March 21, 2015

The Hi's and Lo's of Four Recent Shows

The umpteenth snowstorm of the year and yet another fresh coat of snow on the ground make it hard to believe that spring officially arrived yesterday. But the New York theater season has been in full bloom for weeks. And it’s been warming to see that so many of the shows have been written by women and feature actors of color in leading roles, as opposed to the supporting parts they’re so often given. Here is a summary of the highlights and lowlights of four of those productions:

THE LIQUID PLAIN. The place is a port town on the coast of Rhode Island and the time is the late 18th and early 19 centuries in Naomi Wallace’s drama about two runaway slaves hoping to make their way back to Africa. Their accomplices are a motley crew of seaman, including a dashing black ship’s captain who goes by the name of Liverpool Joe. Their quest bumps up against such 21st century issues as same-sex marriage and the meaning of white privilege. The play, which is running at Signature Theatre’s The Griffin stage through March 29, is clearly well intentioned but it's also unfocused. 
Highlight: Still it’s great to see a white playwright wrestling with such issues and Kristolyn Lloyd and Ito Aghayere are heartbreaking as the runaways, as are Tara A. Nicolas and Lisa Gay Hamilton as the avatars of their past and future.
Lowlight: The play is stuffed with so many ideas (the ghost of the British poet and abolitionist William Blake even makes a cameo appearance) that the central story gets lost. 

THE MYSTERY OF LOVE & SEX. Everyone has secrets in Bathsheba Doran’s meditation on the ties that bind us to one another. Lucinda and Howard are an affluent middle-aged couple who have fallen into a routine life that fully satisfies neither of them. Their college-age daughter Charlotte and the love of her life Jonny are trying to figure out the life they want to share, which is complicated by race (he’s black) and sexuality (she’s recently developed a crush on another girl; he’s still a virgin). Doran’s resolutions in this production at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater through April 26 are messy, just like life.
Highlight: Tony Shalhoub, always a treasure to see onstage, provides both hilarity and heart as Howard, a man who knowingly uses his arrogance to mask his inadequacies. And Diane Lane, too long absent from the New York boards, is poignant as a woman who realizes too late that she has given up too much for love.
Lowlight: The plot meanders a bit as Doran repeats her points and Jonny strays awfully close to being one of those Magical Negro characters whose primary role is to help white people figure out how to embrace their lives instead of just leading his own.

PLACEBO. Two separate stories unfold in Melissa James Gibson’s wry and brainy romcom at Playwrights Horizons through April 5.  In one, a female graduate student supervises a scientific study of a drug that is supposed to boost the libido of women with sexual arousal problems. In the other, she tries to buck up her boyfriend, a Ph.D. candidate in the classics who is struggling to complete his dissertation on Pliny the Younger.
Highlight: No mention is ever made of the fact that the graduate student is white and her boyfriend black, which allows them to be just people instead of political stand-ins. Carrie Coon, such a marvel in the 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and William Jackson Harper, a powerhouse in The Total Bent, Stu’s follow-up to Passing Strange, make their characters believably human.
Lowlight: Yet the strands of the play never really come together and it never becomes clear what it is that Gibson is ultimately trying to say.

THE WORLD OF EXTEME HAPPINESS: It will come as no surprise that the title is ironic for Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s drama about the life of Chinese factory workers. The play, which is running at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center stage through March 29, tracks the life of a woman named Sunny from her unwanted birth in a rural China that only prizes boy babies through her fateful decision 20 years later to challenge the rules at the factory where she spends endless hours cleaning bathrooms to earn money to pay school fees for the younger brother she loves above all else.
Highlight: Asian-American actors get even fewer chances to strut their stuff than African-American actors do so it’s really great to see talented vets like Francis Jue and James Saito showing what they can do in multiple roles and even more rewarding to see Jennifer Lim turn in such a lovely performance, particularly in the show’s final scenes, as Sunny.
Lowlight: Cowhig is so eager to make her case about the problems in China that she forgets that she’s writing a play.

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