Sunday, November 12, 2017

Illyria - Offering Much, But Not Telling Enough


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The birth pangs of the New York Shakespeare Festival, particularly its conflicts with the New York City Parks Department and city planner Robert Moses are the stuff of theatre legend. Playwright Richard Nelson using those events as the source material for his rather meandering play Illyria, at the Public Theater.

Taking place between April and August of 1958, the story centers around Joe Papp (John Magaro), founder of the Festival, and a man who expects and demands loyalty from those around him. He's also not above using his position to get what he wants. Case in point, his insistence on casting his actress wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly) in the company's upcoming production of Twelfth Night. This despite objections from the group's director Stuart Vaughn (John Sanders), who thinks she's clearly wrong for the role. Stuart is also still chafing over his having to cast Peggy in a previous production, despite his protests.

Adding to the tension between the two men is Stuart 's acceptance of a directing offer at the Phoenix Theatre, something Joe is not happy about. Though Stuart insists he can do both jobs without sacrificing the quality of his work at either - the productions being on different schedules - Joe wants him to pick one career path or the other. Matters coming to a head during a luncheon gathering which quickly turns into a verbal battle over art and commerce. Festival press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Krantz) delivering the most powerful line of the play at that encounter, telling Joe that, while he would do anything for free Shakespeare, he refuses to be associated with cheap Shakespeare. This in regard to a discussion on charging audiences a nominal fee for Festival productions rather than keeping them free for all, as was originally envisioned.

While certainly a subject worth discussing, things start to become repetitive rather quickly. Matters not being helped by the fact that, other than Joe, none of the characters feel in any way three-dimensional, and thus, not all that interesting. Rather ironic, since just about all of those depicted are real people, several of whom became major forces in theatre. This detached feeling becomes even more exacerbated in an extended final scene which goes on and on, and on. Nelson, also doing double duty here as the show's director, seeming to have had no idea of when to end his story.

Nelson does try to keep things the audience engaged by dropping in some interesting tidbits from time to time. These include the group having to deal with a temperamental George C. Scott during one of their productions; various union issues the company faced in order to get their shows put on; and mention of what would eventually become Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts being built on New York's West Side. An institution, Joe and his friends believe, the city authorities are much more in favor of than the Festival.

It should be pointed out that Illyria is not presenting things as they actually happened. As Nelson explains in the program notes, he's taken some liberties with the timeline of events, and has given one particular incident a new outcome for dramatic effect. Yet that doesn't explain the feeling one has of being dropped into the narrative midway through and thus continually forced to play catch-up in order to understand what's going on. Joe's being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee being an example of this.

Nelson must also share the blame, along with sound designer Scott Lehrer, for the continued inability of the audience to hear much of what was being said during the production. The actors apparently being neither miked nor projecting their voices. To be fair, The Public Theater staff did tell the audience before the show began that Illyria was going to be an intimate affair, and that listening devices were available for anybody who wanted one. However there’s a difference between such devices being available and their use being mandatory; something which definitely needed to be the case here.

Despite the work's various shortcomings, the cast give it their all. Particularly Magaro in the Joseph Papp role as he presents a portrait of someone who, while not that likeable, leaves no doubt as to where he stands on every issue. Kranz is nicely stalwart as Merle; while Sanders’ character offers a strong counterpoint to Joe throughout. Stuart also bringing up issues no one wants to talk about. Like asking what's wrong with working on projects that make you money and advance your career?

The set by Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West is serviceable, while the lighting design by Jennifer Tipton works well.

The story of Joseph Papp, Robert Moses (who strangely isn't mentioned until more than an hour into the play) and the beginnings of the New York Shakespeare Festival is a fascinating tale and one that certainly deserves to be told. Illyria, however, is not the vehicle with which to tell it.

Featuring: John Magaro (Joseph Papp), Kristen Connolly (Peggy Papp), Fran Kranz (Merle Debuskey), John Sanders (Stuart Vaughan), Emma Duncan (Gladys Vaughn), David Amram (Blake Delong), Max Woertendyke (John Robertson), Rosie Benton (Colleen Dewhurst), Will Brill (Bernie Gersten), Naian González Norvind (Mary Bennett)

Illryia

Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Scenic Designers: Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume Designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Stage Manager: Jared Oberholtzer

Presented by The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

Closes: December 10, 2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Of Thee I Sing - It's Message Still Soars


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Satire may be what closes on Saturday night, as playwright George S. Kaufman once said, but that was certainly not the case for the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Of Thee I Sing. Gleefully skewering the American political process and written by Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, the show opened on Broadway in 1931, running for 441 performances.

Considering what’s going on in the world today, it’s not surprising the musical is now getting another look. MasterVoices having recently presented a concert version of the show at Carnegie Hall. Though while certainly enjoyable at points, the production was not nearly as strong as it had the potential to be.

As a presidential campaign begins in earnest, the party's major power brokers, Matthew Fulton (Chuck Cooper), Louis Lippman (Brad Oscar) and Francis X. Gilhooley (Fred Applegate), must convince the voters that their candidate, John P. Wintergreen (Bryce Pinkham) has what it takes be Commander-in-Chief. A totally unexpected pick, Wintergreen was chosen simply because his name sounds presidential.

Searching for a platform for him to run on, and one which won’t cost the party anything, the group settles on “love”. They deciding to find the most beautiful girl in the country who Wintergreen will then marry, but only if he wins the election.

Though Wintergreen, who is not above using dirty tricks to get elected, goes along with the idea initially, he upsets the party’s plans at the last minute by falling in love with Fulton's assistant, Mary Turner (Denée Benton). Mary’s hidden talent being that she can bake corn muffins, which are absolutely delicious. It’s not long before the party, and indeed the entire country, are solidly behind the couple as the campaign takes the lovers to every state in union. Wintergreen proposing to Mary at each stop along the way.

Not surprisingly, Wintergreen wins the election. However, just as the combined inauguration/wedding ceremony is concluding, Diana Devereaux (Elizabeth Stanley), the woman selected to marry Wintergreen before he threw her over for Mary, arrives and accuses him of breach of promise. Though the Supreme Court quickly rules in Wintergreen and Mary’s favor, Diana's presence continues to be felt in the new administration. The media continually coming back to the issue, with Diana herself making sure she is not forgotten by the people. Things come to a head when it’s discovered Diana has certain connections to Napoleon. Seeing this now as a matter of his country’s honor, the Ambassador of France (David Pittu) demands Wintergreen divorce Mary and marry Diana, or face an international incident.

Of Thee I Sing pulls no punches when it comes to politics. The show calling out know-nothing politicians and backroom dealings, where the matter of the public good is simply a random afterthought. Also examined are the appeal of what would now be considered reality shows - beauty contests in this case - as well as the sometimes much-too-close relationship journalistic outlets have with politicians; and a world where style means a lot more than substance. While some parts of the book are quite dated, such as when Wintergreen lists the important attributes he’d look for in a wife, the underlying messages of the show are still as powerful as when they were first written.

Just as pivotal to the production is the wonderful Gershwin music, and the often pointed lyrics. Some of the musical highlights include the heartwarming “Love is Sweeping the Country” and the show’s title tune. Also a lot of fun are “The Senator from Minnesota” and “Posterity is Just Around the Corner”. The latter number a swipe at President Herbert Hoover and a statement he made in regards to the Great Depression. It's also a great treat to hear the score performed by a full orchestra. The MasterVoices orchestra performing under the very skilled baton of conductor Ted Sperling.

A chief problem with the show is its execution. Many of the gags landing not nearly as sharply as they should. Sperling, who also handled the directing chores, seeming unsure of his choices throughout. As a result, a good part of the action feels flat and uninspired.

In addition, a number of the performers are unable to get a proper handle on their characters. This is particularly evident in Pink ham's portrayal of Wintergreen. He not playing it naïve enough to come off as an everyman and not cynical enough to be believable as a political power player. He also fails to have any chemistry with Benton, thus blunting the impact of their scenes together.

Benton conversely, is able to ably convey the aura of a relative political newcomer turned practiced old hand as the show unfolds. Cooper, Oscar and Applegate feel rather interchangeable as three political hacks, with none of them really resonating in the roles they’ve taken on here. Coming off better is actor Kevin Chamberlin, who gives a winning performance as vice presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom. A person no one remembers and who doesn’t even know his own duties as the VP. Until they’re explained to him by a White House tour guide (Marnee Hollis).

The show is also beset by serious sound issues. A good number of the lyrics being swallowed up in the gigantic auditorium and unable to be heard. This is a critical error, as how strongly the show's messages resonate depends on the audience being able to hear what's being said.

A nice touch was having actor/humorist Mo Rocca take on the part of the narrator. Which he does in a pleasant and genial manner. Rocca also taking the opportunity to drop in some interesting trivia about the production and its history. Such as the creative team's previous effort in satire, Strike Up The Band, and George Gershwin’s penchant for publicly playing songs from Of Thee I Sing before the musical’s book had even been written.

That Of Thee I Sing still has a lot to say is without doubt. However it can't be denied that, satirical lessons and wry understandings aside, much of the show now seems quite corny. Especially when it comes to the ending. For corny to work, it needs to feel both real and involving. In the recent MasterVoices’ production of Of Thee I Sing, it doesn’t. At least not often enough.

 Of Thee I Sing

Music and Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin
Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Concert Adaptation by Tony Krasker
Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, William Daly and George Gershwin
Narrative Written by Joe Keenan

Featuring: Bryce Pinkham (John P. Wintergreen), Denée Benton (Mary Turner), Kevin Chamberlin (Alexander Throttlebottom), Elizabeth Stanley (Diana Devereaux), Chuck Cooper (Matthew Fulton), Brad Oscar (Louis Lippman), Fred Applegate (Francis X. Gilhooley), David Pittu (French Ambassador), Rhett Gutter (Jenkins), Anna Landy (Miss Benson) Mo Rocca (Narrator), Ellen Richter (Tourist #1), Marnee Hollis (Tour Guide)

Susan H. Drannm, Stephen Eisdorfer, John Koski, Ken Moore, Vivianne Potter, Robert R. Rainier, Gerald Richman, Lisa Rubin (Supreme Court Judges)

Ghalahad Abella, Nicholas Cunha, Robert James, Vincent Machacek, Edsel Romero, Edward Yim (French Soldiers)

Presented by MasterVoices
MasterVoices Orchestra

Conductor and Director: Ted Sperling

Musical Staging: Andrew Palermo
Sound Designer: Patrick Pummill
Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff

Presented at Carnegie Hall on November 2, 2017

Isaac Stern Auditorium / Ronald O. Perelman Stage

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Home Place - Not Always Where The Heart Is


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The breakdown of the status quo can be tough on those who've lived by it for so long. An issue Brian Friel examines in his 2005 drama The Home Place. The work having its North American premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

In 1878, Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham) is an aging and increasingly forgetful British landowner in Ballybeg, Ireland. He is also landlord to the various tenants who live and work on his property. The continuation of a family practice going back several generations.

A long-time widower, Christopher depends greatly on the services of his housekeeper Margaret O'Donnell (Rachel Pickup), an Irish woman who came to The Lodge, as the Gore home is called, when she was a child. She now having more in common with Christopher, who would marry her in an instant, than she does with any of the “common” folk in the area. Including their live-in maid Sally Cavanagh (Andrea Lynn Green).

This is not the best of times for the landed gentry. One of their number having recently been murdered, amid rumors of a growing unrest among the Irish people. Much of this personified in Sally's boyfriend Con Doherty (Johnny Hopkins) who, along with the with more ominous Johnny McLoone (Gordon Tashjian), has recently returned from Dublin.

Making an already tense situation worse is Dr. Richard Gore (Christopher Randolph), Christopher's cousin from Kent in England. Both Christopher and Richard referring to Kent as “The Home Place”. An anthropologist, Richard believes that by examining the skulls and other characteristics of people of different classes, one can use this information to uncover such things as their propensity for violence, ambition, loyalty, sacrifice, etc. Richard and his assistant Perkins (Stephen Pilkington) intent on examining some of the Ballybeg locals in this regard. Though when certain people object to Richard's methods, Christopher finds himself in the middle of a conflict with massive ramifications, no matter which side he supports.

Focusing on issues of class status, human dignity and cultural identity, Friel has crafted an absorbing tale. From Richard's condescending attitude towards anyone not of his station in life - he continually refers to the volunteers for his examinations as "specimens" - to Con and his companions' belief that the land Christopher and people like him control actually belong to the people of Ireland; one can see examples of long-entrenched ways of thinking, and where compromise is not an option. Also telling is the belittling way Margaret continually addresses the less-cultured Sally, as well as her being ashamed of her own father (Robert Langdon Lloyd), the local choirmaster and a perennial drunkard. His presence being a painful reminder of a past Margaret is trying desperately to forget.

Unfortunately the story is hampered by a very talky text, which often slows the action down to a crawl. The only way to overcome a situation like this is to make the various characters interesting enough so the audience will want to follow along. Something that is not the case here. The entire first act, which lays the groundwork for what is to follow, feels like a gigantic passive experience, where information is provided and positions are staked out, but none of which is in any way engaging.

At least part of the problem can be found in Charlotte Moore's direction, which is unable to make the show resonate as strongly as it should. An example of this being her mention in the show program of how she found the Doherty character both "mesmerizing and terrifying". However, Hopkins' portrayal of Con, while at times threatening, falls well short of how Moore describes him. His presence in the play seeming more like an afterthought, rather than a pivotal figure.

The real shame is that the play contains a lot of material on which to build, with much of the opportunities to do so simply fizzling out. The character of Margaret being a particular case in point. O'Donnell playing a character caught in a love triangle with Christopher and his son David (Ed Malone), as well as facing her own personal identity crisis. Though she displays some strong moments of passion, such as when she shows her disappointment at Christopher or comes face to face with her father, her overall performance is not strong enough to make the audience care about this particular individual, or her ultimate fate.

Windsor-Cunningham on the other hand, delivers a standout turn of a man raging against an oncoming storm which he is powerless to prevent. Like Margaret, he is a person with a foot in two different worlds, yet not fully welcome in either. Originally seeming to be losing his grip on reality he is, in actuality, someone completely beaten down by a life that never turned out the way he wanted.

Randolph is good as the single-minded Richard. Someone who firmly believes in his research, while totally oblivious to how it may been seen by others. Green and Pilkington help add a bit of humor to the proceedings; Green also giving a strong earthy quality to her character. Malone's portrayal of David however comes off as more irritating than anything else. He presenting the image of a man immature beyond his years, with no backstory to the character. The relationship between David and his father is also not nearly developed as it needs to be.

James Noone's set of The Lodge offers a nice touch of opulence, while providing a strong juxtaposition between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty - as indicated by several people who arrive to participate in Richard's study. Michael Gottlieb's lighting nicely complements the atmosphere of the different scenes and tensions of the story.

The Home Place has the potential to be a very interesting and thought-provoking piece of theatre. Sadly with this production, it's just not presented that well.

Featuring: Rachel Pickup (Margaret O'Donnell), Andrea Lynn Green (Sally Cavanagh),
Gordon Tashjian (Johnny McLoone), Johnny Hopkins (Con Doherty), Ed Malone (David Gore), John Windsor-Cunningham (Christopher Gore), Christopher Randolph (Dr. Richard Gore), Stephen Pilkington (Perkins), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Clement O'Donnell), Polly McKie (Mary Sweeney), Logan Riley Bruner (Tommy Boyle)

The Home Place
by Brian Friel

Set Design: James Noone
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Original Music: Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab
Properties: Sven Henry Nelson
Dialects: Stephen Gabis
Casting: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Pamela Brusoski
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe
Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations
General Manager: Lisa Fane

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, one intermission

Closes: December 17, 2017

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Measure For Measure - A cup more than half empty


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Elevator Repair Service, known for taking literary classics and adapting them to the stage - with results ranging from somewhat interesting to completely astonishing - makes their first foray into the world of William Shakespeare with a production of Measure For Measure. Though if you're unfamiliar with the work, odds are you'll quickly find yourself lost in this slapstick-heavy, character-lite presentation now at the Public Theater.

In Vienna, immorality has been running rampant. Prostitution, drunkenness, lechery and similar vices all steadily on the increase. Hitting on a plan to stem this tide of inequity, the Duke of Vienna (Scott Shepherd) announces he will temporarily depart the city and leave the well-regarded Angelo (Pete Simpson) to rule in his place. The Duke confident that the pious and upright Angelo will be able to restore morality and order to Vienna. Something the Duke himself has been unable to do in all his years in office. Assisting Angelo in this task will be the Duke's trusted confidant, Escalus (Vin Knight).

Despite his proclamations to the contrary, the Duke has no plans to leave Vienna. Rather, he intends to clothe himself in the garb of a humble friar and, thus disguised, move about the city unnoticed while observing Angelo's actions and their results.

Once Angelo assumes control, he wastes no time in enforcing the Duke's wishes. Houses of ill repute are pulled down or shuttered, and a strict no-tolerance policy towards other moral weaknesses is strictly enforced.

Among those caught up in the regulations of this new regime is Claudio (Greig Sargeant). Found guilty of impregnating a woman out of wedlock, he has been sentenced to be hanged. It doesn't matter the woman in question is his fiancée, Juliet (Lindsay Hockaday). Angelo keen on making an example of Claudio in order to show that no one is above the law. In desperation, Claudio implores his sister, the beautiful Isabella (Rinne Groff), who is about to enter a convent, to plead his case.

Much to Angelo's surprise, he finds himself responding to Isabella in a totally unprofessional manner and, after a bit of internal conflict, yields to his baser impulses. He offering to have Claudio freed only if Isabella first spends the night with him. While all seems lost for the brother and sister, unexpected help arrives in the form of the disguised Duke, who overhears their plight while visiting the prison where Claudio is being held. The Duke putting his own plans into motion in an attempt to ensure that everyone gets exactly the justice they deserve.

In the rights hands, Measure for Measure is a play ripe with possibilities. Particularly due to the wealth of satirical targets the text presents. Including, the hypocrisy of overly zealous moralists, politicians who pass the buck and then take swoop in and take the credit, and how the legal and penal systems can be usurped by some for their own purposes. A hilarious example of the last being a prisoner (Gavin Prince) who refuses to be executed on the day he is to die because he happens to be too drunk. Shakespeare's not-that-subtle attack on those in power being visible from the first moment of the play to the last.

Measure for Measure is also considered one of Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays". Largely because the course Shakespeare has laid out for this story is not always an easy one to navigate. Both ERS and director John Collins being unable to effectively do so.

Rather than edit the text to suit their particular vision, the company, Collins also being ERS' artistic director, has instead decided to present the piece basically as is. While shortening the work's running time by having the various characters speak their dialogue very, very fast. The actual text projected on the walls at such times to give the audience the chance to follow along.

Unfortunately in speeding up the dialogue, Collins and company have also removed all of the potential cadences, shadings and other inflections that show the words to be far more than what's written on the page. As a result, everything spoken in this manner feels totally flat, with most of the characters seeming more like cardboard cutouts than anything resembling flesh and blood. This is especially true for Isabella. Groff giving the impression in these sequences of someone simply reading lines her verbatim and not caring a wit about what she's saying. Yet when her dialogue is slowed down to normal speed, she and Sargeant blow the roof off the theatre in a scene where Claudio pleads with Isabella to give in to Angelo's demands in order that his life be spared. This then showing the problem to be not so much the actors, but that the company's the vision for the production.

The main dramatic elements aren't the only casualties of the rapid-fire dialogue. Comedic subplots also suffering. Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene where a constable (Hockaday) brings in two men to face charges related to bawdy-house activities. Meant to be a poke at the legal system, and filled with twisted words and cutting comments, this entire sequence comes across as dull and lifeless.

The company has also tried to infuse the story with a number of slapstick elements. Some of which work quite well. Such as Angelo tossing papers into the air as he and Escalus go over some business matters. There's also an enjoyable moment early on where the characters recite their dialogue through old-style mouthpiece telephones. The set consisting of long rows of tables with phones atop them - kind of calling to mind the set of The Front Page. However other comical efforts suffer from severe overplaying. A example being the characters responding to some of the coincidences (a.k.a. plot twists) Shakespeare plays are famous for. The unrealistic responses being even more glaring as they occur in the final scene of the play.

Simpson does a rather nice turn as Angelo. Both in acting out his internal crisis of faith, and with his slapstick-laden reactions to events going on around him. He also being one of the few performers able to make his character at least partly resonate with the audience. Sets by Jim Findlay work well, as do the costumes by Kaye Voyce, some of which suggest a 1930s/1940s feel.

An interesting experiment to be sure, the final result is simply too far off the mark to effective. Hopefully, ERS's next theatrical effort will be something more satisfying.

Featuring: Scott Shepard (The Duke). Vin Knight (Escalus), Peter Simpson (Angelo), Mike Iveson (Lucio), Maggie Hoffman (Provost), Gavin Price (Froth/Friar/Boy/Barnardine/Messenger), Susie Sokol (Mistress Overdone/Elbow/Abhorson/Varrius), Lindsay Hockaday (Pompey/Juliet), Greig Sargeant (Claudio), April Matthis (Nun/Mariana), Rinne Gross (Isabella)

Measure For Measure

Written by William Shakespeare
Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service

Set Designer: Jim Findlay
Costume Designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Designers: Mark Barton & Ryan Seelig
Projection Designer: Eva Von Schweinitz
Sound Designer: Gavin Price
Specialty & Prop Designer: Amanda Villalobos
Teleprompter Software Designer: Scott Shepard
Production Manager: David Nelson
ERS Producer: Ariana Smart Truman
Production Stage Manager: Maurina Lioce
Assistant Stage Manager: Spencer Armstrong

Directed by John Collins

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
Running Time: Two Hours, 20 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: November 12, 2017

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Clockwork Orange - Where It's All In The Eyes Of The Beholder


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One of the more provocative dramas to hit the Off-Broadway stage in recent years is the U.K. import, A Clockwork Orange. A transfer of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel to the stage, the work is a powerful indictment against violence, as well as the methods some people undertake to try to stop it. The play currently having its New York premiere at New World Stages.

In present day England, teenage Alex deLarge (Jonno Davies) and his fellow droogs (a.k.a. gang members), gleefully partake in frequent rampages of violence. Causing mayhem and fear for no particular reason other than the thrills it gives them. The gang adapt at such efforts as breaking and entering, robbery, theft, assault and in some cases, rape and murder. One could actually call them rebels with nothing specific to rebel against.

While Alex has been able to talk his way out of tight scraps in the past - due to his pretty face, his feigning ignorance of the seriousness of his actions, and the hope others have that he can still be redeemed - all that changes when he’s arrested for murder and subsequently convicted. Alex’s downfall caused by a betrayal of one of his own gang. One whom Alex had tangled with previously and who still nurses a grudge against him.

Once in jail, Alex continues to use his powers of persuasion to try to skew the system to his own advantage. He helped in his efforts by prison guards who are more than willing to turn a blind eye in certain matters, so long as order is maintained. Upon learning that participation in a certain experiment will lead to his almost immediate release, Alex quickly volunteers to be a test subject.

However, the procedure in question is both revolutionary and controversial. The plan being that it will supposedly remove Alex's inherent violent tendencies by conditioning his body to reject them. Thus making the process akin to a sort of lobotomy. There are also many who voice their misgivings about the whole idea. Particularly the prison Chaplain (Timothy Sekk), who feels that any such change has to come from within. But with a society clamoring for protection against a systemic rise in violence, and the resulting issue of prison overcrowding – which one prisoner protests against, to no avail – the project is given the green light to proceed.

While the novel was written at a time where youth violence was on the rise in Britain, the story remains quite timeless due to its central theme of one’s personal rights – in this case the right to be violent - being sacrificed for the greater good. A question that’s been debated numerous times over the years and will, in all probability, continue to be long into the future.

Particularly ironic is how Alex finds himself becoming a tool for those on both sides of the debate. First with the authorities who rely on an untested solution to solve a widespread problem, thus enabling them to remain in power; and later with the so-called "free-thinkers" who want to use Alex to advance their own cause and condemn the experiment. Though in a rather poetic twist, when one of those in the latter camp turns out to be someone who previously suffered at Alex’s hands, he immediately condemns him. All the while conveniently forgetting that the person Alex is now is quite different from who he once was.

Davies, who previously played Alex in the U.K., gives nothing less than a tour-de-force performance. His portrayal of a young man who enjoys violence for its own sake is frighteningly real. While his seemingly involuntary reactions after the experiment are poignant and affecting enough to turn the character from villain to victim. This “switchover” – for want of a better word - then leads to the core question of the work. Specifically, when does society go too far in trying to stamp out the symptoms of a disease, instead of trying to cure its root cause?

Also quite illuminating is a scene where Alex meets up with some of his former droogs who have since become members of a law-enforcement unit. Their new status being someone's idea of using "ex-villains to catch real villains". The authorities giving these new recruits pretty much free reign in terms of how they get the job done.

The rest of the all-male cast, many of whom play multiple roles, both male and female, are excellent. Sekk in particular, does a good turn as the firebrand Chaplain. Both via his speeches to the inmates and in his protest against the experiment in which Alex becomes involved. Brian Lee Huynh is quietly terrifying as Dr. Brodsky, architect of the experiment. A man supremely confident in his theories and all too-willing to field test them, regardless of the dangers involved. Another standout is Ashley Robinson as the Minister, a career politician who sees Brodsky’s methods as a way of placating a frightened public.

Also quite good is the way the cast (American except for Davies) delivers the dialogue, particularly the droog-speak, all of which is indicative of a sub-culture these young men share.

Direction by Alexandra Spencer-Jones is very well-done. Especially when it comes to the stylistic approach used for much of the on-stage violence - particularly when it’s Alex who's delivering it. This initially appears somewhat disconcerting, until one realizes the audience is seeing the entire story through Alex's eyes. Thus, when Alex is inflicting said violence, he sees it as nothing less than beautiful. Though when the violence is done to him, not so much. Davies being the show's Fight Captain also helps here. He working hand in hand with Spencer-Jones, and Dance Captain Aleksander Varadian, to give an otherworldly feel to much of the physical action presented. All of which makes it no less terrifying. The accompanying music, both original and existing – the latter of which includes Beethoven, a favorite of Alex's - helps to add to this atmosphere.

Ending not with a bang, but with a whimper that resonates just as strongly, A Clockwork Orange offers a powerful comment on the cyclical yet continuing nature of violence and how those who are able to move beyond it, only do so on their own accord. Though sadly, without leaving any clues for the generations who come after to avoid falling into the same trap.

Featuring: Jonno Davies (Alex deLarge), Jimmy Brooks (F-Me Pumps/Billy Boy/Governor/Policeman/Comedian/Dolin/Len), Matt Doyle (Georgie/Zophar/Nurse Bromine), Sean Patrick Higgins (Dim/Pedofil/Joe The Lodger/Aide), Brian Lee Huynh (Frank Alexander/Dr. Brodsky/Big Jew/Dad), Misha Osherovich (Pete/The Doc/Rubenstein) Ashley Robinson (Minister/Old Woman/Rich Bitch/Policeman/Mum/Bully), Timothy Sekk (Chaplain/Mr. Deltoid/Mary/Rick), Aleksander Varadian (Marty/Warder/Mark Alexander/Dr. Branom).

A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess

Lighting Design: James Baggaley
Sound Design: Emma Wilk
Costume Coordinator: Jennifer A. Jacob
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Production Stage Manager: Vanessa Dodgson-Thomas
Assistant Stage Manager: Lilly Deerwater
Production Management: Libby Jensen
Company Manager: Kelly Ann Gray
Advertising and Marketing: AKA
Social Media: Janine Lee Papio
Press Representative: Vivacity Media Group
Casting: Stewart/Whitley
General Management: Martian Entertainment LLC/Glynis Henderson Productions Ltd.
Original Music Composed by Glenn Gregory and Berenice Scott
Associate Producers: Rachel Roussel-Tyson/Tyrus Emory
Fight Captain: Jonno Davies
Dance Captain: Aleksander Varadian

Directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones

Presented at New World Stages
Address: 340 West 50th Street
Tickets: 1-800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes: January 6, 2018



This production of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess was originally developed and presented by Action to the World (U.K.) and directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones

Saturday, September 30, 2017

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday - A Tale of Family, Childhood and Mortality


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The subtext to the question "when did you grow up" is "when did you stop being a child"? A question explored in Sarah Ruhl’s bittersweet drama For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday at Playwrights Horizons.

In the 1990s, in a hospital room in DavenportIowa, five middle-aged Irish-Catholic siblings have gathered for the death watch of their father (Ron Crawford). As the waiting continues, the group talks about various issues, ranging from the current occupant in the White House (one "Slick Willy") to exactly when to turn off the machines keeping their dad alive. Or, if they should. In the end, the father takes that particular matter out of his children’s hands, shuffling off this mortal coil on his own.

Later on, at the family home, the five hold a traditional Irish wake for the parent they have just lost. While also coming to terms with, among other things, the fact that they are now orphans. The conversation a mixture of childhood reminisces, Catholicism, God, Santa Claus and some rather passionate political viewpoints. Particularly interesting is an offered explanation – as it applied to their father – of how one can claim to be against a welfare state, yet still ostensibly take money from the government. The family chemistry comfortable enough so that the opinions offered are exchanged in an atmosphere free of permanent reprisal or condemnation. Though while the dynamic is now one of comfortable friction, there are suggestions it wasn’t always the case. Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), the eldest sibling in the brood, noting that since their mother died, there has been less arguing present.

Another question which comes up during the conversations is when did everything get so out of control in the world, and when people become so angry with each other? Said query a not-so-veiled reference to what is going on in the present day. The seeds of which were planted in this earlier generation, as well as the ones before that.

In the wake of their father's death, there comes the issue of the inevitability of change, and how the children deal with the thoughts of their own mortality. Some accepting its eventuality, others determined to ignore it as long as they can. The show asking the different characters just when they got to the point in their lives where anything was no longer possible and when they could no longer fly on dreams and fairy dust. Much like Peter Pan did in James M. Barrie’s classic play of the same name. Or, as one of the family (Keith Reddin) had as his childhood motto: “immorality through immaturity”. Yet as Ruhl goes on to demonstrate, that outlook changes when one's adult responsibilities, such as work and family, not to mention new possibilities for the future, becomes more important than childhood dreams.
Ruhl, who conceived the show as present for her mother - who also played the Barrie creation in her youth - has a lot of fun with so-called "Peter Pan metaphor". (Of the five family members, three are named John, Michael and Wendy.) While also showing what happens when those who were once children, become too old to simply fly away.

This idea being wonderfully realized in a sequence which seamlessly combines the realities of the adult world with the magic and seeming invincibility of youth. One complete with an appearance by Captain Hook – David Chandler doing a deliciously devilish turn in the role. There’s also an errant shadow, a childhood nursery, and the sound of an ominous ticking clock. An object which could also be construed as a wistful comment on the passage of time.

Despite the show’s strong overall message, the work falters when it comes to characterization. There being, with one exception, little depth to any of the characters presented. The family, especially the three brothers - John (Daniel Jenkins), Michael (Keith Reddin), and Jim (Chandler) - being pretty interchangeable with one another. The group staking out various moral positions, with the audience never given the chance to find out who these people really are underneath. Even though we do get a look at their various backgrounds. This oversimplification thus lessening the story's emotional impact.

The only character who comes across fully formed is Ann. Chalfant doing an excellent job portraying her both as a staunch liberal and the only one in the family who never lost her childlike outlook on how things are supposed to be. She often clinging to that perception with a stubborn resistance to reality. It also helps that Ann figures much more into the makeup of the story than any of the others.

Crawford does a nice job as the father. His character serving as a both an emotional reminder and anchor to the other characters and their reactions.

The show is nicely directed by Les Waters. Though some of the time spent in the hospital could be cut without losing anything important.

Light on characterization and with a rather slow start, For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday remains a tale with an involving and gentle moral core. One showing that while we all have to grow up eventually, retaining that childlike sense of wonder is still possible.

Featuring: Kathleen Chalfant (Ann), Daniel Jenkins (John), Keith Reddin (Michael), David Chandler (Jim/Captain Hook), Lisa Emery (Wendy), Ron Crawford (The Father), Macy (A dog).

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday

by Sarah Ruhl

Scenic Designer: David Zinn
Costume Designer: Kristopher Castle
Lighting Designer: Matt Frey
Original Music and Sound Design: Bray Poor & Charles Coes
Animals by: William Berloni Theatrical Animals
Fight and Fly Director: Ryan Bourque
Flying Effects: ZFX Flying Effects
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner
Assistant Stage Manager: Shelly Miles

Directed by Les Waters

Playwrights Horizons
Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes: October 1, 2017


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Parallelogram - A Bit Off The Mark


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

What if you knew exactly how your life was going to turn out, and there was absolutely nothing you could do to change it? One woman finds herself in exactly that situation in Bruce Norris' rather intriguing, but ultimately unfulfilling A Parallelogram at Second Stage Theater.

Bee (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is a person with a self-destructive streak. Currently living with Jay (Stephen Kunken), she's continually trying to find proof that their relationship is not working out. Thus providing her a reason to end things between them before Jay ends them first. That Jay left his wife and family to be with her only adds to Bee's feeling of insecurity. Adding to her pile of possibly imagined woes is the continual presence of an older woman - referred to in the program as "Bee 2" - (Anita Gillette), that only Bee can see. This cynical and world-weary soul claiming to be a future version of Bee; and who has very few words of comfort to offer about Bee's current situation, or any of her situations still to come.

Bee's relationship with her doppelganger is further complicated by the fact that although no one else can see her, her presence can be felt in other ways. Such as with traces of the elder woman's cigarette smoke. Visible due to what B2 describes as a "glitch" in the system which allows her to be there in the first place. Jay reacting angrily to Bee's denials of smoking, while Bee 2, who is clearly enjoying her younger self's discomfort, watches the entire exchange with a self-satisfied grin.

As quickly becomes evident, what one is seeing is the virtual train wreck Bee's life is fast becoming. To that end, it's not long before Bee finds herself starting to fulfill some of her elder's prophecies. Such as taking up smoking, or putting on weight. Bee's inability to accept anything but the worst possible outcome, also causing her to sabotage various chances she may have of finding happiness. Though that doesn't stop her from continually going back in time to try to make things better. This accomplished with the help of B2, who is able to generate a sort of "Groundhog Day" effect, with different scenes playing out over and over again as Bee tries to alter what has gone before.

Underlying all the "doom and gloom" Bee is facing, both now and in times to come, is Norris' idea that while one cannot change the future in any overall sense, one can subtly alter certain circumstances to make the end result more hopeful. Coupled with this is the unspoken question: do we really want to know our own personal future?

An intriguing idea to be sure, especially when the play starts to explore the relative fluidity of time, and how the future may have actually already happened. Sadly, any possible appeal of this premise collapses almost immediately due to the way the show's narrative is structured. Bee vehemently declaring in one scene that she will not allow certain aspects of her future to occur, and then accepting them in the very next, with no explanation of what has caused this change in attitude.

A far more serious problem is that the play never shows Bee's initial meeting with her future self. Bee 2 already present, with Bee having accepted who she is and what she represents, by the time the show begins. As such, the audience never learns why the elder Bee decided to visit the younger version of herself in the first place. Other than that she seems to enjoy tormenting her. In truth, when it comes to either character, there is no real depth present. This then makes it extremely hard to care about them, or be concerned when it comes to their final fate. This is particularly true when it comes to Gillette's character, who ends up being more annoying than anything else.

Most problematic of all is when Bee finally does understand the ultimate truth of what Morris has been trying to say, the realization comes far too late to be effective. The work having basically meandered for more than two hours without any firm direction. Matters aren't helped by the lackluster work of director Michael Greif, who takes the few interesting elements the show has to offer and does nothing with them. A good case in point being the various repeating scenes, all of which come to feel tiresome and repetitive very quickly.

Despite all the obstacles, Keenan-Bolger is able to project an appealing quality as Bee. The actress doing the best she can with a part that goes nowhere. Kunken comes off well as Jay, his character the only one that is ever anything more than one-dimensional. He giving a very good performance as a man trying desperately to understand Bee's increasingly odd behavior; and finally finding refuge in medical science rather than other, more intangible possibilities. Juan Castano is okay as JJ, a fellow who comes over to Bee and Jay's apartment complex to cut the grass and never quite leaves. However, it's a role that's strictly superficial, and as such, not all that interesting.

Lighting design by Kenneth Posner and sound design by Matt Tierney work nicely together, particularly when they're used to herald the resetting of the various scenes for Bee to try to change the past. Set design by Rachel Hauck is okay.

A Parallelogram is not so much a particularly bad play, but rather one that feels somewhat unfinished, and with an ending that just doesn't work.

Featuring: Stephen Kunken (Jay), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Bee), Anita Gillette (Bee 2, Bee 3, Bee 4), Juan Castano (JJ).

A Parallelogram

by Bruce Norris

Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck

Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie

Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner

Sound Design: Matt Tierney

Animal Trainer: William Berloni

Production Stage Manager: Jane Grey

Stage Manager: Shae Candelaria

Press: Polk & Co.

Casting: Telsey & Company/Will Cantler CSA/Karyn Casl CSA/Adam Caldwell CSA

Associate Artistic Director: Christopher Burney

Production Manager: Bethany Weinstein

General Manager: Seth Shepsle

Directed by Michael Greif

Presented by Second Stage Theater

305 West 43rd Street

Tickets: 212-246-4422 or https://2st.com

Running Time: 2 Hours, 15 Minutes, one intermission

Closes: August 20, 2017


Monday, August 7, 2017

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Fun and Frolic, But Too Little Heart

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The Public Theater pulls out all the stops with its eye-catching presentation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. One of the most beloved and original works in the Shakespearian canon, and last presented at the Delacorte a decade ago, the show features star-crossed lovers, spurned suitors who don’t take “no” for an answer, a host of magical beings, and a group of strolling would-be thespians. While there is certainly much to enjoy, what's missing in this production is the subtle charm and magical essence the play has to offer.

In the city of Athens, Egeus (David Manis) has pledged his daughter Hermia (Shalita Grant) in marriage to Demetrius (Alex Hernandez). Hermia however, is in love with Lysander (Kyle Beltran) and will marry none but him. Lysander loving Hermia just as dearly. Enraged at his daughter's defiance, Egeus brings her before Theseus, Duke of Athens (Bhavesh Patel). While the Duke is in a charitable mood, as he is about to enter into matrimony with Hippoltya (De'adre Aziza), Queen of the Amazons, he is also bound by Athenian law, and orders Hermia to either marry Demetrius or be banished from the city. In response, Hermia and Lysander decide to travel to the home of Lysander's aunt, some distance away, where they can be married. Their route taking them through a nearby wooded area where they will spend the night. Upon learning of the couple's plans, Hermia's friend Helena (Annaleigh Ashford), quickly informs Demetrius, who sets off in pursuit. Helena following him soon after. Helena was once Demetrius' fiancée and still carries a torch for her former intended. She hoping that by giving Demetrius this information, it will cause him to see how unworthy Hermia is, and that he will then turn his love back to her.

Meanwhile deep in the woods, Oberon (Richard Poe), King of the Fairies is traveling to Athens with his magical entourage to bless the upcoming union of Theseus and Hippolyta. Oberon is also is angered at his Queen, Titania (Phylicia Rashad) over a young changeling boy (Benjamin Ye) whom she is determined to raise as her adopted son. Filled with anger and jealousy, and wanting to teach Titania a lesson, Oberon calls on Puck (Kristine Nielsen), a mischievous sort of sprite, to drop the juice from a very special flower into Titana's eyes as she sleeps. This affect of which will cause her to fall in love with the first thing she sees.

Shortly thereafter, Oberon sees Demetrius arguing with Helena and orders Puck to place the same potion in Demetrius' eyes in order that he fall in love with Helena once more. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned, as Puck unknowingly infects the wrong person. The result being that both Demetrius and Lysander are now in love with Helena, much to her consternation and Hermia's despair. It falling to Oberon to try to put things right with the four young people, while also trying to repair his own relationship with Titania. She having become totally enamored with one Nick Bottom (Danny Burstein), a local weaver and would-be actor who, thanks to Puck's sense of humor, has been given the head and partial body of an ass. Bottom being in the woods with several of his fellow craftsman rehearsing a play to be performed at the wedding celebration for the Duke.

One of the reasons for the popularity of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that it has something for everyone. Including great opportunities for comedic slapstick - which this production milks for all its worth. At the same time, the text offers moments of quiet reflection. Where matters of love and magic become intertwined, and one can truly feel a part of the essence of the story.

In this particular presentation, director Lear deBessonet has chosen to put the emphasis on the comedic. So much so in fact, that almost all the subtlety and nuance in the play is gone. Case in point being the verbal exchanges between Hermia, Lysander, Helene and Demetrius. Their scenes in the forest played so broadly, that while one laughs continually at their antics, any deeper connection to the characters is lost and thus, the chance to really identify with them. Since the strength of these scenes depend on the comedy smoothly blending with elements of underlying pain and pathos; particularly regarding Helena's fury when she feels mocked by Lysander and Demetrius; as well as Hermia's anger at what she sees as Helena's betrayal; the removal of such emotional underpinnings leaves one left with some rather enjoyable, but quickly forgettable moments.

It doesn't help that Ashford is able to act her three co-stars right off the stage; and the imbalance clearly shows. Her hilarious portrayal of a woman scorned giving a new definition to the word "clingy". Beltran and Hernandez do okay when they have the chance to display some nice acrobatic moves, but Grant's character ends up feeling like almost an afterthought in their various scenes together. One actually feels more chemistry between Theseus and Hippolyta, two characters usually treated as little more than throwaways, than with anything going on between the four young lovers.

Another problem occurs with the character of Puck. Nielsen treating the role more as a standup comic routine, with none of the overt playfulness usually associated with the character. The actress gets more than her share of laughs, but is never able to imbue her part with any real sense of fun. The usually reliable Nielson is also unable to bring any depth to the final moments of the play, as she recites the epilogue in a completely matter-of-fact manner, without any emphasis on what those words really mean.

Where the show does take off in terms of characterization is when all that's required is comedy. Such as with Peter Quince (Robert Joy), a carpenter by day turned hapless director, who miscasts everyone in his company when assigning roles for the play to be presented before the Duke. He also has to deal with one interruption after another from the egomaniacal Bottom, Burstein bringing a truly scenery chewing performance to the part. Both when the character is a mortal man, and when he has been transformed into an ass. In the latter scenes, Burstein and Rashad show a wonderful and winning chemistry. Rashad playing her absurdist scenes of love with complete believability; the resulting sequence being one which is absolutely hilarious.

David Rockwell's set of the show is fantastic, giving the entire production a New Orleans-style feel, with moss-covered trees trunks and weeping willow trees. Hand in hand with this is a musical score with a prominent jazz beat and some lovely zydeco music. The various songs belted out with gusto by Marcelle Davis-Lashley; billed in the program as the "Fairy Singer".

Also quite good are Clint Ramos' costumes, particularly the outfits worn by Aziza and Rashad. Also deserving of mention is the work of hair, makeup and wig designer Cookie Jordan.

This presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a grand time for all, and one will certainly leave the theater with a smile on their face. Though despite all the frivolity it has to offer, the production is continually unable to bring forth the show's more substantial elements lurking beneath the surface.

Featuring: Bhavesh Patel (Theseus, Duke of Athens), De'adre Aziza (Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons), David Manis (Egeus/Cobweb), Shalita Grand (Hermia), Kyle Beltran (Lysander), Alex Hernandez (Demetrius), Annaleigh Ashford (Helena), Justin Cunningham (Philostrate), Robert Joy (Peter Quince), Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom), Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute), Patrena Murray (Snoot), Austin Durant (Snug), Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling), Richard Poe (Oberon, King of the Fairies), Phylicia Rashad (Titania (Queen of the Fairies), Kristine Nielsen (Robin Goodfellow, a puck), Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy), Keith Hart (Third Fairy), Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy), Min Borack (Fifth Fairy), Judith Wagner (Note), Warren Wyss (Mustardseed), Benjamin Ye (Changeling Boy), Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare

Choreography by Chase Brock
Sound Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Original Music & Music Supervisor: Justine Levine
Orchestrations: Justine Levine
Additional Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen
Music Coordinator: Dean Sharenow
Music Director: Jon Spurney
Productions Stage Manager: Rick Steiger
Stage Manager: Stephen Milosevich
Fight Captain: Austin Durant
Dance Captain: Robert Joy

Directed by Lear DeBessonet

Presented by the Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park

Address: Enter at 81st Street and Central Park West
Admission: Free
Information: 212-539-8500 or www.publictheater.org
Running time: Two Hours, Fifty Minutes, with one intermission

Closes: August 13, 2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Opening Skinner’s Box - An Interesting Intellectual Voyage


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The theatrical group Improbable takes a look at the struggle to understand the human condition, as well as its strengths, weaknesses and limits in Opening Skinner's Box. Based on Lauren Slater's book of the same name, the show looks at a number of significant psychological experiments undertaken over the years, as well how those experiments, and the guiding forces behind them, have been regarded by the passage of time.

The stage work also uses the character of Slater (Kate Maravan) as a sort of guide through the different studies in question. The show recently having had its North American premiere at the Gerald Lynch Theater as part of the 2017 Lincoln Center Festival.

Of the various experiments discussed, the one which feels most topical today is Leon Festinger's exploration of what he called " cognitive dissonance". A process where a person refuses to change their beliefs on a subject, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They instead codifying those facts to reinforce their own convictions. Put in terms of today's political landscape, with so-called "fake news" abounding, it's where one would prefer to place blame on a conspiracy orchestrated by their opponents, rather than acknowledging that at least some of the problems originate with their own actions and perceptions.

Other issues examined include "diffusion of responsibility". Where the bigger the crowd witnessing a particular incident, the more likely it is those watching will wait for someone else to make the first move in response. Also explored is the almost pathological need people have to feel important, which is why many people continually check their twitter and email accounts, looking for that one message to validate their self-worth. A process B.F. Skinner called "intermittent reinforcement". Also shown is the continual blind trust most folks have for authority figures, particularly when it comes to making decisions. This ceding of power thus removing those following along, at least in their own minds, from any personal responsibility. A point Stanley Milgram proved in his experiments requiring testers to give what they thought were painful electric shocks to their subjects.

Where Opening Skinner's Box really takes off is when it gets away from the nuts and bolts of the different experiments and shows Slater's own attempts to explore the ramifications of these endeavors. Slater, a psychologist and author, providing a fresh perspective on the groundwork that came before. Such as speaking with some of the participants in the Milgram experiment and discovering the emotional scars they still carry. Probably the most riveting section of the entire show is a conversation with Elizabeth Loftus regarding her studies on recovered memory therapy, and how fallible such recollections can actually be. An issue that's still hotly debated today.

At times, Slater also recreates a specific experimental process herself, albeit with her own particular spin. Such as showing how simple it was for her to get prescription medicine, simply by claiming she was hearing voices. This being a variation on an experiment by David Rosenhan, who showed how easy it was to get committed to a mental institute. Ironically, when Slater speaks to one of Rosenhan's critics regarding her findings, he's quick to offer a bit of cognitive dissonance of his own. He dismissing her efforts as unscientific, rather than admit to flaws in the diagnosis process both she and Rosenhan uncovered.

Closely linked with these different studies are questions of moral and ethical boundaries, and what happens when these boundaries are crossed. It's interesting to note that none of those profiled saw their actions as having the potential to cause harm. Yet while many of their methods remain standard practice today, some of these people are now considered pariahs by their peers due to the way they carried out their examinations.

Yet despite all the possibilities Opening Skinner's Box has to offer, the show often feels very dry in its delivery. Interesting to be sure, but one could get just as much information from perusing Slater's book. A choice which might actually be better in this case. For when reading, one is able to absorb information at their own pace. Instead of being shown one experiment after another machine gun style on stage, with no time for the audience to get to know the different characters. Including Slater. Another problem is that each of the experiments depicted here could easily be a play on its own. With at least one of them - The Milgram experiment - having been.

Something else that really doesn't work is when the different actors portray various animals; i.e. monkeys in a cage, or laboratory rats. Their attempts to do so look rather phony on the surface and end up being more of a distraction than anything else. In the same vein, the various pops, bells, whistles, etc. used as sound effects come across more as an annoyance rather than something integral to the story.

The piece is adequately directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. Unfortunately they're hamstrung by the basic framework of the show, which has them going from point "a" to point "b" and so on, ad infinitum, for each of the experiments shown. It's a process which becomes repetitive all too quickly.

Maravan is good as Slater, a person seeking answers and insights on the various experiments, for reasons both professional and personal. The rest of the characters do well in the various roles, several coming off as almost righteous in defense of their work, while others demonstrating a clear desire to understand a specific aspect of the human psyche. No matter where their findings lead or how people may be affected by them.

Opening Skinner's Box contains a wealth of material concerning the practice of scientific analysis, but winds up more intellectual curiosity than engaging theatrical experience. Give this one an "A" for effort, but the entire piece could do with some serious reworking should the show's creators want to take it to the next level.

Featuring: Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan, Paschale Straiton.

Opening Skinner's Box

Presented by Improbable
Adapted from the book by Lauren Slater
Directors: Phelim McDermott and Lee Thompson
Set Design: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Design: Nigel Edwards
Sound Design: Adrienne Quartly

Gerard W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
524 West 59th Street

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission


Presented on July 10-July 12, 2017 as part of Lincoln Center Festival

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).

Assassins
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