August 13, 2022

"The Butcher Boy" and "On that Day in Amsterdam" May Have Arrived Too Soon

Everyone who loves serious theater loves the idea of giving talented new writers a chance to show what they can do. The question is the timing. Too many workshops (and the notes that come along with them) can leach a show and its creator of the originality that made them special in the first place. But a premature production doesn’t do them any favors either. At least those are the thoughts that popped into my head as I sat through two recent shows by newcomers that have been given full-fledged productions that unfortunately reveal the shortcomings of each.

The first was The Butcher Boy, Asher Muldoon’s musical adaptation of the Irish writer Patrick McCabe’s novel that is now playing at the Irish Rep through Sept. 11. Muldoon, who is about to begin his senior year at Princeton, ambitiosly wrote the book, music and lyrics. But he may have bitten off more than he could chew.

To be fair, McCabe’s unsettling novel would be a mouthful for anyone. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a troubled boy named Francie Brady. Francie’s father is an alcoholic. His mother is suicidal. Physical abuse in the home is routine. Francie copes by bullying other kids, committing petty crimes and pretending that his life is fine. 

But when a schoolmate’s mother accuses him and his family of behaving like pigs, Francie spirals into a psychotic state in which he is haunted by the images of people with pig-like faces who prod him to do increasingly horrific things. 

Muldoon takes a literal approach to the tale. In his version, Francie, who frequently breaks the fourth wall to narrate what’s going on, is the only character who is anywhere near fully-realized. The others in the small working-class Irish town where he lives are barely sketched in at all so their actions make little sense. 

And there’s no attempt to provide a reason for telling Francie’s story by connecting it to anything larger than itself. Which leaves us in the audience just waiting for one horrible thing to happen after another. And plenty of them do happen.

The score is a genial but undistinguished mix of Irish folk music, British music hall tunes and generic pop. The lyrics may have been more distinctive but the sound design was so poor that I could barely make them out. The elderly couple behind me cranked their listening devices so high that the audio feedback crackled around us and they still complained at intermission that they couldn’t hear what was being sung either.

According to interviews he’s given, Muldoon was working a front-of-the-house job at the Irish Rep when he showed its artistic director Charlotte Moore and producing director Ciarán O’Reilly his script and they decided to do his show (click here to hear more about that). And under O’Reilly’s direction, the Rep has gone all out with the staging for The Butcher Boy. 

The handsome set is dominated by a giant TV screen on which projected images from the 1960s ranging from Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk at the U.N. to Rod Serling introducing episodes of “The Twilight Zone” help set the jittery mood of that era. Meanwhile, the 12-member cast, led by the hardworking Nicholas Barasch as Francie, does the best it can, despite their singing sometimes wandering off-key.

The result is a show that might have been the hit of a college musical writing course or even of a Fringe festival but that instead now comes off as somewhat jejune. 

Clarence Coo, the author of On That Day in Amsterdam, which opened this week in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters, is older than Muldoon and his play has taken a more traditional route having been workshopped at such theatrical incubators as the Sundance Institute and New York Stage and Film, but the show is still his world premiere as a professional playwright and it too bears the marks of a fledgling pushed out of the nest too soon.

The play has been promoted as the romantic story of two young men who hook up and then spend the following day wandering around the titular city even though each is scheduled to leave town that night. But On That Day in Amsterdam wants to be more than that. One of the men, Sammy, is a refugee who has fled his Middle Eastern homeland and is about to end what has already been an arduous journey by being smuggled into London. The other, Kevin, is an American college kid traveling through Europe on his mother’s purloined credit card. 

Coo clearly wants to compare the restrictions and privileges their backgrounds place on each man but he undercuts that with meditations on art, detours into the lives of Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Anne Frank and a travelogue of the city; just about every museum there gets name checked.

It’s difficult to dramatize all of that in 90 minutes and so Coo falls back on having his characters narrate the story instead of performing it. Director Zi Alikhan, who describes himself  as “a queer, first-generation South Asian-American, culturally Muslim theater Director” would seem to be the perfect person to stage this show. But instead of drawing me into the narrative, many of Alikhan's decisions pushed me out of it.  

The story is framed as a book that Kevin is trying to write about his brief time with Sammy and so I’m guessing that placing most of the action behind a scrim is supposed to suggest the gauziness of his memory but instead it just creates a barrier between the players and the audience. 

Similarly projecting close-ups of the actors’ faces on the scrim doesn't create an intimacy with them but is as off-putting as when Ivo van Hove did the same thing in his revival of West Side Story.  

Neither Muldoon nor especially Coo, who has won such prestigious honors as the Whiting Award for emerging writers and the Yale Drama Series Prize, is untalented. So I’m hoping they’ll continue to develop their talent and that when the time is right, someone will give them another chance to show what they can truly do.  


August 6, 2022

This Post-Modern "Oresteia" is No Classic

Greek tragedies don’t get done a lot. Which is why I really try to see them when I can. So my theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets for the new production of the Oresteia that is playing at the Park Avenue Armory as soon as they went online. But what we ended up seeing was what Bill aptly labeled "an Oresteia”  For this version of the three-part tragedy that Aeschylus wrote in the 5th century B.C. has been rewritten and directed with self-congratulatory postmodern flair by the British wunderkind Robert Icke. It’s playing in rep with the Icke-directed Hamlet through Aug. 13 (click here to read more about that).

The original Oresteia, the only surviving trilogy from the Golden Age of classical Greek drama, chronicled the saga of the death of the warrior-king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife Klytemnestra, her murder by their children and the trial of their son Orestes. But in this production, first seen at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2015, Icke gets rid of the traditional chorus and instead re-enacts onstage its usual telling of the ritualistic child killing of the couple’s daughter Iphigenia, which is what first gets the cycle of revenge rolling.

The three-and-a-half hour production is performed in modern dress and with contemporary language in a blatant bid to make the plays more accessible to today’s audiences. I don't need actors to wear the togas and the masks that have traditionally been used for productions of Greek plays but I have to say that for me at least, Icke's updating robs the narrative of the mythic grandeur that has sustained it for nearly 2500 years. 

Although a soothsayer begins the evening by reciting the names of dieties from a wide spectrum of religions, the gods are missing in Icke's version of the story. So it makes no sense—two millennium spoiler alert—that Agamemnon would sacrifice his daughter to win favor in the war that he is preparing to wage. 

And while I don’t mind having Klytemnestra drop the f-word, I also wanted her and the others to speak some elevated language that would lift their monologues from the everyday dinner conversations that are repeated throughout the performance.

To be fair, there are moments that work. I sat up in my seat when Angus Wright’s Agamemnon and Anastasia Hille’s Klytemnestra went toe-to-toe in the argument over the fate of their daughter. 

Both actors are tall and lean and radiate the tightly-coiled energy of panthers. Wright also has the dulcet voice and calibrated diction in which so many of the best British actors root their power and Hille unleashes the kind of raw passion that would do an old-style Method actor proud.  “This is my child – part of my body,” she yowls in anguish. Their clash is wrenching. 

A coup de théâtre that marks the aftermath of Iphigenia’s death is equally impressive.  But all of that happens in the first act and the following three fail to keep the momentum going.  

Icke frames the entire production as a series of therapy sessions in which Orestes recounts what happened, wrestles with being the sole survivor of his troubled family and prepares to go on trial for the murder of his mother. Bits of evidence are flashed onto to video screens above the stage but theatergoers who’ve forgotten the stories from their grade school readings of Edith Hamilton’s “Tales of Gods and Heroes” may be confused by what's going on.  

Some double-casting and the post-death appearances of several characters only add to the murkiness. So here’s another spoiler, albeit I hope a helpful one: Wright plays the ghost of Agamemnon, his wife’s lover Aegisthus and a trial court judge in the final act.

In those final scenes, Icke tacks on some observations about feminism and politics but they might have worked better if they’d been braided into the entire narrative. 

Throughout the performance, a digital display appears to mark the exact time of death of each victim. This clock is also used to countdown the time during each intermission. And when my mind wandered as it occasionally did, I used it to calculate how much time remained before the show would finally end. 


July 16, 2022

"Between the Lines" Tells a Familiar Story

So many musicals nowadays are based on movies or other pop culture IP (by which I mean jukebox musicals of one kind or another) that it’s nicely retro to have one based on a book. That’s the case with Between the Lines, the new musical that opened this week at the Tony Kiser Theater. It's based on the eponymous YA novel that the bestselling author Jodi Picoult co-wrote in 2012 with her then-teenage daughter Samantha van Leer (click here to watch an interview about that with Picoult).

The original idea was van Leer’s. What, she asked her mom, might happen if characters acted one way when someone was reading the narrative in which they appeared but took on completely different personalities than the ones that had been written for them once the book was closed?  

The answer they came up with was a clever story about a prince in a picture-book fairytale named Oliver. In his closed-book moments Oliver has grown tired of slaying dragons and saving princesses. In fact, he so desperately yearns to enter the real world that he magically makes contact with a sympathetic reader named Delilah. 

She’s a teen who knows that she’s too old for picture books but has found refuge in the guaranteed happy endings in Oliver's fairytale after her parents' divorce has caused her and her mother to move to a new town where her mom cleans homes and her new schoolmates treat Delilah as an outcast. 

It's not the kind of book I usually read but I confess that I was charmed by the story, particularly by the amusing alter-egos Picoult and van Leer created for the fairytale’s other characters who, in their closed-book time, have made peace with the narrative that Oliver is trying to escape: the evil villain Rapskullio is actually a sensitive artist and lepidopterist, or butterfly lover; the regal Queen Maureen is a homey earth mother who likes to bake cookies and the man-crazy mermaids are proud feminists.

I’d looked forward to seeing all of them and their cohorts onstage as Delilah and Oliver fell in love and attempted to find ways to break the barrier between their real and fairytale worlds. And I was further heartened by the fact that the score was by a rare all-female team, the newcomers Elyssa Samsel and Katie Anderson.  

The presence of Daryl Roth as the show’s lead producer also promised a first-rate production. And under Jeff Calhoun’s sure-handed direction, the show delivers one with a talented cast led by the sweet-voiced Arielle Jacobs as Delilah and the pitch-perfect (in both voice and looks) Jake David Smith as Oliver. 

And they get invaluable support from, among others, the veterans Vicki Lewis and Julia Murney and a particularly appealing Will Burton, whose comic and dancing skills are equally endearing. There are also spot-on costumes by Gregg Barnes, an amusing and surprisingly malleable set by Tobin Ost and terrific video projections by Catie Hevner.

So I’m not sure why I was so disappointed by this staged version of Between the Lines.  Maybe it’s because book writer Timothy Allen McDonald, who has a background in adapting children’s books and Broadway shows for the youth editions that school productions use, has put so much effort into checking all of the boxes that he and his colleagues think will appeal to the young demographic they’re so eager to woo. 

Whatever the reason, the result turns out to be a patchwork quilt composed of what appear to be scraps from other shows. The conflict between Delilah and her mom has been amped up so that Murney can sing a Dear Evan Hansen-style power ballad about the difficulties of being a single mom.

Delilah’s only friend at school Jules is now nonbinary, nicely played by the nonbinary actor Wren Rivera but still echoing a similar character in Jagged Little Pill. And Delilah’s nemesis at school Allie McAndrews (played by the understudy Aubrey Matalon at the performance I attended) is a separated-at-birth twin of Regina George, the Queen Bee in Mean Girls

What’s more, the entire ensemble is required to play roles in both Delilah’s real-world and Oliver’s fantasy one, a callback to the 1939 “Wizard of Oz" in which the actors playing the workers on Dorothy’s farm in Kansas also doubled as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in Oz; that may have worked in that classic movie but it undercuts the narrative here. Meanwhile the backstories of the fantasy characters that won me over when I first read “Behind the Lines” get short shrift here. 

Still, almost every performer is given a solo, some of them unnecessary (do we really need the school librarian's paean to Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy?) and they simply add to the show’s 2 hours and 15 min. running time. 

Most of the melodies are catchy and many of the lyrics are smart (click here for a Spotify playlist of some of the songs) but the score doesn’t manage to distinguish itself from the legions of others that now mix show tunes, hip-hop and power ballads.

Of course despite my fondness for Picoult and van Leer's book, I’m not the target demographic their musical is aiming to please. And I imagine some tweens might really enjoy this show. Even so, I miss the enchantment I discovered in the pages of “Between the Lines” and it's made me a little grumpy that I didn't find a similar magic onstage in Between the Lines.



July 9, 2022

Women and Politics in "POTUS" and "53% Of"

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. At least that’s the approach two recent plays have taken with the current political morass in which we all find ourselves.  Selina Fillinger’s farce POTUS (that’s the acronym for President of the United States) is currently scheduled to play at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre through Aug. 14. Steph Del Rosso’s awkwardly named satire 53% Of (its title refers to the percentage of white women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016) ends a brief two-week run at Second Stage’s uptown space the McGinn/Cazale Theater this weekend. 

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but both boast all-female casts and nearly all-female creative teams. Heck, POTUS’s subtitle is “Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” and its starry cast is led by Julie White and Rachel Dratch, both of whom were nominated for Tonys for playing the beleaguered chief of staff to the unseen president and his bewildered personal secretary. The young actresses in 53% Of aren’t yet as well-known, but they gamely play multiple parts, including the male roles, in their production. 

Both shows, written by twentysomething playwrights who clearly lean toward the left end of the political spectrum, made me chuckle but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the underlying message that either was trying to get across. The women in POTUS—be they the reporter who covers him, the press secretary who covers for him, the mistress who, ah, services him or the First Lady who puts up with him—all enable the man-child in the Oval Office. 

They may take time out to strike power poses or to give one another you-go-girl pep talks but they all miserably fail the feminist Bechdel test because although there are a whole bunch of women in the play, including the president’s lesbian sister, all they do is talk to one another about a man. And all of their efforts are directed at smoothing over his gaffs (it’s a Republican administration) and keeping their guy in office. 

I know. I know. It’s just a farce. And Susan Stroman’s jaunty direction and Beowulf Boritt’s turntable set keep the antics moving, complete with the requisite slamming doors. Plus at the curtain call there’s a crowd-pleasing dance and sing-along set to a Joan Jett anthem. Hillary Clinton even went to see the show this past week (click here to read about that) and she had a great time.

But in the end, I came away from the show feeling that Fellinger (click here to read more about her) left the blame for the political mess on the shoulders of the women and I couldn’t shake the additional feeling that when the music ended, the characters would end up right back where we found them, holding up some male doofus instead of doing their own thing.  

I had hoped that 53% Of was going to give me some insights into why women behave that way. The play opens shortly after the 2016 election at a meeting of white suburban Trump supporters who are congratulating themselves on their man’s win but who become uncomfortable when a newcomer, attracted by their social media postings, arrives proudly wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag. 

Alas, the play’s title is a misnomer and instead of digging into the dynamics of how the suburbanites reconcile their support for Trump with their unease for what he stands for, the play hopscotches to other settings: a bro-style gathering of the husbands of the women in the first scene, a get-together of self-consciously progressive young white women in an urban setting and finally a meeting at a bar between one of those white progressives and a black friend.  

The cast worked hard as they moved from one scene to the next and Lux Haac’s costumes helped a little but director Tiffany Nichole Greene couldn’t figure out how to make all of the quick changes work. So I was confused by the third scene, uncertain if its young women were the rebellious daughters of the women and men in the first two scenes or completely unrelated characters. 

The result was a series of SNL-type sketches that not only lacked depth but flicked at the idea that there’s little difference between the white women who voted for Trump and those who didn’t.  Which I don’t believe is true and didn’t find funny at all.


July 2, 2022

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2022

Now that Covid has been around for more than two years and vaccines have made contracting the virus a little less scary, a new kind of normal is settling in. The Tony award ceremonies returned to Radio City Music Hall. Tourists are trickling back into Times Square. And Broadway has dropped its mask-wearing mandate, at least for now. 

But some things haven’t changed: as I did in the summers both before the shut down and during it, I’ve nested myself on our terrace as soon as the weather would permit with a drink in one hand (my husband K has been whipping up caipirinhas this year) and an iPad in the other so that I can switch between reading books on my Kindle app and listening to them on my Audible app. 

As usual, most of the books have had something to do with theater. Most this year are fiction, a reflection of the fact that people are writing some really good novels and short stories about the world of the theater but also a reflection of the fact that I love those kinds of stories. So in keeping with what has become one of my favorite summer rites, I’ve put together a list of 10 books for those of you who, like me, enjoy theater-related reading during the lazy hours of this sweet season. In the meantime, Happy Fourth of July.

All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks.  You have to wait all the way until Chapter 25 for Brooks to start talking about teaming up with Susan Stroman, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to create their Broadway phenom, The Producers. But he’s such a great raconteur that even the accounts of his time in the army are entertaining. And there are even more enjoyable stories about his working on the all-star writing staff (Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Joseph Stein, Michael Stewart) that created Sid Caesar’s “Your Shows of Shows;” his writing and directing of such comedic film classics as "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and his zany courtship of and very happy 40-year marriage with the actress Anne Bancroft. Plus, if you listen to the audiobook, you can hear Brooks break into song whenever the mood seemed to strike him.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler. This novel about the celebrated 19th century acting clan was written by a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize and so can be added to your calorie count for literary fiction. Beginning in 1822 and ending with the aftermath of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln (an avid theater lover) it is both a family saga and a historical chronicle of the events leading up to and through the Civil War. But the best parts are the vivid details—the constant and uncomfortable travel, the fierce rivalries that animated audiences, the declamatory style that exhausted its practitioners—that defined the theater world of the Antebellum era.

Fallout by Sadie Jones. In all honesty, the characters are annoying in this novel about the personal and professional entanglements of four twentysomethings trying to start their theatrical careers. But the glimpses the story provides into the London theater scene of the 1970s is catnip for any theater lover. I don’t know enough about the players in that theater scene but I suspect others who do know it will have extra fun figuring out the real-life inspirations for the folks in the book. Email me if you have any informed guesses on who the villain—the slightly older and sexually ambivalent producermight be.

From Gods to Bad Boys: A History of Theatre in Twelve Lives by Giles Ramsay. The god is Dionysus and the baddest of the boys is the playwright Joe Orton in this chatty history of theater told through profiles of the men (and a couple of women) who made it. Some of Ramsay’s choices can be eccentric (a whole section is devoted to the now forgotten British actor Victor Henry) and no Americans made the list but the book still makes its case that from the very beginning theater makers have always striven to make the work they put on the stage truly reflect the lives and concerns of the people watching it.

Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. If you’re a fan of the Noah Baumbach movie “Marriage Story,” that starred Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, there’s a strong chance that you’ll love this engaging novel about a couple who, after scrimping and maneuvering to maintain a small New York theater company for 20 years, move to Los Angeles, where they make discoveries about themselves, their definitions of success and their marriage.

In the Long Run: A Cultural History of Broadway’s Hit Plays by Jordan Schildcrout. Most theater lovers can list the longest-running musicals right off the top of their heads. But it’s tricker when it comes to naming the longest-running plays because there haven’t been many of them in recent years. Which is why Schildcrout’s chronicle of shows that clocked 1,000 performances or more (Lightnin', a comedy that opened in 1918 and ran for three years, was the first; Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, which closed in 1986 after its three-year run, was the last) is such a treat.  As Schildcrout notes in his introduction, critics didn’t always love these shows but audiences did and together they provide an invaluable portrait of a time when Broadway truly was mass entertainment. You can hear an interview with Schildcrout that BroadwayRadio's James Marino and I did (as well as more about some of the other books on this list) by clicking here.

I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein. How could this not be great?  Fierstein has been involved with so many seminal productions (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray, Kinky Boots). He’s known so many celebrated people in so many different fields (Anaïs Nin, Andy Warhol, Ellen Stewart, Bella Abzug, Cyndi Lauper). And it goes without saying that he is inherently funny. So this wildly-entertaining memoir, which covers his years as a cast-album-loving Brooklyn boy in the 1950s, as a club kid prowling for sex in the ‘60s, as an emerging talent in the downtown theater scene of the 1970s, as an activist during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and as an eventual Broadway icon, is a real page turner. And listening to Fierstein read the book in his distinctively raspy growl is like curling up for a gossipy gab with an old friend. 

The Show Girl by Nicola Harrison.  Set during the final years of the Roaring Twenties, this novel focuses on the personal and professional ups-and-downs of an ambitious young woman who becomes a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s basically a romance novel complete with a rich and hunky love interest but it’s also a fun behind-the-curtains look at what life might have been like for Sally, Phyllis and the other “girls upstairs” in Follies.

The Sisters Sweet by Elizabeth Weiss. The old sensation-loving vaudeville circuit provides the backdrop for this novel about twin sisters who climb up the billboard when their father, who once had stage dreams of his own, comes up with the idea of them pretending to be cojoined, or Siamese, twins. The deception works until the ambitions of one destroys the act and leads them down separate paths. The story is so redolent of that itinerant showbiz era that I kept expecting Mama Rose to make a cameo.

Vamp Until Ready by James MagruderIt would be hard to find a lovelier collection of theater-related short stories than this one. These five are linked by a group of people—gay and straight, theater professionals and amateurs—who are connected to a summer stock theater company in Ithaca, New York during the Reagan-Bush era and by the ways in which theater can change and expand lives. Supporting characters in one story become the leads in others, a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant reminder that we’re all the stars in the tales we tell ourselves.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years:

June 25, 2022

Broadway—Many Kinds of Media—& Me


For the second time this month, there will be no regular post here. It’s not because there haven’t been shows to see and talk about: although it will be weeks before anything new opens on Broadway, a steady stream of comedies, dramas and musicals have been opening off-Broadway. And I’ve been fortunate enough to see a good number of them. But I’ve been busy in other ways too and so instead of posting a review as I usually do, I’m going to share some of that other stuff with you.

The Monday after the Tony Awards ceremony, my friend Patrick Pacheco invited me to record an episode of his TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts” to talk about the Tonys and the future of Broadway. I was in great company because also on the panel were Helen Shaw, the theater critic for New York magazine; and Adam Feldman, the theater editor for Time Out New York and the longtime president of the New York Drama Critics Circle. We all had a lot to say and we discovered that each of us was a card-carrying member of the fan club for the incredible Deirdre O’Connell, who delighted us all when she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Dana H., Lucas Hnath’s play about his mother’s kidnapping by a white supremacist. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

A couple of days before that, BroadwayRadio released the latest installment of “All the Drama,” my podcast about plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over the years. This recent episode focuses on the 1995 winner, Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta. I was lucky enough to get Ben Brantley, the former New York Times theater critic and a longtime Foote fan, to talk with me about Foote and his play.  You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.

Meanwhile, I was so taken with one of those new shows I saw, Queen, a drama about two female scientists whose careers and friendship are jeopardized when one finds an error in their research, that I knew I wanted to talk more about the show with its playwright Madhuri Shekar. So I restarted "Stagecraft," my old podcast in which I regularly talked with playwrights and musical book writers but that I had to put on hiatus when Covid shut down theaters in the city. I was delighted—but not at all surprised—to find that Shekar is just as smart and lively as her play is.  You can check out what she had to say by clicking here.  

Finally, James Marino, the head of BroadwayRadio, has invited me to join him and regular commentators Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere on this Sunday’s episode of “This Week on Broadway” to talk about some of the shows we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks and you’ll be able to listen to that by clicking here.

 

 

 


June 11, 2022

"Exception to the Rule" and "soft" Offer Laments on the Tragedy of Being, Young, Poor and Black or Brown in Today's America


The settings and the circumstances are the same in two new off-Broadway shows that portray the plight of the young Black and Brown people who are so often trapped in systems that view them—and force them to see themselves—as failures who have no real future ahead of them.

Both open in sterile classrooms that have seen better days. And each is populated by a half dozen or so teens who are paying penance for wrongdoings. Audiences are seated on either side of both playing areas, creating an intimacy that ultimately makes viewers complicit in each story’s outcome.

The students in Dave Harris’ Exception to the Rule, now playing in the Roundabout Theatre’s Black Box through June 26, have been assigned to detention on the Friday before a holiday week-end. Most of them are no strangers to this purgatory. 

They’ve done penance before for talking back to teachers, violating the school’s dress code, getting into fights and otherwise failing to follow the rules. But the regulars are shocked when they’re joined by Erika, a straight-A student with a rep for doing the right things.

As they wait for the detention-room teacher to show up and sign the pass slips that will allow them to leave, the others flirt and bicker with one another and try to guess why Erica is among them. Director Miranda Haymon has her game young cast playing much of this for laughs and the audience at the matinee I attended eagerly lapped up all the antics.

But then, as announcements over the school’s faulty public address system became more difficult to decipher and more ominous, the students became more frantic, started revealing troubling details about their lives and began to worry about what would happen if the teacher never came and they were never allowed to leave.  

Only two dare to even attempt leaving on their own. And by the end, the room—actors and audience members—was left silent. 

The teacher is very present in Donja R. Love’s soft, which just opened in MCC Theater’s Frankel Theater this week. But the dedication of that teacher, Mr. Isaiah as his students call him, doesn’t seem to make that much difference in the fates of the students at the residential juvenile detention facility where he teaches English. 

At first, things seem more upbeat as the play opens with Mr. Isaiah complimenting his students on their compositions about Othello and encouraging them to write their own poetry. He’s taught them enough about poetic forms that they proudly distinguish between choosing to do cinquains, haikus and sonnets. And he even allows them to freestyle their results to the accompaniment of his beat-boxing (Warning: audience members who aren’t regular hip-hop listeners may have some trouble keeping up with the rapid flow).

These youngsters seem older than the kids in Exception to the Rule, the dysfunctions they’ve experienced are more apparent and the crimes they’ve committed are generally more serious. But both Love and Mr. Isaiah recognize that there is value in these boy-men if only the conditions can be created that will allow it to blossom. 

Instead, Mr. Isaiah is forced to use dilapidated textbooks because there isn’t money for new ones in the institution’s budget, societal norms about black masculinity force the boys to hide any softness within them and the suicide of the most talented and charismatic of the group pushes them all to the breaking point. 

Under the visceral direction of Whitney White and the fight choreography of UnkleDave's Fight-House, their outbursts were so raw and realistic that I found myself worrying for the safety of the actors. Isaiah’s desperation to connect with his students and his sense of guilt when he’d let them down also rang true.

And yet, I didn’t find myself as moved by soft as I had been by Exception to the Rule.

Maybe that’s because the young men in soft were given so many hardships—sexual abuse, parental neglect, homelessness, homophobia, drugs, AIDS—that it seemed to me as though boxes were being checked off as the play leaned into the expected stereotypes without challenging or, at least, deepening them. 

Or maybe it was because having the most fem gay character provide most of the humor also struck me as a tired trope. Or because although the ending—which I won’t spoil—seemed to soothe a good part of the audience at my performance, it annoyed me for wanting to have it both ways.

Still I think what both of these plays are trying to say is that most of the young people in these situations have limited choices. So both plays are worthy of being seen by serious theatergoers but it’s the real-life tragedies they depict to which attention should be paid.