Friday, December 29, 2017

The Children - Posing Questions of Responsibility

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

"I don't know how to want less", exclaims Hazel (Deborah Findlay) in Lucy Kirkwood's dystopian drama The Children. This London transfer currently having its North American premiere at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Hazel and Robin (Ron Cook) retired nuclear engineers and a long time married couple, live on an isolated section of the English coast, approximately ten miles from what has become known as the "exclusion zone". An area so heavily irradiated in the wake of a nuclear meltdown, it has been deemed unsafe for human entry. Since the disaster, the couple has been forced to adapt to a world where items once taken for granted - such as constant electricity and safe, running water - are now things of the past.

Despite the constant reminders of what has occurred - including the farm they once owned now being in the exclusion zone - the two have managed to survive rather well. Though Robin is more haunted by the past than his wife, he even going down to their farm every day to check on the cows they had to leave behind.

Things change with the unexpected arrival of Rose (Francesca Annis). A former colleague whom they haven't seen in nearly four decades. At least Hazel hasn't. Robin, as it turns out, once had a romantic relationship with Rose. One which may have continued long after Hazel thought it finished.

Rose however, has a different reason for her visit. Knowing the authorities are working on shutting down the still-leaking power plant, she wants Robin and Hazel to be part of the team she is taking back there. Engineers and specialists all over the age of 65. People whom, in her view, have already lived most of their lives, thus more expendable than the much younger technicians who were previously sent to do the job. Especially since it can take up to 20 years for the effects of radiation to be felt.

The Children poses numerous questions regarding the quality of life. Most specifically, whose is most important? Those with more than 50 years still ahead, or persons with probably half that? Kirkwood also stacks the deck in Rose's favor by adding elements of personal responsibility and guilt. Rose blurting out at one point that Hazel and Robin don't have the right to electricity. Not when half the developing world doesn't have access to it.

Part and parcel with this is the idea that one cannot rest on their past accomplishments - such as assisting in the removal of an irradiated layer of topsoil - when there is the still much more to be done. Hazel may believe that, after a lifetime of doing good, she and Robin have earned the right to walk away and start over. But as Kirkwood makes clear, no one has that right.

Unfortunately, while offering a lot to think about, the play doesn't even start to become interesting until the one hour mark. The time prior basically a lengthy and roundabout conversation between Rose and Hazel, which gives no idea what is to come. Thus, by the time the purpose of Rose's visit is revealed, one has ceased to care about those on stage.

It would have also been nice to know exactly when the accident happened. Robin's habit of going back into the irradiated area to check on the cows suggests it was fairly recent. Yet there are other references indicating a longer amount of time has passed. Being more specific would have made the various references in the play come together more strongly.

Findlay is the standout of the cast as Hazel. A woman who does just enough to avoid feeling guilty about her life, and where denial is a key part of her reality. As a resigned realist, Cook's character nicely balances Findlay's in their scenes together. Robin helping to maintain the illusions Hazel has erected, while not really caring about what happens to himself.

While meant to be the catalyst in the show, Rose comes off as more annoying than anything else. The character continually picking at every statement made, as if trying to reawaken old memories and feelings in the other two. Yet there is a difference between knowing you are in the right and acting much too pretentious about it. A distinction the playwright, director James Macdonald and Annis all seem to have forgotten.

Kirkwood has come up with an interesting story, but it takes too long to get to the payoff; and even when it does, there are certain elements that remain unclear.

The Children
by Lucy Kirkwood

Featuring: Francesca Anna (Rose), Ron Cook (Robin), Deborah Findlay (Hazel).

Scenic and Costume Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting and Production Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: Max Pappenheim
Production Stage Manager: Martha Donaldson
Original Casting: Amy Ball
Additional Casting: Nancy Piccione
Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
General Manager: Florie Seery
Directed by James Macdonald

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club and The Royal Court Theatre

The Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 50 Minutes, No Intermission

Closes: February 4, 2018

Friday, December 22, 2017

It's A Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play - All About Making A Difference

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Each person’s life touches others, often in the most unexpected ways. It’s a lesson learned by George Bailey in the 1946 film “It’s A Wonderful Life", and given a new twist with Anthony E. Palermo's adaptation of the work as a live radio performance. Previously seen at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2013, the piece has returned for an encore engagement, making for a heartwarming holiday treat.

Set in the same year as the film, the  Palermo version takes place in a broadcast studio of radio station WIRT. Complete with a Christmas tree, an assortment of holiday cards, several rather warn and slightly mismatched chairs, and photos of the various movies stars on the walls. Including such figures as Doris Day, Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Stewart. As Bing Crosby yuletide tunes play over the station loudspeakers and the studio clock moves along in real time, the actors begin to gather for the broadcast.

"It's A Wonderful Life" tells the story of George Baily (Aaron Gaines). Hailing from the small town of Bedford Falls - one of those places where everybody knows everyone else - George had plans to go college and travel the world. Until circumstances and a deep sense of loyalty forced him to give up his dreams and take over the family savings and loan business. When $8,000, which was supposed to be deposited in the bank, suddenly goes missing, and an arrest warrant hanging over his head, George contemplates taking his own life. It's up to Clarence Oddbody (Dewey Caddell) -- an angel, second class -- to show George that he really did have a life that mattered. If Clarence can do that, he will finally earn his wings, after 200 years of waiting.

The story, as enacted here, is quite engaging. So much so that by the time the final act begins, one would be hard pressed not to believe the characters and situations presented are quite real. The cast of six talking into microphones and reading from scripts as they embody over 25 different speaking parts. Various changes in costume, used to differentiate the shift from one role from the next, are done to present a more rounded picture of the different characters to the audience. Charlotte Moore's direction is mostly spot-on throughout, allowing the story to unfold quite seamlessly as it draws the audience into the tale.

At the same time, there are frequent reminders that what we are seeing is indeed a radio play. Such as the use of commercial breaks; the way the actors move about in their "normal" personas when not acting out the various characters; or when they have direct interaction with the audience. As when the station Announcer (Ian Holcomb) welcomes the audience to the studio where the performance will be held, and also explains the need for their immediate response whenever the "applause" sign flashes.

We also get to see a demonstration of devices once used to produce sound effects for radio broadcasts. Among them, the crunching of cornflakes to imitate the footsteps of someone walking in snow. The different effects done by Rory Duffy, who acts as the station's SFX Artist, in addition to various characters in the radio play. The use of live commercials are also a particularly nice touch. They offering a 1946 perspective on such subjects as cigarettes - endorsed by doctors and nurses - and medication for females at that special time of the month.

Aaron Gaines is quite good as George. The character coming off as an honest, hardworking sort who has long since felt life has passed him by. At least, until Clarence intervenes. It also helps that Gaines and Haley Bond - who plays George's wife, Mary - are able to make the interplay between their two characters seem fresh and immediate, especially during a courtship sequence. This helping to show the growing emotional bond that develops between the couple.

While George is the lynchpin around which the story revolves, the character is somewhat limited in his makeup, due to his straight-arrow nature. It's also the reason why some of his later outbursts of joy, which work fine on a giant movie screen, come off as rather hokey when performed in an intimate venue. Actor Dewey Caddell however, has no such problems. Playing a variety of characters, from the evil Mr. Potter who wants to own the entire town of Bedford Falls; to Pop Bailey, a true salt-of-the-earth type; to the terribly earnest Clarence; Caddell is able to make each of the personas he inhabits come powerfully to life.

Also working quite well is Ian Holcomb who, in addition to his announcer duties, takes on the roles of, among others, the Superintendent of Angels, George's Uncle Willie, Ernie the Cabdriver and Nick the Bartender. All with appropriate changes in costume, head gear and accent. Rounding out the cast is Orlagh Cassidy - the diva among the actors at the radio station - who shows off her versatility by playing characters ranging from the very young to the very old.

It’s A Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play allows a much-beloved tale to be seen in an entirely new way. It's a great treat for the holiday season, or any other time of the year, for that matter.

It's A Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play

Adapted from the Frank Capra film by Anthony E. Palermo

Featuring: Haley Bond (Mary Hatch Bailey, Mrs. Davis), Dewey Caddell (Clarence, Mr. Potter, Pop Bailey, Mr. Gower, Martini), Orlagh Cassidy (Ma Bailey, Ma Hatch, Cousin Tilly, Toll Taker, Bank Teller, Janie Bailey, Zuzu Bailey, Impatient Neighbor, Suzie), Rory Duffy (SFX Artist, Officer Bert, Dr. Campbell, Sam Wainwright, Mr. Welch, Petey Bailey, Sheriff, Randy), Aaron Gaines (George Bailey), Ian Holcomb (Announcer, Superintendent of Angels, Uncle Billy, Harry Bailey, Ernie, Nick, Mr. Carter).

Set Design: James Morgan
Costume Design: Barbara Bell
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Live Sound Design: Zach Williamson
Associate Sound Designer: Walter Tillman
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Assistant Stage Manager: Marian Hyfler
Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations
General Manager: Lisa Fane
Directed by Charlotte Moore

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running time: 75 minutes no intermission

Closes: December 31, 2017

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Downtown Race Riot - A Matter of Perception

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just because one person has an opinion of how they stand in a cultural context, doesn't mean people with different social perspectives share that same opinion. This being one of the messages in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's powerful drama Downtown Race Riot.  The show now being presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Greenwich Village, New York City, 1976. 18 year-old Jimmy "Pnut" Shannon (David Levi), and his best friend Marcel "Massive" Baptiste (Moise Morancy), are hanging out at Pnut's apartment before joining a riot set to begin in nearby Washington Square Park. The area locals (mostly older and Italian) planning to drive out the "undesirable" element (i.e. members of a different racial makeup than their own) that have moved into the neighborhood as of late.

Pnut and his older sister Joyce (Sadie Scott) live with their drug-addicted mother Mary (Chloe Sevigny), whose days are spent watching TV and getting high. Mary is also someone who has learned to game the system. Which is the reason she receives monthly disability checks for her so-called “chronic back pain”. She's also constantly coming up with different get-rich-quick schemes, such as saying Pnut suffered brain damage due to his eating lead-based paint chips when he was younger. Mary's action's being the reason Joyce is planning to leave home and never come back.

Though Mary is unaware of it, Pnut is probably the only reason she's still alive. Her son using a series of neighborhood contacts to keep tabs on his mother during her various drug-fueled episodes. These people doing their best to make sure she gets home safe.

While Pnut is planning on joining the riot because it's expected of him, Massive is chomping at the bit to dive right in. Massive is originally from Haiti and has had more than has share of prejudicial blowback since his arrival in town. Originally settling in Harlem, Massive and his family were often harassed by African-Americas for the way they dressed and talked. They eventually moving downtown to "get away from them".

Treasuring the acceptance he has received from the various elements in his current neighborhood, Massive will do whatever is necessary to keep their respect. However, even in a community, there are some lines you do not cross, such as getting involved with the sister of someone from a different racial background. A fact Pnut learns when two neighborhood toughs (Cristian DeMeo, Daniel Sovich) come by to make sure he bring Massive brings to the riot, where his friend will be taught a very hard lesson to that effect.

Pnut's failure to follow his instructions will result in some very serious consequences. Not only would be branded a traitor and thus become persona non grata to those in the neighborhood, but his mother would loose the protection she has been given and, as such, be at the mercy of anyone who tries to sell her drugs; or take advantage of her when she is unable to defend herself. Pnut then trying to decide whether to do the right thing, as well as figure out just what is the right thing to do?

It's not long before a hard truth emerges. You cannot save someone who doesn't wish to be saved. Massive and Mary being two such examples. Massive is fiercely protective of the status he thinks he has gained, while failing to see that those he counts as allies may not feel the same way. As for Mary, she has no intention of even trying to kick her drug habit, despite the damage it causing to both herself and her family.

In another ironic twist, it is Mary who ultimately realizes the futility of offering someone a lifeline who doesn't want it. Her understanding of this becoming a key point in the show's final moments.

Director Scott Elliott displays a good understanding of the text. Many of the scenes having the feeling of a ticking time bomb, as the audiences waits for the inevitable explosion. One that will reveal which, if any, of the characters will emerge unscathed.

Levi gives a powerful performance as Pnut. A perennially sullen young man, trapped in an unhappy home life, with a deep seated anger that threatens to consume him. Morancy is fine as the stalwart and laid-back Massive. Someone supremely confident in his neighborhood standard, while firmly aware of the responsibilities that come with such status. Scott does well as Joyce. A young woman who wants to get far away from the place she no longer considers home, while realizing she still as deep roots there. DeMeo and Sovich nicely project threatening airs as the two street hoods.

Special mention must be given to Sevingy's excellent performance as Mary. The character turning out to be both a study in contradictions, and the most multi-layered character in the piece. She perfectly willing to use her Joyce and Pnut, and also sleep with whomever necessary, in order to get what she wants. At the same time, she displays a deep intelligence and is fiercely protective of her children. Mary apparently believing that she has the right to take advantage of the two of them, but no one else does.

Derek McLane's set of the Shannon apartment suggest a place well-worn and depressing. The feeling adding to the overall ominous atmosphere of Rosenfeld's work.

Downtown Race Riot presents an intimate and thought provoking examination of people for whom survival is the best they can hope for, provided they can first live through today.

Also in the cast is Josh Pais.

Downtown Race Riot
by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld

Featuring: Christian DeMeo (Tommy-Sick), David Levi (Jimmy "Pnut" Shannon), Moise Morancy (Marcel "Massive" Baptiste), Josh Pais (Bob Gilman), Sadie Scott (Joyce Shannon), Chloe Sevigny (Mary Shannon) Daniel Sovich (Jay 114)

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Yael Lubetzky
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Fight Direction: Unkle Dave's Fights-House
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Properties Supervisor: Matthew Frew
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Iovino
Assistant Director: Marie Masters
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: Stephanie Warren
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, 45 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: December 23, 2017

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Who's Holiday! - One Woman, Starting Again

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

For the record, the Grinch did not pat Cindy Lou Who on the butt during that long ago Christmas Eve, nor was she possibly three years old at the time the two first met. In actuality, she was "no more than two", according to the historical documents which chronicled that initial meeting. Playwright Matthew Lombardo using this encounter from the much-beloved Dr. Seuss children's book "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" as the genesis for his one-person show Who's Holiday!, now at the Westside Theatre.

Little Cindy Lou Who (Lesli Margherita) is now all grown up, on the far side of 40, and somewhat the worse for wear. She lives in a trailer on the side of the Mount Crumpit, not far from her childhood home from which she has long since been exiled. The time is once again the evening of December the 24th, and Cindy Lou Who is eagerly awaiting the guests for the holiday party she has planned. While she waits, she finds herself looking back on her life and the circumstances which have brought her to this moment. Events which include a marriage against her parent's wishes; and one she was ill-prepared for when things started to go wrong. Said union, and its aftereffects, the reason many of those she once knew refuse now to have anything to do with her. Of particular pain to Cindy Lou Who is her continuing estrangement from her daughter, whom she hasn't seen in more than a decade.

At its heart, Who’s Holiday! is a story about second chances and forgiveness. While the underlying circumstances explored here may be rather familiar, the specific participants are certainly unique. Cindy Lou Who fully acknowledging her own responsibility on how her life has turned out, having recently completed a lengthy stretch in jail. She has since returned to as near her home turf as she can and is anxious to pick up the pieces of her life and start anew. The question being if those she still counts as her friends are ready to do the same.

The show takes a few pot shots at bigotry and hypocrisy; while also examining the truism of how one can find the more important friendships in the most unlikeliest of places. A great touch is when, during Cindy Lou Who's time in jail, her cell mate orders that she stop talking in rhyme, Something the former Whoville resident explains she is unable to do. Lombardo also tosses in mentions of other characters from the Dr. Seuss universe. Among them, Yertle the Turtle, Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, the Sneetches, the Lorax, and even the Grinch’s dog, Max.

While there is a charming idea for a story here, Lombardo isn't satisfied with just a gentle morality lesson, the objective, by the way, of pretty much all of the Dr. Seuss children’s stories. During the course of the show, Margherita often ignores the fourth wall, engages members of the audience directly and at times breaks into some decidedly non-Christmassy song and dance routines. There’s also more than a bit of salty language and sexual innuendo present. Yet while these non-Seussian moments are certainly quite enjoyable, they also damage what has come before, particularly the believability of the character Lombardo and Margherita have worked so hard to create.

It was also decided that the character of Cindy Lou-Who would be delivering most of her dialogue in the form of rhyming couplets. However, in order to execute such a creative choice effectively, the cadence of each verse should flow seamlessly into the next. A result which is often not the case here. Not only are there some things that don’t rhyme where they need to (i.e. "table" and "Playbill" or  "brawn" and "gone"), but there are also many times where the required amount of syllables and words in one spoken sentence don't match the next. Nit-picky as this may sound, this misstep continually jerks the audience out of the moment the play is trying to create.

Margherita is nothing short of brilliant as she takes on the role of both a beloved childhood icon and a woman who has had more than her fair share of pain. Her performance ranging from comic to heartbreaking as we come to understand the anguish and loneliness she is feeling. Carl Andress' direction is strong, though he's hampered by the unevenness of the text. Such moments particularly noticeable when the play transitions from one style of dialogue to the next.

David Gallo has done a very nice job with the set, the main portion of which is a rather lived-in trailer which has clearly seen better days. Though the lights and other holiday bric-a-brac that Cindy Lou Who has added doesn't completely dispel the atmosphere of things being not quite right. In keeping with the holiday season, there's snow all around albeit with a rather ominous no trespassing sign nearby.

An interesting yuletide offering, Who’s Holiday! is certainly a lot of fun, while having the potential to be so much more. However Lombardo seems unsure of just what the finished product should be, and as a result, what ends up on stage simply doesn't work as well as it should.

Due to the show's subject matter, no one under 15 years of age will be admitted.

Holiday! A New Comedy with a Twist of Rhyme

Written by Matthew Lombardo

Starring: Lesli Margherita

Scenic Designer: David Gallo
Costume Designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington/Jonathan Spencer
Sound Designer: Bart Fasbender
Wig Designer: Charles G. Lapointe
Production Supervisor: TINC Productions
Production Stage Manager: Jeffry George
Company Manager: Emma McElwee
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations/Shane Marshall brown
General Management: DR Theatrical Management/Kyle Provost
Executive Producer: Adam Hess

Directed by Carl Andress

Westside Theatre (Upstairs)
407 West 43rd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 60 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: December 31, 2017