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 www.TicketCentral.com

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?)

Featuring:
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

Band:
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: http://christmaswithouttears.com/


"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.

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

Swings: 
Jordanna H. James, Jason Justin Perez

Rockettes: 
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.

Swings:
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.

Swings:
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 www.RadioCityChristmas.com
Running Time: 90 Minutes, No Intermission


Closes: January 3, 2016

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Perfect Arrangement" - Not so perfect for those involved

By Judd Hollander
Photo by James Leynse

Most everyone has a public persona they show to the outside world. One stripped off only in the comfort of one's own home and only to those to whom you are the closest. But when even the slightest slip of the mask can lead to the loss of everything you're worked for, how far would you go to make sure that shield stays securely on? Such is the scenario playwright Topher Payne offers with Perfect Arrangement. Presented by Primary Stages. the show is having its New York premiere at the Duke on 42nd Street.

1950, Washington, D.C. The Cold War is in full swing and the United States Government is rooting out anyone who may have Communist leanings. Among those involved in this process are State Department employees Bob Martindale (Robert Eli) and his associate Norma (Julia Coffey). Bob is married to homemaker Millie (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), while Norma's spouse is schoolteacher Jim Baxter (Christopher J. Hanke). The two couples are long time best friends and next door neighbors. However both marriages are shames, or in actuality, covers. For it is Bob and Jim who are in love with one another; as are Norma and Millie. The group coming up with this arrangement four years earlier as way to live together in secret while maintaining a public facade that would allow them to continue their careers in a society that by and large condemns them. Their true relationships hidden from prying eyes via a specially built closet that allows them to move from one apartment to the other without anyone outside their circle being the wiser.

Things change when Bob's superior, Theodore Sunderson (Kevin O'Rourke). explains that their new mission is to remove anyone in government whose actions could make them a target of blackmail. In particular anyone doing something of an unusual or "deviant" nature (i.e. homosexuality). While Bob is okay with this new protocol, Norma is somewhat less so. This leading to the first of many cracks in the four's once impervious shield.

More trouble comes the quartet's way in the form of Barbara Grant (Kelly McAndrew), a translator at the State Department, who's now on the chopping block thanks to her "easy" reputation. Though it quickly becomes obvious Barbara is not someone to sit still when threatened. Barbara noting one can't be blackmailed if you don't care who knows your secrets. That attitude being something Bob and the others feel they cannot afford. The irony here is that Bob is the one who created the system by which the State Department roots out its undesirables. Thus throwing other people under the proverbial bus and becoming a rising star in his job, all the while ensuring his own secrets remain secure and not caring about those outside his immediate circle. The question of whose rights are more important in such a situation being the play's ultimate message.

Payne and set designer Neil Patel have done a good job in recreating 1950s mores. The set of Norma and Millie's apartment looking like something you would find in a television series from that era. Nice, neat and with everything in its place. In a way the setting acts as a metaphor for these character's lives. Perfect and calm on the outside; but underneath far more messy, far more fraught with issues and dramatically, far more interesting. The ladies dresses in particular are perfectly divine - good work by costume designer Jennifer Caprio.

Interestingly, it's the dramatic moments that come across far better than the comedic ones. Part of this has to do with the show's underlying message, the two couples being too constrained by their own fears to come across as even unintentionally funny. Other problems occur because of Michael Barakiva's sometimes unfocused direction, which does not allow the characters to get enough into the specific moments to make any of the comic situations as amusing as they could be. Such misfires occur when Millie recognizes Barbara as someone from her past and tries desperately to disguise herself so she won't be recognized. Other moments at levity, such as Bob trying to fake a cold, or just about anything involving Kitty Sunderson (Jennifer Van Dyck), the wife of Bob's boss, all feel somewhat flat. Kitty in particular coming off as more of a parody than anything remotely resembling flesh and blood, at least in the beginning. The play could easily be done as a farce - the groundwork for it is certainly there - if that was the way Payne wanted to go. But the way the work is structured now, the too-real seriousness of the issues presented works against any attempts at levity.

Another problem is the show's ultimate ending. One where both couples must decide whether or not to take the first tentative steps outside the closet - and not the one connecting the two apartments. This particular (and pivotal) sequence begins well enough, but winds up offering what comes off as three separate endings. The final one stacking things a bit too far in one particular direction. Especially considering the time in which this story takes place and the attitude and feelings of the characters up to that point.

The cast is quite good, with Eli the standout as Bob. The one person most desperately trying to keep his personal status quo unchanged, less the gigantic house of cards he has built come crashing down. Coffey works well as Norma, a woman who eventually finds she can't keep being part of a process she despises. Feely-Lehmann is good as Millie, a person who initially finds herself totally appalled by Kitty and all that she represents. Yet in the end finds herself bonding with her in a moment of crises. O'Rourke is fine as Sunderson, a career bureaucrat with a seemingly easygoing manner, yet someone who can also become quite the son of a bitch when necessary. McAndrew is a nice surprise as Barbara. Someone who, like many of the others, keeps her professional and private lives completely separate. But who in reality may be the most honest of all.

One very telling line, used almost as a throwaway here, can be heard when Jim notes that he'd never be able to get a teaching job if his homosexuality became public knowledge. Those words indicating a reality that lasted far past the red and lavender scares of the 1950s, and even long after the gay rights movement burst into full bloom more than a decade later. It's here the power of the play is truly felt as it shows the almost desperate lengths homosexuals would go in order to appear "normal" to the world at large. The alternative being ostracism, unemployment or far worse. 

Offering quite the thought provoking story, Perfect Arrangement doesn't quite reach its full potential, but still packs an emotional punch. One powerful enough to leaving a lasting impression. 

Featuring: Robert Eli (Bob Martindale), Mikaela Feely-Lehmann (Mille Martindale), Julia Coffey (Norma Baxter), Christopher J. Hanke (Jim Baxter), Kevin O'Rourke (Theodore Sunderson), Jennifer Van Dyck (Kitty Sunderson), Kelly McAndrew (Barbara Grant).

Prefect Arrangement

Written by Topher Payne

Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer Polimeni
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Wig & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Props Supervisor: Carrie Mossman
Production Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Directed by: Michael Barakiva

Presented by Primary Stages Company
The Duke at 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street

Closed: November 6, 2015

"Old Times" - A tantalizing journey

By Judd Hollander

Memory can be highly selective. The way one recalls a given event with absolute certainty may not at all be the way it actually happened. Such is the case in Harold Pinter's 1971 work Old Times, which is currently enjoying a sterling Broadway revival as presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre.

Filmmaker Deeley (Clive Owen) and his wife Kate (Kelley Reilly), who live in a converted farmhouse somewhere near the English coast, are awaiting the arrival of Kate's old friend Anna (Eve Best), who is arriving from Sicily for a visit. Anna and Kate shared a London flat together when there were young women recently out of school. Though curiously, Kate has never before mentioned this woman from her past.

While Deeley seems eager quite to meet Anna, and thus perhaps get a peek into his wife's life in the time before he knew her, the more introverted Kate is far less enthusiastic. Perhaps preferring to let those heady days of youth and the escapades thereof - all occurring at a time when the future was completely open to her - remain safely buried and forgotten.

Not long after Anna arrives, a not-so-subtle disconnect begins to occur. Deeley and Anna taking up most of the conversations, be they reminiscing, questions, or swapping song lyrics; with Kate becoming a sort of third wheel. Kate at one point remarking how Anna keeps talking at her as if she's dead, even though she's right in front of them. This feeling of exclusion existing not only in terms of the conversations going on, but also in Kate's relationship with her husband. Deeley traveling all over the globe for his work, while Kate seems to prefer the solitude of her present environment. She often taking walks alone, with her only constant companion her thoughts. It's as if she's continually erecting a safe haven for herself. One with ever taller walls. 

It also becomes apparent that Anna and Deeley had a significant, albeit non-verbal encounter during those long-ago London days. Though each has their own interpretation of what may have happened during that meeting. Just as Kate and Anna each have their own interpretation of that time; especially how things finally ended between the two women. This then brings the story back to the idea of selective memories. Where people chose to remember the same instance(s) in different ways. Preferring to recall things they way they wanted them to happen, rather than how they truly did.

Playing hand and hand into premise this is director Douglas Hodge's excellent staging. His firm yet delicate pacing helping to keep the audience fixated on the unfolding story, as well as the slowly increasing sexual tension, as they wait for the explosion, surprise or other clues to solve the mystery of these three people, as well as Anna's ultimate purpose in showing up after all these years. Though those wanting straight answers or a complete linear progression have come to the wrong play; for there are no quick fixes or the neatly tying up of all that has been presented. Rather, Pinter leaves it to each person in the audience to digest and make sense of what they've seen. It's also interesting to note that throughout the play Kate and Anna are often positioned in such a way that they appear to be almost mirrored images of one another. This then begs the question which of them is image and which is real. Or perhaps the question should be which is more image and which is more real? 

Also present is an almost desperate need by Deeley and Kate to maintain their own personal status quos. Deeley continuously trying to keep control of the situation by one-upping Anna during their conversations, while Kate tries not to revisit the past by seemingly ignoring it. Or at least playing it down for as long as she can. Yet in the end, both are threatened with losing the security and stability they desperately covet. For by the end it is Deeley who finds himself being pushed aside, while it's Kate, who has been relatively quiet for most the show, who ultimately finds her voice and seizes control of the narrative.

Acting by the trio is excellent. Especially when one realizes that none of the characters are quite fully formed. Rather they're more bits and pieces of experiences and memories. Yet the material the actors do have to work with and the possibilities therein make the characters completely fascinating to watch. Owen, making his Broadway debut here, cuts an interesting figure as Deeley. Someone a little too self-assured, with a constant need to be in control and wanting to learn as much as he can from Anna. But who in the end, learns that a little knowledge can be very dangerous. Reilly, also making her Broadway debut, is good as Kate. A quiet soul with an almost mousy sort of attitude at points, who eventually shows herself to be the strongest person of all. Best, as Anna has perhaps the more difficult of the three roles. A sort of cipher inside this cipher of a play, as the woman whose presence stirs up things the other two had long forgotten, or at least conveniently suppressed. That is, if any of the memories in question are actually true to begin with.

Christine Jones' set, like the characters, is deliberately incomplete, but comfortable. In another interesting point, the front door almost resembles a huge block of ice. Perhaps indicating how each of the characters is frozen in time in their own way. Or, since if you look through a sheet of ice, everything looks like it's in a million pieces, it could be another reference to the fragmentation of memories distorted by time and distance. Special mention going to the haunting sound design of Clive Goodwin. Its ominous and enveloping mantra fitting perfectly into this story.

Running a brisk 70 minutes, you still feel as if you've been through an emotional marathon by the time the play is finished. Old Times is a gut-wrenching yet at times almost gentle look at the power of memories. All the while showing that if the truth doesn't always set one free, it can certainly mark those who are able to remember it accurately.

Featuring: Clive Owen (Deeley), Kelly Reilly (Kate), Eve Best, (Anna).

Old Times
by Harold Pinter

Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Clive Goodwin
Music: Thom Yorke
Hair Design: Amanda Miller
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson
Production Stage Manager: Nevin Hedley
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Directed by Douglas Hodge

Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running Time: 70 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: November 29, 2015


"Antigone" - Where compromise is sadly not an option

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Branches which bend under the force of a raging storm are often able to survive, while those that hold fast and try to resist the oncoming onslaught are eventually snapped off and torn away. It is this premise of being unable to bend in the face of immense outside pressure that sets in motion the ultimate fate of the two main characters in Sophokles' drama Antigone. A production of which, using a new translation by Anne Carson and under the very capable directorial hands of Ivo van Hove, is about to finish a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In ancient Thebes, Kreon (Patrick O'Kane), who has recently come to power after a bloody siege of the city, has decreed that the body of the traitor Polyneikes (Nathanial Jackson), who perished in the afore-mentioned struggle, be left above ground to rot. This edict being Kreon’s way of issuing a grisly warning to any who may not be loyal to him. It is also a warning that Polyneikes’ sister Antigone (Juliette Binoche), is resolved to ignore. This despite the desperate pleas from her sister Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) not to disobey Kreon’s commands. Not surprisingly, Kreon does not take the defying of his orders lightly, and it’s not long before Antigone is brought before him to face his wraith. All to the great relief of a Guard (Obi Abili), who was one of those charged with watching the body of Polyneikes in order to make sure Kreon’s orders were being followed. The scenes dealing with the Guard's predicament containing just about the only comedic moments in the entire production.

The events described above basically serve as the set up for the play's ultimate message as the outcome of Kreon’s inflexibility and Antigone’s determination - or is it Kreon’s determination and Antigone’s inflexibility - become evident. The two characters' positions being diametrically opposed, yet born of the same circumstances, and with each person possessing a similar and unyielding resolve. Things becoming even more complicated when one takes into account the familial connections involved. Antigone being Kreon’s niece as well as a daughter of Odipous; she also having lost two brothers in the battle for Thebes, while Kreon lost a son in the same conflict.

Despite Antigone being the title role, the show in actuality centers around the actions of Kreon. Something which becomes evident when he makes clear his position shortly after assuming power. At first offering a sort of conciliatory approach to those who may have opposed him in the past, as a way to attempt to bring together the different factions he now presides over. Yet despite the outwardly initial calm he projects, for him the entire matter has become far too personal. Kreon having not only lost a son during the siege, but also having to face the fact that some of his own family fought against him during the battle. Thus he is resolute in his decision regarding Polyneikes and anyone who dares try to bury him.

Director Ivo van Hove, who has reimagined more than one classic work over the years, (I particularly remember a version of Hedda Gabler he directed at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2004), goes the subtle route here to get his point across. Or at least as subtle as you can get considering the circumstances involved. The piece presented as a sort of warning against being too unyielding, no matter the position you take. At the same time, the story, for all of its dramatic punch, has a sort of detached feeling to it. One finding oneself applauding the strong characterizations, yet at the same time observing the entire production with more a spectator’s eye rather than the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. The audience thus also becoming in a way, a part of the chorus who ultimately passes judgment on what is unfolding before their eyes.

It’s also interesting to note how the issues surrounding the events presented, although not the events themselves, could easily be translated into numerous aspects of modern life. Kreon’s assuming control of the city could easily be re-imagined as a corporate takeover, with his initial encounter with some of the city's citizens easily taking place in a corporate boardroom of just about any Fortune 500 company. An effect helped in no small part by the cast being clad in modern dress for this production. The show also makes good use of various projections and images to give the impression that there are other elements involved than those physically seen on stage, and that we’re all part of something bigger than what we actually may see and understand.

As Kreon, O'Kane turns in a very strong and commanding performance. Whether the character makes a proclamation, threat or simple comment, there's no doubt he means exactly what he says. The actor presenting a firm and controlled presence with Kreon's movements, one often pressing down on a torrent of emotions he holds inside. This attitude thus making the character itself, as well as his ultimate fate, all the more believable. Ironically, Kreon is also the one person who learns the most during the course of the play. Though this knowledge comes with a heavy price.

Binoche does very well as Antigone. A person whom, even when she is off-stage, is talked about throughout. The character does come off as a little off-putting at first. This mainly because her first scene, where she forcefully declares her intentions to her sister, sets up everything that is to follow and with Antigone basically pushing herself right into audience's collective face. Despite all this early posturing, it is Binoche's later scenes which carry far more emotional weight. Including where she faces off against Kreon, as well as another pivotal sequence - which contains no actual dialogue. 

Carlson's translation comes off as surprisingly clean and simple as these things go, the text quite neatly putting the underlying message front and center. Carson's words going hand in hand with van Hove’s directorial efforts, both of which achieve their desired results without any flourishes or eccentricities. Just a story nicely told. The result is one quite fulfilling, both intellectually and emotionally.

Also in the cast are Samuel Edward-Cook, Finbar Lynch and Kathryn Pogson.

Featuring: Juliette Binoche (Antigone), Obi Abili (Guard/Chorus), Kirsty Bushell (Ismene/Chorus), Samuel Edward-Cook (Haimon/Chorus), Finbar Lynch (Teiresias/Chorus), Patrick O'Kane (Kreon), Kathryn Pogson (Eurydike/Chorus), Nathanial Jackson (Body of Polyneikes/Boy).


Antigone
By Sophokles
In a new translation by Anne Carson
Barbican and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg

Set Design and Lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Costume Design: An d'Huys
Video Design: Tal Yarden
Dramaturgy by Peter van Kraaij
Composition and Sound Design: Daniel Freitag

Directed by Ivo van Hove

BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street

Closed: October 4, 2014

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"A Murder Mystery Karaoke Show" - I Know What You Sang Last Summer

By Byrne Harrison

I will admit that I really enjoy karaoke.  I also really enjoy watching self-absorbed teenagers get picked off one by one in a good slasher movie.  It never occurred to me, however, that you could combine the two.

Luckily, it did occur to John Paolillo, the creator and director of "A Murder Mystery Karaoke Show," currently playing every Thursday night in October at the Stonewall Inn's upstairs stage.  The result is less Miss Marple and more Scooby Doo.  Less slasher and more Thriller (Paolillo is a choreographer, after all, so moves get busted).  Less Freddy Krueger and more Rocky Horror.  Less Cabin in the Woods and more Miss Scarlet in the library with a lead pipe.

Well, you get the picture.

"Murder Mystery" uses familiar tropes - an unexpected invitation, a night to be spent in a creepy house on Asylum Island, a prize to whomever can spend the night, a mysterious benefactor, and of course, lots of murders.  The characters are, unsurprisingly, a cross-section of every teen movie ever - jock (Trevor Livingston), cheerleader (Andrea Levinsky), gay boy (Danni Vitorino), goth chick (Rachel Hering), overenthusiastic nerds (Kristen D.J. Robinson and Molly Heller), and the black guy (Gavin Juckette) that everyone expects to be killed next (the fact that this particular black guy is white and somehow keeps surviving is a running joke throughout the show).

The hows and whys of the murders, the unmasking of the killer (who no doubt would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling kids…), the surprise twist ending, the other surprise twist ending… well, really it's all just window dressing.  The show is meant to be lighthearted, silly fun.  It's a chance to go out with some friends, grab some drinks, and sing along (loudly, and in different keys) with some great karaoke music, all while watching good-looking teens get gruesomely murdered.  Is there a better way to spend a Thursday night?  I don't think so.

So a few things to know.  As an audience member, you are a ghost on or around Asylum Island.  You will have things that you are supposed to say (and sing).  If you sit close to the stage, chances are good that you will be a featured singer (the night I saw it, two of the folks in the first row were called onstage to sing - both of them reveled in their spotlight moments, with surprising and delightful results).  Even if you don't sit near the stage, chances are you will have a microphone put in front of your face at some point.  But don't worry if you don't sing well, at least you won't end up dead like the rest of the cast.

And speaking of the cast, they are a lot of fun and each actor gets a moment to shine (either in song, or in a really fun death scene - often both - or creatively trying to get a microphone back from an audience member).  Standout moments include Levinsky's death scene, sung to probably the most ironic of the night's karaoke numbers, Hering's offstage death scene and the bits of her that make it back onstage, and a great costume reveal (which I won't spoil) by Vitorino at the climax of the play.

So if you like karaoke, murder and drinking, you may have found the show you didn't even know you've been waiting for.


"A Murder Mystery Karaoke Show"
Written and directed by John Paolillo
Lights, music and special effects by Chauncey Dandridge
Produced by Nancy Jane Productions

Featuring: Trevor Livingston, Andrea Levinsky, Danni Vitorino, Rachel Hering, Kristen D.J. Robinson, Molly Heller and Gavin Juckette.

Stonewall Inn
53 Christopher Street
Thursday nights in October
Doors open at 8:00 PM; show starts at 8:30 PM
$15, plus 2-drink minimum

Tales Told Way Out of School - Verna Gillis' "Tales From Geriassic Park: On the Verge of Extinction"

By Byrne Harrison

Verna Gillis
It's generally agreed that there is a shortage of good roles for women, especially those of a certain age.  If only everyone could meet that challenge by writing a piece as funny and moving as Verna Gillis' "Tales From Geriassic Park: On the Verge of Extinction."  This autobiographical, solo show (winner of last year's United Solo Theater Festival Best Comedic Script Award) is built on a lifetime of work, some of it pleasant, some of it hard, all of it interesting.

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"I don’t have enough time left to spend it reflecting on how it was; how it is is much more compelling and requires all the attention I can give  it."
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Gillis is a wordsmith, and an ethnomusicologist, as well, so it is no surprise that her script and her performance style has a musicality and an innate sense of rhythm about it.  As she talks of such diverse subjects as managing not to pee before her pants are down, a grandmother lost to the Holocaust, her immigrant parents who met in the States, finding and losing love, the difficulties of living with another person, cancer, eating disorders, and of course, old age, she softly spins her words like a quiet slam poet, drawing the audience in with vivid images and sprightly, comedic wordplay.

Sadly, "Tales" had a one-night only run at this year's United Solo Theater Festival, so you may not have another chance to see it for a while.  But hopefully the show, and Gillis, will keep coming back.


"Tales From Geriassic Park: On the Verge of Extinction"
Written and performed by Verna Gillis
Stage and lighting technician: Timothy Soyk
Associate Producer: Sarah Taylor

United Solo Theater Festival
Sunday, September 27th


Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Christians" - Whose faith is it anyway?

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Preaching the world of God is a great responsibility. For what you say in that respect affects not only how you see yourself, but how you are seen by the very people you hope to reach. It's a point strongly brought home in Lucas Hnath's very powerful and compelling drama The Christians, now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.

Paul (Andrew Garman) is a well respected pastor who has, over the last twenty years seen his church grow from services in a storefront to a thriving mega-complex. Yet of late his soul is deeply troubled. A story he heard at a religious conference affecting him so deeply, he's announced his intention of taking the church in a new direction. One with the idea that all are saved through Christ, even those who do not believe in him, and which also abandons the concepts of Satan and Hell.

Paul's decision, which he announces during one of his sermons, immediately causes a division in both the church hierarchy and its membership. The first to publicly say that he cannot agree with this new perspective is Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell). Joshua quickly departs his position, and takes about 50 members of the congregation with him.

As time goes on, Paul finds his decision repeatedly questioned. This despite his continual explanations and reasoning, all of which seem perfectly clear to him. (Kind of like Hilary Clinton and her email troubles.) Paul's wife (Linda Powell), for example wants to know why he didn't talk to her first before making his feelings public; while others, such as Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a member of the congregation, wondering why Paul waited until the church celebrated finally being free from years of debt before taking this stand. A debt which was paid in no small part by the church members themselves. Paul's response to this last query being particularly telling. Not that it takes anything away from his belief in what he is doing, but it does serve to point out how in religion, just like in politics, timing can be everything. In the end Paul finds his decision may cost him more than he ever thought possible.

The Christians takes a hard look at the power of faith and what happens when people with differing viewpoints, each of whom firmly believe they are in the right, are unable to accept the other's position. One such confrontation played out with Paul and Joshua via dueling bible verses, though Paul does have the advantage here. He having prepared himself for this situation beforehand. Yet while the playwright has provided a religious framework for the story (and a quite convincing one at that), it could easily be translated to many other situations. Just as it is said the how the Devil can quote the scriptures for his own ends, focusing on specific writings to buttress a certain argument is quite common in all walks of life, regardless of whatever the subject of dispute happens to be. Indeed, many decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court have fallen into this category. The Justices charged with interpreting the law, with many of their decisions turning on the meaning of particular word or phrase or intent thereof.

To his credit, Hnath pulls no punches with his tale, never questioning Paul's convictions, nor the viewpoints of those who disagree with him. The story refreshingly avoiding any stereotypical or cliché-like dialogue, with characters feeling fully three-dimensional and completely real.

Scenic designer Dane Laffrey has done an excellent job here, creating a set which calls to mind a Sunday morning religious television program. Complete with a very enthusiastic 20-person choir. A particularly nice touch were the projected messages about refraining from texting during the program. It's also interesting to note how the atmosphere the show projected took hold even before the play began. Often when people are in a church they involuntary talk in whispers, which was also the case here. The normal pre-show chatter of the audience as they were getting settled being markedly absent.

Garman comes off well as a genial, middle of the road sort of pastor. One whose belief in what he is doing never alters, despite all that happens around him. Kudos must also go to Linda Powell, who basically does nothing for most of the play, other than looking supportive and wincing when Paul mentions the pants suit she was wearing when they first met 22 years earlier. That is, until a pivotal scene where she reveals to her husband her own personal beliefs and just how important they are to her. Also doing a particularly nice job is Philip Kerr as Jay, a church elder and one of those responsible for the financial health of the church. Jay being someone who strives to find a middle ground where everyone can exist. Something that is not always an option when it comes to matters of belief.

As The Christians clearly shows, faith can be a demanding mistress. Especially when it threatens to take away everything you hold dear. For while it may indeed be able to move mountains, it can also point to a path where you find yourself walking completely alone.

Featuring: Andrew Garman (Paul, a pastor), Linda Powell (Elizabeth, his wife), Larry Powell (Joshua, the associate pastor), Philip Kerr (Jay, a church elder), Emily Donahoe (Jenny, a church congregant).

The Christians
Written by Lucas Hnath
Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Connie Furr Soloman
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Jake Rodriguez
Production Stage Manager: Marisa Levy
Assistant Stage Managers: Erin Gioia Albrecht; Joseph Fernandez, Jr.
Music Supervisor: David Dabbon
Music Director/Pianist: Karen Dryer

Directed by Les Waters

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission

Closes: October 25

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Mercury Fur" - Where Denial is Not a River in Egypt

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Photos by Monique Carboni

In 1988 there was an off-Broadway show that featured, as one of its segments, two actors in a talk show setting discussing how to deal with issues plaguing the world at the time. The solution: to pretend that everything is happening somewhere far away and not in their own back yard. But denial only goes so far and when one is forced to come face to face with the reality they're been desperately avoiding, it's an altogether different story. Such is the case in Philip Ridley's very sobering drama Mercury Fur, presented by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Jack DiFalco and Zane Pais
Ridley sets his story in a dystopian New York City, one not that far removed from the present day. Riots and crime have become commonplace, while weather patterns have gone crazy - bringing with them sand from the dessert and a strange breed of hallucinogenic butterflies, the current drug of choice. Those on the fringes of what's left of society surviving by their wits and on the back and bodies of those less fortunate than themselves. 

Doing a brisk business in the butterfly trade, along with other questionable activities is Elliot (Zane Pais), a no-nonsense sort who, with his mentally-challenged brother Darren (Jack DiFalco), has commandeered an apartment in an supposedly abandoned building for a very special party. They getting help some unexpected aid in this endeavor from Naz (Tony Revolori), a squatter from down the hall.

However this is not simply a party with liquor and drugs. Rather, what is being set up is a scene where the soon-to-arrive Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall) will be acting out a rather dark fantasy. One where he will be in complete control over a person's life and death. Said person, the Party Piece (Bradley Fong), in actuality a young boy kidnapped by Elliot's crew sometime earlier and kept in a drugged stupor in preparation for this moment. Other members of the team including Spinx (Sea McHale), the liaison between Elliot and the Party Guest, and Elliot's lover Lola (Paul Iacono). This fantasy being one the group has apparently set up many times before.

Running hand in hand with the bleakness that’s everywhere one turns - thanks to a great set by Derek McLane - is the ever-present feeling on denial where no one wants to admit what they're actually doing. Lola, for example has no intention being present at the party under any circumstances; and also doesn't want the Party Favor awake enough to speak during the party preparations. Preparations which include Lola making up the Party Piece properly for the scene which is to follow. Additionally, the Party Favor is referred to in this manner because the others don't want to think of him as an actual human being. Something made abundantly clear when Elliot cuts off any attempt by Naz to learn the Party Favor's real name.

While it's easier for most people to play down things that aren't happening right in front of them, it's something else entirely when they're forced to confront evidence of such a situation, either virtually or in actuality. The uproar following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs being one such example. It's the same reason why, if most meat eaters knew how their meat was slaughtered, a good portion of them would become vegetarians. There being numerous things society, as a whole, simply does not want to know about or be reminded of.

Elliot and Darren find themselves forced into their own reality confrontation with the sudden appearance of the Duchess (Emily Cass McDonnell), whose presence brings up memories both brothers have tried desperately to forget, or at least severely compartmentalize. Though giving too much information in regard to this character turns out to be one of the few weak spots in the play. The author spoon feeding the audience answers when it's better to let them draw their own conclusions. Eventually when this particular party starts to deviate from the planned script, Elliott and the rest of his family, which is basically what the group has become, find themselves forced to switch from dispassionate observers to active participants. And in doing so, must take a stand on the right and wrong of what they've set in motion.

Zane Pais, Jack DiFalco
Bradley Fong, Tony Revolori
Acting is very good, the various characters often taking on the role of symbols in the world the playwright has created. The Party Guest, for example representing both money and someone who's interested in his own pleasures rather than trying to make a difference. Ridley also has him working on Wall Street - a bit of a dig at the "one percenters" of the world. Elliot meanwhile, probably sees himself as a businessman supplying a need, doing what he has to in order for him and his family to survive, and who can't afford to worry about where he gets the materials he uses - such as the Party Favor - for his various ventures. Elliot is also dependant on those with connections, such as Spinx, to enable his business to continue. Direction by Scott Elliot is very strong, keeping the tension between the characters rising from one minute to the next, the audience never quite sure just who to root for in the scenarios presented. The aforementioned set by McLane makes the audience feel as if they were right in the middle of the action, with no way out for anybody involved.

Often hard to watch, Mercury Fur does an excellent job in showing just how adaptable human beings have become at hiding from the truth; and the not-so-pretty-sight that can follow when denial is no longer an option.

Featuring: Jack DiFalco (Darren), Bradley Fong (Party Piece), Paul Iacono (Lola), Peter Mark Kendall (Party Guest), Emily Cass McDonnell (Duchess), Sea McHale (Spinx), Zane Pais (Elliot) Tony Revolori (Naz)


Mercury Fur
by Philip Ridley

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Sound Effects Design: Jeremy Chernick
Fight Direction: UnkleDave's Fight-House
Production Supervisor: PRF Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Director: Scott Elliott

The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes no intermission
Closes: September 27