Sunday, November 27, 2016

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

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Rabbit Red Rabbit
Written by Nassim Soleimanpour

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

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

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

Westside Theatre
407 West 43rd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 65 minutes, no intermission

Currently Running on Monday nights

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dead Poets Society - A Moving Experience


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Poets Society is presented by Special Arrangement with Adam Zotovich

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

Sunday, November 6, 2016

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

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closed: October 30, 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016

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

By Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roads to Home

Set Design: Jeff Cowie

Costume Design: David C. Woolard

Lighting Design: David Lander

Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada

Wig Design: Paul Huntley

Production Stage Manager: Robert Bennett

Production Supervisor: Mind The Gap

Casting: Stephanie Klapper Casting

General Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations

General Manager: Dan A. Carpenter

Director of Development: Erica Raven-Scorza

Director of Marketing: Phil Haas

Directed by Michael Wilson

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

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes, one intermission

Closes: November 27, 2016

Monday, March 28, 2016

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

By Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closes: March 27

"iNSIGNIFICANCE" - A question of what really matters

By Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Terry Johnson

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

Directed by James Hillier

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

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

By Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a room of my own 
written and directed by Charles Messina

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

Scenic Design: Brian Dudkiewicz

Lighting Design: Michael A. Megliola

Costume Design: Catherine Siracusa

Sound Design: Ian Wehrle

Props Design: Addison Heeren

Production Stage Manager: Deidre Works

Production Manager: Ashley Zednick

Casting: Lori Malkin

Press Representative: Bob Lasko

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

Closed: March 13, 2016

"Dot" - Straddling two separate worlds

By Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Coleman Domingo

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

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street

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

Closed: March 20, 2016

"Buried Child" - Life on the edge

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Monique Carboni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard

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

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

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, no intermission

Closes: April 3, 2016

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

By Judd Hollander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission

Closed: February 28, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Marjorie Prime" - An interesting tale of memory

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marjorie Prime
Written by Jordan Harrison

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

Directed by Anne Kauffman

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

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