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, August 29, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream

After its poignant production of Romeo and Juliet, The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park sets its eyes on lighter fare with one of the Bard’s classic comedies. And you might be pleasantly surprised by who turns in the dreamiest performance.

Reviewed by Ilena George

For the first time in the nearly 10 performances I’ve seen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the show’s play-within-a-play that’s the highlight of the evening. The same elements that made the play-within-a-movie in Waiting for Guffman so great are at work here: Wacky and delusional characters you’re wholeheartedly rooting for and a so-bad-it’s-fantastic performance of a mediocre play.

The rude mechanicals, embraced by much warmer lights than the menacing blue of the Fairy Kingdom and the dim gray of Athens, shine through as the play’s most charismatic and gentle-hearted characters. The casting is genius; distinguished actors bring distinction to all the parts. Jason Antoon as Tom Snout, for instance, familiar to theatergoers for his role as the crazy-eyed bartender in Contact, plays the Wall between Pyramus and Thisby with a ferocity that’s both hilarious and winningly sincere. Ken Cheeseman as the stage-frightened Robin Starveling/Moonshine and Keith Randolph Smith as Snug/The Lion are similarly irresistible.

As for the slightly more prominent mechanicals, if anyone could get sixpence a day for playing Pyramus out of Theseus, it would be Jay O. Sanders’ Bottom. A character who is often self-centered and thoroughly annoying, Sanders’ Bottom is instead a gentle man (though not much of a gentleman), beloved by his peers (even when they find him exasperating) and hugely enthusiastic about almost everything. Tim Blake Nelson, from O Brother Where Art Thou? among dozens of other movies, plays nervous ringmaster Peter Quince to perfection. Last, but not least, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, whose face currently tops a multitude of cabs with ads for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, plays Francis Flute and Thisbe with perfectly timed sarcasm and some of the best physical comedy of the play.

Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, Midsummer emphasizes whimsy and lightheartedness, with songs, magical slight of hand and bright colors. No lasting damage is incurred by any of the characters and the final tableau with everyone singing Puck’s last monologue in unison emphasizes new beginnings and hopefulness. Usually, I prefer Shakespeare a little darker, but Titania’s minions, played by eerie children who look like extremely well-dressed characters from an Edward Gorey story or a Tim Burton film, almost satisfy that craving. And not a penis joke in sight! (But in taking the bawd out of the Bard, especially in a play whose subtext screams sex, it does feel a little chaste.) As a whole, though, the play is a satisfying way to spend a late summer’s evening.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fringe Wrap-Up

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Just because these shows can no longer be seen at the Fringe doesn't mean that you shouldn't hear about them. From new solos (The Box) to solid collaborations (PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play]) to foreign imports (The Sunshine Play) and prolific playwrights and actors (Susan Gets Some Play), there was a little of something for everybody who came out to support the 188 works on display. And who knows; if there's enough clamor, we might see some of these return next year, as with this year's Minimum Wage, Silence! The Musical!, and Walmartopia.

The Box
Right now, Steffi Kammer's brave, autobiographical show, The Box, is a little too closed off. Her urban tale of growing up in Brooklyn's worst project, the lone white girl, smacks of authenticity, but her telling seems sheltered behind the safety of disassociative images, precisely the sort of memory-by-way-of-image she describes when talking about [Josef] Cornell boxes. At fifty minutes, the metaphors don't seem strained, but neither does Kammer's experience: her emotion peeks out, as if from behind a slightly ajar door, but her presentation is anything but jarring.
Her style presents the squalid past with rosy cheer, not resentment. To that end, the play is uplifting, but dramatically awkward; it is easier for Kammer to imitate the stereotypically rich Jewish ladies (whose idea of something not working is something that clashes) than it is, at times, for her to open up the full refrigerator of memories. She touches on a near rape with an older Russian man, the constant stress of her Swedish mother, and of a hopelessly romantic homeless man, but all the impact is boxed up with her memories.

The Sunshine Play

Remember the Act II opening from The Fantasticks, "That Plum Is Too Ripe"? Well, that's The Sunshine Play, an overt physical comedy that hides the cynicism underneath. Both halves are well executed by the players, with Cosmin Selesi (Trifan) as a delightfully tight-lipped jealous drunk; Daniel Popa (Dan), as a sarcastic, joke-cracking free-wheeler; and Isabela Neamtu (Iza) as a quick-witted, overwhelmed beauty. Peca Stefan's script captures the nuances of natural conversations: awkward rhythms, weird first kisses, and all; this, even translated from Romanian. The direction from Ana Margineanu is thrilling: for all the small gestures, there's a sense of excitement in each nuance, and even a few surprises, too. That final scene, anything but happy, follows logically and completely from everything before, and the whole Monday Theater team has done us a service by bringing this play here.

PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play]

After watching Hotel Oracle, the last confusing collaboration between writer Bixby Elliot and director Stephen Brackett, I was hoping that Mr. Elliot would skip the intellectualism and the magical realism and simply get to the point. With PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play], he's gone one better: he's pinpointed the message. That message--about homosexuality's struggle for rights and need for acceptance--is at times a little overbearing. However, the playful magical realism (which collides a couple from the '50s, the '80s, and a mysterious stranger from the future) keeps the action at least theatrically plausible. Furthermore, the central characters are likeable and understandable, even at their worst, and their struggles are identifiable and sincere. Jonathan (James Ryan Caldwell), ashamed of being gay, tries to avoid committing to his open partner, Brad (Yuval Boim), even after Brad is bashed for it. In the '50s, things are even worse for Laurence (Chad Heoppner), who expresses his shame with his self-loathing homophobia and a shy attempt at marriage with a spinster librarian, Madeline (Marguerite Stimpson). The contrast--seamlessly (and at times emphatically) navigated by Brackett--speaks wonders for the cultural differences and struggles. If the fiery Everett Quinton's performance as Harry, the Fierstein-like proselytizer, weren't so emotional, it would seem superfluous; as is, it's just another layer to a solid tome.

Susan Gets Some Play

Being single in the city sucks, and dating is hard. But if it could always be as funny as in Adam Szymkowicz's Susan Gets Some Play, then we'd at least have something to look forward to. This show builds on everything Szymkowicz developed in last year's Nerve (it even pairs the two leads again), but escapes the easy situational comedy of a blind date by building the story around a real (albeit metadramatic) heart: Susan Louise O'Connor's, to be specific. You see, the plot of the play revolves around a director (Kevin R. Free) who creates a play solely to find Susan a boyfriend. We, the audience, get to watch (and perhaps take part in) auditions, then to delight in the growing farce. But Susan Gets Some Play is grounded in her likable innocence, and sparkling honesty: when she talks about how nice it would be simply to be held (even if she has to play a character for no pay, no lines, and a terrible commute), it seems blissfully sincere. Mortiz von Stuelpnagel's direction amplifies the ridiculous, but remains elastic enough to snap back into seriousness. Comedy is built on such distortions of mood; this production has near perfected the necessity of equal parts silly and sincere.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

FRINGE: Elephant in the Room

I laughed (I didn't cry), and I was none the wiser having seen Elephant in the Room!, Dan Fogler's energetic--but little else--homage to Ionesco. As a showcase for comic actors, this show succeeds. As a parable, satire, or anything else, it falls flat, which is a shame, since it certainly has great actors.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The phrase "inspired by" isn't the most inspiring thing to see linked to a play. Playwrights all too often wind up simply aping a plot and forget to add their own plot. This is, sadly, the case with Dan Fogler's adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. The good news is that Dan Fogler is a funny man--you might remember him from 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or the upcoming Balls of Fury movie--and he instills his new play, Elephant in the Room! with energetic piles of comedy, like a stack of funny flapjacks, piled high and drenched in silly syrup. The bad news is that when the sugar high of Fogler's wit runs out--toward the beginning of Act Two--there's about as little holding the play together as there is holding the scroll-like sets in place.

Going to see Elephant in the Room! then is a means to sample the various talents of gifted comic actors; to see them, if you will, in their natural habitat of reckless, unrestrained comedy. Bjorn Thorstad, with his rubbery torso and quizzical voice, brings to mind Ace Ventura; Johnny Giacalone, with his wavering body language and self-effacing demeanor, could double as Adam Sandler; and Jordan Gelber, with his fiery presence and sloppy charm, is reminiscent of Fogler himself. The show is stolen by Ariel Shafir's transformation from a slick, domineering businessman into an elephant, and his vocal and physical control justify the protracted, over-the-top scene. This is a recurring theme of Fogler's work: the actors qualify the text, going above and beyond to sell the material.

Ultimately, there are too many things that the cast can't sell: aside from all of the pop culture references (from South Park to some odd goggle-masked exclamation) and the clunky scenes (a pot-based government, several satirical addresses from our beloved Bush), the play's moral conceit makes very little sense, bogged down as it is. Ionesco had a distinct target and purpose in his work; Fogler's target doesn't seem to extend beyond the third row. What is the Elephant in the Room!? I don't know; try standing still and I'll throw this pie in your face.

FRINGE: Hail Satan

Is it possible to describe a show about Satanism as "lovely"? Sure, if it's done as subtly (and comically) as in Mac Rogers's Hail Satan. Not just palpable, but delicious, this satirical look at religious and familial values is more than a parable: it's a damned funny show.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Hail Mac Rogers, Dark Lord of Devilish Dichotomy. His new show, Hail Satan, cleverly plays Satanism against type to make a satirical commentary on religious tolerance and the meaning of personal faith. It's also a damned funny office comedy: talk about "soulless" corporations. For all the bad puns I'm making (this review is filled to the brim-stone with them), Rogers makes the wiser choice of downplaying his fecund material, all to better shock us later.

His instrument for this quiet instruction is Charlie (Sean Williams), the jolly, soft-spoken leader of both a copywriting team and a cult of Satanists. Always smiling, with the passive yet forceful nature of a psychologist, Charlie runs a tight ship that includes the zealous Natalie (Autumn Dornfeld), the super-serious Marcus (Jason Howard), and the affable but noncommittal Kristen (Renee Delio). The play opens on an ordinary Monday with the hiring of the unmotivated but diligent Tom (Matthew Kinney), the perfect tool for a job Charlie's working on. Unfortunately for Tom, whose love of Kristen and curiosity of Satanism get the better of him, that job ends up being the unwilling participant in the conjuration of Satan's daughter, Angie (Laura Perloe).

The second act switches emphasis from the office politics to Angie's growth in the care of Tom, Kristen, and "Uncle" Charlie. For Perloe, this is a great acting opportunity, as she gets to play Angie from two months to eighteen years old, showing remarkable character changes from scene to scene. It's great for Kinney, too, who has to struggle with his unexpected love for a daughter he never wanted, and who has some great moments discovering himself as a father. As for Rogers, it's the perfect opportunity for him to pass on his "values" to the audience through an innocent child. That's a joke, I'm sure, although Rogers writes so well that it's not clear that Mephistopheles isn't peeping out from the inkwell, chuckling to himself at clear, logical arguments from Charlie as to why Angie ought to destroy her enemies: "The pursuit of happiness is a bloodsport."

Mac Rogers must have made a deal with some sort of devil, for he keeps getting blessed with exceptional casts and superb directors. As with the recent Universal Robots, Hail Satan is a well-scripted play that manages to rise above parable and tell a fully fleshed story. And, hey, if some small sacrifice is needed, if some blood is required to grease the wheel, well . . . at least it's going to a good cause.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

FRINGE: Double Vision

Double Vision is an eerily gripping play about love's collapse in the closed-off, urban atmosphere of modern relationships. As the title implies, perception is a big part of the play, and the characters are all tormented by their unyielding imaginations. Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich manges to find clarity, but she leaves understanding the characters up to the audience, which doesn't quite work, especially with the compressed conclusion.

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich's Double Vision is a sad tale of the collapsing modern relationship. From the opening's relentless telephone ring to the climax's desperate silence, love is transformed into a siege: it's no surprise that our heroes enjoy fucking to the 1812 Overture. Dave, Mark, and Ben hole themselves up into their shared apartment, and imagine things: Dave gets into routine accidents caused by a phantasmal blond, Mark itches with the guilt of all his affairs with married women, and Ben lives in a fantasy so pronounced that he has to lose his true love in order to live.

If the men seem insane, their women aren't much better: Celia, their neighbor, survives her marriage by working the opposite of her husband's hours; Mary's attempts to force Dave into stopping her from leaving for California have made her irrational and unable to think for herself; and Michelle believes blindly in her blissful future with Ben, which is why the double vision of perception dooms so many relationships.

That double vision comes back to haunt the playwright: Blumenthal-Ehrlich is perceptive, and she evenly represents the characters, but she never gives us anything that's 20/20. Celia talks in the jumbled panic of the fast-paced when she describes the maternity ward: "I mean, babies live and everything. It's a lot harder. Not it's not depressing. You have more life going on in radiation therapy than you do in the outside world. You have honesty and warmth and closeness, and then they die. It's like putting life in a trash compactor. It's a full rich experience. Even if it's condensed." Parts of that make sense: Celia, like Ben, prefers to know where she stands with things, and like all the characters in this play, fears commitment.

But why? Double Vision spins a series of scenarios at us, at the heart of which is Dave's growing madness, a heart-sickening fear that drives him to literally self-destruct. Even when he strips and walks around naked, he is no less hidden than before: it's just a different type of angst. Shane Jacobsen manages to reveal a lot of Dave's insecurity, and the rest of the cast is suitably eccentric (yet sweet). Rebecca Henderson's self-doubt as Mary gives her some great tactic shifts, and Quinn Mattfeld takes Mark on a real exploration of his personal choices. But the understanding get stuck beyond the thick lenses of wordy everyday banter.

Ben ultimately confesses that he lacks basic awareness of people, and with that, responsibility. "Change is awareness. Awareness is change." But that makes the awareness of Double Vision morbid; what's clear to us remains painfully closed to the characters, and it forces the change to be tragic. Celia's right to describes love as "like asking for a fork and having a million knives rain down on you.... It's a utensil, but it's not quite what you asked for. And it's a lot of what you didn't ask for." Double Vision feels a little overwhelming, and, in the final minutes, certainly not what you asked for or expected. But like love, this frisson of surprise makes for an eerily gripping play.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fair Game

Fair Game might as well just run for office itself: it already has the buttery words, clever metaphors, and sinister secrets of a politician. But Karl Gajdusek's love story is sincere, and his politics are realistic: in other words, unelectable, but to the theatergoer, simply delectable.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Parts of Karl Gajdusek's Fair Game are ripped from the headlines, which is to be expected of any realistic political play. But what makes Fair Game more than fair is the way that Gajdusek develops his story. There's the immediate lead of Governor Karen Werthman's run for president, and then the juicier story of her son's inappropriate relations with one of his Princeton students, Elizabeth. There's also a colorful sidebar about Simon's research into the spin of history, innovative graphics (which is to say, direction) by Andrew Volkoff, and a deeper story that reveals secrets about Karen's campaign manager, Miranda. The play also doesn't feel like news: by cleverly cutting from the scandal to the encounters, Fair Game maintains a rhythm that makes us constantly reassess our opinions of the characters. Late-breaking news, if you will, from the past.

The first act of this production is excellent, filled as much by subtle, quiet scenes that observe the political machine as by boisterous historical lectures from Simon or the underfoot love story. At first, the second act suffers from jumping several months ahead, to an implausible (albeit amusing) entrance from Karen's opponent, Senator Bill Graber. Even still, the words run like butter: this lengthy play is one smooth feature article.

While the lines may be slick, they're not rehearsed (save the ones used in debate): instead, the actors stretch for answers, particularly Chris Henry Coffey (Simon), a quick-witted combination of Michael J. Fox and Nathan Fillion, jumping to statements only to backpedal to what he really meant. So too with Sarah-Doe Osborne, who plays Elizabeth as a rebel in search of a cause, flitting from one passion or emotion to the next, looking for the one that fits her best. As the confident campaign manager, Caralyn Kozlowski is also worth mentioning, particularly for the occasional slips in her imperturbable armor and her always graceful recoveries.

The scenes also show a lot of diversity: they may have a touch of melodrama, but they avoid the patented patter of, say, Aaron Sorkin, and present a story that's far more intimate than similarly themed films like The Contender. Here it's not all politics: it's also games of "Name That Inaugural Speech" and "Spin the Bottle"; it's as much preparing to face the press as it is actually facing your mother.

Lion Theater (410 West 42nd Street)

Tickets (212-279-200): $18.00
Performances (through 9/7): Mon., Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:00 | Sun. @ 3:00

Sunday, August 19, 2007

FRINGE: Bukowsical

Unmissable! If you've ever wanted to hear the word "fuck" in eight-part harmony, then you've simply got to get to Bukowsical while it's still playing. Following the advice of Sweet Lady Booze and authors William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Tennessee Williams, and William Burroughs, this riotous musical knows how to "get down, get dark, get dirty," all while keeping to a lasciviously jazzy beat.

Photo/Lili Von Schtupp

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

It's crude and lewd, but boy does it have a toe-tapping beat! Bukowsical! may be faithful to Bukowski's life in attitude only, but throw caution to the wind and prepare to get soused. Do as the giant bottle of Jim Beam (good old Sweet Lady Booze) sings, as she spreads her legs and shakes her tail: "Take Me." It's hard to be offended, even by the off-kilter opening ("When you're fucking a whore, and you're downing a case/Bukowsical"), because of how exuberant it all is--exactly the same kind of highbrow lowbrow that made Urinetown a success.

The premise is similar to another recent musical, Gutenberg! The Musical!, in that it is presented as a backer's audition. The difference is that the pompous actor/director/producer John Marcus Cardiff (Marc Cardiff) knows what he's doing, and brought an exceptional cast out to introduce his vision. By the second number, it's clear that Cardiff's vision is absurd--he comes out wearing a Phantom mask, and encourages the bullies to beat Bukowski: "Art is Pain" ("You're totally disgusting and we hate you/you'll never get a girl to masturbate you" is followed by a musically precise chorus of "Nyah Nyah").

Nobody really takes the narrative seriously, least of all Bukowski (Brad Blaisdell), who intentionally forces emotions to match those ascribed to him by the narration. But when the singing kicks in, Blaisdell's a star, showing the range of a deep-throated roar in the smoky jazz hit "Love Is (a Dog from Hell)," the sweet gruff of a love song in "Chaser of My Heart," or the stream of contrapuntal curses of his "Elegy" (layered over the elegiac "Remember Me"). He's joined by a great chorus, but his greatest asset is Fleur Phillips, who floats coloratura above Buk's jagged notes in the role of One True Love (and even gets to belt some gospel on the side).

The writing by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale (who does music, too) shows a tight collaboration of ideas, and only misses the mark on a few songs that seem disconnected, like "Slippery Slope" (with the one-shot villain, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen) or "Through A Glass, Barfly" (in which Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke battle to play the film version of Bukowski). But for the most part, everything follows logically, from the "Writing Lesson" from Faulkner, Williams, Plath, and Burroughs ("Get down, get dark, get dirty") to Buk's time among the down-and-outs on the "Derelict Train" or at the postal post office ("Working Song").

The show perhaps owes its greatest debt to director Joe Peracchio and his choreographer, Leanne Fonteyn, who never miss a chance--even in black-box--to keep the show upbeat. You might call this type of musical a form of upbeatnik poetry: but I'd just call it unmissable, and in honor of the late Charles Bukowski, a heady brew that's good to the last drop.

The Shattering of the Golden Pane

The Shattering of the Golden Pane needs to be more shatter, less gold: too much of Wilhelm's script is gilded with repetition that endlessly delays both actions and development. Even the few poignant moments--like Verta's frantic attempts to save parasite-infested fish--are related as numbing anecdotes, and until Caleb's appearance late into the second act, the show gives us nothing greater than a flimsy ghost to keep our attention.

Photo/Kymm Zuckert
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Le Wilhelm's play, The Shattering of the Golden Pane, captures the insecurities and procrastinations of first love, in all of its obsessions, but this is not a good thing for audiences. There is nothing less satisfying than watching two characters talk about all the things they've seen elsewhere: even if Mark A. Kinch and Kristin Carter were better actors, that would only postpone the tedium, not belay it. Even worse, Wilhelm has a third character, the ghost of a nightclub singer (Kirsten Walsh), who appears behind a theatrically opaque wall to opine (musically or otherwise) about true love and its (apparently often) deadly consequences.

The "action," so to speak, takes place in an abandoned church, and the dim lighting does justice to the detritus of stone and paper across the stage. The players are David (Kinch), a Goth with tattoos, spiked collar, and black fingernails to prove it, and Verta (Carter), a tremulous, quivering punk with a penchant for alcohol and baking. But David makes it very clear off the start that he hasn't brought Verta to his secret lair to seduce her; instead, it's because they both share an affectation for Caleb (Kevin Perri), a man so beautiful that simply watching him work out (through the gym's shimmering golden pane) brings tears to these ageless peeping toms. And so the play meanders, occasionally waxing upon some romantically apt lines, but more often than not stumbling through repetition, whining, and other adolescent annoyances.

The Shattering of the Golden Pane lasts an unforgivable two acts, turning from creepy romance to creepier revenge fantasy, but it never really resolves the ghost story, nor does it give a real arc to either of its central characters. Verta, even when propelled to action, never seems comfortable in her own skin, and David mopes around hunched over or curled into himself with all the charm of a Gothic Jerry O'Connell. The part of the show that picks up, and where director Gregg David Shore wakes from his coma, is when the commanding Caleb shows up, at first through a series of letters, and finally, revealingly so, in person. Here, the quick cuts and passages of time are efficiently crisp, as opposed to earlier jumps that simply seem like run-on sentences.

If Wilhelm could simply cut the repetitious scenes, remove the ghost, and focus on the actual conflict, he'd have a much better show. In other words: more shattering, less golden pane.

59E59 Theaters (Studio C; 59 East 59th Street)

Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00

Performances: 8/28-9/1 @ 8:30 | 9/1 @ 2:30 | 9/2 @ 3:30

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

FRINGE: The Commission

The Commission, a revival of Steven Fechter's 1996 war play, treads far too lightly with its politics to make much of an impression. The four scenes run in reverse, but without any real interplay between them, and the overall effect is dampened by how forgettable most scenes are. The one lingering moment that sells this play, Sarah Gurfield's direction, and both Patrick Melville and Susan Ferrara is a quiet, domestic scene that does more to expose the "war" crimes that we inflict on a daily basis than the rest of the play.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The barbed-wire walls aren't the only constricting thing in The Commission: Steven Fechter's script is a fenced-in, all-too-tidy play about the very sloppy consequences of war and the myriad crimes that go along with it. Dreamscape Theater's production is fine but flat; there's not a lot of action in three-quarters of the play, and the circuitous talking is not justified by the script's backward-moving narrative. As a result, the first and last scenes are warm-ups and cool-downs for the meat of the play, the two scenes with Karl (Patrick Melville).

In the first of these scenes, Karl is a cool diplomat, trying to bypass a entrenched soldier with the use of increasingly trenchant language. This soldier, Ivan (Zack Calhoon) is apparently guarding a mass grave, and Karl will stop at nothing, no matter how hypocritically criminal, to expose the war crimes he's been investigating. Ivan shows up again in the fourth scene to beg Boba (Al Choy) for his daughter's Tulia's (Rena de Courcy) hand in marriage, but that scene's tangential, as is the first scene, that randomly puts Tulia in the same room as Paula (Susan Ferrara) for some light conversation. If these three scenes weren't so forgettable, the interplay between them might unlock some deeper understanding of the fractures of war, and the play might serve as a bone-setting tool that restores humanity (only to strip it from us once more).

However, it's only the third scene, a graphic confrontation between Paula and Karl, that sheds any light on the consequences of war. Ferrara and Melville are the stronger actors of the show, and they seem well matched here; furthermore, because director Sarah Gurfield strips them of their clothes, they have nothing to hide behind. Fechter's script bares its teeth here as well, from the vicious molars to the subtle, delayed wisdom teeth. It's also no surprise that the fangs come out at a moment when the play is furthest from the war: The Commission makes the biggest statement about objectivity and passivity by branding victimization and violence into what is otherwise a domestic scene. Look, it says: if we can do this in our own bedrooms, to those we supposedly love, what won't we do to those anonymous strangers we know nothing of and care nothing for?

The Connelly Theater (220 E. 4th Street)
8/23 @ 10:00; 8/25 @ 2:00

FRINGE: Helmet

Ah, how quickly potential can be squandered by an unhinged director. Douglas Maxwell's done his homework writing the video-game inspired play Helmet, but director Maryann Lombardi has filled the play with meaningless physical actions and aimless, mechanical intonations, all of which dispel what needs to be, at heart, a realistic story.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Douglas Maxwell's Helmet is meant to be an upgrade of David Ives's Sure Thing, taking the scene-restarting exercise to a more dramatic level. However, with the sloppily physical direction of Maryann Lombardi, Helmet comes across more as a beta-version of a play: there are some nice features, but the aesthetic upgrades are glitchy (actually, they're non-existent in this bare-bones production), the action is choppy, and the play takes way too long to get to the point.

The underlying premise is pretty nifty, though. Sal (Michael Evans Lopez) has run a video game store into the ground, proving once again to his family and his wife that he is a failure. The people who do look up to him are teenagers like Roddy (Troy David Mercier) who hang around all day, living exuberantly in the present or vicariously in their video games. Tonight, Sal's in a particularly grumpy mood and Roddy (a k a "Helmet") is harboring a vicious secret, and their completion of the day is presented as a video game. The actors advance from level to level, dying when they fail to get their needs and then restarting just in time to try a different tactic.

As a writer, Maxwell knows what he is talking about: he quotes from a wide canon of games and has plenty of wry comments to make about them. And he builds to a nice parallel between Roddy's cathartic escapism and the thrill of living in the real world, with only one life left. Even his hokey jokes are more quaint than bad: "I'm a PlayStation, you're a Wii. We live in the same store, but we play different games." But Lombardi seems to have a disregard for video games and clutters the text with a wide variety of grid-based movement that makes the play seem more like body rehearsals in an Alexander classroom than an actual show. Additionally, Lombardi forces the actors to enunciate certain words (like the titles of video games) with exaggerated lilts that not only break the flow, but don't fit the seriousness of certain scenes. The only thing in Helmet that is authentically game-like is a verbal battle synced to the 2-bit sounds of Pong.

The biggest problem with this production is that Michael Evans Lopez doesn't have the energy, chemistry, or connection necessary to play Sal. Troy David Mercier overpowers him in every scene: the "game" has to "cheat" in order to keep his character from dying at the start of Level 1. If Lopez were playing an artificial intelligence, most of which are notoriously simplistic and broken, he'd be in better shape, but Helmet hinges on the actors being, first and foremost, human. Mercier understands this, and has a real arc beneath his otherwise manic actions, but it makes the scene-to-scene progression redundant to watch. My advice? Take this show back to the shop, level up the actors a little longer, and upgrade the production values. Right now, it's not even worth playing on an old-school Commodore.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

FRINGE: Reader

A vivid imagining of a dark future, Reader is a curiously political play in that its target, The Man, isn't able to put up enough of a fight to drive the action. Instead, the play gets caught up in the psychological struggle of our tortured antihero, and gets lost in the play's own reality-blurring device. There are admirable performances, and the overall direction brings a crisp theatricality to the show, but the basic emotion is all too often glossed over by the script's conventions.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Ariel Dorfman's 1995 play about the consequences of censorship is awash in Philip K. Dick-like stretches of the imagination, but it lacks dark humor and it loses itself amid interlocking scenes that we are never provided the key for. This blurring of lines is an intentional descent into self-abuse, but it's a shame that Ianthe Demos can't find a stronger anchor for the play: everything else she's working with is sharp, from Mike Riggs' noirish lighting in the background and ominous penumbra in the front to James Hunting's excellently minimal set: a wall of papers blocks out the truth of the outside world; a venetian blind shutters the shudders behind it. Even when our heroes venture outside, they are seen only from the paradoxical illumination of umbrellas with bulbs screwed into the top.

The cast is fantastic too: Nick Stevenson steals the show as the spry Director of the censoring bureau, a man who literally casts himself as the villain when he starts rewriting the story, and Darrell James is grounded as the beleaguered antihero who can only save those he loves by condemning them to lesser evils than the ones he sees over the lawless horizon. Demos's problem is that there's little delineation between Daniel Lucas, the censor, and Don Alfonso Morales, the character in the novel he's reading. Both are played by James, and Don Alfonso, the "fictional" one, has a more exaggerated tone, but as the scenes slide into one another it's hard to tell what's going on. The same applies for Nico Evers-Swindell, who plays the son (either Nick Lucas or Enrique Morales, depending on the time), and for Emma Jackson, who plays Irene/Jacqueline, the love interests of Daniel/Don Alfonso. I'm sure it's as confusing for you to read that as it is for me to write.

The show evolves into a terse farce for the climax as the characters all grow a collective spin and rise up, as they must, against the oppressive readership. But that oppression is as vague as the play, even when represented by The Man (Zack Griffiths), who spends the majority of time watching from the wings and walking heavily behind the three prongs of audience seating. The subject of Reader isn't strong enough for us to get more than the most minimal of connections, which is a shame, as this is a professional production, with very talented workers. It's the same problem One Year Lease faced with last season's Iphegenia Crash Land Falls; but at least they're trying.
Clemente Soto Velez Center - Flamboyan Theater (107 Suffolk)
8/18 @ 7; 8/22 @ 6:30; 8/25 @ 2:30; 8/26 @ 2:45

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Measure for Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe

On the upside, Measure for Measure will never be a "problem play" again: thanks to Doug Silver's cuts and Andrew Frank's circus-like modernization, this Shakespeare adaptation is very clearly a comedy. However, the constant mugging for attention, from both the characters on-stage and the actors watching (like cheerleaders) from the sidelines makes too many of the jokes flat, and the slimming changes to the text have made too many of the characters less than one-dimensional. Ato Essandoh stands out as the lecherous Angelo; he does so by being the only one who takes the show seriously enough to earn our laughter.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

With Measure For Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe, adapter Doug Silver and director Andrew Frank hope to recapture the momentum they created with last season's theatrical abridgment of Macbeth: A Walking Shadow. Andrew Frank is a keen Shakespearean director, and he works well with his actors to get the nuances out of the script, even if this requires some exaggerated gestures or punch-lined pauses to make sure the audience is on the same page. But Silver's extensive cuts (the play runs roughly seventy minutes) undermine the text by whirling characters in and out, with little explanation of motive or plot, and Frank's solid instincts are overwhelmed by random choices in the staging. The end result is awkward and underwhelming: no matter how you measure it, the only real draw to the show is Ato Essandoh, who brings the same intensity to Angelo's comic lechery as he did to Macbeth's serious tragedy.

The advantage of this collaboration is that it clarifies Measure for Measure, one of the genre-defying "problem plays," as an easily accessible comedy. The bawdy jokes are sharp, albeit excessive, and all hints of morality and scruples of subplots have been washed away. At the same time, what's left over isn't very focussed either: Silver's cuts trivialize the actions of characters like Pompey, Elbow, and Lucio and Frank's over-the-top direction gropes blindly for laughs, which at times minimizes the effect of Shakespeare's wit. The play is also wildly uneven: everything that's not directly related to the main narrative has an excess of ham, from the effeminate, Steve Carell-like actions of the Duke (Lex Woutas) to the softly drunk buffoonery of Provost (John-Andrew Morrison). There's a time and a place for such antics--Mistress Overdone's sex scene is anything but overdone by a wonderfully unabashed Fiona Jones--but the pacing of the comedy has been ruined by the constant begging of laughs.

Additionally, Measure for Measure has also been stuffed with needless parlor tricks. After all the trouble of cutting the script and focusing our attention, it makes little sense to have the actors drop their roles as they watch and laugh the show from the wings, and even less to then have on-stage actors refer to their chortling companions as their characters. And why start the play in a lounge, or set the play in modern times, if that device isn't used as a springboard for some greater understanding of Shakespeare?

Macbeth: A Walking Shadow was an excellent production that enhanced our view of a haunted hero, and it succeeded by being specific with both character and atmosphere. Measure For Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe seems like a rushed follow-up, or a chance for Ato Essandoh to dominate another Shakespearian role, for it evokes only the atmosphere of a circus, a show in which almost everyone is just clowning around.

Manhattan Theater Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 8/25): Fri. @ 8 | Sat. @ 7 & 9:30

Friday, August 10, 2007

IDOL: The Musical

The Claymates, a ragtag group of social misfits in Steubenville, Ohio that worship American Idol alum Clay Aiken, prepare a routine to audition for him when the "Idol Tour" comes to middle America. Although there are pockets of entertainment and genuine talent, this musical satire lacks crucial development of its characters, inventive choreography and consistency.


Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Writer Bill Boland and Composer Jon Balcourt's IDOL: The Musical both derides and makes excuses for the maniacal fans of American Idol's Clay Aiken. No, Clay doesn't make a cameo appearance in the show, but the cast of ten have a gigantic, cardboard replica of him (that is not accurately in his likeness) to revolve around. And revolve they do. Emerging onstage in striped hooded cloaks by Keith Axton that are meant to invoke monks, the soon-to-be community of college grads "ohm" and chant their way into clay-ziness. It is the perfect beginning to the hilarious worshipping that ensues.

Boland makes certain that a diverse group of worshippers are represented, including goths, nerds, Brits, b-boys, grease monkeys, cowboys, camera hounds, dominatrixes, and over-the-hill starlets. And of course, this media-happy world wouldn't be complete without a saucy villainess fluffing up their dreams, and then summarily squashing them. Unfortunately, the plot is one of the weaknesses of this musical.

Adrienne (glamour puss Katy Reinsel), cousin to domme-in-private Emily (a hilariously passionate Stephanie Robinson), breezes back into town with a proposition for the Claymates: prepare a song and dance routine to audition while the "IDOL Tour" is in town. "Aging starlet" and mother to Emily, Midge (strong-piped Dawn Barry) is called in to choreograph, and the group proceeds to show off their individual skills for their own 15 minutes of fame, banding together for a clunky, destined-to-be-mocked routine. Unfortunately, Adrienne talks out of both sides of her mouth, giving them false confidence on one side and planning their doom on the other. While they are distracted with their poor number, she sculpts her own showstopping routine with the assistance of pants-sparing nerd, Connor (Philip Deyesso). Adrienne's ambitious nature, tried before in other shows and other characters, seems unnecessarily vicious, given that unbeknownst to him, she implicates Connor in her ploy. There simply is no need for her to destroy Connor, a man that she considers to already be beneath her. Flimsy and unnatural, the plot requires her to systematically plan their unpreparedness for this audition in a manner that suggests she wouldn't have other fans to contend with. Like the other Claymates, she'll do anything to get out of Steubenville, yet already behaves as if she is worldly and too good to be one.

One other problem area for this show is the underdevelopment of characters. Emily is said to have a husband, and Alex is said to have a son, but these are not details that are elaborated on, and are simply out of place for this light-hearted musical. It is enough that these people clearly do not feel comfortable in their own skin and hide under facades and media emulation. Giving them domestic problems, particularly without proper explanation, expands the issues where they should be isolated to their self-image.

Although Chippendales-hopeful, b-boy J.D. (a commanding Joe Walker), Adrienne, Emily and Midge all have numbers that showcase their hidden desires and true selves, the remainder of the cast is either underused or unnecessary. Some characters enjoy an exaggerated solo, while others such as Kodi (Shadae Smith) seem dispensable due to Boland's writing. Through voice-overs, there is a minor amount of heckling and ridiculing from the townspeople, but not nearly enough for the magnitude of Clay-worshipping represented. Additionally, though the American Idol judges are represented through voice-overs, the impersonations are not spot-on, and snap us out of Clay-rapture.

Although these ADHD, Ritalin-popping undergrads all want their 15 minutes of fame, few distinguish themselves with the material in this show. Goth girl Cass (Kierstyn Sharrow) wins the prize for the most distinctive voice, even over Alex (Jillian Giacchi), who wails into a Kelly Clarkson/Mariah Carey note to be remembered. As they "quake for Aiken, and shake their bacon", they do occasionally thrill with knee-slapping humor, particularly in "Simon Says", a well-written number that exploits the Idol frenzy to a tee.

Technically, the lighting cues by Charles Shatzkin are too sharp, and the scenic design by Brian Howard, although visually stimulating, is prop-heavy and underused. The choreography by Associate Choreographer Joe Walker is humdrum, and only explodes with his own solos. The direction by Daniel Tursi is competent enough, but too many elements override his contribution.

With everyone breaking out of their Claymate shell in the end, it is simply too perfect a scenario for everyone to experience a metamorphosis. However, the show does drive the point home about the importance of being yourself and putting the "idols back on the shelf", even if it lobs you over the head with it through repetition. With a generation so obsessed with "rising from obscurity", it is easy to begin a love affair with stardom and media stars. This critique of pop culture obsession, although flawed, is a cheeky stab at ending the addictions.

Opens August 12th through September 2nd, 2007.
45th Street Theatre
354 West 45th Street, 1st Fl.New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-868-4444 $60

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Hanging Of Razor Brown

A well-detailed miniature set on the occasion of the hanging of a "Negro" horsethief, The Hanging of Razor Brown convincingly conjures the social hypocrisies and conventions of Southern culture not long after the Great War. The author stumbles into derivative territory in his depiction of some of the supporting characters, but that doesn't diminish the vivid character study at the center of the play.

photo: Kymm Zuckert


Reviewed by Patrick Lee

It's a blisteringly hot day in a small town in Florida, circa 1918, as Genevieve LeCompte chaperones three of her students to a grassy knoll under the guise of permitting the girls their French lesson outdoors. As the knoll overlooks the preparations for the hanging of a "Negro" accused of stealing a horse, it's increasingly clear that the girls have been escorted outside to learn a hard, insidious life lesson from their teacher: know your place, and suffer it with dignity.

When LeCompte, the central driving character in Le Wilheim's absorbing new play The Hanging Of Razor Brown, holds forth about the place of women, men, and Negroes in their socially-constricted society (which is most of the time), the play is on its most fertile ground. She's a striking character, something like the inverse of the protagonist in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, advocating not passionate action but calculated poise and passivity to deal with the world. Her belief system is practical but appalling and hypocritical; her young charges have already begun to see through it, and not only because of her resignation about the hanging that is soon to unfold before them.

Le Wilheim's depiction of her is carefully and skillfully drawn: a whole world of Southern culture comes to clear life when she speaks, exposing a variety of prejudices, hypocrisies and social conventions following the Great War. It also exposes the crushed, lonely woman underneath the defensive, socially correct facade. As Tracy Newirth portrays her, with many shades and levels in her performance, she is always understandable even at her most chilling. Note the genuine disbelief, despite one of the girls reading it from a book, that a gentlemen such as William Blake would have ever written a poem about a colored boy.

The play is less successful in its depiction of its male characters. Although Jon Oak does excellent, detailed physical work as the villain of the piece, the character is written in broad strokes that border on stereotype. The list of the character's offenses pile up high enough to make plain the difference between the "larger than life" that is intended and the "singularly monstrous" that results. It starts to feel as if he wandered out of a rough draft of Williams' Sweet Bird Of Youth, finally rejected for being too grotesque. There's a long scene involving a boy who is close in age to the girls; the point it makes about the submissiveness that is expected of women is important, but is the length and the laxness of the scene really needed to make it? (On the other hand, I'd hate to see anything cut that gives Erin Singleton, playing the most naive and innocent of the three girls, something to do. She's exceptional.)

Finally there is the character of a drunken war veteran, who appears to serve as the play's moral center despite circling in on the schoolteacher with raw carnal menace. Although this character also seems derivative, the author has at least given him a strong dramatic arc. Pity that this production hasn't made enough of it. His interactions with the schoolteacher are too often unclear here, and are further diminished by a lack of chemistry between the actors. Their final scene together lacked the intended chill.

But more often than not, when the teacher and pupils are engaged and front and center (or when they are visited by the wife of the man about to be hanged - played with appropriate gravity by Anastasia Morsucci) the play is both an absorbing, well-detailed miniature of a particular time in Southern culture and a vivid character study. Are these strengths enough to hold the play together? Yes.

Please note that two casts alternate during the run of this production; I have reviewed the "A" cast.

59E59 (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets: (212-279-4200) $18
Performances: (thru 8/26) Tue - Sat at 8:30pm; Sat at 2:30pm; Sun at 3:30pm and 7:30pm

Sunday, August 05, 2007


It's not what's in a name that matters anymore: it's what's in a picture. Stephen Aubrey's Daguerreotype is a little underdeveloped, but those sections that are clear show a lot of promise for reviving historical theater and reminding us of how we once were. Some people believe photos capture a soul--I think they capture a story. Now the American Story Project just needs to decide if that story's going to be about Mathew Brady, the pioneering war photographer, or if it's going to be about the unsung Civil War.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The American Story Project's ambitious Daguerreotype creates a fine latent image by focusing on Mathew Brady and then branching out to the Civil War and the question "What is history?" However, Brady's narrative is underexposed. The hour-long play, for all director Jess Chayes's quick cross-cutting, doesn't get any closer to the heart of Brady (Edward Bauer), one of the pioneers of war photography, nor to the doomed relationship between him and his wife, Juliette (Hayley Stokar). We understand that he has a great passion for his work, enough that he leaves his sick wife behind to risk his life at war in the "What-is-it? wagon." And we see that age and bankruptcy force him to find meaning in his 30,000 "captured" photographs, lest he die of regret. But these are images alone: we see them without necessarily understanding the story behind them.

That's why the second half of Stephen Aubrey's script is so much stronger: he abandons the back-and-forth between Brady's lament, sitting beside his wife's sickbed, and Brady's remembrance of History (a collection of roles, including Abraham Lincoln, played by an agile, but indistinct Zach LeClair). Instead, the rest of Daguerreotype follows a lecture that Brady may have given about the history behind the photos, which allows the Aubrey to use his imagination, and not just his investigation. At this point, it's just a trio of actors working together to unfreeze the still images of the past, riding the waves of time with vibrant rhapsody.

Daguerreotype is still all over the place, blurry and unfocused, but the energy and passion make for an exciting bit of theater. With more development, the final image may be as crisp and haunting as the portraitures hung throughout the theater. But without a richer story, the American Story Project will be trapped like Brady: "walking and working among phantoms."

The Abingdon Theater (312 W. 36th Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $15.00
Performances (through 8/11): Thurs.-Sat. @ 7 | Sat. & Sun. @ 3

Four Unfold: A City Story With Song

(Part of the 8th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival)

Three "friends" watch as a self-absorbed actress with dreams of stardom dies slowly of cervical cancer developed from HVP (the human papillomavirus). Although HPV is a welcome and novel theme for theatre, this production lacks focus, good direction, and a strong impression.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Writer and director Katie Lemos revamps the concept of musical theatre in Four Unfold: A City Story with Song. The music, in the form of TJ Moss' (Sam) groovy, coffee-house ballads, is intimate and has character. This fits well with the quiet, hesitant performances of the cast, but also mutes the possibility of any excitement in the show.

With a sparse, living room setting and a small performance space, Four Unfold begins like a whisper and never rises above the hush. Set in New York, the lives of four people weave into this drama, but only glamorous Tess (a ravaged Abigail Taylor) enjoys a portrayal beyond a sketch. Tess is the HPV-stricken actress and model who ignores the virus in pursuit of fame and fortune. Contracted from a polyamorous lover, Tess ignores the HPV, swears off sex, and proceeds with her ambitions, even at the expense of her health and reason. Unfortunately, her relentless drive allows the virus to mutate into a cancer that is slowly killing her.

Along the way, she antagonizes, confounds, and unites her acquaintances: sweet and energetic dancer Annie (Sarah Spritzer); surly, straight shooter Aden (Jonathan Gregg); and Sam. Strangely enough, Tess is not the protagonist. Sam, the musician who strums his guitar to lace together scenes and whom we know the least about, is. It is through him that the remainder of the cast gets acquainted, and it is through his tolerance that they are all affected by Tess' last days.

Sam's role as commentator to the events unfolding around him makes his songs appealing, but also makes him the antithesis of what a central character should be. He participates in scenes, but only as a drifter, never fully rooted in the action or connected with his friends (except for a nice game of Go Fish with Aden and Annie). His failure to establish himself as a dominant force is partially due to his performance and partially due to the role written by Lemos. Annie, his supportive and lovelorn roommate, is only a fraction of a character, having transplanted from LA to NY to pursue dancing for the art of it. Spritzer handles that fraction well, however, to flaunt her ease with pep and devotion. Sam's gay friend Aden weighs in with the secondary struggle of the play: the acceptance of his sexuality by his parents. Although Gregg's jock bravado is too strong for him to convey Aden's sensitivity, Lemos gives Aden choice lines that are grounded in reality. While they treat Sam with the utmost importance, Sam doesn't do anything to deserve it. He's too casual and mumbly to be his own person, and draws his identity from his friends' neediness.

Although HPV plays a large part in the plot, very little is revealed about this virus in the play. The education comes in the form of an insert for the show's playbill instead. In fact, if you are not privy to media attention currently being given to HPV, you might leave the show with very little knowledge of this growing problem. It doesn't help that the other characters spend most of the time disliking Tess, Four Unfold's poster child for HPV. It makes it very difficult to be sympathetic towards her, even if her desire to leave behind a legacy is a common one.

Because of the gravity of cervical cancer, the musical segues from deep conversations seem odd and contrived. The monologues that introduce (and interrupt) scenes are annoying, and always seem to lack real punch by the actors. With a 2 hour and 10 minute running time, the show could have ended 25 minutes earlier with a clear conclusion. Instead, Lemos insists on wrapping up each of the characters' stories in neat little bows that should have been left undone.

Additionally, on a technical level, the lighting cues for the show were too sharp for the relaxed atmosphere of Moss' music and the hum of the industrial air conditioner overrode Moss' guitar playing and sometimes the actors' lines.

Four Unfold: A City Story With Song is a timely musical which needs a lot of work before it can become a success. There is great material present, but this production needs heavy workshopping to reach its full potential.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Brig

The Brig is a hard show to recommend. It makes its point, like the military, by drilling it into you, one routine at a time, until your only hope is to blindly obey. But the stern discipline of the ensemble (at least 16 large), the firm direction of director Judith Malina, and the deliberate writing of Kenneth H. Brown demand one's attention.

Photo/John Ranard
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Brig is closer to modern dance than theater. The rote choreography of military indoctrination lends itself toward the physical over the intellectual, and the emotion stems from movement rather than story. Grippingly tedious and jarringly tight, The Brig is an illustration in several scenes of the dismantling of a soldier's independent thought. It isn't actually a dance, but in the absence of narrative, the intimate exposure of these men, and the prolonged passage of time, it seems like one.

In actuality, The Brig is a work of hyperrealism, written by Kenneth H. Brown, based (one imagines) on his own experiences as a prisoner of his own country. His writing strips away tactics and replaces them with imperatives; his plot dulls our nerves with repetition, only to jangle them again with swift punches to the gut; his dialogue is humorless and severe. Judith Malina, who controversially directed this in 1963, meets Brown's needs with crisp and efficient staging, stark lighting, and claustrophobic passages. She also forces the cast to meet Brown's needs: not only are they never allowed to sit still, but they are actually punched (it's pulled, but still). At times, the show is less acting than reacting, which is where Brown and Malina manage best to blur the line between reality and theater.

The other successful bit of staging is The Brig's honest homage to the unique ability of the military to make chaos appear organized (and more recently, to make organization fall into chaos). As the routines build and build and the layers of individual actions shriek one atop the other, we are swept away by the callous efficiency of the dehumanizing machine. The style is that of classic comedy, with the establishment of routine and the gradual distortion of it: but in the absence of humor, it becomes a serious grotesque. And when one of the prisoners finally snaps (as he must), it is only a matter of time before a new soldier is sent in for disciplining. (It is a mark of good pacing that Brown introduces the newcomer toward the end of the second act. Rather than allowing us to ease in with him in Act I, Brown pushes us in. When the new prisoner enters, we view him with the eyes of veterans who know better than to hope for mercy.)

I'm glad to see The Brig extended, for it is not an easy piece of theater, either to perform or to watch. The play is meant to give the audience a glimpse into a single day in the brig, and this requires a certain commitment to tedium and silence. Today, people can hardly listen to the news or watch sports without witty recaps, graphical aids, and charismatic speakers. It is nice to see an audience take the time to slow down for an actual experience.

The Living Theatre (21 Clinton Street)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00

Performances (through 9/2): Wed.-Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 4

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Two Thirds Home

Two Thirds Home is a memory-driven play, one that relies on an actor's ability for elegy to produce its dolorous drama. Thankfully, Padraic Lillis's strong writing has aged those bottled emotions well, and he uncorks each new surprise with a samurai's clean-cut flourish, allowing the frothy emotions to explode with such vibrancy that we can hardly distinguish the tears on our cheeks from the dew of finely poured champagne.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but how do you measure the ownership of memories, that most essential and ephemeral of things? Two Thirds Home is a battle between two brothers and their dead mother's lesbian lover over who has the right to love the deceased the most. Is it Paul (Aaron Roman Weiner), the sensitive poet, the one his mother loved the most out of a fearful necessity? Is it his older brother, Michael (Ryan Woodle), the responsible but embittered son who only managed to impress his mother by making her a grandmother? Or is it Sue, who has lived in an unacknowledged relationship with their mother for twenty years, only to find herself neither a widow nor an aunt?

It's not a competition, or at least it shouldn't be, but then again, emotional people are erratic: they fight over silly things, and imagine that a piece of property can hold not just memories, but a person's being. Playwright Padraic Lillis ups the ante, too, by willing the property to all three: how do you divide a home in thirds? The first step is to reminisce, with Paul basking in fond memories of home while Michael squirms at the unfamiliarity of a home that he does not feel welcome in. When Sue arrives, Michael's discomfort is only amplified: here is the woman who has innocuously divided the family into those who approved and those who did not approve of the unspoken "friendship." Sue is grieving too, however, which leads to the second step: confrontation. The years of bottled emotions have aged well, and Lillis uncorks each new surprise with a samurai's clean-cut flourish, allowing the frothy emotions to explode across the increasingly cramped living room floor.

Such a character-driven play cannot succeed without a mastery of the script by its actors, and two of them deliver. From Peggy J. Scott, whom readers may recognize from Rescue Me, there are elements of both the yielding mother and the harsh interloper, and she snaps between the two on a dime, trying to alienate and reconcile, often at the same time. Ryan Woodle also delivers on the script, with one of the rawest character arcs in recent theater. He's the gruff child who matured too soon, resenting his brother's precociousness and jealous of the attention that should be his. As a result, he huff and puffs through a house he proclaims to harbor no emotion for, only to blow himself down when he at last confesses what he's lost. The only blemish on the play, and it's an easily concealable one, is Mr. Weiner's performance, a whiny ode to a mother who is only a fixed star in his orbit when the other two grow elegiac. Lillis's poetry is there to support him, he needs only find the power of memory to realize the full potential of this heart-wrenching work.

Michael Weller Theatre (311 W. 43rd Street; Fl. 6)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances (through 8/12): Mon., Weds.-Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 7