would think, in the age of Kavanaugh, that the play’s vitriolic lampooning of male entitlement would make seem as relevant ever. Unfortunately, thought much of the script’s heavy-handed satire feels dated. Overinflated machismo is hardly the world’s most challenging target and, while some of HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE is inventive and funny, it ultimately feels longer on indignation that inspiration. Vonnegut’s humor lands more forcefully when he focuses on more downbeat characters like Colonel Harper. Unlike the colorful Ryan, Loose Leaf exhibits no bravado and little to say about his military service. Yet it was he who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing 80,000 people. Here, the playwright makes an intriguing point about society’s numbness to the horrors of war. It’s often the Regular Joes, the decent-hearted Harpers of the world rather than the swashbuckling Ryans, who are sent to do society’s most gruesome tasks. When it’s all over, they shrug and get on with their lives. And so it goes. Another provocative  moment occurs when Dr. Woodley goes toe to toe with the bellicose Harold in a verbal sparring match. The great proponent of piece seethes with a fierce desire to obliterate his rival, if only intellectually. Even pacifists, it appears, have a killer instinct.

Regardless of the script’s unevenness, at least it affords its cast an opportunity to display their stellar skills. O’Connell, whose voice and physiognomy recall a young Orson Welles, finds the arch humor and glimpses of vulnerability between the beats of Harold’s bloviation. He also does a delightful turns as one of Ryan’s felled foes, a German S.S. officers who recounts atrocious war crimes with the casual tone of raconteur entertaining friends at a cocktail party.  The rest of the remarkable ensemble, though not served as big a helping of scenery to chew,  prove themselves adept at balancing caricature with emotional authenticity. Director Jeff Wise, aided by an inventive design team, evokes Vonnegut’s surreal universe with imagination and panache. 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE continues through November 29, 2018 at the Duke, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets and information: tickets.dukeon42.org