According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Girl Detective


Curvy girls to entice, and choreography that's nice; that's what Girl Detective is made of. The metaphysical and mythological splice in this ensemble piece adapted from Kelly Link's short story of the same title. Unfortunately, the show lacks coherence in all other areas with a cast that's too large and a narrative sans focus.
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


Campy is as campy does. With an intro reminiscent of “Police Woman” (1970s show starring Angie Dickinson), karate chops and tumbles inclusive, it it immediately clear that The Girl Detective will be visually stimulating. As it progresses, it doesn't disappoint on that regard. Adapted and directed by Bridgette Dunlap, The Girl Detective has dancing bank robbers, slinky restaurant diners, and overzealous narrators to keep your eyes darting to and fro. However, trying to decipher a theme or message beyond an abstract revamping of the Persephone myth with a sprinkling of mystery and intrigue would require you to work harder than The Guy (a dry Ben Wood) does to stay atop his vantage point (Emily French's creative-looking “tree).

At the center of this presentation is the Girl Detective (Kathryn Ekblad), an admired and desired, flawed and endowed with the “law”, heroine. She is a daughter on the hunt for her mother, eating dreams and unearthing truth along the way. The ensemble lobby facts about her to each other and to the audience, and never deign us with an explanation of purpose. Ekblad, camouflaged in the choreographed sequences, distinguishes herself only when she is allowed to dwell on the emotions associated with losing her mother. She does so well, but simultaneously slows down what seems to be a preset, haphazard pace for the piece.

If anything, the play communicates a very feminist perspective, promoting girl power in its portrayal of women who are independent, fancy-free, and sexy. It demonstrates what transpires with the presence of women, and delineates the dream-scape that occurs without them. With the telling line that “the mothers are usually missing in fairytales”, the very notion that a girl's flights of fancy exist because of the absence of a strong, maternal presence is implied. Or, if you prefer, all mothers are and perhaps should be stolen away into dance, and thereby, validates escapism. Of course, this is merely speculation, as no strong disposition towards either exists. Historical heroines such as Amelia Earhart are name-dropped, and stories about strong women are folded unto stories like streams of birthday cake batter.

Whitney Stock's choreography is fun and imaginative, but executed clumsily by the troupe. They are hopelessly out of sync, and those that repeatedly flub their steps are placed at the outskirts. In character, they struggle to distinguish themselves from each other and nondescript names such as Birthday and Housekeeper are fitting. Ironically, with all the activity developing onstage, the principal players of this piece are behind the scenes, or more apropos, the vignettes. Chris Rummel provides eerie sound effects and a good score. French selects costumes that are easily augmented and stripped away to allow for the fluid and frequent changes.

The Girl Detective appears to be bent on investigating the substance of the dreams of girls. From a world that doesn't necessitate eating to naughty indulgence, it is as much a work of inward expression as it is a work of psychoanalytical regression. Here, girls are free to pirouette and plie through their musings with no lasting consequences. There's something to be said about the allure of that world. But we need more that what's presented here to access it.
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Through March 17th. Connelly Theater220 E. 4th St.New York, NY 10009 Ticket Price: $15 Ticket Information: TheaterMania: 212-352-3101; http://www.theatermania.com

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Girl Detective

This adaptation and staging of The Girl Detective is an admirable effort, but it lacks the illusory stagecraft necessary to get this type of narrative off the ground. The cast is leaking energy from a lack of focus and cohesion, and while the dancing is exciting, it's simply not enough.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

It's a very ambitious thing, to adapt a metafictional short story. What works well on the page in parable, or metaphor, or parallel is hard to translate to stage -- harder still when the work is geared so specifically for the page itself. To go through all that effort to convert a difficult story means that you're bringing passion to the project, and I wish I had nothing but cheery things to say for Bridgette Dunlap's efforts to recreate Kelly Link's short story, The Girl Detective. But while the show begins at a brisk and breezy tempo, filled with omniscient narrators whizzing in and out of scenes and bank-robbing tap dancers stealing the show, the longer the play continues, the harder it is to figure out what exactly the point is. In a story, you have the luxury of rereading a section; on stage, the work has an obligation to be clearer to its audience -- at least, it should be, if your goal is to entertain.

Here's the kicker: despite the complicated layers of the show, the story has a lyricism that does carry over well into the theater, and the plot--adapted originally from Grimm's Fairy Tales (story 133 - "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces") and merged with the idea of Persephone's Underworld by Link--has a mystical beauty to it. The jazz dancing brings Chicago to mind (albeit an amateur version: the actors haven't perfected Whitney Stock's choreography yet), and the secretive journeys across rivers to hidden dance-halls is very Prohibition-era. Even when you're completely at a loss, the catchy lines ("Only heroes and girl detectives go to the Underworld on purpose") and the catchy dances keep you tuned in.

I'm not a fan of the play's resolution, and I find the ambiguity of many of the scenes to be what some might call a "negative choice" in the theater. The work is very intellectual, which means that there aren't clear actions in the scenes, and as a result, the already inexperienced cast ends up speaking most of the lines, rather than acting them. Many deliveries are either too much over the top, or underplayed, and the only person who really shines is Kathryn Ekblad, who plays the Girl Detective. At its heart, the show is a play about a girl looking for her mother; it's very telling that all the bells and whistles fade away when the Girl Detective at last gets the opportunity to rhapsodize about her missing parent. Her counterpart, Guy (solidly but blandly played by Ben Wood), is stuck narrating from afar (a tree, actually), and what he needs is never clear, unless what he's after is indifference.

I respect the director's desire to adapt The Girl Detective, but she doesn't have the budget to be as dreamlike or visual as the piece requires (the opening montage makes the work seem campy, not surreal). Until she finds a way to make the drama more theatrical (and better synchronizes the cast), this show is a mystery that cannot be solved.

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The Connelly Theater (200 East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00
Performances: Thursday-Sunday @ 8:00

Monday, February 26, 2007

Journey's End

A World War I period piece focussed on the British defense of a doomed bunker, Journey's End is an honest account of war: the importance of camaraderie, the mind-numbing necessity of alcohol, and the ever-present fear. For all the lack of wartime action onstage, the direction and technical work that's gone into this production makes me see light in the future of Broadway revivals; it's must-see theater.

Photo: Paul Kolnik

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

When R.C. Sherriff wrote Journey's End in 1928, he meant for it to be an honest, celebratory depiction of what he and his comrades went through, fighting for Britain in World War I. Regardless of how we much of an anti-war play it comes across as now (and it's impossible not to see the futility of war in this drama, set in an underground bunker over the course of four, terse 1918 days), the fact that Sherriff wrote the play with such open-minded wit makes it that much stronger as a stunning theatrical work. The simple truth of real, fleshed out characters--not the overdone proselytizing of The Vertical Hour or other "modern" pieces of propaganda--camaraderie does more to evoke emotions than intellectual discussions of such important matters.

Films like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO limited series, Band of Brothers, knew this and were the stronger for it, crafting silent scenes that spoke as much as the action. Journey's End, which is live and on a Broadway stage, can't do the same special effects, so instead the play focuses simply on the characters, with the war taking place just a few feet aboveground, an ominous presence brought to life by Gregory Clarke's spectacular sound effects. As for the bunker (designed by Jonathan Fensom), it's a dank, rat-infested mess, barely lit by candles (kudos to Jason Taylor's dim lighting), and the cramped quarters--wooden walls and poles pressing in from all sides--exacerbate the tension of the piece.

I've spent so much time establishing place (before even mentioning the excellent ensemble or the dashing director) because the world itself of this play is as much a character as anyone else, and because things like that too often go overlooked. But they're important to note; one of the reasons Journey's End is such a great play is that the pieces all work together--even the curtain call is gloriously rigged to continue the emotional toll of the show, and I'm glad that a director (David Grindley) finally had the balls to carry the reality of the theater past the threshold of the curtain. Within the show itself, he manages to carry more tension on a bare stage (the characters are all presumed to be fighting in the trenches) than many directors accomplish in their whole careers. One pivotal scene, filled with heartbreaking subtext, involves the fifteen minutes of preparation before what is essentially a suicide mission: the two officers deliberately keep switching the topic in order to clear their minds of their impending deaths (it's no surprise that another officer cracks) and their casual conversation about the English countryside is painfully oblique.

What I like most about the play's execution is that Sherriff's characters avoid the all-too-easy trap of stereotype. Though there are comic characters, like the rotund and mustached Trotter (John Ahlin), they are not just so. In Trotter's case, he is just a man coping with the constant pressure as best he can: "War is bad enough already, but war without pepper--it's bloody awful." In the case of our whiskey-addled protagonist, Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), it takes a bottle to keep the demons at bay, and his wizened, gentle second-in-command, Osborne (Boyd Gaines) to keep him sane (and to tuck him in at night). Our heroes are the characters like Raleigh (Stark Sands), a newly minted officer who is perfect for leading nighttime raids through mortar-ripped holes in the enemy lines on account of his naivety about suicide. In this case, Raleigh also doubles as a connection to Stanhope's former life, which bolsters the awful truth that men must reinvent themselves in war: in order to survive, they must kill who they once were.

Journey's End, whether Sherriff meant it or not, makes for a relevant revival (at last!) on the Broadway stage, and is a far tighter production than last year's Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (perhaps because the play enlists theater veterans rather than television plebes). It's gripping, and utterly immersing: to the usher who recommended I bring a handkerchief: you were right.

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Belasco Theater (111 West 44th Street)

Tickets (212-239-6200): $36.25-96.25

Performances: Tuesday-Saturday @ 8; Wednesday & Saturday @ 2; Sunday @ 3

Sunday, February 25, 2007

BFF

Should we hold ourselves accountable for bad decisions we made when we were too young to understand the consequences? Featuring two solid performances in a play that toes the line between true-to-life and cliché, Anna Ziegler’s BFF, WET’s latest production, examines how a close friendship between two teenaged girls becomes the lynchpin in both their lives.


photo by Max Ruby
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Reviewed by Ilena George
BFF tells two stories in parallel: the budding romance between the mysterious Lauren (Sasha Eden) and Seth (Jeremy Webb), is set against Lauren’s recollections of Eliza (Laura Heisler), her best friend from childhood, and the tragic and inexorable arc of the girls’ friendship. When Seth and Lauren first meet, Lauren introduces herself as Eliza, and from that moment Eliza’s fate is sealed. In flashbacks, we see Eliza’s slow, irrevocable downward spiral, contrasted with Lauren and Seth’s relationship taking flight, faltering, and ultimately recovering. Despite the play’s true-to-life qualities, the predictable outcome feels more tedious than satisfying.

Winning performances by Webb and Heisler distract from the story’s shortcomings. Webb’s Seth—who introduces himself by saying “I’m a banker. I mean, I work in a bank.”—has more than a few neuroses and an acute case of logorrhea but Webb charms rather than annoys. Heisler’s awkward Eliza, who is trying to grow up at her own pace, elicits strong sympathy for being unapologetically herself and paying the ultimate price for it. Witnessing the raw emotion that literally spills out of Heisler in the final scene of BFF is the most affecting moment in the play.

The play’s weakness lies in its foundation: the main character, Lauren (Sasha Eden), trying to fit in with the popular girls as a teenager and trying to find self-definition of any kind as an adult, lacks the vibrancy of the loudly vulnerable characters around her. The role itself is somewhat thankless; Lauren desires are those of the clichéd teenaged high school girl and her dialogue matches them. But Eden doesn’t make us like Lauren, or even love to hate her. She is in every scene but is the least fleshed-out of all the characters.

The set and music consistently work in concert to weave between the past and the present. The simple but effective music between scenes evokes nostalgia. Cleverly using projections and short videos as part of the set, the production makes the most of DR2’s relatively small space, bringing us to Lauren’s girlhood bedroom in the ‘80s, to a modern-day Manhattan coffee shop, to the side of a pool and beyond with a minimum of scene-changing acrobatics. This is an easy play to relate to: We are these characters or, at the very least, have known them. All three silently cry out to each other for help and are met with either silence or misunderstanding; a tragedy that only the audience fully witnesses and aches for.

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BFF by Anna Ziegler
directed by Josh Hecht
A WET Production (Women's Expressive Theater)
DR2 (103 E. 15th Street)
February 17th-March 24th
Mondays through Saturdays at 8pm
Tickets (www.wetweb.com, 212.239.6200): $25-$35

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale, babies turn to pigs, rabbits carry pocket watches, and teatime reigns eternal – but how do you put it all onstage? And what will you tell the children? The Ateh Theater Group puts down the book, picks up the Wonderland, and gives our kids all the nonsense they can handle, and then some.



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Reviewed by Cait Weiss


“Everything has a moral if only you can find it.”

So says the pig-rearing Duchess in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, adapted and directed by Bridgette Dunlap at the Connelly Theater.

However, if you’re looking for a strong dose of fable morality for your own little one, well, you’d best peer down a different rabbit hole. The Ateh Theater’s current production is full of semantic loopholes, realized paradoxes and, in the true Carroll fashion, gobbelty-goops of jibjab-ery – or, to put it plainly, a lot of word games.

The big dilemma facing Ateh’s production is this: how can a play all about the vagaries of language appeal to the under-ten crowd? How can you translate the jokes, when translation itself is the joke? Even Disney, for goodness’ sake, gave us a hookah-smoking caterpillar when presented with the Wonderland Dilemma. So what’s a smart, ambitious, youth-oriented theater company like Ateh to do?

Make it visual.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland owes a large part of its appeal to its crew – Kathryn Ekblad as the fight choreographer, Amy Van Mullekon as the costume designer, Emily French as the set designer, and, of course, Bridgette Dunlap as director – through their astonishing visual illusions and conceits, the plays is transformed from “Words, words, words” into a veritable Wonderland for the five-year-old viewer.

Before watching this production, I never realized what a poor candidate Carroll’s Alice was for the theater – not only is the story almost all words and no action, the little bits of action we do get are practically impossible to stage. Take, for example, Alice’s most common stage direction – "grows" and "shrinks." It takes a fearless director to choose a play that not only features a character literally three-inches tall, but then stretches that same character a mile high, sticks her inside a house and proceeds to light her on fire. Really, nothing quite says children’s theater like an oversized living pyre.

Dunlap, however, is deft in her direction, and she uses elaborate dance choreography and low-cost, high-imagination staging to imply, if not actualize, all the weirdness of this Wonderland. Alice shrinks by shifting from a squat to tip-toes while the chorus of characters around her slowly crouches to the ground – contrary to my description, the overall effect is not that of an awkward gym class, but of Alice actually growing. From the audience, you sense her expanding as the world around her shrinks, and the simplest staging accomplishes the most impossible of tricks.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland also uses props to great effect, most notably by having Alice stand on a chair and release a scroll of paper, covered with a sketch of her elongated body – the drawing fades in with the actress’ face and, if we squint our eyes and suspend our disbelief for a second, we can actually start to see Alice transformed into a serpent.

As cool as these staging devices are (and believe me, they really are cool), Ateh’s production falls short. The acting, even for children’s theater, is rough – Alice, played by Kathryn Ekblad, enters in a hurried frenzy of shouting that never lets up. Ekblad doesn’t allow her Alice any emotional transformation, even as she physically grows and shrinks; as a result, the play ends up as a one-note adventure. However, there is a bright side: Sara Montgomery, as the Duchess, and Elizabeth Neptune, as the Cook and Card, both give hilarious performances full of humor and unexpected quirks, enjoyed as much by the adults as by the kids in the audience.

Unfortunately, despite the show’s visual detail and high energy level, the children in the audience were not nearly as captivated as one would hope. While the show kept its adult audience reasonably well-entertained, Ateh would have to greatly increase the sight gags and go mum on all the fancy talk to win over younger viewers.

More than half of the kids I saw looked like they were enjoying show, but that still left more than a couple restless rugrats rustling around. The little girl seated next to me, in particular, was not a fan and, by the time we started the croquet match, she had flung herself to the floor in a temper tantrum screaming, “I want to go out of the show now!”

As the March Hare instructs Alice: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” Those words might very well be the real moral behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And, from what I saw happening in the seat to my left, this little one certainly had learned her Lewis Carroll lesson.

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Conelly Theater (220 E. 4th Street)
Tickets (www.theatermania.com, 212.352.3101): $15
Performances: February 23rd through March 17th, Saturdays and Sundays at 12pm

BFF

Two tragic stories, interlocked around one traumatized girl, deliver a realistic drama, and a good view at how maturation can go horribly wrong. Much of BFF is telegraphed by the choice to jump between past and present, but it's still engaging to watch, mostly because it's so understandable.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

How lightly do you take friendship? BFF looks at the dark side of what it means to be Best Friends Forever, and while the show is a bit predictable in its twists, playwright Anna Ziegler's momentum is exciting. The show jumps back and forth between a once idyllic childhood of poolside chats and slumber parties and the grownup "equivalent" of dates in the park and bedside romance. It's nice to see what gets lost as we get older, even if there is a more sinister tenor to Ziegler's script.

The cast performs well, and each has a moment to shine, but the script is littered with a bunch of somewhat repetitious scenes. Even though takes place without an intermission, it seems like there's still plenty of room to cut; that, or there needs to be more of a change of pace in the scenes themselves. Scenes like the one pictured, where the past bleeds through the set's aquarium windows into the present, are few and far between, and it looks like director Josh Hecht just wasn't given enough raw material to keep vivid. Aside from his one poor budgetary decision to cast a multimedia "scene" against the frames of the set (which gives a cartoonish feel to the straight show), Hecht does an otherwise fantastic job of transporting us through their world.

BFF isn't an epic drama, which you probably guessed from the somewhat mocking title, but it does occasionally come across as being too light for its own good. Yes, the show is set in the real world, and yes, we've all had similar experiences, but I sometimes get the sense that the characters are knowingly parodying their situation instead of living it truthfully. Given the performances, especially that of Laura Heisler, who brings more levels to her clingy and immature character than Sasha Eden's occasionally one-sided stoniness, I have a feeling that the minor flaws rest in the script's tone.

This show won't change your life, but it will entertain you, and if you're in the mood for something light yet serious, BFF packs a lot of relationship woes into 90 minutes.

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DR2 Theater (103 East 15th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $25-35

Performances: Monday - Saturday @ 8:00

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sweet Bird Of Youth

Growing old is hard to do in the T. Schreiber Studio's production of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth."




Review by Ellen Wernecke

One of my high school English teachers used to tell us there are only two plots in literature, "a man goes on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town." The protagonist of "Sweet Bird of Youth," Tennessee Williams' play now up at the T. Schreiber Studio, is driving both of those plots, but what he wants is only part of the picture in this opus on delayed gratification and moth-eaten desire.

Chance Wayne (Eric Watson Williams), one-time would-be actor, is both the man going and the stranger coming as the play opens. In high school, he ran with the town's teenaged in-crowd because of his good looks and his A-list girlfriend, Heavenly Finley (Shelley Virginia). Since then -- and we're never told exactly how long, exactly, he's been away -- things have been downhill for the kid who would be in pictures: Still not a star, he's settled for being a pair of hips for hire, currently tagging along with the past-her-prime actress Alexandra de Lago (Joanna Bayless), who insists on being called the Princess, en route to no particular place.

So Chance has steered the Princess back to his hometown of St. Cloud, Mississippi, and explains to her more or less that he's come to take Heavenly away, even though he couldn't be bothered to stop in for his mother's funeral a few weeks earlier. If he had stopped in, he might have found out that her father, politician Boss Finley (David Donahoe) has it in for him because on his last visit he gave Heavenly something contagious to remember him by, and now she flits about the family home like a ghost.

There's the anvil hanging over Chance Wayne's head, and he spends most of "Sweet Bird Of Youth" unaware of its presence. What he does recognize, though, and where the Princess has him beat, is the passage of time that is stealing away that which made him special. (In this sense, maybe Williams is a little too good looking for the role -- you can't see anything decaying around his edges.) The Princess might be able to explain to him what comes after beauty fades, but she's got her own baggage and her hashish habit to obscure her own sight. In her dreamy, noodly speeches, Bayless takes a character that could have been a caricature -- Norma Desmond, anyone? -- and makes her the only pure-hearted one in the bunch. After all, Heavenly's a victim who let her anger pickle her, and lets herself be used as a prop in the Boss's campaigns as a symbol of white frailty in the South, and the Boss's black mistress (Andrea Jackson) can't decide whether she can live with herself or not.

Chance isn't a classic cad with a tortured heart, but a deluded soul who thinks he can stall Time's chariot long enough to snatch his old girlfriend away. "All my vices I caught from other people," he declares early on without a hint of mea culpa. Williams loves delusion in all its forms, but he seeks it out in young men -- think of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"'s Brick, wedged between his two selves and resisting entreaties from either side. "I'm forgetting, I'm forgetting," mutters the Princess in the first act; but Chance can't, even as the walls of St. Cloud close in around him.


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"Sweet Bird of Youth"
Now Playing at the T. Schreiber Studio/ Gloria Maddox Theatre, 151 W. 26th St.
Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays at 3pm
Tickets: $20, Theatermania.com

BFF

With its versatile set, smart staging, and intricate plot, BFF could easily be loved for its mind – however, when all’s said and done, this darker-than-expected show shoots straight for the heart. Be warned, though: it’s got good aim.



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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

Any drama student worth his or her weight in tragedies knows about catharsis – but for wandering Econ majors, let me explain: catharsis, introduced to the world’s consciousness by Aristotle’s Poetics, is the process of living out emotions (the worse the better) through watching the show. It’s sort of empathy on steroids, and, in theory, you emerge from the theater cleansed, renewed – almost like confession, sans first-hand sin or holy closet. Sounds pretty nice, right?

Well if Aristotle cooked up this little nugget of Grecian therapy, Anna Ziegler’s extraordinarily moving (though very female-oriented) WET-produced show, BFF, serves it with a wallop. Directed by the nimble and nuanced Josh Hecht, the play consists of two alternating plotlines – the first focuses on the friendship between two eleven-year-old girls, Eliza and Lauren. Eliza, played by Laura Heisler, is awesomely awkward – while in the retelling, her character sounds like a compilation of clichés (I could easily describe her as a “late bloomer” with “a heart of gold” who “dances to the beat of her own drum”), in these childhood scenes, Heisler gives Eliza’s growing pains an authenticity that made me laugh and cringe at my own adolescence all at once.

While Lauren, played by Sasha Eden, brags about training bras and chooses a dress for the school dance, Eliza gobbles cheetos, dances on furniture and hides herself in overalls. Eden’s 11-year-old Lauren isn’t nearly as cathartic a character – Lauren get a boyfriend, Lauren loves cool music, Lauren had sex when she was 12 (perhaps I got the timeline here confused or am just a repressed Republican, but isn’t that a bit young for the suburbs?). Ziegler’s play is economical in its construction – able to convey a great deal (and wound even more) in tiny vignette scenes. However, she falters the most when writing for the young girls, especially at the plays beginning, and while Heisler overcomes the stilted dialogue by being a sympathetic super-freak, Eden is forced to wistfully recite overly-conscious lines about the process of growing up. Kids don’t talk about how sad it is to grow up – childhood is the most beautiful in hindsight, and kids aren’t exactly sentimental fools.

Despite these small scenes in BFF’s first childhood-centered scenes, Ziegler’s playwriting soon finds its voice and the kids are left to be kids – catty, conniving, codependent – isn’t childhood a ball? Soon a second storyline develops alongside Lauren and Eliza’s middle school adventures, and we’re faced with Lauren again, this time much older and, with the most telling use of a single stage prop I’ve seen all year, obsessed with yoga. That one flat blue mat says everything we need to know – Lauren is trying desperately to find peace. Now, the question becomes, from what?

Of course, the play soon reveals that Lauren is haunted by her friendship with Eliza, and where it all went very, very wrong. Instead of simply letting us watch that downer of a plot, though, Zeigler makes the brilliant choice of giving us a foil – within the first minute of Lauren’s adult scene, we meet Seth, played by Jeremy Webb. If I could marry any character I have ever seen on stage, and have one million of his babies, this is it. Seth is everything most women I know would want in a man – thank you Zeigler; that is one hell of a catharsis. Webb’s Seth invests himself in Lauren and soon the two are dating. Then not dating. Then dating. Eden comes into her own in these scenes (as well as in the second half of the childhood vignettes), emphasizing how Lauren copes, not how she is wounded, making her character complex, personable, and, as catharsis goes, quite easy to sympathize with.

BFF, both a finalist for the 2005 Weissberger Award and the 2006 O’Neill Playwright’s Conference, touches on a long of subjects most women I know have experienced – in fact, the play’s MySpace page (yes, it really does have a MySpace page) invites viewers to share their own best friend stories. However, I took a guy friend with me to the show, and, though he admitted he thought he was going to die in a sea of estrogen during the first five minutes, by the time the actors took their bows, he, too, was won over. This isn’t a chick show – but it may be a chick catharsis. I left the theater, not cleared and cleansed as Aristotle promised, but completely rapt in my own memories of childhood, the best friend I lost, and the relationships that haven’t worked out. But whether or not the show made me feel purged pure, the show made me feel – which is far more than I can say of most productions I’ve seen. And unlike my adolescence, if given the chance, I might even go back and do it again.

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Playing at the DR2 (103 E. 15th Street)
Tickets (www.wetweb.com, 212.239.6200): $25-$35
Performances: February 17th through March 24th, Mondays through Saturdays at 8pm

The Fantasticks


With teenage rebellion and naivete as accessories, two meddling but well-meaning fathers bait their kids into a marriage, but they're not the only ones on the hook. Though the world's longest running musical is revived at the Snapple Theater Center with gusto, nostalgia dangles prettier than any other element that this production has to offer.
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

You know the story. Spirited boy meets comely female neighbor. Comely female neighbor falls for spirited boy. All is hunky dory between them, except for one thing: Their fathers hate each other. Can you remember how The Fantasticks made you feel the very first time? Perhaps you were a flower child or a baby boomer when you first experienced the starry-eyed, pristine love between the youngsters named Matt and Luisa. Can you taste the whimsy? If you can, then you're primed to revisit and enjoy Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's legendary musical.

Cynics, this one's not for you. Originally staged at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in 1960, the gush and mush that gave this show its longevity are not sparse for its return to off-broadway. This production runs on fantasy juice, and demands at least a sampling of your hopes and a portion of your heart to keep you from running. Not that you can't be otherwise engaged. There is enough talent here, exhibited by Burke Moses as El Gallo (or the cock in Italian and Spanish) and Sara Jean Ford as Luisa to keep you seated. Moses has great comedic timing, both in facial tics and body, to deliver a charming narrator. His crowing easily steals the show. 25-year old songbird Ford has a mellifluous voice that pierces the soul, but even giving in to her vibrato requires a degree of optimism.

Also impressive are substitute players John Deyle as Matt's (a forgettable Douglas Ullman, Jr.) father Hucklebee and Tom Flagg as Henry, the Old Actor. Deyle plays his role to the hilt and seems to genuinely be enjoying himself, even if he appears a tad tired. Flagg, short in stature but not in craft, is the straight man to Robert R. Oliver's outrageous, Tim-Conway-esque Mortimer (The Man Who Dies).

The reputation of this musical preceded it, and I was more than happy to see what many have heralded as timeless. Unfortunately, despite good performances and good renditions of old, popular favorites such as "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain", I am hard-pressed to discern what exactly has made this show endure. The quality of the writing itself is satisfactory, but the overall sensation derived from this show is not "fantastic." It is adequate in its presentation of lasting love, but with the exception of a few El Gallo show tricks, is devoid of wow factor. If you can divorce your mind from 2007 and all that it entails, perhaps you may find this show more compelling, but I'm a little harder to get. They'll have to pull out more stops to sway me. Yet, since several in the current cast are Fantasticks' veterans, there may be more to this "world-renown" stuff than I can appreciate.
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Now playing at the Snapple Theater Center: Duffy Theater, 1627 Broadway, New York, NY, 212.246.3828 For tickets: 212-307-7171

Elephant Girls


Part of the Triple Threat Series at Emerging Artists Theatre

Restless,discontent and Republican, Jersey housewives hurl the spotlight on the Afghani elephant in the room during a Kozy Kitchen party that brings out the truth in everyone's characters. Saturated with off-color humor and middle-eastern ignorance, Elephant Girls illuminates US commercialism and excess with cartoonish tactics and garishly far-fetched results.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


Riddled with elephantine symbolism, the sardonic perspective on the US' foreign politics and domestic obtuseness is hardly elusive in Carl Gonzalez' Elephant Girls. From its inception, Elephant Girls lobs us over the head with sentiments that don't pardon the pun, and drill into our heads that the religion, politics, and creeds of the characters are ponderous in size and influence. Nary a second to appraise the dialogue, behavior and general mood of the piece, we are assaulted with a rather strong disposition: this ain't a garden-variety, politically correct drama. Though jolting and downright repugnant, this near-campy production succeeds in making us squirm in our seats. And perhaps that is exactly the type of unrest that some of us need.

Set in a quaint, comfortable living room, the cosiness of this theatrical experience stops with the backdrop. Enter Beth (a cantankerous, impassioned Amy Bizjak), the bullhorn of glib opinions. Gonzalez has depicted her as both the comic relief and the villain, dependant upon your sensitivities. She begins the drama heavily engrossed in an urban video game. You'll have to suspend your disbelief of a 30-something housewife playing this game and talking the talk, if only to understand Gonzalez' inflated point about "ghetto entertainment."Her banter with Claire(an even Glory Gallo), her more appeasing and apologetic sister, over the violent and cliched points of the game sets the tone for what unfolds as an exaggerated, bigoted performance. But she's not the only close-minded one, merely the most vocal.

Beth is even tasteless enough to direct her ethnic slurs towards Jasmine (a natural Gameela Wright), friend and sole African-American presence. Jasmine's inclusion in the drama seems odd and unjustified in light of the intolerance, but when she chimes in with her own narrow-minded viewpoints, her race fades in importance as does her pride. Although Beth's slurs are lighthearted and seemingly in jest, I wonder why it takes several jabs for Jasmine to react. Frances (a likable Vivian Meisner), mother to Claire and Beth, is the senior, verbally least offensive character of the piece. With varying degrees of intolerance, these women all like to think of themselves as Elephant Girls (likened in one instance to John Merrick as the Elephant Man), basically good on the inside, but monstrous on the outside. Yet, their hideousness is only demonstrated, never uttered, relieving them of any kind of responsibility. That their environment is passively identified as the source for their ugly behavior is trite when made in comparison to the aging of an Afghani girl in a portrait.

Using a reprint of National Geographic's famous cover photo The Afghan girl from 1982, the ladies speculate over the subject of Casey's (Claire's never to be seen daughter) school paper with condescension and false sympathy. The action revs up when their proclaimed Afghani "dartboard" is made flesh by the unexpected arrival of Casey's math tutor Robina to the party. We soon learn from Vicki (a vibrant and whirlwind Lue McWilliams), the tardy Kozy Kitchen product peddler, that a water main has broken, obstructing the roads and Robina's departure.

Robina, gracious and full of integrity, is the antithesis of everyone else. Replete with American trivia and history, she shames them during the party games and upsets their ideas of privilege. As Robina, Sarah Miriam Aziz is modest in her superiority. Every inflection of her invoice is filled with composure, curiosity and benevolence. Robina could have easily been on the offensive, biting back in response to the barrage of insults. She chooses to educate them instead, and does so with poise. As a symbol, she validates the Afghani population in the US as patriots and survivors of what the five housewives couldn't even begin to contemplate. Her resilience to tell the truth is admirable, and is a stark contrast and stab at the Bush administration's dissemination of information on the War in Iraq and other foreign involvement in middle-eastern countries. The playwright is, however, remiss in not including Casey as a character in the play. She is the primary factor in both plot and subplot, and should have been represented as the malleable, innocent child implied. Her physical presence would have made the moral conundrums in the drama even more daunting, as that is one of the major points of concentration.

With trumped up paranoia and hatred, Elephant Girls awakens even the most latent of our prejudices. Using the microcosm of a New Jersey household, it is easy to apply them to the broader scope of the American vote. What is not so easy is the elimination of ingrained attitudes and notions. With those in harness, they may be just as ominous as the potential for someone to "jihad us all."
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Through March 4th. Theatre 5 311 West 43rd Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-352-3101 Info: 212-247-2429

The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The

Love it or hate it, The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The is a weird, but talented, work of theater. Renaldo The is a hodgepodge of characters, but winds up being nothing more than a showcase for Aldo Perez's skill as an actor. There's very little to attach to in this disconnected work, but at the same time, there's something thrilling in the absurd.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Seeing a show like The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The makes me glad, for the first time, to be a blogger. This is the type of show that I'd rather discuss casually than sit down and ponderously review. It's too experimental a work to pin down to one genre, or to classify neatly for a studious audience: it is a surreal mockery of seriousness that can be as entertaining one moment as it is frustratingly obtuse the next. And it's not for everyone: art rock mixes with vaudeville, and silent film flows giddily into live pantomime. The end result is a show so different from everything else, but so true to itself that it blurs the line between good and just being quirky.

The 3 Legged Dog performing space promises a blend of multimedia and theater, and it's nice to have a group that dedicated to the possibilities of the future. But it's actually the multimedia that holds The Cruse of the Mystic Renaldo The back. Once the scrim collapsed and the live show began, with its eccentric mix of prerecorded footage, I found myself actually enjoying the sheer forcefulness of Aldo Perez's character (and there's no doubt he's a talented comic actor). But at the same time, the constant shifts from scene to scene left me feeling disconnected from the center of the work: we see so many layers to Renaldo The that we never see the character himself, just the template of the sketch that Perez has created.

At one point, Perez throws out the phrase tableau vivant, or "living picture," and that's an apt description of his show. You should know, though, that the artists they've modeled themselves after are the tortured ones, like Van Gogh, and the surrealists (like Escher and Dali) who contribute not only to the convoluted scenes but to Paul DiPietro's brilliant set, a dilapidated miniature world like something from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Perez's cohorts add much to this world too: Richard Ginocchio, who plays Renaldo The's silent valet, has one of the most pained stares in the world (though he can't always keep a straight face), and Jenny Lee Mitchell (who plays the sexy maid), has one of the best ranges that I've seen on the New York stage.

I can't say that this is a great show or not; I squirmed as much from discomfort as in delight. But I was moved by The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The, and I was impressed by the determination of the actors to maintain such an eccentric facade. Thing is, weird as Renaldo The may be, there are plenty of crazy characters just like him lurking around the cabarets, and if you're going to see a show dedicated to them, you'd better be sure you like their act first.

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3 Legged Dog (80 Greenwich Street)
Tickets (212-645-0374): $20.00
Performances: Thursday & Friday @ 6:30/9:00 | Saturday @ 9:00

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Neglect

A stunning performance from two actors who are utterly in sync, Neglect is a harsh look at the choices we find ourselves making when our backs are to the wall. Stuck in the ghetto, sweating in a heatwave, one young man in fear for his life comes face to face with his breaking point in a sweltering confrontation with the old woman he is robbing.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Not much has changed since I first covered Neglect last October. What few tweaks there are, are almost all for the better. Playwright Sharyn Rothstein has made her already compact work even tighter by strengthening the parallels between the polite young schemer, Joseph, and the pushy, self-centered matriarch, Rose Anne Hayes. Director Catherine Ward has succeeded in focusing our attention on the "safety" of one's home by cutting away the outer world (in the original production, the hallway was visible), and making the space even smaller. Although the final minutes of Neglect still seem a bit forced, they've increased the stakes by removing a gun (which cheapened Joseph's sincerity and remorse) and revising the fight choreography to more resemble the height of pathos rather than violence bordering on absurdity. In other words, Neglect is as well-worth seeing now as it was last year: it is a brilliant slice of racial relations, social struggle, and the plight of the poor.

The play is a natural tale of depression, but without the bogging politicizing of other social writers; as a result, Neglect seems more immediate and pressing than similar works like Raisin in the Sun. There's only one scene, cramped into a small inner-city slum apartment during a Chicago heatwave, and the show is only an hour long. More than enough time for a talented young playwright like Rothstein to paint a vivid picture: you can even see the sharp edges of the facade melting in the unrelenting heat and pressure of the show. While the characters may start with nothing -- lumps of coal, really -- by the end of the show, they've developed, at least for the audience, into diamonds in the rough.

The greatest asset of Neglect, however, is its talented performers: William Jackson Harper and Geany Masai. Their reprisal is so perfect that it's hard to image any other actors ever playing these parts. Geany Masai is a full-bodied woman and she's got the full-bodied voice to go with it, from the deep commands and questions of a stern woman, to the clucking uh-huhs of a rumormonger and storyteller, all the way to the high-pitched squeals of a delighted little girl (despite her age). She moves with a heaviness I wouldn't wish upon anyone, rocking several times in her seat before getting the momentum to stand, only to shrivel up with suspicion and fear. As for Harper, you can see his mind constantly in action: his role is like that of an urban Hamlet, a gentle intellectual who is forced by circumstance to do something he does not wish to do. It also gives him a real arc, going from a patient, smiling worker to an anxious, scowling thief. His performance is instantly accessible and his choices are neatly motivated and driven completely by his interactions with Masai: the two are completely in sync.

Neglect is impressive not just for its actors, direction, or smart writing, but for the poignancy of the piece. My heart goes out to these characters and their situation, and I think the newly staged end of this play is an absolutely perfect statement of our isolated states of America: togetherness found in loneliness.

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Ensemble Studio Theater (549 West 52nd Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances: Wednesday & Saturday @ 7:00

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cycle

Here's an innovative cure for depression -- hire vaudevillian guardian angels. They'll keep you entertained with a wide range of caricatures, and they'll amuse you with a tincture of humor that's one part truth and one part joke. Rose Courtney's Cycle may not be high theater, but you'll certainly leave the theater feeling mighty high.

Photo Courtesy/Martine Malle

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Once we get past the premise and the wheels start turning, Cycle is a luscious, enjoyable show. Using the hodgepodge of theatrical devices present in vaudeville, we get a play that staves off depression with everything from one-liners to tap dance, accompaniment on the violin as well as the accordion, not to mention a bevvy of accents, characters, and exuberant performances from a magnificent ensemble cast. (Special notice for the standout performances of Sarah Hund and J.T. Arbogast, two wonderfully delicious hams without a dead moment between them.) Occasionally, the plot seems like a shallow excuse to showcase another scene bursting at the seam with outsized humor, but it's overflowing with good cheer, and as with Jell-o, there's always room for more laughs.

The story revolves around a group of god-like performers who have, as of late, faded into obscurity. They drop their juggling balls, they hit their steps out of sync, and their troupe is forever showing up late for their shows. To change that, their leader, Morris, has gambled their entire existence on one final performance: a last-ditch intervention in the life of Charlotte Shrubsole, a bland and depressed young woman on the verge of ending her life. Their plan is to play a wide variety of characters, each of whom will help lead Charlotte closer toward finding The Secret of Success. It's complicated for the first twenty minutes, but director Craig Carlisle cleans things up by the tme Charlotte first gets on her shiny red bike, and the rest of the 90-minute show leaps from character to character, joke to joke.

In her whirligig day, Charlotte travels the show-business circuit, along with all the usual stereotypes of the field. In vaudeville, the cliche is transformed into a bigger and better joke, and so the self-obssessed agent, the blank mobs of auditioners and producers, the yoga-like singing instructor, a photographer who likes to growl and use handcuffs . . . it's all good fun. For anyone who's ever taken a voice class, the scene with the acting coach may be the only part of the show that's a little too realistic: "Become the chicken--that is, let the chicken become you."

The pantomime never tires, and the actors never seem to flag. Rose Courtney's script finds its way to a bittersweet ending, and while we never learn the one true secret of success, the show is a success on its own fanciful merits.

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The Studio @ Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street)

Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00

Performances: Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:00; Saturday @ 2:00

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cycle

Photo by Martine Malle

Cycle, a new play previewing now at The Cherry Lane Theater, is an infectious and exhaustingly wonderful evening of theater. This tongue in cheek parody is, in my book, a winning combination of heart and wit.
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Reviewed by Kristyn R Smith

There is no resisting this journey. You can't help but be caught up in the trials and tribulations of the actor's life. From just the first four lines of dialogue through to the end, the laughs persist without ceasing. Who knew the pressure to succeed as a performer and possible suicide could be so funny? Rose Courtney, it would seem.

Cycle
, written by Courtney, who also plays the lead, is a compelling concoction of old and new. The show peddles along at breakneck speed presenting a multitude of different people and places in its 90 minute run time. Using a combination of classical texts, from Shakespeare to Chekhov, as well as 1940s songs, the audience is whisked along into the world of Charlotte Shrubsole, a struggling NYC actress who happens to be guided by a troupe of Vaudevillians on her mission to "unlock the Secret of Success." If the plot sounds confusing, well it is. There's a lot of unanswered questions and some interesting twists, but if you divert your attention for a moment to ponder the finer points of plot development, you've missed the next punchline. And with a cast so engaging, you won't want to miss a moment of the hilarity.

The actors assembled here are each noteworthy in their own right, but it is their work as an ensemble that truly leaves you breathless. These six Vaudevillians, J.T. Arbogast, Krista Braun, Michael Leydon Campbell, Sarah Hund, Halley Zien, and Eric Zuckerman, sing, dance, play instruments, juggle, mime, and do voices. Simply put, they do it all, even acting as set pieces, and for the most part, they do a great job.

Not surprising, considering they were led by a great team. The choreography, done by Laura Sheehy, is top notch. So too, the direction from Craig Carlisle. He effectively makes use of every inch of space here (which is on the small side), especially for a show with such a large cast. There's also some truly impressive navigation of a multitude of props and costume changes.
Only brief moments of an otherwise seamless Friday night performance stuck out as needing improvement. These moments centered around the occasional but gratuitous dead space, and the rare but obvious shaky line delivery.

Though Shakespeare it is not, I would certainly recommend a trip on this Cycle to anyone, for it is certainly nice to just lose yourself for little while and laugh.
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Cycle is playing at
The Cherry Lane Studio,
Located at 38 Commerce Street,
It runs until March 3rd.
Tickets are $18, or $15 for students
Call 212-279-4200 for reservations

The Fever

Wallace Shawn's one-man show "The Fever" sifts through political philosophy and high culture, but finds no answers. Shawn's Traveler, a self-declared unreliable narrator, is the best ally we've got for the trip.

Reviewed by Ellen Wernecke

There were several moments during "The Fever," Wallace Shawn's one-man play recently re-mounted by The New Group, where I knew for sure that I didn't want to go where it was going. Our narrator, known as The Traveler according to Shawn's introduction, wakes up in a state of disarray and crawls to the toilet in the dark to vomit. Half an hour later he's referencing Freud, without bothering to specify whether he's at a dinner party exclaiming over his fork or being kicked by a prison guard.

The answer, of course, is in both places at once. The Traveler examines his life, focused on "Chapter Two: All The Rest," starting with his classical-music-set childhood of staying out of neighborhoods "where people collect... like water in drains." Having heard the rumblings of a mysterious revolution in a far-off country, he finds it only natural that someone has left a volume of Marx on his doorstep for him to leaf through naked in bed -- and before you can say "opiate of the masses" he's in that never-named country, waxing poetic on the quality of his hotel.

Having seen what he saw, The Traveler is a changed man, unable to laugh or enjoy his former life. "I wasn't me. I wasn't there to be embraced... My laugh was like a tight little cough." The titular illness leads him to fly back and forth between defending his old lifestyle with haughty eyes and admitting that perhaps there needs to be a new system under which we all live. He's formulated his own middle path and, Buddha-ish, attempts to explain it to us -- but instead he ricochets between outpourings of compassion for the have-nots, and dismissal of them as "the destroyers."

"The Fever" rides on Shawn's shoulders and, as a whole piece, is unimaginable without him. (At one point he gives the words "Communists" the most subtle, shaded air quotes I have ever heard, which seemed to represent both cautious hope and supercilious disdain.) But the audience is made complicit with the help of the house lights, which go up without a textual warning and give viewers the sense that Shawn is scrutinizing them as well as himself. It's his mea culpa on one hand and his non serviam with the other, but he's holding them out to us. The essential ambiguity of the piece is not that The Traveler can't accept that people hate them; the ambiguity is in the options that leaves us.

"Your life is the life of someone who's gotten away with something," Shawn declares near the end of "The Fever." It's not a Brechtian assault, but it catches us in the act of getting away, too.

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The Acorn, Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $51.25
Performances*: Monday-Saturday 8pm, Sunday 2pm
(*Come 30 minutes before the show to sip champagne with Wallace Shawn)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

6969

A great and stylistic first act gives way to suspenseless repetition in the second. The delight of 6969 is in seeing the illusory characters of the Internet brought to life, and when we lose that, we lose momentum too. Still, that suspenseful first act is an example of excellent direction and delightfully spry writing.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Internet is a scary place, not just because you can find psychopathic killers who think they're Jesus, nymphomaniac girl geniuses, lonely fourteen-year-old boys, and crazy white gangsters, but because they can find you, too. And just because it's not real doesn't mean it can't reach out and cut you all the same. Jordan Seavey's script, 6969, is all the more frightening because it's based on a true story, and while his condensation of that plot makes it seem less impressive, the show itself is a marvelous adaptation of the frenzy and paranoia of the Internet. Mark, our laptop-savvy hero, is a normal sixteen-year-old boy, but when he goes online and meets John, his entire life changes--John introduces him to Samantha, Lil' Tim finds him through Samantha, Damien dials-up looking for Samantha, and Kathy shows up after accidentally getting an e-mail from Mark meant for John. Sound confusing? Good. You're now caught as much in the web as Mark.

Director Matthew Hopkins has done a brilliant job of staging the elaborate procession of characters: he surrounds Mark with five transparent blue scrims, each of which hangs from chains in the ceiling. The online characters show up behind these scrims, like instant-messenger windows, and call out to him through the static of the Internet, like electronic ghosts. As more characters are introduced, they surround him, and, in the many dream sequences, pass through the barrier between scrims to invade Mark's personal space. This makes for a very vivid and fluid first act, driven by the relentless pacing of Seavey's effortless command of young adult dialog, which in turn is presented by the hyperactive Max Rosenak, who plays John, and also by Boo Killebrew, who plays the delightfully adolescent Samantha. Ryan Purcell, who plays Mark, has the perfect mix of innocence and astonishment, but he's stuck playing the straight man, which makes him the least interesting (though most convincing) of the wild cast.

Where things run into trouble is the second act, which loses the illusory presentation of the first. The show is forced to focus exclusively on Mark and John, which changes both the tone and momentum. It also goes on far too long, swinging between repetition and tedium: once we learn the secret of the first act, we need to skip ahead to the climax of the second, and there isn't much to come back to after the intermission. Instead, we actually lose a lot of the tension and, over time, our sympathy for the characters dwindles.

We go to the theater to dream, not to wake up. Therefore, I think we need to call a code 6969 on the final act of the play 6969: watching the illusion dismantled isn't as entertaining as seeing it set up and sustained.

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59E59 Theaters: Theater C (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00
Performances: Wednesday-Saturday @ 8:30

Saturday, February 10, 2007

(mis) Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story

Part of the Triple Threat Series at Emerging Artists Theatre


With her relentless and infectious grin, Capathia Jenkins embodies Hattie McDaniel in (mis) Understanding Mammy, a brief, biological, one-woman romp chock full of song, dance and pride in portraying the nursemaid stereotype. While Jenkins' ability to entertain and strive for emotional range is undeniable, she stammers through her monologues and appears uneasy when she tackles delusion.
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Reviewed By Cindy Pierre


Mammy's a hot commodity these days. While Michelle Matlock takes us through her historical origin in an effort to obliterate her in The Mammy Project, Capathia Jenkins is Hattie McDaniel incarnate in (mis) Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story. Penned by playwright Joan Ross Sorkin, this one-woman show is a fictitious account of Hattie's last hallucinatory encounter with Walter White, civil rights leader and former chief executive of the NAACP (1929-1955) while dying of cancer at The Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. Walter White launched an anti-mammy and other black stereotype campaign that slew the careers of all black actors in its path. His appetite was particularly voracious for Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to win an Academy Award, for portraying mammy, a cliche that he deemed particularly vile in glorifying slavery.

Hattie McDaniel, former maid and washerwoman even in the midst of rising to film and radio stardom, had a different position on Mammy. Having experience as a maid, she understood that role intuitively, and knew that mammy was much more than the docile, obedient and fearful maid that writers consistently depicted her as. Hattie believed that she was a credit to her race, and aimed to bring power, sass, and independence to her assigned roles. And assigned they were. As the options for roles back in the '30s and '40s were sparse, Hattie always maintained that she'd "rather play a maid than be one", and did so in succession, credited and uncredited, for years. Though her life was hard, she aimed to transcend her lot, or rather, the negro lot, and bring realism, a firm grip on her black roots, entertainment, and overall actor's integrity to her roles.

But Walter White would not acknowledge her perspective on the black plight. Instead, he re-doubled his efforts whenever a black actor received acclaim, and spoke vehemently against Hollywood for the "liver-lipped, uncle tom, grinning darkies" that they produced. Labeled as "1/8 black", White was an enigma to Hattie and a hindrance to the progress of his people, perhaps because he had no concept of their struggle (he was so fair that it was difficult to trace his african ancestry). As Hattie, it is this persecution that fuels Capathia Jenkins, either to lash out in embitterment or resort to song to pacify her afflicted spirit. And unfortunately, only those two speeds with a smattering of nuance in between, define her performance.

Capathia, in a simple hospital room setting, is larger than life on Theater 5's small stage. The intimate space allows the rich timbre and smokiness of her jazzy voice to wash over the audience in captivating waves. A jubilant performer, Capathia belongs on a grander stage with an even grander production. She seems claustrophobic in a space that cannot contain her, and her power is tamed to accommodate it. When she revels in Hattie's oscar-winning status, the moments lack drama, but she is only partially to blame. The production should be more grandiose, with more music and sound effects to support her suggested sentiments. More comfortable in the skin of a singer than an actress, Capathia seems lost and inconsistent in Hattie's delusions. She seems to lose focus of Walter as her audience, and the direction by David Glenn Armstrong to have her shake and dramatically toss the chair in which he is "seated" cuts through the audience's belief that she is delusional. Walter's presence troubles Capathia, and eliminating him in physical form, per se, would not have diminished the show's intent. Sorkin could have tried a different approach, such as having Hattie address Walter without directly speaking to him. Otherwise, Capathia communicates physical pain well, drawing us into her cancer-riddled world as she pants, shuffles, shudders, and grimaces through her expressions of rage. Although not technically precise, her impersonations of well-known personalities such as Bing Crosby were light-hearted and amusing. And although her smile was brilliant, there were instances where I had trouble finding both her pain and joy credible, as she fluctuated frequently from a five-star grin to a starless frown.

Although modest in certain respects, (mis) Understanding Mammy's production is not without hubris. In one instance, the applause of the audience after a musical number is incorporated into the drama, as Hattie's response follows suit. I loved the manner in which this moment was conceived, demonstrating full confidence in Capathia's abilities as a performer and adding an interactive element to the piece. It made me wonder if an alternate retort was not scripted in the event that Capathia did not bring the house down. Though too much personal and professional history may have been crammed into an hour and a half, it was nice to see a different side to her persona. No matter how mammy is perceived, Hattie McDaniel did, in fact, "break the color barrier", and her celebrity was far more extraordinary than Walter White allowed. This piece may be the commendation that she was robbed of in her time.
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From Feb. 7-Mar. 4. Theater 5. 311 W. 43rd St. New York, NY 10036
Ticket Price: $40; $20 students Ticket Information: Box Office: 212-247-2429; http://www.eatheatre.org


Friday, February 09, 2007

Nelson

You can do a lot with urban myths and stereotypes, and while Nelson doesn't push the boundaries of the stage, it does manage to capture us in one man's world. I enjoyed the slick depravity of Nelson's boss, Joe, even as I recognized his shallowness; you don't have to be a Picasso to make a point.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Partial Comfort Productions strikes again with another show about disturbed but colorful urban characters who are thrust at first into comedic situations, and then, as true life sours the illusion, straight into the nightmare of a hopeless existence. Nelson is an enjoyable bit of theater, but on second look, only Nelson's a character: the two supporting roles are devices meant to rile up and provoke him. Still, for set pieces, Joe (Alexander Alioto) and Charlie (Samuel Ray Gates) give our anti-hero, the slovenly, shy, and sad Nelson (Frank Harts) plenty of provocation, and give the audience ninety minutes of entertainment.

The result is a rough plot that lasers in on a somewhat shallow obsession of Nelson's, but those rough edges are sharp, and the office dynamics are as vibrant as they are inexplicable. It's too easy to make Nelson a whipping boy for Joe's frustration with his middling career as a film agent for unsuccessful actors, but that's exactly what playwright Sam Marks does. He never explains it either: he just presents Joe as a needling obstacle, a sadistic and shallow man. It also makes Joe a character without any wants or needs, and though Alioto jumps through the hoops well enough, it's obvious enough that he's just running in place, and when we realize that a character is never going to change, we stop caring about them.

The same goes for the stagnant friend, Charlie, who plays the stereotypical "angry black man." All that we ever learn about him is that he is a great ego and a feeling of entitlement; we also see that he's talented at self-deception, a man who can justify the murder of twelve-year-old boys simply because he's not the one who killed them directly. Gates tries to give the role some range, but his limited scenes, up to and including the climax, rob him of any real development.

As for Nelson, even though we are blatantly manipulated into feeling sorry for him (even as we are creeped out by the "skeleton" in his closet), we sympathize with his loneliness. The nagging question of the show is whether or not Nelson is simply a pathetic man--oppressed at work, taken advantage of by his friends, and abandoned at night--or if he's a killer himself, or worse. Director Kip Fagan has placed both the office and Nelson's living room in the same space, which keeps the scenes rolling from one to the next, with Nelson always torn between the two, and Harts does an admirable job of rolling with those punches. It's as exciting to see him come out of his shell as it is to see him hide within it once more. Take it as a compliment or not, but he really does have "the air of a serial killer."

Nelson doesn't manage to really surprise us, but it does manage to entertain us, and it represents a slice of life on the off-Broadway stage that a lot of companies don't bother to address. I wish that Marks had developed more of a plot so that the show weren't so wrapped up in shallowness, but at the least, his director has managed to make those shallows filled with some exciting rapids.

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Theatre Row (Lion Theater) - 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets (212-279-4200): $15.00
Performances: Wednesday-Saturday @ 8:00

The Fever

Simply as a masterwork in restraint and storytelling prowess, The Fever is a one-man monologue that's worth attending. A warning: it's more infectious than you think.


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

For a show called The Fever, this is a remarkably quiet work, wrought in anguished subtlety, and narrated from that dream space just before waking. Wallace Shawn's lengthy monologue is a treatise on the widening social gap between the rich and poor, and if it appears at first to be too studious, too much like a polite discussion at a dinner party, then you just need to give this viral work a few more hours to settle in.

Though confined to an armchair and often shrouded in a veil of darkness, Wallace Shawn has a rich presence, a gravely voice that brings the gravest gravity to the tale. He is abetted by director Scott Elliot, who breaks up the pacing of the show by bringing the house lights up allowing Shawn's character, The Traveler, to better address the audience. And it is an address, not to mention a way of preaching to a middle-class choir that is too frightened by the poor to bridge the widening gap between them. It is a personal political piece, a well-crafted lecture that has been sandwiched between dream narratives of a modern and poetic sensibility, and it is the sort of monologue we only wish our teachers had been passionate enough to deliver in college.

Some of the stories and words may slosh together like the red wine in The Traveler's glass, but for ninety minutes, you can't look away. When Shawn first speaks about Marx's definition of commodity fetishism, the words are instantly accessible, the meaning remarkably clear. It suddenly becomes clear that the subtlety of the play is working on an even deeper level: while we are meant to enjoy the performance of Shawn's work, it actually distracts us from the seeds Shawn is planting in our subconscious. His effacing demeanor--"My laugh was like a tight little cough"--and his "physical illness of indifference" are suddenly ours. Although the Traveler addresses the audience, frequently questioning the silent and collective "you," it turns out, by the end of the performance, that we are all the Traveler too.

We are that passive, exploratory person, and that's why the audience is invited to stand on the stage before the performance, to sip champagne with the author/performer, and to examine the very clear boundaries of the set (books and newspapers are neatly sliced to conform to the contours of this living room). We are that quiet, idly looking on man, and we have no-one to blame for the rising tide of injustice, the utter lack of morality, than ourselves. The Fever lives on in us, and while a play might not help the poor, the playgoer certainly can.

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Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $51.25
Performances*: Monday-Saturday @ 8, Saturday @ 2
(*Come 30 minutes before the show to sip champagne with Wallace Shawn)

The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath

An interesting portrait of the artist as a young, middling, and old man. For all his romantic woes, I would have liked to see more of his development as a person, and the whole work is a little too uneven--like a rough sketch--for me to fully appreciate. But there are some beautiful moments and some startlingly vivid lines, and even the muted tones can't take away from that.

Pierre Bonnard (John Shea) and one of his many lovers (Stephanie Janssen).
Photo Credit / Lilly Charles

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Issac Horovitz's latest play, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath is a hither-and-thither period piece overset with scenes of life today. It's no surprise that love is just as complicated now as it was then, and the “dark and shocking secret” that the narrator explains will be revealed isn't much of a surprise either, especially for members of the audience already familiar with the famed artist Pierre Bonnard. As usual, Horovitz creates an uneasy mix of comedy and drama: the result is a passable but wildly uneven play, one made all the more difficult by the jumps through Bonnard's life, both forward and back, and by the metadramatic narration of the two supporting actors, Stephanie Janssen and Michael Bakkensen, who take on the various roles of this show. Though this is not a work of Futurism, the play excuses its self-referrals by means of Bonnard's belief that “We should always feel the presence of the painter, that the painter has been there. It is not simply a question of painting life, but allowing the painting to come alive.” I find myself agreeing more with Bonnard's mistress (well, one of them), Renee Monchaty, who replies: “I understand. I'm not sure I agree, but I do understand.”

Setting aside the weakening conceit of the play, the concept is pretty good. Pierre Bonnard may not have as rich a dramatic history as, say, Vincent Van Gogh, but that also makes his story fresher, more susceptible to Horovitz's transformative touch. The only problem is that Horovitz expands the history so far beyond the drama simply to throw in comedic lines. I don't regret hearing lines like “You'd happily copulate with a rattlesnake if somebody would hold its mouth open” or “He hates his wife and she hates him, but they seem to be quite happily married,” but at the same time, this isn't really what the show aims to be about. This is more akin to putting icing on a cake of bittersweet chocolate; it adds one flavor, but takes away from the whole experience.

The other rough part of the show comes down to the casting: on the whole, Bakkensen does fairly well transitioning from character to character, even if he has to cling to a melange of accents to do so. Janssen, on the other hand, seems to be the same character in every scene. While this offers a plausible explanation for Bonnard's frequent infidelities, it makes it a little hard to distinguish one lover from another, and their needs are often subsumed by the playwright's need to find a way of torturing or enrapturing Bonnard. As for Bonnard, John Shea begins as a very miscast old man, overpowering the lines, but when he starts playing the romantic artist, full of vanity and automatic pickup lines, he starts to soften, giving him just enough room to plunge into something deeper toward the end. Horovitz's directorial choice to underscore many of the scenes with an eerie little tune doesn't seem to help their acting, either; it just emphasizes the fact that there are places where the silence isn't working yet.

The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath is an interesting play, but it's an unfinished play, and just as the show begins with Bonnard sneaking into a museum to revise one of his own paintings, I hope that Mr. Horovitz will consider coming back to this work at some time to pare down and revise some of his excessive and characteristic flourishes so that he can get at the masterpiece underneath it.

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Theater Row (Kirk Theater) - 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

REAL DANGER

Part of the Triple Threat Series at Emerging Artists Theatre

Engaging stories and a creative plot enliven Real Danger, but the drama suffers from poor stage blocking, predictability and daytime soap-opera histrionics.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Not even doting gestures and scripted lines of devotion can generate any chemistry between actors Eric Chase (Ferdy) and Carol Monda (Vicki) in playwright Jeff Hollman's Real Danger. Luckily, after a sluggish start, the dynamics onstage improve with the addition of Edward (a physical Ryan Duncan), the ex-best friend, ex-soccer partner, and current criminal lawyer to Ferdy's insurance salesman and possessive boyfriend. Missed connections and flat line-reciting is quickly replaced by an urgency and enthusiasm that is skillfully led by director Paul Adams. Ferdy's character is particularly invigorated by Edward's presence. He seems to take Edward's entrance to the stage as a cue to dazzle us with his dominance of Vicki and his strong personality. It's not to say that Ferdy appears weak before this. Yet, Vicki alone isn't enough to give him that testosterone charge that makes him lock horns with Edward as an unwitting opponent.

The story is simple. A man living with his girlfriend in Ohio runs into an old buddy from college on his way to Canada. The old friend decides to use this occasion to apologize for an old wrong, and catch up on old times. This reunion, however, entails more than anyone anticipates.

Real Danger's many stories are peppered with a certain joie de vivres, a happiness to be alive that enables the audience to envision the action as it unfolds and nestle in its wonderfully crafted elements. Though not always plausible, they are engrossing and imaginative.

Vicki, the celebrated "fight and flight" photographer and central character of some of the stories, is much more engaging in the stories than she is onstage. The character that Hollman has written is exceptional, but as the personification, Carol Monda is miscast. Her performance is stunted and lacks passion. Celebrated as a prize-winning photographer, using the fourth wall concept as a place to hang up her imaginary photographs leaves something to be desired. I felt cheated by not having at least one visual reference to connect the many praises of her work to. There are some nice moments between Ferdy and Vicki, but unfortunately, these are the same moments that could have easily been followed by drum rolls or sinister soundbites for dramatic effect. Each of these moments serve as harbingers of gloom and doom, and thankfully, the score was not written to mimic the spikes in tension.

Ryan Duncan, with his athletic posture, has the look of a soccer player, and it is reasonable to label him as such. It is harder for him to assume the role of an attorney, especially a criminal one. Much more believable as an entertainment lawyer, if at all, Edward's background doesn't support his profession, and neither does the actor. He was also the most elusive of the three characters, made so by the questionable direction that had his back face the audience on numerous occasions.

In less than ninety minutes, Jeff Hollman takes you through an elliptical mock-thriller that starts off poorly, succeeds in some instances, and ends poorly. It is a fun and entertaining experience, if you don't mind the kitsch. For those of us that are a little bit more discerning, the slightly campy execution may overwhelm the good.

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February 5th-March 3rd at Theatre 5 (311 W. 43rd Street, 5th Floor). Phone: 212-247-2429. www.eatheatre.org Tickets: $40.00