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

90210! THE MUSICAL!

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Written by Bob & Tobly MsSmith

Directed and choreographed by Donald Garverick

The latest in a cavalcade of TV and movie spoofs by kitsch mavens Bob and Tobly McSmith, this high voltage pasquinade delivers exactly what its title promises. Sporting a a tirelessly upbeat cast and a pop-inflected score by Assaf Gleizner, the show neatly compresses 10 seasons of the legendary teen soap opera into a brisk two acts. Everything about the series is fair game for ridicule, including the nepotism that made Tori Spelling a star and the crow’s feet and receding hairlines that appeared on members of the “teenage” cast. Of course, it’s all done with a generous dollop of affection and nostalgia for a time when network TV served up guilty pleasures with unabashed avidity. Obviously, some of the japes will go over the heads of audiences who didn’t grow up watching the original series But even the uninitiated will get the gist of the story and recognize its archetypes.

When their folks take jobs on the West Coast, twin siblings Brandon Walsh (Landon Zwick) and Brenda Walsh (Ana Marcu) relocate to posh appearance-driven Beverly Hills. The culture shock has them reeling at first. Raised in Minneapolis, these kids have never seen anything like boozehound Steve Sanders (Seth Blum), popularity queen Kelly Taylor (Alexis Kelley) or inwardly-sensitive bad boy Dylan McKay (Alan Trinca). Surrounded by all these “drama zombies”, Brenda and Brandon don’t have an easy time holding on to their Midwestern values. The twins’ nurturing parents, Jim and Cindy (played by Hensonesque puppets in the plays’ most sidesplitting beat), try to keep the kids on track with a bit of homespun advice. But their frequent bathrobe malfunctions only serve to make things even more awkward. Nonetheless, the Minnesotans gradually begin to feel accepted by the cool clique. They are even invited to hang out at the Peach Pit, a diner run by the avuncular Nat (Blum again). Brenda joins a movement dedicated to making sure Tori (Caleb Dehne) is allowed to graduate. Brandon finds a sense of purpose by working for the school newspaper, where he befriends studious editor Andrea Zuckerman (Blum yet again). Also on hand are freshmen dweeb David Silver (Thaddeus Kolwicz) and his sidekick Scott, whose fondness for playing with his father’s rifle foreshadows a tragedy to come. Soon enough, it’s Brandon and Brenda’s turn to welcome a new student. Emily Valentine (Marcu) proves to be as psychotic as she is fashionable, and when she sets her sites on Brandon, fireworks follow. The drama never ends at West Beverly High.

Director/choreographer Donald Garverick keeps the energy level high, and adds extra parodic flavor by incorporating 90’s dance trends into the show’s deliriously silly numbers. The performers, all of them gifted with Broadway-level chops, are clearly having fun letting their inner teenagers come out and play. They are all well cast in their roles, though for very different reasons. Marcu, for example, is a near dead ringer for the young Shannon Doherty, whereas the gravel-voiced Blum is (to put it mildly) cast against type as Andrea. They are aided by Carmen Mendoza’s spot-on costume design.

The show’s grade point average suffers only in one area: lyrics. Some of the rhymes are extremely clever, as when Nat raps that Drinking Zima will get you “more bombed that Hiroshima.” Unfortunately, though, the writers don’t maintain this level of wit throughout the show. The rhymes can get a bit sloppy, and there are missed opportunities to go further with the characters’ specific vocabularies. Clearly Bob and Tobly have what it takes to ace this subject. They just need to grab some NoDoz and hit the books.

90201! THE MUSICAL! continues through November 19, 206 at theater 80, 80 St. Marks Place, New York, New York. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com. Episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 are available for streaming on Hulu.com.

 

 

THE BIRDS

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Adapted by Conor McPherson from the story Daphne du Maurier

Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski

Writing in 1952, author Daphne Du Maurier imagined a bleak future in which mankind’s survival is threatened by a sinister change in the avian population. In his iconic film adaptation (which didn’t please Du Maurier), Alfred Hitchcock kept little of the plot, but retained the core concept of winged menace. Now Conor McPherson, known for chilling Irish Gothic yarns like THE WEIR, offers a modern spin on ornithopocalypse. As in the previous versions, McPherson keeps things enigmatic. No pat explanations are offered, and audiences are left to guess at what evil forces are at work, what sin awakened the monster. For the 21st Century audiences, THE BIRDS reads as a parable of climate change, Mother Nature’s payback for humanity’s destructive hubris (“Who’s the endangered species, now? Huh? “). Given this contemporary context, McPherson’s new spin ought to feel grippingly relevant. Yet despite a strong cast, there are gaps in the construction of the play that ultimately impede its momentum and muddle its meaning.

Seeking refuge in an abandoned rural New England house, writer Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia) tries to make the most of what little provisions she can find. Like the rest of the human race (what’s left of it), she is seeking shelter from the birds, who have united as a species and are tearing people to shreds. There are human threats as well: people are forming into gangs, looting and killing in order to survive in this ravaged landscape. Diane joins forces fellow fugitive Nat (Tony Naumovski), who is strong and handy but emotionally unstable. The two have just begun to bond when young Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) turns up at their door. A free spirit who reads palms and quotes Ecclesiastes, Julia enlivens the group dynamic and manages to find some wine and food in a nearby house. The trio begins to coalesce into a family. But Diane questions whether the younger woman, who once ran with a bad group of people, is telling the truth about where she got the goodies. Diane’s suspicions are confirmed when she receives a visit from the Farmer, the only other living human being in the area. Clad in homemade armor, and speaking like a populist politician, the Farmer claims to be the only one who can lead the way to a better life. Diane doesn’t take him up on the offer. She’s more concerned with the fact that his canned onions resemble the ones Julia has been bringing home. Clearly the girl has been trading sex for comestibles, and lying to Matt and Diane about it. Trust is further eroded when Julia uses her nubile charms to lure Matt away from Diane.  An incestuous tug of war ensues, and Diane reshapes her morality to suit her changing environment.

The charisma and credibility of the cast is almost enough to carry this odd drama. Stefan Dzaparoski uses the theater’s round space adroitly and keeps the tension taught. Yet even their best efforts can’t fill in the missing pieces. Matt comes across as something of a disparaging caricature, a panting male easily led by the clever women in his life. Diane is more multidimensional, but her arc (much of it telegraphed through the journal entries she read aloud to the audience), isn’t fully convincing either. Apparently a two hour and 20 minute version of McPherson’s script premiered at the Dublin Theater Festival in 2009. Perhaps taking more time to get to know the characters might have helped the audience follow their transformations. In this leaner, 90 minute edition, something crucial seems to have been sacrificed. Trimming the fat from a script is part of every playwright’s process, but it must be done skillfully lest the good bits disappear as well. Ultimately THE BIRDS leaves us undernourished.

THE BIRDS continues through October 2, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison, New York, New York.  Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com

DEAD SHOT MARY

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Written by Robert K. Benson

Directed by Stephen Kaliski

In 1931, an ambitious, Irish-born woman named Mary Shanley took the bold step of  joining the mostly male NYPD. In a career spanning over two decades, Shanley racked up over 1000 arrests and became one  of the few women of the time to attain the rank of detective first grade. Her exploits, covered admiringly by the local press, captured the imagination of a public hungry for heroes. A kind of urban Annie Oakley, her pistol-packin’ image represented the can-do character of American womanhood.  Doubtless her example inspired generations of women to pursue careers in law enforcement. But few people learned much about the woman behind the iconic photos. With mixed success, playwright Robert K. Benson and performer Rachel McPhee attempt to paint a more multidimensional portrait of the woman New Yorkers came to know as Dead Shot Mary.

Growing up in a poverty-stricken immigrant family, young Mary seeks a path to a better life. In her neighborhood, it’s the coppers that get respect, and she becomes determined to join the force. The idea sounds farfetched at first, but by the time Mary comes of age, female police officers have begun to gain some traction. Sexism still prevails, but Mary believes – correctly – that given a chance she can prove herself as capable as her male counterparts. During months of training, she pines for the day she can proudly don a police uniform. Yet her first job involves putting on pretty clothes and blending in with the population. Though she initially chafes at the idea, she turns out to be a highly effective undercover cop. Pickpockets, department store shoplifters, phony parishioners who burgle donation plates, fortune tellers who bilk impressionable customers: all become the target of Mary’s ruthlessly efficient detective skills. Often she’s required to investigate nightclubs, which is just fine with Mary. Her appetite for both jazz and booze is considerable. Fame arrives when a newspaper photographer captures Mary’s eye-catching blend of fashion and formidability. Beneath a wide-brimmed hat the detective wears a give-no-quarter expression, and her gloved hand reaches into her dainty purse to clutch that essential accessory, a .38 revolver. Mary’s reputation grows as she receives a commendation from Mayor La Guardia and travels to London to apprehend international scam artists. But the officer’s life is not all glory. Mary’s binge-drinking worsens and she gets demoted when she brandishes her firearm in a pub. Eventually she gets back into the department’s good graces, but her twilight years are haunted by self-doubt.

McPhee handles the period accent skillfully and, with the aid of Peri Grabin Leong’s well-researched costumes, disappears into the part. Both commanding and likable, she carries the audience confidently through the ups and downs of Mary’s life. As a play, though, the production leaves a few too many questions unanswered. Shanley’s crime fighting exploits are compellingly recounted, but Benson and director Stephen Kaliski are less surefooted when it comes to the more personal aspects the narrative. To be fair, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of biographical information available, so a certain amount of guess work is par for the course. Still, a more affecting balance could be struck between Mary’s legend and her true identity. No one knows why she remained single all her life. She certainly wouldn’t have required a husband to support her, but what about the emotional dimension of relationships? Were there lovers? Was Mary gay, straight, or simply an independent soul who cherished her autonomy too much compromise it? The script introduces a few possible theories, but never lands solidly anywhere. This cloudiness might work if the story were told from an outsider’s perspective, but with Mary confessing in the first person, we end up more puzzled than moved by her penchant for rueful introspection. DEAD SHOT MARY has its heart in the right place, but its creators need to line up their targets more decisively.

DEAD SHOT MARY continues through October 15th at The Bridge Theatre 244 W 54th St, New York, NY 10019. Website http://deadshotmary.com/ Tickets: http://tix.smarttix.com/ Modules/Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&SalesEventId=5796&DC=

 

 

THE TROJAN WOMEN

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Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Anne Cecelia Haney

Written shortly after the barbaric Athenian conquest of Melos, Euripides’s tenth tragedy was designed to inspire his countrymen, if not to give peace a chance, at least to think twice about the human cost of war. Told from the point of view of the vanquished, THE TROJAN WOMEN remains a significant work, its allegories applicable to contemporary conflicts. Trimming the script to a brisk 60 minutes, adaptor Ellen McLaughlin highlights the play’s themes of remembrance, identity and survival, while trimming away some of the lengthier dithyrambs of the original.

In the quiet after the carnage, sea god Poseidon (Thomas Muccioli) walks among the lumbering women of a once great society. As their city burns, the Troades awaken to face a grim future. As we learn from the Chorus (Amanda Centeno,  Chun Cho,  Clea Decrane, Jenny Jarnagin, Kyra Riley, and Jennifer Tchiapke), the women of Troy were artists, healers, farmers and craftswomen.  Now reduced to spoils of war, they will be taken as brides, concubines and slaves by the conquering Greeks. Many, like Hecuba, (DeAnna Supplee) are mourning the loss of their husbands, fathers and sons. Prescient Cassandra(Lindsley Howard), whose visions of the destruction of Troy went unheeded, now takes perverse delight in her new premonition : she is going be murdered, but her new Greek masters will suffer, too. Helen of Troy (Rebeca Rad) mocks their lamentations. Hardened by years of captivity, she has learned to hold her head up even under subjugation.  Her presence is not welcomed by the women. After all, it was the Greek king’s lust for Helen that started the war in the first place. Seeking to mar her legendary beauty, the women attack Helen, but their misplaced objurgation changes nothing.  Hope arrives in the form of the infant son of Hecuba’s daughter–in-law Andromache (Casey Wortmann).  Hecuba instructs Andromache to “teach him to remember”, to carry the story of Troy forward into the future . Alas, it is not to be. In the drama’s most heart-wrenching turn, Greek soldier Talthybius (Phil Feldman) ruefully proclaims that the child must die.  Still the Trojan women endure, never forgetting the world they left behind.

McLaughlin and director Anne Cecelia Haney wisely don’t oversell the relevance of the narrative. Its universality speaks for itself, especially given the show’s visual style. Scenic/costume designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen frames the action in a bunker-like space of concrete walls and bare light bulbs. The captives, as well as the soldiers who periodically enter the scene, are mostly clad in muted, culturally-ambiguous apparel. Only Helen and Andromache, wives of royal warriors, appear in colorful finery.  Anchored by Supplee’s commanding Hecuba, the cast the delivers the confident, visceral work for which the Bats (The Flea’s resident acting troupe) are well known.  Their unaffected approach to this challenging material potently embodies both the mythic and the modern elements of the text.

THE TROJAN WOMEN continues through September 30, 2016 at the Flea Theater is located at 41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets), New York, New York. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/960702