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. 



January 27, 2024

Good and Bad Reminders of the Holocaust Are on Show in "Our Class" and "White Rose"

Today is International Holocaust Memorial Day, which was created to commemorate the six million Jews and others who were systematically slaughtered by the Nazis. But New York theater makers aren’t limiting their remembrances of those horrific events to a single day. For over a year now, stages here have been filled with one production after another recalling the horrors of that time and drawing cautionary parallels to our own time with its rising antisemitism and flirtations with fascism.

The shows have been large and small. Last season’s Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical drama about a wealthy Jewish family nearly annihilated by the Nazis, boasted a cast of 38 and won the Tony, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards. 

Joshua Harmon’s similarly-themed Prayer for the French Republic, which tracks the experiences of a Jewish family faced with violent bigotry both during the Holocaust and in present-day France, had a great off-Broadway run in 2022 and moved to Broadway earlier this month with most of its original 11-member cast intact.  

And last fall, King of the Jews, Leslie Epstein’s moving adaptation of his 1979 novel about the Jewish leaders in a Polish ghetto forced to decide which of their brethren to send to the death camps, had a successful run downtown at the HERE Arts Center. 

Now not everything has worked. Neither Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried nor Rita Kalnejais’ This Beautiful Future, both of which centered around young Nazis falling in love, made much headway with critics or audiences.  

And the musical Harmony, the longtime dream project of Barry Manilow and his writing partner Bruce Sussman that focused on The Comedian Harmonists, a real-life sextet of Jewish and Gentile performers who were forced apart when Hitler came to power, picked up a slew of awards when it played downtown at the Museum of Jewish Heritage but failed to click on Broadway and is now scheduled to close at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Feb. 4 after just 90 or so performances. 

Yet, the shows keep coming and they keep finding different ways to tell stories about the horrors that happened. An all-new immersive production of Cabaret is coming in April and just this week, I saw two new Holocaust-themed shows: White Rose, a musical about the German college students who led a resistance movement against the Nazis; and Our Class, a Brechtian-style drama about how the bonds were savagely broken between Jews and Christians in one small Polish village. 

Although there have been other shows about The White Rose movement (click here to read a review of one of them) I didn’t know about the group until I read about it in Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Lessons.” But I was instantly fascinated by those young people who risked—and mainly lost—their lives to speak out against Hitler. So I was curious to see how the story of Hans and Sophie Scholl, the brother and sister who were the group’s leaders, would be brought to the stage. Alas, the answer to that is not well.

The creators and the producers of the musical which opened this week at Theatre Row all seem to be novices and their inexperience shows. Book writer and lyricist Brian Belding, whose Playbill bio describes him as a former high school history teacher, has clearly done his research but he hasn’t figured out how to pace a show, how to create characters with emotional depth or how to write lyrics that go beyond simply stating what’s happening. 

Meanwhile Natalie Brice’s music has no distinguishing personality.  A score doesn’t have to reflect the historical period it’s musicalizing but it should make you think that all the songs belong to the same world. This one just slides from one tune to another without rhythm or reason. The actors work hard and some are better than others but none of them get enough help from their director Will Nunziata. The Scholls deserve better.

It would have been interesting to see what Tadeusz Slobodzianek, the Polish author of Our Class, and his inventive director Igor Golyak might have done with the Scholls' story because they have turned their production, which is now playing in BAM’s Fishman Space, from what could have been a fairly predictable story into a powerful meditation on how people act when faced with making truly horrendous choices.

At the center of their tale are 10 people who take great pride in being members of the same class in their village school. Half of them are Jewish, half Catholic and although they’re aware of their differences, it doesn’t stop them from developing friendships and crushes across faith lines. Until the outside world intervenes. 

First the Russians occupy the town and then the Germans take over. Locals take sides that break down along ethnic lines and soon they are informing on one another and beating and raping and killing one another. 

The script, adapted into English by Norman Allen, follows these characters over seven decades from their grade school years into their days in nursing homes for the few who survive that long. And yet it manages to make us feel as though we know each of them as real people who are good in some moments, horrible in others and sometimes just trying to make peace with what’s been done to them and what they’ve done to others. 

Most of the action is portrayed in an expressionistic style on a nearly bare stage outfitted with ladders, trap doors and a fateful chalkboard. And Golyak sometimes uses video cameras in the way that Ivo van Hove does to create film-style close-ups of his actors, which can be effective but can also be distracting. However he also creates achingly beautiful stage images as when the actors draw simple faces on white balloons and then send them floating into the rafters to symbolize the deaths in a particularly horrific massacre.  

The cast made up of both fresh and familiar faces is uniformly excellent. But I couldn’t help focusing on Richard Topol. That’s in part because he’s older by several years than most of his castmates. But it’s also because this is the third time I’ve seen Topol appearing in one of these recent Holocaust plays. 

He has a full career doing other things as well, but I suspect that Topol, who traces his family roots back to shtetls in Eastern Europe (click here to hear more about that) keeps taking these parts because he truly believes—as we all should—that unless we acknowledge such history, we are in dire danger of repeating it.

January 20, 2024

A Belated—But Upbeat—Spring Preview

Previews are all about the promise of what’s to come so I suppose it’s no surprise that the last time I posted a preview list of the shows I was excited about seeing in an upcoming season was on Jan 11, 2020, nine weeks before the pandemic shutdown theaters here in the city and across the country. 

I somehow managed to see most of the shows on that list including Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King, which won 2021's Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Endlings, a lovely meditation on aging by Celine Song, whose first feature film “Past Lives” may be an Oscar contender this year; and the wonderful revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, with most of the cast from its original 1997 off-Broadway production.

Theaters opened backed up in the fall of 2021 and I cautiously went back to seeing the new shows. But my enthusiasm fluctuated up and down: I saw some great stuff (Sanaz Toossi’s English, the 2022 Pulitzer winner; Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God) but I often had to push myself out of the house to see it. 

I’ve also done a lot of mourning over the past four years: friends lost to Covid like the actress and writer Patti Bosworth; friends lost to old age like my dear dear friend Seymour Red Press, the contractor for some 100 Broadway musicals who left us at 98; iconic figures like Stephen Sondheim, 91, and Sheldon Harnick, 99; and most painfully for me the unexpected loss of my beloved sister and life-long theater companion Joanne. 

So that is why I’m so happy to finally be able to share this preview list of spring shows that I’m truly looking forward to seeing over the next few months. And there’s a lot to get worked up about. Nineteen shows will open on Broadway alone, and at least three—Days of Wine and Roses, Hell’s Kitchen and The Notebook—will be directed by Michael Greif, the mastermind behind such musical masterworks as Rent, Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen.

And a bunch of the shows that aren’t being done by Greif are being helmed by such top-notch female directors as Tina Landau, Lila Neugebauer, Leigh Silverman and Jessica StoneMeanwhile, many of the musicals have been written by newcomers who are bringing a today sound to the traditional musical and they’re being led by big movie-star names that may bring in new audiences too. 

Also, to my great delight, several of the new shows are taking on big state-of-the-world subjects like privacy, free speech and class. As I said, there’s a lot to be excited about. Here are just four shows that have me really jazzed: 

THE ALLY Given the recent forced resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, it’s hard to think of a more up-to-the-moment issue than the one at the center of Itamar Moses’ latest work about a college professor who gets entangled in conflicting agendas after he signs a social justice petition. It’s scheduled to open at the Public Theater on Feb. 27 with Josh Radnor as the prof.

THE CONNECTOR  This new Jason Robert Brown musical is inspired by the case of the disgraced journalist Stephen Glass and focuses on a young reporter who is willing to do anything to make a name for himself and the young female editor who becomes suspicious of his actions. The book is by Jonathan Marc Sherman, the direction by Daisy Prince and the show, which is scheduled to open at MCC on Feb. 6, will bring Scott Bakula back to the New York stage for the first time in 35 years.

MOTHER PLAY I’m always eager to see anything by the great Paula Vogel, but this new work about a domineering mother and her two near-adult children in the 1960s also comes with the killer cast of Jessica Lange, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jim Parsons. And when it opens at the Hayes Theater on April 25, it will also mark the first time that a play by the 72-year-old Pulitzer winner will make its world debut on Broadway. 

THE OUTSIDERS. Generations of teens have embraced this story about the conflict between two high school gangs—the working-class Greasers and the more privileged Socs—that S.E. Hinton published in 1967 when she herself was just 18. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola turned her novel into a film that has become a cult classic and now playwright Adam Rapp has written the book for a musical that is scheduled to open at the Jacobs Theatre on April 11 with a cast of fresh faces and a score by Jamestown Revival, a folk-rock duo who specialize in easy-on-the-ear melodies, all of which make me really hopeful about the future of Broadway.