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.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues

Jeff Goode's eight Santa-skewering monologues have a lot of creativity going for them: they're perverse, original, and witty. But they sort of hang out there in the open air, directionless reindeer; without a belligerent, drunken Santa breathing down their neck, the show is just a lot of one-dimensional banter.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Screw the eggnog: these reindeer are into the hard stuff. If you thought the worst that Santa's reindeer would have to deal with this year were ice tornadoes (something the lead reindeer, Dasher [Robert Brown], will proudly boast about), then you're in for a nasty little treat. You see, Santa's been playing with "the jolly old elf," and if you listen to Cupid (Peter Schuyler), the only openly gay reindeer (his intro is the Electric Six song, "Gay Bar"), then you'll understand the horror of meeting his red and white member: "There's big Santa, little Santa, big Santa, little Santa," he squeals.

Of course, Santa's not just into the children on his lap -- having scarred them into repression (yes, warns the dutiful Blitzen [Rachel Grundy], trama's the reason kids stop believing in Santa) he now turns his attention to his reindeer. In particular, when he gets into a certain "mood" in the workshop, he likes to rape anything that moves -- like Vixen (Jennifer Gill) -- or to abuse the less capable of his staff, like Rudolph, Donner's retarded son. And so you'll get to hear a very depressed Donner (Jason Unfried) talk about his deal with the red-coated devil (there's a reason Santa and Satan share the same letters). If that's not enough, you can hear Hollywood (Geoffrey Warren Barnes III) brag about his upcoming motion picture -- the one that will put that Claymation crap to rest -- or you can hear the apathy of Dancer (Theresa Unfried) or the apologia of Comet (Amy Overman), a doe so forgiving that even her curses are "H-E-double hockey sticks."

That's all you'll get, though: Jeff Goode's play doesn't actually make any judgments or resolve any issues. It just pokes fun at a large number of issues, like religion (Comet stops being a Muslim because she's afraid to tell them that she delivers toys for the "good little infidel boys," and Dancer, the Jewish reindeer, wonders if she can get off when Hanukkah falls on the 24th), sexuality (Cupid's particular fetish is for the sadomasochism of Santa's whip or the way a buck's antlers gore him during oral), and morality (Donner whores out his son for a taste of success, and Vixen almost seems convinced that her own lifestyle choices justified Santa's rape). As such, the play is a series of over-the-top surprises that pervert our perceptions, and is a good match for the Dysfunctional Theatre Company.

This year, however, the third time isn't the charm. Most of the cast has been in the show before (playing other reindeer), and some of them seem tired of it. Each of the eight ultimately stands alone (although others occasionally drink in the background), and only a few of the reindeer have personalities that really command attention. The play becomes grounded only in the jokes, not the flimsy characters, which makes sense, since there's no direction, only performing. Set pieces give the actors a place to play, but nothing brings these pieces together, and so the show is ultimately a little disappointing, even with all the laughs.

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The Red Room (84 East 4th Street)
Performances (through 12/21): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:00 | 12/6 @ 4
Tickets: $18.00

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Atomic Farmgirl

Teri Hein's memoir about growing up on a farm "accidentally" being irradiated by a nearby atomic plant in the '50s and '60s is a real American tragedy: the unwitting effects of our own ingenuity (and the more sinister implications of our knowledge) on a hearty family of six. This sprawling epic crams in the growing pains of four sisters, the hardships of farm life (especially in sickness), and the guilt of the living, and overreaches only when it taps Native American mythos to force through an unnecessary parallel.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Your three sisters always make you the bashful horse, or have you go as the tepee for their Indian princesses; you live on a large farm, for which you care or know little about; your town is so small that everyone shares a party line; it's the year 1966; and, oh yeah, you live about 100 miles downwind of a nuclear power plant that's gone unregulated for years. So it's no surprise that your father gets thyroid cancer -- like you and the rest of your sisters -- and then, twelve years after recovering, comes down with a brain hemorrhage from all that rerouted blood. Or that your neighbors -- crushes and all -- start dying, moving, or both. Welcome to the world of Atomic Farmgirl, a epic by C. Denby Swanson adapted from Teri Hein's identically titled memoir. (And why not? It's a catchy title.)

However, it's not the largeness of the tale -- a story that travels from a 1952 medical emergency to a 1966 less-than-idyllic childhood to a 1978 college awakening and an eventual 1991 deposition -- that makes Atomic Farmgirl worth seeing. It's not the performances either, which range from the excellent Maria McConville to the suitable Melissa Condren to the often grating Kathleen O'Grady. Rather, it's the comic little details -- like how neighbor Mona sees herself as patriotic because there's a tumor in her head the size of a baseball -- or the wry anecdotes about how a lactose intolerance saved them from death as they had to switch from the cow's unknowingly irradiated milk to bottled milk. (From a milk-bottle shaped building, no less; a fact Teri gloats about as being one of those things you can get away with in a town like hers.) Such facts make for an entertaining account, and help to ground the play even as it jumps forward and back in time.

If only Swanson had stuck with adapting the memoir. In her haste to switch narrative viewpoints in the different times -- to give us a fuller, richer picture of the times -- she creates a bunch of theatrically shallow devices. That's right: ghosts. They all serve structural purposes; these phantasms (despite their substance) don't just apparate out of the blue. But for such a weighty topic, already leaden as much with history as with the radioactive iodine-121, is it really necessary to add in two Native American ghosts, Whiet-Alks (Karen Kitz) and Chief Qualchan (Dennis Gagomiros)? The parallel between them and their farming contemporaries, Teri Hein (Condren) and Ralph Hein (Hamilton Clancy) seems unnecessary (i.e., myths have little place in the Atomic Age). It also takes away from the hallucinations of Teri's guilt-riddled daughter, Dolores (O'Grady), who gets a visitation from an old crush, Greg Hahner (Brad Coolidge). These ghosts do everything from comically crash a coffee party to travel back in time, Christmas Carol-like, and it makes the fine, natural balance of the play more than a little tipsy. It also stretches the play out (close to three hours, all told), which would be fine if all this extra pith didn't detract from the essence of the source material.

The other place Atomic Farmgirl falters is in the presentation of the family drama. This is a low-budget production, at 78th Street Lab, and it is still in development, but even so, I've seen better work from The Drilling Company before. As is, it isn't always clear who some of the double-cast actors are: David Marantz, for instance, plays two surly farmhands (Leonard Zehm and Ed Brewer), and we're often guessing which is which until the text cues us in. Furthermore, the heart of this show -- the childhood and reunion of sisters Cheryl (Jane Guyer), Marsha (Vanessa), Tracy, and Kathleen -- misses more than a few beats in the acting department. It's most noticeable in the earlier years, when the sisters play at being horses: where they should be free, they are instead fettered by what seems to be embarrassment, and that takes away from the innocence that is so integral to sympathizing with this nuclear plight.

You'll note, though, that I still say Atomic Farmgirl is worth seeing. Even through production flaws, the script itself stands up very well as a representation of life not just on a farm, but in the '60s, with the shadow of a Cold War hanging frigidly in the noontime sun. The seeds of an excellent play exist in the memoir, and Ms. Swanson (along with collaborating director Brooke Brod) has harvested most of it: there's just too much chaff in the field.

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The Drilling Company @ 78th Street Theatre Lab (236 West 78th Street)
Tickets (212-414-7717) $18.00

Performances: 11/30 @ 7:30 and 12/1 @ 3:00

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

dai (enough)

Before they were statistics, the victims of suicide bombings were people, and the power of Iris Bahr's multi-faceted performances in her solo show, dai (enough) is her ability to resurrect them, just moments before the explosion, in such a way that we can remember them as humans, first and foremost, and political statements later. Bahr's comic approach doesn't always work -- many of the characters still seem like figurative points -- but when it does, her work is explosive.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

A British newscaster walks through a sea of empty chairs and empty tables, reporting to her unseen camera crew on the wide variety of characters to be found here, a bustling cafe in Jerusalem. She's here to explore the "Israeli plight," and before long, she's found an interesting interview subject. A brief change of clothing, and Iris Bahr is now an American actress doing research for a part she's totally thrilled to be playing, a Jewish girl so beautiful that a suicide bomber falls for her. ("Let's just say there's a sex scene, but no sequel," she blithely says.) But before her career can blow up (and there's a lot of this violent punning), the cafe is blown up by a less-than-Hollywood bomber, the lights fade, screams rise, and Iris Bahr rewinds to do it all over again, this time as an Israeli man.

Dai (enough) is a cleverly transposed solo show that views the last few minutes of ten different characters. The rigid structure alone is a reflection of the lock-step tension in Israel, but the far more chilling effect is that the explosions grow expected, and repetitive. These lives are momentary breaks from a limbo of destruction, and for all the comedy that Bahr lends them, there's always something inescapably bleak over their shoulder. Even the ghostly set, littered with scraps of clothing and haunted by a giant black arch, enforces this terror. Bahr can claim all she likes that she didn't want to make a political play, but the staging (and choice of character; there's only one Palestinian) cries otherwise.

At the same time, these aren't polemic characters, and with the exception of a very busy and opinionated Jewish mother ("How many people must die for these [Arab] monsters?"), they're not really polarizing, either. Instead, Mrs. Bahr manages to capture the nuance of different lifestyles in Jerusalem, from the Russian prostitute who "don't give shit" about the problems to the ecstasy dealer out to throw a "party for peace." She embodies the snooty socialite, visiting her homeland with designer sunglasses and feeling like "the Queen of England," just as easily as she becomes a gay German furniture dealer, blindly following the love of his life. (There's some good writing here, too; the German, depressed, begins to make discomfiting furniture that expresses his angst -- like a table with an edge so sharp, it'll slit your wrists if you lean on it.)

But what the show lacks are sympathetic characters. It isn't until the end of the play that we meet our entry point, an orphaned American girl who has volunteered to serve in the Israeli army. Neither Jewish nor American, she is still alone, trying desperately to find herself, and not just the "Americocky" person they label her as. She speaks of making human connections, of how it must be nice to feel suffocated by someone who loves you, and her nervous yearnings earn her the tragic ending that eludes so many of these other briefly glimpsed people.

Dai (enough) is a strong production that makes a nice transition from the Culture Project to the 47th Street Theatre, and although it cheats the narrative to make a point (these "interviews" can't all be taking place at the same time), that end justifies the means. It's also thoroughly grounded by Bahr's plot, which neatly frames a series of parallels within the full-circle arc of the play, all while remaining so casually chatty. The routine explosions aren't subtle, but they masks all of the unspoken words (and those that will now never be able to be said), and those are subtle. These are all real people, flaws and all, and by resurrecting their ghosts each night, Iris Bahr is making the biggest political statement of all: that it's time to lay the violence to rest.

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47th Street Theatre (304 West 47th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $65.00
Performances (through 3/2): Mon.-Wed., Fri. & Sat. @ 6:30 | Sat. @ 2:00 | Sun. @ 5:30

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bingo with the Indians

A heist and a Method actor's resolve go awry in Adam Rapp's newest play.

Photo of Bats members Cooper Daniels (left) and Rob Yang in "Bingo with the Indians": TheFlea.org

By Ellen Wernecke

Like a great caper film, the seeds of dissolution are planted in "Bingo With The Indians," Adam Rapp's new play (which he also directed) at The Flea. The taskmaster (Jessica Pohly), the barely-reined-in muscle (Cooper Daniels), and the lookout (Rob Yang) are ensconced in a motel hours before the rip-off is to take place, listening to lite rock and dreaming their solitary dreams. In order to "man the fucking gunboats of destiny," the trio -- as it turns out, united in their desire to put on a play in New York -- need to collect $3,000, which they plan to get from ripping off a church bingo night in the taskmaster "Big Daddy"'s former hometown in New Hampshire. Cue the motivational singles and goofy setbacks? Please. For these dark kids and their dark deed, only more darkness can be wrung out.

From the audible crash that opens the show, "Bingo with the Indians" is a steely-eyed journey straight to the heart of darkness as the actors suck a pot-smoking local (Evan Enderle) and his rebelling ex (Corinne Donly) into their misdeeds. It would be hard to choose a stand-out from among the cast members, but Yang's soft-voiced menace as Wilson, the stage manager who attempts to stage his own fantasy, is onstage the most and is the most creepily compelling to watch. Without the freedom (as Daniels has as Stash, the drug addict and aspiring star) to caterwaul and let loose physically, Yang makes every blink and gesture a conscious act, and the result is completely untouchable. This is the kind of show that gets away with placing a digital clock front-and-center in its set design; I was tempted to look only twice.

The big-tent irony of watching some Off-Off-Broadway actors (members of The Flea’s resident troupe, The Bats) playing a troupe of Off-Off-Broadway actors aids the show, especially in one scene where its humor gives the audience the break it badly needs from the increasing brutality of the strangers. It's a moment so classically Rapp, you might even see it coming--but you probably won't, given the crackling tension of everything else happening onstage. The play yet to be shaped--described by Big Daddy as being “about everything you could think of”--is clearly, as “Bingo” rolls to its conclusion, the show being staged before us. As Wilson admonishes, while pouring Coca-Cola into his collaborator’s messenger bag, “I personally like it when actors go to the mountain.” Rapp sends them there and reaps the dramatic bounty he has sown.

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"Bingo with the Indians"
now playing through Dec. 22 at The Flea, 41 White St.
Tickets $20-$30, OvationTix
For more information, visit The Flea's Website.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Fourth Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide

There's never been as much tension surrounding a warm juice box before. The Hypocrites visit New York to bring us this disturbing tragedy written from the narrative of a recently deceased playwright, age nine. The performances are great, as is the direction, which is hauntingly surreal, but the play itself gets stuck in the conceit and the emotion is buried beneath the intentional affectation.

Photo/Heather Clark

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

What the FROG?! I knew going in that The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide would be surreal and disturbing, but I didn't expect something so Lynchian out of Sean Graney's mind. But that's what director Devin Brain has emphasized in this production, drawing all the color out of the room so that the stage looks like the white room from The Matrix and focusing on the stumbling attempts at adult talk so that the English becomes as alien as the thought of suicide. The problem that the show faces is to make us accept that this is a group of fourth graders, putting on their classmate's suicide note of a play. Instead, the faux awkwardness -- the deliberate affectations of shyness and disaffected mumbles of sound -- only serve to remind us that this isn't just a play within a play, but that these are adults playing at childhood.

And yet, the show is genuinely disturbing when it simply enacts the play. The dead Johnny may have only been nine years old, but he showed promise, with burgeoning lines like "I do not deserve the yellow cake of your love for me," the fetishization of a juice box, and the way in which he paints the character of Rachel (Jennifer Grace), a depressed young thing who wants to die because she is fat. Of course, the play manages to be this observant because it's actually been written by Mr. Graney, but his perspectives through the veil of childhood are fairly touching. The play's hero, "Johnny" (Joseph Binder) is especially challenging, as apt to provoke a bully one moment as he is to suddenly crouch into a ball in fear the next, which is, if you've ever seen children playing before, about as predictably unpredictable as it comes.

That's what makes Devin Brain's direction so chilling: he takes the innocence away from these children. He does it slowly, building up the adult themes first by exploring the relationships between popular girl Sally (Stacy Stoltz) and bully Mike Rice (Tim Simons), then by exaggerating the violence, so that blood is actually spilled in what would otherwise just be a scuffle. From there, the play grows to a bubble with a tragic dance between two students wearing a tortoise mask and a hare mask, both of which have been sealed shut with what turns out to be industrial strength glue (toxic). Another student comes out caked in rat poison, which is far less comic than the crude illustration on the box might lead you to believe. And our hero, as foreshadowed, grabs a floating gun out of the air and slowly bleeds ketchup all over the floor.

Delivery is everything, and The Hypocrites really have that down cold in this startling production. If their goal really is to make us see theater is a different light, then they've succeeded. But what the play lacks is any real feeling, buried as it is within a careful structure and intentionally suppressed emotion, and the show would be far better simply as an Unnamed Love-Suicide, with the Fourth Graders' introduction just cut out.

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59E59 Theaters: Theater C (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $25.00

Performances (through 12/2): Tues. - Sat. @ 8:30 | Sun. @ 3:30

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Bad Jazz

In The Play Company's brave production of Robert Farquhar's Bad Jazz, bad means just about everything except awful. Instead, it's naughty, sick, tough, discordant, and rebellious. Trip Cullman nails the direction (with help from his design team) by playing up the clash between the lofty ideas and their comically perverted expressions. The only thing bad would be missing it.

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

"Love? What the fuck is love?" asks Gavin (Rob Campbell), squatting like a sumo-wrestler as he struggles to direct his star, Natasha (Marin Ireland). He thrusts his cock forward, aroused by his own genius, and continues: "She wants to experience something that is made up of sex, and cruelty, and blood, and shit, and not some sentimental wank that has been invented to make us feel okay about ourselves." Now he postures for a moment, his jaw molded with as fierce an imprimatur as the one he is putting onto the play-within-a-play in Robert Farquhar's Bad Jazz, and casts a castrating glance at the clueless co-star, Danny (Ryan O'Nan), before continuing: "She can smell truth. She can't articulate it, but, she knows . . ." Has there ever been a more viscerally staged (and comically directed, courtesy of the exaggeratively minimalist, Trip Cullman) discourse on the artistic endeavor (sorry, Mr. Rapp)?

If that doesn't do it for you, Bad Jazz opens with a neat little argument between Tash and her boyfriend of three years, Ben (Darren Goldstein): "I didn't think that when I read the stage direction 'she performs oral sex' that mean you were actually, actually, going to be performing a, real, fucking blowjob, for real, in a play, on stage, in front of a paying audience." The question at heart is "how much more real do you want it to get?" and the answer, some ninety minutes later, as one of the cast members lies in a puddle of his or her own blood, awkwardly pulling out his or her own intestine for a better look, is: pretty damn far. In between, Farquhar looks at the dynamic between director and playwright ("You are not the only author in the rehearsal room"), unleashes a riff on the importance of Theatre (which must "always, always reserve the right to fuck over people's minds"), pauses for a moment to riff (as jazz must) on the ethics of what a play can and cannot proclaim ("It's not as if we've got somebody standing up here mouthing off about Islam, have we?"), and watches carefully the bleed between actor and character, an arrestingly well made point by Tash (the phenomenal Ireland), who is so consumed by her prostitute part that she begins to live the lifestyle, too.

The text is rich and deep, and there's very little that doesn't fit, beyond a small diversion between Gavin and a prostitute he hires, named Ewan (Colby Chambers), which really only serves to show Gavin's unusual predilections (he forces Ewan to become a character -- Jacob, from the Andrew Lloyd Weber production -- so that he can fuck him). The text is loaded, and the play grows darker as it gets deeper; at the same time, the play has a weird contrapuntal display of semi-absurd exaggeration to match the heightened intensity. Danny attempts to shoot up with a stage syringe, tying an increasingly desperate knot around his arm, only to keep flinching at the needle. Danielle (Susie Pourfar), Gavin's producer, slips on a strap-on to demonstrate the authenticity of a fake penis (it "pops up" elsewhere, too). And Tash, in a memorably cathartic rehearsal loses herself in the repetition of this sublimely ridiculous speech: "It was a fuck. That's all it was, because me and you, we're just two fucked-up no-hopers who got fucked up on fuck knows what, and we fucked, we fucked, we fucked." (Say that ten times fast.)

For all the foul language that jangles, Farquhar's script is surprisingly buoyant, which fits with the discordant theme of bad jazz that director Cullman has caulked into the seams of the play. There's a clash visually, too: Dane Laffrey's set design starts as the empty theater itself, so as to be a blank canvas for the growing aural chaos, and Ben Stanton's lighting cuts even the harshest of images into elegant pieces, as when the moment before a blowjob is suddenly frozen so as to give us a simultaneous scene between the depressed, pill-popping playwright and her nonchalant director.

Of course, it's not all roses: for all that Bad Jazz is a play about controversy, it often provokes itself away from art and into artifice. While Cullman's direction is sharp enough to cover this with the exaggerative staging (more provoking), the show -- especially its cafe denouement -- often seems put on, not raw, and that gives the audience a morally abnegating remove. Why waste the lines directed toward the audience, let alone the audience plants, if that energy simply becomes a comic device? Small fucking gripe, people: art marches on nonetheless, and you'd be wise to get yourself to the final performances of Bad Jazz while it's still nice and shrill.

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Ohio Theatre (66 Wooster Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $25.00 [Student Rush: $5.00]
Performances (through 11/25): Tues. - Sun. @ 8 | Sat. @ 4

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Arpeggio

Tragedy ensues when two roommates allow a pair of accessible celebrities to shape their lives. While the leading actors turn in fine performances, they simply can't save this production from the muddled themes that defy the title, rejectable plot details and lazy set changes.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Suffer the anonymous ones, for they uphold the famous. But when the nobodies get rebuffed for their support, the celebrities can be dropped in more ways that one. In David Stallings' new play with music, Arpeggio, sweet but unbalanced Gerry (Allison Ikin) gets her heart and hopes dashed by not one, but two celebrities. And since asylums hath no crazies like a groupie scorned, the lives of two roommates and the two celebrities who feed on them get very nutty as a result. Unfortunately, not all of the craziness stems from Gerry's pain. There's so much going on in addition to this premise that unlike an arpeggio (in music, the term means the sounding of the notes of a chord in rapid succession instead of simultaneously), this play remains in a constant state of confusion.

When Midwesterner Gerry moves to New York and in with Zeb (Andy Travis), personal assistant to pop singer Cindy Hall (Kristina Kohl), he winds up with much more than a roommate. He gets a confidante who brings entertainment in the form of music and TV into his life, and another pop singer, Tobin Grey (Jonathan Albert) into his living room and on his walls. Unlike her predecessors, Gerry doesn't seem at all impressed by Zeb's job, which is the major reason why he initially chose her as a roommate. In fact, rather than get starstruck when she meets his boss, she gets into an argument with her over a cell phone. From henceforward, there's no love lost between the two ladies in Zeb's life. Zeb finds out later that Gerry's ease around celebrities comes from her experience with them. She claims that not only is she a Tobin Grey fanatic, she's also his real girlfriend. After the initial skepticism, Zeb believes her. To further complicate Zeb's life, he has a burgeoning relationship with Colombian immigrant Ricardo (Marino Antonio Minino) whose temporary visa is expiring soon. But Zeb is also a commitmentphobe and an infidel. To rejuvenate Zeb's faith in love, Gerry offers to marry his boyfriend to keep him in the country. And as chaos erupts within the walls of Zeb's apartment, Cindy Hall brings her own version of it to his door with her concerns over her fledgling celebrity status and her constant attempts to control every aspect of his life.

Arpeggio is the equivalent of a child palming all the piano keys at once to produce a discordant, untrained sound. Stallings is attempting to say a lot of important things, but saying them all at once produces a lot of noise. On the one hand, there is the question of whether a real relationship can exist between a star and someone who isn't in the limelight. Zeb, though quite aware of how self-absorbed and vain Cindy Hall is, seems to think that there is a friendship between them. There is nothing to indicate that she feels the same, particularly since she views herself as a product that even her assistant uses. What's amusing, however, is that Cindy Hall does all of the using, and all Zeb does is protect her in return. This power exchange makes the scene in which the two reunite and exclaim how they miss each other ring false. There is also the critique of America's obsession with celebrity, as exhibited by Gerry's infatuation with Tobin Grey. However, Gerry cannot even really be used as an instrument to show this because to be obsessed with celebrity, she would have to latch on to more than one and what that status provides. Instead, she is fixated on one person, which indicates an underlying loneliness and false fulfillment of her fantasies which ultimately is a deeper psychological issue.

There is a critique about America's obsession with technology, highlighted by several scenes in which cell phones and their importance are featured. There is the element of a star and her self-reflection, but that is also a thin theme. Cindy Hall complains about not feeling like a real person and never being treated as one, but she thrives on being an idol. This is best demonstrated in the beginning of Act Two, where she lip syncs and does a sexy dance with a chair, resembling a pop commodity that we've seen before. However, there is an awkwardness in her performance that suggests that she is not completely comfortable with selling herself, particularly to the pre-teen demographic that she commands. Ricardo introduces a theme about immigration policies that is completely out of place here. Although his rants are compelling, they belong in another show entirely. The final notable theme presented is the notion that everyone is fake to a certain extent, and that most people's artifice can be shrugged off. That is a heavy statement that ties in with Gerry's plight, but it's also one that can exist on its own.

Several plot details that support the themes are questionable. For practical set purposes, all of Zeb's interactions with Cindy Hall take place in his apartment where she always comes to him. However, this is unbelievable because this doesn't exemplify an assistant who is at his boss' call. Having Cindy Hall pick up her own dry cleaning and constantly run to Zeb is not very glamorous of her, even if her fame is being threatened. When Tobin Grey gives Gerry the "I'm not him" speech in which he confirms her stalker status and destroys her illusion, it sets off a chain of events that propel the plot towards an alarming road.

However, there's no logical reason for the conversation to take place at all. Gerry isn't doing anything that threatens Tobin's safety, and flying to various cities to follow his tour is not uncommon for a fan to do. And since his safety isn't compromised, there is no reason for him to tell her to stay away. He couldn't possibly be concerned about her emotional and mental frailty, particularly since Stallings draws a picture of the celebrity as an idol and nothing more. And let's face it. An unbalanced fan is a celebrity's bread and butter. Why burst her bubble? Finally, it is implied that Ricardo gets arrested for jaywalking at some point. Seriously. In New York? Not only is this a weak plot point for practical purposes, but given Ricardo's passions, Stallings could have easily come up with something more compelling and true to his character.

Technically, the set changes are sluggish, masked by the performance of Tobin Grey and his band. Although live music is a nice touch, only Truth Within the Lie sung by Allison Ikin (written by Stallings and arranged by Sarah Chaney) makes an impression. Also, while there are several location changes, the majority of the set pieces stay the same. It is difficult to place actors in new locations when a prop or two is brought into a stationary set, and all of the parts remain illuminated. A little tweaking with the lighting design by Ian Crawford may solve that problem. Finally, a large stage light is used to represent a TV. Even the glaring light from the bulb can't make us accept this TV.

Although Andy Travis and Allison Ikin have great chemistry and deliver fine performances, it's not enough to save this play. Stallings could have had a strong drama about fantasy vs. illusion if there weren't so many embellishments. Similar in format to Katie Lemos' Four Unfold: A City Story With Song, Arpeggio takes the part-monologue, part musical, part drama formula to the extreme without fixing any of the problems. And if this show has any hope of having a distinct sound, the notes of the chord need to be arranged in a logical, melodic way.

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Through November 18th. Tickets: $25. TheaterMania at 212-352-3101.
45th Street Theater 354 W 45th StNew York, NY 10036

Theft of Imagination

What Theft of Imagination? All I see on display in David Negrin's new anti-war play about a last ditch attempt to broker piece between two allegorical nations is a ton of imagination, a precise line of thought that so drives the show that we can use our own imaginations to fill in the budgetary gaps in set and the occasional lapses in acting.


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Diplomacy, like theater, is the art of the possible: it's an act of convincing an audience, captive or otherwise, of something that does not necessarily exist. In the case of Theft of Imagination, it's a hard battle, considering that this free production, part of the PEACE ON WAR festival, is done largely with no set and an occasionally exaggerated cast. But it's also a leap of imagination well worth taking, as David Negrin's script is a sharp series of clashes between the diplomats of two opposite (but all the more similar) countries on the brink of war, and a well-planned parallel between the idealism of the youthful negotiators and their aggressive and adult handlers. And though Kat Chamberlain (who co-directs with Negrin) has little to work with on set, she plays up the split-screen action of the two sides very nicely: she really only needs a fight choreographer and some better sound effects.

Aside from a lackluster opening by a blustering priest straight out of Shakespearean dinner theater (Brad Russell), Theft of Imagination benefits most from its pacing. It opens with an ultimatum (there will be thirteen days to make peace, or the nations will go to war), quickly introduces the diplomats (an introverted boy and an outgoing boy), and then plunges them into high-stakes negotiation. Negrin's references to chess and diplomatic strategy (references to "blocks" and "cascades" are thrown around, as well as "misappraisal") keep the talks interesting, and the differences in character keep them dramatic. And don't be fooled by their archetypal names: though they begin committed to their "names," it isn't long before Outgoing Boy (Max Hambleton) is using more than his laid-back mouth, or before Introverted Boy (Kit Redding) learns to think with his heart and not just his mind.

As the days pass in a flurry of proposals and counterproposals, the two slowly begin to form a friendship, only to find that their handlers aren't looking for peace. This is where Negrin falls into a theatrical trap: he pads (unnecessarily, as it turns out) the handlers out, giving them a series of conversations outside the conference room where they speak about their hopes and insecurities. But in the second act, those characters become less human and more mechanical, with their words becoming just that -- words -- with no motivation or conviction behind them. Whereas Christopher Hurt is able to show growth (ironically, as the Outgoing Boy's Handler, he is the rigid and gaunt one), Angus Hepburn is locked into a sly and increasingly smug role. Their lines become the stuff of cheap television dramas: "If they stay on the path...." [conspiratorial pause] "Then we shall have to place land mines." As father-figures, guiding their children, they are humanized and all the more mysterious; outside of that, they're just villains.

I make these suggestions because at two and a half hours, the show runs a little long. There aren't enough subplots to require such length, and there are more than a few scenes (especially toward the end) that start to feel redundant, and while Negrin finds dozens of ways for his Introverted Boy to say "no" (he even turns it into a fun little game), the centralized action of the play doesn't give him the room to expand his initial parallels. Theft of Imagination ends up relying overly on the charisma of Mr. Hambleton and his character's outside-the-box thinking: if it can remain fair and balanced, it'll be an even better play.

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Players Theater (115 MacDougal Street)
Tickets: FREE ($20 suggested donation)
Performances (through 12/9): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:00; Sun. @ 2:00 [dark Thanksgiving week]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baby with the Bathwater

Just when you thought it was safe to have a baby, Christopher Durang's hilarious (and hopeful) look at family values, parentage, and maturation (despite it all), is back on the stage. Baby with the Bathwater is no-holds-barred comedy, and under Kevin Connell's playful direction and the cast's exaggerated smiles, the play is as relevant now (if not more) as when it premiered in '84.

Victor Verhaeghe, Anna Fitzwater, and Karen Culp look at the baby.
(Photo/Randy Morrison)

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

John (Victor Verhaeghe), a despairingly incompetent and increasingly drunk father, has a song he likes to sing: "Hush little baby, don't you cry/or Mama's gonna give you a big black eye." Those aren't the words to the song, and he despairingly knows as much, but in a world of foamy floor mats, hazardous alphabet cubes, and an LSD-inspired wallpaper of bright pink polka dots, they might as well be. Baby With the Bathwater, first penned by Christopher Durang in 1984, is a glorious satire on bringing up baby, without any childproofing, let alone adult proofing. There are sharp edges everywhere, from his wife Helen's (Karen Culp) passive-aggressive comas that say so much about our so-called "loving" relationships to their Nanny's (Anna Fitzwater) perverse, baby-shaking Mary Poppins shtick. Under Kevin Connell's crisp direction, even the pre-show is rich with the wicked underbelly of family values: a retro edutainment tape plays congratulating a family on successfully teaching their child about menstruation.

Baby with the Bathwater is a difficult sort of comedy, the kind that you'd get if George Carlin had been George Carlin instead of Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station. It is unrelentingly funny, but repetitiously so, which requires that the actors remain fresh and absurdly perky. In this, Ground UP Productions has nailed the casting, with Mr. Verhaeghe visibly unraveling, and Ms. Culp always looking for affection (despite her own affectation) in new and unusual ways. They are gross exaggerations, but pleasantly so, and Gina Restani, playing a variety of straight women (well, by comparison at least), puts their comedy in modulation, and Ms. Fitzwater, as a literal handful of psychoses, continues to distort their well-intentioned efforts. As for their son Daisy (Jeremy King), he's exactly what you'd expect of such parents, when he eventually appears toward the tail end of the show. Standing in a spotlight, speaking to an unseen psychiatrist, he is wide-eyed, twitchy, and soft-spoken, a product of days spent lying depressed in a laundry basket or running suicidally toward buses.

According to the crazed schoolmarm Mrs. Willoughby, such suffering never fails to produce great art, and Daisy's "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay truly sounds like "Donald Barthleme meets Sesame Street." (It's also suspiciously like the more adult Matt's manic monologues in Durang's 1985 play, The Marriage of Bette and Boo.) Fun as some might find the suffering prose of Woolf or Plath, Durang isn't interested in plumbing the depths of depression so much as he is in distorting them to comedic highs, and Baby with the Bathwater is a success. Here, The Brothers Karamazov is used to explain that everything is permitted because there is no God, and that there is therefore "no right or wrong, only fun": with that motto in mind, one can only delight (and even find hope) in the thought that no matter how insane your parents were, life goes on.

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Manhattan Theater Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Performances (through 11/17): Wed. - Fri. @ 8 | Sat. @ 2 & 8
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00

Secret Order

Secret Order is an actor's play, full of barbed lines, wry deliveries, and so little substance that the play revolves around exaggeration and half-truths. That said, no matter how well Bob Clyman arms them with lines, or Charles Towers removes all other distractions from their work, the play fails if the actors aren't all on their game, and Larry Pine has a ways to go before he's comfortable enough to play the confident Dr. Brock.

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Chemical strings like bc12 and p55 have never been so exciting to the layman before: in that regard, Bob Clyman's new Mametian play is a success. At the same time, Clyman builds medical suspense at the cost of realism, amping up the basest components of character so that for all their bellowing, they are unflappable in the dramatic wind. Thankfully, it's not all hot air: Clyman's plotting is airtight (if a bit predictable), and although the characters are obvious, when the actors are on, they're an exaggerated delight.

We first meet William Shumway (Dan Colman), the well-intentioned rube of the play, a scientist from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, who may have just stumbled upon the cure for cancer. It isn't long before he's approached by the brusque and confident Robert Brock (Larry Pine), a twice-nominated scientist, respected elder, and father figure, all rolled into one. He's quickly coerced into a job with Hill-Matheson in New York City (the pacing zips from lecture to phone call to live visit to job in under three minutes of smooth storytelling), and soon after meets an excitable undergraduate, Alice Curiton (Jessi Campbell), and irritable codger, Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar), his jealous rival from Toxicology. As pressures mount (with high expectations generated and then manufactured by Dr. Brock), Shumway makes an unethical decision to hide his results: not lying, exactly, but far from honest. Charles Tower's direction, minimal in design, and always jumping to the middle of action, helps to make the unspoken conflict into a central character: Shumway is always caught in the spotlight.

But the play falters when the characters miss their beats: rhythms that are already artificially inflated really need to be said by an actor with a pulse. When Larry Pine is on, the show is electric, sucked into his brash and biting enthusiasm ("My grandson talks about fair, and he's five."), his manipulative wit ("Why bother lying to him if he doesn't know it's a lie?"), and his sardonic affability ("Were you severely beaten as a small boy for talking too much?"). But more often than not, Pine is stumbling over his lines, looking far from persuasive: blustery, yes, but effective, no. And this in turn spoils the dynamic between him and Mr. Colman, who is obviously playing dumb, holding his charisma in reserve so as to play a struggling scientist. Worse still, when Pine loses his humanity, he makes Mr. Tigar seem even less likeable, more a malicious force for revenge than the slighted and wrathful elder that he should be. In turn, between all these exaggerated archetypes, Ms. Campbell gets lost in the kerfuffle, a pushy character who is so likable that she's forgettable.

Ultimately, the play doesn't really say anything that's all too surprising about the medical industry, and the shallow ethics on display, all half-truths and dodges, aren't as loaded as Clyman would like them to be. The play actually works best in the awkward relationship between prideful father-figure (Brock) and prodigious son (Shumway), which again, only works when Mr. Pine is nailing his lines. But Clyman doesn't have that much of a spine to fall back on: beyond his scathing lines and accessible science, Secret Order is an actor's play, and that's no secret.

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59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street)
Performances (through 12/9): Tues. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 2 | Sun. @ 3 & 7
Tickets (212-279-4200): $50.00

Corn Bread & Feta Cheese: Growing Up Fat and Albanian

An Albanian woman spends her life trying to divide herself from her heritage until she learns to love and embrace it. This solo comedy is engaging and fun, but the history lesson and pride in Albania is superseded by the multiple European and American cultures that influenced it....................................................
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

To grow up Albanian is hard. To grow up fat and Albanian is even worse. In Elza Zagreda's Corn Bread & Feta Cheese: Growing Up Fat and Albanian, the writer and performer cycles through the 80s, the worth of women in the Kanun (the Albanian bible) and gunshot weddings (yes, gunshots, gunshots from guns that get hidden in the underpants of children when cops are around) to get to the other part of her being, the part that isn't tied to her roots. But after jumping continents and jumping states, Zagreda finds that such a part does not exist. Try as she may, she simply can't divorce herself from her little-known town and country. But as she paints such an eclectic picture of her early experiences, it's hard to imagine why she would want to.

In this 80-minute show that has been performed for three years counting, Zagreda takes us through her rough childhood as the eldest of four girls in her family and the disappointments associated with not being born male and a rightful heir to the family name and property. She recalls how difficult it was to blossom into womanhood in her culture, where women's rights were nil and the only profession that she could ever strive towards was to become a Nuse (wife) and satisfy her husband. Through the timely integration of voiceover clips, Zagreda is able to convey the heavy hand that the Kanun and men have on a woman's propriety. There would be no wonder in why Zagreda balked at growing up Albanian but for a few things: although the oppression and depression that she felt are clear, she also highlights a great sense of family within her community, a coveted experience for many. Also, her elaborate descriptions of parties and the various personalities that she mimics wonderfully under Vincent Marano's direction are done so jovially that it's difficult to fathom her torture. Even sheep herding, a lucrative profession for the rural country, elicits a smirk or two.

Another matter that remains ambiguous is the true essence of Albania, though that is the very thing that the premise of the show rests upon. Zagreda tries to bring awareness of Albania to the stage, but very little of its etymology and antiquity is addressed. That would have been helpful in light of the fact that Greek and Italian references are rampant both in characters and in customs. For instance, the use of the well-known Greek expression "Ooompa!" during festivities and the importance of foods such as Italian pasta to Albanian cuisine that rivals their famed corn bread and feta cheese. Although Greece and Italy did have great influence in forming Albania's culture and history, the land of Albania did exist prior to that, populated by Illyrians (Indo-Europeans) that we don't really hear about here. And this show is also saturated with American pop culture and music, more so than the folk music of the many clans that reside there. But this can also be partially attributed to the fact that Zagreda and her family lived both in New York (the Bronx) and Florida. Interestingly enough, Zagreda does comment about the fact that the language of Albania has no known root, so perhaps the lack of distinguishing Albanian characteristics stems from lost facts.

Zagreda puts her heart and soul into Corn Bread & Feta Cheese, creating a warm, friendly atmosphere for her country folk and everyone else alike. Although there are instances where Zagreda should project her voice more, her ability to manipulate you into good cheer is clear. Also, you may be stumped by the various Albanian terms used with few translations, but the show is still funny and endearing. Part-standup, part-therapy, and part-storytelling, you'll never forget that you've met at least one Albanian in your lifetime.

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Through November 24th. Tickets: $22. TheaterMania at 212-352-3101.
Players Theatre 115 MacDougal Street New York, NY

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Broadway Strike

Far be it from any of us here at New Theater Corps to judge the actions of producers or stagehands, but rather than bemoan the absence of shows we were looking forward to, like August: Osage County or The Farnsworth Invention, why not take this as a valuable opportunity to explore some of the Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway shows that we try to shed light on each week? The season's far from over, and we'll keep you posted with notes from the field as we continue to highlight some of the hits and misses off the Great White Way.

Archipelago

Try as Emerie Snyder does to unify these playlets in staging and theme, the ten segments of Archipelago (some newly commissioned, some salvaged) come across as crude entertainment. There isn't enough time for these characters to change, nor do they ever have a catharsis of closure or camaraderie, and that makes the show continue to seem like it's simply developing, and nothing more.

Photo/Joanna Wilson Photography

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The way an island is formed, specifically an archipelago of them, is through random tectonic shifts on the ocean floor that cause volcanic rock to rush up and solidify on the surface. That said, it seems a bit disingenuous for a company that calls itself the Intentional Theatre Group to plan out a series of isolated incidents that bubble to the surface and blot out the sea. And sure enough, some of the ten one-act islands are half-formed in execution, over-produced and controlled so tightly that they have no room to develop of their own volition. At the same time, however, this group has managed to force some undiscovered riches to the surface, commissioning new and old playwrights alike (or borrowing from rarely produced offerings) and bravely producing the results. And thanks to the smooth direction of Emerie Snyder, the evening is spent hopping from one loamy substance to the next: the bad plays are quickly forgotten, and we're willing to jump, as the set is reconfigured -- sculpted -- into a new land, waiting and wanting to see what's next.

Where the playlets stumble most is in their dishonesty, moments where either the playwright or actor fails to address the most important concerns: why tell this story, and to whom are you speaking? In Davy Rothbart's "Scarface," the imprisoned hero must convince his wife to come upstate, children in tow, to make him look good in court, but the one-sided phone conversation lacks immediacy from actor Gavin-Keith Umeh and Rothbart sticks him with false humanity in his anecdotal attempts to help his children kill and dispose of a bat. This sometimes calm, sometimes enraged man has no real life, no real environment, and it becomes impossible to place him.

On the opposite end, Brian Patrick Leahy's "Cranberry" locks onto a unique story about a suicide artist who has strapped enough dynamite to her chest to make sure that when she explodes, the four canvases that surround her will literally make her mark for her. Even when actress Therese Barbato slips into an exaggerative mania on the phone with random interviewers (who we again have no attachment to or through), the idea is captivating.

As a state of theater, Archipelago unwittingly provides a measure of how far a playwright will go to stand out in this simplest and most communicative of forms: the direct monologue. Some, like Sarah Carbiener, revert to cliches, as in her madness-stricken narrative "The Cat's Fault." Others, like Sheila Callaghan in "Hold This" break the text up so unconventionally that the fragments (at least as performed by Nick Lewis) are hard to piece together. Then again, we are also treated to the premieres of Anton Dudley's "Up Here/In Here" and Erica Rosbe's "Orbit," not to mention the classic Beckett pantomime of despair, "Act Without Words I" (a bit noncommittally performed by Daniel Owen Dungan, though the malaise works for this scene). In "Up Here/In Here," Abigail (Lethia Nall) speaks in dreamlike repetition about her broken-glass dreams of the son she has, now dead, a sing-song approach that resembles the intentional parsing of Jenny Schwartz. And in "Orbit," Jeremy (Dan Via) deals with being the last man alive by erratically confiding in us, the stars surrounding his space station, the story of his lonely narcissism. With engaging presentations and charismatic roles, it's no surprise that these are the two best actors of the evening.

Unfortunately, Archipelago never comes together, despite a bookending recording that attempts to put the collection in context. Snyder's direction is focused so much on the pieces that she avoids dealing with the whole, and as a result, the pieces jostle against one another, the better parts sinking the others, rather than merging to create a more solid whole. There's much to be said for this sort of cruise-line theater tourism (you can gain a lot from briefly visiting a series of disparate plays), but the overall message comes as a bit cheap and somewhat crude: the catharsis of loneliness everyone's waiting for never comes.

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Altered Stages (212 West 29th Street)
Performances (through 11/18): Wed. - Sat. @ 8:00 | Sat. & Sun. @ 2:00
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00

Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky's classic novel makes an excellent transition to the stage in this dramatically and psychologically focused retelling of Crime and Punishment. From the cramped set to the floodlights of truth and repression to the tightly mirrored direction to the elegant and subtle acting, the Writers' Theatre isn't being cruel, nor unusual (but not easy either); just exactly the sort of ninety-minute sentence one hopes for.

Photo/Courtesy of Writers' Theatre

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Adaptations of stories rarely work, especially when they're epic, psychological romps through a tortured psyche, as is the case with Dostoevsky's classic Crime and Punishment. But Chicago's Writers' Theatre doesn't bother trying to fit the novel onto the stage; instead, Eugene Lee's set focuses the action with a cramped series of asylum-like doors that pin Raskolnikov, like some rare butterfly, beneath high-vaulted buckets of light and two low-hanging, interrogative ceiling lamps. The story does away with the third-person narrative and traps us beside the tortured intellectual as his mind punishes him -- physically and mentally -- for his murderous sin. For emphasis, Jesus hangs from a large cross, silently observing through his own blessed pain.

What Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus have accomplished is an abridgment that lends a real dramatic arc to the structure, doubling back for emphasis on the keys to Raskolnikov's salvation (the redemptive Lazarus) or replaying, in slow motion and shuddering gasps, our hero's double homicide. As for director Michael Halberstam, by simplifying the murders to their implications and clothes-strewn, body-twitching aftermath, he enables us, as did Dostoevsky, to still relate to this troubled protagonist, a man at odds with his own convoluted theories of the extraordinary people (like Newton, like Napoleon) who are entitled to kill for the greater good, and of his own simultaneous desire to be so transcendentally powerful. (He is, as costumer Theresa Squire never lets us forget, one step from vagrancy.)

The final key in the production is Raskolnikov himself, played by an endearingly restrained and soft-spoken Scott Parkinson. He stands in a reductive way that makes him seem to take up even less space, and he slumps against walls with a visible shudder (that "cold shiver of murder"). Halberstam often uses the revolving walls to strand Raskolnikov alone, without his beloved Sonia (Susan Bennett), his would-be confessor, or free of Porfiry Petrovich (John Judd), his equally calm and mannered pursuer (think of a more patient Javert). At times like this, Raskolnikov pleads directly with us, trying to convince us of the convictions it is clear he no longer holds, pushing off his cold nightmares onto us. (Though it is too early, the ghostly flickering of the Keith Parham's lights bring to mind the foreboding atmosphere of death row.)

Crime and Punishment isn't epic anymore; it's essential. The play is direct and haunting, relevant and true, and filled with the kind of introspection rarely seen outside of Shakespearean tragedy. And best of all, because it so fairly depicts the complex ideas discussed by Dostoevsky, it makes the audience want to rush out and buy a copy of this fantastic novel. As Writers' Theater grows, Oprah may need to watch her back.

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59E59 Theaters: Studio B (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $35.00
Performances (through 12/2): Tues. - Sat. @ 8:15 | Sat. @ 2:15 | Sun. @ 3:15 & 7:15

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bottomless

Amusing but unsatisfying, Bottomless gives us an inside look at two women you hope to never encounter in the dressing room.

Review by Elizabeth Devlin

The types of conversations you can overhear in women’s dressing rooms vary from the inane to the scandalous, and in Bottomless, a new play by Kellie Arens, we are offered both. The first act gives us the inside of the dressing room, where frustrated, unsuccessful actress Portia is trying to find the perfect pair of jeans. (A task that would, in reality, take not just 90 minutes but rather up to 90 days). She goes on about her obsession with her handsome, unmotivated boyfriend, while prattling about her career and her relationship with best friend Dolly, who is waiting on the other side of the dressing room curtain. She also takes a Hoodia diet pill every 5 minutes. While some of the observations about life and herself are amusing, the character is so self-absorbed you easily lose interest in her trials and tribulations.

The second act shows everything from Dolly’s point of view, with the exchanges between the friends remaining mostly the same, but we are spared most of Dolly’s humorous, but conceited, chatter. Instead, we are introduced to a multi-faceted character in Dolly, someone who is disturbed by past experiences which cripples her life and social relationships today. The juxtaposition between the friends’ airy chatter and the moments of darkness is not definitive enough to create sympathy for the characters, although it is difficult to tell whether this is a result of the acting or the writing.

If the play is meant to amuse, it could easily do that in a much more condensed version. If the goal is to have humor balance the serious emotional damage that Dolly (and on some level, Portia) has to deal with, those somber moments would need to feel more grounded.

Running through November 24, Bottomless will be performed at the Bowery Poetry Club, located at 308 Bowery, between Houston & Bleecker Streets. Show times are Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $18.00.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The "Ladies" of Avignon

The prostitutes that inspired Picasso's Ladies of Avignon painting come alive in Thalia Spanish Theatre's production of Jaime Salom's drama. Although this bilingual production is entertaining and reasonably smooth with an imaginative set design, the political climate during the painting's conception and the introduction of cubism is barely touched upon, making it more fluff than tough..........................................................
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre


In 1907, Spanish sculptor and painter Pablo Picasso completed his most famous work, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, depicting five prostitutes in a brothel on Avignon street in Barcelona. 100 years later, Jaime Salom breathes life into these mysterious "ladies" and turns them into vibrant, entertaining characters in The "Ladies" of Avignon (or, Las "Senoritas" de Avinon). Here, they are treated not as the symbols of cubism and the influence of African art that critics are fond of analyzing, but rather as hot-blooded, emotionally frayed women who were the company of Picasso as he was penniless and lustful. Unfortunately, there's simply way too much focus on the women's personal lives and occupation. A lot more consideration for the substance of the painting and the political climate surrounding it would have gone a long way to making this show not only amusing, but poignant.


Picasso (Raul Sigmund Julia, son of Raul Rafael Julia of Addams Family fame) is immediately established as passionate and fleshly, and his portrayal as such never deviates. Julia steps into Picasso's charm, endearing drunkenness, and handsomeness easily, but Salom only gives him a one-dimensional character to play with. Strangely enough, his limitations suit the "ladies" of Avignon just fine. When we are introduced to the "ladies," they look the part in authentic, beautiful period costumes by America Barrera. The costumes may mislead until one considers that 100 years ago, the prostitution industry was well-regulated and organized, and that the normal garb for everyone covered more skin, regardless of whether they were gentlewomen or pros. They look like esteemed members of society until the cackling and vulgar talk begins. Antonia (Ivette Oliveras) is especially feisty, mincing no words when it comes to their profession, and dealing in too much reality to sugarcoat it. They discuss Picasso's latest painting, and try to guess just which one of the "scarecrows" represent them. Salom begins the play with the end, and the scenes that follow are a fictional recount of Picasso's muses and their lives.


Madame (Soledad Lopez) runs a tight ship at her brothel. There is the dreamer and love interest of Picasso, Rosita (Angela Perez), her younger, perpetually laughing sister Pepita (Loena Jorge), morbidly depressed Pilar (Kathy Tejada) and the aforementioned Antonia. Sofia (Coco Nunez), Madame's daughter, runs the household, but does not partake in the servicing. The cast works exceptionally well together, playing off of each other's comedic timing and sexiness. They prance around in negligees, but never create an atmosphere that is trashy or exceedingly sexual. Their colorful corsets and dresses work wonderfully against Angel Gil Orrios' off-white and translucent set. Their melodrama is standard fare for this type of setting, but they get in trouble whenever a sob story is introduced. Because of the light mood created by the revelry, any hope of creating a genuine, tender moment or a serious one is lost. Picasso and the women giggle, drink and are merry, and the good times that they create are hard to shake. As a result, the interjections of deep discussions seem spurious, and the passing references to the importance of Picasso's art do not have the impact that they should.


Although some of the scene changes are rocky, the production is well-executed. Orrios uses sheer screens and projections for dramatic effect, both in splitting the stage into various locations and for creating allure and mystery. Under his direction, the cast is energetic and infectious. Charles Philip Thomas' English version (produced on alternate nights of the run) is full of colorful euphemisms that are engaging and eye-popping, including a brazen reference to golden showers (or urolagnia for the clinically conscious). However, Salom could have used this play as an opportunity to explore broader topics, particularly when the importance of the artist and the painting in question are broad in scope. The play also has a delayed ending that lacks punctuation. Nevertheless, if you're simply looking to be amused and not enlightened, The "Ladies" of Avignon is a fine choice.
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Through November 11th. TICKETS: $25 718-729-3880.
Thalia Spanish Theatre, 41-17 Greenpoint Avenue, Sunnyside, Queens

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Arpeggio

Is Arpeggio a farcical look at our culture’s dependence both on electronic distractions and the consumerism driven by our obsession with celebrities? Or is it a drama about one slightly off-kilter girl’s unhealthy fixation? Is it a tragedy? A murder-mystery? A meditation on the isolation inherent in modern urban life? Even several promising performances can’t save Arpeggio from collapsing under the weight of all of the above.


Photo by Vanessa Lozano

Reviewed by Ilena George

When Midwestern Gerry (Allison Ikin) moves to New York, she does so alone: without friends, a job, or an apartment. After moving in with Zeb (Andy Travis), a neurotic writer who does not watch television or listen to music because “We fill our lives with this stuff that keeps us from thinking,” Gerry finds a devoted friend in Zeb and an arch-nemesis in Zeb’s childhood friend and current employer, pop singer Cindy Hall (Kristina Kohl). Part of why Zeb allowed Gerry to move in was because she was not as instantly wowed by Zeb’s connection to a celebrity as most of his prior roommates had been. Eventually, Gerry confesses that she is unmoved by Cindy’s celebrity because she is the secret girlfriend of soulful crooner Tobin Grey (Jonathan Albert). Or is she?

Punctuated by live music by Tobin and his band, one of the themes of Arpeggio is separating out truth and reality from the gossip and confabulation that surrounds celebrities. As Gerry, Allison Ikin embodies the perfect mixture of innocence and latent insanity. But once the initial mystery surrounding Gerry’s claim is resolved, the main thrust of the story remains the rivalry between Cindy and Gerry. Waiting for the escalating tension between them to erupt is not nearly as suspenseful as parsing out the enigma Gerry presents.

Although Zeb and Gerry’s interactions can be engaging and entertaining, the other characters feel shoehorned into the story. This is particularly true of Zeb’s boyfriend, Ricardo (Marino Antonio Miniño), whom Gerry marries in order to allow him to remain in America. But his tendency to rant about the country’s unfair immigration policies feels as though it belongs in a different play entirely.

The play is not quite intimate enough to be a piercing look at one girl’s fixation on a particular celebrity. Nor does it effectively hold up a mirror to the generation of twentysomethings looking for their place in the world: Gerry and Zeb’s on the nature of our unnamed generation and the fact that teenagers drive the economy as the biggest consumers of pop culture are sometimes insightful but more often stilted. “We define ourselves by our taste in music rather than our politics,” Zeb says. This flavor of conversation you might sample on the floor of a college dorm room at 4 am, but is perhaps not the most engaging way to make a point outside that venue. Nor was it a skewering of the over-the-top nature of celebrity lifestyles and society’s devotion to them. However, one moment that more successfully lampooned the current state of pop culture, especially pop music, was Cindy’s solo act, where she sings “Shopping Around,” while dancing with a chair. The fact that Cindy is much older than her target audience, her overtly sexual dance moves, and the song’s lyrics, (“I get my kicks shoppin’ around./Baby, that’s just how it is./A new voice speaks and I like the sound/Variety is sung in my key.”) which are a pretty fair, even generous, approximation of something you might hear on the radio, make for an entertaining opening to the second act and one that makes several points about the music industry without necessarily spelling them out for the audience. But soon afterwards, with the addition of a melodramatic murder-mystery, the play tries to wear too many hats. Gerry defined the show’s title, saying, “Arpeggio allows you to hear the truth of each note,” but in Arpeggio, the truths about society come through with static.
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Arpeggio by David Stallings, music by Alec Bridges
Directed by Cristina Alicea
45th Street Theatre (354 West 45th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues)
November 1 – November 18
Tickets: $20-$25, (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com

Ryuji Sawa: The Return

Famed Japanese impresario Ryuji Sawa leads a troupe of 11 to dazzle us with comedy, quick change, geishas, kabuki dance, singing, and much more.
Photo caption (L-R): Ryuji Sawa and Ryoki Kiuchi
Courtesy of David Gibbs/DARR Publicity

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

What were you doing when you were 12? Were you hiding from your teacher behind a kid at school, playing video games until your thumbs were raw, or waiting for your life to begin? If you're Ozora Takami, you're doing your unintentional best to steal the show from Ryuji Sawa with your fan and sword prowess in Theater For a New City's production of Ryuji Sawa: The Return. Not that the acclaimed Japanese film, theater and TV star doesn't put on a show. At 70 years old, he can still thrill with his knee-slapping comedy, singing, and charismatic presence. And he does it with very little dialogue by paying homage to Japan's illustrious past as well as a nod to America's (most notably in a clever rendition of Michael Jackson's thriller). But in featuring this prodigy in two magnificent solos, you can't help but compare the tried and the new, and hope that the latter comes out to give you more. Yet, Takami is also testament to Sawa's ability to groom such a spectacle of talent.

Lips and Lucky Cheng's ain't got nothing on the drag in the form of geishas in this show, but our very own downtowners could show Sawa a thing or two about the art of the imagination. The opening teaser in which Takami comes out as a little dude and transforms into a lady takes too long and falls flat. But if you're the type who likes to know how the trick works before seeing the trick, you'll be wowed just the same. Still, there's enough impressive drumming, skits, kabuki dance, harakiri and swordplay (Kill Bill fans will want a stronger display, not the pretense here) stuffed into 90 minutes to titillate you. Now what will you be doing when you're 70?

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Through November 11th.
Tickets (212-352-3101): $30
THEATER FOR THE NEW CITY
155 First Avenue (between 9th & 10th Streets)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Humans Anonymous

Humans Anonymous is overstuffed with good will and funny comedy. That's nothing to feel bad about, so don't help Kate Hewlett's excellent play avoid the anonymity of the city and get yourself out to see it; you'll be charmed.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Since the characters of Humans Anonymous spend so much time sharing their innermost fears with the audience (from foghorns to death, centipedes to not being liked), I'll add one of mine: I'm always afraid that the show I'm attending is going to be horrible, and that I won't be able to find anything positive to say about it. Well, while the sexy but insecure hero, Ellen, has to open the show with a false smile, nodding and holding herself as if she can simultaneously fit in and stand out, I don't need to be false at all: Kate Hewlett's written a wonderful comedy that zips through overtly comic scenes while remaining anchored to a real human connection.

Here, that connection comes via the Internet: Ellen has fallen for her soul mate, SmartyPants17, and at long last, she's going to get to meet him, the man of her dreams. Unfortunately for her, that happens to be a woman, not Lenny, but Jenny, a young, adorably persistent klutz with a penchant for typos. Worse still, Ellen's homophobic, and while she's businesslike enough to grin and bear her way through the date, she's got no interest in seeing the smitten Jenny ever again.

That's where the matchmaker of this comedy enters: Ellen's sly and sagacious employee, Peter (who is also, tellingly, her gay best friend), accidentally glimpses that first date and starts pulling strings to make Ellen happy, whatever it takes. Peter and Jenny become fast friends, and it isn't long before Ellen's fallen for "A" (for Anonymous), a gift-giving secret admirer born of Jenny's heart and Peter's playful scheming.

Here's where the play gets more complicated: Ellen becomes convinced (painting the picture she wants to see, rather than looking for the riddle she needs) that "A" is Arden, an overwhelmingly shy UHB ("You Handsome Brute") who stammers his way from his seat in the audience into our hearts. Arden we can handle, even if his antics are a little thematically distracting, but Hewlett starts interjecting too much of herself when she joins the cast as Gema, Peter's socially awkward sister. None of this stops the play from being funny, but it starts to push the jokes ("Can I come out now?" says Peter; "Didn't you do that once already?" Ellen rejoins). I never saw the hour-long "Best of the Fringe" version when it played in Toronto (2006), but it's not hard to tell when Hewlett is writing for an audience instead of her characters.

To stress again, however, none of this stops Humans Anonymous from being wholly enjoyable. Robin A. Paterson's direction is engaging (directly so when Dustin Olson's amidst the crowd), and with the exception of an unnecessary intermission, the play segues well from scene to scene. All three leads (Esther Barlow, Jennifer Laine Williams, and Philip Graeme) have excellent chemistry, and they each find the nuances of their characters: with Barlow, it's the cracked smile, growing more and more genuine with every gift; with Williams, it's the sense of purpose and general cheeriness; and with Graeme, it's the dry amusement that serves to mask his genuine concern. While Hewlett and Olson both put in admirable performances, the play itself would be better served to keep the focus on the actual story: that would tighten the jokes, the pace, and with those, the show.

Don't be a stranger to Humans Anonymous, go and check it out. We're all a little bit lonely, a little bit insecure: this show's for you.

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Theatre 54 @ Shetler Studios (244 West 54th St., 12th Floor)
Performances (through 11/18): Tuesday - Sunday @ 8:00
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Length: 110 minutes w/intermission

The Runner Stumbles

There are some good performances in The Runner Stumbles, and a very simple, elegant direction for the piece, but all of this only exacerbates how upright the script is. It shies away from emotion, hiding in melodramatic testimonies or in restrained religiosity, and this makes even the balanced ideas seem feeble where they should be febrile.

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Runner Stumbles
is a contemplative drama that needs to learn from its own title; written in 1976 by Milan Stitt, this play is so stilted that it never has the opportunity to fall into any emotion. The subject is about the improper affair between a nun and her priest, so it's already chaste and tasteful: what the play needs are some teeth. Instead, it throws in a weak murder trial to frame the play, and then sends contemplative memories swinging in and out of the prison through imposing hinged gates.

The best moments are those that match Father Rivard's unstinting intellectualism against Sister Rita's practical interpretations and Mrs. Shandig's deep-seated emotional beliefs, for Stitt's proselytizing is balanced enough that at times it serves as a suitable dramatic replacement. However, as the play sluggishly continues, the audience needs something to break up the monotony, and the disconnected melodrama of the courthouse scenes is not the answer. Furthermore, there's a bland repetition in this back and forth: we see Louise and Erna testify in the present, but then also watch the memories they've just iterated being formed in the past.

When director Scott Alan Evans is allowed to drop the baggage, he manages to focus quite well on the acting; there's a great moment of restraint where Rivard, Rita, and Shandig are all sitting in the same room, giving one another the silent treatment as they go about their daily work. The three eventually argue their way into praying together, and the shocking thought is that just as religion is what splits them apart, it is also the only thing that brings them together.

Ultimately, The Runner Stumbles lacks enough life and momentum to actually illustrate how Rivard's small concession ends up making him stumble into a lie with the diocese and eventually leads to his fall from the Church. Similarly discursive plays like Doubt and the recent 100 Saints You Should Know allow their characters to use religion to work through their pain: The Runner Stumbles gets all tripped up trying to use religion alone.

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Beckett Theatre @ Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Performances (through 11/23): Mon., Thurs., Fri. @ 7:30 | Sat. @ 2 & 8 | Sun. @ 3
Tickets (212-279-4200): $20.00

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Turn of the Screw

Wake Up, Marconi! resists the temptation to go for the cheap scare in its adaptation of a classic American ghost story.

By Ellen Wernecke

Like many horror movies today, Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw” begins with a group of people sitting around telling ghost stories. The story being told is a work of one-upmanship on the part of the teller, who inherited the story from his sister’s governess. Wake Up, Marconi! Theater Company’s production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “The Turn of the Screw” keeps this moment with the play’s audience as the initial narrator’s, and delivers a chilling and thoroughly Victorian take on the classic.

A young governess (Melissa Pinsly) takes a job caring for two children whose uncle and guardian (Steve Cook) insists only that he not be bothered with their problems. The children (one played by Cook, one in pantomime) are perfect angels and the setting a bucolic wonder, but strange apparitions begin to appear looming over her charges at play. Gradually, the governess, confiding in the housekeeper (Cook as well), begins to believe the ghosts of the former governess and a handyman are controlling the children, who in turn are lying to their governess about it, and she becomes obsessed with protecting them.

Using the organizing metaphor of the six days of creation in the Bible, Hatcher plays up the theme of repression and the Governess’s sexual inexperience, using wordplay and adding conversations which flesh out what James might have implied. (On offering the job to her, the master says, “Have I seduced you?” a question repeated throughout the show.) In a certain sense, this limits Pinsly and Cook in what they can do onstage since the book’s more deliberate character development cannot be reproduced here. Still, this makes more of a mark on the directing (a few lines leaned on too heavily) than in the actors’ performances. Pinsly’s young governess could easily have been a one-note character, but there’s something more than desperation in her portrait of the innocent lost. Cook juggles his roles using his body language and voice to separate young boy from creepy old housekeeper, but he’s most frightening when standing in the shadows as the ghost--a surprisingly effective device which the play never calls attention to directly. Despite a few horror-movie moments, “The Turn of the Screw” sticks to its creepy origins and captivates to the final moments.

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Through November 17 at the Bank Street Theatre
151 Bank St.
Tickets $10-18, Theatermania.com
For more information, visit WakeUpMarconi.com.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sister Cities

The intimacy of Sister Cities is at times almost unbearable; the audience is drawn into a heavy confrontation between four sisters as they unravel the events leading to their mother’s suicide and each sister becomes personally unraveled as well. Playwright Colette Freedman keeps the intense drama strongly grounded in reality and, under Cat Parker’s direction, the play is beautiful and devastating.


Reviewed by Ilena George

To stage a taut family drama, there is no place quite like the intimate T. Schreiber Studio. Just as with their production of You Can’t Take it With You earlier this year, the audience is seated virtually within the boundaries of the Baxter family living room where four very different sisters are mourning their mother’s suicide in four very different ways.

Like the nesting dolls that feature prominently as a symbol of the family unit, the play contains within it many different versions of itself: it is the story of a family tragedy, but it is also very funny. It is fraught with current medical ethics issues and references to pop culture. Between walls full of family photos and a dozen bottles of vodka, the sisters hash out the circumstances of their mother’s final months. Uptight Carolina (Ellen Reilly) demands to get everything out in the open immediately so she can return to her orderly professional life as a lawyer and her messier personal life as an unhappy divorcée. Inoffensive, people-pleasing Dallas (Emberli Edwards), whom her sisters repeatedly accuse of being “perfect,” is glad to be free of her mother’s tyrannical influence while free-spirited Baltimore (Jamie Neumann) keeps a relatively even keel and uses her Harvard-trained sociology expertise to analyze everyone else’s reactions. Sarcastic and confrontational Austin (Maeve Yore) was the only one who was living at home and who knows the truth about their mother’s state of mind and her final moments. The sisters spend the day pulling toward and away from each other, reminiscing and recriminating, while waiting for the coroner to arrive and remove their mother’s remains. Luckily, the actresses are all evenly matched and skillful enough to present the push and pull of this emotional tug-of-war in a way that grips the viewer by the throat.

In this family, each member feels like an outsider. No two sisters have the same father, nor do they share much in common beyond their mother. Each sister’s distinctiveness is indicated by her distinct styles of dressing, the physical isolation she experiences in relation to the others within the confines of their mother’s living room and even the way she puts up her hair. George Allison’s set capitalizes on the Studio’s space; together with Carolyn Mraz’s set decoration, the set embodies a very realistic suburban living room. Karen Ann Ledger’s costumes also speak volumes as to the wearer’s personality.

As the play proceeds, each of the sisters also proves herself to be both beautiful and terrible and very human. But where the first act raised thought-provoking questions about the ethics of suicide and just how far a sibling bond can be stretched before it snaps, the second act counters with pop-psychology issues and comparatively petty traumas that lack the dramatic resonance of the play’s beginning. However, the emotionally fraught performances each actress renders, and the relentless momentum of the first half are the heart and soul of Sister Cities; it is a moving and relevant look at how our families both shape us and break us.

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Sister Cities by Colette Freedman
Directed by Cat Parker
T. Schreiber Studios (151 West 26th Street)
October 18 – November 19
Tickets: $20, (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com