November 30, 2013

Why I'm Going Along with "And Away We Go"

People who love theater love shows about the theater.  Which is why there are so many backstage musicals, dramas and comedies from 42nd Street to the upcoming Bullets Over Broadway, from The Seagull to Noises Off.   

And it’s also why my theatergoing buddy Bill and I, diehard theater junkies, tramped over to the far western stretch of 42nd Street to see The Pearl Theatre Company’s production of And Away We Go, Terrence McNally’s chronicle of significant moments in theater history, which opened this week for a very limited run that’s scheduled to end Dec. 15.

I had been expecting a cavalcade of scenes similar to the ones in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre in which two actors dress up in an assortment of costumes to perform mock versions of plays that range from farce to melodrama. And Away We Go’s posters, with actors decked out in brocaded 18th century garb, seemed to promise something like that. 

But, with mixed results, McNally and director Jack Cummings III take a distinctly different approach.

And Away We Go does offer a waiting-in-the-wings look at performances ranging from the ancient Greek festivals at which mask-wearing members of the chorus invoke the mercy of the gods to the late 20th century morality plays in which AIDS-ravaged young men yearn for the deliverance of angels.

There are also stops in between at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Comédie-Française, the Moscow Art Theatre and the Coconut Grove Playhouse where Waiting for Godot made its American debut in 1956.  But, be it due to budget constraints or aesthetic preference, very little is done to simulate any of those settings.

Instead, the set, designed by Sandra Goldmark, looks like a ramshackle prop shop, crammed with period furniture, old lighting equipment, leftover costumes and casts of actors’ heads. It’s all great fun to look at and provides an entertaining alternative whenever the play's action flags.

The actors walk onto the stage in contemporary clothes, which they wear throughout the next 100 minutes, whether they are recreating a scene at the 16th century dining table of Richard Burbage, who originated the roles of Hamlet, Othello and Richard III, or a samovar break during a rehearsal for a Chekhov premiere around the turn of the last century.

This all puts a lot of burden on the performances. And, alas, the acting by six members of The Pearl's resident company, including two newcomers, is uneven.

Stripped of the conventional ways—costumes, makeup, props—to create their characters, the actors lean heavily on ethnic accents to distinguish the different people they play in each scene. But some focus so much on getting the intonation down that they forget it’s equally important to get the words out in a way that the audience can understand them.

They’re also called upon to be emotionally fluent as the scenes flow into one another, changing settings with no advanced warning. And here again, the results are spotty. Some actors hit the comedy too hard, while others make the pathos too hammy. One of the few to navigate a steady course through it all is the company’s longtime leading man Sean McNall.

And yet, it’s hard to resist McNally’s obvious love of actors and his deep appreciation for the survival of their art form. He lards And Away We Go with references to the precarious nature of the theater that draws intentional comparison to The Pearl’s own financial situation, which has been so shaky that it prompted an emergency letter to the company’s subscribers earlier this year (click here to read about it).

I usually hate that kind of meta stuff and I’ll confess that these embedded pleas for support did take me out of the play. But in the end, I got on board because I, too, want the theater—including The Pearl and its continuing commitment to performing classics like the Greeks, Shakespeare and Chekhov—to keep going and going.

November 27, 2013

"The Snow Geese" and "The Winslow Boy" Aren’t Flops But They Aren’t High-Fliers Either

Are theater producers becoming like their counterparts in the movie business and saving their best stuff for the time closest to awards season?  I ask because this is the second fall in a row in which the shows—at least the new ones—have been really disappointing. 

Sure, there’s a lot of excitement over this season’s prestige productions—Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto in The Glass Menagerie, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Betrayal, Mark Rylance doing both Twelfth Night and Richard III and the “X-Men” (and RSC vets) Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in rep with Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land—but those are all revivals.

Eight original productions have opened since the romcom First Date arrived in August and they haven’t fared nearly as well. Two (Soul Doctor and A Time to Kill) have already closed and two others (First Date and Big Fish) have posted notices and will shut down at the end of the holidays. 
Meanwhile, limping along with the crutch of subscription audiences are the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Winslow Boy, which will end its scheduled run on Dec. 1, and MCC and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s joint production of The Snow Geese, which will fly off as originally announced on Dec. 15. 

They’re both nicely designed productions (I'd happily move into either of the homes created onstage) and cast with accomplished actors (a special shout-out to Michael Cumpsty in The Winslow Boy and Victoria Clark in The Snow Geese) but both shows are as bland as pabulum.
My husband K is a big Terence Rattigan fan and so we had high hopes for the revival of The Winslow Boy, Rattigan’s 1946 play about a father’s ruinous quest to preserve his family’s honor by clearing the name of his teen son who has been expelled from a prestigious military academy after being accused of stealing. 
Three movies have been made from this Edwardian-era morality tale, which Rattigan based on a real-life case. And the story not only has “Downton Abbey” appeal but juicy roles for all eight members of the cast, most particularly the father and the boy’s older sister.  Alas, it is there where this production falls down.  
I’m a big fan of the masterly actor Roger Rees (who’s been great in projects ranging from his Tony-winning turn as the title character in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby to his appearances as Sam Malone’s millionaire rival on TV’s “Cheers") but he’s miscast here (click here to read an interview with him). 
The father’s transformation from a bastion of overbearing rectitude to a man broken by his own bullheadedness is supposed to provide the play’s emotional arc but Rees, under the shaky direction of Lindsay Posner (click here to read her take on the production) is never able to summon up the requisite arrogance and the tragedy is softened without it.  
Similarly, the sister Catherine starts off as a dilettante who dabbles in suffragist causes but ends the show as a woman whose political mettle has been finely honed. But Charlotte Parry starts off iron-willed and has nowhere to grow. The Winslow Boy shaped by these performances isn’t bad but it fails to stir the heart.
The Snow Geese doesn’t generate much passion either. Although set in the same era around World War I, it's a brand new play by Sharr White, who won acclaim for last season’s production of The Other Place, although not from me (click here to read my review).
The story purports to be about a fortysomething widow whose idyllic life is shattered by the death of her husband and the unexpected debts he’s left behind. But the play is also yet another homage to Chekhov (seagull, snow geese, get it?) complete with a country home setting, world-weary relatives and a resident doctor, played here with customary finesse by Danny Burstein. 
The widow is played by Mary-Louise Parker, who looks lovely in the gowns Jane Greenwood has designed for her but neither Parker nor director Daniel Sullivan seem to have worked out what else the role demands (click here to read an interview with the star).
Further complicating matters is the fact that Parker, although an age appropriate 49, looks too young to be the mother of grown sons. This adds to the play’s general confusion because Evan Jonigkeit and newcomer Brian Cross (click here to read a piece about him) often look as though they might be her lovers instead of her sons. 
On the other hand, there are flashbacks to scenes with the husband that are equally confusing because they add so little to the storytelling.  In fact, I’ve no idea what White is trying to say at all. The Snow Goose is the kind of play that were it a movie would probably be released in the the stay-at-home months of winter.

November 23, 2013

Who's Won the Chance to Hail Macbeth?

It’s a little surprising to me but you guys seem to prefer free cast recordings and tell-all books to free theater seats. Still, a couple of you did write in for the giveaway of two free tickets to see Lincoln Center Theater’s new production of Macbeth, directed by the ever-inventive Jack O’Brien and starring the always-passionate Ethan Hawke.

Once again, everyone who responded to my giveaway question about who last played Macbeth on Broadway got it right and once again the right answer was Alan Cumming. So after the usual ritual (I put names in hat, my husband  K plucks one out) the winner is Ron Kaehler.

Kudos to him and to the rest of you who participated in this giveaway go-around. And here are a couple of consolation prizes for everyone:

The first is a brief sneak peek at the meet-and-greet between the press and the cast (which in addition to Hawke, includes Richard Easton as the doomed King Duncan; Brian D’Arcy James and Daniel Sunjata as Macbeth’s comrades-in-arms-turned-rivals Banquo and Macduff; Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jennings as the witches; young Jonny Orsini as the eventual victor Malcolm and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth). You can view it by clicking here.

The second is a 30-minute interview with Hawke about his career and how he got into acting, which you can see here.

And if all of this makes you eager to see the production, which just opened on Thursday and is scheduled to run through Jan. 12, you can get a discount off the ticket price if you use the code:  MACBLOG89.

November 20, 2013

And Now a Giveaway for the Scottish Play

Theater lovers who love Shakespeare must be thrilled with this season, which has turned out to be the theatrical equivalent of a greatest hits album featuring nearly all the Bard’s most beloved plays. 

So far I’ve done a Twelfth Night and a Richard III (which I actually see tonight) in repertory on Broadway, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a Julius Caesar off-Broadway, two Romeo & Juliets, one on and one off Broadway, and the NT Live simulcast of Othello.
Next up for me is Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of Macbeth, starring Ethan Hawke and the multi-Olivier Award-nominated actress Anne-Marie Duff as the murderously ambitious thane and his wife. Plus there's a badass all-male trio of witches played by three of New York’s most badass character actors: Malcolm Gets, Byron Jennings and John Glover (click here to read a preview piece about them).

And seeing what theater people call "The Scottish Play" could be next for you too because the folks at Lincoln Center have given me two free tickets to give away.   

But we’ll have to move fast because the tickets are only good for performances until Dec. 14 and the reservations must be made by Dec. 4. 

 So, email me the name of the last actor to play Macbeth on Broadway at (sorry about the technical glitch; the address is by midnight this Friday, Nov. 22, and I’ll go through my usual ritual of picking a name out of a hat and then will announce the winner on Saturday.

November 16, 2013

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is This Season's Surprise Breakout Star in Two Shows

Big stars were supposed to provide the thrills this fall theater season but so far the response to most of them has been kind of tepid. 

Now it’s true that Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto have won deservedly high praise for their performances in the revival of The Glass Menagerie but the response has been deservedly muted to Mary-Louise Parker’s turn in The Snow Geese.  Meanwhile, both critics and audiences have been divided over the work of Daniel Craig and his real-life wife Rachel Weisz in the Mike Nichols-directed revival of Betrayal and towards Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf in Domesticated off-Broadway at Lincoln Center.

But one of the few performances that has drawn uniform praise this season is that of The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which is, at least through this weekend, doing double duty in two new productions: After Midnight, which opened to a chorus of raves at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre last week, and A Bed and A Chair: A New York Love Affair, the special Encores! revue of Stephen Sondheim songs that runs only through tomorrow. The orchestra gets the final bow at both shows and, for a change, the standing ovations seem genuine instead of obligatory.
Much of the excitement for A Bed and A Chair is due to the fact that Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center's celebrated artistic director, is not only a producer but playing solos from the lead trumpet chair. 

The idea for this collaboration between Marsalis and Sondheim seems to have been to give the Sondheim songbook the kind of jazz props that Nelson Riddle gave the great songwriters of the ‘30s and ‘40s when he produced his songbook series for Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and Dave Grusin did with the Gershwins in the ‘90s.  
The difference is that Riddle and Grusin used jazz singers. A Bed and A Chair depends mainly on Broadway performers. And so the result is not all that much different from any other Sondheim tribute concert. 

That’s OK when Bernadette Peters, looking fabulous in a skin-tight dress at 65, performs her numbers with a sassy verve and wit that transcend genre. But it’s less satisfying when Norm Lewis and Jeremy Jordan go through the usual paces as they perform theirs.

There’s a half-hearted attempt to frame the evening as a series of love stories that are directed by John Doyle and sung by the three Broadway stars and a young French chanteuse named Cyrille Aimée.  Occasionally, a quartet of dancers, apparently cast to resemble the singers, perform dances that were pretty instead of jazzy and reminded me of some of the also-ran routines on “So You Think You Can Dance.”  
After Midnight delivered considerably more satisfaction, even though it, too, is an odd duck of a show.  It bills itself as an homage to fabled Harlem hotspots of the ‘20s and ‘30s like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom and there's no plot here either.
Of course this has been done before in revues like Sophisticated Ladies and Black and Blue and, as my husband K noted, the musicians in those orchestras included renowned sidemen who actually played alongside Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and other major band leaders of the era. But the music remains irresistibly entertaining and a whole new crop of performers have sprung up to put their spin on it.

Under the direction of Warren Carlyle, a cast of more than two-dozen hardworking singers and dancers perform a series of numbers composed by the likes of Harold Arlen, Dorothy Fields & Jimmy McHugh, Yip Harburg and primarily Ellington.  

After Midnight’s featured performers include Dulé Hill, now best known for his roles on TV shows like “Psych” and “The West Wing” but who got his start as the understudy to Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid, and the "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino, who earned her Broadway stripes  when she replaced LaChanze in The Color Purple. 
Fantasia has slimmed down since then and she looks terrific in the gowns created by Isabel Toledo, who designed the outfit Michelle Obama wore to the first inaugural. And Fantasia sings the hell out of numbers like “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Stormy Weather,” which she imbues with a soulfulness that simultaneously honors and updates those classics.
But you'll have to hurry if you want to see her cause she’s only scheduled to stay with the show until Feb. 7.  Then k.d. lang has signed on to step into the role, followed later by Toni Braxton and Baby Face Edmonds and who knows who else if the show has a long enough run. 
The dancers are less well known but just as delightful. The rubber-limbed Julius “iGlide” Chisolm, combines jazz-era cool with hip-hop flair and it works wonderfully. The sweet-faced, high-energy tapper Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards brings to mind Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain.” And even the ensemble dancers are first rate, among them is the former Alvin Ailey star Desmond Richardson.
Needless to say, the band swings throughout the proceedings. In an acknowledgement of their key role, each member of the orchestra has been given an individual entry in the Playbill just like stars usually get.

November 13, 2013

Two Talented Ladies Sing Karoake Blues in "Lady Day" and "A Night with Janis Joplin"

When a musician records work closely identified with a more iconic artist, it’s called a tribute album. And recently, as the number of shows featuring actors doing the same thing has grown, some people have begun calling them karaoke shows.

The trend got a big boost back in 2005 when John Lloyd Young and his co-stars stepped into the roles of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys. It stumbled a bit with the ersatz Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, picked up some steam with British actress Tracie Bennett’s impersonation of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow and hit its groove with Motown, which features imitations of all the record label’s famed stars singing and dancing their way through its catalog of classic soul songs.

And the fall season has brought us some new contenders, including a rendition of the singing rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in Soul Doctor, which closed after just 66 performances, a faux Billie Holiday in Lady Day at the Little Shubert Theatre through March 17 and a fake Janis Joplin in A Night with Janis Joplin, which is playing at the Lyceum Theatre through Jan. 5.  

Both of the new shows feature very talented women in the title roles but as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell used to sing,  there ain’t nothing like the real thing.
I’m not going to say too much about Dee Dee Bridgewater because she and my husband K once ran in the same circles. But anyone with access to Google can find out that she’s a Tony winner for her performance as Glinda in The Wiz and a Grammy winner for her jazz recordings, including a tribute album of Billie Holiday songs (click here to read a great interview with her).   

Meanwhile Mary Bridget Davies has built a successful career on channeling Janis Joplin, even touring for a time with Joplin’s old band Big Brother and the Holding Company.  
Both Bridgewater and Davies clearly admire the women they’re impersonating. But performers who become legends have an ineffable quality that can’t be duplicated. So even though Davies wears Joplin’s granny glasses and feathered boas, tosses her hair around the way the singer used to do and affects the blues growl that Joplin used to sing her songs, there’s something missing. 
One of the things that made Jersey Boys work was the Behind-the-Music story of the group’s rise and fall and then the unexpectedly happy ending of its rising again on the oldies circuit. Both the book writers for the Holiday and Joplin shows haven’t figured out how to make their star’s tales into compelling shows.  
Doing double duty as both writer and director, Stephen Stahl builds Lady Day around the rehearsal and performance of a pivotal concert Holiday has to perform in London because her drug arrests have caused her to lose the cabaret license she needs to work back home in the States. Flashbacks about her earlier life, including a childhood rape, are wedged between the numbers she and her four-member band perform. The overall effect is clunky, disjointed and uninvolving.
Randy Johnson, who wrote and directed A Night with Janis Joplin, takes a concert approach with Joplin too but, perhaps because the singer’s real-life siblings and heirs have been so involved with the project (click here to read an interview with them), the show skips over things like Joplin’s drug abuse, bad love affairs and often crippling insecurity. If you knew nothing about the singer before seeing this show, you’d come out thinking she’d been little more than just “a white chick who loves to sing the blues” and maybe drink a little.
The music should save these shows. And I could feel the audience exhaling and settling in whenever Bridgewater broke into familiar songs like “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “Lady Sings the Blues” and other favorites from the Holiday songbook. 
But Joplin, who OD'ed at 27 (Holiday died at 44)  had fewer hits and so the show that’s ostensibly about her is padded out with performances by women pretending to be the icons who inspired her: Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Odetta, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. The singers playing those legends are talented too but they just gave me more reasons to want to get home and hear the originals.  

Now I know that people, particularly Baby Boomers, like these tribute musicals (A Night with Janis Joplin is playing to houses around 80% full). And I’m not putting those people down.  My sister Joanne is a charter member of their club. 

Jo loves a show where she can walk into the theater humming the tunes and then mouth the lyrics as the actors perform them onstage. She’s always the first person I call when one of these shows comes to town.  And she had a good time at both of these.  

So it seems, have many other people who have seen them.  I was sitting on the bus a few days after seeing the Joplin show when two women seated across the aisle from me struck up a conversation about A Night with Janis Joplin.  “It’s just like seeing the real Janis,” one told the other.  But, you know, it’s really not.

November 9, 2013

A Eulogy for "A Time to Kill"

I come to bury A Time to Kill, not to praise it. Cause it’s too late for the latter. The courtroom melodrama that opened just last month at the Golden Theatre announced this week that it will close on Nov. 17.

And even it were playing longer, I wouldn’t have said it’s a great show. But I do think it might have been an entertaining one for its target audience: tourists and others looking for an easier evening of theater than the Shakespeare, Pinter and Beckett plays that are the dominant fare of this fall season and fans of the legal thriller writer John Grisham, on whose novel the play is based.  
But there’s little room for that kind of mid-brow entertainment on Broadway any more. Ticket prices are so high that people want to feel as though they’re getting a surefire bang for their buck. So today a Broadway show has to have a big star (and although this one has a 14-member cast packed with some very fine stage vets, it lacks a big Hollywood name).
Or it has to be a jukebox musical, filled with familiar songs that people walk into the theater humming (ATK is a straight play although there is a lot of hokey incidental music). Or it needs to be a critical darling (which this show with its down-market Grisham pedigree almost never would have been; and indeed it’s scored a C+ on StageGrade).
Grisham has, of course, done much better on the bestsellers list. His 1989 novel “The Firm,” which was turned into a hit 1993 movie with Tom Cruise, made the author a big name in the book business but “A Time to Kill,” a kind of homage to Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was his first novel and is probably his best, although I haven’t yet read “Sycamore Row,” the “A Time to Kill” sequel that came out just two days after the show opened (click here to listen to an interview with the author).
Both versions are set in the 1980s in Grisham’s home state of Mississippi and their main character is an amiable young white lawyer named Jake Brigance, whom Grisham, an Ole Miss law school grad who tried cases until the book money started coming in, based on himself. The story follows Jake’s attempt to defend a black man who shoots and kills two white low-lifes after they brutally rape his 10-year-old daughter.
The producers recruited Rupert Holmes, the Tony-winning author of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to do the stage adaptation and he’s done a fair job but there’s no getting around the fact that right from the start, the outcome is clear—even clearer than in the book— so there’s no suspense.
Also, in the interest of keeping the audience on Jake’s side, Holmes and director Ethan McSweeny have glossed over the morale complexities of rooting for a man who has literally taken the law into his own hands and the fact that most of the dramatic events take place offstage.

They try to make things interesting by leaning heavily on the clever revolving set devised by James Noone, which offers different perspectives on the courtroom in which most of the action takes place, and occasionally puts the audience in the spot that would be held by the jury (click here to read a piece about the set).
And they lean on their cast of first-rate stage vets.  Sebastian Arcelus, last seen on Broadway in the title role in Elf, proves he’s got range as the upright Jake—and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win over the audience, including wearing his hair in the shoulder-brushing style Matthew McConaughey wore in the movie version. 
Ashley Williams isn’t quite as perky in the role of the law student who assists Jake as Sandra Bullock was in the movie, although who could be? But John Douglas Thompson, celebrated for his portrayals of majestic suffering in off-Broadway productions of Othello and The Emperor Jones, plays the avenging father with similar intensity.

In other supporting roles, Tom Skerritt brings his twinkly-eyed charm to the role of Jake’s drunk mentor and Patrick Page, who never disappoints be it as the original Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn off The Dark or Henry VIII in the Roundabout’s revival of A Man for All Seasons, is appropriately and deliciously hammy as the unctuous prosecuting attorney (click here to read an interview with some of the cast members).

The only weak link is Fred Dalton Thompson, the actor-politician who did five seasons as the head prosecutor on “Law & Order,” served for eight years as the U.S. Senator from Tennessee and made a half-hearted run for the presidency in 2008 (click here to read an interview with him). At the performance my friend Priscilla and I attended, Thompson, who plays the trial’s judge, kept tripping over his lines.

But no matter. The verdict is now in for A Time to Kill and the sentence is death, without appeal.  

November 6, 2013

Who's Flying Off with the New Spider-Man Book?

Now this is more like it.  Unlike last week when I got  crickets in response to my giveaway quiz, a whole bunch of you wrote in for the chance to win the new book “Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History,” which just came out this week.

And all the folks who responded answered correctly that Alan Cumming was originally supposed to play the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. So once again, I put all their names in a hat and my husband K (who’s been getting a kick out of doing this) plucked one out. The lucky guy who's getting to fly off with the book (plus the tickets to the new musical Disaster!) is Kevin Smith. Congratulations to him and thanks to all the rest of you who participated.  
I’ve got nothing else to giveaway (at least not for a while) and so will be returning to my regular news and reviews in future posts. But before I do, I thought those of you who didn’t win the book might find some consolation in reading about it in the following articles:

Click here for AP theater reporter Mark Kennedy’s interview with the book’s author Glen Berger. 
Click here for an insightful analysis of backstage tell-all books by my friend Howard Sherman.
And click here for a terrific review of the book that my friend Mark Harris did for the New York Times.

November 2, 2013

"Luce" Joins the Line of Great Bargains at LCT3

Everyone complains about ticket prices and rightly so.  Seats for the starry revival of  Betrayal, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, cost up to $185 each at the box office and go for as much as $500 on eBay. But savvy theatergoers know there are bargains to be had. And among the best in town are the shows at LCT3, the new plays division at Lincoln Center Theater where all tickets are just $20. 
And the shows it puts on offer a terrific bang for those relatively few bucks. For LCT3’s artistic director Paige Evans and her staff have an eye for fledgling talent, a taste for thought-provoking subjects and the guts to put them both on. Past productions have included Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, Greg Pierce’s Slowgirl and Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced.  

Its latest production is Luce, a psychological thriller by the young playwright JC Lee that is playing at the company’s lovely little Claire Tow Theater through Nov. 17. And although Luce isn’t as strong as the plays I just named, it still offered one of the most satisfying evenings I’ve had in the theater so far this season.

Evans and her staff have a predilection for stories about the dynamics in troubled families. And Luce is no exception. It opens with an uneasy parent-teacher meeting between Harriet, a teacher at a self-consciously liberal academy in some unnamed American suburb, and Amy, the adoptive mother of one of the school’s star pupils and prized athletes, the titular Luce, who was orphaned by the ongoing war in the Congo and brought to this country, new parents and a new way of life when he was 7.

Now, 10 years later, Harriet believes that Luce, perhaps scarred by the horrors he witnessed as a boy, has been displaying violent tendencies. A paper he wrote so worried her that she searched his locker, where she found fireworks, which, Harriet reminds Amy, can be used as explosives.  

The rest of the 90-minute play pivots around the questions of whether Luce is the lovable kid that Amy and her husband Peter have raised or a terrorist-in-the-making.

The parents’ struggle to figure out what to do and how to protect their child is a little too similar to the dilemma in A Kid Like Jake, the previous LCT3 offering about the parents of an effeminate boy (it, too, started with an uneasy parent-teacher conference). But I suppose it makes sense that young playwrights still in the write-what-you-know mode might focus on the parent-child dynamic.

The overlay of race in Luce—Amy and Peter are white, Luce and Harriet are black—adds a fresh spin on the subject and should add tension to the plot but Lee and director May Adrales skirt around that subject, settling instead on the more audience-friendly issue of how well any parent can truly know a child (click here to read a piece about their approach to the play). But their reluctance to wrestle with the culture clash saps energy from what might have been a more revealing look at the longstanding nature vs. nurture debate.

Luckily, the performances—all five of them, including Luce’s erstwhile girlfriend—keep it compelling. Okieriete Onaodowan is an ideal Luce. The actor imbues the character with an easy charisma that makes it clear why people, particularly his mother, are so charmed by Luce. But Onaodowan also uses his physicality—he’s a large and imposing guy—to suggest an underlying menace in Luce.  He keeps the audience guessing.

Marin Hinkle is equally impressive as Amy, who doesn’t want to accept the idea of any fault in her son, in no small part because she believes doing so would be an acknowledgment of her own failure as a mother.

The play refuses to provide easy answers and over a post-show dinner at PJ Clarke’s, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I continue to chew on the questions it had raised.  Luce may not be a great show but we got more than our money’s worth.