January 19, 2019

Pondering Some Alternatives Facts About This Year's "LaBute New Theater Festival"

Transgression—social, sexual and otherwise—has been the bread and butter of Neil LaBute’s career. It might be the downfall of it too. Last year, allegations about some unidentified misconduct caused theater organizations such as MCC Theater, 59E59 Theaters and others to sever longstanding ties with him (click here to read more about that). 

And so it’s hard to put all of that aside when looking at this year’s iteration of the annual LaBute New Theater Festival, a trio of one-acts that opened at the Davenport Theater this week. And I don’t think LaBute intended us to. For these plays, metaphorical stations of the cross in public shaming, struck me as his attempt to make us think about the way he believes he’s been treated. 

The first and final pieces are character studies in which one actor addresses the audience directly. Karl, the sole character in the opening monologue The Fourth Reich, matter-of-factly offers the argument that the major reason Hitler has such a heinous reputation is because he lost the war, leaving the people who defeated him to portray him as the epitome of evil.

This, of course, overlooks Hitler’s complicity in exterminating millions of innocent people. But that’s not the way Karl sees it. “You get to write the history when you win,” he says, noting that Ulysses S. Grant oversaw the genocide of Native Americans but is nonetheless regarded as an American hero. “And what about me?,” Karl asks, no doubt channeling LaBute's own sentiments. “Should I be tossed out in the garbage ‘cause  of one bad thing I did, years ago, when I was a kid?”

Katie, the young woman in the closing monologue Unlikely Japan, wrestles with that question too. She confides that she’s mourning her high-school boyfriend who was recently killed in a mass shooting. Her grief is mainly driven by her fear that dumping him 10 years ago set off a chain of events that landed him in the place where the massacre occurred. Her guilt raises the butterfly-effect-like question of whether one careless misdeed can lead to disastrous results.

These bookend reveries, the first directed by John Pierson and the second by LaBute himself, are well performed by Eric Dean White and Gia Crovatin but they’re slight works. And, if I’m going to be honest, they’re annoying too, striking me as the kind of weaselly why-is-everybody-always-picking-on-me or how-was-I-supposed-to-know-it-would-turn-out-like-that excuses kids give when they don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions.

The middle play, a two-hander also directed by Pierson, is more substantial than the other two but I winced when I first saw its title: Great Negro Works of Art. It wasn’t just the anachronistic word but the fact that race is such a hot-wire issue and I wasn’t sure how a provocateur like LaBute would handle it.

His approach here is to view racial dynamics and political correctness through the prism of a first date between a white woman and a black man who’ve met on an internet dating site. The woman Jerri, played with appropriate blind-date jitteriness by Brenda Meaney, chose a museum showing the titular exhibit for their first face-to-face encounter. The man Tom, a layered performance by Keilyn Durrel Jones, arrives late bearing flowers and a tendency to hide behind humor when he’s nervous.

Each is openly attracted to the other but their attempts at small talk quickly dissolve into a debate over semantics (what does it mean to lie) and sensibilities (should lawn jockeys be considered works of art or symbols of oppression). They struggle to find common ground by telling one another that people are too sensitive about subjects like gender and race and that everyone should just say what they feel. But each time one of them tries to do that, the other misinterprets what’s being said.

Presented separately, these three plays might seem no more than routine additions to the LaBute canon of provocative characters and uneasy situations designed to throw viewers off balance. But taken together, they add up to a declaration that truth is merely the property of whoever is telling a tale. Which makes me sad because although I’m a longtime LaBute fan, Hitler is Hitler and however you tell his story, millions of people died because of him.

January 12, 2019

A (Brief) Break From Regular Programming

Yep; I've slipped back into a hole that’s going to keep me from doing a regular post today. But this isn't a disagreeable hole. I fell into it by (1) reading two fascinating books about 19th century theater for a review I've been asked to write, (2) celebrating my wedding anniversary with my adored husband K and (3) appearing on a panel with my BroadwayRadio colleagues at this year's BroadwayCon on the morning this is posted. But things should settle down next week. I've got some shows lined up to see and am already looking forward to sharing my thoughts about them with you. So hope to see you again then.

January 5, 2019

Winter Theater Festival Fever-Redux

The weather has been unseasonably warm here in the city but the winter theater festivals, including a few new ones, are plowing ahead as usual and so I thought I’d do a redux of the guide to them I did a couple of years ago. These theatrical expositions tend to showcase experimental works, under-represented performers and other kinds of productions that don't get as much attention during the rest of the year. And their ticket prices are cheaper too.

But I'm going to start this off with  BroadwayCon. This three-day fandom extravaganza of panels, workshops and sing-alongs is returning to its original home at the New York Hilton Midtown next weekend, Jan. 11 to 13. My BroadwayRadio pals and I are joining in the festivities on Saturday, Jan.13, with a live version of the “This Week on Broadway” show and we’d love to have you join us. You can find more about how to do that by clicking here.

Below are a few of the other events that you might want to catch while waiting for the big spring shows to open. I’ve listed them in order of how much time you still have left to see them; click on their titles for more info:

Under the Radar: This 15th edition of the  Public Theater’s venerable winter series began Jan. 3, runs through Jan. 13, and features more acts homegrown in the U.S. than usual but it still boasts artists from nine countries.

American Realness: Dance is the connective thread that ties together the 17 performers scheduled to explore themes ranging from ancient rites to sci-fi fantasies in spaces spread across four of New York’s five boroughs from Jan. 4 to 13.

Prototype: Performing in venues from La MaMa in the East Village to Harlem Stage uptown, this festival, which runs from Jan. 5 to 13, is devoted to chamber operas and other musical theater works and is offering 12 productions this year, including a bilingual opera performed in Spanish and English.

First Nations Dialogues: This first-time series of performances, workshops, discussions and ceremonies led by indigenous artists representing tribal peoples from Australia, Canada and the U.S. will be held in a variety of downtown venues from Jan. 5 to 12.

Act One; One Act Festival: Lots of up-and-coming theater makers now live in Long Island City and once again its Secret Theatre is hosting three different programs of short comedies, dramas and dramadies from Jan. 2-10, and inviting audience members to vote on their favorites, which will get encore performances on Jan. 13.

DirectorFest: The Drama League is marking its 35th celebration of young directors with a racially diverse slate of newbies showing off their stagings of both classic plays and original works in various theatrical spaces from Jan 11 to 28.

Exponential Festival: Based in Brooklyn and supported in part by a Kickstarter campaign, this festival is back for the fourth time, running from Jan. 4 thru Feb. 13 with works from an eclectic mix of performance artists.

The Fire This Time Festival: Taking its name from the seminal James Baldwin book, this festival spotlights black playwrights from all parts of the African diaspora. Past participants have included Jocelyn Bioh, Marcus Gardley and Dominique Morisseau. Eight newcomers will present their works from Jan. 21 thru Feb. 2

Winterfest: The New York Theater Festival's annual showcase for still unknown-writers will feature some 50 Fringe-style productions that started Dec. 30 and will run thru March 10 at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Chelsea.

Frigid New York Festival: Now celebrating its 10th year, this theatrical grab bag will offer works by 30 different companies from Feb. 20 thru March 10

December 29, 2018

10 Shows That Stood Out for Me in 2018

The end of the year has sneaked up on me. I got lost in the whir of finishing the school semester where I teach, getting ready for Christmas and dealing with some health problems (nothing serious: a bad cold and a lingering foot injury). But I’ve found time to read the year-end 10 Best lists, including the round-up of them that my blogger pal Jonathan Mandell puts together every year and which you can find by clicking here.

These lists always make me smile because, of course, there is no absolute best. I counted more than 50 different shows that popped up on the nearly two dozen 10 Best lists I saw or heard on podcasts. And even a much-admired show like The Ferryman failed to make the cut for some critics.

That’s in part because there was so much good stuff to see year.  But it's also because theater is a conversation between the people who make a show and each of us who is lucky enough to see it. And how we come out feeling about a show depends on all kinds of things from how an actor performed his part to whether he looks like an old boyfriend, from how well a playwright explores a theme to whether that theme is an issue that touches us personally, from the magic of the stagecraft to how much we needed a good laugh or a quiet cry that day. 

So, with all that in mind, here, in my usual cop-out alphabetical order, are 10 shows that, for various reasons, stood out for me from the nearly 140 shows I saw this year:

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Signature Theatre Company’s revival of these one-act plays written at the beginning and the end of Albee’s career was brilliantly directed by Lila Neugebauer and performed by a stellar cast that deftly walked the tightrope between the cool intellectualism and the visceral emotionalism that this late great playwright’s work demands.

The Ferryman: If I were doing a numbered list, Jez Butterworth’s magnificent family drama set against the back drop of the Irish troubles would be at the top. I was exhilarated by Butterworth’s simultaneously lucid and lyrical storytelling, the uniformly superb performances of the show’s 21-member cast (including a scene-stealing baby) and the nimble staging of director Sam Mendes and his design crew, top-notch from set to sound.

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish: The trendy way to revive an old musical nowadays seems to be to try to make it fit more with our contemporary sensibilities. But under the astute direction of Joel Grey, The National Yiddish Theatre's production of the classic Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical based on the shtetl stories of Sholem Aleichem has taken a different approach: performing the show in the language its Jewish characters would actually have spoken in the 19th century and treating their traditions with reverence. The result is surprisingly fresh and deeply moving.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Naysayers grumble that this show didn’t deserve its Tony for Best Play but this sequel to J.K. Rowling’s stories about the adventures of a boy wizard and his friends is filled with the kind of good old-fashioned storytelling by Jack Thorne and spectacular stage magic created by director John Tiffany and movement specialist Steven Hoggett that will appeal to the kids who grew up on the Potter books, the kids they’re now raising and kids at heart like me.

The Jungle: Immersive shows were a growing trend in 2018 but this one at St. Ann's Warehouse the Park Avenue Armory stood apart. It set theatergoers in the mdist of a refugee camp that once existed in Calais, France and housed scores of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and other war-ravaged countries, all desperately hoping to start a new life in Europe. Some of the actors once lived in the real-life camp but all of them—whether playing camp leaders, relief workers or smugglers—were superbly affecting.
Lewiston/Clarkston: The Rattlestick Theater transformed its playing space to house the changing physical and emotional landscape of the American West in Samuel D. Hunter’s linked one-acts set in contemporary towns named for the 19th century explorers Meriwether Lewis and John Clark. A chicken dinner was served in the break between the plays (offering food themed to shows was another trend this year) and the actors moved around the 51 people lucky enough to attend each performance but director Davis McCallum and his impressive cast maintained an aching authenticity throughout.

On Beckett: Drawing on his finely-honed skills as both a trained clown and a serious tragedian, Bill Irwin proved the perfect guide into the sometimes-inscrutable works of the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. And this one-man show at The Irish Repertory Theatre, which Irwin both wrote and directed, was a master class in acting and a love letter to theater making.

Slave Play: The trend that most impressed me this year was the growing number of shows that broke taboos—societal and theatrical—to look at the knotty issue of race in new ways. I could have chosen Pass Over, Antoinette Nwandu’s riff on Waiting for Godot; Jackie Sibblies Drury’s genre-bending Fairview or Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down, each deliberately unsettling and thoroughly thought-provoking. But I’m going with New York Theatre Workshop's production of this one by Jeremy O. Harris because it’s the most intimate of the genre and because its final scene was so unflinchingly raw and honest that it shook me to my core.

Sugar in Our Wounds: Identifying as an Afro-queer playwright, Donja R. Love has written a trilogy that deals with the experience of being gay and black at pivotal points in American history. This first, which played at Manhattan Theatre Club, was set on a southern plantation during the Civil War, where a group of slaves dream of freedom and two of the men unexpectedly fall in love. Director Saheem Ali created a lovely frame for Love’s lyrical language and passionate story and the audience the night I saw the show was filled with weeping male couples, grateful to see themselves finally reflected in history.
Usual Girls: Several plays by promising young female playwrights offered glimpses of how difficult it still is to be a young woman coming of age in this society. Clare Barron’s Dance Nation popped up on many Top 10 lists and I liked it a lot too. But I was struck even more by the Roundabout Underground's production of this one by Ming Peiffer, which tells the story of a young Korean-American woman struggling with sexism, racism and the damage that oppressed people can turn on themselves. Under Tyne Rafaeli's flint-eyed direction, it managed to be equal parts raunchy, funny and heartbreaking.

As I said, it was a great year for theater.  Here's hoping that 2019 brings us just as much to cheer. In the meantime, I wish you and yours good health, much happiness and the chance to see as many shows as your heart desires.

December 8, 2018

Turning on the Ghost Light, Yes Again

Life has gotten crazy again and I couldn't find the time to write this week. So as I usually do when this happens, I'm turning on the ghost light that theaters use when they're temporarily empty. I do hope to get back on track next week but in the meantime, I did manage to do an interview with playwright Christopher Demos-Brown for Stagecraft, the podcast series I do for BroadwayRadio. Brown is making an auspicious Broadway debut with American Son, a contemporary drama that stars Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee. You can listen to our conversation about the show by clicking here.

December 1, 2018

Its Stars Are the Only Upside to "Downstairs"

Over the past decade the playwright Theresa Rebeck has had four shows premiere on Broadway and at least a half dozen others open in major off-Broadway productions.  And I can’t figure out why. Rebeck has a fine ear for dialog and a knack for coming up with intriguing situations and interesting characters for her shows but she never seems to know quite what to do with them. 

That was certainly the case with Bernhardt/Hamlet, her comedy in which Janet McTeer played the legendary 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt and that finished an eight-week run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre last month. And it's true once again with Downstairs, a drama that is now playing in a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Dec. 22.

This time out the characters are the middle-aged siblings Teddy and Irene. The situation is that Teddy, who’s lost his job and maybe his grip on reality, has moved into the basement of the home that Irene, a timid woman who keeps her head down as though bracing for a blow, shares with her husband Gerry.

As attentively designed by Narelle Sissons, the cramped and cluttered basement is not a comfortable space. But Teddy—sleeping on a discarded sagging sofa, making breakfast out of coffee brewed in an electronic pot and dry cereal poured into a dusty bowl, and idling away his time on an old computer—seems eager to extend his stay there.

 And although the siblings squabble over trite things like whether Teddy should be puttering around all day in his underwear; and not-so-trite things like the way their inheritance was divided; and even far-out things like Teddy’s musings about his belief in demons and whether Gerry may be one, Irene likes having her brother there even as she makes it clear that her husband wants her brother to go.

That sets up a triangle of competing loyalties and creates opportunities for some Hitchcockian-style storytelling.  Is Teddy insane?  Is Gerry a menace? Will Irene realize that either possibility could endanger her?  

But having set her thriller in motion, Rebeck seems to have gotten bored by it and doesn’t even bother to come up with satisfying answers. By the play's end, I was left with even more questions than I had at its beginning.

That’s not the fault of the cast. Once again, Rebeck has attracted terrific actors. In fact, Tim Daly, who plays Teddy, reportedly asked Rebeck to write a play that would give him and his real-life sister Tyne the chance to appear onstage together for the first time (click here to read about that). 

Under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s supportive direction, the Dalys are both charming in their roles, using the warm bonds of their own relationship to infuse the one between Teddy and Irene. 

They’re also having a ball playing against type with the usually dashing Tim schlumping around as Teddy and the usually brassy Tyne nestling into Irene’s meekness. And the veteran character actor John Procaccino chips in with a chilling performance as the domineering Gerry.

All three make the show watchable. But not even their collective talents can make Downstairs more than that because the playwright hasn’t given them enough to work with.  

Rebeck has complained in the past that critics are tough on her because she’s so prolific and because she's a woman (click here to read an interview with her). But maybe it's just because, as in this case, we think her work isn't good.