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