March 16, 2016

Highlights and Lowlights of Five Intriguing Shows: "Body of an American," "Smokefall," "Nice Fish," "Boy," and "Sense & Sensibility"

March Madness is the term used to describe this time of the year when college basketball teams compete for their national championship. But for me, it means the time when the spring theater season kicks into overdrive. This year it's been further complicated by the obligations that have kept me from posting for the last couple of weeks. But I've still managed to see shows and here is one of my highlights and lowlights looks at some of what I've been seeing, listed in order of how much time you have to catch up with them before they close.

THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN: Dan O'Brien's meta memoir about his relationship with the photojournalist Paul Watson was the co-winner of the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History three years ago (it shared the honor with All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's play about the first months of LBJ's presidency) and I've been dying for it to come to New York. Now it has in a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre playing through March 20 but, alas, I can't say I found it worth the wait.

Highlight: One of my favorite actors Michael Cumpsty brings his trademark blend of sensitivity and integrity to the role of Watson, who is haunted by having taken the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.

Lowlight: The 90-minute two-hander devotes so much of its energy to showy techniques like jumping back and forth in time and having both actors (Michael Crane portrays O'Brien) play other characters and sometimes exchange their main roles as well, that, despite director Jo Bonney's best efforts, the show ultimately failed to make me care about the connection between the men.

SMOKEFALL: A line from a T.S. Eliot poem inspired the title of this absurdist family drama that MCC Theater has extended at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through March 20. And in many ways it is just as maddeningly mystifying as the poet could be—but nowhere near as deep.

Highlight: It's great to see that despite all his movie and TV work, Zachary Quinto continues to make time for the stage. Here he nimbly takes on several characters, including one named Footnote, who narrates the action; and another named Fetus Two, whom we meet in the show's best scene, dressed as a vaudevillian and trading one-liners with his twin (the equally delightful Brian Hutchison) about whether it's worth it for them to leave the womb.

Lowlight: The grim daily lives and poor choices that playwright Noah Haidle has given four generations of this family, including a mute girl named Beauty who literally eats garbage, strains for the profundity of Our Town but ends up in the shallow end of the pool.

NICE FISH: Most of us first became aware of the poet Louis Jenkins when we learned that the whimsical things Mark Rylance was saying during his Tony acceptance speeches were actually lines from the Minnesota poet's work. Now Rylance, who grew up in the Great Lakes region while his British parents were teaching school there, has collaborated with Jenkins and Rylance's wife-director Claire van Kampen to convert some of Jenkins' poems into this surprisingly charming play about two friends who go ice fishing and the other sad-sacks they encounter. It's running at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn through March 27 and you should get your butt out there to see it (two friends of mine actually made the trip up from Virginia to do that and went home totally satisfied).

Highlight:  Rylance, of course. If I hadn't seen his Tony-winning turn as Olivia in Twelfth Night and his Oscar-winning turn as a Russian agent in "Bridge of Spies," I would have thought that Rylance had devoted his entire career to honing the superb comedic chops he displays here. The rest of the cast ain't bad either and special kudos have to go to Todd Rosenthal for the wittiest set design I've seen in a long time,

Lowlight:  I'm going to have to be really picky to find one. But here goes:  Jenkins is listed as playing one of the characters and he didn't do it the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show. But the understudy Raye Birk was so damn good that we didn't mind one bit.

BOY: The old nature versus nurture debate is put to the test when parents make the decision to raise the titular character as a girl following a botched circumcision in this based-on-a-true story drama that Keen Company is presenting in The Clurman theater at Theater Row through April 9.

Highlight: Without makeup or costume changes, Bobby Steggert glides back and forth between genders and ages, all the while quietly conveying the anguish that the title character is experiencing. It's a lovely performance.

Lowlight: Playwright Anna Ziegler has experience with scientific subjects and Linsay Firman directs with unaffected sensitivity but the play, which was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's initiative to advance an understanding of science through the arts, is unable to shake the earnestness of an after-school special, which undermines some of its dramatic impact.

SENSE & SENSIBILITY: Nearly everyone I know loves Jane Austen (and it's not just them judging by all the movie adaptations of her novels). I don't usually count myself among the Austen lovers but the Bedlam theater company's delightfully inventive production of her first published novel about love among the 18th century English gentry that is now playing at The Gym at Judson through April 17 may make a convert out of me.

Highlight: I'd never seen the Bedlam company before but now their playful and yet utterly serious approach to their work makes me want to see their versions of practically everything. The entire 10-member cast is terrific and yet first among equals in this production, adapted by Kate Hamill and directed by artistic director Eric Tucker, were Andrus Nichols as the most responsible of the husband-seeking Dashwood sisters and Jason O'Connell as the object of her desire. I want to see them in whatever they want to do.

Lowlight: None worth mentioning.

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