GOODBODY

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Written by J.C. Ernst
Directed by Melissa Firlit

A soupçon of Sam Shepherd, a sprinkling of Tarantino, a touch of Grand Guignol and a generous dollop of Martin McDonough: these are some of the many ingredients that make up the oddball world of The Crook Theater Company’s new spin on the heist-gone-wrong subgenre. Make no mistake, though. Joseph C. Ernst’s script (remarkably, his first) tosses some original flavors l into the mix as well. The result is not for the faint of heart, but for audiences who enjoy hanging out at the corner of Crime Drama Boulevard and Theater of the Absurd Street, GOODBODY provides a satisfying evening of suspense, dark humor and wild twists.

In a remote barn house somewhere in upstate New York, low level gangster Spencer (Raife Baker) finds himself staring at the business end of a loaded pistol.  The weapon is held by Marla (Amanda Sykes), a seductive amnesiac who is somehow mixed up in whatever debacle just went down. Bound to a chair and badly beaten up, Spencer has only his words to get him out of this situation. A quick thinker, he manages avoid execution. But his troubles are far from over. For starters, there’s a dead body in the corner. It seems that Marla, who has no memory of the incident, has just killed Burt O’Leary, one of two brothers who run the New York crime syndicate that employs both Spencer and his corrupt cop Charlie Aimes (Alex Morf), who’s known Spencer since childhood. As Aimes and Spencer try to piece together what just happened,  a picture emerges: Taking sibling rivalry to violent extremes, Burt has been muscling in on the illegal gambling enterprise run by his brother Chance (Dustin Charles). The resulting turf war forces Spencer and Aimes to side with one brother over the other.  It’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-do situation, not helped by the trigger-happy shenanigans of volatile interloper Marla. And when Chance, know for his “ultra violent tendencies” walks through the door, it’s a safe bet things are only going to get uglier from here. I won’t spoil the finale by telling you whether Chance or Marla turns out to be the bigger psychopath. Suffice it to say that viewers who crave explosive endings won’t be disappointed.

Sykes is both cuddly and terrifying as the unpredictable Marla, while Charles exudes quiet menace as a kingpin in danger of losing his empire. Morf and Baker pick up on each other’s cues with expert timing, turning their characters into a kind of underworld Abbot and Costello. Ernst and director Melissa Firlit smartly start the play in the middle of the action, trusting the audience to catch up on the back story as more and more details come to light. Exposition is entertainingly interwoven with comic tension as smooth Spencer and anxious Aimes carry on the cool-dude-vs-loser dynamic they’ve been acting out since grade school.

There are a few areas where the show could benefit from further development. Chance’s big entrance veers dangerously close to a gangster film cliché and could use more of the eccentric spin that enlivens the earlier scenes. And Marla, at times, seems a little too conveniently crazy. Understanding the method in her madness might make her even more compelling.  These, however, are minor complaints. Over all, GOODBODY more than lives up to Crook’s stated promise to deliver “inspiringly ambitious and criminally surprising work”.

GOODBODY continues through November 4, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street,  between Madison and Park Avenues. Tickets: 646-892-7999.

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SUMMER SHORTS, SERIES B

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Written by Neil LaBute, Eric Lane and Claire Zajdel
Directed by Terry Berliner,  J.J. Kandel and James Rees

After an uneven Series A, SUMMER SHORTS is back on track with a trio of solidly crafted and adventurous entries.

At first the two siblings at the center of Claire Zajdel’s THE PLOT appear to be polar opposites. Frankie (Molly Groome) is a first-year associate in a prestigious law firm who dresses in crisply tailored business attire. Her brother Tyler (Jake Robinson), an IT freelancer, works at his own pace and favors the tech dude’s uniform of loose jeans and a flannel shirt. As the story develops, though, it turns out brother and sister have more in common than appearances would suggest. For one thing, their loving but controlling mom still exerts a potent influence on both their lives. On this particular day, Mom has asked the kids to meet her in a local cemetery to view the new headstone she’s picked out. She has also reserved spots for Tyler and Frankie in the family plot. Clearly Mom is thinks it’s appropriate not only to micromanage her offspring’s lives, but their afterlives as well. Rivalries mingle with affection as the siblings negotiate over whether to let Mom her have her way. Groome, to great comic effect, portrays Frankie as a text book approval seeker who, despite Doing Everything Perfectly, feels that parental validation is perpetually out of reach. Robinson provides her with an apt foil as the maddeningly mellow bro whose go-with-the-flow mentality, ironically, helps ingratiate him to Mom. Though THE PLOT could use a more satisfying finale, its characters are so endearing, their issues so relatable, that a stroll around the graveyard with them proves an enjoyable experience.

IBIS, by Eric Lane, weaves an intriguing tapestry out of the traditions of film noir and naturalistic family drama. Tyrone Martin (Deandre Sevon) has always wondered what happened to his father. Dad left when Tyrone was little, leaving nothing unanswered questions behind. To aid him in his quests, Tyrone engages the service of private detective Sam Spade (Lindsey Broad). Sam claims to have never heard of Humphrey Bogart, but, as in any good mystery, things are not what they seem. As Sam reveals her real name and (somewhat) true story, Tyrone becomes more comfortable sharing what few details he remembers of his father and discussing the coping mechanisms he employed to get through a confusing childhood. As it turns out, Victor Martin (Harold Surratt), is hiding in plain sight. But Tyrone still has a tough road ahead of him. After all these years, father and son seem to have little in common. Yet again, though, appearances prove deceiving. Lane’s dialogue takes a surprisingly lyrical turn in the final scene, which is played with moving honesty by Sevon and Surratt. Greg MacPherson’s moody lighting and Nick Moore’s sound design give the piece a Billy Wilderesque dark elegance.

Neil LaBute’s SPARRING PARTNER centers on an emotional affair between two coworkers. Stealing and extra few minutes before returning to the office, Woman (Joanna Christie) and Man (Keilyn Durrel Jones) linger on a park bench after a takeout lunch. Giddy with the joy of each other’s company, they engage in a movie trivia game (name a film that in which, say, Meryl Streep and Robert Deniro both appear). Woman keeps winning, which only makes Man admire her more. But when it comes to matters of the heart, Woman can’t help but feel like she’s on the losing side. Man, after all, has a wife back home, and though he admits the marriage is a failure, he doesn’t seem ready to call it quits. Soon their idyll is shadowed by questions. What do all these balmy afternoons spent playing trivia games and dancing to Paolo Conte songs really mean to him? Is he really in love with Woman or is he merely trying to recapture the spontaneity and innocence of new love: things that inevitably diminish with time even in the strongest of long term relationships. And is Woman content with stolen moments of happiness? Or is it time to set some boundaries, to insist that there be no more games unless the ante includes commitment? Exercising a light touch, LaBute doesn’t provide easy answers, preferring to let the audience speculate as to how things will turn out. The only certainty is that nothing will change without pain. Jones and Christie, natural in their movements and pure in their emotions, make the plight of their characters reverberate long after the curtain call.

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A continues through September 1, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com.

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A

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Written by Robert O’Hara, Abby Rosebrock and Chris Bohjalian
Directed by Robert O’Hara, Jess Chayes and Alexander Dinelaris

In terms of production values, this year’s first round of SUMMER SHORTS has achieved a new level of technical smoothness. Rebecca Lord-Surrat’s sets, Greg MacPherson’s lighting, and Amy Sutton’s costume design combine to give the show a painterly richness, while Nick Moore’s sound design is so realistic that the sound effect of a snore had people looking around the theater to see who in the audience had dozed off. Scriptwise, though, SERIES A doesn’t offer as strong a selection as in previous years. While all of the show’s three pieces sport provocative premises, none of them quite feel fully realized.

THE LIVING ROOM: A SATIRE, written and directed by Robert O’Hara, at first appears to be a nice two-hander about an ordinary couple spending a casual evening in front of the television set. But soon we learn that Frank (Joel Reuben Ganz) and Judy (Kate Buddeke) are actually aware that they are characters in a play. They seem frightened of their creator, uncertain of what he might inflict on them next, and eager to share their anxiety with the audience. Race plays a part in the proceedings: Frank and Judy keep referring to themselves as the last two Caucasoids on Earth, and flashing back to some apocalyptic era when they were held captive and forced to procreate under the watchful eye of a totalitarian (presumably non-white) regime.  The play’s Pirandellian conceit is put to its best use when commenting on the playwright’s creative process. Has he birthed Frank and Judy merely because a living room play about a white couple has a decent shot at getting produced? Or is using his characters to sort out some personal quandary? Unfortunately, O’Hara takes a discursive approach to his narrative and seems uncertain of his targets. While the play introduces a number of intriguing themes, it’s a few drafts away from delivering the pasquinade its title promises.

KENNY’S TAVERN, written by Abby Rosebrock, takes place a downscale tavern in the tense autumn days leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) teaches at a progressive in school in North Carolina. The irony of working at a “magnet school” isn’t lost on Laura, who feels stuck, like an iron filing, to an untenable situation. She and her mentor Ryan (Stephen Guarino) have feelings for each other that are rapidly moving past platonic. But Ryan is married, and Laura fears that the only solution is for her to leave her present situation. If she abandons her post though, she will turn her back on a promising career as well as depriving her students of the help and inspiration she excells at providing. While Ryan and Laura struggle to untangle their predicament, waitress Jaelyn (Mariah Lee) laments her own disappointing existence. A working-class teen, she has tried on several occasions to increase her upward mobility by gaining acceptance to the magnet school: all to no avail. Laura is quick to remind the young woman that she cursed, complained and otherwise sabotaged herself during her interviews. Their conversation is the Great American Cultural Divide in miniature. Red-staters feel that the political elite won’t listen to them. Liberals, seeing only hate speech and boorish behavior on the right, are loath to reach across the aisle. Common ground seems to be disappearing faster than a polar ice cap. TAVERN has its share of lulls and could to with some trimming, but Rosbrock’s confident style and blending of the personal with the political make it the strongest entry of the evening.

In Chris Bohjalian’s GROUNDED, aviophobic Emily (Grace Experience) takes to the skies to in an effort to overcome her fear of moving forward with her life. Older and wiser flight attendant Karen (K.K. Glick) enjoys hazing her young protégé, but clearly has her best interests at heart. As the two prep for the flight, their converation goes from chatty to confessional. Emily reveals that, after a post-college stint as a barista, she changed careers on the advice of her life coach, Vladimir. Karen suspects there’s more to this picture, and her hunch is confirmed when Emily divulges the discomfiting fact that her relationship with Vladimir, a family friend, was more than just professional. They were having sex, starting when Emily was under age. Karen prompts the young woman to indict her statutory rapist, but Emily fears the collateral damage that might follow. Emily’s parents, Vlad’s wife and kids, would all undeservedly have their lives turned upside down. Still, Emily must find some way to claim her emotional baggage, and with Karen’s help she may be able restore her self-worth to its upright position. The piece has a solid arc, and offers timely insight into some of the reasons why victims of sexual abuse can be reluctant to come forward. Much of the dialogue, however, centers on events that have happened offstage. More emphasis on the present-tense tension between the seasoned pro and the eager novice would help lift the story off the ground.

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A continues through September 1, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com.

REPLAY

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Written and performed by Nicola Wren
Directed by George Chilcott

For a piece that explores grief, loss, and recovery Nicola Wren’s extended monologue is remarkably breezy and charming. Make no mistake, though, Wren hasn’t skimped on her psychological homework. If anything, her light touch and unassuming personality make the show’s catharsis more palpable. As in real life, she doesn’t arrive a breakthrough in one grand deluge of tears, but through the clumsy, exasperating process of sorting out the past and confronting the unknowability of the future.

As the action begins, Wren’s alter ego, a young police officer known only as W, is having a rough time of it. She can’t keep her food down, struggles to prepare for her upcoming sergeant’s exam, and falls violently ill during a routine call.  The problem, as it turns out, isn’t caused by eating dodgy prawns: W has never fully digested the death of her big brother Jamie. Emotions are piqued when W, on the eve of her birthday, receives an unusual package from her mother in Northampton. It contains a cassette tape, recorded by Jamie (voiced by Mark Weinman) but never sent. I was meant for W to listen to on her twelfth birthday, one that Jamie didn’t live long enough to see. The tape contains affectionate well wishes, goofy voices, and a song (“Sit Down” by the Manchester pop band James) of special significance to W and Jamie. It’s not much to go on, but it helps reawaken memories loving, bright, and troubled man her brother truly was, as W repeatedly replays the tape, strange dreams, and odd coincidences begin to occur.  Her police work brings her in contact with others who have lost a loved one to suicide, “Sit Down” comes on the radio, encouraging those “those who feel the breath of sadness” not to give up hope. Even one of her dotty neighbor’s multiple cats seems to be carrying a message for W. As W’s old coping mechanisms come undone, her world becomes a surreal swirl. But being confused also means being open, and when help arrives from an unexpected place, W is ready to accept it.

Weighing in at a lean 60 minutes and composed of brisk, present tense phrases, REPLAY comprises just enough detail to provide a glimpse of the protagonist’s interior life and evoke the thrum of contemporary London. In fact, the script’s only flaw is that Wren provides only sketchy information regarding Jamie’s behavior patterns. W recalls, as a child, hearing her father talk of Jamie’s “good days”, but she seems to have no memory of his bad days. Nor does the adult W, despite her professional training in detection, go about researching clinical depression or gathering clues to help her understand her brother’s world. Nonetheless, W’s inner trajectory gives the endearing Wren, as a performer, plenty to work with. Both as an adult police officer and as her playful childhood self, she vibrates with intelligence and emotional purity. Director George Chilcott, using a three-quarter-round stage to it’s full advantage, giving Wren both room to play and parameters to define the show’s physical and emotional space.

REPLAY continues through May 13, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com

THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES

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Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Jacqueline Stone

Popular among UK playwrights, the extended-monologue, or “plovel” approach to storytelling seems to be catching on in America. Essentially the lovechild of a play and a novel, a plovel is a performance piece that is spoken by an actor, but constructed as a work of prose fiction. As the narrator interacts with other characters or travels to different settings, we get a description of the scene, rather than a physical manifestation of it. Even dialogue is handled by one actor playing all the parts, with phrases like “he says” or “I answer” following the lines. Shows that use the plovel technique, of course, offer something very different – and often less satisfying – than multi-actor treatments of the same themes. But a skilled writer can work within the limitations of the idiom, even taking advantage of prose’s ability to easily shift locations and articulate the narrator’s inner thoughts. Trying his hand at this form, playwright Adam Rapp brings his usual flair for creating vibrant characters and probing raw emotions. He is less successful when it comes to choosing a theatrical framework for the show. Elements like a surrealistic set, eerie lighting and brief appearance of an extra character seem designed to give the show a distinctive style, but in the end prove more distracting than thought-provoking.

Performer Carolyn Molloy, who brings charm and honesty to the part, plays 16-year-old Bernadette. Reading though her diary, she talks of her relationship with her boyfriend Michael, her friendship with his father Wayne, who is dying of cancer, of her unexpected pregnancy, her divorcing parents, her adventures in New York and Connecticut, and ultimately of the decisions that will shape her future. Along the way, she begins to understand her place in the life cycle and she compares her vital body to Wayne’s deteriorating one, and to the potential new life within her. It’s familiar territory, but the refreshingly plain and candid tone of the script keeps Bernadette’s story from becoming cliché. There is no stereotypical teen angst or teary life-lesson melodrama here, just an unadorned depiction of the curiosity that enables Bernadette to drink in the details of the world around her, the thrumming libido that leads her into the arms of an older man, the quiet but unflagging drive to become her own woman.

Given the gentle potency of the protagonist’s voice, it’s all the more puzzling that Rapp and director Jacqueline Stone seems so hell-bent on placing obstacles between her and the audience. Martin Andrew’s set, though certainly attractive, sports red lights and a gauze curtain that obscures separates Molloy’s facial expressions. Similarly, the Maintenance Man (Robert James Hickey) stays onstage so briefly we don’t get much of a clue as to what he’s supposed to symbolize. If the idea is to provoke a kind of distanciation effect, it needs to be done with a greater sense of purpose. As it is, these Avant-garde touches feel superfluous, as if someone squirted a blob of Brechti-wip topping on a dish that already has all the flavor it needs. THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES would work fine on a bare stage, and what edge it has comes from the bright, wandering teenaged psyche we see laid bare before us. At heart, it’s a coming of age story, told in straightforward, affecting language. That may not be the newest idea in town, but it works better than its creators seem to trust. Serving it straight would be a stronger choice.

EDGE OF OUR BODIES continues through April 22, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets at ticket-central.com

EDUCATION

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Written by Brian Dykstra
Directed by Margarett Perry

As a famous playwriting maxim goes, “start your scenes late and get out early”. Brian Dykstra gets it, and in the first act of his timely exploration of free speech and youth activism in 21st Century America, he skillfully airdrops the audience into a personal-slash-ideological conflict already in motion.

Due to what some adults see as transgressive behavior, high school senior Mick (Wesley T. Jones), has been called into the principal’s office. His provocative entry in the school art competition consists of an American flag suspended over a Bunsen burner, with a can of lighter fluid nearby. Mick hasn’t actually set fire to the flag, but his intention was clear enough. Responsible for both school safety and community standards, Principal Kirks (Bruce Faulk), grills the young man as to the thinking (or lack thereof) behind this sudden outburst creative of expression. Mick, of course, knows more than any grownup (what 17-year-old doesn’t?) and launches into a trite tirade on everything that’s wrong with The System. The principal’s responses are more cynical than authoritarian (“What, nothing on gay marriage?”), but he’s still required to mete out an appropriate punishment.  Mick will be suspended for three days and banned from participating in -or even attending the upcoming Art Fair. Worse, Kirks calls him a “little bitch” and chides him for having spent so little money and effort on this project. It’s not what Mick -or the audience – is expecting. Kirks isn’t preaching conformity, he’s ridiculing Mick for his lack of commitment. If you’re going to create something incendiary, at least do it right. Art demands sacrifice, kiddo.

While Mick plots his magnum opus, his girlfriend Bekka (Jane West), struggles with her own First Amendment problems. She’s been participating in local poetry slams, and her latest ode – not without justification – is full of F bombs. Kirks decides lets it go, as long as she keeps the offending material off school grounds. But Bekka’s ordeal is hardly relieved. She still has to deal with her devoutly Christian mother, Sandy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), who does not approve of young ladies using foul language. Her father, a firm believer in “domestic discipline”, punishes disobedience with physical abuse. Nevertheless, Bekka’s rebellious streak remains strong, as does her ideological kinship with Mick.  He will need Bella’s help in order to launch sneak his project into the Art Fair, and she bravely obliges. This time the art piece involves destroying an icon even more sacrosanct than the red-white-and-blue, and Mick and Bekka are expecting a push back. Thankfully, and Mick’s uncle Gordon (Matthew Boston), a liberal atheist who once studied law, is ready and able to duke it out with the establishment. Yet even he is unprepared the conflagration that engulfs what was once a placid community.

Unfortunately, though the issues remain compelling throughout the play, the energy cools in the later scenes as the debate becomes one-sided.  Clever Gordon easily backs his opponents into corners, and Mick’s iconoclastic agenda rarely meets with a cogent counter-argument. Eventually even the caustic Kirks softens, using his own life as an object lesson in the perils of compromise. Regardless of the playwright’s individual stance, a more evenly pitched battle of ideals would make for a more dynamic evening of theater. “In a good play, everyone is right,” is another writing adage worth heeding.

Despite these drawbacks, Dykstra’s humor and humanity, expertly mined by an appealing cast under Margarett Perry’s brisk direction, distinguish EDUCATION from many less-inspired topical dramas.  But it has the potential to cut deeper, to fulfill its promise of bringing the dynamics of the classic problem play to the trenches of today’s culture wars.  More of a flavor of Ibsen and Shaw, and a soupçon less of John Hughes, would give it the kick it needs.

EDUCATION continues through April 8, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

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Written by James Haigney, Neal Labute & Carter Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Always worth a look,  LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL varies from year to year in length and tone. This year’s edition is, in the best sense of the word, leaner than in previous years. The energy seldom lags, and all three cherry-picked one acts are provocative, timely and adroitly crafted.

The plot of Neil LaBute’s HATE CRIME unfolds like a James M. Cain novel. Man 2 (Chauncy Thomas) paces in his luxury hotel room, watching, appropriately enough, a documentary about alpha male animals in the wild. He is joined by likeable Man 1(Spencer Sickmann), his devoted lover who brings coffee, Danish pastries and smiles. Man 2 is understandably anxious. He wants to make sure the scheme the two of them are hatching goes off without a hitch. Here’s how it works: Man 2 is going to marry a wealthy older man. Right after the wedding, Man 2 will murder the old guy and make it look like a gay bashing incident. He and Man 1 will then live happily ever after on the dead man’s life insurance. As the two conspirators rehearse the plan, they begin to reveal symptoms of the nagging self-contempt – exacerbated by society’s biases- that leads to aberrant behavior. The play feels like Scene One of a larger story, and it would be interesting to where this 21st Century Double Indemnity would go if it were expanded to a full-length piece. As it is, we’re left with a cliff hanger. But, as always, LaBute’s mordant writing is well served by the short form. The dynamic between coolly predatory leader and eager protégé is expertly mined for both laughs and chills by Thomas and Sickmann.

In WINTER BREAK, by James Haigney, religious conversion divides an American family. Christened Joanna, a high-achieving college student (Kelly Schaschl) now insists on being called Aisha. Having adopted Sufism as her guiding influence in life, she wears a head scarf and is planning a trip to Turkey to study the Koran. Aisha’s Episcopalian mom Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) is worried she’ll throw away her education. Her brother Bailey (Sickmann), takes a more extreme view, going as far as calling Aisha’s Facebook friends “sadistic, Nazi, anti-Semitic, homophobic delusional fanatics.” Aisha argues back, pointing out that life in the status-driven west is largely devoid of real meaning and that the “freedoms” most Americans enjoy amount to little more than empty self-indulgence. The real agenda behind the conflict is, of course, as personal as it is ideological; Aisha’s need for a sense of self is as strong as Kitty and Bailey’s fear of losing her. The action stalls somewhat as the hysterical Bailey and exasperated Aisha hit the same emotional notes too many times. When it’s cooking, though, Haigney’s intelligent script shows remarkable insight and compassion in its even-handed treatment of both sides of the debate.

The most innovative entry of the evening is Carter W. Lewis’s PERCENTAGE AMERICA,
which ruthlessly skewers a host of contemporary phenomena from online dating to presidential tweets. After meeting though a matchmaking website, Arial (Dornfeld) and Andrew (Thomas) discover they have a lot in common: Both have posted horribly misleading information on their profiles. The smart thing to do would be to call the whole thing off. Yet, once the pretense is dropped, both parties feel an exhilarating sense of relief. Honesty, they learn, can be a potent aphrodisiac. This discovery leads Arial to suggest that she and Andrew experiment with what she considers a kinky activity: deciphering the evening news. Amid all the hype, there has to be some truth, provided one is brave enough to look for it. The top story the news outlets concerns a preadolescent girl (Schaschl) who has broken into the White House rose garden and seemingly berated the president using obscene language. Dubbed variously “The Whore in The Garden”, “The Rose Garden Terrorist” and host of other epithets, the young girl becomes the object of rampant speculation. Like a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein, dig through the dirt, consult clandestine sources build their own narrative – and discover that the truth is not for the faint of heart. Lewis’s razor-sharp satire comes to life as Dornfeld and Thomas throw themselves into their roles with farcical zeal. Schachl balances their antics with arresting vulnerability as the story speeds to its dark, and unexpectedly touching, conclusion.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 4, 2018 at 59E59Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison & Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/index.php

OCCUPIED TERRITORIES

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Written by Nancy Bannon & Mollye Maxner
Directed  by Mollye Maxner

When people quote General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous maxim, “War is hell”, they’re usually referring to the carnage and chaos of the battlefield. But for many soldiers, the fires of war don’t stop burning after the military campaign has run its course. They rage on inside the veteran’s psyches, consuming their lives, their families, their society. Using dual time frames and a collage of theatrical techniques OCCUPIED TERRITORIES paints a searing – if flawed – portrait of the ongoing repercussions of war.

Single mom Jude Collins (Nancy Bannon), returns to her hometown to bury her father. Jude is due to check into rehab in a couple of days, and hopes to use the time to reconnect with her preteen daughter Alex (Ciela Elliott). Mother-daughter relations are strained, however, as Jude has been unable to really be there for Alex. It’s Jude’s sister Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), that’s been raising the child while Jude attempts to sort her life out. Adding to the tense family dynamic is the fact that Jude and Helena have sharply different views of their late father. To Helena, he was a good man who bore the scars of war as well could be expected. Jude sees him as an unstable and irresponsible father who used his brief tour of duty as an excuse for bad behavior. Slowly, though, Jude’s perspective begins to shift. Left alone in the basement of the old house, she goes through her father’s collection of photos and artifacts from the war. She also helps herself to his prodigious stash of prescription medication. As Jude slides into a reverie, the tromping of combat boots and the voices of soldiers chanting cadence calls is heard. The audience is brought into the scene as the actors march behind the seats and up the aisles of the theater. The action shifts to Vietnam, 1967.

Here we meet the young Private Collins (Cody Robinson) and the guys in his platoon. Even-keeled Lucky (Diego Aguirre) operates a shortwave radio, which Sergeant Ace Andrews (Donte Bonner) uses to alert his superiors that his men can’t hold their position and are running dangerously low on rations, ammunition, and medical kits. Predictably, the hoped-for supply drop is a long time coming, and morale worsens among men who have already seen too many casualties. Particularly caustic is the Brooklyn-born Corporal Michael “Ski” Makowski (Scott Thomas),who gives Collins no end of grief but deep down is actually looking out for the new recruit. Rounding out this motley gang are the garrulous Private Alvarez (Thony Mena), quiet but courageous Hawk (Nile Harris), and the frail Private “Hardcore” Harcourt (Nate Yaffe), who hasn’t spoken since a word the death of his buddy two weeks previous.

Collins, nicknamed “Cornbread” by his peers, carries his Nikon camera everywhere, but it’s his innocent eyes that are really taking in the details. He sees more than his mind can process, especially as the futility of the mission grows clear. In this incomprehensible world, any sense of moral certainty is destroyed and wanton waste of human life becomes the new normal. No one seems to know why this war is being fought in the first place, let alone whether the U.S. has any chance of winning it. And yet the slaughter continues, and the soldiers have only each other to cling to. The love Collins feels for his comrades in arms will supersede all other relationships, and the battle Jude fights for her father’s affections will prove unwinnable.

To a degree, we’ve seen this story before: an ethnically mixed battalion bonding under heavy fire: a young man’s disillusionment in the foxhole. But co-creators Nancy Bannon and Kellye Maxner bring an innovative sensibility to familiar Vietnam story. Stark realism is juxtaposed against lyrical dance sequences and colorful photos of smiling Vietnamese villagers. The show’s immersive approach effects both the audience and the ensemble. Like the G.I.s they portray, the actors coalesce into a group of men whose mutual trust and loyalty are palpable in a physical, immediate way that gives the show’s brutal ending its devastating impact.

Despite these strengths, though, the show suffers from some missteps. For starters, its title is misleading: the term “occupied territories” today refers to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Also, the civilian side of the narrative is considerably less developed than the soldier’s story. More details about the Collins family’s past and present would have given more dimension to the conflicts Jude, Helena and Alex are working through.

Even so, OCCUPIED TERRITORIES’ rough edges are outweighed by its raw performances, well-researched story line and flawlessly choreographed battle scenes. Its images and voices reverberate long after the curtain call.

OCCUPIED TERRITORIES continues through November 5, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: 212-279-4200.

THE VIOLIN

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Written by Dan McCormick
Directed by Joseph Discher

Tight, traditional and full of testosterone, THE VIOLIN serves as a welcome throwback to the three-man crime dramas that used to dominate the American stage. Like its predecessors, ORPHANS and AMERICAN BUFFALO, Dan McCormick’s naturalistic meditation on greed and loyalty is well-made, fast paced and sports a kind of gritty elegance in its rhythm and language. Unlike Lyle Kessler and David Mamet, though, McCormick endows his characters with charm and warmth, and grants them at least a fighting chance at salvation.

On a dark winter night in a cramped New York tailor shop (meticulously festooned with clutter by set designer Harry Feiner), proprietor Giovanni AKA Gio (Robert LuPone) patiently plies his trade as he has done for decades. What makes tonight different, though, is that a grim anniversary is close at hand. Years ago,  his neighborhood friends Bobby (Peter Bradbury) and Terry (Kevin Isola) lost both of their parents to a murderous vendetta perpetrated by the Irish mob. Since that day, Gio has functioned as a kind of surrogate parent. Sadly, His attempts to instill good values in the boys have borne little fruit. Rather than pursue an education, Bobby, has chosen a life of petty crime. Terry, brain-damaged due to a childhood accident, can’t seem to hold a job at all. Something good, however, has come out of his latest fiasco. While driving a gypsy, Terry has discovered a 1710 Stradivarius that a forgetful passenger abandoned in the back seat. When Bobby discovers the monetary value of such an instrument, he begins hatching a plot to extort a pile of ransom money from its distraught owner. Terry’s hesitant at first, but his big brother’s powers of persuasion are hard to resist. Even Gio, who constantly espouses the virtues of “integra”, has to admit that he has little to show for all his years of toil. A little windfall wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome. With the whole gang on board, Bobby presses forward with the plan. Of course, these guys are hardly criminal masterminds, and unforeseen complications naturally ensue. Relationships are tested and guilty secrets bubble to the surface as the play accelerates to its darkly redemptive conclusion.

Like a jazz trio, the three members of the cast are able to shine individually while remaining deeply tuned to each other’s cadences. Isola, who easily could have played Terry as a stereotypical man child, instead shades his performance with a disarmingly authentic innocence. Likewise, Lupone doesn’t chew the scenery, even in the play’s more explosive moments. His Gio is a man of refinement and aspiration who, because of rough circumstances and poor choices, could never realize his full potential. The kinetic Bradbury is both comical and menacing as he prowls the stage like an animal in search of easy prey. In keeping with their characters’ agendas, director Joseph Discher assigns each actor a specific section of the room. Accustomed to being treated like a child, Isolda’s childlike Terry sits in a corner, impulsively jumping up when he feels an urge to be part of the conversation. Bradbury, as the energetic idea man, is placed at center stage. As the detail-oriented tailor, Lupone moves economically, leaving the safety of his work table only when necessary. It’s a smart bit of staging that subtly alerts the audience to the importance of the moment when he finally does take action. The younger guys can talk all they want. But it’s when Gio’s on the move that we know things are getting serious.

THE VIOLIN continues through October 14, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets (212) 279-4200.

 

SUMMER SHORTS 2017: Series B

SS5_BreakPoint

Of the three one acts that comprise Series B, the most confidently delivered is Chris Cragin-Day’s two-hander which probes the subject of women’s role in religion. Kim (Jennifer Ikeda), a successful professor and mother of young children, is dedicated to her egalitarian ideals as well as to her Christian faith. Cliff (Mark Boyett), with whom Kim has been friends since high school, belongs to the same church and has just been promoted to pastor. He’s eager to make a good impression, and Kim isn’t making it easy for him. She has taken the unheard-of step of writing down a woman’s name as nominee for the position of church elder. Fearful that he’ll be fired for such a blatant heresy, Cliff at first refuses to back her up on this. Kim perseveres, but she’s unable to strike a bargain until she’s willing to hear Cliff out.  A WOMAN adroitly manages to avoid becoming preachy despite its topic, and its central argument is more nuanced than the usual Patriarchy-vs-Sisterhood commonplace. Under Kel Haney’s subtle direction, Ikeda and Boyett share and endearing chemistry and shade their roles with wit and empathy.  Overall, though, the lacks heat, seeing as its core issue isn’t really an urgent debate in today’s world. There’s always room for improvement, of course. Yet all but the most archconservative Christian institutions have abolished any prohibition against female leadership, and many sects, like the Presbyterian, Mennonite, and Methodist churches (to name but a few) to have been ordaining women for decades. Cragin-Day’s heart is in the right place, but she seems to be looking in the wrong cathedral for glass ceilings.

A hip comedy of millennial manners, Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds’s WEDDING BASH represents the kind of sketch material SNL should be doing but rarely delivers.  Newlyweds Dana (Rachel Napoleon) and Lonny (Donovan Mitchell) are settling into domestic life after what they believe was a magical wedding. Their dinner guests, Alan (Andy Powers) and pregnant Edi (Georgia Ximines Lifsher), don’t agree. But in today’s walk-on-eggshells culture they feel compelled not to say anything critical. Finally, Alan decides he’s had enough. Conscripting Edi into his honesty campaign, he launches into a self-righteous dressing down of the “selfish wedding” in which the guests were coerced into spending a fortune in travel and accommodations only to suffer through a pretentious ceremony a paltry supply of booze. Lonny and Dana fire back with their own frank admissions:  Those wedding gifts you thought would dazzle us? Well, think again. Things escalate from there, and the resulting chaos leaves no one unscathed. The one thing BASH lacks is a satisfying punchline, but thanks to the comedic skills of the cast, and to Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s uber-bourgeois set design, there are plenty of laughs along the way.

Neil LaBute looks under the surface of professional sports in BREAK POINT, a drama centering on a major tennis tournament. Flush with endorsement money and a staggering string of championship wins Oliver (John Garrett Greer) appears to have everything. Internally, though, it’s a different story. Oliver’s under tremendous pressure to win 20 majors, breaking Federer’s record, and to do that he’ll need to make it to the finals in the French Open. Standing in his way is a formidable opponent, who also happens to be an old acquaintance. Stan (Keilyn Durrel Jones), hasn’t had the same success as Oliver, but his prowess is undeniable—enough so that Oliver’s chance at the title could be blown during the semis. Oliver hits upon an ingenious, if ugly, solution. Stan would find himself in the money if he’s willing to throw the match. Like a surprise serve, this indecent proposal throws Stan off for a moment, but he soon rallies, volleying his own slice shots into his opponent’s court. Tensions mount as the outcome of the match and the true intensions of the players grow increasingly uncertain. Both actors bring an athlete’s poise and kineticism to the game, with the solid, meditative Jones balancing Greer’s fretful garrulousness. As a director l, LaBute’s could stand to tighten the pace, and focus the actors’ energy more forcefully. But, as always, his sharp, provocative writing remains a highlight of the festival.

SUMMER SHORTS continues through September 2, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com/59e59/ Online/ default.asp