Monday, March 28, 2016

"Nice Fish" - Where life happens when you're doing something else

By Judd Hollander

Offering a look at a type of lifestyle that’s probably foreign to most city dwellers, yet touching on themes that are universal, American Repertory Theater's presentation of Nice Fish presents a picture of two men trying to temporarily get away from life's responsibilities, only to find themselves continually reminded of the very places they wish to leave. While at the same time, seeing flashes of something far more simple and at times, far more compelling. The show currently taking place at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Things begin and end on a frozen Minnesota lake in late March on the next to last day of ice fishing season. Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Mark Rylance), two long-time friends, now both in middle age, have driven out for a last chance at hooking a couple of big ones before they have to pack it in for another year. At least that's Erik's idea, he being the more serious fisherman of the two and indeed, the only fisherman. Ron it seems, is only there to hang out with his friend, drink a couple of beers and try to see if he can get reception on his cell phone. That is, until he drops the phone into a hole he and Erik have bored into the ice. 

As time goes on, the two talk about the value of a particular fishing lure, how easy it is to misplace things, and the women they used to know and those they will know in the future. Most of all, they talk about the past, the way things were and never will be again. As Erik puts it, "what is past is forever lost". 

It should be noted that Erik and Ron are not so much speaking to each other as they are talking at each other. Or to be more exact, reciting the poetry of Louis Jenkins. Jenkins' work, along with Rylance's boyhood memories of winters in Wisconsin, serving as the inspiration for this somewhat existential tableau. The spoken words conjuring up some rather immense imagery; populated with feelings of hope, travel, a future of possibilities and of returning to where one started.

Opening to strands of polka music and the sight of an expansive ice field stretching as far as the eye can see - or at least as far back as the stage can make it appear - one feels transported to a place where the world is slightly surreal and where different realities can touch, if only for a moment. The text at times making mention of things which seem to cause great stress in life - such as trying to figure out where you left your watch the previous evening. Yet ones which ultimately have no significance in the larger scheme of the universe in which we live.

There are times in the play however, when reality does exert its presence. Such as when The DNR Man (Bob Davis), a local official and a stickler for regulations, comes by to see if Erik and Ron have the proper fishing permits. This encounter setting off a hilarious sequence of bureaucratic absurdity as the two friends try to deal with a regulation-obsessed soul who insists on having the proper "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed, even if it doesn't always make sense to do so.

Also crossing the duo's path is aging spear fisherman Wayne (Raye Birk), and his granddaughter Flo (Kayli Carter). Both of whom, like The DNR Man, initially seem to appear out of nowhere. It's later ascertained that Wayne and Flo are the owners of a nearby ice fishing shack. One which includes a sauna. Ron and Erik eventually bonding with them over such topics as canary breeding habits, the power of bowling pins, junk mail, and constellations in the night sky. 

Lichtscheidl is very good as Erik. A quiet and reflective sort, he also has a bit of the rebel inside. This latter aspect emerging when The DNR man comes around. Erik also gets to emote some of the more introspective speeches in the text while also doing a terrific slow burn as he tries to fish. His beginnings of a simmering rage caused by Ron continually hopping about from one place to another, usually in an attempt to stay warm. Ron often driving his friend to distraction in the process.

Rylance does well in making Ron far more than the simple caricature he could easily become. A sort of flighty everyman, and one continually at the mercy of the elements, Ron has a perennial woebegone look and the sense of uneasiness we've all felt at one time or another when stuck in a place we really don't want to be. Yet he also clearly likes spending time with his friend, and there are times when he actually seems to be enjoying himself. Ron would also probably delight in telling people how much fun he and Ron had together out there. After the adventure was safely behind him, of course. 

Blending well into the story are Birk and Carter as Wayne and Flo, though neither of these characters are as fully developed as Ron or Erik. Wayne embodying a sort of icon from an era that's quietly fading away, while Flo represents more of an image from the future. There's also the feeling that while these two sets of folks might not get along back on dry land, where they probably would have very little in common, out on the ice they're on pretty much equal footing as they eventually start share memories with one another. 

More than a play, Nice Fish offers what amounts to an immense immersive experience. The chance to fall into a world where you can be at one with yourself - and just fish. As Ron and Erik make clear towards the end, "it doesn't seem to have any plot". That may be quite true, but when all has been said and shown, it doesn't really matter. For what is truly offered here is a fascinating exercise in acting. This, coupled with the sure-handed direction of Claire van Kampen, who lets the actors take the source material and expand on it when necessary, allows Nice Fish to be a very intriguing, yet somewhat off-kilter piece where life and ice fishing coexist; and where cell phone signals can reach even as far as a drifting ice flow. As an added plus, the show doesn't spoon-feed the audience bits of information throughout. Rather, it makes you think and wonder about what's going on, while also offering at look at a situation that may be quite foreign in some instances, but in other ways, quite familiar. Oh yes, and it's also a lot of fun.

Featuring: Kayli Carter (Flo), Bob Davis (The DNR Man), Raye Birk (Wayne), Jim Lichtscheidl (Erik), Mark Rylance (Ron)

Nice Fish
by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
Drawn from the words of Louis Jenkins

Scenic Designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound Designer: Scott W. Edwards
Composer: Claire van Kampen
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Evangeline Rose Whitlock
Assistant Stage Manager: Alfredo Macias
Audio Supervisor: Claire Bacon
Lighting Supervisor: Dani Prados
Wardrobe Supervisor: Kelly Sinnot
Projection Supervisor: Dan Carr
Stage Crew: Kelly Allen, Kier Macartney, Katt Masterson

St. Ann's Warehouse
Brooklyn Bridge Park, 45 Water Street, dumbo, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-254-8779, 866-811-4111 or www.
Running time: 1 Hour, Forty Minutes, no intermission

Closes: March 27

"iNSIGNIFICANCE" - A question of what really matters

By Judd Hollander

A Professor (Max Baker), a Ballplayer (Anthony Comis), an Actress (Susannah Hoffman) and a United States Senator (Michael Pemberton). People who, on the surface seem to have little in common, but when the four are Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Joseph McCarthy, matters have the potential to become a little more interesting. A premise not quite fulfilled in the London-based defibrillator theatre company's production of Terry Johnson's iNSIGNIFICANCE

A hotel room in 1953 New York City. Night has fallen as the Professor is going over his latest calculations regarding his hypothesis of the physical nature of the universe. With a knock on the door, the Senator barges in, demanding the Professor testify before the House of Un-American Activates Committee. Something for which the Professor had previously received a subpoena. The not-so-veiled threats by the Senator leaving no doubt as to what will happen to the Professor and his reputation should he not do so.

Shortly after the Senator departs, the Actress rushes in - fresh from a movie shoot and hiding from her fans, the press, and her ballplayer husband. Said husband arriving soon after and bringing his share of the couple's emotional baggage with him. 

However before this happens, the Actress begins explaining the theory of relativity - the Professor soon suitably impressed with her presentation. That is, until it becomes obvious she has no idea what the process actually means. The Professor pointedly telling her that knowledge by itself is not truth, and it is the understanding of that knowledge which is far more important. One could also argue that without such understanding, any answer you believe to be true is in reality an instance of following an assumption blindly. It's a parallel which could also be drawn in regards to the Senator's dogged determination to root out the "undesirables" in the country (i.e. Communists) and the resulting hysteria it helped feed.

It soon becomes apparent what the playwright is trying to do, is to go behind the public personas of the four individuals depicted and examine the human beings underneath. Each of whom has their own set of fears and insecurities. While all reached their current place in the limelight under different circumstances, there's no doubt that in 1953, just about every person in America knew their names. It's also a testament to these four's staying power that even though none of their names are actually mentioned, there is no doubt in the audience's mind as to their actual identities. Continual references to events concerning each also helps to take care of that.

On the flip side, iNSIGNIFICANCE offers an interesting examination into what happens when a symbol - be it one of sex, sports, fear or science - becomes far more important than the person behind it. Some of the group embracing this mantle, some not caring one way or the other, and at least one wanting to run as far away from it as possible.

Unfortunately these overall concepts more often than not becomes lost amidst the various stereotypical behaviors presented. The one real exception being Hoffman, who offers a drop dead perfect performance as the Actress, while completely nailing the Monroe persona, both in the voice and mannerisms, yet also making the character completely real. Comis, on the other hand, seems to be continually channeling Ray Liotta's performance in "Goodfellas". Which is a real shame, as his character at this particular point in time offers an opportunity to explore the question of what happens to athletes when they stop being athletes? DiMaggio having retired in 1951, and the Ballplayer clearly not being able to move on from his time in the spotlight. An example of this being his continual pride in appearing in 13 different series of baseball bubblegum cards.

Other interesting tidbits explored in an attempt to humanize the characters include the Professor having two failed marriages behind him, and the Senator's steadfast loyalty to his wife - even when being faced with a very seemingly willing Actress. There are also several touching moments when the Actress and Ballplayer talk about having a child. Though unfortunately, each discusses this situation when the other is past the point of wanting to listen. While these instances certainly make one want to know more about these people, in the end the play never goes far enough to allow the audience to really connect with who they are inside.

Another problem was the decision to actually have the show take place in a hotel room, (room 505 at Langham Place on Fifth Avenue), where any intimate theatre or black box space would have worked just as well. The room itself, while certainly adequately furnished, really doesn't add to the essence of the piece and there is very little there that calls attention to the time in which it is set. As such, the setting is almost more of a distraction than anything else. 

James Hillier's direction is okay, but like the show itself, never really allows things to go beyond what is seen on the surface. iNSIGNIFICANCE certainly has a lot of potential when it starts, but ultimately fails to live up to what it could have been.

Featuring: Max Baker (The Professor), Anthony Combs (The Ballplayer), Susannah Hoffman (The Actress), Michael Pemberton (The Senator).

by Terry Johnson

Assistant Director: Jordan Reeves
Designer: Amy Cook
Assistant Designer & Costume: John Brandon Baird
Sound Design: Mark Van Hare
Lighting Effects: Christopher Gerson
Production Manager: Meg Kelly
Stage Manager: Frances White
Production Assistant: Kelly O'Donnell
Box Office Manager: Bryan Hunt
Casting: Caparelliotis Casting
Press Representative: Matt Ross PR
Executive Producer: Trish Wadley
Line Producer: Hang A Tale
Consulting Producer: Michael Francis
Assistant Producer: Rosie Beard
Associate Producers: Eilene Davidson, Emily Feinstein, Ocourant, Gabrielle Palitz, Keren Misgav Ristvedt

Directed by James Hillier

Presented by defibrillator 
Langham Place
400 Fifth Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, one intermission
Closed: March 20, 2016

"a room of my own" - Where you don't always get what you want

By Judd Hollander

Who knew an endless stream of profanity could be so hilarious? All it takes is the proper character(s) to say the words; lines delivered perfectly straight and a situation that beautifully combines the humorous with the heartbreaking. Case in point: Charles Messina’s a room of my own, running at the Abingdon Theatre Company through March 13.

It's Christmas, 1979. When disco was king, the world hadn’t yet heard of AIDS, and a one-room apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village wasn't always the ideal family living space. Which is where we find the Morellis. Peter (Johnny Tammaro), the family patriarch, is unable to work due to a heart attack he suffered several years earlier, at the age of forty. His wife Dotty (Joli Tribuzio), who works in a bakery, is the family breadwinner. She also skimming a little money from the job, funds which go to help paying the family bills. There's also kids Jeannie (Kendra Jain) and Carl (Nico Bustamante) - the latter billed in the show program as "Little Carl". All of whom sleep in the same room on two pullout couches. Living upstairs is Dotty's gay brother, Jackie (Mario Cantone). 

The story is told from the viewpoint of the Adult Carl (Ralph Macchio), who's approximately the same age now his father was then. A professional writer, Carl is penning a play about his family and this particular Christmas - which he calls the "Christmas of Atari". The elder Carl wanting to craft the past as he remembers it to be, or rather, as he would very much prefer it to be. However, his younger self has other ideas. Little Carl insisting his adult counterpart not only write down what actually happened, but also now be a witness to the events as they are once again played out.

Crammed together in a space that's little more than "a dump", as stated by Dotty at one point, Little Carl's greatest wish is to have his own room. Something quite clearly far beyond the family’s meager resources. The Morelli financial situation being a particularly sore point for Peter, as he was apparently cut out of his wealthy father’s will. Peter's long-estranged sister Jean (Liza Vann) now controlling the family money. The two siblings having not spoken in decades. A good part of the reason for this being that Peter has both a short temper and a streak of stubbornness a mile wide. 

Peter's perennially lit fuse pales in comparison to Dotty's. His wife continually going off on rants at the drop of her hat. The tirades ranging from what goes on at her job, discussing the attitude of one of Little Carl's teachers, or just yelling at her children for whatever the reason of the moment happens to be. All this done with a blue word coming out of her mouth almost every other second. Though to be fair, her kids give as good as they get in that regard.

Also holding his own against Dotty is her brother Jackie, who wanders in from time to time to help raise matters to a higher boiling point. Or alternatively, to try to cool things down.

Without a doubt, a room of my own has all the elements for a television sitcom, and at times actually starts to feel like one - especially when Mario Cantone's character is added to the mix. Fortunately, for the most part Messina, doing double duty here as writer and director, manages to get past the pitfall of cute situations and easy answers via the strong realism he injects into the story. Thus making one feel they know the various characters quite intimately. Examples include Dotty and Peter's realization they'll never be able to move to a place where their son can have his own room; Peter pulling a trick on Little Carl which quickly backfires into something not at all funny; and the young Carl, all of ten years old, asking Jackie why the older man has never married.

The point Messina comes back to time and again, and one the younger Carl forces his older self to come to terms with, is that while the "good old days" weren't always fun and games, there was also a lot going on that you, being a child, were probably never aware of. Such how parents would sacrifice their own needs to make sure their children got, if not everything they may have wanted, then certainly everything they needed. Things like having food to eat, clothing to wear and a place to live. Basically, a room of my own presents a twist on the American Dream. Where parents try to make sure their children get a better life then they themselves have - even if they have to break or bend the law a bit to ensure that.

True, the writing is a bit lightweight at points, with such elements as Peter's penchant for gambling mentioned only in passing and then just as quickly dropped. Also not explored as much as it could have been was Peter's relationship with his late father. Yet even though Messina is only concentrating on a very brief span of time (basically the period just before Christmas until the New Year) he still is able to provide a good idea of the feelings and emotions that drive the characters in his story. Most importantly, he makes one want to learn more about these people and how their lives eventually turn out.

Also good are the references linking the story to the time depicted - and yes, there really was a Crazy Eddie on Eighth Street. Though the Guy Lombardo comment may be a little off. Lombardo died in 1977, two years before the time in which the play is set, though his orchestra did play together for another couple of years. There's also a plethora of disco music booming out as one enters to theatre to help set the mood for what is to follow.

Tribuzio is excellent as Dotty, always ready with a cutting remark, angry glance, stream of cuss words, or bearing her soul to someone she hasn't seen in years, as the situation requires. Her performance is also definitely one to remember when awards are being handed out. Tammaro is good as Peter, a man trying to do the best for his family, though like his wife, he long ago stopped trying to get rid of the very large chip on his shoulder. Each of the two preferring to eek out little victories against the system whenever, wherever and from whoever they can. Cantone is fine as Jackie, who more than holds his own against the family angst, but who clearly has issues where his own personal life is concerned. Jain and Bustamante mesh well as the kids. Both emotionally older than their years, but still able to emit gasps of childlike wonder when something touches them. Macchio is fine as the elder Carl and narrator of the story, though he's kind of one dimensional throughout. He continually complaining to the other characters that they're not performing in the manner he wants them to.

As a director, Messina's concept is strong throughout. He never lets the play stop moving forward, but also successfully slows it down at points to allow a good blending of drama, comedy and pathos. Brian Dudkiewicz's set of Morelli home presents a good example of a place that feels homey, crammed, somewhat dirty and totally lived in.

There’s a moment towards the end of the play, when, as the family is watching the New Year's Eve festivities, Dotty and Peter do something they haven’t done the entire show. They kiss. The family seen in a rare moment of contentment when all is right with the world. As memories go, this is certainly not a bad one at all.

Funny, harsh and touching, a room of my own touches all the bases in this theatrical home run of family life.

a room of my own 
written and directed by Charles Messina

Featuring: Ralph Macchio (Adult Carl Morelli), Nico Baustamante (Little Carl Morelli), Joli Tribuzio (Dotty Morelli), Johnny Tammaro (Peter Morelli), Kendra Jain (Jeannie Morelli), Mario Cantone (Jackie), Liza Vann (Jean Morelli)

Scenic Design: Brian Dudkiewicz

Lighting Design: Michael A. Megliola

Costume Design: Catherine Siracusa

Sound Design: Ian Wehrle

Props Design: Addison Heeren

Production Stage Manager: Deidre Works

Production Manager: Ashley Zednick

Casting: Lori Malkin

Press Representative: Bob Lasko

a room of my own
Abingdon Theatre
312 West 36th Street
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

Closed: March 13, 2016

"Dot" - Straddling two separate worlds

By Judd Hollander

Most people, whether they want to admit it or not, routinely exist in two separate planes of existence. The first being life as it actually is, while the second is life as they want it to be. Or, more accurately, the way they wish life could be. Facing this confluence, and being forced to deal with it, is at the heart of Coleman Domingo's funny, powerful, touching, and somewhat overlong Dot, now at the Vineyard Theatre.

At her mother's home in West Philadelphia shortly before Christmas, Shelly (Sharon Washington) is preparing breakfast for Dotty (Marjorie Johnson), her aging mom, while continually ranting about life to her childhood friend Jackie (Finnerty Steeves). Jackie, having long since decamped for the bright lights of New York City, has returned for a visit while trying to deal with an unexpected personal situation. She just turning 40 and finding herself pregnant by another woman's husband. Jackie was also once in love with Shelly's younger brother Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore). Until she caught Donnie and his friend Adam (Chris Hanlon) in a rather compromising position.

Donnie and Adam have since married, though all is not well on that front either. Donnie wanting to start a family and being content to age gracefully, while Adam is more obsessed with youth and keeping trim. In fact, the couple are currently in the middle of a juice cleanse. Though Donnie is much more interested in the oatmeal cookies in his mother's kitchen cabinet and the chicken in her fridge.

The final member of the family is Shelly's younger sister, and D-list reality star Averie (Libya V. Pugh). She currently hoping to land a spot on "Celebrity Mud Wrestling". However for the moment, she's staying in the basement of Shelly's house and also taking care of Shelly's young son, while Shelly watches over Dotty.

As is soon made clear, Dotty is suffering from Alzheimer's. A condition Donnie likes to consider as being in its early stages, but as Shelly tells him at one point, the early stages have long gone since ended. Dotty often not knowing what time it is, what she's having for breakfast, asking for her long-deceased husband, not always recognizing her own children, or even remembering there's a gigantic Christmas tree in the living room.

Aided by their Kazakhstan caregiver Fidel (Michael Rosen), which whom Dotty has bonded, Shelly is trying to do the best she can in an increasingly untenable situation. However, just like her mother, Shelly is refusing to relinquish control to anyone, firmly believing she knows best. Even when she does ask her siblings for help, said request comes with a caveat that things get done her way or not at all. As the family gathers for the Christmas holiday, conflict and denial is definitely on the menu as everyone involved is forced to take their blinders off and face some heard truths. Though one person will be actually be putting their blinders on, so everyone present can learn a long overdue lesson. 

As Donnie and Averie try to balance their mother's needs with what's going on in their own lives, and Sharon tries to maintain order in a house that is always seemingly verging on chaos, it is Dotty, surprisingly enough, who remains the real rock of sanity. At least when she's having her more lucid moments. Not only is she fully aware of what's happening to her at those times, but she's also angry, upset and most of all scared, as she watches her life being taken away bit by bit.

Dot is first and foremost, a play about family. Specifically, the choices this particular family is forced to face and the need for them to come together in a time of crisis. However as Domingo quite correctly points out, there some problems that cannot be fixed, no matter how hard you wish they could be. Sometimes all you can do is try to make things as easy as possible for those in need as events move toward their inevitable conclusion.

Domingo also manages to leaven the seriousness of the subject matter with some great moments of humor; comedy and tragedy often considered to be both sides of the same coin, and said relationship being quite evident here. In addition to Donnie's reaction to the juice diet, there's Jackie observing one of Shelly's continual tirades about her situation and when it's over, only being curious as to why Dotty still has a rotary phone in her kitchen - one that looks like it hasn't been redecorated in 40 years; and while a nice set, it does seem a bit out of step with the rather elegant living room we see in act two. Susan Stroman's direction also works well for the most part in keeping the show veering between these two extremes. A sequence between Shelly and Donnie bonding over a package of Oreos being particularly well-played.

Unfortunately, while Domingo clearly has lot to say, he also tosses far too many ingredients into the mix. The entire subplot with Jackie while nice, really doesn't need to be there. Granted, she's meant to be a sort of prodigal daughter returning to her childhood home and realizing how much has changed in her absence. Her outsider point of view also making her a stand-in for the audience in that regard. However Jackie's storyline also takes away from the central issue of Dotty and her children, especially since Jackie is more concerned with her own problems than with what's going on in her unofficial family, In addition, Jackie has never gotten over her long-ago breakup with Donnie. That being another matter not well integrated into the narrative and which really feels like it belongs in another play. 

Also not really working - and for the same reasons as described in the preceding paragraph - is the handling of Donnie and Adam's relationship. There's no denying the two actors have a good chemistry together, and that their characters both have a lot to say. Additionally, a scene of Adam and Dotty dancing together, and the reasons behind it, is quite touching. Unfortunately, many of the scenes concerning the two men often feel added on and a deliberate effort to pad the play rather than letting the central narrative stand on its own. Also, some pivotal scenes concerning Donnie and Adam come way too late in the tale and really needed to been worked in earlier, if at all. As it stands now, Dot could easily benefit by cutting about 20-30 minutes of what ended up on stage. Though it might have been nice to see Shelly's relationship with her son examined, as it related to the rest of the family.

As Dotty, Johnson powerfully brings to life a woman facing the abyss while trying desperately to hold on to whatever cognizant thought she can before it all disappears into a void of gray. Washington is fine as Shelly, a caring and dependable person with a terminally short fuse - one which has taken her to the very edge of a nervous breakdown, even if she doesn't quite realize it. Pugh does very well as Averie. The character in the beginning coming off as the most annoying person in the piece, but who, by the end has developed into the most level-headed of all. Moore and Hanlon do good work as marrieds Donnie and Adam. Each having a series of moments that show their characters to be, if not always well-rounded, then at least fully human and real. Steeves is okay as Jackie, who finally gets to put some of her past demons to rest, while Rosen does some good work as Fidel. He trying to do what he can to help this family, while at the same time, desperately missing his own.

When the show stays on this message, it is powerful and poignant indeed. Hopefully Mr. Domingo will have a chance to rework this show in the future, highlighting its core issues while jettisoning some of the extraneous material, or perhaps using it in a play yet to be written. 

Featuring: Marjorie Johnson (Dotty), Sharon Washington (Shelly), Finnerty Steeves (Jackie), Stephen Conrad Moore (Donnie), Colin Hanlon (Adam), Libya V. Pugh (Averie), Michael Rosen (Fidel)

by Coleman Domingo

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Kara Harmon
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Sound Designer: Tom Morse
Hair & Makeup Designer: Dave Bova
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Roy Harris
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: You Want What? Productions, Inc., Nick Kargel
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
General Manager: DR Theatrical Management
Directed by Susan Stroman

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street

Tickets: 212-353-0303 or
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes, with one intermission

Closed: March 20, 2016

"Buried Child" - Life on the edge

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Monique Carboni

Rain can have a very cleansing effect. Washing away the dust accumulated from years of neglect and stagnation to reveal something new or long forgotten. It can also unearth secrets that some would wish stay buried forever. All of which happens in Sam Shepard's 1978 play Buried Child, currently being given an absolutely riveting revival by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

The story takes place in a ramshackle home somewhere in the middle of Illinois. Perhaps the structure is all that's left of a once-thriving farm, though no crops have been grown there for at least 35 years. Kudos to scenic designer Derek McLane for envisioning the somewhat rundown set which perfectly fits the bleak mood depicted. 

Said dwelling is the home of a rather dysfunctional family. Dodge (Ed Harris), the patriarch in name only, smokes and drinks too much, has lost the use of his legs and seems to be in the beginning stages of dementia. His rather pious wife Halie (Amy Madigan), has the tendency to ramble on as if nothing is worthy of her attention, other than what she wishes to see. Son Tilden (Paul Sparks), who at one point, seemingly had everything going for him in life, has retreated completely inside himself. So much so he's a virtual cipher - with more than a bit of creepiness about him. Tilden apparently now living at home because he has nowhere else to go. Dropping by at points is Dodge and Halie's other son, Bradley (Rich Sommer). Someone definitely not the family favorite. That honor, at least as far as Halie is concerned, goes to their deceased child Ansel; who was once a basketball player and later, a solider. Halie currently urging the city council to erect a statue in Ansel's memory.

The family's existence, for want of a better word, is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected appearance of Tilden's son Vince (Nat Wolff). Vince is returning home after an eight-year absence, only to find, to his great shock, that no one recognizes him. Accompanying Vince is his friend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga); expecting, from what she had been told, a scene out of a Norman Rockwell picture. Though the situation in which she soon finds herself is quickly revealed to be anything but, as the two interlopers try find a way to coexist with a family that clearly prefers they not be there.

As Vince tries to find out what happened in the years he's been away, and Shelly tries to hang onto her sanity as the situation threatens to become rather volatile, it becomes apparent that what we are seeing is no less than the destruction of the American Dream. Where just about everyone's hopes for the future have come crashing down in flames. It's not a coincidence that the phrase "All American" is used several times during the play. Both in regards to Tilden's past and in reference to Ansel and the vast potential Halie firmly believes he had. Any contrary claim made in regards to the deceased being quickly denied. Though since Ansel actually expired in a motel room, there is the possibility that he wasn't the wholesome type Halie would have us believe.

More than a family that's in denial of their past, it's also one that's basically given up on living. Dodge has long since let his farm and life go to seed, and having few if any friends - he has no idea who his neighbors are for example, and what's more doesn't care to find out. His one great joy in life is sneaking a drink whenever he can from a little bottle he always keeps nearby, even though he's been forbidden to do so for health reasons. These sips being tiny victories against the constant rules and restrictions he now has to face - laid down by others in the family. 

This crippling fatalism Dodge carries has also trickled down to Bradley. Like his father, the younger man is also a bit of a brute and, like the rest of the family, can appear rather threatening. Though Bradley is without the gentle awkwardness Tilden sometimes displays, or Dodge's continuous series of cynical wisecracks. Qualities which serve to humanize both of these characters in a way Bradley is not.

Just as the prospect of being forced to face some harsh truths terrifies this clan to its core - Vince and Shelly's arrival becoming the catalyst for the reveal of a dark and terrible secret - one that that continues to simultaneously bind the family together and tear it apart - so too is the reality Vince faces when he realizes that the home he wanted to come back to is nothing like how he remembered it to be. A home which is now threatening to draw him back to where there is no escape. 

Scott Elliott's direction is absolutely spot on here, keeping the story moving nicely, while allowing Shepard's dialogue - which is perfectly delivered for maximum effect - to have a veiled threat behind almost every word spoken. Just as important are the frequent pregnant pauses and momentary silences which fill the atmosphere with tension as the situation depicted grows ever more unpredictable. Another essential element present throughout most of the story is the steady sound of the rain continually beating on the outside of the house. One wondering what it will uncover when it finally ends - other than various amounts of fresh vegetables. Excellent work by sound designer Jeremy S. Bloom in this regard.

Harris is superb as the aging Dodge, a man unable to escape the past he helped create. The character more than making up for his lack of physical mobility with grimaces, gestures and an attitude that shifts with each passing second. Qualities he uses to attempt to turn each new situation to his advantage. Madigan is very good as the as staid and hard-as-a-rock Halie. A woman determined to continue to shape her future into something that she can control; she apparently having little luck with such opportunities in her past. Sparks offers a continuing mystery as Tilden, a once promising fellow broken by the world outside, with no seeming way of telling who or what he will care about. He also has at least a few moments of understanding with Shelly, such as when he watches her peeling carrots. Their non-verbal interaction being a kind of calm before a very powerful and unforgiving storm. Sommer is nicely threatening as Bradley, someone who ultimately shows himself to be just as empty inside as his parents. 

This inability to deal with reality is also apparent in the actions of Father Dewis (Larry Pine), a local Protestant Minister and who, when faced with the truth, not only refuses to accept it, but also refuses to acknowledge its existence even when it's staring him in the face. Farmiga is fine as Shelly, perhaps the only truly rational person present. Though she is more of a reactive character than anyone else in the play, which limits her responses and actions somewhat. Wolff is interesting as Vince, a young man who experiences his own personal encounter with the past and who, like everyone else, is forced to reconcile the past he remembers with the one that actually happened, and then choose to go on from there, or not.

It's been often said that you can't go home again. However there are times when that saying should be changed to "you shouldn't go home again and more to the point, don't even try". Such is the case with this very enthralling production of Buried Child. Where even the driving rain can't wash away this particular family's sins.

Featuring Taissa Farmiga (Shelly), Ed Harris (Dodge), Amy Madigan (Halie), Larry Pine (Father Dewis), Rich Sommer (Bradley), Paul Sparks (Tilden), Nat Wolff (Vince)

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Jeremy S. Bloom
Production Supervision: PRF Productions
Production Stage Manager
Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Cathy Popowytsch
Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, no intermission

Closes: April 3, 2016

"Please Continue" - Where gray is the most prevalent color of all

By Judd Hollander

To get along, you have to go along. A frequent explanation when facing with an uncomfortable situation. But how long will a person continue to do something they feel is morally wrong, even when continually being urged to do just that? The answer offers a rather uncomfortable look at the makeup of human psychology as it relates to the power of authority and influence of a group mentality, as seen in Frank's Basloe's powerful drama Please Continue, now at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Yale University in the fall of 1960. As the United States' attention is on the upcoming presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, Assistant Professor Stanley Milgram (Haskell King) begins a pilot program on human behavior. This program would eventually lead to Milgram's groundbreaking and still controversial experiments on the subject.

What Milgram did was take two supposed volunteers, the first answering questions while sitting in a chair and strapped to electrodes, and the second administering electric shocks if the questions were answered incorrectly. The voltage of said shocks increasing with each wrong answer.

However, what the person administering the shocks didn't know, was that the person he was supposedly shocking wasn't being shocked at all. The entire purpose of the experiment being to measure the reactions of the one who thought he giving the shocks. "Please continue" being a reference to a verbal instruction volunteers would receive when and if they voiced misgivings about continuing with their part in the experiment.

Using this idea as a starting point, Basloe examines not so much the actions of the people who believe they're administering the shocks, but rather the reactions of those who know full well what's going on. Specifically, James Sanders (David Edward Jackson), a somewhat subdued fellow supervising the program who's so he can write it up for his senior thesis; and Saul Dashoff (Jonathan Randell Silver), a more happy-go-lucky sort, who is initially just interested in the money he will earn as the so-called volunteer. In the end, both find their value systems challenged and their friendship tested as they become more and more uncomfortable with their respective roles in the process. Especially since their full knowledge of what's going on allows them to see the all-too-real psychological damage it has the potential to inflict.

As this storyline is being played out, another begins to unfold elsewhere on campus. This one involving Francis Dunleavy (Jared McGuire). A Yale senior who, the year before, was involved in a school scandal which resulted in 20 students being suspended. This scenario also based on an actual incident. Wracked by shame and guilt, Dunleavy finds himself seeking to understand how and why he could do such a thing, and more importantly, why he did nothing to stop it. Even through he knew full well it was wrong.

Continually switching back and forth between these two stories, Please Continue offers an absorbing and cautionary journey into the human psyche. The play clearly showing how making the correct moral choice isn't always as black white as one would have it seem. Especially when taking into account the almost innate deference people have to figures of authority. Be they doctors in lab coats, military commanders holding sway over front-line soldiers, or teachers and professors lecturing students. 

It's also important to note that while authority can be very oppressive, it can also be very freeing for the ones receiving instructions. It provides those carrying out the task in question the excuse they were only following directions given by someone of higher status. Thus deferring their own judgment to someone else who would then, by this reasoning, ultimately take responsibility for those decisions. This is also why Sanders' eventual questioning of the Milgram program is particularly ironic. For when he voices his misgivings, he finds himself unwittingly trapped in the same authoritative web he helped spin for others. 

Also examined in Please Continue is the not-so-subtle pressure of group mentality. Where its far easier to tell everyone what they want to hear, rather than going against the grain and finding yourself subject to a collective condemnation. Be the subject in question as simple as the color of a necktie, or something far more upsetting.

Another topic that comes up for much conversation is the Kennedy/Nixon presidential election. Interesting both as a event occurring during the time play takes place, but also because it's another example of the power of perception, particularly in their televised debates. Perception being another factor in both storylines of the play.

The performances are very good, through the campus scandal story offers more opportunities for three-dimensional acting. McGuire is particularly strong as the student trying to come to terms with his role in what happened. Tommy Schrider does well as William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the Yale University Chaplain; offering both comfort and advice he tries to make Dunleavy admit his true purpose for coming to see Coffin in the first place. Molly Carden strikes a nicely human note as Dunleavy's fiancée, trying to reconcile the feelings she has for Francis with his role in what happened. Dylan Dawson works well as one of the students who was suspended because of his involvement in the scandal and who just wants to put the incident behind him. Though he does look a bit old for the role.

Elsewhere, Jackson nicely shows the conflicting priorities Saunders finds himself facing. Caught between seeing the experiment to its conclusion while wresting with his own crises of conscience over his role in the process. Silver is okay as Dashoff, though at times he comes off as more annoying than anything else. King is fine in the relatively small role of Milgram, giving him just enough shading to make him more than a simple stock character. 
Director William Carden shows a nice feel for the material, letting both storylines unfold naturally, without causing any scenes to feel rushed or forced. Also deserving of mention is the work by scenic designer Jason Simms. He presenting the staid atmosphere of a university on the one hand, and the antiseptic and impersonal feel of a laboratory-like setting on the other.

One of the most fascinating points in the show occurs when Sanders encounters a former volunteer (Alex Herrald) in a social setting. The volunteer's reaction being one of anger and frustration for what he believed Sanders forced him to do. It's a reaction that doesn't change, even when certain facts about the experiment are brought to light. This encounter showing once again that it's easier to believe someone else was entirely responsible for something upsetting you were involved in; rather than acknowledging that you yourself actually had a conscious part in it.

As noted at one point, it only takes one person to stand up and say "no" to change the course of events. But being able to find the courage to do so in a situation spiraling out of control or rapidly moving out of one's comfort zone is something else entirely. Thoughtful and all-too realistic, Please Continue offers a fascinating insight into the very complex subject of human behavior.

Featuring: Molly Carden (Margaret Hopson), Dylan Dawson (Mitchell Halverson), Alex Herrald (Harold Burden), David Edward Jackson (James Sanders), Haskell King (Stanley Milgram), Jared McGuire (Francis Dunleavy), Tommy Schrider (William Sloane Coffin, Jr.), Jonathan Randell Silver (Saul Dashoff).

Please Continue
Written by: Frank Basloe
Scenic Designer: Jason Simms
Costume Designer: Suzanne Chesney
Lighting Designer: Eric Southern
Sound Designer: Shane Retting
Props Master: Justin Cox
Production Manager: Joe Lankheet
Production Stage Manager: Carly Levin
Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Honeycutt
Assistant Director: Harrison Densmore
Technical Director: Sara Morgan
Press: Matt Ross PR
Casting: McCorkle Casting & Tom Rowan
Directed by William Carden

Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 West 52nd Street
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission

Closed: February 28, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Marjorie Prime" - An interesting tale of memory

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Coping with grief is the premise behind Jordan Harrison's fascinating drama Marjorie Prime, a tale which offers a bit of The Twilight Zone as it shows how remembrances of things past can become all important for future reminiscing, even if those recollections may not quite be the way it actually happened. The show now running at Playwrights Horizons through January 24th. 

In the year 2062, Marjorie (Lois Smith), an 85 year-old widow, lives with her daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and son-in-law Jon (Stephen Root). Mother and daughter have had a rather contentious relationship over the years, one that has become even more strained of late now that Tess and her husband are Marjorie's primary caregivers. Also living with the three is Walter (Noah Bean), a thirty-something, rather expressionless fellow who usually sits in a chair or stands in a corner until he is called upon.

Walter, it should be explained, is what is called a "Prime". An artificial intelligence in the image of Marjorie's late husband the way she remembers him when they first got married. In the era in which this story is set, Primes act as a sort of grief coping mechanism. They helping people get through the tragedy of loss by offering comfort and companionship. Though while Primes may look like the deceased person in question, and are aware of the purpose for which they were created, they have no actual memories of who that person was or what they experienced. All of which must therefore be told to them. These facts becoming information that they can call upon later, word for word, in an effort to form an emotional bond with the person grieving from said loss.

As Tess regards Walter, and Primes in general as little more than empty shells who basically just regurgitate what is said to them, it is Jon, a great believer in Primes, who takes it upon himself to explain to Walter his past with Marjorie. Instances such as how the two first met, other potential suitors in Marjorie's past, etc. Jon also recounting a long-ago death no one talks about, they all seeming to prefer to tiptoe around the subject or pretend it never happened. Even though this incident has obviously colored Walter, Tess and Marjorie's lives since then.

However memories can be highly subjective, especially when taking into account the passage of time that's passed between the actual event and the telling of same. Some instances recounted by Jon to Walter as they relate to Marjorie may not be the way Tess remembers them happening. A conundrum which surfaces several times during the course of the play. What the playwright seems to be asking here is which is more important, the actual truth or the truth people chose and apparently prefer to remember? Or, when all is said and done, does the truth really matter at all?

Another question the play keeps coming back to is the ultimate purpose of the Primes. Is it to ease the grief of the one who suffered a loss, or are they actually being used as crutches for those who really don't want to invest the emotional care towards those who need it and are instead more than happy to turn those duties over to someone else? This latter possibility seeming the more likely here. Especially when it comes to Jon, who seem far more interested in getting Walter up and running - and telling story after story - rather than instead interacting on a deeper level with Tess in order to help her through her own emotional upheaval over what's gone on since her father's death. Not to mention helping Tess work though the sometimes complicated relationships she has with her own children. Jon's lack of emotional support in these aspects becoming quite evident; especially later on in the story when another crises threatens to send Tess over the edge. 

Anne Kauffman does a good job with the direction, allowing the story to move at a rather slow and deliberate clip. The show's relatively short running time seeming almost triple that at points, through not in a bad way. The script as played giving the audience enough time to get to know these characters and understand their circumstances. This is especially true in the final scenes where the full parameters of the Primes, and their ultimate fate, come into play. All of which can be crystallized by the words "I'm afraid I don't have that information." Something the Primes utter when a question is posed to them that's outside of their frame of reference.

Lois Smith is excellent, showing both the quiet rage and angry dignity of a woman who's reached a point in her life where she can no longer live on her own. Marjorie latching on to Walter Prime to help remind her of the person she once was and the life she once had. Emery is very good as Tess, a woman who, despite all the conflict she's had with her mother, ironically now finds herself bonding with her in a way she never has before. Perhaps because for the first time Tess is the adult in the relationship and it is Marjorie that needs her help. Though this is something neither woman would ever admit to the other.

Root works well as Jon, perhaps the most interesting character in the piece. A man who desperately tries to find a middle ground between Tess and Marjorie and thus hopefully not really offend anyone. At the same time, he clearly loves his wife and will do anything in his power which he believes will ultimately help her. Even if this means using a Prime as an emotional anchor rather than being one himself. Jon and Tess' feelings about the Primes being a continual source of friction between the two.

Bean is fine as Walter, a role that really doesn't give the actor that much room to work, the part calling for the character to basically remain in a holding pattern until someone calls for him. Yet at the same time, Bean also demonstrates a Prime's intense interest in learning. Learning about the person he was created to resemble, and that person's qualities, memories and history. It's this curiously that causes the Walter Prime to look into his namesake's past via letters and pictures he find in Tess and Jon's home. All for the purpose of helping the person for which he was created.

Thanks to some clearly drawn characters, Marjorie Prime offers a sobering and insightful look at a future where grief can be dealt with in an entirely new way. Though one can't help but wonder what it says about a society where such a remedy may be rapidly becoming the norm.

Featuring: Lois Smith (Marjorie), Noah Bean (Walter), Lisa Emery (Tess), Stephen Root (Jon).

Marjorie Prime
Written by Jordan Harrison

Sound Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Casting: Alaine Alldaffer, CSA
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Vanessa Coakley
Assistant Stage Manager: Ben Freedman
Associate Director: Adam Greenfield

Directed by Anne Kauffman

Presented by Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or

Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Closes: January 24, 2016


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's Christmas Without Tears (Does This Tree Make Me Look Fat?)" - Totally Brilliant

By Judd Hollander

By Arkanjel Productions
Husband and wife Harry Shearer and Judith Owen offer a perfect way to ring in the 2016 holiday season with their annual party, Christmas Without Tears (Does this Tree Make me Look Fat?). The festivities held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gillman Opera House on December 1st and then proceeding on a brief tour.

What originally started out as a simple Christmas gathering in the couple's Santa Monica home has grown exponentially over the years, becoming a public performance for the first in 2005, with a portion of proceeds from ticket sales going to charitable organizations. This year's beneficiary being the Elton John AIDS Foundation. A particularly apropos choice especially in light of the fact that December 1st is World AIDS Day. The press materials describing the show as "a guilt-free way of having fun and giving back".

Owen was the de facto host for most of the evening, often combining her words with a tongue and cheek air of depression. She putting it down to the fact that since she's Welsh, she was in fact born depressed. Her mood in actuality helping to set the stage for some of the more poignant moments in the piece. Such as the song "(I'll Sing) Silent Night For You", honoring those friends who are no longer with us; and "The Best Things", about the joy of having a loved one close by for Christmas. Both of the numbers sung beautifully by Owen. Also quite touching was a sequence where she comes out holding a stuffed toy, and, after dissolving into tears while noting how childhood dreams and fantasies just don't come true, a life-size version of that selfsame toy (played by Godfrey Daniels) appeared and proceeded to enchant the audience via a series of silent movements and interplay with a large red ball. 

Shearer meanwhile nicely injected some political humor into the evening with his song "Christmas a'la Trump". Something The Donald would probably have liked were he in the audience. Shearer also revealing one of Christmas' biggest kept secrets via the tune "Jesus was a Dreidel Spinner". "Spinner" being one of several not-strictly-Christmas songs presented. The number was a nod to Shearer's heritage, something Owen says she first became aware of about five years into their marriage. Shearer also at one point talked about global warming while noting his people have "been burning oil for a long time". 

The entire performance was a very enjoyable mixture of the heartfelt and the hilarious, with the various "party guests" performing a number or two, or a comedy bit, and then basically becoming happy onlookers at the party itself. Those not actively participating at the moment, sitting near the fireplace, watching the goings on and talking amongst themselves. Owen and Shearer at times circulating the stage like the genial hosts they are. These actions creating the impression of being in the living room of some old friends and just having an enjoyable time. Which exactly what a Christmas party should be. 

Also running throughout the evening was the continual feeling that all of the performances presented were totally off the cuff and completely unrehearsed. This was especially evident in the "Jingle Bell Rock" duet by Shearer and Paul Shaffer. Shaffer, probably best known for his 33-year tenure as David Letterman's musical director, also getting in some good licks in the piano during the song. Another similarly rousing number was the raucous "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" sung by Doña Oxford, and which quite rightly brought the house down while closing the first act of what Owen called a "ten hour" show - actually three hours and fifteen minutes. Shearer and Owen definitely believing in giving the audience their money's worth.

By Alex Kluft
Other highlights included a virtuoso performance by banjo player Bèla Fleck, who offered up some fascinating riffs on various Christmas carols, including "the First Noel" and "Joy to the World; all the while moving seamlessly from one song to the next. Another standout was Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus performing a vaudeville routine which included multiple bowl spinning and spoon flipping. The latter effort in particular being harder than it sounds. Also of note was actor Fred Willard's recitation of what he called the "true story of Christmas", which reduced the entire audience to fits of laugher. Willard's talk delivered in a perfectly deadpan manner. In the same comical vein, one of the definite highpoints of the show was a performance by actor Mario Cantone and his biting deconstruction of the classic television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Cantone giving his personal take on what that special was really talking about with it's continual reference to "misfits" and those people that just don't fit in.

There was also the chance to pick up some interesting trivia which could used at one's own Christmas party. When singer/musician Peter Asher of the 1960s music group "Peter and Gordon" performed their hit "I Don't Want to Live in a World Without Love", he pointed out the song was originally written by Paul McCartney for the Beatles, who rejected it. McCartney later finishing the tune and giving it Peter and Gordon to record. One also learned the meaning of the expression "the steamy" as it applies to Glasgow terminology. Performer Alan Cumming elaborating on a bit of Scottish slang before going on to sing a song of his own.

The evening also included some audience participation, the crowd performing a rather unique rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". They being urged on in their efforts by Owen and the rest of those on stage, with prizes handed out when it was over for the most outrageous participants.

Further helping to add to the overall yuletide feeling was a stage nicely festooned with Christmas trees, a menorah, holiday wreaths, and the afore-mentioned fireplace - adorned with hanging stockings of course. Christmas Without Tears is exactly what a Christmas party should be about. A chance to connect with some old friends and meeting some new ones in the process. One could easily imagine sitting with these folks and sipping hot chocolate or drinking eggnog while singing Christmas carols, swapping stories or just catching up on the latest news and gossip - which is what friends do. Well done indeed!

Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's Christmas Without Tears
(Does this Tree Make me Look Fat?)

Harry Shearer, Judith Owen, Alan Cumming, Mario Cantone, Alfie Boe, Paul Shaffer, Bèla Fleck, Peter Asher, Davell Crawford, Godfrey Daniels, Jerry Dixon, Amy Engelhardt, The Gregory Brothers, Keith Nelson, Doña Oxford, The Songbirds, Fred Willard

Choral Singers: 
Amy Engelhardt, Director
Mick Bleyer, Emily Goglia, Kristi Holden, Tim Kodres, Austin Ku, Jen Malenke. Mark Bradley Miller, Anne Fraser Thomas

Music Director: 
CJ Vanston

CJ Vanston (Piano), Leland Sklar (Bass), Oz Noy (Guitar), Jim Hines (Drums)

Set Designers:
Steven Hillyer, Tim Marback, Judith Owen, Harry Gaveras

Set Decoration:
Pam Halstead

Lighting Designer:
Paul Bartlett

Production Assistant:
Pam Halstead

Hair and Makeup:
M'Shane Alsondo, Deja Smith, Dee TrannyBear

Tour Manager:
Mark Botting

Tour Stage Manager: 
Jennifer Hellman

Produced by: 
Steven Hillyer, Tim Marback, Judith Owen

Directed by: 

Judith Owen, Tim Marback, Steve Hillyer

Performed at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on December 1, 2015

Christmas Without Tears Tour Information:

"Dear Elizabeth" - The Enduring Power of Friendship

By Judd Hollander

Finding a kindred soul can be a wonderful thing. Someone to tell your personal thoughts, feelings and hopes without fear of condemnation or dismissal. Such was the case with the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, their story told in Sarah Ruhl's Dear Elizabeth, now being presented by the Women's Project Theater with a rotating cast. J. Smith-Cameron and John Douglas Thompson assuming the roles the week I saw the show. Ruhl taking her inspiration from the book "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell", and using the poets' own words - as well as a selection of their poetry - to help bring these two individuals to life.

The relationship between the two begins in 1947 when Bishop first sends Lowell a letter. Lowell, familiar with Bishop's work, responds in kind, noting that Elizabeth is the only "real" person he's had a chance to talk to in his recent travels. As time passes, their friendship deepens, as evidenced by their increasingly familiar and intimate written salutations to one another. The two talking not only about their respective poems and projects, but also about what's going on in their lives at the moment, as well as the hope they will have a chance to meet. 

Through their words, the audience soon begins to get an idea of just who these people are. Elizabeth for her part, coming across as a rather shy, introverted woman. Telling Robert at one point that when he writes her epitaph, "you must say that I was the loneliest person who ever lived". Robert on the other hand, is much more of an outgoing fellow, with a seeming lust for life and all that it has to offer. Kind of like Ernest Hemmingway in that approach. Hemmingway being one of Bishop's and Lowell's contemporaries and one of the many literary names mentioned in passing via their correspondence. Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Conner, being among the others. The names serving as indicators of the circles in which Lowell and Bishop moved and the times in which they lived. 

Eventually, a sort of shorthand develops between the two. One evidenced as much by what wasn't put down on paper as what actually was. This is especially true when either questions the other's work. There's an initial hesitancy from the one making the query, while couching their point in open admiration and gentle teasing. In the same vein, the one on the receiving end of this advice accepts it with an air of rueful acknowledgment. They not really wanting to have their work criticized in the first place, but ultimately accepting it; knowing the comment to be valid.

This shorthand manner in their communications is also visible when the two talk about their more personal situations. Such as Bishop's problems with asthma and her struggle with alcohol, and Lowell's various episodes of Manic Depression and his various hospital stays. Many of these situations are described almost in a passing manner. The two knowing each other well enough by now and not needing to really elaborate, or to ask questions; other than offering help to the other if needed.

Thompson does a great job with Lowell, showing him to be a man who embraces life, while looking for the "real" things in it, whatever they happen to be at the moment. The actor also nicely conveys Lowell's great joy at becoming a first time father. A moment rather ironic when one remembers Lowell's previous comments regarding children he happened to come across. Smith-Cameron's silent response here is also quite telling. According to Ruhl, in her very involving and informative program notes, one of Bishop's great regrets was never having a child. 

Smith-Cameron does an excellent turn as Bishop, making her a much more ethereal creature than Lowell. One, if not afraid of life, then certainly not embracing it in the same head-on terms Lowell seems to do. We also see traces of wistfulness in her, she at times wondering how her life would have turned out had things been different. Bishop and Lowell never being at the same relationship stage in their lives at the same time, which may have been a reason why nothing more personal ever seriously developed between the two. Yet even when that possibility is presented to her, be it Lowell's proposal of marriage or an address to write to him where he wife wouldn't be aware, Bishop declines the offer.

Kate Whoriskey's direction is letter perfect, giving the actors enough leeway to move about the stage and bring life to the words they're speaking. Rather than keeping them seated at a pair of writing desks throughout the show. In a nice twist, the actors never specifically acknowledge each other while writing their respective letters, but do so at times when listening to the other speak. The glances and gestures adding an extra emotional layer to the words being spoken.

Scenic design by Antej Ellermann fits the story nicely, the space projecting a semi-cramped feel while filled with bric-a-brac and various materials that writers of Bishop's and Lowell's time would have used. Lighting by Mary Louse Geiger helped to give a subtle emphasis to the work when either of the actors recited (and performed) some of Bishop's and Lowell's poetry.

Part acting exercise, part biographical piece and a well-told story throughout, Dear Elizabeth offers a touching glimpse into two people who found joy both in the world and in each other. It's a play well worth seeing and their story is well worth knowing. 

Also in the cast is Polly Noonan.

Featuring: Polly Noonan (Stage Manager), J. Smith-Cameron (Elizabeth Bishop), John Douglas Thompson (Robert Lowell).

Dear Elizabeth
by Sarah Ruhl
Scenic Design: Antje Ellermann
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design: Jill Bc Du Boff, Emily Auciello
Production Stage Managers: C. Renee Alexander, Bernita Robinson
Production Manager: Steve Rosenberg
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Press Representatives: Vivacity Media Group, Leslie Baden Papa, Whitney Holden Gore

Directed by Kate Whoriskey

Presented by Women's Project Theater
McGinn/Cazale Theatre 
2162 Broadway (at 76th Street)
Closed: December 5, 2015

Radio City Christmas Spectacular - The Perfect Way to Ring in the Holiday Season

By Judd Hollander
Photo by MSG Entertainment

As constant as the changing of the seasons is the annual appearance of the Christmas Spectacular at New York's Radio City Musical Hall, which has been bringing delight to audiences for more than 85 years. Seamlessly combining the secular and the religious, and newer musical numbers with old favorites, the show is an unabashed treat for all ages. The production offering snow, Santa Claus, Christmas carols and of course, those high kicking, toe tapping Radio City Rockettes.

The entire show is basically a combination Christmas pageant/immersive experience. It starting the moment one enters the massive Music Hall performance space to be greeted by a cacophony of snowflakes projected on the ceiling and walls. No two of them seeming to be alike (and yes, I looked). Just as each snowflake is different from the next, a perfect Christmas gift for one person will not be a perfect fit for someone else. Something eight year-old Ben and his older brother Patrick find out while looking for such a present for their sister. The brothers getting some help with their quest from the big guy in the red suit. A process which also reintroduces the magic of Christmas to the rather cynical Patrick. A magic which, as a song makes clear, is "closer than you know". 

Santa also serves as the unofficial narrator/guide through most of the proceedings. Coming out at the beginning and interacting with the crowd before taking them on an eye popping sleigh ride from his North Pole workshop straight to Radio City. Said journey accomplished though some enjoyable projections, the use of 3-D glasses previously distributed to the audience and some fantastical sets that are guaranteed to thrill every child present, while also stirring the youngster that dwells in every adult's heart. Though to be honest, I couldn't help thinking how some of the huge snowflakes, which at one point descend on wires from the top of the stage, and the method in which Santa took Ben and Patrick on a trip to his workshop would make for a great episode of Doctor Who.

In an extremely well-done number, Santa answers a question children have pondered down through the generations - and one which parents have continually struggled to answer. Namely, how can every person dressed in a Santa suit - be they in a department store or ringing a bell on a street corner - actually be the one and only? The answer, one which eventually involves a stage full of dancing Kris Kringles, is wonderfully executed and choreographed. The early moments of the numbers containing just a bit of otherworldliness to call to mind the classic "Elephants on Parade" number from Dumbo.

When Santa wasn't involved in the various goings on, or serving as a bridge to the different scenes and songs, it was the Rockettes' turn to shine; and shine they did. Be they dressed up as rag dolls (in a number that had its genesis in the 1940 Christmas show), reindeer, Christmas ornaments, or NYC tourists - complete with matching sweaters for the latter - their dancing was always in perfect synchronization and magnificent to watch. Some of their more enjoyable numbers included a wonderful rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"; a song about Christmas in New York City - and featuring a double-decker bus; and the absolutely show-stopping "March of the Wooden Soldiers" sequence, which has to be seen to be believed. The "Soldiers" number was first introduced in 1933 and there's a reason it's become a perennial favorite. The chorographic work is superb, with the entire line of Rockettes/soldiers moving in a way so it appears the performers seem almost flat as they turn, break apart and come back together. This all leading to a most fantastic finish.

Another particularly striking sequence that also had its roots in the past was a scene from "The Nutcracker", featuring a little girl named Clara and some rather large dancing bears. The bears being of the Russian, Panda and Teddy varieties.

One thing evident throughout was how transfixed the children in the audience were with what was happening on stage. The "Wooden Soldiers" and "Rag Doll" numbers being two of their particular favorites. Unfortunately some of the adults were far too intent on capturing moments of the show on their various hand held devices to really enjoy the experience as it was unfolding.

The evening's crowning moment, notable for its relative simplicity after all that had come before, was the quiet beauty the of "The Living Nativity" sequence. The scene including camels, sheep and, like everything else, brought off without a hitch and to great effect.

The technical credits were excellent down the line. Each one showing the care going into the production to make it all seem fresh and new, no matter how many years prior some of the sequences presented, or variations thereof, had actually been done before.

Whether you've seen The Radio City Christmas Spectacular many times previously or if this is your first go round, one thing is clear. The show is a heart-warming treat which should be on all Yuletide lover's "must-see" lists each and every Christmas season.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Featuring: Charles Edward Hall (Santa Claus), Alexandra Hoffman, Kayla Mak, Rachel Quiner (Clara), Jack Broderick, Jack Mastrianni, Sawyer Nunes (Patrick), Jad Grey, Avery Noble, Jorge Vega (Ben), John Paul Almon (Santa Standby), Annie Fitch, AnnMarie Powers (Mrs. Claus), Kasey J. Hughes (Santa Understudy)

Skaters: Maxim Fomin & Svetlana Butova, Andrey Baka & Victoriya Glichenko.

Ronald Lee Clark, Bradley Glenn Galey, Misty Irwin, Jonathan M. Kim, Zachary Blu Miller, Sebastian Saraceno, Josh Walker, Kristin Xettlemoyer

Jordanna H. James, Jason Justin Perez

Jackie Aitken, Nicole Baker, Lori Barber, Samantha Beary Burns, Samantha Berger, Danielle Betscher, Tiffany Billings, Bethany Blanchard, Torrie Bogda, Rachel Borgman, Bailey Callahan, Mary Cavett, Jennifer Calvin, Sierra Ring Collins, Jessie Crouch, Jessica Molly Davison, Tara Donleavy, Teneise Ellis, Alyssa Epstein, Melinda Farrell, Katelyn Gaffney, Eleni Gavalas, Lauren Gibbs, Kari Gregg, Tiffany Griffin, Sarah Grooms, Katie Hamrah, Christina Hedrick, Nikki Hester, Danni Heverin, Melissa Hillmer, Sara Michelle Hoenes, Sophie Rose Holloway, Lindsay Howe, Candace Jablonski, Laura Jakowenko, Alison Jantzie, Kristin Jantzie, Lisa Jantzie, Sarah Lin Johnson, Ashley Kasunich, Allyson Kelly, Heather Langham, Alissa LaVergne, Maranda LeBar, Alyssa Lemons, Megan Levinson, Alicia Lundgren, Amanda McCormick, Mindy Moeller, Danielle Morgan, Kimberly Petros Nassif, Jessica Palu, Stacy Paydo, Phoebe Pearl, Thrersa Pelicata, Elizabeth Peterson, Logan Reginato Prince, Natalie Madison Reid, Lauren Ella Renck, Traci Reszetylo, Joanna Richardson, Karen Ritchie, Sagan Rose, Courtney Rottenberger, Tori Schelling, Nicole Schuman, Taylor Shimko, Hannah Sides, Christine Sienicki, Alina Silver, Kristen Grace Smith, Brittany Paige Snyder, Elizabeth Sousek, Audrey Thelemann, Katie Elizabeth Walker, Sarah Staker Wenstrom, Brittany Werthmann, Corey Whalen, Raley Zofko.

Rockettes Swings:

Jennifer Calvin, Jessie Crouch, Melinda Farrell, Stacy Paydo, Traci Reszetylo, Nichole Schuman, Hannah Sides, Katie Elizabeth Walker.

The Dancers:

Alex Aquilino, Jennifer Abuin, Devin Aubin, Brittany Bean, Karolina Blonski-Heflin, Bella Calafiua, Ron Christopher, Adam DiLoreto, Lindsey Fletcher, Drew Heflin, Haley Hellman-Genry, Nina Hudson, Sonia Jean, Justin Keats, Tanner Lane, Stephanie Lo, Chase Madigan, Amanda Mondoro, Antuan Raimone, Olivia Sharber, Demetrius K. Shields, Kelli Shimada, Brian Slaman, Shane Sitely, Paul Vicars, Jessica Walker, Matthew Winnegge, Camille Workman.

Lauren Cannon, Daniela Filippone, Marqui Jenn, Michael McArthur, Dylan Pearce, Cody D. Smith, Tyler Stickel, Samantha Zuidema-Wilhem.

The Singers:
Breanna Bartley, Eddie Egan, Alexandra Fassler, Annie Fitch, April Holloway, Joey Khoury, Thaddeus Pearson, AnnMarie Powers, Nathan Andrew Riley, Clinton Roane, Andrew Van Allsburg, Amy Lynn Zanetto.

Chris Gleim, Clarissa Grace, Kasey J. Hughes, Andrea Rodriguez.

Lighting Designer: David Agrees
Scenic Designer: Patrick Fahey, 8 hangs High Inc.
Sound Designer: SCK Sound Design
Christmas Production Manager: Beth Zitzman
Costume Design: Gregg Barnes, Frank Krenz, Martin Pakledinaz
Production Stage Manager: Kathy J. Hoovler
Production Managers: Julie Mason Groob. Michael Donaghy
Director, Rockettes Creative: Karen Keeler
Assistant Choreographers: Marqui Jenn, Traci Reszetylo, Hannah Sides, Samantha Zuidema-Wilhelm
Associate Conductors: Edward G. Robinson, Ethyl Will
Associate Costume Designer: Erin Elizabeth Murphy
Santa Flies to New York 3D: Synthespian Studios
Technical Director: Larry Morley
Musical Director and Principal Choreographer: Kevin Stites
Writer/Lyricist: Mark Waldrop
LED Video and Projection Mapping Design: Batwin & Robin Productions
Director and Chorographer: Julie Barman

Radio City Music Hall

1260 Avenue of the Americas (between 50th and 51st Streets)
Tickets: 1-866-858-0007 or
Running Time: 90 Minutes, No Intermission

Closes: January 3, 2016