Saturday, July 22, 2017

Assassins - A musical bulls-eye

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The world has long had a morbid fascination with those who try to kill public figures, while at the same time trying to understand what makes them tick. These elements form the building blocks of the 1990 musical Assassins. The show having recently been given a sterling revival as part of the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center.

The story begins in carnival shooting gallery. The Proprietor (Ethan Lipton) of the establishment intoning the truism that "everybody's got the right to their dreams", as well as "to be happy." In this case however, said dreams include the taking the life of a U.S. President. Among those trying their luck in this endeavor are John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale), Charles Guiteau (John Ellison Conlee) and Leon Czolgosz (Shuler Hensley). The respective assassins of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. Also present are such would-be killers as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Erin Markey), Sara Jane Moore (Victoria Clark), Giuseppe Zangara (Alex Brightman) and Samuel Byck (Danny Wolohan). Rounding out the group are John Hinckley, Jr. (Steven Boyer) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith).

As the story unfolds, the audience gets to see these people reliving the planning, execution (no pun intended) and aftermath of their various endeavors. Some of the more interesting moments occurring, not in the actual act of assassination itself, but in conversations which take place among the group in a sort of otherworldly waiting area. Where they talk about their lives, why they did what they did, or what they plan to do given the chance.

A common sentiment among the different shooters is how they feel wronged by an uncaring society. They having become fixated on the President, whomever it happens to be at the time, as the embodiment of their situation. Therefore, they see killing the Commander-in-Chief as first, a symbolic action to avenge that wrong; and second, as a way to focus the entire country's attention on their plight.

Yet as the show makes clear, all of the assassins portrayed are complete individuals. Each with their own specific reason for their actions. This feeling of individuality - or aloneness as it were - is helped tremendously by the fact that the folks at Encores! were able to assemble a first-rate cast.

Pasquale makes a stirring and magnetic John Wilkes Booth. A fanatical true believer when it comes to the Confederate cause, Booth also serving as the unofficial spokesman for those present. He being the elder statesman of the group.

Elsewhere, Markey and Clark bring the term "flakey" to a whole new level as Fromme and Moore. Two women who attempted to kill President Gerald Ford (Damien Baldet) in 1975. The ladies' actions are so humorous, Moore in particular having continual problems when handling a gun, that their entire endeavor would be completely comical if the underlying intent wasn't so serious. Also combining elements of humor, drama and denial is Conlee, doing an enjoyable turn as the disgruntled office seeker Guiteau. The character turning into an apparent song and dance man as he heads for the gallows.

Particularly effective is Hensley as Leon Czolgosz, a disillusioned member of the lower class who feels, like so many others, that he has been betrayed by the system. The character striking a poignant note of humanity when he chastises Hinckley for accidentally breaking a bottle. Czolgosz pointing out that he is the one of the people who make such bottles. All while working under very dangers conditions, and for the sum of six cents an hour.

As sobering as Czolgosz's plight happens to be, it becomes all the more striking when one realizes how little things have progressed for those who find themselves outside society's mainstream. Czolgosz's anger and loneliness can also be found in the words of Samuel Byck who, in 1974, planned to fly a plane into the White House in order to kill President Nixon. As Byck sets out on his mission, we hear him rage about people being reduced to living in packing crates, and how both Republicans and Democrats keep pledging to fix problems the other side has caused. Yet, when they do get into positions of power, aren't able to make things any better. Situations that, for many, haven't really changed in the more than fifty years since Byck's actions and which now seem more topical than ever.

Also quite good is a sequence featuring Lee Harvey Oswald, and which reveals perhaps the ultimate goal of all those who pull the trigger. The desire, no matter how frustrating or unremarkable their lives have been thus far, to least be remembered for their final act. Though as some find out, they are not always remembered as how they would have liked.

Wisely, other than a few tweaks here and there to allow for the Encores! staging, there were no major changes made to John Weidman's text. One which makes no mention of the current U.S. administration. Though lines about the country going in the wrong direction and about a madman coming along did provoke a large amount of laughter from the audience. The score by Stephen Sondheim is both enjoyable and probing. The opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right” being one of the more ominously ironic numbers in the Sondheim canon. Also quite memorable is the haunting “Something Just Broke”, which shows how most of us remember exactly where we were, and what we were doing, when we heard the news of a president being shot.

Anne Kauffman's direction is very strong, allowing each of the actors to hold their own when their characters take their turn in the spotlight. They all eloquently pleading their cases to the audience, no matter how misguided or deluded they may actually be. The show also avoids the problem of becoming too repetitive in the different sequences, by continually altering the tone of the various assassination attempts. These ranging from fanatical to comic, and from acts of retribution to ones of hopeless desperation. The changes in mood are also helped by Clifton Duncan's efforts as the Balladeer. This character helping to inject some of the lighter elements of the Sondheim score into the tale while the more serious issues are played out around him.

As timely and topical now as when it first appeared, Assassins takes a thoughtful look at those disenfranchised souls who try to make a real difference by upsetting the status quo. A difference at least, in their own minds. Hands-down, this one was a winner. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Ethan Lipton (Proprietor), Shuler Hensley (Leon Czolgosz), Steven Boyer (John Hinckley), John Ellison Conlee (Charles Guiteau), Alex Brightman (Giuseppe Zangara), Danny Wolohan (Samuel Byck), Erin Markey (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Victoria Clark (Sara Jane Moore), Steven Pasquale (John Wilkes Booth), Clinton Duncan (Balladeer), Andrew Durand (David Herold/Ensemble), Pearl Sun (Emma Goldman/Ensemble), Eddie Cooper (James Blaine/Ensemble), Hudson Loverro (Billy/Ensemble), Damian Baldet (President Gerald Ford/Ensemble), Cory Michael Smith (Lee Harvey Oswald), Eryn LeCory (Ensemble).

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman

Assassins is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Orchestrations by Michael Starobin

Scenic Designer: Donyale Werle
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting Designer: Mark Barton
Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Encores! Off-Center Artistic Associate: Sam Pinkleton
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Casting by Carrie Gardner, C.S.A./Stephen Kopel, C.S.A.

Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Music Director and Conductor: Chris Fenwick

Associate Music Director: Greg Jarrett
Assistant Music Director: Josh Clayton

Directed by Anne Kaufman

Presented by New York Center Encores! Off-Center
131 West 55th Street

Closed: July 15, 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Measure for Measure - A Probing Look at Hypocrisy

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

What you sew, so shall you eventually reap. A warning that could easily apply to William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, currently being given an enjoyable revival by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

In Vienna, the practice of morality has, for a good portion of the populace, long since gone by the wayside. Much of the area having become a place where prostitution, fornication, drinking, thievery and other such vices hold sway. In an attempt to stem this tide of sin, the Duke (Jonathan Cake), who has been unable to make any such changes himself, decides to temporarily cede his power to the one man he trusts implicitly, the pious nobleman Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan). The Duke announcing that he must leave on some private business, but in reality plans to remain in the city in the robes of a humble friar so he can walk unnoticed among his subjects and observe first-hand Angelo's actions and their effects.

Taking his new position to heart, Angelo quickly begins a puritanical crackdown. He ordering the destruction of houses of ill-repute in the surrounding countryside, while sending violators of these now vigorously enforced decrees to prison. Among those jailed is Claudio (Leland Fowler), condemned to death for fathering a child out of wedlock. Although Claudio and Juliet (Sam Morales), the woman in question, are deeply in love and have plans to marry, this does not sway Angelo's decision. He seeing Claudio's death as a necessary example to discourage others from this practice.

In desperation, Claudio beseeches his friend Lucio (Haynes Thigpen), to seek out his sister, the beautiful and virtuous Isabella (Cara Ricketts) and have her plead his case. Struck by the young woman's exquisite beauty, Angelo finds himself weakening to the needs of the flesh. As shown via a well-delivered inner monologue where he debates the pros and cons of the situation. Angelo eventually surrendering to his desires and telling Isabella that if she spends the night in his bed, he will spare her brother. Visiting her Claudio in prison, the distraught Isabella relates Angelo’s demands. Her tale overheard by the disguised Duke, who hatches his own scheme to resolve the matter.

A nicely pointed morality tale, and long regarded as one of the Bard's so-called "problem plays", party due to the difficultly of melding the piece’s comedic and dramatic tones, there is much to like in this production. The show having as its ultimate message that only those who are totally without sin should cast the first stone. Isabella being the only person in the play who actually fits that description. For not only is Angelo trying to retain his position of power following his temporary moral slippage, there is also another incident in his past involving a woman. One which he would very much like to forget.

The Duke is no saint either, though to the character's credit, he never aspires to be. Having been unable to stop the vice and corruption that has run rampant in his city for 14 years, he basically tosses his entire failed legacy to Angelo, and to a lesser degree Lord Escala (January Lavoy), who acts as Angelo’s second-in-command. There's an interesting political element present here with the Duke, who is apparently much loved by the people, being able to swoop down and change things to his liking, and then appear to look all the better for it, at least in the eyes of his subjects.

Others with questionable moral attitudes include the condemned Claudio, who is at first quite willing for his sister to sacrifice her honor and virginity to Angelo so he might be saved from the gallows. There’s also Thigpen’s wonderfully winning performance as Lucio, a reprobate and rogue who follows the axiom of never telling the truth when a lie will do. He continually trying to turn every situation to his own advantage. Especially enjoyable in this regard are the Duke’s slow burns when he catches Lucio spouting one untruth after another. However due to his attempts to conceal his identity, he is unable to do anything about it, at least for the moment.

The play also takes pot-shots at the ineffectuality of the criminal justice system, as seen via Barnardine (Zachary Fine), a long-time prisoner who simply refuses be executed when the time calls for it. There's also a legal examination that turns into a hilarious comic free-for-all, thanks to the continual mangling of words by Constable Elbow (Fine) during Angelo and Escala’s questioning of several accused violators of the law.

Cake does a good job as the well-meaning but somewhat ineffectual Duke, who finally comes up with a way to address the problems that afflict his city. Ryan is excellent as the outwardly stern, inwardly all-too-human Angelo. Zachary does a nice comic turn as Elbow and Thigpen is a genuine hoot as Lucio. Director Simon Godwin nicely guides the story and performers through the different elements of the tale, and the sets and costumes by Paul Wills – the play done in modern dress - all work well.

The only sequence that really doesn’t work is a somewhat extraneous bit which takes place in a nightclub – complete with songs. While it does serve to introduce a key character, leaving in the dialogue while cutting out the musical numbers, and the resulting audience interaction, would cut out approximately fifteen unneeded minutes from the show.

Well presented, while taking pains not to hit the audience over the head with its message, this production of Measure for Measure is quite the satisfying treat.

Featuring: Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Provost), Jonathan Cake (Vincentio, the Duke), Kenneth De Abrew (Froth/Abhorson/Friar Peter), Zachary Fine (Friar Thomas/Elbow/Barnardine/Gentle), Leland Fowler (Claudio), Merritt Janson (Marina), January Lavoy (Mistress Overdone/Escala/Francisca), Christopher Michael McFarland (Pompey), Sam Morales (Juliet), Cara Ricketts (Isabella), Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo), Haynes Thigpen (Lucio)

Musicians: Drew Bastian, Robert Cowie, Osei Essed

Scenic & Costume Design: Paul Wills
Lighting Designer: Matthew Richards
Composer & Sound Designer: Jane Shaw
Voice & Text Coach: Alison Bomber
Properties Supervision: Eric Reynolds
Hair & Makeup Design: Cooke Jordan
Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb
Casting: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Megan Schwarz Dickert
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Gross
General Manager: Michael Page
Press Representative: Blank Zidell & Associates
Choreographer: Brian Brooks
Directed by Simon Godwin

Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
Running Time: 2 Hours, 55 Minutes, one intermission

Closes: July 16, 2017

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Julius Caesar - Where Absolute Certainty Can Be Your Undoing

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Few plays are as consistently topical as William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Offering a forceful lesson on the perils of blind ambition, the show is being presented free in Central Park by The Public Theater. Unfortunately the show’s director, Oskar Eustis, at times falls victim to this same failing of not seeing the big picture in terms of what he has envisioned.

Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry) has, through his various military campaigns, become much beloved by the citizens of Rome. However, there are those in the Roman Senate, such as Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) and Brutus (Corey Stall) who fear Caesar has become too powerful of late. Especially when his increasing influence comes at the expense of the people and their legally elected representatives. Brutus in particular bemoaning the loss of the legitimacy of the Roman Republic to Caesar’s populist appeal.

Yet even as Brutus and others plot to stop Caesar's further rise, they fail to take into account the will of the very people they have pledged to save. For as the play makes quite clear, the masses are often less concerned with who is in power than what those in control can actually do for them. In an interesting bit of irony, it becomes clear that just as Caesar is so self-absorbed with his own status, so is Brutus unable to fathom how his actions against Caesar could be seen as anything less than honorable.

In keeping with the idea of making the show as timely as possible, Eustis has chosen to fashion Caesar in the image of President Donald Trump. Complete with red tie, yellow hair, a thin skin and a huge ego. Henry doing a more than passable job in the role while never becoming a full-on caricature. Although by using Trump, the production puts its main focus on the character of Julius Caesar, when it should instead be on Brutus. Brutus’ actions being the catalyst around which the play turns. He is also the most complex person in the play, and the one who undergoes the biggest internal transformation by show’s end.

The decision to portray Caesar's wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko) as First Lady Melania Trump works well enough in terms of hair, makeup and clothes - the show being done in modern dress - but falters when it has the actress try to emulate a Slovenian accent. The idea feels like a tired gimmick, with her speeches resulting in a distracting laughter from the audience. The practice also destroys the emotional effect of Calpurnia's speech warning her husband not to go to the Senate on the Ides of March.

The play also has a habit of relying too much on symbolism and not on the text itself. In a conformation sequence, the two sides take the form of riot police (the Roman security force) and a group of agitators (the Roman people) seemingly wanting to destroy the city. A scene where Roman security beats a poet (Yusef Bulos) senseless, feels eerily reminiscent of Rodney King. We also are treated to the sight of the agitators destroying the set, which has been festooned with images suggesting the United States government. It's as if Eustis is saying that in a corrupt society, the only option is to tear it down and start again. Certainly a point for discussion, but taken too far here to be truly effective.

The real star of this production is Elizabeth Marvel in the role of Marc Antony. She taking the character from a seemingly drunken fool to a welder of power in her own right. Her speech before the Roman people literally pulsates with venom and passion. The result being that she soon has the crowd in the palm of her hand. Brutus, who allows Antony to speak in the hope she would help cement his own cause, soon learns he has made a serious mistake. The public's continual shift of allegiance proving how people are all too often taken in by flowery speeches, rather than trying to understand the motive behind said words. This is also evident earlier on when Caesar and Antony stage a scene where she offers him a crown and he refuses it three times. Each refusal and subsequent offering bringing larger and larger cheers from the multitude.

Stoll is excellent as the conflicted Brutus. Someone who finds there is a steep price to pay for following the dictates of his conscience. He also taking to task those who do not follow his standards of right and wrong, be their friend or foe. Thompson presents a powerful Cassius. A realist and career politician, he is not about to see his personal power base usurped. Yet he is also wise enough to know he cannot succeed in his plans alone; doing all he can to entice others to join him.

The text has been heavily edited, and while it makes the evening move quickly, at bit more explanation would have added some additional depth. Though a line tossed in about Fifth Avenue provokes a bit of knowing laughter. David Rockwell's sets and Paul Tazewell's costumes also work very well here.

If there’s one thing Julius Caesar makes evident, it's how the more things change, the more human nature remains constant. There is certainly a lot to admire in this production, though the best of the show can be found in its individual parts, rather than the entire whole.

Featuring: Chris Myers (Flavius/Ligarius/Messala, Alexander Shaw (Carpenter/Artemidorus/Octavius' Servant), Natalie Woolams-Torres (Marullus), Michael Thatcher (Cobbler), Gregg Henry (Julius Caesar), Teagle F. Bougere (Casca), Tina Benko (Calpurnia), Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Anthony), Mayaa Boateng (Soothsayer), Corey Stoll (Brutus), John Douglas Thompson (Cassius), Edward James Hyland (Cicero/Popilius/Lena/Lepidus), Christopher Livingston (Cinna Titinius), Nick Selting (Lucius), Majran Neshat (Metellus Cimber), Eisa Davis (Decius), Motell Foster (Trebonius), Nikki M. James (Portia), Isabel Arraiza (Publius/Clitus), Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet), Robert Gilbert (Octavius) Tyler La Marr (Lucilius), Justin Walker White (Pindarus), Gideon McCarty (Company), Dash King (Company), Erick Betancourt (Company)

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Scenic Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Original Music and Soundscapes: Bray Poor
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design: Leah J. Lukas
Co-Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Production Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Stage Manager: Paul Vella
Fight Captain: Edward James Hyland
Directed by Oskar Eustis

The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
81st Street in Central Park
Admission: Free
Running Time: Two Hours, Five Minutes, no intermission

Closes: June 18, 2017

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Government Inspector - Looking Out For Number One Was Never This Much Fun

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Red Bull Theater forgoes any kind of subtlety and nuance in presenting The Government Inspector. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Nikolai Gogol's 1836 work Revizor, the piece is a no-holds-barred satire of greed and corruption as told with the decorum of a Marx Brothers movie and a slight dash of Blazing Saddles.

For local officials in a provincial Russian town in 1836, padding one's pocket has long since become a matter of routine. There's the Judge (Tom Alan Robbins) who takes great pride in never taking money to decide a case - he takes bribes in the form of farm animals and game; the Hospital Director (Stephen DeRosa), who, after siphoning away much of the money earmarked for construction of a hospital, promotes the tiny structure actually built as a place for sick children; and the Postmaster (Arnie Burton) who makes it a habit of reading every bit of mail he receives before sending it on. Riding herd over this group of reprobates is Anton Antonovich (Michael McGrath), the town's oh-so-full-of-himself mayor.

However the gravy train these people have so long enjoyed is now threatened. There being news that a government inspector has arrived in the district. One tasked with ferreting out local corruption and reporting it to the central office. Hearing of newly-arrived stranger, one Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie), Anton and the others conclude he is the inspector, and set about trying to win him over to their side. First with veiled speeches and later with outright bribery. All in an attempt to convince him to write a favorable report to his superiors.

As quickly made clear, Ivan is not a government inspector at all. Rather, he is a wastrel in his own right. A man with a rich pedigree, his love for the gaming tables serves to keep him in the poor house. This despite his many efforts to changes his ways. Ivan's protestations of his ill-fated luck, and his regular attempts to kill himself, looked upon with genial bemusement by his trusted servant Osip (Burton).

At first not sure of what to make of the sudden attention he is receiving, Ivan quickly determines to milk as much as he can from those vying for his favor - and to do it for as long as possible.

Subtle political satire this is not. Hatcher doing a great job in pulling the various messages from the Gogol text and presenting them in a situation quite connective to present day reality. In a particularly wise choice, any mention of the current political administration is avoided. The work instead offering a scathing overlook at the entire bureaucratic process in general. Including jabs at political, legal, educational and numerous other such institutions.

Also quite refreshingly, there is not a single redeeming character to be had in the entire play. Those inhabiting this realm either trying to better their fortunes at the expense of others, or letting themselves simply be carried along for the ride. Osip and Grusha (Mary Lou Rosato), a maid who works for the Mayor's family, falling into the latter category. 

If there’s any in The Government Inspector who are actually deserving of sympathy, it would have to be the shopkeepers and merchants of the village. Denizens of the lower working class and abused by the system for so long, they, like everybody else, buy into the theory of money spread around in the rights places as being the only answer. Especially when it comes to Urie’s government inspector. A person whom they hope will finally set things right.

Kudos to director Jesse Berger for helping to bring out a brilliant sense of comic timing from the company. From a bit of door slamming nonsense to the asides the different characters make as they try to puzzle out the situations in which they find themselves. Scenic designer Alexis Distler’s split-level set works nicely here, as do the enjoyable period costumes by Tilly Grimes.

Urie is great fun as Ivan. A hapless sad sack suddenly treated like royalty, he acts like a kid in a candy store with an unlimited amount of money to spend. All the while showing himself to be just as unethical as those around him. In a particularly hilarious scene, Ivan deliveries a speech filled with code words for the mayor's love-starved wife Anna, (Mary Testa), and her somewhat shrewish daughter Marya (Talene Monahon). Each of the ladies having their own particular plans for Ivan. Or so they believe.

McGrath is wonderful as the Mayor. He trying desperately to keep his personal fiefdom afloat, only to watch it become more and more a house of cards. Of his partners in crime, Burton steals the show as the preening Postmaster. Someone who thinks nothing of reading everybody’s mail, but god forbid he be ordered to speed up the postal delivery process. Burton also provides a generous helping of wry with his comments as Osip, Ivan’s seen-it-all servant. Monahon is nicely appealing as Marya. She being the closest thing to a sympathetic character the play has to offer. It also helps that she has an excellent rapport with Urie in their scenes together. Testa adds some nice comic touches as Anna.

A rollicking farce showing how the more things change, the more they stay the same - The Government Inspector also puts forth the reality of how one’s downfall is quite often by one’s own hand. Especially when one gets too big for their own britches.

Featuring: Michael Urie (Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov), Arnie Burton (Osip, The Postmaster), Michael McGrath (Anton Antonovich), Mary Testa (Anna Andreyevna), Talene Monahon (Marya Antonovna), Mary Lou Rosato (Grusha, The Locksmith’s Wife, The Waitress, Constable), Tom Alan Robbins (The Judge, Abdullin), David Manis (The School Principal, Pentelaeyev), Stephen DeRosa (The Hospital Director, Chernaeyev), Luis Moreno (Svetsunov, An Imperial Messenger), Ryan Garbayo (Bobchinsky), Ben Mehl (Dobchinsky), Kelly Hutchinson (The Corporal’s Widow, The Innkeeper’s Wife, Constable).

The Government Inspector
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
From Revizor by Nikolai Gogol

Set Design: Alexis Distler
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design: Megan Lang, Peter West
Sound Design & Original Musical: Greg Pliska
Hair & Wig Design: David Bova
Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward
Properties Master: Andrew Diaz
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Production Manager: Gary Levinson
Press: David Gersten & Associates
Casting: Stuart Howard
General Manager: Sherri Kotimsky
Managing Director: Jim Bredeson
Directed by Jesse Berger

Presented by Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 646-223-3010 or
Running Time: Two Hours, with one intermission

Closes: June 24, 2017

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Whirligig - Too many coincidences

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

A subtitle for The Whirligig, the new drama by Hamish Linklater, could very well be "Six Degrees of Separation Lite". Presented by The New Group and currently having its world premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the work offers some fine acting and a rather intriguing narrative, but ultimately fails to deliver the necessary impact.

In a hospital in the Berkshires, a 23-year old woman named Julie (Grace Van Patten) is dying. Her body ravaged by years of drug use coupled with an untreated medical condition. Having reached the acceptance stage of her situation, Julie is far more able to face her impending death than are her parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells). One of the most poignant moments in the play occurs when Julie explains to her mom what it will be like for her when she's gone.

Julie’s suffering has caused Kristina to return to the home and family she left seven years earlier. Her marriage to Michael having broken up due to his excessive drinking and her own battle with chronic depression. It having taken Kristina several years to find the right medical “cocktail” to allow her to maintain a reasonable equilibrium.

Julie’s condition has also caused a bit of a stir in this relatively closed-knit community. Particularly among Derrick (Jonny Orsini), an ex-com and the brother of Patrick (Noah Bean), Julie’s doctor at the hospital. Derrick taking an unexpectedly deep and perhaps not-quite healthy interest in this woman. When Julie is sent home to die, Derrick takes to hiding in a nearby tree in order to peer into her room. Derrick soon joined there by Trish (Zosia Mamet), Julie's former best friend. Kristina having long since deemed Trish persona non grata, due to a major falling out.

There are numerous ways for this tale to unfold, particularly since Orsini adds some delightful comic touches to his performance. Thus making his character a sort of voyeuristic sad sack. Someone trying to get a glimpse into world where he does not belong. It also helps that he has good chemistry with Van Patten in their scenes together.

While Linklater has nicely set the stage by the end of the first act, including a powerful rant by Kristina about never getting to be a grandmother, things start to go off the rails shortly thereafter. With a good chunk of act two told in flashback, we see the circumstances which set Julie on the path to destruction. As well as being treated to glimpses of Michael and Kristina before they got their demons under relative control. However, knowing how the characters will turn out in advance takes away some of the emotional impact of the backstory. Even worse, there are times when the interconnections among the characters, for example Derrick and Patrick, stretch the credibility of the piece to its limits.

Linklater also commits the sin of telling, not showing what is going on with the characters in several key situations. Such as when it comes to Kristina and why she has previously been absent from her daughter's life.

Presenting a world where second chances are almost non-existent, The Whirligig offers a harsh lesson on reaping what you have sewn. Where the only chance to make things better is to put the past aside and move on. Something not always easy to do. A point brought devastatingly home via some alcoholic-induced wisdom by Mr. Cormeny (Jon Devries), an aging social studies teacher at the local high school. He replying to Kristina's question of whether it would have actually made a difference if she had been there for her daughter in the past.

Butz offers a strong blend of comedy and self-loathing as an actor turned teacher with a drinking problem. Wells is very good as someone trying to get her life back together, while still on tether hooks over how it will turn out. Alex Hurt is interesting as Trish’s husband, Greg. An unforgiving sort who sees things a certain way, he fails to understand why others don't have the same uncompromising moral viewpoint he does. He often being the straight man for the other characters' more outlandish behavior. Bean’s character is sadly underwritten throughout and only exists for plot purposes. Mamet resonates well as Julie, with some cute and deliberately awkward scenes with Orsini. Devries gets in some good lines as Cormeny.

Derek McLane’s sets, including a hospital room, local bar and the tree outside Julie’s home, are all strongly brought forth. Scott Elliott’s is good, but it’s hampered by too many explanations in the final scenes, which slow down the forward motion of the show.

Perhaps one day Mr. Linklater will go back and revisit this work. If so, it will certainly be interesting to see what he does. Indeed, Greg and Trish’s story could be a play unto itself. But for now, what’s on stage doesn’t come together when it counts the most.

Featuring: Noah Bean (Patrick), Norbert Leo Butz (Michael), Jon Devries (Mr. Cormeny), Alex Hurt (Greg), Zosia Mamet (Trish), Jonny Orsini (Derrick), Grace Van Patten (Julie), Dolly Wells (Kristina).

The Whirligig
by Hamish Linklater

Scene Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Original Music: Duncan Sheik
Special Effects Design: Jeremy Chernick
Fight Direction: UnkleDave's Fight-House
Production Stage Manager: Valeria A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson: CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Cathy Popowytsch
Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission

Closes: June 18, 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

Arlington and Rooms - Studies of Isolation

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Playwright Enda Walsh examines those caught up in situations of oppression and loneliness with his works Arlington and Rooms. Vastly different in their presentation and execution, the two pieces nonetheless share many common elements.

In Rooms, a performance piece presented by the Irish Arts Center, the audience is led into a space containing three separate yet distinct areas. The cluttered bedroom of a six-year old child; the faded and musty-smelling hotel "Room 303"; and a long, narrow galley style kitchen. Said kitchen almost antiseptic in nature until one starts to look inside the cupboards and appliances. The audience getting the chance to ingest the particulars of each location while listening to the disembodied voices of those who were once the occupants.

In Arlington, set in a future time and done in a more traditional theatrical manner, a young woman named Isla (Charlie Murphy), has been alone in a locked room for over 20 years, and continually monitored for all that time. She spending her days in a never-altering routine, all the while hoping the number she was assigned will finally be called, thus signaling the end of her confinement. Or at least offering her the chance to go somewhere else.

On this particular day however, things are suddenly different. Starting with an unexpected burst of sound, followed by a strange voice coming over the loudspeaker. The voice belonging to a Young Man (Hugh O'Conor) who is Isla’s new observer. His task being to monitor her actions to the smallest detail via the microphones and surveillance cameras strategically placed about the room. Most importantly, his task is to keep Isla occupied so she won't have too much time to think about what's happening outside her area of confinement.

The irony here is that for the first time since Isla can remember, she's the one who’s in charge. She having been there so long, she knows exactly the path the conversation with her monitor is supposed to take. Her new keeper, for want of a better word, being too busily trying to acclimate to his position to take control. As a result, the two begin to connect on a level far more personal than Isla ever did with her previous observer. It also becomes quickly apparent that while the Young Man is monitoring Isla, someone else is monitoring him. As made clear by an ominous beeping. One which sounds whenever he strays too far from his pre-assigned duties.

Where the different spaces of Rooms are filled with minute details - from a model of the solar system on the ceiling of the child's bedroom; to a Gideon Bible in the hotel room; to broken dishes in the kitchen - Isla's space in Arlington has a completely antiseptic feel to it. Her room containing a plastic plant and chair, an empty fish tank - with water but no fish - and harsh white lighting. The attempt here being to empty the room of any personality whatsoever.

Tautly presented and fascinating to experience, the two plays focus on individual freedom, as seen through different points and circumstances in people's lives. Isla wants nothing more than to leave her prison, and the constant everyday repetition her life has become. Meanwhile, the now-grown woman who lived in the little girl's room once upon a time, would do anything to return there after being in the outside world for so long. In the kitchen, a housewife threatens to have a meltdown over how her life has turned out, but finds herself unable, or unwilling to change her circumstances. In "Room 303", after a long and checkered life, an aging man is dying alone. Yet he is not yet ready to close his eyes forever and give up the fight. Be his enemy time or a very persistent fly that keeps coming around.

In Rooms the choices one has made in life is up to each individual. In Arlington, that choice has been taken away entirely. Something Isla learns when she is unexpectedly afforded a glimpse of what is happening, and what has happened, beyond her enclosure. She seeing the effects of a society determined to protect people from themselves. The full explanation of this, when it comes, is devastating.

In the end, the only thing worth holding onto for any of the people presented is the belief that they matter. To themselves, if no one else. It is their continual attempts to reassure themselves of this fact which forms the crux of both pieces. Walsh also showing that perhaps the only true escape is through own dreams. It being the one place the harshness of reality cannot reach. At least not yet.

Murphy is excellent as Isla, a woman long since resigned to her situation, until circumstances beyond her control present her with a new outlook. O'Conor is very good as a man used to doing what he's told and not making waves, until the chance to observe Isla first-hand offers him new insights on what just what he's involved in.

The most compelling fact of all is that each of the characters presented - be they seen in the flesh or only heard - feel totally real. Walsh, who also handles the directing chores in Arlington, strongly combining the oppressiveness of the various situations with glimmers of hope. A hope which flickers brightly at some moments only to be harshly extinguished in others.
Presenting varying viewpoints of an individual standing alone against the harshness that life and circumstances can bring, Arlington and Rooms show quite clearly that what ultimately matters is the spirit within.  Both shows will leave you thinking hard about what you’ve seen, which is just about the best thing a work of theatre can do.

by Edna Walsh
"Room 303" (featuring the voice of Niall Buggy)
"A Girl's Bedroom" (featuring the voice of Charlie Murphy)
"Kitchen" (featuring the voice of Eileen Walsh)

Presented by the Irish Arts Center at Cybert Tire, site of the future home of the Irish Arts Center
726 11th Avenue (near 51st Street)

Originally presented at Galway International Arts Festival

Running Time: 50 Minutes
Closes, June 4, 2017

Written and directed by Edna Walsh

Featuring: Charlie Murphy (Isla), Hugh O'Conor (Young Man), Oona Doherty (Young Woman), Eanna Breathnach, Olwen Fouéré. Helen Norton, Stephen Rae (Voices)

Choreographer: Emma Martin
Composer: Teho Teardo
Designer: Jamie Vartan
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman
Sound Designer: Helen Atkinson
Video Designer: Jack Phelan
Associated Sound Designer: Joel Price

Presented at St. Ann's Warehouse
45 Water Street
Dumbo, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-354-8779 or
Running time, 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes May 28, 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

Happy Days - Not Always Happy, But a Riveting Tale

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Denial becomes a powerful weapon of survival in the Yale Repertory Theatre's production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. The show running through May 28 at Theatre for a New Audience.

The play opens with a woman named Winnie (Diane Wiest) buried up to her waist on the side of a mountain, apparently unable to get free. Nor does she seem to want to do so. This evident in how she has clearly prepared for her situation. Beside her is a large handbag containing such objects as a hair brush, comb, toothbrush, and a gun. This last object clearly having a special meaning for her.

Winnie's only companion is her husband Willie (Jarlath Conroy). A somewhat older man also buried on the mountainside, though he is able to emerge from his own confinement whenever he desires. Winnie's attitude towards her husband giving the audience an idea of the couple's relationship. One that may have been quite loving at one time, but, at least for Winnie, has since turned sour. She seldom passing up a chance to get in a verbal dig at her spouse. From her chiding to take care he doesn't get sunburn, to lecturing Willie on the proper way for him to get in and out of his own resting place, Winnie is often unrelenting in her stream of condescending comments. The irony of course, is that because of her own condition Winnie is now quite dependant on Willie for anything that requires movement farther away than what her arms can reach.

Yet despite Winnie's circumstances, she seems to be quite secure. She continually saying aloud what a happy day it is. A day where nothing has gone wrong and where there are absolutely no problems present. Though one must wonder if she actually means this or rather is trying to convince herself it is true. There's also the question of why she is buried on the hill, and what she waiting for there. These issues taking on a more urgent air when the curtain opens on act two with Winnie now buried up to her neck.

Beckett is famous for not providing easy answers in his plays, as well as forcing his characters to make decisions on their own; rather than having circumstances make it for them. Both premises are clearly in evidence here. Has Winnie given up on life and simply waiting for the elements to overwhelm her, or is there something more at work? At one point Winnie asks "is everybody dead?", begging the question if Winnie is one of the last, if not the last, survivor of some global catastrophe. Or is her isolation actually a metaphor for a terrible loneliness she feels? A loneliness arising from being trapped in the suffocating sameness of a life not fully lived, and where she has finally reached a point where she simply said, "enough".

Another interesting ritual Winnie undertakes is her daily practice of praying. With the underlying question being just what she is praying for.

Wiest is at the top of her game as Winnie, bringing the character fully to life in a tour-de-force performance. Despite the challenges of performing in an increasingly constrained position, she projects more than enough power and presence to pull it all. Her tones changing from matter-of-fact to despair to resignation throughout, yet always delivered with a strong impact. Conroy does well as the often unseen Willie. His role mostly a sounding board for Winnie's remarks and actions, but always offering another piece to the scenario that's being presented. Including a significant sequence which, like all the others, offers far more than just one possibility.

Scenic designer Izmir Ickbal's set of the mountain is wonderfully done. The overall effect, thanks also to the work of lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge and sound designer Kate Marvin feeling totally realistic. James Bundy's direction strongly guides the story, allowing the work of the various creative participants to seamlessly blend together to show a situation where nothing may be what it seems.
Masterfully done, this production of Happy Days presents a powerful a view of a woman in the middle of a very personal journey. Though where she's going and where she's been is a matter left up to every member of the audience.

Happy Days

by Samuel Beckett

Featuring: Diane Wiest (Winnie), Jarlath Conroy (Willie)

Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal
Costume Designer: Alexae Visel
Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Designer: Kate Marvin
Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson
Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf
Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting/Laura Schutzel, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery
Assistant Stage Manager: Helen Muller
Press Representative: Blake Zidell & Associates
General Manager: Michael Page

Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place

Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: May 28, 2017

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
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
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
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission
Closes: February 5, 2017