Monday, April 29, 2019

Nantucket Sleigh Ride - A Few Bumps In The Road

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Barely remembered images from childhood collide with recollections others simply don't want to revisit in John Guare's Nantucket Sleigh Ride. The show offering an interesting take on the idea of a memory play, now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center through May 5.

It's 2010 and Edmund Gowery (John Larroquette) is a Wall Street executive. Someone who, if not a member of the so-called 1%, is certainly in that neighborhood. Yet more than three decades earlier he was an up-and-coming young playwright whose major effort, Internal Structure of Stars, was considered a masterwork. One of those pieces just about everybody back then performed in, tried out for or used as an audition piece at least once. Edmund recalling those days, when he actually does, with nothing more than a sense of tired bemusement. Though it does irk him that he has never been asked to autograph a copy of his work. 

Edmund's well-ordered life is suddenly upended when two figures from his past suddenly appear. Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his sister Lilac (Grace Rex) having tracked Edmund down in an attempt to learn exactly what happened thirty-five years earlier. During a time they were children, living with their mother off the coast of Massachusetts, on the island of Nantucket. The story then flashes back to 1975 when Gowery was a 30-year-old New York playwright basking in his recent artistic notoriety. He is also more than a little full of himself; being either somewhat brusque or downright rude to those he does not know or has no time for. Edmund is also in the midst of a torrid affair with Antonia (Tina Benko). The very beautiful wife of his middle-aged literary agent, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber).

It takes a call from Nantucket police officer Aubrey Coffin (Stacey Sargeant) concerning the subject of child pornography to bring Edmund to Nantucket for the very first time. He having previously purchased a house there. Site unseen, for tax purposes and on Gilbert's advice. A house complete with tenants. Said tenants consisting of Poe, Lilac, their mother Elsie (Clea Alsip) and husband Schuyler (Douglas Sills). Or has the mysterious McPhee (Will Swenson), taken Schuyler's place in Elsie's bed and her heart? This question one Edmund is soon trying to figure out as both men clearly have different perspectives on the issue.

As Edmund attempts to navigate the ins and outs of the above mentioned relationship, he also finds himself somewhat persona non grata on the island for having previously refused an invitation to attend a performance of his play. His actions in this regard sparking a plot of revenge against him. If that weren't enough, Edmund soon finds himself a subject of a possible murder investigation. Coffin not looking to frame Edmund for anything he didn't do, but clearly relishing the possibility of putting him away should the evidence continue to point to him as the guilty party.

As events continue to unfold, the question quickly becomes whose truth matters the most? Is it more important to remember things as they actually occurred, or is it better knowing why they happened the way they did? Especially if one wants to avoid hurting those affected by the events in question. There's also a gentle warning throughout about treating other people with respect. As your actions towards them just might come back to haunt you when you least expect it. Something Edmund learns again and again as he struggle to discern just how much of what he is experiencing is actually real.

By the of the first act, as things continue to go exponentially off the rails for Edmund, the entire play ends up taking on an almost farcical context. Matters taking a sharp turn into Twilight Zone territory, with one having absolutely no idea where things will go after intermission. Or exactly how Guare will be able pull it all together going forward.

Unfortunately more often than not, he doesn't. The pace of the show soon beginning to slow to a crawl with what was shown before never allowed to come full circle. Guare and director Jerry Zaks taking great delight in tantalizing everyone with the idea of numerous possibilities; but without proper closure, one can't help but feel a little cheated by the end result. The work simply too uneven to really allow the audience to connect with the various characters. It also doesn’t go far enough either comedically or dramatically to make a lasting impact.

Larroquette give a fine performance, although perhaps a wig or some other piece of clothing would have worked to make him better appear 35 years younger in the flashback sequences. Playing someone rather befuddled for a good part of the play, it’s a treat to see his character suddenly come alive when he finds inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. While seemingly breaking the confines of time and space in the process. Chanler-Berat and Rex are nicely earnest and deliberately annoying as youngsters living happily in their own world until it's all pulled out from under them. The rest of the cast, several playing multiple roles, are all enjoyable enough. Swenson doing a standout turn as Elsie's possible boyfriend/stalker McPhee.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride – an old whaling term – poses a complex question about the power and fragility of memory, but it lacks the overall spark to make the show offer anything more than a passing interest on the subject.

Featuring: Stacey Sargeant (Secretary/Aubrey Coffin), John Larroquette (Edmund Gowery), Adam Chanler-Berat (Poe), Grace Rex (Lilac), Jordan Gelber (Gilbert), Tina Benko (Antonia/Alice), Douglas Sills (Dr. Harbinger/Schuyler/Walt Disney), Germán Jaramillo (Jorge Luis Borges), Clea Alsip (She/Elise), Will Swenson (McPhee).

Nantucket Sleigh Ride
By John Guare

Sets and Projections: David Gallo
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Original Music and Sound: Mark Bennett
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Casting: Daniel Swee
Dramatrug: Anne Cattaneo
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi

Directed by Jerry Zaks

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center
Address: 150 West 65th Street
Tickets: (212) 501-3201 or /
Running time: 2 Hours, 5 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 5, 2019

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Do You Feel Anger? - The Dangers of Running with the Herd

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Trying to see things from another's point of view can be an admirable trait. But when one sacrifices their own principles in the process, even if they believe it's for the right reasons, tragedy can result. This is the idea at the heart of Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s satire "Do You Feel Anger?", now having its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre.

Sofia (Tiffany Villarin), is a so-called "empathy instructor". Someone companies hire to help their workers better understand the feelings of their customers; and through that process, hopefully develop insights into their own behavior. Sofia’s latest assignment is at a debt collection agency. One which has been the target of multiple lawsuits. At least some of which stem from the employees’ attitudes toward those they contact.

It quickly becomes clear that the company in question is a misogynistic breeding ground for condescension. The employees' overall attitudes being basically that of immature high schoolers, with sexual innuendos and other crude comments the order of the day. Management, as personified by Jon (Greg Keller), being no better. They basically preferring a “hands-off” approach to the entire matter. Sofia's only ally is Eva (Megan Hill), one of the few apparent female members of the company, who offers her several veiled warnings on how to navigate the obstacles she will soon be face.

(L-R) Tiffany Villain, Justin Long and Ugo Chukwu in "Do You Feel Anger?" At the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Rosegg

Initially hitting a brick wall in her attempts to connect with the workers - via a series of visual and verbal exercises - Sofia decides to come at the problem from a different angle. She suddenly seeming to go along with their attitudes. Such as laughing at their obscene jokes and lewd drawings of women. Sofia then using these new-found bonds of familiarity to push her own agenda.

Surprisingly, the men quickly respond to her new approach. This leading to some rather humorous moments as they begin to open up emotionally and try to realize the people on the other end of the phone are often more than simply financial deadbeats.

At the same time Sofia is becoming “one of the boys” so to speak, she is just as quickly alienating Eva. Someone who, until now, has simply gone along with the attitudes of the rest of the office. Now however, thanks to Sofia’s presence, she is beginning to stand up for herself. Sofia’s subsequent actions being seen by Eva as a complete betrayal at a time she needs her support the most.

This viewpoint shift is also visible in the clothes Sofia and Eva wear during the course of the play. When Sofia first arrives at the company, she is wearing a formal suit – only to be told that she should probably wear a dress. Sofia does appear in such attire soon after, with her outfits becoming ever more casual and loose fitting (i.e. a sweatshirt) as time goes on. Eva on the other hand, begins to wear garments that are more professional and austere during the course of the story. She and Sofia moving in opposite directions in terms of attitude and permissiveness. 

(L-R)  Ugo Chukwu, Megan Hill and Justin Lord in "Do You Feel Anger?" At the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Rosegg

Nelson-Greenberg has come up with a fascinating idea here. The work showing, despite how far we think we may have come in terms of equality and basic decency, that we still have so much further to go. The piece also pointing out the importance of standing one’s ground when it comes to these issues, and not simply excusing them for the sake of expediency. No matter what the underlying reason for doing so may be.

While we do get a good picture of the various employees, most of whom are stereotypical caricatures, we never get a clear idea of Sofia is, or what drives her. Without such insight, the audience is unable to see where she's coming from, and thus can't truly understand her. Which is rather ironic, as doing just that is the basis for the work Sofia does. The only thing we do know about Sofia is that her parents have just split up. She apparently either taking her father's side in the conflict, or simply refusing to deal with the matter at all. Though we only know this via a series of one-sided phone calls she receives from her increasingly distraught mother (Jeanne Sakata). Sofia choosing, for whatever reason, not to respond.

Another misstep occurs when, after laying out the basic scenario of the story, the playwright takes things in a completely new direction for the final scenes, pretty much upending everything that has gone before. The show going from a not-so-gentle poke at some serious issues, to a much harsher atmosphere; with no real explanation for the shift. Including the changing attitudes of some of the characters. The last scene in particular, meant to offer a moment of clarity by moving things completely into the metaphysical, feels more like a tacked-on afterthought. One which pretty much falls flat.

The various performers all acquit themselves well. Justin Long stands out with a strong performance as a sexual objectifier, who changes from being from simply offensive to outright threatening at the drop of a hat. Also quite effective is Sakata, who delivers some rather heartfelt monologues as Sofia's Mother as she continually tries to plead her case.

Margot Bordelon’s direction works nicely, but it's stymied by a weak script. Emilio Sosa does an excellent job with the costumes, particularly the different outfits Sofia and Eva wear. Laura Jellinek’s sets are good, with the final scenic effect being especially striking. Marie Yokoyama's lighting design works fine.

Do You Feel Anger? is definitely a show with something important to say, but the final product is too disjointed - logistically and emotionally - to leave a lasting impression.

Featuring: Jeanne Sakata (Sofia's Mother), Tiffany Villarin (Sofia), Megan Hill (Eva), Greg Keller (Jon), Justin Long (Howie), Ugo Chukwu (Jordan), Tom Aulino (Old Man)

Do You Feel Anger?

by Maria Nelson-Greenberg
Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Marie Yokoyama
Original Music& Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan
Wig, Hair& Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Megan Schwartz Dickert
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: Conor McCarthy
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
General Management: DR Theatrical Management

Directed by Margot Bordelon

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tickets: 212-353-0303 or

Running Time: 1 Hour, 35 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: April 27, 2019