September 28, 2016

Slave Narratives: "Underground Railroad Game" and "Nat Turner in Jerusalem"

It may be hard to remember now but many people believed that Barack Obama's presidency would take the country into a post-racial era, where, as Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed, people would be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." 

But as the last few years of police killings of black men (and even the political rise of Donald Trump) have made clear the country still has a long way to go when it comes to race. So it's no surprise that the last few years have seen an explosion of works seeking to look at the issue of American race relations by going all the way back to the source of the problem: slavery. 

We've had the movies "12 Years a Slave" and "Django Unchained;" the TV series "Underground" and "Roots," the latter harder-edged than the 1977 original; and books, with the publication just this summer of Yaa Gyasi's "Homecoming," Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" and Ben Winters' "Underground Airlines."

Now, this week, two shows on that theme have opened off-Broadway. The first is Underground Railroad Game, a satire created by and starring Jennifer Kidwell, who is black, and Scott Sheppard, who is white, as two-grade school teachers who have their students re-enact slavery.

People are raving about this show, which is currently scheduled to play at Ars Nova only through Oct. 15 and I don't know if I'll get to it before it closes but you can read more about it by clicking here and you can listen to what the very smart folks at the Maxamoo podcast have to say about it by clicking here.

The other show is New York Theatre Workshop's production of Nat Turner in Jerusalem, a lyrical reimagining of the night before the execution of Turner, the Virginia slave preacher who lead a failed uprising in 1831 and who is also the subject of the new movie "The Birth of a Nation" that is scheduled to open next week.

I've seen the NYTW production, which features a powerful performance by Phillip James Brannon as Turner, but I usually stand down on posting full reviews of shows that I've written about elsewhere. And this time I got the chance to interview Nat Turner's young playwright Nathan Alan Davis for TDF Stages. I hope you'll give our conversation a read, which you can do by clicking here. 

And, of course, I hope that all the conversations these works engender will begin to make things better.

September 24, 2016

"Aubergine" Only Partially Satisfies

Aubergine is both a fancy name for eggplant and the title of Julia Cho's new play, now running at Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 2. The company has been touting it as a savory stew of love and loss, family and food. Some critics and—based on social mediamany regular theatergoers have been eating it up.

The play's main character is a thirtysomething Korean-American chef named Ray, played disarmingly  by Tim Kang with just the right mix of cultivated confidence and earnest insecurity that so often marks second generation immigrants, particularly those who believe they've disappointed their parents.

Its narrative, such as it is, centers around the approaching death of Ray's father, who lies unconscious and attended by Ray, a hospice nurse Ray has hired to help care for his dad, the dying man's long-estranged brother from Korea and Ray's kind-of ex-girlfriend.

Throughout the vigil, they all muse, sometimes in long soliloquies, about meals that have played significant roles in their lives. And, in a gesture of reconciliation with his dad, Ray attempts to prepare a simple soup that has mystical meaning for his father's family.

There are lovely things in this production directed by Kate Whoriskey, including Derek McLane's elegant origami-style set that opens and closes to create different locations and the video projections that provide translations when Korean is spoken (click here for the director's take on the production). But I wasn't as taken with the show as much as some others, including my theatergoing buddy Bill.

Cho seems to have been inspired by the death of her own dad and so I feel a bit cold-hearted saying this but Aubergine's Proustian allusions to the memories food evokes, the connections it reinforces didn't seem all that fresh to me. And some of the magical realism Cho added seemed a bit forced.

But it was great to see so many Asian-American actors onstage, particularly in a story that wasn't defined solely by their ethnicity but rather reflected the humanity we all share: everybody eats, everybody's parents die.

It's also great to see this show being done by Playwrights Horizons. Companies such as the Ma-Yi Theater Company, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and NAATCO (The National Asian American Theater Company) have long provided a haven for Asian-American artists but they largely fall outside the mainstream for most non-Asian theatergoers.

I'm ashamed to say I can't remember the last time I've been to any of their productions. And so even though this play didn't fully satisfy me, I'm grateful that it was made so easily available for me to taste.

September 21, 2016

"The Wolves" Champions Female Ambitions

Besides Claire Boothe Luce's catty comedy The Women, Euripides' breast-clawing tragedy The Trojan Women, the feminist cri de coeurs of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enough and Jaclyn Backhaus' recent and slyly named Men on Boats, there are few plays that feature full-bodied roles for an all-female ensemble.

And that's a large part of the reason I'm so crazy about The Wolves, the new non-gender titled play written by the gifted young playwright Sarah DeLappe and directed by the gifted young director Lila Neugebauer for a Playwrights Realm production running at The Duke theater on 42nd Street.

But I've got other reasons for cheering The Wolves too. For starters, the play is about nine members of a girls' soccer team and it's refreshing to see the portrayal of a group of young women bonding over common (and non-romantic) goals: to get to their sport's nationals, to get athletic scholarships and to figure out where they fit in the larger world.

A couple of dramatic offstage events are invoked to help give the narrative some shape but the main action takes place on a playing field, where the girls, primarily high school seniors, go through stretching routines, choreographed with deceptive simplicity by Neugebauer (who actually captained her high school's varsity team) and talk about everything from their periods to their parents to the Pol Pot regime (click here to read about the rehearsal process).

And although there's the usual bickering and casual one-upmanship that's common in any group, there's very little of the bitchiness (although the b-word is used) that so many fictional works seem to believe define female relationships.

Plus, the acting is all-out terrific. The characters are identified only by their jersey numbers but over the course of just 90 minutes, the dialog, the direction and the performances work together to make each a distinctive and recognizable individual.

It can sometimes come off as awkward when actors in their 20s portray younger characters but these actors don't condescend to their roles by pushing too hard. Kudos to the casting director for coming up with such a pitch-perfect ensemble.

There is no main protagonist. Each player, in both senses of the word, moves effortlessly back and forth between holding center court and providing supportive backup for her teammates. I don't think I've seen any of the young actresses playing them before but now I'm eager to see all of them again.

There was one moment toward the end that baffled me slightly but the only thing I don't like about this splendid production is the fact that its extension only lasts until Sept. 29, which limits the number of people who can see it.

September 17, 2016

My Usual Idiosyncratic Fall Theater Preview

Maybe we're all still suffering from a Hamilton hangover but excitement about the upcoming theater season seems more muted than it has in past years. Still, the new shows are beginning to open and like every other theater lover, I've begun drawing up a list of the ones I don't want to miss.

What I've discovered as I read through the press releases and fall previews is that it's not so much the descriptions of the new productions or even the names of the actors who are starring in them that have piqued my interest this year. Instead, it's all about the playwrights for me.

So here are five new shows by writers whose previous works have amused, inspired, infuriated or otherwise grabbed me by the throat in the way that good theater should and whose new works I can hardly wait to see:

All the Ways to Say I Love You by NEIL LABUTE. Few playwrights are more prolific than
LaBute or more divisive for the people who see his work. I can run hot or cold on LaBute but I'm never bored by him. In plays like Fat Pig, The Shape of Things and Reasons to be Pretty, he's pitted men and women against each other but this time out he's written a solo show about an ostensibly happily married woman and I'm curious to discover the secrets the promotional materials promise she'll reveal. Upping the ante is the fact that the woman is being played by the always-incredible Judith Light, who has won two Tonys and one Outer Critics Circle Award in just the past four years. The MCC production is scheduled to open at the Lucile Lortel Theater on Sept. 29.

The Harvest by SAMUEL D. HUNTER. Even though theater grew out of religious rituals, contemporary theater has all but abandoned the subject of religion. But not Hunter. The issue of faith crawls into nearly all of his plays, including The Whale and the recent The Healing, about a group of disabled people emotionally scarred by the childhood summers they spent at a Christian Science camp where they were told they would be cured if they prayed hard enough. This new one, which will have its world premiere at LCT3 on Oct. 24, is set in a small evangelical church in Hunter's native Idaho and centers around a young missionary who is grieving the recent loss of his father and preparing for a fateful trip to the Middle East. Hunter, the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, has a knack for larding even the most sober subjects with humor and I'm more than ready to return to his amen corner. 

Love, Love, Love by MIKE BARTLETT. It's hard to believe that the same guy wrote King Charles III, a verse play that imagines the future reign of Britain's current Prince of Wales; and Cock, a plain-spoken three-character drama about a man torn between romantic relationships with a man a woman. And yet both, each an Olivier Award winner, bear Bartlett's distinctive intelligence and commitment to a heightened theatricality that I find thrilling. So I'm really looking forward to his take on the 40-year relationship of a baby boomer couple, from their meeting during the summer of love in 1967 to the present day. It's scheduled to open at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre on Oct. 19.

Sell/Buy/Date by SARAH JONES.  Twelve years have passed since Jones' breakthrough show Bridge & Tunnel was a sold-out sensation when it played down at the Bleecker Street Theatre and later won Jones a special Tony when it moved to Broadway. I was knocked out by that multi-character solo show in which she assumed the accents and identities of people of all ages, genders and ethnicities. Since then, she's become an outspoken opponent of violence against children, even becoming a special ambassador for UNICEF and so I'm intrigued by the prospect of her new show which is inspired by the lives of women and girls affected by the sex trade and opens at Manhattan Theatre Club on Oct. 18.

Sweat by LYNN NOTTAGE. The last time Nottage immersed herself in a subject, it lead to Ruined, her Pulitzer Prize-winning play about women ravaged by the civil wars in the Congo. Now, she has focused on ravages closer to home: the gutting of America's industrial sector and the good-paying jobs it offered. Nottage spent two years interviewing people in Reading, Penn, the poorest city in the country, and then filtered the stories she heard through her prodigious imagination to create a chronicle of where we are now that has already played as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's cycle of American history plays and opens at the Public Theater on Nov. 3. The timing, so close to the presidential election, makes this even more of a must-see.

September 10, 2016

Why "A Day by the Sea" is a Washout for Me

In the old days, plays were expected to be well made and largely about people who well mannered and well off. But in the years after World War II the working class playwrights known as the Angry Young Men blew that kind of theater right out of the water. Among those thrown overboard were the previously popular British playwrights Terence Rattigan and N.C. Hunter. 

Salvage operations on Rattigan's reputation began in the late 1990s and continues to this day with revivals on both sides of the Atlantic of The Winslow Boy, Separate Tables and The Deep Blue Sea, which is enjoying an acclaimed new production at London's National Theatre that is scheduled to be simulcast next month.

And now the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in neglected works, is trying to do the same thing for Hunter with a revival of A Day by the Sea, which was extended this week at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row through Oct. 23.

Originally produced in 1953 with a cast that included Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, and John Gielgud, A Day by the Sea focuses on the mid-life crises of Julian Anson, a midlevel Foreign Service officer whose career is foundering, and Frances Farrar, a divorcee with two young children, who was taken in by Julian's family after her parents died and who has secretly loved him since they were in their teens. 

Both are visiting the comfortable seaside home where Julian's widowed mother lives with her elderly brother-in-law, an alcoholic doctor who is supposed to be tending to the old man, and a few unseen servants. Hunter was unabashed in his reverence for Chekhov and everyone in the play, including the children's governess, seems to be in mourning for the life they cannot have.

They grieve over three acts and two intermissions and, under Austin Pendleton’s stately direction (click here to read more about his approach), they do it in the period-appropriate fashion that has charmed most of the critics. Although not me.

I'll grant that Hunter makes some gimlet-eyed observations about the choices people make in their lives and the courage necessary to take responsibility for those choices. And his play doesn't go to predictable places. But this production seems to me to just skim the surface of Hunter's melancholic truths.

The cast is wildly uneven. The only ones to capture the full pathos of the situations that Hunter has created are the 83-year-old George Morfogen, a veteran of classic plays for nearly six decades, as the ailing brother-in-law and Polly McKie as the governess grasping at a last chance for happiness.

The production also struck me as chintzy. The Mint has long operated on a tight budget but has often created marvelous sets. This one makes do with a few chairs and an awkward swing. Although set designer Charles Morgan does get some redeeming points for the clever idea of marking changes in the setting by substituting scene-appropriate images in a picture frame that dominates the back of the stage.

I also miss the Mint's old home. It was a cramped, musty space on the third floor of an office building but its lobby was always filled with books and other reference materials that provided background for each production. Browsing through them always made me feel as though I were part of the effort to give a forgotten play its due. But, as you can tell, I felt totally left out this time.

September 3, 2016

A Labor Day Salute to Blue Collar Broadway

Even though the theater world slows down in summer, the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day is my favorite time of the year. And this year, I kicked back and was even lazier than usual (although when I did venture out, I saw some delightful stuff, including Indecent, Hadestown, Small Mouth Sounds, Men on Boats). But Monday is Labor Day, which means the pace of things is about to pick back up and the fall theater season will soon be swinging into full gear.

But before it does, I want to take a little time out for my annual salute to some of the people who work hard to make the theater that folks like you and me love. And this time I want to salute some people who seldom get any recognition: the seamstresses, wigmakers, set builders, pit musicians and legions of others who make up the unglamorous but vital ranks of what you might call Blue Collar Broadway.

In fact, I recently read a book of that exact same title by Timothy R. White, a professor who specializes in urban history. He notes that nearly all of Broadway used to be a blue-collar world with few of the people who worked in the business getting rich—or expecting to. The payoff was being part of the exciting world that centered around the warren of midtown streets housing not only theaters but the shops that supplied all their needs.

Theaters across the country and the actors who performed in them got their sets and costumes from these New York shops that, in the process, helped to create a vibrant industry. Piggybacking onto the growing labor movement in the late 1890s, these craftsmen also organized and turned their jobs into true professions and the productions they serviced into first-class entertainments.

White’s book recounts how the scene painters were among the first to organize as the International Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers and how they and their brethren secured safe conditions and good-paying jobs for their members. 

But the book also chronicles how the unions lost power as the midtown shops were pushed out to make way for big building complexes like Rockefeller Center and how the regional theaters that sprang up after World War II created their own (largely non-unionized) scene and costume shops.

But one of the unions that has retained a strong voice is the Actors' Equity Association. It didn't get started until 1913 but it's remained in the vanguard of progressive activities ever since, marching for Civil Rights and raising money to fight the AIDS crisis. 

This past week, under the direction of its young and dynamic president Kate Shindle, a former Miss America, it issued its first-ever endorsement in a presidential campaign and gave its support to Hillary Clinton.

But the main activity for all the unions, from the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 to the Theatrical Wardrobe Union Local 764, has been to support the people who labor hard to make the magic we see onstage and on this Labor Day, I hope you'll join me in expressing our solidarity with them—and our gratitude for all that they do.