Thursday, April 20, 2017

In & Of Itself - A question of who we are and what we see

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Before taking their seats in the Darryl Roth Theatre, audience members come face-to-face with a wall of cards. The different offerings listing various life choices. From "dreamer" and "cat person" to "working stiff" and "contortionist". Also making the cut are such career paths as "haberdasher", "fire eater" and "freeloader". Each ticket holder asked to chose the card that best describes how they see themselves. These choices coming into play during the next hour and a half as Derek Delgaudio demonstrates some very astute powers of observation, along with some intricate slight of hand in his one-person show, In & Of Itself.

More than a master magician, Delgaudio is also an expert storyteller. He recalling when he first fell in love with the idea the idea of magic and how, while honing his craft, he learned that when it comes to card play, there are many professionals who are masters of one method or another, but very few who are well-versed in a host of different tricks.

However the most important tenet of all that he picked up, and this under rather unusual circumstances, was when he learned that it's not what you can do, but how it comes across that matters. The idea being never to appear too showy or confident in your presentation. For doing so risks alienating those you're seeking to impress, or trying to fool. How one is perceived being a key component to a successful performance.

Delgaudio also relates a well-known fable about what happens when a group of blind men come upon an elephant and the different impressions they get when each man touches only one part of the animal. Perception again being the overall point of the story. Delgaudio also tosses in a bit of whimsy here when he wonders why no one ever thinks about how the elephant felt while being poked and prodded by so many people at once.

There's also an exploration of perception as it refers to inanimate objects. For example, one may pass a brick lying on the side of a road and pay no attention to it. However when that brick is thrown through your living room window, it takes on an entirely new meaning, both physically and emotionally.

Delgaudio make for both a genial and comforting host. The entire evening being a sort of journey of personal self discovery. He opening the show with a tale of a man who continually defied the odds via a game of a Russian roulette. The idea, one which Delgaudio translates to himself, is to continually push one's boundaries to see how far they can go.

This is another issue Delgaudio continually returns to as he tries to get the audience to understand both himself and his methods. Yet while Delgaudio goes to great lengths to explain who he is, including sharing a bit of his personal family history, the show's ultimate twist is that, by the time the performance is over, Delgaudio will have demonstrated just how well he knows those in the audience. This involving not only the cards people chose before the show began, but also a letter he gives to an unsuspecting audience member. One which turns out to be surprisingly personal for the one who reads it.

The letter sequence is one of several situations which involve audience participation. Those in attendance either helping Delgaudio with certain happenings on stage or contributing their own ideas to what is unfolding, or what may unfold in the future.

The show is ably directed by Frank Oz, who gives Delgaudio free rein to reach out to the audience on a seemingly one-to-one level. The work given an extra layer of subtlety thanks to the music of Mark Mothersbaugh.

Quite satisfying and intellectually stimulating, when all is said, shown and done, In & Of Itself proves to be a very enjoyable experience.

In & Of Itself
Written & Performed by Derek Delgaudio
Presented by Glenn Kaino, Neil Patrick Harris, Tom Werner, Gary Goddard Entertainment

Production Designer: A. Bandit
Lighting Designer: Adam Blumenthal
Sound Designer: Kevin Heart
Advertising & Marketing: The Pekoe Group
Press Representative: Vivacity Media Group
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Stage Manager: Christine Catti
Company Manager: Jon Hamel
General Management: DR Theatrical Management
Consulting Producer: Michael Webber, Sébastien Clergue
Co-Producer: Jake Friedman, Vanessa Lauren
Executive Producer: Prediction Productions
Original Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Directed by Frank Oz

Daryl Roth Theatre
101 East 15th Street
Tickets: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
Information: http://www.inandofitselfshow.com
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission
Closes: June 18, 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

"The New Yorkers" - Less than a full meal, but still quite delicious

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Illicit liquor flowing by the barrel, gangsters who won't stay dead after being shot, high society folks with low moral standards, tap dancing cops with machine guns, and where being thrown into Sing-Sing prison is an excuse to break into song. These are but some of the elements present in the long-forgotten 1930 musical The New Yorkers. Painstakingly resurrected by the people at Encores! this product of a bygone era proves to be both very delightful and also so very, very lacking in substance a decent wind will blow it away.

Subtitled a Sociological Musical Satire, the show gleefully takes aim at the New York upper crust, as well as the widespread corruption that often afflicts those in authority. Also coming in for a ribbing is the entire concept of prohibition. The show's creators making the point that a ban ignored by enough people, ceases to be a ban in all but name.

The overall plot involves Alice Wentworth (Scarlett Streallen), a Park Avenue dilettante who's engaged to fellow blue-blood Philip Booster (Todd Buonopane). even though she has fallen in love with someone else. The person who stole her heart being Al Spanish (Tam Mutu), a mobster who runs one of the hottest nightclubs in New York. A place where the elite come to play and illegal alcohol is freely available. Al, who's had a long-term relationship with singer and club headliner Mona Low (Mylinda Hull), happily returns Alice's affections. Although he has no intention of giving up his life of ill-repute. Nor would Alice want him to. It being so much more fun than her accustomed lifestyle, and more dangerous to her health. Especially since Al is trying to muscle in on the New York caviar market. Something gangster Feet McGeegan (Arnie Burton), who controls the flow of sturgeon into the city, is determined to prevent.

What makes the show so interesting is the seemingly haphazard way it's structured. The piece filled with comedic sketches - vehicles for actor/singer/comedian Jimmy Durante, who was in the original cast - as well as various musical numbers, all quite enjoyable and most of which stop the forward momentum of the show cold while they play out. Something which would never go over in the musicals of today. This is especially true with "Wood". An act one finale so offbeat, that actor Kevin Chamblerlin, who plays the Durante role, has to explain to the audience that this was how the first act actually ended in 1930.

The show has a fascinating pedigree, it being the brainchild of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno. According to the show program, Arno was someone loved taking down society's upper crust in his drawings, an effect which translates quite well here. While much of the material was long thought lost, most of it was pulled together though a painstaking restoration process, with new material added to cover the gaps, Such as a sly reference to "Big River", the previous production presented by Encores!

Acting as the glue that holds the entire piece together is the often machine gun-like dialogue from book writer Herbert Fields, much of which still packs a punch today. Such as "There comes a time in every man's life when a woman needs fifty dollars". The line spoken by Alice's mother, Gloria (Ruth Williamson) upon seeing her cheating husband (Byron Jennings) on the town with a woman of easy virtue. Of course Gloria is also stepping out on her husband, thus showing how the apple doesn't always fall far from the tree. Also quite funny is a sequence where Philip is told how Prohibition was enacted a decade earlier; to which he queries, with a drink in his hand when said regulations would actually take effect. This being a not-so-subtle swipe at how easy it was to obtain liquor at the time if one wanted it.

Fitting quite nicely into all of this is Cole Porter's delightful score. While the two standards that came out of the show were "Love For Sale" and "I Happen To Like New York", other enjoyable tunes include "The Great Indoors", which touts the virtue of staying at home on weekends. There's also the hilarious "Say It With Gin", as well as the very funny "Drinking Song". The last not a Porter contribution, but created for the show by Chas. Henderson and Fred Waring. Members of Waring's group, The Pennsylvanians, appearing in the original production.

Strallen is quite appealing as Alice. She opening the show by running into a doctor's office and setting up a comedy bit, which basically sets the tone for what is to follow. Mutu is appealing as Mr. Spanish. He and Strallen's easy chemistry working well in their rich girl/bad boy love story. Hull does very well as Mona and delivers a wonderful rendition of "The Great Indoors". She also has a nice comic duet with Buonopane in "I'm Getting Myself Ready For You" - one of the more risqué numbers of the show. Robyn Hurder is great fun as Lola McGee, a good time girl who goes through the entire Sing-Sing chain gang, among others. Chamberlin does very well as hoodlum/comic Jimmie Deegan. He having one of the more difficult jobs here. Delivering material that was clearly written for someone else, but succeeding nicely. Burton does a wonderful turn as McGeegan, especially in the number "Let's Not Talk About Love", added here from Porter's 1941 musical "Let's Face It". The cadence of the song calling to mind the style of "Tschaikowsky" from "Lady in the Dark".

Adding to the ambiance of the piece are the wonderful period costumes by Alejo Vietti and some very enjoyable dancing numbers choreographed by Chris Bailey. John Rando's direction works well, he able to bring all these different styles more or less together and still form an altogether satisfying experience.

While the Encores! production of The New Yorkers is certainly not perfect, there was still a lot of fund to be had. Besides, while the show was light and airy throughout, and without much substance, not once did it feel bloated.

The New Yorkers: A Sociological Musical Satire
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Herbert Fields
Based on a Story by E. Ray Goetz and Peter Arno

Starring: Cyrille Aimée, Clyde Alves, Todd Buonopane, Arnie Burton, Kevin Chamberlin, Mylinda Hull, Robyn Hurder, Byron Jennings, Eddie Korbich, Tam Mutu, Jeffrey Schecter, Scarlett Strallen, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Ruth Williamson, Matt Bauman, Sam Bolen, Christine DiGiallonardo, Brian Flores, Tessa Grady, Matthew Griffin, Curtis Holland, Evan Kasprzak, Marina Lazzaretto, Kathryn McCreary, Timothy McDevitt, Kristyn Pope, Mariah Reshea Reives, Lindsay Roberts, Brendon Stimson, Joseph Wiggan, Cody Williams.

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Concert Adaptation: Jack Viertel
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Orchestrations: Josh Clayton and Larry More
Dance and Vocal Arrangement: Rob Berman
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Casting: Binder Casting - Jay Binder, CSA/Justin Bohon
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Ron Berman
Directed by John Rando

Presented by New York City Center Encores!
131 West 55th Street
March 22 - March 26, 2017



Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Escaped Alone" - Presenting Horrors Large and Small

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Lewis Carroll once wrote that the time has come to talk of many things. In what might be described as an ominous allegory with elements of pitch-black comedy, Caryl Churchill does just that with her striking one-act piece, Escaped Alone. The work originating at the Royal Court Theatre in London and currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In an almost pastoral backyard setting, Sally (Deborah Findlay), Vi (June Watson), Lena (Kika Markham) and Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett), are enjoying the day, swapping bits of gossip and sharing the latest news. All in the neighborhood of sixty, Sally, Vi and Lena are long-time friends, while Mrs. Jarrett is a relative newcomer to the group. She being initially invited to join the others as the play begins, and it's through her eyes the audience learns about the other three. Explanatory asides and background information directed in such a way as to bring everyone up to speed on specific relationships and situations.

However, it's not long before this outwardly genial location vanishes, via some bands of red lights and crackling sounds, leaving a darkened stage where Mrs. Jarrett relates how, due to a series of global upheavals, normal everyday life has ceased to exist. Scenarios where the question is not how long those still living can survive; but rather how long before the horror of it all drives those survivors completely insane.

It’s via the continual switching between these two settings that the full power of Escaped Alone can be felt. The women, having no inkling of what is to come, are all dealing with their own personal issues. Matters which pale in comparison to the other situations presented. Yet at the same time, the apocalyptic horrors described are all in the abstract - though one could argue that given the current political state of the world, they may be closer to reality than ever - while the issues affecting the ladies are completely relatable, understandable, and to them, life-defining. 

Lena may be suffering from agoraphobic, while Sally has an overwhelming fear of cats. Vi is struggling with the aftereffects from having killed someone, albeit in self-defense; a situation made even more tenuous when Sally reveals she may not told the entire truth of what happened when the matter came to trial. She being more eager to help her friend than present a full picture of what happened. As for Mrs. Jarrett, she is prone to fits of rage. In an ironic twist, the ladies' half-hearted attempts to help one another - such as Sally continually telling Lena she needs to get out more, or the group tiptoeing about the word "cats" - only serve to make the quartet's already uneasy relationship with their fears that much more tenuous.

Also visible throughout is an overall feeling of biting commentary. Such as in the first scene, which shows Mrs. Jarrett passing a large fence which encloses the backyard. She pausing in front of a doorway until invited inside. The way the sequence is presented making one think of a border wall, and the myriad of issues that go with it. Even though Churchill wrote this play before Donald Trump took office, the cord the scene strikes shows how certain matters not always in the front of public consciousness can quickly move front and center when circumstances change.

The cast, all of whom came over from London, are excellent. Each able to make their characters quite real and fully believable. Indeed, the four could be any group of women, sitting in any sort of comfortable surrounding and the play would work just as well. The bond between Sally, Lena and Vi, and to a lesser degree Mrs. Jarrett, clearly visible. Even when one of them tries to verbally guide another in a way the person to whom the comments are directed does not wish to go.

James Macdonald's direction is sure-handed, keeping the performances restrained for the most part - though all four women have their break-out moments - while allowing the strength of Churchill's text to come roaring through. Eschewing the “show, don’t tell” premise, dialogue and description are the keystones for triggering the audience’s imagination to fill in the nuts and bolts of the more terrifying moments.

Clocking in at just under an hour, the work wisely doesn't overstay its welcome. The switching of scenarios getting more frequent as time goes on, with some of them so bleak it’s almost a relief when the story returns to the backyard. After all. who wouldn’t prefer a rousing rendition of "Da Do Ron Ron” to talk of babies being born without eyes?

A totally absorbing piece about how ordinary people are forced to deal with the situations life throws at them, Escaped Alone, the title having its roots in the Book of Job and Moby Dick, is a very powerful and thought-provoking work.

Featuring: Linda Bassett (Mrs. Jarrett), Deborah Findlay (Sally), Kika Markham (Lena), June Watson (Vi)

Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill
Scenic Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Directed by James Macdonald

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Running Time: 55 minutes, no intermission
Closes: February 26, 2017


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" - Devastatingly Brilliant


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

There's a moment in Martin McDonagh's pitch-black comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane where the entire audience gasps over a certain character's actions. It's a sound not of horror or pain, but rather of anger and disgust over what they see is about to happen; as well as their inability to do anything about it. Such is the power of this completely shattering work, which offers a look at the dark side of family relationships. The work performed to absolute perfection by The Druid Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In County Galway, Ireland, the aging Mag Folan (Marie Mullen) lives with her daughter Maureen (Aisling O'Sullivan) in the small town of Leenane. The two have a tense and caustic relationship, that has grown more combative over time. With her two sisters married and gone, Maureen has long since become Mag's de facto caregiver. Mag's daily wants in terms of tea, food, listening to the radio or watching the television - all accompanied by various digs at her daughter - have begun to take their toll on the younger woman. In addition to her family responsibility, there's another reason why Maureen stays with her mother. One which Mag lords over her every chance she gets.

Maureen's perennially depressed outlook is exacerbated by the fact she recently turned 40, and sees nothing in her life ever changing. Her only victories over her mom coming when she deliberately buys her the wrong type of cookies or biscuits. Mag, who harbors a deep fear of being sent to a home for the aged, does all she can to prevent any type of change to their status quo.

However things do change when Maureen learns that Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), an old friend who moved to London, is coming back from a visit. Their subsequent meeting turning into something more, and which presents the possibility of a lasting happiness for Maureen. Something Mag is determined to stop at all costs.

It should be noted that Mag sees her need to keep her daughter by her side as perfectly legitimate. Mag's status and identity are all tied up in her home, possessions and daily routine. The thought of being reduced to just another old person alone somewhere absolutely terrifies her. It's that fear which has turned her into someone with a pathological need to control those closest to her, which in turn has the effect of alienating those who, in other circumstances, would be her closest allies.

At the same time, one can't help but feel sympathy for Maureen, a woman who is certainly deserving of a life of her own. Pato finding himself caught between these forces in an initially hilarious sequence where both mother and daughter try to get the upper hand. Pato soon desperately wishing he could anywhere else.

Having seen the Druid production of the play when it was first performed in New York twenty years ago, it was the bleakness of the show I remembered most of all. What I had forgotten however, until I saw it again, was just how funny The Beauty Queen of Leenane can be. McDonagh not hitting anyone over the head with a message, but rather slowly drawing the audience into the drama by initially treating the mother-daughter relationship in a comical way, and thus quite relatable to anyone who has ever had to care for another. At least part of the comedy is delivered by Aaron Monaghan as Pato's younger brother Ray, who comes by to deliver letters or impart vital bits of news to Mag and Maureen. He, like his brother, bringing a sort of outsider quality to the two women's environment. Once which both ladies welcome, albeit for completely different reasons.

Not simply content with the initial narrative, McDonagh turns the story on its head several times by showing that the accusations Mag and Maureen level against each other are perhaps not that far off the mark. There's also the question of just how much described is actually true. The characters at times creating their own perception of reality to fit the situations in which they find themselves.

Garry Hynes, who directed the original production of Leenane, guides the play with strength and subtlety. She allowing the characters to take center stage and thus makes the play about these specific individuals who you care for, root for, or root against. At the same time, she never permits the comedic moments to overwhelm the underlying seriousness of the situation. The final effect being quite powerful and affecting. Hynes won a Tony Award for her directorial efforts with the show originally and quite deservedly so.

Mullen, who played Maureen in the original production, winning a Tony for the role, is excellent here as the physically weak, but mentally devious Mag. Someone who is determined not to lose what she has; at least not without a fight. The actress also offers up some hysterical moments via her slowly changing expression when she realizes Pato and her daughter have spent the night together.

O'Sullivan strikes a powerful yet poignant note as Maureen, a woman wanting to finally have a life of her own and who is terrified of becoming just like her mother. Rea is good as the earnest if perhaps too trusting Pato. His scenes with Mullen offer some hilarious moments, particularly when he unwittingly serves up some poetic justice for Mag via a bowl of porridge. Monaghan is fine as Ray; the only character who doesn't change during the course of the play, but rather is content to go on his merry way, never conscious of the effect his actions have on others.

Francis O' Connor's set of the Folan home is appropriately drab and depressing. Nothing warm or happy here, rather just a gray and empty space. Greg Clarke's sound design and lighting by James F. Ingalls ably adds to this effect.

Perfectly executed on so many levels, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a masterpiece in showing how bad family life can be when one side doesn't take the time to truly consider the wishes and needs of the other.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Martin McDonagh

Featuring: Aaron Monaghan (Ray Dooley), Marie Mullen (Mag Folan), Marty Rea (Pato Dooley), Aisling O'Sullivan (Maureen Folan).

Set Design by Francis O'Connor
Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls
Sound Design by Greg Clarke
Composer: Paddy Cunning

Presented by the Druid Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission
Closes: February 5, 2017



Sunday, November 27, 2016

White Rabbit Red Rabbit - A Tour-De-Force From Both Sides of the Script

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

You come into the Westside Theatre on a Monday evening and see a set consisting of a table, on which have been placed with two glasses of what appears to be water, and a chaise lounge. Next, the actor comes on stage and is handed the script by the producers. It is a script he (or she) has not read until that point. Then, we begin.

Such is the premise for White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a one-person show written by Nassim Soleimanpour. A native of Iran, he was forbidden to travel at the time he wrote the play and so sent it out into the world in his stead. By the time he was allowed to leave his homeland and see a production of this work, it had already been performed - according to the program notes - over 200 times in 15 different languages. White Rabbit Red Rabbit was also the first play Mr. Soleimanpour had written in English - a task which, he explains, was quite hard indeed.

More than a play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit can best be described as a sort of improvisational exercise and "get to know you better" interplay between the actor, the playwright and the audiences members. There were 153 people in the audience the night I saw the show; I personally being number 55. Said actor reading the lines aloud and following tips and scenarios provided by the unseen yet ever-present playwright. It's through this process that the actor and the audience begin to understand what the writer is attempting to do as he works on bringing all those present into the unfolding story.

How the evening actually comes off depends on the person performing the play. Alex Brightman - who recently finished a run in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical School of Rock - doing the honors the night I attended. Mr. Brightman's strong sense of comedic timing serving him quite well here as he became several different characters during the course of the evening, while speaking both the words of the writer as well as his own. Brightman thus being given the chance to put his own spin on the presentation. He also introduced the audience to his father and his voice teacher. Both of whom were attending the performance that night.

In his script, Mr. Soleimanpour brings up some rather interesting points. Including the relationship of time as it measured in writing a play. He explaining that he is working on the piece at one moment in time, though when his words are actually read aloud, he may not have any idea just who is reading them; or when and where they are being read. Or if he will even be alive when they are spoken. Though the playwright does refer to an email address where people can contact him and comment on the show they have just seen.

Mr. Brightman, who became a footnote in the play's history as first person ever to get the job of performing the show after tweeting that he wanted to do it, certainly got into the spirit of the piece. He throwing himself, quite literally at times, into the various roles he assumed. He also got more than a bit of help from the audience, many of whom were involved at different points and capacities to help bring the work to its desired conclusion.

At the heart of White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a kind of experiment in regards to learned behavior, cause and effect, fear and desire and simulation of the same. These principles coming into focus as the play deals with issues of death, trust, and a core belief system. More than this cannot be revealed without going too deeply into the structure and nature of the work. Though after seeing it performed by one specific person, you can't help but wonder how it would look when performed by another actor with a totally different style; and whether the overall effect of the play would thus change when given a different interpretation.

An involving and in many ways an immersive experience, I found White Rabbit Red Rabbit to be funny, thought-provoking and quite insightful. As for what exactly the title means, and its overall significance in the story, you'll have to see the play yourselves to find out. Something which I strongly recommend you do as soon as possible.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit
Written by Nassim Soleimanpour

Stage Managers: Alexander Crawford & Logan Reed
General Manger: Cheryl Davis
Production Associate: Sally Cade Holmes
Press Representatives: Vivacity Media Group/Leslie Papa & Whitney Holden Gore
Advertising/Marketing: AKA
Social Media: TKP Digital Marketing

White Rabbit Red Rabbit was originally produced by Volcano Theatre in association with Necessary Angel and Wolfgang Hoffmann
Dramaturgy by Daniel Brooks and Ross Manson

A portion of the play's profits will go to PEN International, the world's leading association of writers working to promote literature and defend freedom of expression around the world.

Westside Theatre
407 West 43rd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Information: WhiteRabbitRedRabbit.com
Running Time: 65 minutes, no intermission

Currently Running on Monday nights

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dead Poets Society - A Moving Experience


Reviewed by JUDD HOLLANDER

It's a tough job to transfer an acclaimed movie to the stage, but playwright Tom Schulman gets it right with the stage version of Dead Poets Society, based on his 1989 film of the same name. With its core themes on the dangers of conformity, the work, now at Classic Stage Company, feels both current and timeless.

The story takes place in 1959 at the Weldon Academy A New England all-male prep school where the core values are tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. Though some of the students may be rather irrepressible, as Headmaster Paul Nolan (David Garrison) notes at one point, there is no doubt the boys will graduate squarely in the mold of those who have come before them. However, John Keating (Jason Sudeikis), the new English teacher, may have something to say about that. Keating, a former Weldon student, sees his job as not only to teach the facts and rules of romantic poetry and fiction, but also to get the boys to understand the emotions and images brought forth by such writings.

Keating's ultimate purpose is to help the boys become "free thinkers". Not so that they can deliberately go about railing against the establishment, but rather to find their own path for the future. Not one laid out for them from almost the time they were born. To his students, who at 16 years of age, are chafing inwardly from the restrictions society has placed on them, Mr. Keating's method of teaching is like a cool blast of fresh air.

It's not long before the boys begin to adapt some of these ideas into their own lives. Neil Perry (Thomas Mann) wants to forgo the medical career his parents long ago set out for him and become and actor, something his has long dreamed of doing. Knox Overstreet (William Hochman) is inspired to go after the girl of his dreams (Francesca Carpanini), even though she's "practically engaged" to a high school quarterback. Todd Anderson (Zane Pais) goes from a shy, stuttering lad to one who quite literally finds his own voice. As for Charlie Dalton (Cody Kostro), he takes Keating's message so to heart, he becomes a walking symbol of non-conformity, Insisting his fellow students call him "Nuwanda" and also sneaking an editorial into the school newspaper demanding Weldon go co-educational. Not surprisingly, there are those who object to the changes wrought by Keating's teachings. Such as Nolan, who warns Keating about his methods; and Neil's father (Stephen Barker Turner) who's determined to stop his son's foolishness before it gets out of hand.

As the play makes clear, while's it's almost instinctive to "run with the herd", it's also important to be able to stand out as an individual. These concepts are powerfully demonstrated when Keating puts the boys through a series of marching exercises where we see who tries to keep in step and who does not - and which members of the audience clap in time to the marching.

Hand in hand with this is the idea of "seizing the day" before life passes you by. A point explored when Keating has his class look a picture of students from decades past, all whom have basically been forgotten due to the passage of time. How many of us when we were younger didn't pass similar pictures of students in their own schools without giving them a second thought?

There are also several moments of irony tucked into the show. Such as when Neil's dad makes quite clear how much he and his wife have sacrificed to make life easier for their son. Yet they don't trust him enough to make his own decisions concerning his future. His father instead wanting him to follow the rules he lays out. Quite probably like Neil's father himself was made to do.

Sudeikis brilliantly steps into the role Robin Williams played on screen. Like Williams, Sudeikis keeps the character of Keating nicely low-key, showing him to be knowledgeable, intuitive and carrying a wonderful secret which he'll only share if asked. The actors playing the boys are all very good. Bubba Weiler and Yaron Lotan in addition to those mentioned above making up the balance of Keating's class. It would have been nice however, if some of the roles were expanded more fully. Schulman having the chance to add more scenes and situations to his story should he have chosen. Carpanini, Garrison and Turner also acquit themselves quite well in their sometimes brief, but always pivotal roles.

John Doyle's direction is good for the most part, moving the story nicely and conjuring up the various images that go with the different scenes. The only problem arises during some of the transitional moments. There not being enough differences when the scenes switch, such as from inside the classroom to the school grounds outside. An issue which could have been solved with better use of lighting and movement.

A powerful coming of age tale, Dead Poets Society looks back a time when the status quo ruled and change of any kind was seen as something to be beaten into submission. It's also one of the best plays to be presented anywhere on stage this year.

Featuring Zane Pais (Todd Anderson), Thomas Mann (Neil Perry), Cody Kostro (Charlie Dalton), Bubba Weiler Steven Meeks), William Hochman (Knox Overstreet), Yaron Lotan (Richard Cameron), David Garrison (Paul Nolan), Stephen Barker Turner (Mr. Perry), Jason Sudeikis (John Keating), Francesca Carpanini (Chris).
 
Dead Poets Society
by Tom Schulman
Based on the Touchstone Pictures motion picture written by Tom Schulman

Scenic Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Ann-Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Matt Stine
Music: Jason Michael Webb
Associate Scenic Design: Orit Jacoby Carroll
Associate Costume Design: Christopher Vergara
Hair Design: J. Jared Janas
Production Stage Manager: Sarah Hall
Assistant Stage Manager: Melanie J. Lisby
Production Manager: Bethany Taylor
General Manager: John C. Hume
Casting: Telsey + Company, William Cantler, CSA, Karyn Casl, CSA
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by John Doyle

Dead Poets Society is presented by Special Arrangement with Adam Zotovich

Classic Stage Company
36 East 13 Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or www.classicstage.org
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Closes December 18, 2016

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Letters to a Man" - A Penetrating Look at a Psyche in Torment


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

An ever-changing landscape of the mind and one who is powerless to correct what is happening. These are some of the images, thoughts and feeling that come from the fascinating Letter to a Man. Presented by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson, the show recently finished a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival.

Russian dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) was, in his time, the most celebrated male dancer in the Western world, before falling victim to schizophrenia. Said condition, coming on towards the end of the World War I, and which would eventually lead to a more than two decade period of self-imposed isolation. The play is based on Nijinsky's diary which he wrote in 1919, shortly before his mental collapse completely overtook him. Baryshnikov portraying Nijinsky as he starts to emerge from his lengthy period of isolation toward the close of World War II.

Both Baryshnikov and Wilson - the two collaborated on the direction, as well as several other technical elements of the work - clearly know the story they want to tell. However, they have no intention of making it easy for the audience by providing them a road map for what is to follow. Traveling though the jumbled landscape of Nijinsky's mind, there is no clear straight line of story here; no liner or logical progression. Instead there are bits and pieces of information - faded guideposts, if you will - consisting of non-sequiturs coupled with elements of clarity. The audience thus left to make the connections as they try to follow the journey the piece takes them on.

It's a journey which takes the Nijinsky character through places both dark and vast, many of which offer the possibility of alternate meanings. Such as one scene taking place in what appears to be a Spartan room with a high barred window on one wall. A place which could suggests either a church or a prison. Another example of this continual uncertainty occurs during a scene where water is projected on a wall, containing images that are just enough out of focus to render them indistinct, yet clearly having some significance in the overall picture.

If there is one constant running throughout, it's how the small the character Baryshnikov portrays consistently appears when compared to the rest of the staging. Whether clad in a tuxedo and prancing about to show music; wearing suspenders, his body altered to look fat and old; being completely in shadow while moving gracefully about an almost empty stage; sitting in a chair while in a straitjacket or appearing upside down, everything we see seems deliberately arranged to dwarf the character.

The separate sequences are often accompanied by various words and phrases, ones usually repeated more than once. One particular word that keeps coming up in this fashion is "suffocation". Referring, one assumes, to what Nijinsky himself was feeling during his periods of mental struggle. On the other side of the coin, the audience hears specific sentences that are indeed grounded in reality while also tinged with a sense of humor. Such as Nijinsky equating war to fights with his mother-in-law, or his love of lunatics as they are easier to understand. Nijinsky's own name is continually repeated - and often coupled with the terms "God" and "Christ", yet just as often standing on its own as if continually asserting his own sense of identity.

Just as the play's sights and sounds (the latter including a child's laughter and gunshots) deliberately jumble time and linear progression, so too it is with the music used. Tunes such as Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave," sounding like a scratchy 78 RPM recording; Stephen Foster's "De Camptown Races" and Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaaa" all figuring into the story presented. Other music styles presented include jazz, blues and a few with some rather gothic overtones.

Another interesting point is that Baryshnikov and Wilson never allow the Nijinsky character to come across as fully human. Rather Baryshnikov portrays him to be somewhat garish, almost a caricature - some movements and vocal tones calling to mind Joel's Grey's portrayal of the MC in Cabaret - a man hiding behind a facade. Baryshnikov does a great job with the role, making him fascinating to watch throughout. This total comment to bringing this story to life is also present throughout the work of Wilson and the rest of the creative team. All of whom work together in perfect unison to ensure the work has maximum impact.

Offering a very interesting subject matter and told in a way that requires the audience to think about what they're seeing, Letter to a Man makes for quite a satisfying experience.

Letter to a Man
Direction, set design and lighting concept by Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov
Based on the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky
Text by Christian Dumais-Lvowski
Dramaturgy by Darryl Pinckney
Music by Hal Willner
Costumes by Jacques Reynaud
Collaboration to movements and spoken text by Lucinda Childs
Lighting Design by A.J. Weissbard
Associate Set Design by Annick Lavillée-Benny
Set design by Nick Sagar and Ella Wahlstrõm
Video Design by Tomek Jeziorski

Presented at The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater as part of the BAM "Next Wave Festival"

Closed: October 30, 2016


Sunday, October 23, 2016

"The Roads to Home" - A sometimes elusive search for comfort



By Judd Hollander

The concept of "home" is more than just a physical location. It's also a state of mind that can conjure up a place from long ago where things seemed to be better, happier and easier to understand. This is the idea playwright Horton Foote explores in his 1982 work The Roads to Home, presented by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Each of the plays' three scenes could stand alone as a separate story, though some of the characters depicted appear in more than one situation. While the scenarios presented are sent in around Austin and Houston, Texas during the period of 1924-1928, they also have links to the fictional Texas town of Harrison. The ultimate home for several of the characters, as well as the location for many of Foote's works.

In "A Nightingale", Mabel (Hallie Foote) and Vonnie (Harriet Harris), two middle-aged housewives, neighbors and long-time friends, are sitting in Mabel's kitchen one weekday morning, swapping various bits of gossip. Coming rather abruptly into this mix is Annie Gayle Long (Rebecca Brooksher), a young married woman with two children. Annie has taken to stopping by Mabel's place almost every day. This despite the wishes of both Mabel and Annie's husbands.

Annie, who has gone through numerous personal tragedies in her life and who is also struggling with severe postpartum depression, is beginning to show signs of a mental breakdown. She apparently latching on to Mabel as both woman originally hail from the aforementioned Harrison. That connection providing the only hint of stability to a mind rapidly losing its grip on reality. Annie's situation appears even more precarious when her husband, Mr. Long (Dan Bittner) appears. His answers to Mabel and Vonnie's questions often contradicting previous statements made by Annie.

While there is no denying the seriousness of the matter, many of the early moments with Mabel and Vonnie call to mind a television sitcom. The women's easy camaraderie and banter reminding one of Alice Kramden and Trixie Norton. High marks also go to Jeff Cowie for his set design work on Mabel's kitchen, which readily brings forth the flavor of the period.

"The Dearest of Friends" continues this rather deft mix of comedy and pathos. Taking place about six months later, Vonnie finds her world upended when her husband Eddie (Matt Sullivan) asks for a divorce. Vonnie explaining this to Mabel and her husband Jack (Devon Abner) in tones that range from bitterness and anguish to caustic humor. All the while Jack is quietly reading the paper, commenting only sporadically. He seemingly knowing more about the situation than anyone else, while wanting nothing more than to stay out of the entire affair - pardon the pun.

The events in this scene showing quite clearly how one person's seemingly perfect existence may not translate to that of another. This becoming especially evident when Eddie appears and gives his side of the story. A subplot to this is the danger of a seemingly endless life of routine. A premise for which the groundwork is laid via the relationship between Mabel and Jack.

Things wrap up with "Spring Dance", which takes place in a garden behind an auditorium where a dance is being held for residents of the local sanitarium. Set four years after events previously shown, Annie is now a patient of said institution as she attempts to recover from her mental collapse so she can return to the life she once had. Annie's fellow inmates including Dave Dushon (Bittner) and Greene Hamilton (Sullivan), two other former residents from Harrison; as well as Cecil Henry (Abner), a somewhat garrulous man from Waco, Texas. As the music from the dance plays on, the setting reminding one of a summer cotillion, Annie finds her still-tenuous hold on reality becoming more and more slippery. At least that's what it seems. It being hard to tell for sure as Greene and Cecil keep giving her different answers in regards to her questions concerning the timeline of events. The idea of home here being something quite precious, but also so idealized, the actuality reality of it will never measure up.

Far more serious than either of the two earlier segments, "Spring Dance" shows what happens to people who are unable to conform to the "normal" world and are instead shipped somewhere out of sight from society until they are able to heal, if ever. Foote's depiction of people's attitude toward the treatment of the mentally ill being one that still exists today. Even with the advances of various forms of treatment that have come into being since the decades in which the scenes are set.

While presenting a very engaging story and a very intriguing message, The Roads to Home falters when it comes to characterization. Only one of those depicted ever becoming more than one-dimensional. That being the character of Annie; Ms. Brooksher basically carrying the entire final scene as her character's troubled mind struggles to reconcile the different information continuously being imparted to her.

Fortunately, the acting of the entire cast more than makes up for any weaknesses in the script. Ms. Foote - the playwright's daughter - and Devon Abner both doing excellent jobs with the material they're given. The two also being the premiere interpreters of the author's work today; each having appeared in numerous productions of Mr. Foote's work over the years. Also excellent is Harris' portrayal of Vonnie, the character going from a jovial and happy housewife to a woman scorned during the course of the play.

Michael Wilson's direction is sound, keeping the story moving throughout and not letting things get either too maudlin or silly at points; while always making sure each of the three scenes always hold one's interest. Most importantly, even if this is the first Foote play you've ever seen and know nothing about the Harrison history that's woven in throughout his works, you can still feel enough sympathy understanding for the different characters and situations to become totally engrossed in the story. Costumes by David C. Woolard work nicely, especially the outfit worth by Brooksher in the final scene.

Despite characters that often are never as deep as they could be, The Roads to Home nonetheless offers a powerful illustration of what "home" means to people and how the reality of that idea often differs from how one truly wishes it could be.

Featuring: Hallie Foote (Mabel Votaugh), Harriet Harris (Vonnie Hayhurst), Rebecca Brooksher (Annie Gayle Long), Dan Bittner (Mr. Long/Dave Dushon), Matt Sullivan (Eddie Hayhurst/Greene Hamilton), Devon Abner (Cecil Henry).

The Roads to Home

Set Design: Jeff Cowie

Costume Design: David C. Woolard

Lighting Design: David Lander

Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada

Wig Design: Paul Huntley

Production Stage Manager: Robert Bennett

Production Supervisor: Mind The Gap

Casting: Stephanie Klapper Casting

General Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations

General Manager: Dan A. Carpenter

Director of Development: Erica Raven-Scorza

Director of Marketing: Phil Haas

Directed by Michael Wilson

Presented by Primary Stages
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Tickets: 212-353-3101 or www.primiarystages.org

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes, one intermission

Closes: November 27, 2016


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. stannswarehouse.org
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).

iNSIGNIFICANCE
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
Tickets: www.universe.com/insignificancetheplay
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)

Dot
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 www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes, with one intermission

Closed: March 20, 2016