May 21, 2022

"Belfast Girls" Updates the History Play

The girls aren’t what they’re expected to be in Belfast Girls, the new show that opened at the Irish Rep this week. They also aren’t what we’ve come to expect to find in historical dramas like this one set in 1850 during the Irish famine in which about a million people starved to death and twice as many fled the country in search of a better life elsewhere. 

And the unexpected makeup of these characters in a history play is precisely what I so admired about this engaging drama by the British playwright Jaki McCarrick. 

 A 2012 finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize that honors female-identifying playwrights, Belfast Girls is inspired by the real-life program in which some 4,000 Irish women volunteered to be shipped to Australia, where they hoped to find husbands among its then-majority male population or to support themselves as servants (click here to read more about it).  

The volunteers were supposed to be teenagers and “morally pure.” But many were considerably older and more than a few had worked as prostitutes. McCarrick’s play imagines the voyage for five of those women who share a steerage cabin during the then-three-month long journey. 

Her women are strangers to one another at first but each has experienced the hardships of the potato famine and each has secrets she’s reluctant to reveal but that, no surprise, will come out over the course of the play as shifting alliances and dangerous rivalries develop among them. It’s the kind of costume drama in which the Brits excel. 

But McCarrick adds some twists. One of the women is Jamaican, the child of a free black woman and a white settler, who ended up in Ireland. Two of the women fall in love. None of that should be remarkable but these kinds of stories seldom get told in these kinds of plays. And they’re particularly welcomed at a time when theater is vowing to be more inclusive.  

I’ve seen lots of shows struggle with that. Many fall back on colorblind casting or making a supporting character gay. But McCarrick has realized that she doesn’t need to shoehorn people of color or queer people into history because they were there all along. Instead she simply weaves these storylines into her overall narrative, and does so without any pat-me-on-the-back fanfare.

The result is a fresh look at a period that has been viewed primarily through the eyes of straight, white men. Of course, none of this would matter if the storytelling were poor. But McCarrick has crafted a crackerjack tale filled with romance, suspense and ruminations on class struggle via references to Marx and Engels. 

Aided by a terrific cast (there’s not a ringer in the bunch) director Nicola Murphy hits all the script’s emotional beats. And the creative team is onboard too. Particular shout-outs go to Chika Shimizu for her eye-catching set, China Lee for the smartly detailed costumes and Caroline Eng for the evocative sound design. 

Some theatergoers have griped about the accents the actors adopt (a common complaint for Irish Rep shows) and, to be honest, a few people left during intermission at the performance I saw. But stay if you go—and you should—because Belfast Girls offers the kind of all-embracing and thoroughly satisfying look at history that theater really needs right now. 


May 14, 2022

Celebrating Even Making it to Awards Season

It may seem strange for a theater lover—and hip-hop know-nothing—like me to be quoting the rapper Drake but his self-congratulatory lyrics “Started from the bottom, now we're here” seem particularly apt at this theatrical moment. After all, concerns about the spread of the coronavirus had closed theaters everywhere at this time last year but now, we're here, in the awards phase celebrating a full New York theater season. 

Of course, there have been bumps along the way. Broadway shows opened and closed and opened again as infection rates in the city ebbed, surged, wavered. Performances were canceled when stars like Hugh Jackman, Patti LuPone, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig tested positive for the virus. But, thanks to having been vaccinated, they all returned relatively quickly to their productions, even though the Tonys had to extend their deadline so that nominators would be able to see all the shows and all the contending performers. 

Meanwhile, tourists, the lifeblood of Broadway, have been slow to return and the city’s official marketing organization is predicting that visitors to New York will be down about 15% from the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. And even some locals have been skittish about seeing shows, including those off-Broadway. 

All of that has caused premature closings, even of touted shows. The much-praised revival of Nzotake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf announced that it would close next week, three months ahead of schedule, before an online campaign won it a two-week reprieve until June 5. The musical Mrs. Doubtfire is unlikely to be so lucky; after getting just one Tony nomination (for Rob McClure's terrific lead performance) its producers said they will bring down the curtain on May 29.  

On the other hand, people seem happy to pay premium prices to see Jackman in The Music Man, Craig in Macbeth, Parker and her also-starry husband Matthew Broderick in Plaza Suite and Beanie Feldstein headlining Broadway’s first revival of Funny Girl in 55 years, even though those four shows have drawn mixed reviews. 

So the awards this year will have been particularly hard won and may be even more cherished than usual. The Tony nominators tacitly acknowledged that this week when they gave nods to 29 of the 34 shows that opened between Aug. 1, 2021 and May 4, 2022. Even Diana, the much-derided musical about the late princess that ran for just 34 performance, got a nod for its costumes. 

But the biggest bragging rights went to the musical A Strange Loop, which lead the pack with 11 nominations although it was closely followed with 10 each by Paradise Square and MJ, the musical about Michael Jackson. On the play side, The Lehman Trilogy boasted eight nominations, including one for each of its three actors. All the winners will be announced at the ceremony scheduled for June 12. You can find—and debate—the entire list of nominees by clicking here.

Of course the Tonys aren’t the only honors that will be given out over the next few weeks. It can be difficult to keep score because the various awards groups have different qualifying periods. On Monday the Pulitzer Prize committee, which uses a calendar year and recognized A Strange Loop in 2021, gave its award to Fat Ham, a new twist on the Hamlet story by James Ijames that was streamed by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater last year and just started previews for a May 26 opening at The Public Theater. You can read more about it and about the two semi-finalists by clicking here.

A couple of days later the New York Drama Critics’ Circle gave its Best Play prize to Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God, a fantastic play that opened last week at Playwrights Horizons (click here to see my review). It also named Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his 2003 play with a score by Jeanine Tesori, as Best Musical (click here for my thoughts on that one). The musical, which had a brief run at the Atlantic Theatre, is scheduled to open on Broadway in November and you can see the impressive list of runners-up for best play by clicking here.  

There’s even more to come. The Drama Desk, which recognizes Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions, was supposed to announce its nominations on May 2 but pushed them back to this coming Monday.  A day later, the Outer Critics Circle, on whose executive committee I’m proud to serve, will announce our winners for the 2021-2022 season. In the meantime, you can check out the list of our nominees by clicking here.

And this Sunday, I’m going to join my BroadwayRadio colleagues James Marino, Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere to discuss all of this and more on this week’s episode of This Week on Broadway, which you should be able to find here.

May 7, 2022

In Praise of "A Case for the Existence of God"

Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God has been almost universally adored by the critics. And the play, which has just been extended at Signature Theatre through May 22, deserves that praise. It’s a beautifully written piece, beautifully directed by David Cromer and beautifully performed by the actors Will Brill and Kyle Beltran

I’ve also been impressed with the many ways in which it speaks to the people who see it. One critic, recently a new father, was moved by the play’s loving portrayal of contemporary fatherhood. Another was taken by its sensitive depiction of male friendship. 

I appreciated all that too but what made A Case for the Existence of God so special to me were its insights into the feelings of alienation that have so divided this country. 

In some ways, you might call Hunter a bard of MAGA country (click here to read an inter view with him). It’s not that he’s an advocate for Fox News watchers but in play after play, Hunter has displayed an empathy for the white working class—be it the cashiers at a Hobby Lobby store in his 2010 breakout play A Bright New Boise, the wait staff in a chain restaurant like the characters in 2014’s Pocatello or the displaced miners in 2019’s Greater Clements.

These are the folks who feel as though the America their parents knew and that they expected to inherit is disappearing and that the world is leaving them behind. Paying heed to those fears and showing those people that they still have a place in our more diverse society might have made them less susceptible to troublemaking extremists in 2016 and on Jan. 6, 2021—and might yet make a difference in this year's important midterm elections. 

Like all of Hunter’s plays, A Case for the Existence of God takes place in the playwright’s native Idaho. The specific setting this time is Twin Falls, a real city with a population of about 50,000 people, but the symbolism of its name shouldn’t be overlooked. The play’s two characters are Keith, a black mortgage broker; and Ryan, a white first-time buyer. Both are in free fall when we meet them.  

Keith, who is college-educated and has a dual degree in Early Music and English, is gay and acutely aware of living in a place where black people are in a distinct minority. Ryan, who only made it through high school and works the line at a yogurt plant, is straight and desperately wants to buy some land that his ancestors originally homesteaded but that his family lost over the years.

You can almost see the banners of blue-state elite and red-state yokel waving over their heads. But Hunter doesn’t deal in polemics, even when making room for his characters to complain about their circumstances. 

Although brought up in the comfort of a middle-class family, Keith still bears the emotional scars of being bullied for his race and sexuality by Ryan and his friends when they were in high school. The child of addicts, Ryan feels that he drew the shorter end of the stick. "I’m sure it was hard for you, growing up in this town, I’m sure it’s still hard to live in this town," he tells Keith. "But you know what else is hard?! Being in this town and being dirt fucking poor!"

But Hunter's plays work because he refuses to allow his characters to be identified solely by their grievances and instead digs deep into the specifics that reveal the humanity beneath their issues. Here it's that both Keith and Ryan are fathers. Keith is trying to adopt the little girl he’s been foster parenting since she was an infant. The recently-divorced Ryan is fighting for joint custody of his daughter. 

Despite their differences, the men bond over their love for their children and the loneliness they both feel in a country that seems to save its best stuff for people who aren't them. “I think we share a specific kind of sadness,” Ryan tells Keith.

Although the actors never leave the cramped space of Keith's office, the narrative moves forward over several weeks (shout-out to the invaluable lighting design by Tyler Micoleau) as their characters struggle to negotiate the financial and governmental bureaucracies that will determine their fates. 

I’m obviously not going to spoil the outcome for you.  But I will say that Hunter doesn’t just show empathy, he prescribes it. I think that what he's saying is that the only way we’re going to get out of our current political morass is to accept the ways in which people on all sides fail, to acknowledge and attempt to ease the pains each of us suffers and to join in celebrating the things we all cherish.  

The saying goes that the devil is in the details, but in this play, the case for the hope that God represents is quietly but effectively made in the interstices between its lines. And that's what makes this such a work of wonder.