Saturday, September 22, 2018

Resident Acting Company in Reading of Shaw's DON JUAN IN HELL September 24 at Players Club

This fall, The Resident Acting Company, a new troupe drawn from the performing ensemble of The Pearl Theatre Company, will present "The Language Series," a new readings series at The Players Club, 16 Gramercy Park South. The series is devoted to plays that delve into the use of words to lie, deceive, manipulate, conquer, tell the truth, work out the meaning of life and even to find love.

It launches Monday, September 24 with Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell," followed by Cowley's "The Belle's Strategem" October 29 and Pirandello's "It Is So (If You Think So)" November 19.

The company will explore ways that playwrights have used language to portray the human condition, to get to the heart of how we communicate, and to understand reality itself. All three plays explore questions of fake or real, true or false and truth that isn’t truth. Through the lens of these classics and their approach to language, the troupe aims to help us sharpen our perception of the rumors, reports, misleading statements and alternative facts we now experience every day.   



September 24, 2018
"Don Juan In Hell" By George Bernard Shaw
$35
6:00 PM Cash Bar, 7:00 PM Reading
Don Juan is in Hell and he’s not happy. Turns out Hell is where most people go when they die and it’s actually a very nice place. He is determined to go to Heaven so he can contemplate the great questions of human existence, but first he must debate Satan, an ex-girlfriend, and her father, whom Don Juan killed back on earth and with whom he has become very good friends. This is Shaw’s hysterical funny dream sequence from his play "Man and Superman." Shaw presents us with a fun, playful and thought provoking examination of Religion, Marriage, Death, and the all-powerful Life Force. With Bradford Cover as Don Juan, Dan Daily as The Statue, RJ Foster as The Devil and Rachel Botchan as Ana. Directed by Bradford Cover.

Oct 29, 2018 7:00 PM
"The Belle’s Stratagem" By Hannah Cowley
$35
6:00 PM Cash Bar, 7:00 PM Reading
In 1780, David Garrick presented this play at The Drury Lane and it was a smash success. Letitia Hardy is engaged to marry the handsome and wealthy Doricourt, but there is one problem – he has agreed to marry her but seems totally uninterested in her. She loves him and is determined to get him to feel the same. So she endeavors to get him to hate her as she believes it will be easier to flip hate into love rather than indifference into love. With a cast of wild characters--including Flutter, Miss Ogle and Sir George Touchwood--we galivant through the amusing misadventures of these anti lovers until they reach their final realizations in a “crazy” final scene. Casting TBA as of this writing.

Nov 19, 2018 7:00 PM
"It Is So (If You Think So)" By Luigi Pirandello
$35
6:00 PM Cash Bar, 7:00 PM Reading
What do you do when a new family moves into your small Italian town? You absolutely welcome them and ask them where they came from and why they moved here. However when each member of that family gives you a vastly different version of their story, what do you do then? In this wonderfully absurd piece of theater Pirandello asks us to examine why we think we know certain things. The play creates a hilarious world in which one doesn’t know who to trust, and the more we learn the less we know. It is possible to learn the truth, right? Translation and casting are TBA as of this writing.

The True - Where Loyalty is Everything


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

What do you do when the one thing you’ve always counted on is suddenly yanked out from under you? This is the question posed in Sharr White’s new political drama The True, presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Albany 1977. Dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Polly Noonan (Edie Falco) is one of those tireless party workers who lives and breathes politics. A staunch defender of long-time Albany Mayor Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), Polly has worked by his side for close to 40 years. Indeed, in many ways, Polly is closer to Erastus then she is to her own husband.

Though Polly uses the term “confidant” when describing her and Erastus’ relationship, their long-time association has long since caused tongues to wag. Polly often thought of as “the Mayor’s girlfriend,” as well as other, less polite terms. Despite Polly and Erastus’ continual denials of anything improper, the issue has put a strain on Polly’s marriage to Peter (Peter Scolari), someone who Erastus considers to be his best friend; as well as on the Mayor’s relationship with his wife Betty.

On this particular night Polly, Erastus and Peter are gathered at the Noonan home while reflecting on the recent death of Dan O'Connell, the 91-year old Democratic party chairman who Erastus regarded as an important father figure. Eventually Erastus makes an announcement which dramatically changes his relationships to the Noonans, and leaves Polly stunned and confused. Yet even as word of the Mayor’s actions sends more rumors flying, Polly must decide whether to help Erastus when he needs it most. Erastus finding himself in the fight of his political life as he faces both a battle for the party chairmanship and a serious primary challenge in the upcoming election.

 L-R: Michael McKean, Edie Falco, Peter Scolari in The New Group Production of  The True.   Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.


The True offers a nuts-and-bolt look at party politics, through the work Polly does to ensure her team’s machine runs smoothly. She knowing every major political player, as well as all the important constituents, donors, and their families. This knowledge, which stems from endless hours of phone calls, and meet and greets, allows her to make sure those in need are properly helped out, regardless of their political persuasion. Polly reasoning that being good to those who don’t always agree with you just might help change their minds, come election time. Though coupled with this pseudo-altruistic scenario is the realization that politics, especially when it comes to party infighting, turns on backroom deals, clandestine meetings, and loyalty that all too often only goes so far.

Also explored is the danger people face when they get too comfortable or rigid in their thinking. Thus making them incapable of adapting to a changing world. Polly and Erastus both looking a bit like relics from a bygone era whose time may be drawing to a close. Polly gets a particularly abrupt wakeup call when she meets Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell), a young man who she convinced the Mayor to appoint to an important position in the party. However, she explodes in rage when, after outlining Bill’s career track for him, he responds by saying he doesn’t want to be a politician for the rest of his life. Or at least not in the manner she’s laid out.

While offering a fascinating look at politics, as well as the sexism that exists therein, as a piece of entertainment, The True falls rather flat. Clocking in at an hour forty-five, parts of the work still end up feeling bloated. A good example of this is how long it takes for Erastus to explain exactly why he changed his relationship with Polly and her husband. Said answer being parceled out in endless dribs and drabs. Additionally, none of the characters presented are particularly likeable and, other than Falco’s powerful portrayal of Polly, none are strong enough to hold one’s interest. 

McKean’s character in particular comes off as tired and indecisive, with no shading or subtlety that would better define him. Scolari, it should be noted, does nicely portray Polly's husband as a long-suffering spouse. Peter never wanting to force his wife to make a choice which he knows he will lose. However, we never get enough information to really care about this person, or his eventual fate. As for the other characters in the show, they all exist solely as plot points, rather than anything resembling flesh and blood.

L-R: Michael McKean & Edie Falco in The New Group Production of The True.  Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.



On the plus side, Falco grabs and holds the spotlight as Polly. A take-no-prisoner type in both conversation and action, and who, when she finds her back against the wall, fights to reaffirm her self-worth the only way she knows how. Unfortunately, Falco’s efforts are also hamstrung by the lackluster script, which covers no new ground and ends not with a bang, but rather a whimper. Scott Elliott’s direction is rather uneven here and is unable to make the story, or the characters, anything more than mildly diverting.

Feeling more like a novel one would read on a commute to kill time rather than a piece of theatre, The True makes some interesting points; but other than a sterling performance by Falco, doesn't have that much to recommend it.

Featuring: Austin Cauldwell (Bill McCormick), Edie Falco (Dorothea “Polly” Noonan), Glenn Fitzgerald (Howard C. Nolan), Michael McKean (Erastus Corning II), John Pankow (Charlie Ryan), Peter Scolari (Peter Noonan),
Tracy Shayne (Voice). 

The True
By Sharr White
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design & Music Composition: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.NewGroup.org
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: October 28, 2018

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Be More Chill - A Delightful Experience


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Big Brother is no longer simply watching. He’s now taking an active role, in everything. So suggests the musical Be More Chill at The Pershing Square Signature Center. Boasting one of the most enthusiastic audiences in recent memory, and based on the novel of the same name, the show presents a refreshing new take on the oft-told tale of someone trying to become one of the cool kids.

Jeremy (Will Rolland), now in his junior year at a New Jersey suburban high school, just wants to survive it. A self-described “geek”, he’s regularly tormented by jocks and looked upon with disdain by the popular girls. Even Christine (Stephanie Hsu), a sensitive sort he would love to ask out, gives him little more than the time of day. Meanwhile at home, Jeremy’s Dad (Jason Sweettooth Williams) is going through a major downward spiral in the wake of his wife’s departure, and is no longer emotionally there for his son. Jeremy’s one great joy is spending time with his longtime friend and fellow social outcast, Michael (George Salazar). The song “Two-Player Game” giving a nice overview on the depth of their friendship.

(L-R) Will Roland and George Salazar in BE MORE CHILL
Photo by Maria Baranova

Things change for Jeremy when Rich (Gerard Canonico), a fellow junior, and one of Jeremy’s major tormentors, suddenly offers him the chance to jump to the top of the school social ladder. All thanks to a Squip. A grey oblong pill which, when taken, will show him how to make his dreams come true. Just as it has already done for Rich. No one now remembering him as the loser he used to be. Even Jeremy.

The Squip (Jason Tam) is, in actuality, a kind of supercomputer. Appearing inside Jeremy’s head in the persona of Keanu Reeves, it begins mapping out a course for Jeremy’s future. In short order, Jeremy starts to become one of the popular kids in school and gets invited to the important social gatherings. At the same time, he finds himself becoming estranged from Michael. The Squip explaining how Michael is no longer someone with whom Jeremy should associate.

As with many works of this type – Heathers and Mean Girls are two that immediately come to mind – the real issue facing Jeremy is the importance of staying true to what you believe. Rather than being coerced or convinced to go along with everyone else, simply because that’s the easier thing to do. Coupled with this is a warning to beware opportunities which seem too good to be true. It eventually becoming apparent that Jeremy and the others may be pawns in a much bigger plan. One which has to do with conformity and free will. Or the lack thereof.

Despite its various messages and more than a few serious moments, the heart of Be More Chill is its underlying sense of fun. The work often feeling like a spoof of the very situations it seeks to explore. More importantly, the musical never hits the audience over the head with its message, nor does it ever talk down to them. The entire show akin to a technological thrill ride through the territory that is teenage angst. A good part of the show’s success due to the strong work by lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, and the excellent projection design efforts by Alex Basco Koch.

Be More Chill can also be called “the little musical that could’. The show seeming to reach the end of the line after a regional production several years ago. However, thanks to a cast album and strong word of mouth, the work became a cult hit with an enormous online fan base. Its growing popularity leading to this current theatrical rebirth. One which will continue with a move to Broadway in 2019.

Will Roland and the cast of BE MORE CHILL
Photo by Maria Baranova

The score by Joe Iconis is enjoyable, if not always memorable. Direction by Stephen Brackett is, for the most part, rock-solid. The only missteps occurring during several early transitional moments, when cast members switched between singing and dialogue. These shifts not coming off as seamlessly as they could have. There was also a running problem with the music being too loud, it often drowning out the various song lyrics.

Roland gives a superb performance as Jeremy, a conflicted kid who just wants to fit in, and hopefully get the girl. Hsu is fine as Christine. Someone who, like the rest of the students, is just trying to make it through high school. Talia Suskauer (who subbed for Lauren Marcus the night I saw the show) and Katlyn Carlson worked well as the so-called “popular girls”. Salazar was nicely stalwart as Jeremy’s loyal friend Michael, while Tam did a great job as the mysterious Squip. Williams does a nice turn as Jeremy’s Dad. Particularly in the serio-comic number “The Pants Song”, when he realizes he has to do more than try to be Jeremy’s buddy. He has to start being his father again.

Be More Chill makes for a welcome addition to the New York theatre season and is heartily recommended.

Featuring: Gerard Canonico (Rich Goranski), Katlyn Carlson (Chloe Valentine), Stephanie Hsu (Christine Canigula), Tiffany Mann (Jenna Rolan), Lauren Marcus (Brooke Lohst), Will Roland (Jeremy Heere), George Salazar (Michael Mell), Britton Smith (Jake Dillinger), Jason Tam (The Squip), Jason Sweettooth Williams (Jeremy’s Dad/Mister Reyes/Scary Stockboy).

Be More Chill

Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis
Book by Joe Tracz
Based on the Novel by Ned Vizzini

Scenic Design Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Production Design: Alex Basco Koch
Wig/Hair Design: Dave Bova
Props Design: Sven Henry Nelson
Associate Music Director: Geoffrey Ko
Casting: Telsey + Company
Productions Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
Production Supervisor: Senovva Production Core
General Management: LDK Productions
Advertising & Marketing: AKA
Social Media: Marathon Digital
Press Representative: Keith Sherman and Associates
Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Emily Marshall
Music Supervision and Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen
Choreography by Chase Brock

Directed by Stephen Brackett

The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission
Closes: September 30, 2018

Broadway previews begin February 19, 2019 at the Lyceum Theatre
Broadway tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Lost Supper – A Hypnotic Dinner Party


A Surrealistic Journey Well Worth Taking

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Did you ever have a dream where different elements from completely separate parts of your life - a current love, a place you visited as a child, a long-dead relative - suddenly come together in a way that makes perfect sense? This intersectionality best describes the exquisite and immersive experience that is The Lost Supper – A Hypnotic Dinner Party. Taking place at the McKittrick Hotel, home to the legendary Sleep No More, and the soon-returning At The Illusionist’s Table, The Lost Supper is an event that occurs in a missed pocket of time.

Taking place at The Attic, a newly rediscovered space at the McKittrick, the event begins as guests are led through several different rooms, each of which has a feeling of being somewhat off-kilter. Some rooms provide hints of explanation as to what you are seeing, while others invite conclusions. However, in either case, the line between what is real and what is not becomes increasingly blurred.

            Photo credit: Jane Kratochvil for The McKittrick Hotel

Inside the main event - a dinner party that takes place in a distinctly mid-20th century supper club slightly out of sync with history - guests are seated by name at pre-arranged tables. Musical numbers from the late 1940s to the early 60s are performed during dinner, which is a three-course meal, with preferences selected at time of ticket purchase - a vegetarian option is offered - served by extremely talented hosts and waiters, who appear both on and off the stage, constantly interacting with guests in a perfectly synchronistic plotline that weaves audience, story and performers together seamlessly. In such an altered atmosphere, what is served really doesn't matter, but many of the menu items are reminiscent of then-trendy food in the 1950s.

While there is no formal dress code for The Lost Supper, "festive, chic, costume attire" is suggested. Many guests wore period-appropriate costumes, many were in modern dress, but dressing as the McKittrick suggests will help you blend in better with the performers and hosts, who are a constant presence throughout. At points, guests and performers were nearly indistinguishable as they enjoyed the evening and the dinner party unfolded.

Telling too much about The Lost Supper would spoil the delight of being a part of the spectacle that unfolds before your very eyes. In the tradition of events presented at the McKittrick, the more guests chose to participate in spirit of the dinner party, the more fun and interesting it is.  

Definitely a one-of-a-kind experience, The Lost Supper offers a fascinating peek into a different sense of reality which you will not soon forget. Nor, one might add, should you want to.

The Lost Supper
The McKittrick Hotel
320 West 27th Street
Tickets: 212-904-1990 or www.mckittrickhotel.com
Reservations are required in advance for all performances.
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mary Page Marlowe - Getting To Know You - Just Not Completely


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Each of us during the course of our lives will meet, work and interact with numerous people on an almost daily basis. Yet in the end, we'll never really know many of them at all. Such is the premise for Tracy Lett’s fascinating drama, Mary Page Marlowe. The show being performed by Second Stage at the Tony Kiser Theater

Played by six different actresses and seen at various ages between 12 and 69, Mary Page Marlowe is someone who has gone through/will go through a tremendous of turmoil in her life. Coming from a broken home and raised by her mother Roberta (Grace Gummer), who's unhappy with how her own life turned out, Mary Page has built up a series of internal defense mechanisms to prevent anyone from getting too close. Those stuck on the outside of these mental structures include her children, Wendy and Louis (Kayli Carter, Ryan Foust), and at least two of her three husbands.

Something else Mary Page has erected over the years are practices of denial and enabling. The former in regards to a drinking problem; and the latter when it comes to pleasing her latest bed partner in a string of what she considers to be meaningless affairs. Or acquiescing to her first husband's wishes during their divorce.



The underlying irony in Mary Page's actions is that the more she tries to insulate herself from being hurt, the unhappier both she, and those around her become. Her continual attempts to avoid the fate of her mother leading Mary Page to become a very close copy of what she has been running from almost all her life.

While various information regarding Mary Page is revealed over the course of the play - including facing jail time for driving while intoxicated; a growing estrangement from her children; and a continual need to rebel against what others expect of her - exactly who Mary Page Marlowe is never gets completely revealed. Then again, for the longest time, Mary Page herself is unable to articulate what causes her to act the way she does. A confession and partial realization in this regard brought forth via an illuminating conversation she has with her Shrink (Marcia DeBonis). Tatiana Maslany playing Mary Page at this point.

It’s a testament to Lett's writing that as each segment of the play unfolds, all in a non-linear progression, the audience is continually drawn into a story having no idea of the outcome until the very end. The entire experience akin to trying to fit together an elaborate puzzle. Kudos also to director Lila Neugebauer, who brilliantly succeeds in presenting the work in a way that keeps each succeeding scene relevant to what has come before, and integral to what will occur after.

Every one of the actresses playing Mary Page are at the top of their game. Each woman presenting a piece of someone who is totally relatable to the audience, even if we don't understand that character completely. Be it as a teenager (Emma Geer) determined not to just settle down and get married; a 40 year-old (Susan Pourfar) trying to make the best of a bad situation when telling her children that her marriage to their father is over; or a woman in her sixties (Blair Brown) showing the ease and comfortableness she shares with husband number three (Brian Kerwin). Mary Page referring to Kerwin's character as the "best of her husbands".



It also helps that the show is peppered with many interesting characters - a number of whom appear for only a single scene. Among them, Mary Page's husband number two (David Aaron Baker) and number three; as well as Ed Marlowe (Nick Dillenburg), Mary Page's father.

Dillenburg in particular offers just the right amount of pain coupled with an ominous sense of menace as Ed wrestles with his own demons. All of which makes you want to know more about this character. Kerwin shows an easygoing chemistry with Blair, making their characters' marital status completely believable.

Elsewhere, Gummer is able to reveal enough of Roberta in her scenes to explain why Mary Page's mother turned out the way she did. Also doing a good turn as Mary Page is Mia Sinclair Jenness, the actress playing the character at 12 years old. A child who just wants a word of encouragement from her mom, but ends up getting only backhanded compliments.



The connection the audience soon feels with Mary Page also leads to the show's one major misstep. Though Letts has certainly written an interesting story, he's so intent on keeping Mary Page at arm's length from the audience, that he does not finish what he started. Specifically, although we see the root causes of why Mary Page has become the way she is, we never see the moment when she apparently decided to change the direction of her life or how she wound up on the other side.

This missing information becomes particularly glaring when taking into account a key moment where Mary Page (Kellie Overbey), explodes at husband number two for daring to accuse her of not being able to feel anything. With the story taking Mary Frances from points a-z (albeit not chronologically), but missing steps p-t, one can't help but feeling somewhat cheated. Also omitted from the story is a more complete understanding of the relationship between Mary Page and Wendy.

Fortunately, what is present in the play is more than enough to hold one's interest. The story unfolding in carefully orchestrated bits and pieces, forcing the audience to piece the together the proper timeline while trying their best to fill in the blanks until more information is provided – when it is.

The sets by Laura Jellinek, ranging from the various homes of Mary Page, to a psychiatric office and a hospital room, are quite good, as are the costumes by Kaye Voyce.

Mary Page Marlow reveals one person's story as shown through the different snapshots of her life. While the end result is not as complete or as satisfying as it could be, the journey to which one is treated is still nicely intriguing.

Featuring: David Aaron Baker (Ray), Blair Brown (Mary Page Marlowe, ages 59, 63 & 69), Kayli Carter (Wendy Gilbert), Audrey Corsa (Connie), Marcia DeBonis (Shrink), Nick Dillenburg (Ed Marlowe), Ryan Foust (Louis Gilbert), Tess Frazer (Lorna), Emma Geer (Mary Page Marlowe, age 19), Grace Gummer (Roberta Marlowe), Mia Sinclair Jenness (Mary Page Marlowe, age 12), Brian Kerwin (Andy), Tatiana Maslany (Mary Page Marlowe, ages 27 and 36), Kellie Overbey (Mary Page Marlowe, age 50), Susan Pourfar (Mary Page Marlowe, ages 40 and 44), Maria Elena Ramiez (Nurse), Elliot Villar (Ben), Gary Wilmes (Dan).

Mary Page Marlowe
by Tracy Letts

Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott
Original Music: Bray Poor
Production Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Stage Manager: Travis Coxson
Voice & Dialect Coach: Gigi Buffington
Press: Polk & Co.
Casting: Tesley & Company
              Adam Caldwell, CSA
              William Canter, CSA
              Karin Cal, CSA

Advertising: RPM
Production Manager: Bethany Weinstein Stewert
General Manager: Sarah Danielsen
Director of Marketing & Communications: Laura Dilorenzo
Director of Finance: Samuel J. Bellinger
Director of Development: Rob Mooney

Directed by Lila Neugebauer

Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street
Tickets: 212-246-4422 or https://2st.com
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes: August 12, 2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Peace For Mary Frances - A Tale of Dysfunction That Misses the Mark


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Choosing to die with dignity when your body is falling apart is a hotly debated topic. But what happens when one's entire family agrees with that decision, only to see the person in question live on for longer than expected? Such is the basic premise in Lily Thorne's playwriting debut, Peace for Mary Frances, now being presented by The New Group. An interesting idea to be sure. Unfortunately Thorne loads up the story with so many characters and sub-plots, the show sinks under its own weight long before the final curtain.

Mary Frances (Lois Smith), having reached the age of 90, has gotten to the point where she feels she can no longer enjoy life. She needing she assistance to go to the bathroom, get into bed and simply get off the couch. She is also taking numerous medications that need to be administered on a strict schedule. However, Fanny (Johanna Day), the youngest of Mary Frances' three children, and her companion during the daylight hours, is not all there mentally, and thus unable to ensure proper steps are followed in this regard. Fanny is also a recovering drug addict and not allowed to spend the night at the family home due to an earlier incident with a lit cigarette. As a result, Mary Frances' other daughter Alice (J. Smith-Cameron), must become her primary caregiver, even as she makes plans to die in her own bed.

Alice and Fanny, as quickly made clear, have a long-standing adversarial relationship; neither trusting the other. At least part of the problem stemming from the period when Fanny was a regular drug user. Yet Alice is no angel either. She having in the past gone through a long period of not speaking to her mother. The animosity between mother and daughter so strong that, for a time, Alice was cut out of Mary Frances' will.

Alice also has two daughters of her own. Helen (Heather Burns), an actress; and Rosie (Natalie Gold), who is happily married with children. Helen noting that Rosie's kids will be the first members of this family to be raised by parents who really love each other. A not-so-veiled reference to various familial situations that have occurred over the years.

L-R: Natalie Gold, Lois Smith, Heather Burns in Lily Thorne's "Peace for Mary Frances," directed by Lila Neugebauer. This world premiere Off-Broadway production from The New Group plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center. www.thenewgroup.org. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Thorne brings up a lot of interesting issues in her work, which also marks her professional debut as a playwright. Included among them are the right to die, the different levels of sibling rivalry, and children trying to live their own lives while continually vying for a mother's love.

All these issues would be ratings fodder for any number of self-help shows. However for something like this to work on stage, the author needs to know where they're going with the story, and what they're specifically trying to say. Something which is sadly not the case here. The various characters are only half-developed, while the audience experiences numerous plot lines which are often left hanging. Such as Helen suddenly attacking Fanny during a verbal altercation - the matter just as suddenly dropped. We also never really get an idea of who Alice is or what caused her prior estrangement from her mother. As for Fanny, she disappears for much of the last third of the show, appearing only twice thereafter. The first scene of which makes no sense, given what we know of the character up to that point.

There are also questions about Mary Frances herself. Not only may she be healthier than she lets on, but she also shows herself to be a rather manipulative woman. She continually playing each of her daughters off the other. The biggest irony of the show is its title. Mary Frances supposedly just wanting to die in peace, but she is often the one continually stirring up drama and keeping everybody on edge.

It also doesn't help that the show has numerous characters one doesn't really care about. Such as Eddie (Paul Lazar), brother to Fanny and Alice, and the family lawyer, who comes by to visit once a week and go over his mother's affairs. Though why he's so detached from everything, except at the very end, is another question that's never answered. Also, the idea of the family calling an assisted care facility right out of the phone book, without doing any research on them, also doesn't ring true.

Both the acting and directing are more than adequate here. Smith, Day and Smith-Cameron all doing excellent jobs in their not-always-sympathetic roles. Most of the supporting cast also doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Brian Miskell, playing a hospice psychologist, injects a brief bit of levity into the story when he assures Alice and her daughters that this isn't the worst family situation he's ever had to deal with. A remark which provoked more than a little knowing laughter from the audience. Lila Neugebauer's direction moves the story along nicely as she works to bring some extra life to the various moments of tension and confrontation.

A hospice nurse (Mia Katigbak) tells Mary Frances at one point how some people refuse to die when they still have unfinished business. Applying that axiom the play itself, Peace For Mary Frances could do with some serious reworking before appearing in its next stage incarnation.

Featuring Heather Burns (Helen), Johanna Day (Fanny), Natalie Gold (Rosie), Mia Katigbak (Bonnie), Paul Lazar (Eddie), Brian Miskell (Michael), Melle Powers (Clara), Lois Smith (Mary Frances), J. Smith-Cameron (Alice).

L-R: Johanna Day, J. Smith-Cameron, Heather Burns in Lily Thorne’s “Peace for Mary Frances,” directed by Lila Neugebauer. This world premiere Off-Broadway production from The New Group plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center. www.thenewgroup.org. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.
Peace for Mary Frances

Written by Lily Thorne

Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Costume Design: Tyler Micoleau
Music & Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Matthew Frew: Properties Manager
Nicole Iovino: Assistant Stage Manager
Emily Moler: Assistant Director
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associated Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Directed by Lila Neugebauer

Presented by The New Group
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.thenewgroup.org
Running Time: 2 Hours 40 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: June 17, 2018

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Me and My Girl - A Musical From Yesterday Comes Roaring To Life


 Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In this world of message musicals and important themes, it’s nice to know that every so often a vehicle comes along whose only purpose is to offer a good time. The 1937 tuner Me and My Girl, which was recently resurrected for an engagement as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center, is such a work.

With a storyline paper thin; musical numbers that have often have nothing to do with advancing the plot; dusty jokes which were old when the musical was first new; and songs inserted where a few lines of dialogue will do; this production was, from the first moment to the last, nothing less than sheer perfection. 

In 1930s England, the place to be during the summer, for anybody who is anybody, is Hareford Hall. A massive manor house with grounds that include tennis courts, a golf course, and a cricket field. Though with the recent death of the Earl of Hareford, the race is on to find a male heir. One who can continue the same sensible and conservative traditions that have been part of the Hareford family for generations.

It's not long before the heir is indeed found. However, the gentlemen in question, one Bill Snibson (Christian Borle), the product of a brief marriage between the late Earl and a woman from a somewhat lower class, turns out to be a good-natured cockney fellow from the Lambeth district of London. A man perfectly at home in the pubs and dance halls, but completely out of his depth when it comes to high society.

While the Hareford elites are somewhat perturbed, to say the least, Maria (Harriet Harris), the Duchess of Dene and the late Earl’s sister, is determined the family legacy will continue; and sets out to mold Bill into a "proper" English gentlemen. Although Bill quickly comes to enjoy his new surroundings, there is one major stumbling block to the Duchess' plans. That being Bill's undying love for his "girl" Sally Smith (Laura Michelle Kelly), from whom he refuses to be parted. As the Duchess envisions Bill eventually marrying someone suitable to his new station in life, she wants Sally gone as soon as possible. So too does Lady Jaqueline Carstone (Lisa O'Hare), the closest thing this show has to a villain, who sees a life of financial security were she to marry Bill. This to the consternation of Gerald Bolingbroke (Mark Evans), who loves Jaqueline and would marry her in an instant, were he not drowning in debt.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, and not wanting to hurt Bill's chances for a new life, Sally tries to point out to Bill how unsuited the two now are for each other, and makes plans to return to Lambeth alone.

Christian Borle and Laura Michelle Kelly in Me and My Girl at Encores! at New York City Center. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus 

With book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, the show first became a smash in London in 1937; repeating its success on Broadway two years later. In 1984, the shows book was heavily revised by Stephen Fry, with contributions by Mike Ockrent, to become a hit all over again on both sides of the Atlantic. Watching the musical play out on the City Center stage, it’s easy to see why. The story is sweet and light, and the tunes by Noel Gay are completely infectious. Most being nothing more than a chance for the cast to break into song and dance. As is the case with the absolutely delightful “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”, which opens act two; and the famous “Lambeth Walk”, which started a dance craze when first introduced in England

That’s not to say the musical doesn’t have some poignant moments as well. Among them, the wistfully mournful “Leaning on a Lamp-Post”, sung by Bill when he thinks he’s lost Sally, and Sally’s solo number in a similar vein, "Once You Lose Your Heart". Also present in the score are comedic numbers for just about every one of the main and supporting cast. Where else for example, can you find a song all about the family solicitor? Don Stephenson doing a great job in that particular role.

Yes, there are issues of class consciousness present, but it’s all played almost totally for laughs, with the audience rooting for Bill and Sally from start to finish. There’s even an implied reference to one Henry Higgins tossed in. Along with a scene that shows Borle to be channeling Gene Kelly more than a bit.

The entire cast is excellent. Borle is prefect in the role of Bill. He movements so limber, they remind one of a young Dick Van Dyke. In a refreshing twist for shows of this type, Bill never becomes so seduced by his new life as to try to forget Sally in the arms of someone else. His comic number with O’Hare (“You Would if You Could”), a nice testament to that effect.

Kelly makes a great Sally. A salt-of-the-earth type, yet lacking Bill’s “come hell or high water” attitude, she’s never able to feel as if she belongs among the Harefords or their ilk. Chuck Cooper is great fun as Sir John Tremayne, the co-executor of the Hareford estate, who quickly becomes Bill’s ally. Cooper also perfectly delivering one of the funniest lines in the show (having to do with tea and a steamroller). Harris is great as the no-nonsense Duchess, who refuses to let the Hareford tradition die. Nor do the Hareford ancestors, as Bill learns after a few drinks.

The musical direction under the baton of Rob Berman is excellent. The show so involving, one forgets at times the orchestra is on stage throughout. Also essential to the musical running on all cylinders is the exquisite direction and choreographic work of Warren Carlyle. The various numbers coming off so well, it looks like the cast rehearsed for months beforehand. Best of all, this incarnation of the show never once feels dated or out-of-touch. Everything registering as immediate and alive. Also deserving of mention are the costumes by Emilio Sosa, which are all very well done. 

Message musicals certainly have an important place in the theatrical pantheon. But at the same time, it’s a real joy to see a show where the only objective is a simple, unadulterated fun. Welcome back, Me and My Girl, you have been sorely missed. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Lisa O'Hare (Lady Jaqueline Carstone), Mark Evans (The Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke), Simon Jones (Lord Battersby), Suzanne Douglas (Lady Battersby), Don Stephenson (Douglas Herbert Parchester), John Horton (Sir Jasper Tring), Harriet Harris (Maria, Duchess of Dene), Chuck Cooper (Sir John Tremayne), Bill Buell (Charles Hethersett, The Butler), Christian Borle (Bill Snibson), Lara Michelle Kelly (Sally Smith), Kevin Worley (Pub Pianist/Ensemble), Sam Bolen (Footman/Ensemble), David Scott Purdy (Barman/Ensemble), Jessica Wockenfuss (Mrs. Worthington-Worthington/ensemble), Christine DiGallonardo (Lady Diss/Ensemble), Lizzie Klemperer (Lady Brighton/Ensemble), Price Waldman (Bob Barking/Ensemble), Florrie Bagel (Mrs. Brown/Ensemble), Timothy McDevitt (Constable/Ensemble), Maddy Apple, Alex Aquilino, Phillip Attmore, Abby Church, Jake Corcoran, Ta'nika Gibson, Jordan Grubb, Brittany Rose Hammond, Eloise Kropp, Mariah Reshea Reives, Chaz Wolcott (Ensemble)

Me and My Girl
Book and Lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Book Revised by Stephen Fry, with Contributions by Mike Ockrent
Music by Noel Gay

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert Adaptation: John Weidman
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Chris Walker
Production Stage Manager: Nancy Pittelman
Casting by: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, CSA, Justin Bohon
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle

Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
121 West 55th Street
Running Time: Two Hours, Twenty Minutes, with one intermission
Closed: May 13, 2018

Long Day's Journey Into Night - One family's fall from grace


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Like an immense series of interlocking puzzle pieces, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night inexorably charts the downfall of a family which has literally collapsed in upon itself through decades of inner rot. The current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and originally seen at the Bristol Old Vic, offering quite the spellbinding journey.

The story takes place over the course of a single day at the Connecticut home of the Tyrone family during the summer of 1912. Stage actor James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) and his wife Mary (Lesley Manville) following their annual pattern of hunkering down for a brief respite after yet another season on the road. A life, as Mary often notes, of endless “cheap hotels”. Mary also forced to deal with continual bouts of terrible loneliness during the periods James is busy performing or out with his fellow thespians.

Joining James and Mary in Connecticut this year are their two adult sons. James Tyrone Jr. (Rory Keenan), a.k.a. "Jamie", an actor in his own right, as well as a drunk and a woman chaser; and Edmund (Matthew Beard). The baby of the family, and Mary's favorite, Edmund has recently returned home after working his way across the globe by ship, and recently embarked on a writing career. Edmund, whose health has never been the best, may also be suffering from consumption, a condition that killed Mary's father years earlier.

Mary is also heavily addicted to morphine. A condition she developed due to complications in the aftermath of a very difficult pregnancy. James not helping the situation by refusing to take his wife to a more competent (and thus more expensive) physician; rather than the one he ultimately selected. As quickly becomes apparent, James is a notorious tightwad due to a continual fear of poverty, one stemming from childhood. This is also why James is continually conned into buying worthless parcels of land. He feeling that land, which will always be there, is a much safer investment than stocks and bonds, or putting his money into banks, all of which can fail.

Despite the family's hope they might be able to enjoy their time together this summer, every one of the four is on edge. Mary has just returned from her latest stay at the sanitarium, with the men constantly observing and dissecting her every movement, looking for signs she has returned to the needle. This constant scrutiny causing Mary to feel something akin to a fly under a microscope and only serving to add to the emotional pressure she feels as she struggles to stay clean.

Jeremy Irons and Leslie Manville in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Directed by Richard Eyre. Photo Credit: Richard Termine

A major irony in the story is how James believes all that’s needed to break any cycle of addition, is one's own will power. Yet James himself is unable to walk away from his refusal to spend one penny more than necessary, for anything. Be it not getting the best help possible for Mary, or later Edmund, or not wanting more than one light bulb to burn downstairs in their home at night. His irrationality over money coloring everything he has done in life.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night could be called O’Neill’s very personal requiem. A semi-autobiographical story, the play was completed in 1941, yet not published until 1953, three years after his death. What makes the story so compelling is that O’Neill takes the time to thoroughly examine the roots of each of the four main characters, while also showing the circumstances which have brought them to where they are today. Not to mention also bringing forth the self-destructive streak in each. From James' harrowing experiences as a child, to why Mary both loves and hates each of her children, (albeit for different reasons), the text never stops at the surface of any issue discussed. Particularly resonating in this regard is Jamie’s drunken warning to Edmund about how he will do his best to destroy his younger brother, in spite of how much he loves him.

Irons is perfect as James. The character continually projecting an attitude of superiority, coupled with a frequent sneer of disgust. Also part of his makeup is an air of terrible resignation regarding events of which he is helpless to do anything about. At times, James does half-heartedly acknowledge his own shortcomings, but, like everyone else in this family, is either unable or unwilling to save himself from what he has become.

Manville gives an absolutely dynamic performance as Mary. A woman walking the finest of lines, she desperately wants to be cured from the poison that rules her soul, but her life has become so full of painful memories, that existing in a drug-induced haze continually looks more and more attractive to her. While Manville shows Mary to be quite the pitiful figure, she also brings forth the character's deeper feelings of bitterness in regards to all she has suffered over the years. Each member of her family, at least in Mary's eyes, partially to blame for the way she is now.

Keenan is good as Jamie, a young reprobate already well on the road to ruin. Though underneath his anger is a desperate need for someone to show him that life doesn’t have to be this way. It's also interesting to note that while Jamie hates his father with a passion - the feeling often mutual - in actuality, he is more like his namesake than he's willing to admit.

Beard is fine as Edmund. A stand-in for O’Neill, and a bit of a dreamer, he wants nothing more than to simply get well. However, upon his return home, he too becomes enmeshed in the family dynamics once again, receiving mixed signals of love, hate and disgust from all sides. He also doesn’t make it easy on himself by succumbing to temptation a little too regularly. Such as continually drinking alcoholic beverages when it’s clearly not good for his health.

Jessica Regan does well as the family serving maid Cathleen. She nicely playing off Manville in their scenes together.

Direction by Richard Eyre is very strong, allowing the story to move at its own pace as, bit by bit, the truth about what the audience is seeing moves front and center. Eyre also does a nice job in seamlessly melding the nostalgic and occasional comedic moments with the more dramatic ones.

The set by Rob Howell is nicely eclectic, showing pretty much what an actor of James Tyrone's ilk would have in his home. Though some parts of the house seem a bit too modern, or fit the era depicted. Peter Mumford's lighting is very good, especially in the final act. John Leonard's sound design also adds an important element to the tale. It nicely calling up the sounds of the wind and sea birds to help place the story properly. There are, however some problems in being able to hear the cast in act one, along with the habit the actors had of stepping on each other’s lines more than once.

Offering an unflinching look at one family's ultimate "heart of darkness", this production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, other than a few small issues here and there, is quite the wonder to behold.

Featuring: Jeremy Irons (James Tyrone), Lesley Manville (Mary Tyrone), Matthew Beard (Edmund Tyrone), Rory Keenan (James Tyrone, Jr.), Jessica Regan (Cathleen)

Long Day's Journey Into Night
Bristol Old Vic
by Eugene O'Neill
Set and Costume Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: John Leonard
Directed by Sir Richard Eyre

Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 40 minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 27, 2018

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Summer and Smoke - More Than 90% There


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One can't be helped out of a bad situation unless they are first willing to help themselves. A tenet for anyone suffering from substance abuse, and also when it comes to matters of the heart. The latter point brilliantly made clear in Tennessee Williams' 1948 drama, Summer and Smoke. Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group, the work shows how fine a line there can be between sympathy and pity.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) is the somewhat repressed daughter of the town reverend (T. Ryder Smith). She teaches music, hosts weekly literary gatherings and generally tries to set a proper example for others. She also refuses to condemn one person for the actions of another. Such as her friendship with Nellie Ewell (Hannah Elless), daughter of a woman who personally welcomes many of the traveling salesmen who pass through town. Alma has also been forced to sacrifice much of her childhood to take care of her mother (Barbara Walsh). A woman who, since having a nervous breakdown, can be quite verbally abusive.

One Fourth of July, Alma has a chance encounter with John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow), the ne’er-do-well son of the town physician (Phillip Clark). John however, has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. He preferring a life of liquor, gambling and female companionship. He's also often seen in the company of Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst). A woman whose uncle owns the Moon Lake Casino; a place which offers the very pursuits John enjoys.

When Alma and John meet, there's an instant attraction. One not only filled with sexual tension, but also a meeting of kindred souls. Both people possessing an inner torment, and each fighting a future that has been seemingly predetermined. John seeing in Alma a woman who can save him from his inner demons, yet mostly content to admire her from afar. Alma meanwhile, seeks someone to show her the passion and beauty she has never experienced first-hand, but can only watch helplessly as John continuously fails to measure up to the man she wants him to be.


Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow in Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams at Classic Stage Company. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Williams' strongest plays deal with human nature, and Summer and Smoke is no exception. The story makes it clear that Alma and John are not so much in love as looking for a lifeline. Yet one can’t help but feel that should these two actually get together, it will end in tragedy. Each desperately seeking an idealized version of what they believe a happy existence should entail.

Ireland and Darrow are brilliant together, each deftly bringing their character’s pain vividly to life. Ireland is the standout, a woman simply worn out from coping with the stress at home and the pressure of who she’s supposed to be. Alma must also often deal with the latest news from the town gossips; John frequently the subject of their revelations.

Darrow is fine as John, the harder role to pull off. He having to present a totally cynical worldview, yet still make his character sympathetic to the audience. John can be best described as someone searching for, and hiding from, himself in any way possible.

The rest of the cast is quite good. Elless is fine as Nellie, a musical student with no talent whatsoever, but who eventually finds her own place in the scheme of things. Smith is okay, if a little stereotypical, as Reverend Winemiller. Walsh does an excellent job as Alma's tormented and hurtful mother. Someone who just may have a bit more sense of awareness than she lets on.

John Doyle’s direction is sure-handed, allowing the various characters, and particularly the two leads, to play off each other perfectly. He mixing in several pregnant pauses when the two are together, while helping to bring forth the inner feelings of each. Probably the most lasting impression of all is the air of defeat and resignation Alma and John often carry with them.

While this production has all the makings of a perfect offering, there is one glaring misstep. That being the quite minimalist (and almost non-existent) sets by Dane Laffrey. It’s a practice that can work in many instances, (such as CSC’s excellent revival of Pacific Overtures last summer), but not in this case. Summer and Smoke is set in a specific era and screams for the proper atmosphere. One projecting an aura of a faded Southern gentility in conflict with the changing times. Grounding the production thus would have made the work feel so much more immediate. Even the name of the town suggests a place slowly cracking under the weight of its own history; and just having a painting to indicate a statue, or making a reference to a veil which isn’t there, only serves to abruptly pull the audience out of a specific moment rather than immersing them in it.

Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are well done, especially the well-tailored suits Darrow wears. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting works nicely, as does Walter Trabach’s sound design. The latter often used in an attempt to counter the minuscule offerings of the set.

Summer and Smoke is a compelling tale of two lonely people. The CSC/Transport Group's production of which is quite good indeed. However, if it did not suffer from the problem mentioned above, the show could have been so much better.

Featuring: Glenna Brucken (Rosemary), Phillip Clark (Dr. John Buchanan, Sr.), Nathan Darrow (John Buchanan), Hannah Elless (Nellie Ewell), Elena Hurst (Rosa Gonzalez), Marin Ireland, (Alma Winemiller), Tina Johnson (Mrs. Bassett), Gerardo Rodriguez (Papa Gonzales), T. Ryder Smith (Reverend Winemiller), Ryan Spahn (Archie Kramer), Jonathan Spivey (Roger Doremus), Barbara Walsh (Mrs. Winemiller)

Summer and Smoke
By Tennessee Williams

Set Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Kathryn Rohe
Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Design: Walter Trarbach
Original Music: Michael John LaChuisa
Casting: Nora Brennan Casting
Associate Director: Francesca James
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Englander

Directed by Jack Cummings III

Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group
136 East 13th Street (CSC)
Tickets: 212-352-3101, 966-811-4111 or www.classicstage.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes one intermission
Closes: May 25, 2018