SAM & DEDE, OR MY DINNER WITH ANDRE THE GIANT

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Written by Gino DiIorio
Directed by Leah S. Abrams

It would be hard to think of a more unlikely confluence of historical figures, and yet there’s evidence that Modernist playwright Samuel Beckett and pro wrestler Andre “The Giant” Rousimoff knew each other. In fact, they shared a good amount of time together when 12-year-old Andre, already too big to fit on the bus, hitched a ride to school in Beckett’s truck. Whether they stayed in touch is not known, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that they might have met up some years later in Paris, where several of Samuel’s plays debuted and Andre’s athletic career began. In this clever and oddly touching two hander, playwright Gino DiIorio imagines what might have occurred had such an encounter taken place.

The play begins in French countryside, where Samuel Beckett (Dave Sikula) has purchased property with the proceeds from his acclaimed play WAITING FOR GODOT. Local craftsman Boris Rousimoff helps him build a cottage, and when Samuel has difficulty paying for the work, he compensates Boris by giving his son Andre (Brendan Averett) a lift to school every morning.  Conversations are a bit stilted at first. But when the two guys discover their shared love of cricket, the mood becomes more relaxed. Beckett being Beckett, he’s not always able to give Andre (“Dede” for short) the cogent answers his young mind craves. Yet the closeness between them gradually grows, and Dede opens up about the social awkwardness caused by his stature and about his desire to escape small town life and travel to the City of Lights.

As it happens, Dede gets his wish. At the French premier of Beckett’s ENDGAME, the two men reunite, and Sam is pleased to learn that Dede is working in Paris as a furniture mover and gaining a reputation in the wrestling world. Dede is impressed with the performance but bemused by his friend’s seeming inability to enjoy his growing success. When they meet again, things have changed, and yet the affection between the two men remains undiminished. It’s now 1975.  Beckett is required reading in colleges everywhere, and Andre’s a World Wrestling Federation star. The two share some laughs and down several bottles of wine (Andre has become an epic drinker). Andre tells wild anecdotes and teaches Sam the tricks of the wrestling trade. Amid the laughter, though, somber truths emerge. The same pituitary condition that makes Dede a giant also affects his circulatory system, and he knows his own end game is not far off. Sam, too, admits that he has looked death in the face. As if in an existentialist novel, he was stabbed on the streets of Paris by a pimp who, by his own admission, had no reason for his actions. As the evening progresses, Dede, the master of stadium theatrics, and Sam, who wrestles with life’s great intangibles, find they have more in common than meets the eye.

In lesser hands, this juxtaposition of high and low culture would be played for easy laughs. Thankfully, DiIorio isn’t content to merely flatter the audience with inside jokes for the Beckett-literate. The comedy here is of a gentler sort, deriving from the struggle of two men, each with a good heart, to navigate a modern world that often refuses to make sense. Averett maintains the same ingenuous verve as he transitions from an awkwardly outsized child to a Rabelaisian roisterer. Sikula captures virile intellect and quizzical melancholy beneath Sam’s cordial demeanor. Using minimal strokes, director Leah S. Abrams neatly establishes the physical world of the play, and gently puts across the message that, for all its concomitant frustrations and unsolvable riddles, being human does have its upside.

SAM AND DEDE continues through 59E59 Theaters. 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: http://www.theatermania.

com/off-broadway/shows/sam-and-dede-or-my-dinner-with-andre-the-giant_318523/

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OMEGA KIDS

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Written by Noah Mease

Directed by Jay Stull

Despite the likability of its characters, Noah Mease’s glimpse of twenty-something life doesn’t pack enough energy to justify its running time. The fault lies not with the show’s premise: some very good scripts eschewed plot in favor of philosophical discourse. There’s a difference, though, between the art of conversation and mere gab. If this is meant to be a millennial answer to My Dinner With Andre, it falls wide of its target.

Fanboy Michael (Will Sarratt), attaches almost religious significance to the Omega Kids series of comic books (something akin to the X-Men and Justice League). He talks of little else as he pays a visit to a colleague, also named Michael (Fernando Gonzalez) at the latter’s apartment in Boston. It’s a rainy night, and At Home Michael encourages Visitor Michael to stay the night rather than brave the weather. Thus begins what amounts to a sleepover, during which the two young men pass the time chatting, and doing little else. There is some sexual tension under the goofy grins and small talk, but it dissipates as Visitor Michael reveals that neither men nor women seem to have any effect on his libido (Unfortunately, he doesn’t elaborate on this, and audiences interested in the experiences of people who identify as asexual will have to look elsewhere). At Home Michael shares a few details about his bisexuality and a difficult childhood spent in group homes and foster families, sometimes with abusive guardians. The point seems to be that he is able to let his down with Visitor Michael. Yet the divulgences don’t seem to bring about any catharsis, and the two guys, rather than growing closer, soon drift off to other, more mundane topics.  The script gets a bit more compelling when Mease takes a more Shavian approach, allowing both Michaels to advance a social argument. Visitor Michael likes the new diversity that permeates contemporary comics culture. At Home Michael is not impressed with what he sees as the token inclusion of a few gay couples and people of color in a medium traditionally dominated by super-white, super-straight male protagonists. Sadly, there are few such beats in OMEGA KIDS’ 90 minutes of colloquy, and we learn little about how the young see the world they’ve inherited.

Director Jay Stull gives his cast few props to work with or activities to focus on, so the actors spend most of the evening exploring myriad variations on the actions of sitting cross legged or reclining on a shag carpet. Sarratt and Gonzalez seem relaxed and natural, and they are appealing to watch for a while. But their talents would be put to better use in a leaner, more purposeful production. Trimmed to a fighting weight, OMEGA KIDS might make a charming one act. At its current length, its packs more superfluity than superpower.

OMEGA KIDS continues through  March 25 at the Access Theater 380 Broadway, New York, NY 10013. For tickets call: (800) 838-3006

NIBBLER

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Written by Ken Urban

Directed by  Benjamin Kamine

Scenic Design by Anshuman Bhatia, Costume Design by Lux Haac, Lighting Design  by Christina Watanabe, Sound Design by Christian Frederickson, Projections by Ien Deniro and Christina Watanabe, Puppet Design by Stefano Brancato, Prop Design by Zach Serafin

A kind of Gen X spin on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ken Urban’s teen dramedy looks at what happens when the comforting routines of high school begin to crumble under the pressures of adulthood.

It’s the summer of 1992, and everything 80’s is on its last legs. The cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is over, and Bill Clinton is poised to end a twelve year run of Republican leadership. Nirvana and Pearl Jam haven’t yet transformed pop radio, and Morissey and Depeche Mode are still the patron saints of adolescent angst. At least that’s how it is in Medford, New Jersey, where Adam (James Kautz), is doing his slacker thing. There’s not much to do in this suburban wasteland, but at least Adam has a tight group of fellow misfits to help him pass the time. Matt (Spencer Davis Milford), tries to act confident although his hot girlfriend Hayley (Elizabeth Lail), can see that he lacks experience. Tara (Rachel Franco) keeps throwing herself at Matt and his best bud Pete (Sean Patrick Monahan), but they only see her as a friend. Desperate to cross the sexual border into adulthood, Tara stumbles into an affair with Dan (Matthew Lawler), an older, married cop who grew up in Medford and never left. All these little episodes fairly  typical of small town society, but soon life in Medford begins to look less like an indie drama and more like an alien invasion B movie. Late at night, a green, multi-limbed extraterrestrial called the Nibbler (presumably named for arcade game of the same name), injects its unsuspecting victims with a mysterious venom that alters their personalities. One by one, Adam’s friends become unrecognizable. Matt, eschewing the fashionable political apathy of the day, morphs into a racist, homophobic right-winger. Tara takes the opposite stance, donning slogan-laden clothes and volunteering for the Clinton campaign. Pete sports  a lavender tee shirt and comes out about being gay. They all start moving away to college, doing something with their lives, leaving the ambition-less Adam without his old support system. The party’s over, and Adam finds himself facing a daunting choice: find some sense purpose in life, or end up like Dan in 20 years.

The cast rises nimbly to the challenge of the script, making the characters’ identity transitions both comical and convincing. Director Benjamin Kamine, aided by the show’s impressive production values, weaves the mundane and surreal elements of the story into a motley tribute to the quirky culture of 90’s.The script, likes its protagonist, is both endearing and a bit unfocused. The most affecting beats deal with the real (not alien-induced) maturation process, as young adults discover the messiness and ambiguity of actual human relationships. The fleeting tenderness between Tara and Dan, for example, is handled with disarming delicacy, as is the pained awkwardness of Pete’s unspoken desire for the clueless Adam. Other scenes are less theatrically engaging, especially the ones that center on the unnibbled Adam. We learn that he is in a band, and that he is worried he may have gotten someone pregnant. Yet, for some reason, all these events happen offstage and don’t seem to influence the course of the story. If Adam could be less of a “lens character” and more of a three-dimensional person with real problems and dreams, NIBBLER would have more of the bite it needs.

NIBBLER continues through March 18 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: 224 Waverly Place New York, NY 10014. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34100

 

JITNEY

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                                                                                                                                                                                                            Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Written by August Wilson

Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Though it’s been nearly a dozen years since August Wilson’s untimely death, the relevance of his themes and the raw beauty of his language has not diminished with time. If anything, Wilson’s writing appears to be gaining wider popularity. The recently released film version of FENCES, about a gifted ballplayer who, because of race, is barred from playing in the major leagues, scoring handsomely at the box office and has deservedly garnered myriad award nominations. Back in New York, another vibrant chapter in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is receiving its long overdue debut on Broadway.

Like FENCES, JITNEY captures the cadences and concerns of daily life to in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, the cultural and economic heart of the Steel City’ black community. The time is 1977, and the Hill is, like the rest of the country, going through profound changes. In an America that FENCES’ protagonist would hardly recognize, black athletes dominate the sports pages and high level career opportunities are no longer limited to white males. Not all new developments are positive, though. The economy is declining, especially in industrial towns, and crime is on the rise. In an effort to revitalize cities, whole neighborhoods are being bulldozed by politically popular “urban renewal” efforts. This isn’t good news for Becker (John Douglas Thompson), who makes his living running a car service in a neighborhood that’s targeted for demolition. Becker’s shop represents more than just a livelihood for the men who work there. Its demise would signal the end of a way of life. Becker considers moving the operation to a new spot but, as he tells his right hand man Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), he’s growing old and weary.

While Becker searches for a solution, dramas large and small are played out in the jitney station’s cluttered front office. Vietnam veteran Youngblood (André Holland), strives to build a better life for his girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) and their son, but must first rebuild the trust broken by his past infidelities. Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), once a tailor to  many jazz luminaries, now depends on the jitney job – and whatever else he can borrow – to sustain a worsening drinking habit. Turnbo (Michael Potts), can’t stop himself from kibitzing about everything from checkers to relationships. Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas) has a steady job at a nearby hotel and sends plenty of business Becker’s way. His personal life is another matter, as his taste for the nightlife keeps getting him in trouble with his old lady. Dapper Shealy (Harvy Blanks) drops by to promote his numbers racket. Most crucially, Becker’s estranged son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), whose promising academic career was derailed by a violent episode, is out the state pen after serving a 20 stretch for murder. Becker’s disappointment in his son is matched only by Booster’s own sense of disillusionment. Unable to reconcile with his father and uncertain of what the future holds, Booster has no clue how to devise a plan for his life. But as an unexpected turn of events reveals, life has a plan for him.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has himself acted in several of Wilson’s plays, understands the pace of the play perfectly. Neither rushed nor sluggish, JITNEY moves as a clip that allows its plot, and its characters’ arias, to rise organically from the rhythms and routines of everyday life. Like their characters, the actors vibrantly assert their individuality while contributing to the larger mosaic. Of course, the cab stand itself is a character, and every detail of this mostly male environment, however seemingly haphazard, is meticulously arranged by set designer David Gallo. Likewise Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes, from the fading elegance of Fielding’s waistcoat to the flared cuffs of Sealy’s aquamarine polyester trousers, speak volumes about the aspirations, histories and agendas of the people  who wear them. The visual touches combine with the virile lyricism of the dialogue  paint a clear-eyed but deeply affectionate portrait of a pre-Twitter era when, however imperfectly, people still talked to each other.

JITNEY continues in an open run at the Samuel j. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Broadway/August-Wilsons-Jitney/Overview

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

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Written By Neil LaBute, Gabe McKinley, Cary Pepper and Adam Seidel

Directed by Kel Haney,  Michael Hogan, and John Pierson
Scenic design by Patrick Huber, lighting design by Jonathan Zelezniak , and costume design by Carla Evans.

Pound for pound, the writing in this year’s LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL isn’t as solid as in the 2016 edition, but its lighthearted tone provides a refreshing change, and the versatile cast more than matches the bar set by last year’s show.

Though the evening has no stated theme, a common thread runs through all the pieces. Whether comic or dramatic in tone, each one act play revolves around some form of contract negotiation. In Neil LaBute’s WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, a prostitute (Clea Alsip) and her client “Bob” (Michael Hogan) lie in a hotel bed hammering out a plan for the rest of their evening together. The erotic options are literally listed on a menu, replete with moneysaving combo deals. Amid the haggling (is there really a separate charge for “horseplay”?), the two step out of their proscribed roles and begin to share a few personal details. She has many customers, of course, but Bob is a guy she can really be herself with. At least that’s the way it appears, and that’s good enough for a Bob. More than any of the specials on the menu, illusion is what the customers really want, and she knows how to serve it up. The tightest of all the festival’s offerings, VEGAS exhibits LaBute’s gift for blending comedy with unsettling insights into human despair.

In AMERICAN OUTLAWS by Adam Seidel, two men meet in an empty restaurant to discuss a shady business transaction. Mitch (Eric Dean White) is an accountant who’s out of place in the criminal underworld. Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) is cool, collected, and accustomed to violence. At first, it appears that Mitch, driven to desperation by his wife’s infidelity, wants to hire Michael to perform a mercenary task. As the negotiation progresses, though, a more complicated picture emerges. As it turns out, Mitch and Michael are both in love with the same woman, and they both work for the same mafia family (to whom Mitch is debt, thanks to a gambling addiction). Michael has an ingenious plan that will solve everyone’s problems, but it demands a sacrifice Mitch isn’t sure he’s willing to make. Seidel’s staccato dialogue has and entertaining punch to it, and the plot packs a few intriguing twists. But the balance of power remains so firmly in Michael’s court that the suspense begins to slacken over time. AMERICAN OUTLAWS has the potential to be a grim comedy in the Martin McDonagh tradition, but it needs some extra spin to keep us hooked.

Likewise, Gabe McKinley’s HOMEBODY is draft or two away from realizing the full potential of its satirical premise. Though he’s crowding 30, Jay (Michael Hogan) has no gainful employment lives at home with his mother (Donna Weinsting).  Jay once dreamed of becoming a writer, but American culture has deteriorated so severely that no one wants to publish well written novels anymore. Jay’s pessimism is challenged when hope arrives in the form of an acceptance letter. An editor at a major publisher recognizes Jay’s talent, and it looks as if a book deal is imminent. But the would-be author’s worst fears are realized when the editor calls back with bad news. In the age of Jame Frey, publishers don’t sell books, they sell writersand Jay’s mundane life isn’t the stuff of literary legend. For this to change, his mother will have to make the ultimate sacrifice. Jay’s bitter rants about the decline of literacy are spot-on, and the tango of codependency between mother and son is perceptively rendered. The story just needs to move at a faster clip to its twist ending. Like its protagonist, HOMEBODY is ambitious, but needs a good editor.

Cary Pepper’s MARK MY WORMS hinges on an ingenious comedic device. Theater director Mason (Justin Ivan Brown) is thrilled to be helming an early masterpiece by the late great modern dramatist Montclair. Equally excited is Mason’s old friend John (Eric Dean White), who will be playing the male lead.  There’s just one problem: the script is crawling with typographical errors. John’s character threatens people by pointing a bun at them, and it only gets worse from there. Yet there’s nothing the director can do about these glitches, as the playwright’s estate has insisted that the work be performed as written. When John’s scene partner Gloria (Clea Alsip) arrives, he hopes she can talk some sense into Mason. Alas, she too, having read a scholarly treatise on the subject, insists that Montclair’s use of baked goods as weapons is all part of his absurdist vision. Pepper has a keen ear for the inanities of academic-speak, and Alsip is delightfully sincere as she serves up high-level gibberish in a clipped British accent. Unfortunately, too much stage time is devoted to discussing, rather than playing, Montclair’s botched drama. Something closer to a David Ives treatment would have worked better: Establish the rules of the game quickly and confidently, then trust the audience to play along.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 5, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.ORG.

ANNA CHRISTIE

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                                                                                                                                                                Photo: Maria Baranova

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Peter Richards

Received wisdom has it that Eugene O’Neill’s earlier plays, with their stylized speech and melodramatic plots, are less worthy of revival than say, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT or A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. It is true that O’Neill found his voice and divulged more of his personal angst in his later work. That doesn’t mean, however, that his earlier pieces should be dismissed as mere batting practice.  Pulitzer Prize-winning ANNA CHRISTIE, with its flinty, independent female protagonist and blunt portrayal of the tribulations immigrant life, seems in some ways less dated than the playwright’s more introspective later musings. On the page, ANNA language is decidedly strange. Much of it is written in dialect, with ethnic inflections spelled out phonetically (“Ay’m fool sailor fallar. My voman–Anna’s mother–she gat tired vait all time Sveden for me”). When spoken by the right actors, though, these eccentric word clusters actually have an authentic ring to them. Getting the music right is essential.  And in  Working Barn Productions’ lively revival, director Peter Richards and a gifted cast rise admirably to the challenge.

Swedish-born Chris Christopherson (Stephen D’Ambrose) spends his days piloting a coal-barge, and his nights nipping whisky at a waterfront bar owned by Johnny-the-Priest (Scott Aiello). Also on hand is Marthy Owen (Tina Johnson), a kind of drinking-buddy-with -benefits, with whom Chris sometimes spends the evening when he’s ashore.  Chris’s routine is disrupted when word arrives by mail that Anna, the old Swede’s long lost daughter, will soon be arriving in New York. Years ago, when Chris was a sailor, he sent Anna away to live with relatives on a farm in the Midwest. Here, he assumed, Anna would have a healthy upbringing. His vision of a wholesome, respectable young lady is inconsistent with the tall blonde (Therese Plaehn) who half struts, half staggers into the bar. Adult Anna can drink with the best of them and, after looking dowdy Marthy up and down, declares “You’re me forty years from now”. Anna joins Chris on a sea voyage, which enables her to temporarily forget her past. Her reverie doesn’t last long. A nearby shipwreck propels Irish seafarer Mat Burke (Ben Chase) onto the barge, and he falls in love with Anna at first sight. Chris, who has always tried to protect Anna from “dat ole davil sea”, doesn’t see the sailor as worthy of his daughter’s attention. But parental disapproval is the least of Anna’s worries. To make a fresh start with Mat, she’ll have to come clean about what really happened during her adolescence on the farm, and the compromises she had to make in the lean years that followed.

In addition to embodying the vernacular poetry of O’Neill’s language, the actors capture the human, often comically, contradictory traits of characters’ personalities. D’Ambrose’s Chris is both worldly and naïve, Plaehn’s vibrant Anna shows the scars of a hardscrabble life along with the angelic purity that causes Mat to mistake her for a mermaid. The show’s impressive production values also help to deepen the mood and advance the story. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes and Emily Naylor’s props reflect the built-to-last dauntless of the Early 20th Century strivers they serve.  Scott Bolman’s muted lights and David M. Barber’s Whistleresque set design evoke a maritime world in which both danger and deliverance might lie in wait in the foggy distance.

ANNA CHRISTIE continues through December 17, 2016 at the Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St, New York, NY 10009. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1480568400000

POISON

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Written by Lot Vekemans

Translated by Rina Vergano

Directed by Erwin Maas

From the moment the lights go up on Jian Jung’s spare set, POISON establishes both its minimalist aesthetic and its central metaphor. She (Birgit Huppuch), and He (Michael Laurence), are adrift in a world of empty spaces. They only have each other to turn to for answers, and the distance between them, forged by years apart, will not be easy to bridge. They were once a couple, a pretty happy one it seems, until the death of their young son Jacob drove a wedge between them. Now, after ten years apart, She feels the need to make contact. Ostensibly her urgency comes from the fact that the cemetery where Jacob is buried is threatened by new construction in the area. Chemical runoffs could toxify the soil, and his body may have to be moved.

The concern over the polluted ground turns out to be something of a red herring. What really needs to be disinterred is the unresolved pain She keeps buried deep inside her psyche. Though plenty of time has elapsed, closure remains unattainable. He, it turns out, has been able “put a period on” his grieving process. He has remarried and is starting a new family in France. At first, She’s resentful of his newfound happiness. She feels that, as a man, He can’t possibly have experienced the same sense of loss as a mother who witnessed her own child’s death. In time, though, her bitterness is replaced by curiosity. She wants to know how He got through it all, and his surprising revelations help her to find her own way of making peace with the past.

Playwright Lot Vekemans takes a refreshingly straightforward approach to the two hander form. Unlike some recent examples of the genre (Nick Payne’s CONSTELLATIONS, Phillip Ridley’s TENDER NAPALM, etc.) POISON doesn’t feature any formal pyrotechnics. The only non-naturalistic element is the ethereal voice of a countertenor Jordan Rutter, who stands in the aisles singing haunting selections from Richard Strauss’s “Morgen” between the scenes. Thankfully, the play is also free of showy catharses. Instead the story unfolds at a gentle, recognizably human pace. Outbursts of emotion erupt, then subside, arguments dissolve into laughter and tenderness. Huppuch and Laurence are affectingly real as a couple whose shared tragedy – the very thing that drove a wedge between them – now binds them together. Erwin Maas directs with a delicate touch.

POISON continues through December 11, 2016 at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.origintheatre.org

 

WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST and HEDDA GABLER

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Written by Theresa Rebeck

Directed by Lorca Peress

It would be comforting to be able to say that playwright Theresa Rebeck is going too far in her biting depiction of gender bias in the workplace. Sadly, much of the grotesquery that occurs in WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST feels more like realism than caricature.  In her zeal to make a point, Rebeck sometimes overlooks dramatic possibilities, but the issues she raises are, perhaps now more than ever, worthy of our attention.

When Eliza (Lesley McBurney) takes a job at an architecture firm, she’s confronted with a Catch-22. The only way she can establish herself is by doing impressive work, and yet, because she’s new hire (and female) no one will give her any projects to do. It doesn’t help, of course, that her boss, Stu (Vince Bandille) is a cantankerous, alcoholic misogynist. When the frustration gets to Eliza, she takes matters into her own hands. Bringing one of her designs to Stu’s attention, she pretends it was done by her highly-regarded colleague Weber (Bones Rodriguez). Stu is impressed, but when Eliza reveals the ruse, he doesn’t respond by acknowledging that her work is better than Weber’s. Instead, he tries to save face by turning up the heat on Weber as well as  his teammates Ben (Ean Sheehy) and Janice (Cherie Mendez). Eliza is relegated to a less prestigious project. Naturally, Eliza does excellent work on her assignment. The other team flounders, and only Ben exhibits enough smarts to know that Eliza could solve their problems. Mindful of the office’s tense atmosphere, he attempts to reach out to her without seeming to circumvent the boss’s authority. Eliza is understandably slow to trust Ben, but he’s the only ally she’s got. Certainly there’s no sisterly feeling between her and Janice, who sees her as a threat. Friction intensifies as Stu and his loyalists attempt to derail Eliza’s efforts, all the while underestimating her skill at counter-sabotage.

It’s easy to root for Eliza, considering how tough it is for her to get the break she deserves. Theatrically, though, the play could benefit from a more Shavian, less lopsided approach. Janice’s arguments with Eliza, for example, would have more power if she were shown to have at least one decent architectural idea. The Janices of the world, the women who collude with their male higher-ups and undermine their female colleagues, aren’t always airheads. Very often they have talent and drive, which they feel will go unrecognized unless they play the game. A more intriguing conflict occurs when Ben attempts to sort out the situation. Like many men today, he doesn’t share Stu’s old school chauvinism but doesn’t know how to go about changing the system. Despite some missed opportunities, though, WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST is tight and well-paced, and Rebeck exhibits an expert ear for hollow boardroom jargon. Her staccato dialogue is jazzily handled by a bright ensemble under the confident direction of Lorca Peress. Jennifer Varbalow’s architectonic set and Jason Fok’s cold lighting design suggest a soulless corporate maze in which it’s easy to make a wrong turn.

WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST ran for one week at the June Havoc Theater, 312 West 36th Street, New York, New York. For information on upcoming shows check here: https://www.facebook.com/WhatWereUpAgainst/

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Written by Henrik Ibsen

Adapted and directed by Kelly McCready

In 1879, playwright Henrik Ibsen shook European society out of its complacency with his naturalistic drama A DOLL’S HOUSE. Its final scene, in which the protagonist abandons her comfortable bourgeois life for an uncertain future, ran against the entrenched family values of the day. A decade later, Ibsen took a more scathing look at domestic asphyxiation. Out of step with society’s norms, the wild-hearted anti-heroine of HEDDA GABLER feels she can only express her ambitions through the men in her life. When her manipulations backfire, Hedda’s world grows ever narrower, eventually driving her to despair. In this new edition, adapter-director Kelly McCready has trimmed away some of Ibsen’s clunky exposition but kept the bones of the plot intact. The result is a briskly-paced, enjoyable spin on the classic text. The production suffers from a few inconsistencies, but its flaws are outweighed by the sensitive and energetic work of its talented cast.

After returning from a honeymoon, bookish George Tesman (David De Almo), plans to embark on a distinguished academic career. His bride, Hedda (Kaitlyn Schirard), once turned heads with her beauty and penchant for riding fast horses and playing with guns. Now, it appears, she is ready to settle down. Already there’s tension in the house, as Hedda doesn’t adapt easy to the role of professor’s wife. And when Hedda’s ex-friend Thea Elvsted (Maya Carter) arrives, things get even more complicated. Mrs. Elvsted’s lover is Tesman’s old schoolmate Eilert Lovborg (Lebron Lackey), with whom Hedda onCe had a mad romantic encounter. There is still an erotic chemistry between them, which threatens to ignite whenever they are alone together. Furthermore, Lovborg’s genius outweighs Tesman’s accomplishments. The position for which George was being groomed may go to Lovborg instead. All this puts pressure on Thea, who has spent months weaning Eilert off booze, and worries that all the excitement will derail his hard-won sobriety. Hedda is only too happy to nudge him off the wagon, and the resulting tailspin consumes the lives of all concerned. Meanwhile, the lecherous Judge Brack (Glenn Stoops) has been circling like a vulture, waiting for Hedda to make a misstep. Skilled in the art of blackmail (or Brack-mail, as it were), he takes away Hedda’s last hope for a livable future.

McCready’s compassionate direction highlights the yin and yang of Ibsen’s complex characters. Hedda is both victim and villainess, Lovborg and Tesman close friends as well as bitter rivals. Anchored by Schirard’s nuanced, fiery Hedda, the ensemble captures the anxious rhythms and the (often neglected) dark humor that distinguishes HEDDA GABLER from Ibsen’s more hortatory pieces. The director’s program notes state the production came together quickly, and indeed the cues aren’t always as crisply timed and confidently executed as they would be with a longer rehearsal period. Something should also be done about the set’s floorboards, which amplify the actors’ footsteps in a distracting way. Despite its rough edges, though, the production overall succeeds, and bodes well for the future of the fledgLing Ophelia Theatre Group.

Hedda Gabler plays at The Ophelia Theater, 21-12 30th Road, through November 19, 2016. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $18 (Sunday matinees are Pay What You Can) and are available at Brown Paper Tickets. For more information visit opheliatheatre.com.)

27

 

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Written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek

Directed by James Robinson

Briskly paced and delivered with brio, MasterVoices new production takes a refreshingly playful – though by no means sugarcoated – look at some of the key figures of 20 Century culture. Clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission, the opera derives its title from the Paris home where American expats Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived and worked for 40 years. It’s a fitting appellation, both because the domicile housed the first great collection of modern art, and because many public and private dramas were played out within its walls.  History, both elevated and barbaric, came to came to call at 27 Rue De Fleurus.

The show begins during the heyday of the budding Modernist movement. Against a backdrop of empty picture frames, Gertrude (Stephanie Blythe), entertains Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray and other art world luminaries. All the artists are eager to have their work anointed by Stein, but co-hostess Alice (Heidi Stober), does a bit of eye rolling. Geniuses, after all, don’t always make the most considerate guests. Nonetheless, she’s happy to see Gertrude collecting works of art that will one day become iconic while working on her own poetry as well. With the advent of World War, the soirees cease for a time as coal and food become scarce. In the prosperous 1920s, the Salon once again becomes the center of an artistic renaissance. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, accompanied by their wives, drop by to drink (and drink, and drink) and discuss new forms of literature. Sadly, Europe again is dragged into war, and Paris falls prey to German occupation. Under the Third Reich, being Jewish, American or openly gay can get a person killed. Gertrude and Alice are all three, yet they make it through the 1940’s unscathed. That’s because Gertrude has befriended high-ranking intellectuals in the collaborationist Vichy government and works as translator of for its rightwing leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain. It’s a puzzling choice for Stein, especially considering that she could have gone back to the States, or slipped away to neutral Switzerland. Whatever the moral cost, Stein survives with her legacy intact: Unlike many other cultural troves, 27 Rue De Fleurus escapes being looted by the Nazis. Throughout it all, Alice remains fiercely devoted. Even death cannot sunder the bond between them.

Whether Gertrude’s collaboration with fascist panjandrums was motivated by passion or pragmatism is a subject still hotly debated by Stein scholars. But composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek aren’t here to pronounce judgment. Their goal is, like Picasso, to paint a warts-and-all portrait of their complex subject. They rise to the challenging admirably, with Gordon’s richly harmonic sound palette encapsulating the bright and dark aspect of Stein’s personality. Likewise Vavrek’s lilting lyrics, many of them reminiscent of Stein’s own poetry, evoke a variety of moods ranging from the heady energy of artistic revolution to wistful reflections on the ravages of time. Blythe’s warm, powerful mezzo-soprano centers the ensemble while lyric soprano Stober, like her character, exhibits affecting purity both individually and in counterpoint with her partner. Under Ted Sperling’s energetic baton, the leads are given ample support by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a 150- member chorus. Bass-baritone Daniel Brevik, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and tenor Theo Lebow gamely morph into a rich array of characters. James Robinson directs with humor and heart, while painterly touches are provided by scenic designer Allen Moyer, costume designer by James Schuette, and lighting design by James F. Ingalls.

27 was performed on October 20th and 21st as 21, 2016 as part of MasterVoices 75th Anniversary Celebration New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street, New York, New York. Website: http://www.mastervoices.org

 

 

HEISENBERG

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Written by Simon Stephens

Directed by Mark Brokaw

 

Relationships, especially in their early stages, have something in common with theoretical physics. Results defy predictions, and the perspective of the observer influences the outcome of the experiment. At least, that’s what Simon Stephens seems to have had in mind when he named his quirky new two-hander after the father of the Uncertainty Principle. For all that, HEISENBERG doesn’t delve as deeply as it should into the subatomic particles of the human psyche. But its endearing protagonists and seasoned cast still provide enough to satisfy audience who seek lighter fare.

At a crowded London train station, American divorcee Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) walks up behind septuagenarian Alex Priest (Denis Arndt) plants a kiss on his neck. She claims to have mistaken him for someone else. Like many things Georgie will say through their relationship, this may or may not be true. Either way, the ice has been broken and a kind of courtship follows. Sounding more like the Many Worlds Interpretation than any of Heisenberg’s theories, bubbly Georgie does tells numerous different versions of her life story. Alex, courteous but reticent, reveals little more than the fact that he’s single and makes his living as a butcher. That’s enough information for Georgie to go on, she shows up a few days later at his shop. At first Alex feels rattled by the unexpected visit, but Georgie’s charm and onslaught of chipper chatter wears down his resistance. Putting aside his concerns about their age difference, he agrees to take her out to dinner. The date goes well and sex follows. It’s only after the lovemaking that Georgie comes out with a disturbing request. She’s in trouble, or so she says, and needs financial help. Alex begins to wonder begins if all her little fibs are indicative of a more serious tendency towards dishonesty. Perhaps he’s nothing more to Georgie than an easy mark, her attraction to him a cynical sham. Alex, rusty after years of solitude, is torn between two daunting options. If he gives the relationship another chance, he risks getting hurt. If he lets her go, he’ll probably spend his twilight years alone. After a bit of soul-searching, he musters the wherewithal to do the right thing.

Arndt and Parker are well matched as a duet. His gentle baritone, inflected with a trace of Irish brogue, is an apt compliment to her nasal American coloratura. Their unflagging authenticity, seemingly spontaneous, is clearly the product of exhaustive exploration. Stephens endows his characters with intelligence and curiosity that elevate the show above more commonplace portrayals of May-December romance. His language is especially effective when illuminating the odd insights known only to people who spend a lot of time alone: lyrical corners of the world most people don’t take the time to notice. Plot-wise, though, the play’s dramatic stakes could stand to be raised considerably. Georgie and Alex seem more in like than in love, resulting in an evening of theater that is more pleasant than it is riveting. It would be intriguing to see Stephens apply his considerable skills to a more probing look at the challenges two people face when struggling to find a common language — especially in a world where, to quote the play’s namesake, “the reality we can put into words is never reality itself.”

HEISENBERG continues through December 10, 2016 at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre,
261 West 47th Street, New York,  NY. Tickets: http://www.telecharge.com /Broadway/ Heisenberg/ Overview