March 29, 2017

Acts of Violence and Meditations on Grief in "When It's You" and "On the Exhale"

Mass shootings are now so commonplace that they've spawned a whole subgenre of theater. Over the past decade I've seen The Columbine Project and The Library, both based on the 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school;The Amish Project about the slaughter of five girls in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse in 2006; The Events, inspired by the 2011 massacre of 77 people at a summer camp in Norway; plus every office worker's nightmare Gloria. And just this past week, I added two more entries to this list of requiems: When It's You and On the Exhale.

Any show that takes on this topic has to walk a narrow line, paying homage to the pain the real-life tragedies caused without exploiting them and attempting to provided insight into the incomprehensible. The Keen Company's production of When It's You, which is playing at the Clurman Theatre in Theatre Row through April 8, fails to meet both tests.

A one-woman show, written by Courtney Baron, a member of Keen's development program for playwrights (click here to read an interview with her) and directed by Keen's artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, it purports to look at one of these incidents through the eyes of a 37-year-old woman named Ginnifer who long ago dated the man who shoots 10 people in a parking lot.

Instead, the show is actually a solipsistic monologue about a woman who can't get her own life together. "I'm not here to talk about Jason Hanley," she tells the audience. And she means it.

The play attempts to add some tension by having her say that everyone keeps asking her about Jason. But Ginnifer's agonizing over what she might have done to prevent the killings seems like a neurotic attempt to push her way into the spotlight that surrounds the traumatic event.

Even that might have made a good story about the obsession society has with fame of any ilk but Baron undercuts it with ramblings about Ginnefer's dying mother and her inability to find love or have a family of her own.

The character actress Ana Reeder does what she can with the part but it's thin gruel and the 70 minutes it took for her to get through it seemed endless.

On the Exhale, running in the Roundabout Theatre Company's tiny Black Box Theatre through April 2, is a one-woman show too but it ties its character directly to a tragedy that evokes the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which 20 first-graders were killed in 2014. The effect is far more powerful.

Playwright Martín Zimmerman's unnamed protagonist is a college professor and a single mom whose son was conceived by artificial insemination and is the center of her world. The 60-minute play tracks the stages of her grief when he is killed in a school shooting (click here to listen to an interview with the author).

As she ricochets from seeking comfort by lobbying with other grieving parents for gun control to seeking revenge by learning how to shoot herself, the play reminded me of "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion's marvelous book and play about the near surreal year she had after the loss of her husband.

The mother in On the Exhale is played by the brilliant Marin Ireland, who, under Leigh Silverman's delicate direction, has never been better. Which is saying a lot for an actress who has brought intelligence and immediacy to roles ranging from the insulted girlfriend in Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty to a scene-stealing domestic terrorist in TV's "Homeland" (click here to read an interview with the actress).

Standing on a bare stage sensitively lit by Jen Shriever and speaking directly to the audience, Ireland so persuasively conveys the mother's grief that there were moments when I literally shook with the sorrow and the rage that having a beloved so savagely ripped away would arouse.

It's not that I didn't know intellectually what the horror of such an experience might be but On the Exhale made me feel it, which is what good theater should do.

March 25, 2017

Introducing B&Me's new Tony Talk Podcast

If you read Broadway & Me, then you know how much I love theater. What you may not know is that I also love podcasts and so I've decided to combine the two because this is shaping up to be the most exciting Broadway season in years. In past seasons, I've written about the contests for the Tonys on this blog and collected stories about the contenders on my Tony Talk magazine on Flipboard (click here to read it) but now I'm dying to actually talk about it.

So I've asked a few of my theater-loving friends to join me in a series of Tony Talk podcasts between now and the awarding of the prizes on June 11. We're going to chew over everything from the hottest competitions and the smartest Tony campaigns to who gives the best speeches and wears the fiercest outfits on Tony night.

I hope you'll join us (and chime in with comments). I'll post new episodes here but you can also find, subscribe to and download them on SoundCloud (click here for that). But right now, you can listen to our first episode on what my friends Chris Caggiano of and my theatergoing buddy Bill Tynan think will be the hottest categories by clicking the orange button below:

March 22, 2017

"X, or Betty Shabazz v. the Nation" is a Compelling Requiem for a Complex Man

People have been telling me I should see a Marcus Gardley play for years now. But I somehow missed his breakout play The House that Will Not Stand and all the subsequent ones. Until this past weekend. And now having seen his X, or Betty Shabazz v. the Nation, which is playing at The New Victory Theatre only until March 25, I can see what the fuss is all about.

Gardley's meditation on the life and death of the black activist Malcolm X is set in an imagined purgatory in which Malcolm's widow Betty Shabazz appeals to a high court to determine who killed her husband, who was infamously gunned down in front of her and three of their six young daughters while he was giving a speech in February 1965.

All the major landmarks in Malcolm's story are recounted—his conversion to the Nation of Islam while he was in prison for burglary, his emergence as the black nationalist sect's most charismatic spokesman, his eventual falling out with its leaders, his embrace of traditional Islam and adoption of a new name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and the previous attempts on his life (click here to read more about him and the making of the show).

A few other fabricated events have been thrown in as well, such as the fantasy that Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr., who like Malcolm would be assassinated at the age of 39, had regular secret meetings about how they could work together to advance the cause of full rights for African Americans. If only.

The three gunmen who killed Malcolm were all identified as members of the Nation of Islam. But who gave the order for the assassination remains a mystery, with the likely suspects including the sect's leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm's primary rival and the group's current leader Louis Farrakhan and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

But the play, which The Acting Company is running in repertory with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, clearly means to indict the larger society for allowing it to happen. Still, Gardley investigates all the options, leaving the final verdict up to each viewer.

At heart, though, Gardley is a poet and as my friend Essie, herself a poet, noted, the play is filled with gorgeous soliloquies. It also has singing, stepping (the synchronized style of dance practiced by black fraternities and sororities) and, surprisingly, lots of humor too.

The acting, under Ian Belknap's robust direction, is across-the-board superb. Several of the actors even bear a physical resemblance to the characters they're playing. Jimonn Cole is darker than Malcolm was but captures his focused intensity.

The dynamic Jonathan David not only looks like Farrakhan but also emanates the unctuousness I remember when I once interviewed Farrakhan. It makes perfect sense that David also plays the similarly wily Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.

Malcolm's story has been told before, most famously in the autobiography he co-wrote with Alex Haley and in the 1992 Spike Lee movie that starred Denzel Washington. But it still resonates. As Essie and I made our way out of the theater, I saw a young woman sitting stunned in her chair and wiping away tears. This production, like Malcolm, deserves a longer life.

March 18, 2017

Feminism is a Lost Cause in "Linda"

Being a woman today can be tough (just ask Hillary Clinton). But it isn't as Job-like tough as Penelope Skinner makes it out to be in the play Linda, which is running through April 2 at Manhattan Theatre Club.

The title character is a 55-year-old female marketing exec who has worked her way up to the top ranks of her firm, while raising two daughters and supporting her beta-male husband, a school teacher who moonlights with a rock band.

Over the course of the two-act play, Linda is challenged at work by a younger woman and at home by the emotional angst of her two daughters and the prospect that her husband might be cheating on her. In the midst of it all, she also comes home and cooks dinner most nights.

In short, the play is designed to appeal to MTC's audience of baby boom women, many of whom have encountered similar problems of their own. When Linda tells her husband that she doesn't want him to cook because she doesn't feel like having to clean up the mess he always makes it got a big knowing laugh at the performance I attended.

And yet, Skinner sacrifices real drama or fresh insights by simply checking off a list of the ways in which ambitious women can be thwarted: sexual harassment at work, cyberbullying in school, or even, as in the case of Linda's teen daughter, being relegated to one of the few female roles in the school Shakespeare festival instead of getting a crack at one of the meatier male parts reserved only for her boy classmates.

It might have been more satisfying if Skinner had focused on the problems of Linda's eldest daughter Alice who has retreated from the world after an angry boyfriend put up some nude photos of her online and her classmates slut-shamed her so aggressively that, now 10 years later, she still hasn't recovered.

Or it might have been interesting if the play had explored the effect all of that had on the now-grown mean girl who lead the cyber bulling. Instead that woman is now portrayed as almost a cartoon villain. 

I pitied the actress who had to play her but the other characters don't come off much better, reduced to spouting platitudes and position points instead of really talking to one another.

More successful is Walt Spangler's revolving set which (kudos to the busy and silent stagehands) morphs as the turntable revolves into a series of impressively different rooms, ranging from Linda's designer kitchen to her boss' sleek office.

I wished the play itself had been as streamlined because the Olivier Award-winning actress Janie Dee is fantastic as Linda (click here to watch a video interview with the actress).

Even when the script doesn't give her much to work with, Dee digs deep and her taut body nearly quivers with the years of rage that Linda has had to repress in order to make her life work. 

And it's great to see Jennifer Ikeda, so sassy and high energy in Qui Nguyen's romantic comedy Vietgone, getting the chance to show different colors as the morose Alice (click here to read an interview with her).

But overall, this isn't Manhattan Theatre Club at its best.  It isn't that great for the cause of feminism either.

March 15, 2017

"All the Fine Boys" is Fine Enough

You may have to be a young woman in your late teens or early 20s to truly appreciate All The Fine Boys, the new play that The New Group is running in the tiny Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 26. At least that's how it seemed to me as I sat next to two twentysomethings who laughed, sighed and totally leaned into this cautionary tale about two girls on the cusp on young womanhood and their first encounters with love and sex.

Set in the late '80s before every kid had a smartphone and internet access, All the Fine Boys centers on besties Jenny and Emily, 14-year-olds just entering high school. Bored and anxious, they try to distract themselves by watching horror movies, gossiping about mutual frenemies and imagining the things they might do with guys. Then they meet two.

Emily, a newcomer to their South Carolina suburb, falls for Adam, a worldly senior who starred in the high school play, spiels off intellectual aphorisms and boasts about his affair with an older woman. Jenny, the more forward of the two, makes a play for Joseph, a man at her church who is twice her age but seemingly interested in her too.

The play, written and directed by Erica Schmidt, tracks both relationships and attempts to give equal time to each but while Isabelle Fuhrman and Alex Wolff are convincingly sweet in Emily's story, Jenny's quickly becomes the more compelling.

That's in part because the stakes for Jenny are higher as she runs away from home to be with Joseph. But it's also because Jenny is played by Abigail Breslin, who at 10 was nominated for her performance as the would-be title character in the 2006 movie "Little Miss Sunshine" and has now grown up to be a not-quite-the-ingénue type.

Zaftig and evoking the throaty voice and feral quality of a young Ellen Barkin, Breslin gives a fearless, vanity-free performance. Jenny is more of a little girl than she let's on and, although now 20, Breslin deftly captures the insecurity of the child racing to catch up to her woman's body.

She's evenly matched by Joe Tippett, one of my favorite actors, who creates genuine sympathy for a man who could easily have been portrayed as the clichéd villain of the piece for carrying on with a minor. But Tippett show us that while Jenny is eager to appear grown-up, Joseph is just as desperate to roll back the years to a time when his life was less complicated.

It's true, as other reviewers have said that the subject matter isn't new (in fact, this is the second sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile I've seen in just the last month). And although Schmidt has a nice way with dialog, her play is clunky in parts. Still, the performances make All the Fine Boys just fine enough. The young women next to me were wiping away tears by the end.

March 11, 2017

Meditations on Death: "Everybody," Wakey, Wakey" and "Evening at the Talk House"

Grief is strange. We deal with the loss of someone we love as best we can but sometimes, even months later, the lingering sorrow continues to inform the choices we make. 

I don't know if all the shows now running at Signature Theatre's Pershing Square Center were written or scheduled before or after Signature's founding artistic director James Houghton succumbed to a yearlong battle against stomach cancer last August, but Everybody, Wakey, Wakey and Evening at the Talk House seem to reflect a state of mourning and together compose a requiem for a fallen and much beloved leader.

Each play grieves in its own way. Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' adaptation of the 15th century morality play Everyman, uses humor and meta-theatrics to dull the pain of the loss. As in the original, Death arrives to carry off the title character but agrees to wait until he can find a companion who will accompany Everybody into the afterlife and vouch for him on Judgment Day.

The problem is that no one—allegorical characters representing friends, family, the things he's acquired—wants to go, forcing Everybody (and the rest of us) to reconsider the choices made and the priorities set during a lifetime.

Jacobs-Jenkins and his terrific director Lila Neugebauer heighten the universality of it all by staging a lottery each night that determines which members of the cast will play the central and supporting roles. The actors are as diverse as they could make them—black, white, Asian, Hispanic, old, young, short, tall, chubby, svelte, male and female. You know, everybody.

It's an incredible challenge for the actors to play different parts each night (click here to read about how they do it) but they pulled it off with such aplomb when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show that we couldn't imagine anyone other than the wonderful Lakisha Michelle May as Everybody.

It's a 600-year-old spoiler to say that our protagonist eventually finds a companion in the good deeds he has done throughout his life. Jacobs-Jenkins tweaks that ending a bit and the result can be interpreted as both a loving farewell to the departed and a cautionary reminder for those of us still on this side of the grave.

Will Eno has acknowledged the connection between Houghton's death and his play Wakey, Wakey (click here to read what he had to say). And he takes a characteristically philosophical and esoteric approach in this meditation on death. His play, which he also directed, opens with a man lying prone on the ground as a voice-over, presumably expressing the thoughts in the man's mind, says "Is this it? I thought I had more time."

For the next 75 minutes, the man, identified in the Playbill as Guy (another variation on Everyman?) sits in a wheelchair and reviews random moments from his life as its end inexorably approaches. Some of the moments play out in projections on a big screen. Others are related in the monologues Guy addresses to the audience.

Michael Emerson does a fine job conveying the mixture of apprehension, bewilderment and remorse Guy is experiencing. Bill, and many others in our audience, was totally moved by his textured performance.

But the moments dragged for me and confirmed my suspicion that (after having seen five of his plays) I'm just not an Eno gal. So little so that I skipped the cake and punch, deliberate nods to the traditional funeral repast and the current fascination with immersive theater, that awaited us as we walked out of the theater auditorium.

Evening at the Talk House isn't actually a Signature production but comes from The New Group, a frequent tenant at its Pershing Square Center home. And death isn't this 90-minute play's central theme but its author Wallace Shawn has set Evening at the Talk House in a dystopian future in which art is under assault and the grieving is for theater itself.

It opens as a group of former colleagues gather at one of their old hangouts for a reunion several years after they worked on the final theater production in the country. They reminisce about the good old days and eventually begin to confess about the compromises they've made to survive in the hollow present.

It's a Wally Shawn play and so it's a talky play but under Scott Elliott's solid direction, an expert cast brings it almost to life (click here for a group interview with them). It's hard to single any one actor out of an ensemble that includes Claudia Sher, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry and the author himself but I do have to give an extra hand to Matthew Broderick.

Playing against type as a bitter former theater director who has found a refuge in doing what sounds like a tacky TV series, Broderick shakes off the lethargy that dragged down so many of his post-The Producers performances.

Shawn isn't given to idle sentimentality. But like the other two plays, his makes the case that the best legacy any of us can leave behind is that we tried to make the world a better place.

March 8, 2017

"The Skin of Our Teeth" is Wacky—but Wise

Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth premiered in 1942, just 10 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. into World War II. Clearly tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment, Wilder's mediation on humankind's ability to survive upheavals from prehistoric times to the then-present ran for 359 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

But no subsequent New York production has lasted even a month; the 1975 Broadway revival barely made a week and people tend to shake their heads mournfully whenever anyone mentions the Public Theater's 1998 incarnation at Central Park's Delacorte Theater. 

Still, the show has its partisans, including my theatergoing buddy Bill, who played the lead in his high school production and pushed for us to see the ambitious Theater for A New Audience revival that's running at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn through March 19.

What we saw was as wacky as Wilder intended it to be. The play famously follows the travails of the Antrobus family (their name is a play on the Greek word for human) which includes father George, mother Maggie, their two children Henry and Gladys and the family's cheeky maid Sabina.

George's success as the inventor of such marvels as the wheel and the alphabet has allowed them to live in a comfortable home in New Jersey but as the plays opens, the Ice Age has begun and the family has to decide whether to give shelter to the increasing number of refugees who are showing up at their door and seeking to escape the cold.

In Act 2, a fortune teller predicts a great flood and watches as the Antrobus clan and a procession of animals seek refuge in an ark-style boat. The final act finds the family members struggling to survive a war that has ravaged their home and relationships.

It's all presented in a meta-theatrical package in which the fourth wall is broken when Sabina talks to the audience and comments on the action. Meanwhile, evoking Thornton's earlier and more accessible Our Town, a stage manager character occasionally interrupts the proceedings with instructions and announcements.

Director Arin Arbus commits totally to the play's deliberate absurdities and adds a few innovations of her own, updating the play's pop culture references and underscoring Wilder's point that the Antrobuses represent all of us by casting actors of differing ethnicities to play the family members.

Stage vet David Rasche, who's white, lends his customary authority to George and the stage-commanding Kecia Lewis, who's black, plays Maggie, while the children are played by Kimber Monroe and Reynaldo Piniella.

Mary Wiseman, a recent Juilliard graduate who calls to mind the delightful zaniness of the young Faith Prince, gives a breakout performance as Sabina, the role that won Tallulah Bankhead a New York Drama Critics Award when she originated it.

Backing up those main characters is a 30-member ensemble who play the Ice Age refugees, the war exiles and the Noah's Ark animals. All of them, including a couple of dinosaurs, are wittily costumed by Cait O'Connor, fill Riccardo Hernandez's origami-style set and perform Sonya Tayeh's incidental choreography.

Arbus also commissioned composer César Alvarez to write three songs for the production, including a we're-all-in-this-together choral number sung by the entire cast.

In short, there's a lot going on. Some of it overwhelms the storyline (I preferred the quiet moments like the one between father and son in Act 3). But, like its characters, Wilder's play is resilient and its belief that humanity has survived all kinds of challenges in the past and so will be able to get through bad times again manages to shine through.

Some folks, including Bill, were moved by that message, finding it particularly relevant in our own uncertain times. As for me, I just hope that Wilder's optimistic outlook still holds.

March 4, 2017

"Bull in a China Shop" Marks a Breakthrough

Bull in a China Shop is a flawed play and yet I want to commend LCT3 for putting it on. For this is just the kind of show that a theater devoted to nurturing new artists should be doing. The production marks the professional debut of Bryna Turner, a clearly talented young playwright who deserves this chance to see her work up on its feet so that her next time out she can make something even better.

The titular bull in her current play is Mary Woolley, who served as president of Mount Holyoke College from 1900 to 1937 and transformed the place from a finishing school for rich girls into a top academic institution that rivaled the best men's colleges.

The play is based on Woolley's letters with Jeannette Marks, an English professor and the love of her life for 55 years. It tracks the ups and downs of their relationship (although refreshingly, neither has any angst about being gay,) their struggles to improve the college and their roles in the feminist movement and the battle to get women the right to vote.

It's all fascinating stuff. But it's also too much. Bull in a China Shop might have worked better if, instead of trying to squeeze the full arc of Woolley's life into 90 minutes, Turner had followed the current trend in biopics like "Jackie" and "Snowden" and focused on a particular moment in Woolley's life that revealed the essence of who this remarkable woman was.

Turner attempts to patch over the weak spots by making the women's attitudes contemporary and their language colloquial but that ends up relying too heavily on a barrage of f-bombs. 

Other shows have taken a similar approach, including last year's wonderful Men on Boats (click here for my review of that) but they found ways to make those actions flow naturally from their characters. Here, it seems imposed on them: women like Woolley and Marks might have cursed when truly vexed but I doubt it would have been their habitual style of speaking.

And although the women wear historically appropriate outfits (beautifully designed by Oana Botez) director Lee Sunday Evans has also taken a contemporary approach with the staging (click here to read about themaking of this production).

Characters break the fourth wall. Actors of color, including Ruibo Qian who plays Marks, are anachronistically cast as professors and students at Mount Holyoke. Qian and Enid Graham, the white actress who makes a commanding Woolley, strip off their corsets for intimate lovemaking scenes.

Most of the action unfolds in a sparsely-furnished unit set that designer Arnulfo Maldonado has decorated with a floral-print wallpaper, whose pattern I'm assuming is significant although you may need a women's studies degree to fully understand what it signifies.

But don't let my quibbles put you off from seeing Bull in a China Shop. Stories that showcase the lives of women, especially gay women, still rarely get told onstage. And, despite her play's flaws, Turner's commitment to telling them should be encouraged. 

Besides, I suspect that at some future date you'll be glad for the bragging rights of having seen her first professional production.

March 1, 2017

Why "If I Forget" is So Memorable

In some ways, the family in Steven Levenson's new play If I Forget will be familiar to just about anyone who has a family. There's the bossy big sister and her henpecked husband, the adored son and his eager-to-please wife and the passive-aggressive sibling who keeps reminding everyone how much she's sacrificed her own life to take care of mom and dad as they decline.

But the Fischers, the family in Levenson's drama, are Jewish which gives them a distinctive personality and a specific burden. The play opens in July 2000, a few days after the Camp David peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians have broken down. The ongoing debate over where American Jews should stand plays out in the contrasting attitudes of the family patriarch Lou and the favored son Michael.

As a young man, Lou helped to liberate Dachau at the end of World War II and the horrors he saw there forged his visceral connection to the state of Israel. Meanwhile Michael, a Jewish studies professor up for tenure, has written a book reprimanding Jews for defining themselves in terms of the Holocaust and for their unconditional support of the Israeli government.

But the one thing all the Fischers seem to revere is the store Lou and his recently deceased wife ran until the riots of the Sixties caused them to lease the shop to an Hispanic family who have turned it into a dollar store.

The modest rent they pay is now Lou's primary source of income. He hopes to leave the store to his grandchildren but a series of unfortunate events puts that legacy at risk.

If I Forget, which is running at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 30, shares a subject (how American Jews should define themselves) and a sensibility (smart and witty) with Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews, which played at the same theater three years ago. But Levenson, who also wrote the book for Dear Evan Hansen, still manages to tell a compelling story.

That's in part because he has an ear for the way regular people speak to one another. There are laughs galore as the siblings banter and bicker back and forth. 

But it's also because Levenson has the ability to talk about complex issues without sounding preachy. The conversation in which Lou and Michael exchange their views on the Holocaust not only brought half the audience to tears at the matinee I attended but might serve as a model for civil discourse.

Levenson does throw too much into the plot with subsidiary storylines dealing with eating disorders, internet scams, interracial affairs and academic politics. But the stellar cast director Dan Sullivan has assembled, and skillfully directs, makes it all go down easy.

Larry Bryggman is heartbreaking as Lou, Kate Walsh is a hoot as the ball-breaking eldest sister Holly and Maria Dizzia hits all the right buttons as the self-sacrificing Sharon. But the standout is Jeremy Shamos, who as he so often does, creates sympathy for a guy cursed with emotional myopia.

They all make it clear that underneath the disagreements and the rivalries, the Fischers love one another. Despite their ups and downs, they're a functional family. And If I Forget is both functional and enjoyable.