August 27, 2016

"The Layover" Fails to Get Off the Ground

People write plays for all kinds of reasons and after we saw the new show that opened at Second Stage Theatre this week, my theatergoing buddy Bill speculated that playwright Leslye Headland may have written The Layover because she wanted to see if she could recreate a film noir onstage. Maybe she did but she didn't make a good one.

Here's the set-up: a man and a woman in the business-class section of an airplane strike up a conversation as they wait for their delayed flight to take off. He is Dex, a great-looking guy who says he's an engineer who oversees major building projects around the world. She is Shellie, a great-looking gal who says she teaches a college course on crime fiction in Manhattan (click here to watch them meet cute).

They both say they're single and when the flight is canceled until the next morning, they continue their flirtation over drinks and later in an airport hotel room. But everything they've said isn't true. 

As their 90-minute drama unfolds, the lies are revealed. Yet the bond between them tightens, upending their fates and those of the inconvenient others in their lives.

To be sure, there are clear overlaps with noir-ish movies like "Double Indemnity" in which a frustrated wife and an insurance agent cook up a plan to kill her husband and run away with her inheritance and "Strangers on a Train," in which two men fantasize about trading the murders of people each wants out of his life.

Director Trip Cullman, a frequent Headland collaborator (click here to read about their partnership) and video designer Jeff Sugg underscore that connection by running silent clips from those old movies and others during the play's scene changes.

However, the borrowed atmosphere just serves to underscore what's missing in The Layover. The people in film noir are desperate to get out of their lives and willing to do anything to get what they want. But Dex and Shellie are just everyday unhappy. 

She, like noir's traditional femme fatale, is more unhappy than he is but there's no urgency to Shellie's desire for something else. That makes their story something like an illicit tryst with a guy too drunk to get it up: all unease with no release.

As happens so often, the actors ride to the rescue and almost save the evening—but not quite. Annie Parisse seems incapable of giving a bad performance no matter what she's given to do and she earns sympathy for Shellie even though the play has her character acting savvy one minute and clueless the next.

And Adam Rothenberg is equally appealing as Dex, making it clear that he's a man who wants to do the right thing even when he knows it's wrong. It's also lovely to see the play cast and performed in a colorblind way with the other woman in Dex's life, an entitled divorcée, played by the African-American actress Amelia Workman with no allusions made to her race.

Troublesome women who get their comeuppance were a trademark of the film noir classics from the 1940s and '50s.  But that may be another reason this retro attempt didn't work for me. Misogyny, even in the hands of a feminist like Headland who's engaged to marry another woman, just isn't sexy anymore.  

August 20, 2016

"Quietly" Doesn't Make Enough Noise

The intense drama Quietly extended its run this week and is now scheduled to play at the Irish Repertory Theatre thru Sept. 25. I'm always glad to see a show find a larger audience—even when it's a show that didn't work for me.

Quietly, a three-hander, is set in a working-class pub in Belfast, Ireland. Its easy-going barkeep is Robert, a Polish immigrant taking advantage of the EU's open borders, even while running the risk of raising the ire of the locals by rooting for his home team during a televised soccer match. 

One of Robert's regulars is Jimmy, a tetchy brooder who grew up in the neighborhood during the violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants known as "the Troubles." The outsider is Ian, a man who participated in a brutal act that upended Jimmy's life 40 years ago and who has now arranged to meet him at the bar in an effort to make amends.

This is the kind of heavy-duty stuff I usually love and the production has come from Ireland's prestigious The Abbey Theatre with its original cast intact (click here to read about the transfer). But that's where the problems actually began for me. The actors' accents are so authentic that it took a good 20 minutes for my ears to adjust and the show only runs for 75 minutes.

And each word said really matters because playwright Owen McCafferty is probing the lingering damage that such conflicts inflict on all sides. Jimmy and Ian are given equal time to expose their wounds and, under Jimmy Fay's taut direction, the actors playing them are terrific.

Patrick O'Kane is frighteningly fierce as Jimmy, downing one pint of beer after another and determined to hang on to his anger because it's his sole remaining link to what might have been. Meanwhile Declan Conlon's Ian is a man haunted by his past deed but still capable of tapping into the rage that fueled it.

Most reviewers have lauded the play, with many tying it to today's versions of the Troubles, whether they be in Brussels or Baltimore. But there's such a static quality to the back and forth in Quietly that I couldn't help wishing that it had made a little more noise.

August 13, 2016

"Men On Boats" is a Rip-Roaring Ride

"Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" asks the final line of the musical Hamilton. It, of course, famously answers its own question by having black and brown actors play the Founding Fathers as it tells the story of the founding of this country. And this summer a number of other plays are similarly recasting and reclaiming history for people previously excluded from it.

Butler, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (click here to see that review) is a Civil War story whose hero is a charismatic and sophisticated runaway slave. Alice in Black and White, a bio-play about the pioneering photographer Alice Austen that ends a brief run at the 59E59 Theaters tomorrow, puts front and center the lesbian identity of its namesake, which had, until recently, been downplayed in her story (click here to read more about her).

And now we have the delightful Men On Boats, an account of the Powell Expedition of 1869 that marked the first time white men charted the entirety of the Grand Canyon. But in this version, all 10 of the men on the expedition are played by women.

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus' expedition members are the usual motley crew of male archetypes that include the stalwart leader, a young hothead, the eager neophyte, an egghead know-it-all, a prissy Brit, and an old-timer with true grit. And Ásta Bennie Hostetter's witty costumes totally nail each type.

But, as Backhaus and director Will Davis imagine it, the women playing these characters don't try to act like men. Instead, they show how women might have developed their own style of swagger and bravado if history had given them the same freedom to behave as men have always had (click here to read a Q&A with the playwright).

The actresses playing these roles clearly relish the chance to flex those muscles and although some are better than others (shout-outs to Jocelyn Bioh, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Elizabeth Kenny and Layla Khoshnoudi) they're all good and it's really great to see such diversity among them in terms of ethnicity, age and even body type.

The play is larded with wit that doesn't make fun of the idea of women playing men but of the ways in which any group of people can eventually get on one another's nerves. The dialog—some of it period-specific, some of it intentionally anachronistic—is a hoot.

And Davis' direction is just as entertaining. The set is bare-bones, with video projections providing the majestic scenery the explorers encountered, small wooden prows standing in for the canoes in which they traveled and stylized choreography mimicking the perils of the journey as they go over waterfalls and navigate the twisty rapids of the Colorado River.

Only six men completed the journey. And at is heart, Men On Boats is a reminder, as Hamilton is, of the courage it took to make this country great—and will take to keep it so for future generations who look back to tell the story of our time.

August 6, 2016

"Privacy Takes Interactivty to Another Level

The hottest ticket of the summer is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which opened at London's Palace Theatre last weekend and is already sold out through next May. But on this side of the Atlantic, the summer's hottest ticket (beside Hamilton) is Privacy, which coincidentally stars Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played Harry Potter in the eight movies made from the British writer JK Rowling's books about a boy wizard who saves the world from evil.

The demand for tickets to Privacy, which ends its short run at The Public Theater next weekend, was so fierce that my theatergoing buddy Bill and I couldn't get seats until deep into the run. What we saw when we finally got there was less of a play than a staged TED Talk, complete with swanky audio visuals.

The evil being railed against in Privacy is the way in which internet providers, purveyors and the government gather information about us whenever we email, text, search, save or buy things. 

The rest of the show's thin plot involves an unnamed writer, presumably a stand-in for playwright James Graham, who tries to cure a case of writer's block and to reconnect with the boyfriend who ditched him because he was too introverted.

The writer's efforts to become more social, including conversations with his parents, shrink and a bunch of real-life media experts (ranging from MIT professor and privacy advocate Sherry Turkle to Oregon senator and internet defender Ron Wyden) play out inside his head and on his computer. 

They also appear on a giant screen at the back of the stage where photo avatars and basic info about the experts pop up whenever the actors portraying them show up. It's a clever and helpful device since just five cast members play more than three dozen roles. 

I've no complaints about those performances. Radcliffe is, as he's been in his previous times onstage (revivals of Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Cripple of Inishmaan,) totally charming (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Meanwhile, under Josie Rourke's inventive staging, old hands like Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch and Reg Rogers deftly whirl though characters and accents faster than you can say WikiLeaks. 

Even NSA leaker Edward Snowden's much-hyped video cameo betrays little of the self-conscious stiffness that mars so many amateur performances (click here to read how it was achieved).

Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was in a Media Studies class taught by a professor more eager to make his students like him than to teach them anything new. 

A hip-looking guy in a cool suit stands at the back of the stage mysteriously typing away on a computer throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance. Electro-pop music plays between the scenes. And portions of the Playbill have been blacked out as though redacted by some government censor.

Then there's the audience participation. Instead of the usual reminder to "turn off your cellphone" that is made at the beginning of most theater performances, a taped message from the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis asks audience members to turn on their phones and instructs them how to connect to the special Wi-Fi that has been set up for the production.

At various times, Radcliffe or one of the other actors ask the audience to do different tasks with their phones and folks eagerly complied, although a few seated near me couldn't resist also checking their emails, flipping through their photos and, despite the vigilance of the ushers, trying to snap photos of the show.

One woman forgot to mute her phone and so it rang at, of course, an inopportune moment. Still, this is the kind of immersive theater that particularly appeals to millennials and their fellow travelers and so most people didn't seem to be as annoyed as I was.

Privacy originated at London's Donmar Warehouse, but its text, which is based largely on interviews with the experts cited in the play and delivered in long soliloquies, has been totally revised to include New York City references and allusions to the latest events, from Brexit to the U.S. presidential campaign.

The message in both versions is that nothing is private or secret. But if you're the kind of person who really worries about that kind of thing, the show doesn't really have anything more to say than you've already known for a longtime (click here to listen to a terrific NPR report from two years ago).

It does, however, have a few secrets of its own. Audience members are asked not to spoil them. In fact, Radcliffe interrupts the curtain call applause to make a final appeal with a tongue-in-cheek reminder that the Public knows where everyone lives because it's downloaded the information from the cellphones they kept on. 

Which may be why I opted to leave mine off. Although that probably didn't protect me since I bought my tickets online.

July 30, 2016

"Butler" Tackles History With Humor

You wouldn't think that the subject of slavery would be an obvious choice for comedy. And yet the writer James McBride pulled it off with "The Good Lord Bird," his comedic novel about a young slave's view of the abolitionist John Brown, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013. And now playwright Richard Strand is doing much the same thing with Butler, a surprisingly genial comedy about slaves seeking sanctuary with the Union Army during the Civil War that opened at the 59E59 Theaters this week.

Butler's story is based on the eponymous Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler who devised a legal way to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Law that said runaway slaves must be returned to their masters. Strand's version hews close to the real-life story in which three slaves laboring for the Confederate forces escaped to Fort Monroe, the only Union facility in Virginia, and appealed to Butler for refuge (click here for a full account of the real story).

Only one of the three, a man named Shepard Mallory, is seen in the play and like many recent fictionalized accounts of the period (Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," the new cable series "Underground" and McBride's "The Good Lord Bird") he's smarter and more courageous than most of the white folks he encounters.

Some might quibble with this interpretation of the way things might have been but history is always subjective and susceptible to myth making and it's refreshing to have these new, even if wishful, archetypes replacing the old shameful stereotypes.

Strand smoothes the transition by making Butler go through the process of reconciling his image of what a slave should be with the presence of the obviously charismatic Mallory in the same way that the audience does.

Much of the play's humor is derived from the general's consternation as he tries to keep up with Mallory; much of its heart from his determination to go against his nature (the real Butler supported Jefferson Davis for president at the 1860 Democratic convention) to do the right thing. 

It's a delicate balancing act and director Joseph Discher brings it off, letting the audience know that it's OK to laugh but refusing to let the show devolve into a cartoon.

This production first played at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, N.J. two years ago and has smartly moved here with its four-member cast and a beautifully detailed set intact. 

Made up and padded to resemble photographs of the real Butler, Ames Adamson gives a wonderfully sympathetic performance. And John G. Williams is even better as Mallory, alternately wily and winsome, always making it clear that Mallory knows he isn't in control of his destiny but that he should be. 

As its very name indicates, the focus of Butler is, yet again, how the issue of race affects a white person. But Williams' centered performance commands attention for the plight of Mallory—and, by extension, all other black people—as well.

It's nice to see a regional theater like New Jersey Rep stretching outside the ranks of familiar playwrights and safe subjects. And it's very nice to have this reminder, especially in these times, that the course of history can be changed by the willingness to take one valiant step after another—and that humor may help ease the way. 

July 27, 2016

Who's Going to Get "The Last Word"?

Maybe it's the summer heat. Or maybe too many of you are out of town. Or maybe it's a reluctance to take a chance on an unknown show. Whatever the reason, there weren't as many entrants in this week's giveaway for free tickets to see Friday night's performance of The Last Word at this year's New York Musical Festival as there have been for previous giveaways.

Or maybe the question I asked about which former NYMF shows went on to Broadway was too much of a challenge.  Still, we do have a winner who knew that those shows were Chaplin, Next to Normal and [title of show].  That clever theater lover is Katie Kavett.

Kudos to her and to the cast and crew of The Last Word. 

July 23, 2016

Summer Festivals—and a Summer Giveaway

We're now in the midsummer of this year's theater festival season. It's the time when small companies and fledgling productions get a chance to strut their stuff. Some of these showcases, like ANT Fest, a lineup of edgy entertainments curated by Ars Nova, are already over. Others like the compact Summer Shorts series of short plays at the 59E59 Theaters, which started previews yesterday; and the mammoth anything-goes FringeNYC, which will run from Aug. 12-28, are still in the wings.

Also now underway is the New York Musical Festival, more familiarly known as NYMF. Over the years, NYMF has spawned such shows as Next to Normal, [title of show] and Himself and Nora, a musical now playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre about the relationship between James Joyce, the Irish author of such modernist classics as "Ulysses" and "Finnegan’s Wake," and Nora Barnacle, the woman who was his lover, his muse, the mother of his two children and eventually his wife.

My friend Jessie and I saw Himself and Nora earlier this week. Written entirely (book, music and lyrics) by Jonathan Brielle it's a straightforward bio-musical with a pleasant, Irish-accented score and charming performances by Matt Bogart, who has been with the show since its NYMF days (click here to read an interview with him) and Whitney Bashor in the title roles plus a standout performance by Lianne Marie Dobbs, who like the other two cast members plays a variety of roles and makes each one distinctive.

It was an agreeable way to spend a summer evening (or summer afternoon; the cast is scheduled to perform at next Thursday's Broadway in Bryant Park) even if the show, directed by Michael Bush, a veteran of 10 NYMF productions, didn't reveal anything new about Joyce, Barnacle or the times in which they lived.

The full-length productions for this year's NYMF began this week. There are 18 of them, ranging from A Scythe of Time, a stage version of two Edgar Allan Poe stories; to Tink, the Peter Pan story as seen through the fairy Tinker Bell's eyes.

One of the shows, The Last Word, about a guy who tries to save his debt-burdened restaurant by, the press notes say, "hustling across America - one game of Scrabble at a time," has offered me the opportunity to give away a pair of tickets to its final performance at The Duke theater next Friday night, July 29.

You can learn more about the show by clicking here. You can win the tickets by naming the three NYMF grads that made it to Broadway. Send your answers to me at by noon on Tuesday, July 26. Then, as usual, I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and have my husband K pluck one out. I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday.