June 22, 2024

In Concert with "Titanic" and "Follies"


As the most devoted fans of musicals will tell you, the best way to appreciate a musical is probably to listen to its cast album (click here to check out my BroadwayRadio colleague Michael Portantiere’s site “Cast Album Reviews”). 
It’s often easier to hear the lyrics and the melodic references on a recording than it is while watching a show live in the theater. Plus you can enjoy the score as many times as you want without having to pay a fortune. 

The second best way may be to attend a concert version of a show. Stripping away the sets, costumes and choreography—and more recently, the video projections—can make it easier to engage with the music, particularly when it’s performed by brilliant singers. 

Attending both the Encores! production of Titanic that is finishing up its two-week run at City Center this weekend and Follies in Concert, the one-night event at Carnegie Hall this past Thursday, reminded me of just how big a treat a concert version of a musical can be—and also suggested how they might provide a solution to some of the problems now plaguing the revivals of old shows.

Putting on a terrific concert, complete with the gratifying sound of a full 30-piece orchestra, was the original concept of the Encores! series, which is now in its 30th year of showcasing seldom-revived shows. Those productions have become more elaborate over the years but director Anne Kauffman’s current staging of Titanic reverts back to the series’ roots. 

There are costumes in this Titanic and a hint of a set but Kauffman keeps the focus solidly on Maury Yeston’s glorious score. And that’s a good thing because book writer Peter Stone crowded so many storylines into his telling of the infamous 1912 ship sinking that it's hard to connect with most of the characters. 

Yeston’s songs fill in what the dialog fails to get across. Solos offer glimpses into the lives that will eventually be lost. And the big choral anthems, whose stirring orchestrations won Jonathan Tunick a Tony back in 1997, convey the hubristic optimism everyone aboard felt about the maiden voyage of the ship they believed indestructible.  

As usual, the playing by the Encores! orchestra, once again conducted by Rob Berman, is a pleasure unto itself. And also as usual, the cast is filled with major talents even in some of the smallest roles (yes, that’s Adam Chanler-Berat as one of the ship’s officers and Lilli Cooper as a third-class passenger) all of them singing the hell out of the material they’ve been given.

There was similar hell-raising at Carnegie Hall, where another star-studded cast performed the songs from Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 homage to the musical revues of the vaudeville era. 

The event, which also served as a fundraiser for the Transport Group—the company’s artistic director Jack Cummings III directed the production—was a true concert, with the performers taking on songs instead of roles and appearing in their own clothes (part of the fun was seeing who wore what). 

Ted Chapin, the author of “Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies,” and Kurt Peterson, one of the show’s original cast members, served as emcees, chiming in with behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the original production and setting the scene for each musical number.  

The folks in the sold-out audience had clearly heard the stories before and needed no context for this cult favorite but cheered them anyway.  And they went crazy for the performances, even when the orchestra, under the baton of Joey Chancey, sometimes threatened to overpower the singers.  

Although not all of them. Norm Lewis and Nikki Renée Daniels were commandingly magnificent in the poignant duet “Too Many Mornings” and Jennifer Holliday’s rendition of “I’m Still Here" brought the crowd to its feet.

And that’s another benefit of these concerts: they provide an opportunity for performers who wouldn’t have had the chance to take on such roles back in the day to do them now without having to, say, justify why a black woman could have been a leading showgirl in the all-white chorus lines of the 1920s. Or, in the case of Titanic, how an African-American got to captain the ship as Chuck Cooper does in this current production. 

Instead, they can just sing and we can just enjoy.


June 15, 2024

My Nostalgic Trip Back to "Home"

It can be hard to recapture the magic of the first time you saw a show.  And the first times I saw Samm-Art Williams’ Home were nearly perfect. The Negro Ensemble Company was in its heyday when it debuted this fable about a black southerner named Cephus Miles who loses the woman he loves, the land he loves and seemingly his very soul. It ran for 78 performances at the St. Mark’s Playhouse and then moved to Broadway's Cort Theatre a few months later, where it ran for another 287 performances and picked up a Tony nomination for the Best Play of 1980.  

One of my best friends worked for the NEC back then and so I saw the play in both venues and was enchanted each time by the way it spoke so directly to what I and my friends were thinking and feeling in those confusing years following the previous decade’s highs (the passage of the Civil Rights acts) and lows (the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.). And so as I watched the revival that is now playing at the Roundabout Theatre’s Todd Haimes Theatre, I couldn’t help wondering whether it was possible—to paraphrasie the words of the old saying—to go Home again. 

This new production, directed by Kenny Leon, echoes much of what I first loved, from the simplicity of the set, centered around a rocking chair on a raised platform; to the casting of a first-rate trio of actors to play Cephus and the other people who flow through his life (this time out they’re wonderfully realized by Tory Kittles as Cephus {click here to read a little more about him} and Stori Ayers and Brittany Inge as everyone else). 

And of course the play still has the simultaneously down-home and highly poetic dialog that Williams based on the language of the people he knew growing up in Burgaw, North Carolina, where his mother taught English and drama in the small town’s segregated high school for black students.

The tales Cephus tells about his friends and neighbors in direct address to the audience don’t really advance the plot but they were for me the most delightful part of the show and its true heart, a tribute to all the good things my grandparents left behind when they, like legions of others, fled the South to escape the evils of Jim Crow. And so I was really disappointed by Leon’s decision to have Kittles’ Cephus fast talk his way through those parts of the play.  

I wanted to savor that dialog and those stories. But, although it pains me to say it, Leon may have been right because several of the reviewers expressed an impatience with those early sections and a decided preference for the later parts that detail Cephus’ time in prison and his descent into drug addiction and homelessness when he goes north.

All of that now strikes me as a bit melodramatic. And similarly, Cephus’ belief that returning to the south is the way to solve the problems that black people face now seems naïve as southern states pass all kinds of legislation that will make life more difficult for their black residents. 

And yet, by the time Home’s ending rolled around, I had succumbed once again to the old-fashioned pleasures of the play—and to its defiant optimism. I just wish that Williams, who died at the age of 78 back home in Burgaw a few days before the first preview, had been able to savor its return too. 

Still I’m grateful all over again that the NEC was around back in the day to nurture playwrights like Williams and Charles Fuller, author of the prizewinning A Soldier’s Play (click here to listen to more about that one on my podcast about Pulitzer Prize-winners) and allowing them to tell the stories they wanted to tell instead of the ones that others might think they should have told.

 


June 8, 2024

Following a Paper Trail to this Year's Tonys


We’re in the homestretch now, with just a week to go before next Sunday’s Tony Awards. And it's a particularly exciting time because there are virtually no sure winners this year and even the so-called frontrunners can feel the competition breathing down their necks. 

And so, from the day the nominations were announced on April 30, the contenders have been campaigning like crazy, popping up on the morning shows and the late night shows, doing podcasts and TikTok videos. Attending precursor awards events. And giving interviews for a zillion stories, including for some publications that don’t usually pay much attention to Broadway. 

It's hard to keep up with all of it but below are some of the pieces about the shows in the leading categories that I've been enjoying while counting down the days to the big event and that I hope some of you might enjoy too:

 

BEST NEW PLAY

Jaja’s African Hair Braiding:'You Can Bank on Black Stories': Director Whitney White on the Success of Jaja's African Hair Braiding” Playbill 

Mary Jane: “Rachel McAdams on starring in Mary Jane and her favorite Broadway tradition” TimeOut

Mother Play: “Paula Vogel, Tina Landau, and the Room That Made ‘Mother Play’” American Theatre magazine

Prayer for the French Republic: “How Broadway's 'Late Bloomer', Betsy Aidem, Became a Tony Nominee” Broadway World

Stereophonic: "The Cast of Broadway Hit Stereophonic Are Having the Ride of Their Lives” Vanity Fair


BEST NEW MUSICAL

Hell’s Kitchen: “Alicia Keys Talks 'Cathartic' Experience of Watching Her Life Story in Broadway’s Hell’s Kitchen” People magazine 

Illinoise: “How Broadway’s ‘Illinoise’ Used Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 Album to Create a ‘Silent Film’ Told Through Dance” Variety

The Outsiders: ‘"The Outsiders’: anatomy of a rumble” Broadway News

Suffs: “In 'Suffs,' Shaina Taub Fights For Women's Rights. On Broadway, She's Smashing Barriers” Huffington Post 

Water for Elephants: “Jessica Stone Brings The Big Top To Broadway In ‘Water For Elephants’” Forbes


BEST PLAY REVIVAL

Appropriate: "Sarah Paulson Dares to Play the People You Love to Hate” The New York Times

Purlie Victorious: "Plays still matter to the health of Broadway’: Leslie Odom Jr. on ‘Purlie Victorious’” The Los Angeles Times


BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Cabaret: "How ‘Cabaret’ became Broadway’s hottest ticket — and most divisive show” The Washington Post

Merrily We Roll Along: "Jonathan Groff Rolls Merrily Back” The New Yorker

The Who’s Tommy: "Q&A: Director Des McAnuff Talks ‘The Who’s Tommy on Broadway’ Revival and the Power of the Message" RockCellar

 And if you want even more Tony-related stories, check out my Flipboard magazine "Tony Talk," which you can find here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


May 25, 2024

Bar Hopping with "The Keep Going Songs," "The Lonely Few" and "Three Houses"


All of a sudden everybody doing a musical in this brand new 2024-25 season seems to be bellying up to a bar. Already this month, I’ve seen three shows—The Keep Going Songs, The Lonely Few and Three Houses—where the theater itself has been transformed into a drinking establishment of some kind. 

I suppose it’s an attempt to be immersive, to jump on the bandwagon that has proven so tractive for big shows like the current revival of Cabaret with its pre-show bar scenes spread all over the August Wilson Theatre or the hip production of An Enemy of the People, which sets up an onstage bar during intermission and serves audience members free shots of Aquavit. 

Gauging by their box office numbers, those shows—helped of course by the presence of big name and Tony-nominated stars, Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret and Jeremy Strong in Enemy of the People—have audiences swooning. But the intoxication levels of the smaller and more recently opened off-Broadway shows vary greatly, or at least here's how they did for me:

THE KEEP GOING SONGS: The husband-and-wife duo known as The Bengsons have taken up residence at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater thru May 26.  As usual, the couple’s show draws from their life: this time, it’s their attempt to work through their specific grief over the death of Abigail’s brother Peter from cancer at just 55 and their larger grief over the environmental fate of the planet (click here to read more about the show’s genesis). 

Set designer Cate McCrea has created a playing space for these lamentations that turns the Tow into a nightclub including a half dozen or so café tables surrounding the stage, where Shaun plays a gaggle of instruments ranging from a guitar to a trumpet and Abigail works an onstage soundboard that adds background vocals and other sounds. At various points, one or the other of them leaves the stage to engage with the audience. Some members are even handed small cups of Guinness Stout, which we’re told was brother Peter’s favorite drink. 

The Bengsons have a devoted following and so there were hoots and hollers of approval after each of their folk-rock numbers in what is essentially a 90-minute concert. But I found the show to be less involving than some of their previous ones (my fave is Hundred Days in which they recounted how they met, fell hard for one another, dumped the people they were with and got married in that titular short period of time). 

This show may suffer by comparison because the Bengsons worked on those earlier ones with collaborators like the talented playwright Sarah Gancher or the savvy director Anne Kauffman. But this time, they’ve done the book themselves and are working with a comparatively inexperienced director. The result is a loosey-goosey show that rambles far more than it should, undermining both the power of their appealing songs and the messages of comfort and caution they’re attempting to convey.

THE LONELY FEW MCC Theater has transformed its Newman Mills space into a honky-tonk bar, with tables onstage, a few cozy-looking easy chairs in the space separating the orchestra seats from those in the mezzanine area and cheap Christmas bulbs lighting up the whole place. It’s a fitting setting for this story about a woman named Lila who has a day job in her small Kentucky town’s supermarket but headlines a rock band known as The Lonely Few which plays on weekends at a local spot called Paul’s Juke Joint. 

Lila and her bandmates get a chance at the big time when Paul’s singer-songwriting stepdaughter Amy drops by and announces that she needs an opening act to go on tour with her. The plot kicks off when the women fall for one another but then discover that they have different priorities.  

The show, which is running through June 9, has a book by playwright Rachel Bonds and a score by the up-and-coming composer-lyricist  Zoe Sarnak (click here to read more about her). But while it may be great to have a show with a female-dominated creative team and a queer-centered love story, Bonds and Sarnak don’t seem to know what do with their story.

So they load it up with a bunch of subplots—an alcoholic brother for Lila, an estranged mother for Amy, a pregnant wife for Lila’s bandmate and best friend Dylan—but they don’t do much with those subplots either. Obstacles appear and then disappear with no rhyme or reason.

The music is equally problematic. Every character gets a solo whether it advances the plot or not. Meanwhile, the rock numbers are self-consciously loud (ushers actually offer ear plugs when you enter the theater). And the sound quality was so poor that I also missed most of the lyrics in the quieter ballads.

This is all a shame because there are some terrific performers in this cast, including Lauren Patten as Lila, Taylor Iman Jones as Amy and Damon Daunno as Dylan. Patten is particularly impressive, demonstrating throughout why she deserved to win that Tony for her burn-down-the-house rendition of Alanis Morrissette's “You Oughta Know” in Jagged Little Pill.

But even this show’s set stumbles. The folks at those tables onstage have to turn around and crane their necks if they want to see the scenes taking place in the home that Lila and her brother share because set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has placed that space above the stage. 

All these missteps surprised me because The Lonely Few was directed by Trip Cullman, who has done such surefooted work on other shows including last season’s revival of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which just won the Best Revival award from the Outer Critics Circle. 

Here, however, Cullman is co-directing with Ellenore Scott, all of whose previous credits seem to be for choreography.  There isn’t much dancing in The Lonely Few so I’m not sure why they were paired in what turns out to be a pretty wobbly production.

THREE HOUSES: The bar in Dave Malloy’s latest musical sits centerstage in Signature Theater’s Romulus Linney Theater and the audience are cast as patrons at an open-mic night in which a bartender named Wolf serves as M.C. and three storytellers take turns sharing the details of how they made it through the early lockdown phase of the pandemic. 

One (Margo Siebert) found refuge in a family home in Latvia, another (Mia Pak) fled to New Mexico and the third (J.D. Mollison) hunkered down in a small Brooklyn apartment. All three were newly out of romantic relationships, which intensified their loneliness. Each gets about 30 minutes to perform a confessional aria about what they did to fill that time—sorting through old keepsakes, playing videogames, shopping online, drinking

The ghosts of long-dead grandparents pop-up in each installment and Malloy's frequent collaborator director Annie Tippe adds puppets, both of which lend a surreal feel to these stories. Plus there are some overt references to the fairy tales The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, whose meaning escaped me.

Once again the performances are all quite fine. But your enjoyment of this show, which is now running through June 16, will depend on how you feel about Malloy’s music. Personally, I'm mixed. I kept the cast album of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 on repeat for months when it came out a decade ago but I could barely make it through 2019's Octet (although I’m an outlier on that a cappella production, which many people I respect really love).  

There are beautiful moments in Three Houses but overall, Malloy’s music here struck me as more like the underscoring for a moody indie film or the background music at a high-end spa. My mind kept drifting off and I kept having to drag it back to focus on what was going on. In the end, I found the show to be a downer that left me just wanting to go out and get a real drink.


May 4, 2024

A Few Thoughts on an Awards Season Full of News-Worthy and Prize-Worthy Nominations

We’re officially in awards season.  The Outer Critics Circle, on whose nominating committee I sit, announced its choices for the best in the 2023-2024 season last week (click here to see our nominations for shows both on and off Broadway).  And then this week came nominations from the Drama Desk, which celebrate shows on, off and off-off Broadway (click here for its choices) and the Chita Rivera Award nominations for the best in theatrical dance (click here for those nods).  And then, of course, came the Tony Award nominations (click here to see those).

Still to come are the Drama Critics Circle Awards, which will be announced on May 13 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which is scheduled to be announced on May 8.

But even with all those chances, some worthy contenders always get left out. And that was even more the case this year because there were so many shows13 opening in the last two weeks of the season aloneso many of them boasted award-worthy elements and so many of them featured big casts with lots of talented performances. Which made it all the more difficult to put out a slate of just five to seven names in any category. 

It delighted me when some of my personal favorites got recognized (yay, Mother Play) and made me a little sad when some didn’t (Michael Imperioli really should have been in the mix for his turn in An Enemy of the People). But what I focused on more is what these combined nominations tell us about the current state of Broadway, which is searching for a new identity in this post-pandemic era.

Most attention tends to center around the prizes for musicals because (1) that’s what so many theatergoers think of when they think of a Broadway show and (2) musicals are so damned hard to get right. So I'm going to focus this post on them too. And it makes extra sense to do that because last season saw an influx of new voices and talents into that arena.

More award-winning playwrights than ever are writing the books for musicals. Kristoffer Diaz, a one-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wrote the book for Hell’s Kitchen, the musical drawn from the songbook of Alicia Keyes and inspired by the singer-songwriter’s coming of age in the ‘90s in the New York City neighborhood that gives the show its title. 

Another former Pulitzer finalist Craig Lucas collaborated with composer Adam Guettel on Days of Wine and Roses, the story of a couple (gloriously played by Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara) whose lives are ruined by alcoholism. 

Meanwhile yet another Pulitzer finalist, Adam Rapp adapted The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s now-classic 1967 novel about rival teen gangs divided along social class lines.  

And Jackie Sibblies Drury, who actually won the Pulitzer in 2019 for her audacious play Fairview, created the narrative storyline for Justin Peck’s all-dance show Illinoise, which was inspired by and set to the music of Sufjan Stevens.

But Stevens’ music wasn’t the only score to redefine what a Broadway show now sounds like. Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson created the pop-rock score for The Notebook; the folk-rock duo Jamestown Revival collaborated with Justin Levine on the music for The Outsiders and the collective of musicians known as the Pigpen Company did the score for Water for Elephants.  

However perhaps most surprisingly, Will Butler, a former member of the indie band Arcade Fire, wrote the songs for Stereophonic, David Adjmi’s play about a rock band working through both artistic and personal issues as it records its sophomore album. 

Shaina Taub’s score for Suffs, a show about the feminist campaign to get women the right to vote, is a bit more traditional but it's attention worthy too because Taub is one of just a handful of women ever to have written the book, score and lyrics for a Broadway show.

Women also broke out in other ways last season. Four of the five Tony nominations for Best Director of a Musical deservedly went to women: Maria Friedman for Merrily We Roll Along, Leigh Silverman for Suffs, Jessica Stone for Water for Elephants and Danya Taymor for The Outsiders.  

All of these writers, composers and directors picked up OCC or Drama Desk nominations too. As did their shows.  And because there is no obvious frontrunner for the Best Musical this year, watching as the nominees and their producers jockey for the top prizes could make this awards season one of the most fun and exciting in recent memory.

Update: Although above the post said the Pulitzer Prize for Drama would be announced on May 8, it was announced on May 6 (and you might think I would have known better since I had the honor of chairing this year's jury; click here for info about the runners-up and the other jury members). The prize went to Eboni Booth's Primary Trust (click here to listen to an interview I did with Booth when the show ran at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre last year).


April 27, 2024

"Mother Play" is a Work of True Compassion

After seeing Mother Play, Paula Vogel’s semi-autobiographical three-hander which opened at the Hayes Theater on the very last day of the 2023-2024 theater season, my friends and I went next door to Sardi’s for a post-show dinner. While we waited for our drinks to arrive, I went to the ladies room. And when I came out of my stall, I found a woman standing in the middle of the room, her eyes brimming with tears. With no prompting from me, she explained that she was still reeling from having just seen “the most remarkable play.” And, of course, that play turned out to be Mother Play

Now as regular readers will know, I am a longstanding Paula Vogel stan but I suspect that even those of you who might be new to her work will, like the woman in the Sardi’s restroom, find yourselves deeply moved by this play.  And that will be especially so if, like Vogel and me, you’re a member of the Baby Boom generation and was raised by one of those mothers who felt thwarted in those days before women’s liberation took root and so poured her ambitions—and her anger—into her children.

The full title of the play is Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions and it tracks four decades of ejections and rejections in the relationships between Phyllis, a single mother whose husband left her for another woman, and her children Carl and Martha. And as this memory play opens, a middle-aged Martha looks back at the day when the three of them—Phyllis then 37, Carl 13 and she 11—moved into a dingy basement apartment in a D.C. suburb that they could only afford if they took on the building’s janitorial duties.  

Carl, who shares a name with Vogel’s real-life brother who died of AIDS in 1988, is one of those sensitive boys who reads serious literature, listens to classical music and yearns to live in someplace like New York or Paris. Martha, a stand-in for the playwright, is socially inept and just trying to avoid the school bullies who make fun of her. But the main preoccupation for both siblings is Phyllis, which also happens to be the name of Vogel’s mother.

Phyllis is furious about the hand that life has dealt her and she deals with it by guzzling gin, chain smoking and criticizing her kids. The latter intensifies when both of them later come out as gay.  “Was it too much to ask for one normal child? “ she rages.

Tina Landau’s deft direction balances the pathos of the family’s interactions with the humor they employ to survive them. The set and video projections also provide some clever moments of levity. But it’s the performances that drove the show home for me and each of the actors—Jessica Lange as Phyllis (click here to read an interview with her) Jim Parsons as Carl and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha—is superb. 

Several critics have compared Mother Play to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: a memory play with an absent father, overbearing mother, sensitive son, awkward daughter. But while Glass Menagerie may be the greater play, Mother Play is the more compassionate one.

In his playand throughout the rest of his lifeWilliams struggles to forgive himself for leaving his mother and sister behind. Vogel's play holds onto her anger toward a mother who emotionally abandoned her and her beloved brother but it also tells those of us still trying to understand mothers who were overtly or covertly ambivalent about motherhood that simply acknowledging the past might be the best way to move on from it.





April 23, 2024

HAPPY SHAKESPEARE DAY


The Bard was born 460 years ago today—and died exactly 52 years later in 1616. But of course his works live on even though debates about whether or not he actually wrote them do too (click here to read the latest). I confess that in the past I've declared moratoriums on seeing his work but I keep coming back (my theatergoing buddy Bill and I are scheduled to see a simulcast of Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth next week). So Happy Birthday Will!

April 20, 2024

Their Wobbly Books Cause "Lempicka" and "Suffs" to Stumble More Than They Should


What’s the hardest job in show business?  There are obviously lots of contenders but right now as one musical after another is opening on Broadway, I’ve been thinking that the answer to that question might be writing the book of a musical. In some ways it’s a thankless job. When a show works, the composer usually gets the credit (after all, it is called a musical) and when a show doesn’t work, the book writer often gets the blame. 

I thought a lot about that as I watched two ambitious musicals—Lempicka and Suffs—that opened this week to middling reviews. Although both shows are inspired by the lives of real people, neither is based on pre-existing material like a book, movie or superhero comic. So it was up to their book writers to determine exactly what story they wanted to tell and how to tell it. 

Alas, neither Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould who collaborated on the book for Lempicka; nor Shaina Taub, who not only wrote the book for Suffs but also composed its score, wrote its lyrics and performs as the show’s main character, manage to do this as successfully as I’d hoped.

Lempicka tells the story of the Polish-Jewish artist Tamara Lempicka who rose to fame between the World Wars for the bold art deco nudes she painted. She also had a colorful personal life that included escapes from both the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of Paris as well as a string of affairs with both men and women. 

So Kreitzer and Gould had a lot to work with. The problem is that they worked so hard to cram all of it into two-and-a-half hours that they forgot to include a reason to make us care about any of it. Maybe things got lost in rewrites during the show’s 16-year gestation period.  For example, a too-expensive-not-to-use car that resembles the Batmobile sits on the stage but no longer serves any real purpose in the storytelling.

The current book just slides from one scene in Lempicka’s life to the next, without taking time to develop her character or those of the people around her. And while Eden Espinosa who has been with the show through most of its long development process (click here to read an interview with her) brings the rattle-the-rafters intensity to Lempicka's songs that she honed as an Elphaba in Wicked, she isn’t able to flesh out this character.

And her castmates are similarly hobbled. One minute Lempicka’s husband (played by Andrew Samonsky) is incensed that she’s spending so much time in her studio and the next he’s boasting about her accomplishments. Similarly a female lover quickly switches from being a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down to one who is clingy and can’t bear to be apart from Lempicka. 

That lover, called Rafaela in the play, is supposed to have inspired the painter’s most iconic works but that presents another problem for this production, which clearly wants to use reproductions of those images but is constrained because they all feature white women and Rafaela is played by the black actress Amber Iman. The script calls for viewers to make the instant connection between the paintings and their subject but whenever someone did that it took me right out of Lempicka’s already too-thinly-realized world. 

By comparison Suffs has clear stakes and a fairly straight-forward storyline: the campaign in the early part of the 20th century to get American women the right to vote. Its main character is Alice Paul, the real-life feminist who was one of the main strategist in the suffrage movement, from which the show takes its title. 

But sensitive to the politics of our day, Taub tries to be inclusive, telling the stories of a range of women, including the African-American activists Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell and the working-class labor organizer Ruza Wenclawska. However as good as it is to celebrate these women, we don’t truly to get to know any of them well. And we get to know Paul, who lived to be 92 and a fierce advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, least of all.

Still, the production has improved considerably since its run at the Public Theater two years ago (click here to read my review of that). Taub and director Leigh Silverman have replaced half of the songs, hired a new choreographer, brought in new costume, set and lighting designers and enlisted two high-profile producers: almost-President Hillary Clinton and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

They’ve also shuffled around the cast, moving some actors into different roles and getting rid of the well-meaning but confusing colorblind casting that made it difficult to tell if actors of color were playing African-American feminists or white characters.

But what they didn’t do was deepen their characters, give them motivations that made us understand why they were the ones willing to risk so much to empower all women.  Instead the characters justify their actions by occasionally breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience “this really happened.” 

That may be so but what we want—OK, what I want—from shows like this one is an emotional truth, an understanding of why people do things instead of just an accounting of what they did. 

Suffs may now be an entertaining history lesson (it's chocked full of memorable anthems and the row of women seated behind me cheered them all) but I'm not so sure that the show will make it into the musical theater history books.


April 13, 2024

An Uplifting Visit to "Tuesdays with Morrie"

It’s being an unusually busy theater season this spring with a baker’s dozen of Broadway shows still scheduled to open between now and the end of the month. So it’s no surprise that smaller shows—even very good ones— might get lost in the crush. And they don’t come much smaller than Tuesdays with Morrie, a two-hander based on journalist Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestseller about the life lessons Albom drew from a series of weekly visits with Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor who was dying from ALS, the horrible degenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The memoir topped The New York Times nonfiction list for nearly half a year and, like millions of others, I read it and was deeply moved by the mutually-sustaining friendship between the two men as the older man figured out how to die with grace and the younger how to live with purpose. 

The book was turned into a TV movie in 1999 with Hank Azaria as Mitch and Jack Lemmon as Morrie. A few years later, Albom teamed up with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for a stage version that ran at the Minetta Lane Theatre for 112 performances with Jon Tenney as Mitch and Alvin Epstein as Morrie. 

I didn’t see either of those versions. But a new company called Sea Dog Theater revived the show last month and I finally caught up with it last week. This time around Mitch is played by Sea Dog's co-founder and artistic director Christopher J. Domig and Morrie is played by the invaluable Broadway vet Len Cariou.

Their production is a bare bones affair. It’s staged in a chapel room at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a lovely old 19th century Romanesque building on East 16th Street. The set consists primarily of a piano (Albom initially set out to be a jazz pianist) and a wheelchair. There isn't much drama; even if you don’t know the book or movie, it’s obvious that Morrie is going to die. Yet, to my surprise, I found myself deeply moved all over again. 

That response wasn't a sure thing because I had all kinds of worries going in to see the show. The first is that although the chapel at St. George’s is beautiful, its acoustics aren’t great, particularly during the early exchanges between the actors. But as they drew nearer to the audience and my ear adjusted that proved less of a problem. 

I also wondered if Cariou was strong enough to make it through such an arduous role. He entered the chapel slowly, leaning heavily on a cane on one side and the arm of a young assistant on the other before grabbing onto the piano for support before the show began. But although Carious, who is now 84, may no longer be as spry as he was when he won the Tony for playing the title character in the original 1979 production of Sweeney Todd, his acting chops are still supple.

Under Erwin Maas’ deft direction, Cariou sidesteps the story's innate sentimentality and makes Morrie a real person, portraying him as cranky sometimes, fearful at others but always determined to live whatever life remains to the fullest. It’s an impressive performance and it’s nicely balanced by Domig's. (click here to read more about their collaboration).

But frankly what I worried about most was seeing re-created the sections in the book that deal in graphic detail with Morrie’s declining physical abilities. But Albom and Hatcher’s text focuses more on the metaphysical: the beauties of love and friendship and art. What I feared might be depressing turned out to be totally uplifting. Tuesdays with Morrie is only running for one more week.  Seek it out if you can.


March 27, 2024

Happy World Theatre Day 2024

Wishing you all the joy and drama and empathy that good theater always brings


 

March 23, 2024

Old Stories—and Old Guys—Get the Spotlight in "The Notebook" and "Water for Elephants"


In the journalism business we say that three occurrences of a thing make it a trend and so right now the hottest trend in theater seems to be musicals centered around the memories of old guys. 

It may have started with A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond jukebox musical that opens with a character called “Neil Now” sitting in a therapist’s office and looking back at the pop singer’s life. His memories unspool in flashback scenes punctuated by musical numbers and occasional observations from the old guy that lead up to an epiphany at the end.  

 A similar framing device is used in two new shows that opened this month: The Notebook and Water for Elephants. Both are based on bestselling novels that were turned into movies that leaned into feel-good nostalgia about the supposedly simpler times of the Great Depression and War years. And now both stories are on Broadway in big productions set to scores soaked in roots music and giving some old Broadway vets another moment in the spotlight.

Both Dorian Harewood in The Notebook (click here to read more about him) and Gregg Edelman in Water for Elephants play old men who, in one way or another, are mourning the loss of wives who were—as always is the case in these stories—their soulmates. 

This is a smart conceit because it gives Baby Boomers, an aging but still reliable audience for Broadway shows, characters to identify with. But at the same time, it keeps the old-timers on the edges of these stories, freeing the main narratives to focus on the young people that usually populate Broadway stages.  

Each of the shows also tries to navigate the challenge of reproducing iconic moments from the book or film (Notebook's embrace in the rain, Elephant's animal stampede) while offering something extra that will lure those fans into the theater instead of their re-reading the book or re-watching the movie at home. 

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter has written a smart book for The Notebook that adds some bits of much need humor to author Nicholas Sparks’ somewhat sappy story. But the primary way that The Notebook sets itself apart from its predecessors is to have three, instead of two, sets of actors play its main characters: the working-class Noah and his great love Allie, a rich girl who in old age has developed dementia that is erasing the memories of their love and the life that, against the odds, they built together. 

Michael Greif and Schele Williams, who co-directed the show, have cast their multiple Noahs and Allies in a self-consciously inclusive way in which actors of different races play the same character in different time periods. They’ve insisted that doing so universalizes the story’s theme of true love conquering all (click here to watch them explain it).

It is great to see actors of color being given such centerstage roles but all the color swapping can also be a little confusing. “Wait,” said the guy sitting behind me during intermission.  “You mean that young white guy is now that old black guy?”

The veteran book writer Rick Elice tackles the adaptation of novelist Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” a story about a young guy named Jacob Jankowski who hooks up with a down-on-its-heels traveling circus and falls in love with the ringmaster's wife. 

Elice has gotten rid of a couple of the book’s characters, sanitized others and streamlined the narrative. All of this leaves a lot of plot holes for the audience to fill in. But that may be, at least in part, because Elice had to make room for not only the show’s musical numbers but for its many circus stunts.

For director Jessica Stone (click here to read about her), aided by circus choreographer Shana Carroll, has mixed together traditional stage actors and circus performers. All of them gamely—and fairly competently—take on the skills of the other, with acrobats singing and dancing and actors swinging on trapezes (click here see some of how that's done)

It could just be me but there are moments when there is so much happening onstage that it’s hard to know where to look and too often the meaning of lyrics are missed because you’re too busy gaping at some acrobat doing a handstand on the head of another.

Which brings us to the music. Both shows have brought in composers who are Broadway novices. The singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her friend Waitress composer Sara Bareilles, has written a tuneful score for The Notebook but it’s so heavy on ballads that the production is selling souvenir Kleenex (click here to read about that). 

Meanwhile the Pigpen Theatre Company, a collective of seven singer-songwriters, has come up with a patchwork of songs for Water for Elephants that range from slinky Kander & Ebb-style vamps to hoedown knee-slappers, with a couple of plaintive ballads thrown in for good measure. Some of the tunes are pleasant and they’re all well sung but they don’t add up to a truly cohesive score.

Still, both The Notebook and Water for Elephants have drawn surprisingly positive reviews, with the critics somewhat divided on which of the shows is better. Although Water for Elephants may hold a slight advantage. It’s got a happier ending. And it’s got puppets (the full-sized one for the titular floppy-eared pachyderm really delights the crowd). And it’s got all of that circus stuff. 

As I said earlier, I’m not big on juggling and acrobatics. I’m just too nervous that something or someone will fall. Still even I have to admit that a number in which the aerial artist Antoine Boissereau brings to life the final moments of a dying horse in Water for Elephants was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in the theater. Plus it was nice to see those old guys again too.

 

 

 


March 16, 2024

"Dead Outlaw" is the Liveliest Show in Town

You can usually tell within the first 10 minutes or so of seeing a show whether you’re in good hands. And I knew right away that I was in very good hands when I saw Dead Outlaw, the first Audible-sponsored musical that is now scheduled to run at the MInetta Lane Theatre through April 7 and then later will be available to listen to on the Audible website. 

To be honest, I had a hunch that this might be a good one even before I got to the theater because the creative team—composer David Yazbek, book writer Itamar Moses and director David Cromer—had also put together the Tony-winning musical The Band’s Visit; plus, each of these guys is a show-making ace in his own right. 

But I had also been a little skeptical because the premise of their new show is totally bonkers. It’s the story of a ne’er-do-well outlaw named Elmer McCurdy, who was killed in a shoot-out after a bungled train robbery in 1911. He probably would have been forgotten except that a local undertaker embalmed his corpse until someone claimed it and when no one did the mummified McCurdy was put on display for a nickel a peek and eventually passed from one sleazy sideshow venue to another until his remains were finally buried in 1977 (click here to read his full story). 

You can imagine that turning such an unlikely tale into a musical is the kind of thing that Stephen Sondheim would have relished. But the Dead Outlaw crewincluding Erik Della Penna, who collaborated with Yazbek on the music and lyrics and plays in the show's onstage bandmore than meets the challenge. 

They’ve turned this macabre saga into a nuanced commentary on the fascination with death and violence that fuels today’s obsession with true crime stories. At the same time, they remind us that we should be more respectful of these narratives because death is the one thing that we’re all eventually going to experience first-hand. And then, they’ve set all of this to some terrific toe-tapping music.

A six-person band plays country tunes and roots music, with occasional foray into hard rock and jazz. The lyrics throughout are wickedly funny but chilling too:

And so you fail with failures and you confront your rivals  

Who stand there armed with Bibles pointing at you 

And you plot, you scheme, you had a chance, you had a dream 

You couldn’t get a witness so you stand here today 

Your mama’s dead  

John Gotti’s dead  

Dillinger’s dead  

And so are you  

Each of the eight cast members, most of whom play multiple roles, gets at least one moment to shine and they all glow. In fact, they’re all so good that it’s unfair to single out any one of them but I can’t resist shouting out a few of my favorites.

Andrew Durand, last seen in Shucked, is amazing as McCurdy; he sings the hell out of the songs he’s given when McCurdy is alive and then somehow is just as charismatic when he spends half the show standing deathly-still in a coffin as the dead man’s corpse

Jeb Brown, who as a kid made his debut as one of the no-necked monsters in the 1974 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and has knocked around Broadway in small parts ever since, has finally gotten the role he's no doubt been waiting for and now totally nails: as the show’s guitar-playing and pork-pie-hat-wearing narrator he is folksy, funny and sexy. 

Meanwhile, the veteran character actor Thom Sesma almost steals the entire show in a cabaret-style number as the famed L.A. coroner-to-the-stars Thomas Noguchi.  

Much of this has to be credited to the nimble direction of David Cromer, who not only keeps everyone on the same page but somehow manages to keep the show simultaneously light and dark. It’s a deft dance with death that you’re bound to enjoy.




March 2, 2024

"The Hunt" Kind of Misses the Mark

 


We’re now used to getting musicals based on movies but it’s rarer for a straight play to be adapted from a film. However that’s the case with The Hunt, which opened this week at St. Ann’s Warehouse following a run at London's Almeida Theatre in 2019.  

But just as so many musicals have done, the staged version of "The Hunt" has failed to capture the very qualities that made the film special and worth adapting in the first place. 

Directed and co-written by the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, the film tells the story of a recently-divorced kindergarten teacher named Lucas whose life unravels when he’s falsely accused of exposing himself to one of his little students. 

Almost everyone in the rural town where he lives turns on Lucas to the point that he begins to fear for his life. It’s such an affecting morality tale about the dangers of mass hysteria that the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013.

The stage adaption by David Farr hews fairly closely to that storyline. But its effectiveness is undermined by the ways in which the story is told. The film is subtle in its storytelling but right from the start, director Rupert Goold amps up the onstge fireworks. 

The film opens with a scene that establishes Lucas’ role as an integral part of the community. A group of his friends are showing off their manliness by skinny dipping in the frigid waters of the local lake but when one of them cramps up, it’s Lucas who, fully dressed, dives in and saves him. 

The St. Ann's production starts off with the local men literally beating their bare chests, stomping their feet and chanting in a ritualistic fashion that's not only supposed to display their manliness but foreshadows their coming barbarism. Meanwhile Lucas is nowhere to be seen. It's as though he's already an outsider before he's even been accused of doing anything wrong.

Goold seems more interested in the look of his production than its content. And to be fair, some of the images he and his team have created are hauntingly beautiful. 

The trendy set designer Es Devlin (click here to read about her) has created one of those glass boxes that have become the way that British productions (Yerma, The Lehmann Trilogy) now signal that they are really cool. 

Shaped like a kid’s drawing of a house, Devlin's box stands in for the school, the town church, various homes, and the local lodge where the menfolk hangout, drink and talk about guns. 

But the box is especially effective when the lighting by designer Neil Austin turns its walls opaque and the structure becomes a physical manifestation of how shortsighted the townspeople are.

The British actor Tobias Menzies plays Lucas (click here to read a piece about him). Menzies, perhaps best known as Prince Phillip to Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth in the middle seasons of the Netflix series “The Crown,” is too good an actor to fail to elicit sympathy for Lucas. But the show’s ending, which varies in a significant way from the film’s and even from the play's printed script, renders his plight less poignant. 

There’s also something a bit unsettling about watching this show in 2024. The film came out five years before the revelations about the movie producer Harvey Weinstein's sexually predatory behavior sparked the #MeToo movement. The environment is different now.

Throughout the film, the girl’s parents say they believe their child. But even though her accusations aren’t malicious but rather a product of childish anger prompted by Lucas’ rejection of a present she made for him, they still ruin a good man's life. 

The events of the past few years, including the recent verdict in E. Jean Carroll’s suit against Donald Trump, have reminded us that accusers in these situations are usually telling the truth. So I found myself wondering why I was sitting in a theater watching a story centered around the opposite point of view.  




February 24, 2024

Hailing the High-Camp Virtues of "Oh, Mary!"

If I had access to a time machine one stop I’d make would be sometime around 1960 at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village where young playwrights like John Guare, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson staged daringly offbeat shows and up-and-coming actors like Bernadette Peters, Al Pacino and Bette Midler performed in some of them. Of course that kind of time travel isn’t currently available but the next best thing might be seeing Oh, Mary!, the proudly queer and unabashedly ridiculous comedy that has just been extended at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through May 5.

Oh, Mary! is the nonbinary playwright Cole Escola’s bizarro-world version of Mary Todd Lincoln’s activities in the weeks leading up to the assassination of her husband at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865. It’s filled with swishing hoop skirts, swishy leading men, secret love affairs and a liquor-swilling First Lady who wants more than anything to be—of all thingsa cabaret star. 

Escola has said that they did almost no research before writing Oh, Mary! (click here to read more about that). Instead the show cheerfully cherry picks hearsay about the Lincolns (Mary’s reportedly high-strung personality; Abe's supposedly gay proclivities) that will lend themselves to jokes that are silly (the show’s Mary keeps asking who’s fighting in the Civil War) or raunchy (an aide-de-camp brings new meaning to the role of a president's body man).

This kind of high-camp stuff can wear out its welcome pretty fast. But Escola, wearing a wig with sausage curls and looking like Sutton Foster’s deranged kid sister, is so delightfully daffy as Mary that it’s almost impossible to resist this show’s outrageous lunacy. 

The cast and design crew commit to the hijinks too and director Sam Pinkleton has made sure they're all on the same page of the playbook. The witty sets by the design team known as Dots frolic on the line between realism and parody. And the period-appropriate costumes by Holly Pierson and Astor Yang are in on the joke too. 

Meanwhile the five cast members gamely tweak stock roles taken straight out of a 19th century melodrama. But no one breaks character or mugs unnecessarily (although there is plenty of appropriate mugging). Conrad Ricamora is particularly terrific as a Lincoln torn between managing the war, managing his uncivil wife and managing his uncontrollable libido.

Similarly, James Scully is pitch perfect as a tutor the president hires to keep Mary occupied and Scully not only makes for a hunky juvenile lead but delivers a Shakespeare soliloquy that would make any RSC grad proud. And Bianca Leigh and Tony Macht are just as winning in smaller roles. 

Comparisons to the works of Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch are inevitable but Escola brings a deadpan mischievousness to the drag damsel in distress that is utterly unique and deliciously goofy. The result is an 80-minute gigglefest. And who doesn't need a good laugh in these trying times.  


February 17, 2024

"I Love You So Much I Could Die" is Too Intimate for Its Own Good—Or Anyone's


Valentine’s Day was celebrated this past week and the new show I Love You So Much I Could Die, which opened at New York Theatre Workshop on Feb. 14, struck me as an ultimate gesture of love. 

For this playlet—it runs barely more than an hour—was written and performed by Mona Pirnot and directed by her husband Lucas Hnath and it’s unlikely that the show would have been done in such a prestigious venue if they weren't cashing in on the cultural cachet that Hnath has earned as the playwright of such inventive works as A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Dana H.

I don’t mean that as a put down. I Love You So Much is Pirnot’s attempt to deal with the kind of deep grief that any loving spouse would do anything to ease. So kudos to Hnath for being that kind of husband and to Pirnot for having the good sense to hook up with that kind of guy (click here to read more about the couple). But alas, I can’t extend kudos to their show. 

It’s a minimalist affair that takes place on a bare stage, furnished solely with a small desk and chair, a lamp, a laptop hooked up to a speaker, and a guitar sitting on a stand. Pirnot, the sole performer, spends the entire time seated with her back to the audience while a male text-to-audio voice on the computer reads what seem to be diary entries recording her responses to a tragic event involving her sister, although the exact nature of that tragedy is never revealed.

Periodically, Pirnot clicks off the computer, picks up the guitar and, still staring at the back wall of the theater, sings in a wan voice a few songs that further express her grief.  

It’s not unusual for artists to pour their pain into their work. But the goal should be to transform that pain into something that’s larger than just one person's experience. Here, however, withholding the details of the trauma and any visceral intimacy with Pirnot, limits the show's ability to do that. 

People should be allowed to grieve in whatever way comforts them and as someone who is also currently in mourning, I sincerely hope this show brings Pirnot and Hnath some solace. But I also wish they had found some way to bring me something too.     


February 10, 2024

"The Connector" Fails to Connect With Me

Journalists love stories about journalism. We even love the stories that cast us in a bad light. And I'll admit that’s part of the reason that The Connector, which was inspired by the stories of the notoriously disgraced journalists Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, ended up on the list of the four shows I was most excited to see during this spring season.

But that wasn’t the only reason. I also wanted to see The Connector because the show is a new musical by Jason Robert Brown, whose earlier shows Parade and The Bridges of Madison County rank among my all-time favorites. And on top of that, The Connector brings the always-likable Scott Bakula back to the New York stage for the first time in 35 years (click here to read more about him). But alas as it turned out, I ended up not liking The Connector much at all.

Jonathan Marc Sherman' book for the show, which opened at MCC Theater this week, purports to tell the story of the rise and fall of a young journalist named Ethan Dobson who gets his dream job at a New Yorker-style magazine called The Connector and then immediately starts fabricating stories. Ben Levi Ross, one of the replacements in Dear Evan Hansen, brings a nebbishy Ben Platt-like intensity to both acting and singing the role of Ethan.

As Sherman imagines it, Ethan’s boss Conrad, who’s amiably played by Bakula, is totally taken in by the younger man because they both went to Princeton, like the same drinks, share a reverence for the magazine where they work—and are both guys.  

More suspicious of Ethan are three women: Robin, a co-worker (and undeveloped love interest) who is also talented but overlooked and is played by Hannah Cruz; Muriel, the magazine’s no-nonsense fact checker played by Jessica Molaskey; and Mona, a busybody reader who keeps writing in to point out mistakes in The Connector who’s played by Mylinda Hull. 

That’s a lot of story and I haven’t even mentioned the stuff about the venture capitalists buying the magazine or Robin feeling as though she isn’t getting ahead because she’s a Latina. Sherman has a hard time keeping up with all of it too and his pacing is off. 

The show runs nearly two hours without intermission but we’re almost halfway through it before the deception narrative really clicks in. And it’s never made clear what’s driving Ethan to lie when it seems that he’s perfectly talented enough to report and write decent stories on his own.

But what disappointed me even more was Brown’s score. The story is set in the ‘90s, a particularly fertile period for the pop music that usually informs his scores. But no grunge, neo-soul, techno or even boy-band sounds pop up in the music for The Connector. Instead what we get is a remix of stuff that Brown’s done before.

The rousing number in which a dubious witness adapts a black style of music to tell his false tale (here it’s rap, and not particularly good rap) was just like the rousing number when a dubious witness adapts a black style of music (there it was gospel) to tell his false tale in Parade. Similarly Robin’s lament about her stalled career reminded me a lot of Cathy's lament about hers in Brown’s The Last Five Years. 

Several critics claim to have been moved by the ballad “Proof,” Muriel’s climactic 11 o’clock number, but by the time I got home from the theater, I couldn’t remember its words or melody, or, for that matter, those of any of the tunes in the show. 

And I couldn’t figure out why the biggest production numbers centered around minor characters in the show. It’s fun to see Ethan’s fabrications brought to life and Max Crumm and Fergie Phillippe do terrific jobs animating them but some of that time might have been better spent delving deeper into the main story.

In fact my biggest problem with The Connector is that I’m not sure what that main story is or what the show wants to say. The idea for The Connector originated with its director Daisy Prince, who has said she first started thinking about it when the Glass and Blair scandals happened back in the ‘90s (click here to read more about the show’s genesis). But times have changed.

Our current concerns about journalism are now rightly focused on media companies that knowingly peddle fake news and on disinformation campaigns conducted on social media. And that by comparison can't help making the foibles of an overly ambitious kid—and an overly ambitious show—seem a little trite.


February 3, 2024

Why "Jonah" Isn't the One For Me

Sometimes you just don’t get a show. Maybe its subject triggers you or fails to grab you at all. Maybe the playwright was trying to do too much or the director didn’t do enough. Or maybe you were grumpy because getting to the theater was such a hassle or you were tired because it had been a long week. I’m not sure what the reason is but I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t get Jonah, the new play that opened at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre this week. 

I got enough to understand that the show centers around a young woman named Ana and her interactions with three men over the course of several years in her life. But this is not an easy play in any sense of the word. Playwright Rachel Bonds clearly wants to explore the different mechanisms people use to cope with trauma. So there are lots of references to domestic violence and self-harm. 

And because the narrative shifts back and forth in time, it’s not easy to follow what’s going on either. The male characters keep popping up out of nowhere and falling (sometimes literally) right back into nothingness. The promotional materials try to make a virtue of all of this: “Jonah is not all he seems,” said the press release referring to one of Ana’s three men. The Playbill advises that the action takes place in “The past and the present. But everything is slippery.”

Too slippery for me. The play opens with a teenage Ana at a New England boarding school, where she says her mother sent her. But at another point she says that her mother died when she was 11. We're apparently supposed to figure out what's true but after awhile the intentional elusiveness of such an unreliable narrator can become unintentionally alienating.

The lighting and sound designs work hard to clarify the transitions from one reality to another but the set, which is supposed to stand in for three separate locations, seems to have just given up: too large and too anonymous for a boarding school dorm room, a suburban home bedroom or the studio space at the writers' retreat where the adult Ana has taken refuge to work on a book.

But the thing that put me off most was the casting. Now all four of the actors are fantastic. Hagan Oliveras exudes puppyish charm as Ana’s high school crush, the titular Jonah. Samuel H. Levine is brooding but charismatic as her emotionally-damaged stepbrother Danny. And John Zdrojeski brings a sweet goofiness to the role of Steven, Ana’s neighbor at the writers’ retreat. 

Ana is played by Gaby Beans, who carries the heaviest load—never leaving the stage during the show’s 100 or so minutes—and she does it with an unflashy finesse. But Beans is Black and that fact is never acknowledged in this production. Which left me confused. All three of the guys are obsessed with Ana. Is that because she’s Black? Or is Beans, proudly sporting long micro-braids, supposed to be playing a white woman? 

There are a few lines that allude to race (“What do you mean, you people,” Ana asks one of the men) but those occasional references are just asides. In a play like this one that pivots around sexual and family tensions, race would surely matter. And if Bonds and director Danya Taymor insist on believing that it doesn’t, why have they cast all the guys with white-presenting actors?

Bonds writes both funny and intense dialog. I can imagine drama students doing monologues and dialogs from Jonah for years to come. And I respect her desire not to spoon feed her audience but it's not pandering to suggest which spoon might be most useful for them. If she wants us to go through the pain, then in return shouldn't we get at least the possibility of relief?

Someone at Roundabout seems to have a thing for these kinds of trauma dramas. Last spring, the Laura Pels played host to Primary Trust, another play in which a trauma survivor depends on protective fantasy. But that show offered a satisfying, if incomplete, resolution (click here to listen to an interview I did with its author). 

Jonah doesn’t even try to offer hope or even to make its intentions clear. Which left me unsatisfied. But that apparently is just me. Most critics seem quite taken with Jonah (click here to read some of those reviews) and the New York Times has made the show a Critic’s Pick. So I guess you’ll just have to go see this one and make up your own mind.