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, February 29, 2008

Cat's Cradle

To quote the Bokononists, the calypso-singing cultists at the center of this most recent adaptation of a Vonnegut book, this production of Cat's Cradle is simply too busy, busy, busy. The haphazard direction makes it hard to focus on an already tangled skein of characters and plots, and the unbalanced performances of an often-bland ensemble . . . well, they don't give us much reason to tune in.

Photo/Edward Einhorn

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Just as making a cat's cradle is deceptively deeper than it looks, so it goes with adapting Kurt Vonnegut's less-than-sunny novel, Cat's Cradle. Edward Einhorn takes a pretty good crack at it, but his condensations of plot come at the expense of the characters, and his definitions of Bokononism's terms come across as anti-foma, that is, truth that hurts the narrative of the play. Worse still, while the calypso lyrics are mostly ripped from the pages, they're roughly delivered by a chorus of musicians who, quite frankly, aren't very good. And worst of all, the direction often forces the play -- most particularly the explanation of ice-9, a central conceit -- to compete with the music: to accurately quote a Bokononist, it's all busy, busy, busy.

A rowdy, loose atmosphere is perhaps not the best way to approach an adaptation of the already meandering Vonnegut's satirical work, but all that chaos does produce some nice effects. The hero, John (Timothy McCown Reynolds), is a solid block of rationality, and when he's in focus -- talking to the naive American capitalists, Hazel and H Lowe Crosby (Sandy York and Michael Bertolini) or dealing with the well-traveled and calm US Ambassador Minton and wife, Claire (John Blaylock and Jenny McClintock) -- the show is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. And both Darius Stone (as Papa Monzano, a dictator so jovial that death by 'the hook' seems pleasant) and Jerome Brooks (as a happily ignorant bellhop) are successfully kooky. But this revolving cast of characters on John's tour as a reporter also include Dr. Breed (a generic Daryl Brown), Philip Castle (a very insecure and insincere Martin J. Mitchell), and Newton Hoenniker (a sleepy Sean Allison), and that's when the sloppiness shows. The problem isn't just with the actors -- Horace V. Rogers, who plays a Cheshire-like Bokonon, has a beautiful bass voice -- but that these personalities clash so severely: though most of them wear the same cultish white-cotton outfits (they don tops or bottoms to play other roles), the whole play is dissonant, which makes the black-lit climax rather mundane, i.e., more of the same.

The one wholly original device is the playful model set designed by Evolve Company (Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil), a much needed bit of color and life among the drab curtains and plain costumes. It's also totally in sync with the text -- Mr. Weil, who spends most of the play manipulating a miniature camera along tiny streets, doubles as the elusive Frank Hoenniker, an excitable man-child whole enjoys models. The crisp, clean translation of this stylistic element is what's so missing in the music -- Henry Akona's compositions, which should, given the anthem, be "Nice, Nice, Very Nice," are rough, rough, very rough.

Mr. Einhorn is on to something with his adaptation of Cat's Cradle, but at close to three hours, he needs to distill it to a greater extent, to rearrange those molecules from simply being a play (one filled with silly and superfluous scenes in graveyards or with sugar mill owners) into the sort of play-nine that forever alters the audience with the simple seeding power of a thought. If science is magic that works, then it's time for this company to look toward science, for the random hocus-pocus they've got right now isn't working.

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Cat's Cradle (2 hrs. 40 min.)
Untitled Theater Company @ Walkerspace (46 Walker St.)
Tickets (212-353-3101): $18.00
Performances: Tues. & Thurs. @ 7:30 | Fri. & Sat. @ 8

FRIGID '08: Leaving Normal

Reviewed by Amy Freeman

Eileen, a bubbly young woman, is late for her bus. As it turns out, she is late for the wrong bus. So begins Leaving Normal, a trip through the soul of an creative yet crushed woman. Melissa McNamara plays Eileen and three other personas throughout the piece: an elderly bus driver, an older waitress, and Eileen as a child. When McNamara is portraying the three other characters, the piece seems as though it may be going somewhere. However, when she snaps back into playing Eileen, the piece screeches to a halt. Eileen is too much of a stereotype, the cutesy-neurotic twentysomething who worries about getting fat yet eats Twizzlers and cookies, who seeks the perfect man at a McDonald's, and wonders why others won't respond to her in such a cheery manner. Eileen seems to be an afterthought, although she's the focus of the show.

McNamara is a great performer. She possesses a great sense of physicality and uses it to the show's advantage. At one point she climbs completely into her suitcase, and at another lies on her back, slowly turning herself around, pretending to be a broken music box dancer. She bounds up and down the risers, constantly interacting with her audience. Each character is clearly delineated by physical characteristics, the old bus driver's right hand shakes, the waitress walks with the pronounced limp of someone who has stood at an unforgiving job for too long. While the story is occasionally hard to follow, McNamara is engaging enough that it doesn't matter.

FRIGID '08: Stuck!

Reviewed by Amy Freeman

A woman makes her way into a basement bathroom in a coffee shop somewhere in Manhattan. It's dark, and she fumbles for the light switch. When she finally gets the lights on, she finds herself in the most disgusting bathroom ever. The woman, Kiki, decides to give it a go, out of desperation. However, the grossness of the bathroom gets to her and she ultimately decides to take her chances somewhere else. Unfortunately, the lock on the door has somehow broken, trapping her inside. What follows is her inner monologue, which highlights her long list of insecurities—with her looks, her friends, her husband.

“Stuck!” is pretty funny at times (although, given the circumstances, it occasionally relies on bathroom humor). Kiki is a ridiculous character, a parody of a socialite, popping whatever pills she has in her bag, desperately calling 411 to come save her, except she doesn't know for sure where she is. Isn't that Homeland Security's job? The premise is a bit contrived—but, the performer/writer, Jennie Franks does make an innovative attempt to bring her play out of the world of desperate housewives and to actually examine the stereotypes, and for that she deserves applause.

Hiroshima: Crucible of Light

Reviewed by Amy Freeman

Nine seconds is all it takes to dramatically change the world and alter the course of history. Robert Lawson's Hiroshima: Crucible of Light explores the great and large things that can happen to a person, to the world in the smallest amount of time. At the forefront of these small yet magnificent events is the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August, 1945. Also brought into focus is the brief amount of time it takes for a person to go from mobile to paralyzed, remembering to forgetting, seeing to blind. Through out the play, characters come to realizations or have accidents happen to them, all which take very little time. Marie Curie discovers radium, simply and quickly, and responds with “I have opened Pandora's Box.” The shortness of dramatic events fits in well with the structure of the play. It is a collage of time, place, and characters. The Fool from King Lear appears to J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” a little boy recounts what happened when the bomb dropped, a woman recalls the accident that left her paralyzed.

Things overlap in Hiroshima, like actors double-cast as remarkably similar characters. The Woman in Wheelchair appears as Einstein's lover, also in a wheelchair. Speeches overlap as well, furthering the collage effect. The entire cast occasionally forms a chorus, standing in a group on stage, chanting together. A slow, mournful cello, played by Dmitri Friedendberg, anchors the often jittery movement of the cast. Upstage, a video projection, designed by Jared Mezzocchi, offers an even more frenetic and abstract version of the collage. Between the musician, the video, and the live actors, it occasionally feels as though there is too much to watch on stage at any given moment.


Certain parts of the collage seem out of place. A large portion of the play is somber in tone, with Oppenheimer and others pondering the what-ifs in life. However, midway through the play the “perfect nuclear family” is introduced, a family full of 1950's pep and post-nuclear apocalypse gadgets and costumes. The scene is humorous and and enjoyable to watch and thematically connected to the rest of the play, but as it is a complete shift in tone compared to the rest of the play, it is thus a little unsettling.


However, other elements incorporated into the piece work well. The Fool from King Lear (played Saysha Heinzman) appears early on, haunting Oppenheimer, played in a downtrodden, nervous manner by Peter Bean, as he builds the bomb and serving as a guide for him after he loses his way. Members of Oppenheimer's team begin quoting from Lear, beginning an interesting through line that comes to a brutal climax in the end. Additionally, the little boy's monologue is particularly moving. Played by Friedenberg, the cellist, the boy is seen below the video screen throughout the entire piece, but not heard from as a character till the end, when he places his cello down and comes forward.

Hiroshima is a close look at what can happen in barely the time it takes to blink an eye. For the most part, the various pieces of the collage: the music, the video, and the performers, create a very fine show. The play is frightening and thought provoking, leaving its audience to wonder about all the “what ifs” in life.



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Hiroshima: Crucible of Light (85 Mins)
Untitled Theater Company #61 @ Walkerspace (46 Walker Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18
Performances (Through March 15th): Wed 7:30PM, Sat 3:00PM, Sun 7:00PM

FRIGID '08: Giant Invisible Robot

Review by Amanda Cooper

Jayson McDonald, the writer/performer of the silly-sweet show Giant Invisible Robot, is a charming performer. For about an hour, McDonald is on his own, playing a handful of characters who are all somehow related to the play’s mysterious center: the G.I.R. (Giant Invisible Robot), who apparently has a penchant for destroying things, even entire cities. This robot has one friend – the shy and troubled Russell - who grows up as we watch the play. We also meet scientists studying the G.I.R., superheroes trying to save the world from its wrath, and at one point, even the robot itself. Though at times the storyline isn’t easy to follow (it takes a couple of scenes to understand that Russell is aging) and some scenes are minimally funny, the outcome is endearing, and possibly heartbreaking for the viewer. After all, deep down, aren’t we all a self-conscious child who wants our very own invisible robot?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

FRIGID '08: Fool For A Client


A self-made millionaire whose American Dream went horribly wrong thanks to "a saga of litigation," Mark Whitney has good reason to be bitter. Instead, he's ironic, and his sixty minute fact-based monologue (currently part of The New York Frigid Festival) is rich with darkly funny, often cautionary, observational humor. There are so many sharp and succinct one-liners that I stopped trying to retain them all and just let them come and go. Most are derived from Whitney's bullseye-aim at some of the injustices and flat-out absurdities of our legal system, but Whitney's eventual target is larger. It's a well-written piece, absorbing from start to finish, in which warm and conversational Whitney mines his real-life personal nightmare to warn against (among other things) blind faith in authority. That's a message that never gets old.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

2008 Frigid Festival

The 2008 Frigid Festival is upon us. Though it's only in its second year here in New York, it comes with the principles of EXIT (of the San Francisco Fringe) and CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) -- namely:
“…to provide all artists, emerging and established, with the opportunity to produce their play no matter the content, form or style and to make the event as affordable and accessible as possible for the members of the community,”
As with our coverage of the Fringe, we of the New Theater Corps think it's important to support independent theater, especially since with Frigid, the artists take home 100% of the box office, you know, so that they can continue to make theater. So this year, we'll be sending our staff to canvass half the festival, helping you to figure out how best to invest your $10 to $15 and trying to give some perspective to the sort of tenacious creativity that goes into pulling a 12-day, 30-show, 150-performance festival off.

Here's to what we hope is a great start to the '08 independent theater season.

Blue Coyote's Happy Endings

This weekend's the last chance to let these nine playwrights massage your perceptions about sex workers in this festival of Happy Endings. What drives a woman to work in a peep show? What convinces a woman to stop? Can a relationship survive a three-way, or an egg-sucking fetish? And what about the go-go dancer? What does he think? As it turns out, some funny, sweet, and downright disturbing stuff.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

First, and most importantly: yes, there is a happy ending. It's probably not the one you'd expect from a one-act play festival that commissioned nine playwrights to share their take on the sex worker industry, but it's a pretty satisfying evening all the same. There are a few rough spots that -- pardon me -- could've used more lube, by which I mean hard (or soft -- I can't stop!) revisions, the kind that I could have used to prevent this sentence from growing . . . out of control. Luckily, the evening balances between the poetic bookends (Beauty and Yes Yes Yes), absurd slapstick (Pulling Teeth), casual comedy (Switch), and calm drama (Whenever You're Ready). Whether dealing with first-timers (Peep Show), old pros (The Guest), or the dysfunctionally kinky (The White Swallow), there's something for everyone. And given the smart directorial choices regarding ambiance and musical transitions, the whole night's quite engaging.

We open with Blair Fell's Beauty, a voyeur's (David Johnston's) monologued fantasy about the dancer (Joe Curnutte) he watches, a fantasy that, like true beauty, can only live in his mind and at a distance: "Don't risk passion by closeness," he says, and then later, "Beauty is not in actual life, but in memory. Memory you can repair." As the voyeur pours his heart out, we're left to wonder how the dancer -- swerve, swerve, head, head, jiggle, jiggle, pause -- actually sees himself: the answer comes as a rude awakening.

In David Foley's Switch, two plays collide -- a comedy about the ancient art of male prostitution, which the hysterically Italian Massimo (Phillip Taratula) takes very seriously ("I would never be no woman's plaything"), and then more awkwardly a rumination on the scientific work being done on mice to "switch" their genes from homo- to heterosexuality. Problem is, Earl (Adam Rihacek) really just wants to get laid, and so the play, while generating laughs from the former ("What is it like to have men's peepee in your bum?") goes nowhere with the latter.

Christine Whitley's Peep Show takes a quieter approach, using a lot of silence to give us the feeling of true voyeurism. Woman (Laura Desmond) pays Man (Robert Buckwalter), presumably a "talent scout" for a peep show outfit, or possibly just an honest pair of eyes, to look at her, a simple task that becomes an outpouring of need and emotion: "Admire me. Touch me. See me," she pleads, and though she's in a maid's outfit by this point, standing on a block, it's one of the most honest (and highest) points of the night.

Whenever You're Ready, by John Yearley, takes a similar approach, as Man (Carter Jackson) pays a Woman (Tracey Gilbert) for the privilege of sketching her nude. As the woman narrates, speaking interstitially to the audience as the man attempts to draw, we get the first glimpse of the bitterness some of the people in the industry have for their career: this woman is 35 years old, and only now becoming aware of her emotion, finding herself more naked in an ankle or beautiful shoulder than in the body that she has made so easily available, just to shut people up.

Finally, in the last piece of Act I, Matthew Freeman's The White Swallow, audiences get to delight in Matthew Trumbull's brilliantly over-the-top portrayal of a man, Nick, with a very curious fetish. Like another of Freeman's one-acts (Trayf, which largely used the same cast), it's a skit that has been thoroughly grounded by strong lines (that make completely fractured sense) and by his core actors: David DelGrosso, as the innocent, bewildered call-boy, is a great foil for Trumbull, and Laura Desmond, as Nick's wife, is a jagged point that manages not to puncture, but to sharpen the fine edges in this piece. Yes, it's silly: but given the production value, not at all implausible, and that's what makes its ridiculousness work.

The same can't be said of Brian Fuqua's The Guest, but this one's going for playing up familiar tropes in an endearing way, and therefore succeeds whenever it stays in check. The shock value of Link Sailor's (Alexis Suarez's) gear is as superfluous as the dildo he brings; the play works best when it's simply lovers Colin (F. Dash Vata) and Curtis (Brian Fuqua) quibbling over the small things, or drooling over the big thing. At any rate, I've never seen such a amicable three-way; I'd never considered that there could be real love -- or torte -- involved.

Speaking of fresh insight, David Johnston's closer, Yes Yes Yes, returns to the same dancer (or at least the same actor and outfit) as in the first play, only this time to find eroticism in the intellectual, as Man (Jim Ireland) accidentally piques the dancer's interest in his recondite reading: Finnegan's Wake. And why shouldn't a go-go dancer be able to soliloquize about Joyce? It's a great note to leave the theater on.

The few bad notes: Stan Richardson's AIDS Reveal (about what you'd expect from the title, and not much more elegantly done) and Boo Killebrew's Pulling Teeth, both of which seem to suffer from going off topic. In AIDS Reveal, three unrelated groups of people receive the dreaded "I've got HIV, and so might you" phone call, and then go into their heads to discuss it with the audience -- and more awkwardly, each other. Little happens in actuality, as with Pulling Teeth, which is just a bad joke stretched out too far, from the Easter Bunny (Taratula) trying to set a hooking Tooth Fairy (R. Jane Casserly) straight to Mrs. Claus's (Tracey Gilbert's) attempts to live vicariously through the sex lives of those on the "naughty" list. I longed to be surprised by something other than campy cleverness (her group CollaborationTown has that down cold), only to be left with a toothless frown.

I think the moral of Happy Endings is clear: writing about the sex industry got these playwrights trying new positions and getting creative juices flowing, and the refusal to play by the book (I'm not talking about the Kama Sutra) is what makes most of the night so surprisingly real, so honestly funny. Who needs a massage? Go straight for the Happy Endings.

[For another New Theater Corps perspective, see Eric Miles Glovers's review.]

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Happy Endings (2 hr. 20 min.)
Access Theater (380 Broadway; Fl. 4)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 3/1): Tues. @ 9 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Arthur Miller's The Crucible

After a successful run in Croton Falls, New York, this intense and unflinching production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, helmed by director Pamela Moller Kareman, has relocated to the Arclight Theater. The production breathes a heady life into Miller’s classic with each production element providing a bold contribution to this compelling revival.

Reviewed by Ilena George

The Crucible explores the blurry line between what we say and what is true and how easy it can be to deceive an entire community. In contrast to the dissembling its characters engage in, the set is spare and transparent—with only the bare and weathered bones of a house visible. Between scenes, shifts from the courtroom to the Procters’ living room to the outside take place through subtle lighting changes and quick re-arrangements of a few tables while throughout the play, the rest of the village act as mute witnesses to the action, sitting on the periphery of the stage. As much as the set frames the drama and the muscular performances pump up the action, Matt Stine’s music and sound design are the heart and lungs of the play, ramping up the tension in the beginning's otherworldly dancing sequence and the inexorable finale.

From rugged John Procter (Simon MacLean)—whose rough, passionate demeanor and flawed honesty are telegraphed even in the way he wears his clothing—to the girls who hoodwink the town, The Crucible offers a slew of stand-out performances. Abigail (Sherry Stregack) is as relentless and formidable as her uncle Reverend Parris (Keith Barber) is weak and backsliding. The prickly Deputy-Governor Danforth (David Licht), one of Procter’s many adversaries, is played to fearsome perfection, an authoritarian who will not allow his decisions to be second-guessed, and one who truly believes he is doing what is best and fair.

Part of what makes the production successful is the richness of the play: Miller’s intent to decry Joe McCarthy, comparing the era of blacklisting to that of Salem’s witch trials, still resounds in our current political climate. Between the cautionary tale of what can occur when small-minded and arrogant men are in power, to the Salem court’s declaration that essentially divided the community into two groups (those who supported the trials and those who did not and were therefore suspect), The Crucible can still be read as a fearsome echo of modern America.

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Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
The Arclight Theater
(152 West 71st St between Broadway and Columbus)
Tickets: theatermania.com or (212) 352-3101
February 6th- March 2nd, Sun and Wed 2 pm, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm

Glimpses of the Moon

What a swell party this is: Two impoverished fortune hunters decide to wed for money and cheat their friends in this Whartonian trifle.

By Ellen Wernecke

Susy (Patti Murin) doesn't want to be a fortune hunter, but she has no choice but to marry up if she wants to maintain her lifestyle in Jazz Age Manhattan. She hits it off with classics expert and aspiring novelist Nick (Michael Minarek) at an Upper East Side party, despite their hostess’ attempts to separate them. Susy and Nick recognize each other – call it a Jordan Baker moment, and Nick, like Carraway, has scruples the husband-hunting Susy doesn’t quite share. The pair conspire over the course of a song, "The Proposal," to marry for the favors and gifts, then amicably divorce once they’ve found their millionaires. A summer in Newport, at the home of a rich and unfaithful couple (Beth Glover and Daren Kelly) distracts them from their advantageous matchmaking, and inevitably they find themselves quite pleased with each other’s company, which is why such an arrangement cannot last -- or as they put it, “Till we’re rich we’ll have a lovely time.”

Susy is a romantic and her plaintive wail “Life is so long and I am so young -- what does last then?” is reminiscent of a sentiment more radically modern than Wharton’s better known works; I was reminded of indie heroine Juno telling her father, “I just need to know if it's possible for two people to stay happy together forever, or at least for a few years.” Both plucky girls get the answer they’re looking for after Nick dallies with a former student and unlikely temptress in a safari jacket (Laura Jordan) and Susy is courted by a fellow fortune hunter who suddenly becomes rich (Glenn Peters, having the most fun of anyone onstage). The clever, jazz-influenced songs by Tajlei Levis (lyrics) and John Mercurio (music) advance the plot, from the tango-esque “Cigars” (about the compromises Susy and Nick must make to stay with their elite pals), to the acid-tongued ensemble number “Dinner Party With Friends.”

A follow-up to The Age of Innocence, Glimpses of the Moon was considered in Wharton’s day to be the superior novel, but this adaptation skips rather light on its feet until the conclusion. The production’s gambit of having a guest each week perform the sweet ballad “Right Here, Right Now” to a still-in-denial Susy and Nick may or may not resonate; last week’s featured performer Jane Summerhays forgot her lyrics and stretched the second verse into unrecognizability. But this spot cannot mar a sweet and well-mounted production, which allows Murin (currently starring a few blocks away in “Xanadu”) to shine even among the talented cast.

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"Glimpses of the Moon"
Now playing Mondays through March 10 at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel, 59 W. 44th Street
Tickets $50 plus a $30 food and drink minimum, call 212-419-9331 (or e-mail Barbara McGurn)
For more information, visit Glimpsesofthemoon.com.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Jazz Age

Reviewed by Patrick Lee

No man should go through life without loving another man. So says F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway in Allan Knee’s The Jazz Age, which traces the friendship between the two iconic literary legends from their first encounter to their last. Zelda Fitzgerald is the play’s third character but, save for one memorable scene where she puts the moves on her husband’s friend, she is of no serious thematic consequence here (the fact that she opens the play in direct address mode is but early evidence of the drama’s lack of focus). The main event is the two men, whose bond is familiar to anyone in the audience acquainted with their biographies or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

The play continually tells us how important the friendship is to the two writers, but it rarely convinces, mostly because the characterizations are one-dimensional on the page and the actors have little chance to believably flesh them out. Hemingway (played by P.J. Sosko, who fares the best of the three) is written reductively as a growling bear of a man’s man while Fitzgerald (Dana Watkins) is depicted as a romantic milquetoast: anyone who has read what these men actually wrote would be excused for an impatience with the celebrity caricaturization that the authors receive here. Too often, the play feels like nothing more than star-gawking circa the Roaring ‘20’s. The superficiality is especially noticeable when Knee has the men quoting themselves: when Fitzgerald enters a scene announcing that there are no second acts in American lives, it’s hard to imagine that the play's Fitzgerald (like a little lost Boy Scout) could have written that line.

As an exercise in nostalgia of the navel-gazing kind, the play offers some pleasures. As Zelda, Amy Rutberg makes a vibrant something out of a late scene when the character is institutionalized. The play offers few insights into and doesn’t adequately chart Zelda’s mental deterioration (and her plight doesn’t sufficiently reverberate into the scenes between the two men) but the actress does make an impression. There is a scene in which F. Scott confides to Hemingway that he is under-endowed, which leads to some through-the-trousers sizing up: it’s overplayed and not credibly prepared for, but at least the moment provides some voyeuristic kick.

The production visually achieves a pleasurable elegance, thanks in large part to good design work (particularly the lighting and the excellent costuming) and a small musical combo (on stage on the two-tiered set’s upper level) underscoring the play with songbook standards of the era. The music is meant to be decorative, adding an air of sophistication to the proceedings. It isn’t the band’s fault that they often pull focus.
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The Jazz Age
Theater B at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th Street)
Tickets: $35
Performances (through March 2): Tuesday-Friday at 8:15; Saturday at 2:15 and 8:15; Sunday at 3:15
Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner?

Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner? is a mystery play of sorts. As a concept, Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner? is compelling, but Jennifer Lane’s actual script doesn’t do enough.

Review by Amanda Cooper

Who doesn’t enjoy the occasional foray into the craigslist missed connections, or personals section of the site? It’s not about finding a possible match for ourselves, but rather fulfilling our voyeuristic tendencies – those same parts of us that just can’t help but eavesdrop on that obvious first date a couple barstools away. And so Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner? starts out in a fairly entertaining, promising manner: A young woman, Ginger, sits in a ratty apartment with her laptop, cruising craigslist. The entries she reads are acted out behind shadow screens by a chorus of performers.

But this momentum is not sustained throughout this one act mystery play of sorts. Early on, the bloody ghost of a young woman pops out from behind unpacked boxes, plaguing our anti-heroine Ginger, who is clearly guilt-stricken by this apparition’s presence. It becomes clear that there is some sort of identity mystery going on between these two. The ghost, unconvincingly, says she is Sarah Paisner, yet the sound of the name seems to torture Ginger. And Ginger, who doesn’t seem capable of hurting a fly, has a strangely bloodstained sweatshirt she quickly hides when her roommate and boyfriend walk in the door.

As a concept, Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner? is compelling – what pushes a person to run away from their life, to want to become a wholly different person altogether? And can we change who we are, or are we too rooted in our past, and in our identity, no matter how deeply we want out? The exploration of these concepts is what keeps this production semi-afloat, but Jennifer Lane’s actual script doesn’t do enough. Too many times, the “mystery” is revealed to the viewer, while we are still left in the dark about much of Ginger’s past, and how she came to be the internet voyeur she is.

The performances feel uneven, but this may be more due to the directing: much time seemed to have been spent on developing Ginger, played sensitively by Kathryn Merry, while the others felt like fragments of people. Perhaps this was all part of Director Elyzabeth Gorman’s plan - to have those surrounding the main character feel sketched, partial. But the result is a play that feels unfinished and, ultimately, unrelatable.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sisters' Dance

Two estranged sisters rehash their differences when they are brought together by their mother's funeral and receive shared property in their mother's will. Although the script is often poignant, the production drags and the staging is standoffish. Not even flashy performances by Janice Mann and Chuck Saculla can give this show the shot of adrenaline that it needs.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

While funerals are events in which we lament for and recall the good things about the deceased person's life, they are also events that call for the assessment of our own lives. Where we have gone wrong and what we can do to make it right are issues that consistently come up. And in Sarah Hollister's Sisters' Dance, there is much to be made up for, but few tangible and acceptable ways to make it right.

It is 1981 on a farm in Michigan, and after a valiant fight with cancer, the matriarch of the family, Mother (Blanche Cholet), has just passed away. Dutiful and morbidly unhappy daughter Alice (Laura Fois) tries her best to figure out the next steps with her money-hungry and undersexed husband Roy (Nick Ruggeri), but he does little to offer her comfort. The show opens on a visually impressive mobile set by Brian Garber that shows the interior of Mother's kitchen as well as a large, gliding swing up front. The walls of the house are nonexistent, allowing the audience to witness the action that develops mostly in the retro kitchen, but that design also violates reality. Unless these farmers live in a glass house, there's no reason why we should be able to look inside even though the characters try their hardest to make it look like there are solid walls. Also, the kitchen is upstage and distances the characters from the audience. Not only do we have the empty swing in our line of view, but the characters are almost hidden from us inside the house even though we can see them. It makes it very difficult to connect to their experiences.

From the beginning, the mood of the play is overcast with depression and lifelessness, from the lack of nature sounds we would expect in a farm setting to the languid way Fois and Ruggeri deliver their lines. Fois' voice is particularly inflected with malaise. The gloominess extends even further than what one would expect from the recent funeral, and we know right off the bat that there are underlying issues. Unfortunately, the pacing bores us even after we get to them.

Fleur (Janice Mann), Alice's prodigal sister and suprisingly (younger sisters are usually portrayed in drama as the flighty, wild ones), the older one, appears on the farm to visit her sick mother, only to find out that she has already passed away. With her colorful dress comes a wild personality that can't be hidden by occassional expressions of grief. Also evident is Alice and Roy's disdain for her flagrant lifestyle and noncommittal attitude. The animosity between Roy and Fleur is also aggravated by a subtle, sexual tension that gets revisited throught the play. Mann tries her best to cut up the dismal mood, but it persists. After overcoming the shock of her mother's death, she also learns that Roy has put down their mother's cherished dog. When the insults and judgments start to fly across the kitchen, an older woman that we come to realize is the spirit of the Mother enters the stage from the room that was once her bedroom. From there, she serves as a pacifier, laying her hands on her daughters and sometimes violating her ethereal status when she moves objects around. No one comments on the fact that pillows and such are not in the place that they left them. Hollister's decision to include the Mother's character seems to be motivated by tenderness, but it doesn't serve an alternate purpose. The character of Mother could have been ommitted, particularly since her presence already looms in the attempts of her daughters to abide by her last will and testament.

Mother bequeaths Alice with the house and Fleur with the bean farm, and since the two cannot be separated, it is a strategy to force the squabbling sisters to work together. This strategy backfires at first, bringing more dissention and strife that ebb and flow as the play progresses until hunky Duncan (Chuck Saculla), Fleur's lover, shows up to ruffle even more feathers at the end of the first act. This is a strange place to insert him, considering that when you factor in all the secrets and lies, the climax doesn't hinge on his arrival. And although Saculla is energetic and shares passionately dysfunctional moments with Mann, it's still not enough to liven the show. Tension continues to accumulate in the plot, but does very little to engage the audience.

This show is reminiscent of Lisa Roth's 2007 drama, Coming or Going, about sisters reunited for their father's funeral, but Roth's show had much more pep. The set for this show does a lot to keep us from becoming enthralled. It shakes to unintentionally mimic an earthquake when the characters thrash about and when the entire set is turned 90 degrees to the right to open the space for the yard, it alienates us even more from the characters. The action develops even further away from the audience in Act II, and destroys any chance for us to be invested. Paul Adams directs some of the scenes very tightly, preventing us from seeing some of the characters' faces or body gestures during important moments. Despite distractions like this, Hollister's wordy but strong script spits out some great lines that are rooted in truth and discernment, and they are ultimately the strongest part of this production. A pervading sense of isolation and loneliness for both Alice and Fleur even though they're both never alone is rooted in the dialogue, and for the most part, the direction is geared towards preserving that. However, what may be literal to the script is not always what makes a good theatrical experience. By depriving the cast of intimacy in the direction, the audience is also deprived of a connection.

Sisters' Dance is a resonant piece that may not brighten your day, but it does make you think about the importance of family and different forms of suffering. And although getting to the pearls of wisdom may seem like hard labor, at least there are some jewels at the end of your struggles.
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Through March 2nd. Baruch Performing Arts Center at 55 Lexington Avenue. Tickets, priced $50 (general admission) and $25 (students with ID), are available by visiting www.eatheatre.org or by calling (866) 811-4111.

Emerging Artists Theatre: 15th Anniversary Season

For this, the fifteenth anniversary of Emerging Artists Theatre (EAT), this company of growing playwrights has stuck its head slightly back down the turtle shell and remounted three of its bigger hits: Sisters' Dance, Claymont, and The Play About the Naked Guy. While this doesn't exactly sound like a risk-taking concept, EAT has taken the time to really refine their production values, working on a larger scale in the cavernous Baruch Performing Arts Center, and allowing these playwrights (Sarah Hollister, Kevin Brofsky, and David Bell) a valuable chance to revisit their work: tweaking, editing, and reworking their plays for a second chance on the stage. For some initial coverage, I headed out to see what a normal night might look like, first checking out Claymont, and then The Play About the Naked Guy. (Full disclosure: I know David Bell, the playwright of the latter: lest there be any concerns about conflicts of interest, I first recommend his play parenthetically.)

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

- Claymont

Are there really places like Claymont, Delaware, where even the name is just another metaphor for the soul-sucking town? (Sounds like a mountainous place, but it's geographically flat.) Or times like 1969? which aside from references to Funny Girl and Bewitched, seems here to be an ironically repressed period, at least if you're a gay artist, trying to sculpt something out of your formative teenage years. Even if there weren't, Kevin Brofsky's written a play so plausible that it manages to defy the cliches one normally finds in this genre. Even his overly comic devices, like Dolores (Wynne Anders), find real heart in their human concerns, while others, like Sharon Letts (Aimee Howard), succeed by playing against type.

We first meet the lead, Neil, as he caroms through the living room, happily vacuuming for a fourth time (this allows him to loudly sing Broadway show tunes). Jason Hare wisely plays him as an excitable boy whose repressed sexuality has makes him uncomfortable in his own skin, which also leaves a lot of room for cooler, subtle moments where Neil, in the presence of Dallas Hitchens (an easy-going Stephen Sherman), is so busy unabashedly relaxing -- not just with a crush, or a father-figure, or simply a friend -- that he reads like an open book. Furthermore, by adding so many layers to the relationship between Neil and Dallas, Brofksy widens the scope of the play: it's not about being closeted so much as it is about feeling alone. That's something that Neil's mom, Shayna (Glory Gallo) shows glimpses of as she talks about caring for her paralyzed husband, or that's obvious from the way Grandma (Rebecca Hoodwin) spends all of her time dreaming of Hollywood Squares, as much a prisoner of the sofa as anything else.

The problem with Claymont, however, is the same as the one in the town: it's flat. It's fine to be casual, but Brofksy should take Dallas's advice to Neil and add a cave of blood to the center of his project, because right now there's not much to get people talking. (As long as we're comparing the play to its art, it also resembles the set's walls: a series of rectangular patches that are more often empty frames than spots of color.) Natural as the circumstances may be, and genuine as Jason Hare is, the play moves rather slowly, something that's not helped by Mrs. Hoodwin's lifeless recitations or by Mr. Sherman's passionless aggression. Neil, who is trying to win a scholarship out of Delaware, works like he has something to lose (or something to gain, as when he "goes to the moon"), but Dallas, who, despite facing the draft and the very bureaucracy he protested -- Mr. Ramsey, the art teacher, well-played by Ron Bopst -- hardly seems there at all.

I know, at least from the script, that '69 was a time in which people didn't have a cow, but the play needs to focus more on the clash between Neil's silent struggle and Dallas's rebellion: it doesn't matter how high the stakes are if no-one acknowledges that they're there.

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Claymont (2 hr. 30 min.)
Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Avenue)
Performances (through 3/2): Tues. @ 7 | Fri. @ 7 | Sat. @ 2 | Sun. @ 8
Tickets (212-247-2429): $50.00

- The Play About the Naked Guy


Taking into account my potential bias, I'd say the only flaw with David Bell's insider satire, The Play About the Naked Guy is that if Charles Isherwood really had raved about The Integrity Players' latest play, they wouldn't have had to team up with the gleefully reprehensible producers of "Naked Boys Running Around Naked" to bring in the audiences. Then again, I hear that My First Time and Awesome 80's Prom just recouped their investments even as shows like Is He Dead? struggle to fill the houses, so there's some hard truth to the question of integrity at the heart of Bell's soft comedy. If acting is considered therapy, consider what playwriting is, especially with stone-cold lines like, "We made $90!" "Throw in $21.50 and you'll have enough for The Little Mermaid."

Aside from such mordant turnabout (worry not, there's very little fair play), the play goes above and beyond with its characters, all cranked up to 11 by director Tom Wojtunik. The Integrity Players themselves are: Harold (Wayne Henry), who, from his hilarious British lilt is obviously the actor of the group; Dan (Jason Schuchman), the upright moralist and director (sometimes his clipboard disappears, could it perhaps be up his ass?); and Amanda (Stacy Mayer), his pretty (pregnant) wife and all-around endearing ditz. In other words -- the fodder, or contrast, for the truly over-the-top characters: a trio of villainous gay men straight out of Ugly Betty by way of Will and Grace (Christopher Borg, Christopher Sloan, and Chad Austin), Amanda's deliciously DeVille-like mother (Ellen Reilly), and a cocky porn star named Kit (Dan Amboyer).

As Bell flips from disillusionment to desperation to debauchery, the jokes keep coming, staying well above the depressing underbelly of theater ("No one goes to Cymbeline because they want to") as he exposes the truth of production photos, the life of rich and carefree producers, and the secret of method acting. All this while simultaneously fleshing out Harold as a "new gay" coming to terms with himself, Kit as a wannabe actor who finds salvation in a "man" named Uta Hagen, the difficulties of working with your spouse day in and day out, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work of "Jesus Christ, He's Hot!"

There isn't much that Mr. Bell doesn't throw at the audience, and if he has to repeat himself a couple of times while transitioning, so be it: his jokes are funny, and the cast is recklessly hysterical. He's also well-partnered with Mr. Wojtunik, who not only keeps the play building to a mercilessly funny conclusion, but even throws in a key montage or too -- just enough to poke a little bit of fun at Hollywood. And if you can't laugh at that . . . .

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The Play About the Naked Guy (1 hr. 50 min.)
Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Avenue)
Performances (through 3/2): Mon. @ 7 | Fri. @ 9:30 | Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 5
Tickets (212-247-2429): $50.00

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Jazz Age

Those looking for insight into the minds that created some of the Twentieth Century's greatest literature won't find it in Allan Knee's paint-by-numbers bioplay.


photo: Ryan Jensen

Reviewed by Cameron Kelsall

Writing any kind of fiction based on the lives of real people is an incredibly ambitious prospect, especially when the subjects are three of the most well-known (and overly mythologized) literary figures of all time. Someone with very little historical knowledge would probably be able to tell you that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a genius broken by alcohol; that his wife, Zelda Sayre, was an intensely passionate woman crippled by madness; and that Ernest Hemingway was a malcontented iconoclast eventually done in by his own grim feelings towards human experience. In his new play, The Jazz Age, Allan Knee regrettably does not stray far from these familiar stereotypes as he attempts to convey the inner workings of these three lost souls who tried to create a new Romantic era at the epoch of high modernism.

We are first introduced to Scott (Dana Watkins) and Zelda (Amy Rutberg) at a Southern dance; the attraction is instantaneous, although Zelda does not want to acknowledge it. She attempts to resist the advances of this young soldier who has just sold his first novel to Scribner's, believing him to be "very conceited and far too pretty for a man," but by the end of this initial interaction it is clear that they belong with, and to, each other. They marry quickly and soon begin enjoying the expatriate life in 1920s Paris.

When they reach Europe in the next scene, Scott is an established literary celebrity and decides to use his influence to get Ernest Hemingway (PJ Sosko), whom he reveres, published by the same house. The latter writer, fiercely proud and unwilling to waver when it comes to his creations, will have none of it. A major juxtaposition--the uncomfortably close relationship between fame and integrity, and the lengths one must go to to achieve either or both--is made here, and although the men form a strong, almost romantic bond, this essential divide pervades their subsequent scenes together, as well as Scott's relationship with his wife, who longs to make her own mark.

Unfortunately, the two actors who portray these titans of literature barely rise above the level of caricature. Mr. Watkins, overly fey and chatty, barely registers any strong emotions as a man who is eventually done in by his emotions. Where he should present the persona of a man besotted by drink and rage at his beloved wife's countless infidelities, he comes across more like a friendly accountant whose cat has just died. The inner demons just aren't there, and even at his most self-destructive, he's still essentially a boy scout. Likewise, Mr. Sosko's reading of the great alpha-male of American letters is gruff and nothing more. The reason for his constant tough front is never explained, and when the drama calls for a breakdown or moments of genuine pathos, it feels fake.

By contrast, Ms. Rutberg is a revelation, smartly playing Zelda as neither a siren nor a harpy, but rather an intensely bright and sexual woman who strongly desires a life removed from what is considered ordinary. The madness that she has become known for--she spent the final years of her life in a sanitarium--creeps in quietly and appropriately and builds to a chilling crescendo. Ms. Rutberg is an actress who knows how to use her body to project what is deep within her soul; a scene at the top of Act Two, a failed seduction of Hemingway, who openly disdains her, is particularly haunting.

The major trouble with Mr. Knee's writing style is that it is immensely limited: when it isn't weak, it feels overly forced. He relies too heavily on direct address--the most overused, and often misused, modern theatrical conceit--to move the plot forward, while his long scenes barely scratch the surface of the characters' relationship to each other and their world. Much of the text is filled with exceedingly aware dialogue (Scott refers to Zelda as his "magnificient flapper" and claims captivation with the elderly because of their "seasoned faces") that conveys little meaning or true feeling. There is scant evidence of the new world that these three set out to create, and why it would still be considered fascinating today. This Jazz Age, unfortunately, is as unappealing as warm gin and as lifeless as a page of sheet music left unplayed.

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The Jazz Age
Theater B at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th Street)
Tickets: $35
Performances (through March 2): Tuesday-Friday at 8:15; Saturday at 2:15 and 8:15; Sunday at 3:15
Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission

Blue Coyote's Happy Endings

Reviewed by Eric Miles Glover


Blue Coyote Theater Group commissioned a group of playwrights to create 15-minute plays that explore the sex industry. The result is the nine plays that comprise Blue Coyote's Happy Endings and explore the industry from a wide range of genders and sexualities.

Happy Endings offers an assortment of comedic and dramatic fare. The festival of plays follows unrequited love between a patron and a dancer at a disco (Beauty by Blair Fell), the erectile dysfunction of a gigolo (Switch by David Foley), the sexual arousals of a woman scorned (Peep Show by Christine Whitley), and the interior monologues of an artist's model (Whenever You're Ready by John Yearley). The festival also follows the dangers of unprotected sex (AIDS Reveal by Stan Richardson) and an intellectual argument about James Joyce's Finnegans Wake at a nightclub (Yes Yes Yes by David Johnston).

Matthew Freeman's The White Swallow, Brian Fuqua's The Guest, and Boo Killebrew's Pulling Teeth are the highlights of Happy Endings. The White Swallow stages a tryst between a married man (played by Matthew Trumbull) and a male escort (played by David DelGrosso) he hires to fulfill a fetish. The dialogue is clever, and the performances of the actors--Matthew Trumbull in particular--are priceless. The Guest stages the physical and psychic preparations of a gay couple for a male escort with a large endowment. The precision with which Brian Fuqua and F. Dash Vata perform the sum of gay stereotypes is side-splitting.

Last but not least, Pulling Teeth stages the sexual misadventures of the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Mrs. Claus. The highlight is the disclosure of the means through which the Tooth Fairy amasses the quarters she exchanges for teeth. R. Jane Casserly and Phillip Taratula offer comedic, mature, and schizophrenic performances as the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. However, Tracey Gilbert steals the show with a memorable over-the-top performance as Mrs. Claus.

Blue Coyote's Happy Endings neither criticizes nor praises the producers and consumers of the sex industry. Rather, the industry serves as the background for a study of essential human behaviors, including the desires to love and be loved. Though the plays do not appeal to the conservative theatergoer (a couple exited during intermission at the performance I attended), the prescient explorations of human behavior and sexuality--by nine playwrights with unique voices--reflect the desires, experiences, frustrations, and hangups of the everyman and everywoman.

Presented by Blue Coyote Theater Group. Now through March 1, at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway. Tuesdays at 9:00 PM, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM. $18, smarttix.com.

Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner?

Thematically, this show is all over the place. Is it a commentary on the craigslist phenomenon or a portrait of a narcissistic artist? Is it an unusual look at domestic violence or the plight of a ghost? The script tries to link all four with a meddling boyfriend and a charming roommate, but doesn't succeed. In addition to not having any focus, this show also lacks sympathetic characters. After spending a good portion of the play waiting to be entertained and enlightened, you won't care when you get both in the end. Too little, too late.
Alana Jackler as "The Ghost" ,Kathryn Merry as "Ginger" and the members of "The Chorus" in Intravenous Theatre's production of DOES ANYONE KNOW SARAH PAISNER? @ The Gene Frankel Theatre Press Agent: Katie Rosin / Kampfire Films PR

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

If you haven't already heard about the craigslist phenomenon, you're probably living under a rock. Once relying almost solely on word of mouth advertising, craigslist managed to pop up in drama several times in 2007 alone. This year, it makes a rather anonymous but substantial appearance in Jennifer Lane's Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner? And although director Elyzabeth Gorman finds a creative way to represent Sir Craig onstage, the real, exhilirating premise of the play doesn't get nearly enough attention.

The play opens with Ginger (Kathryn Merry) tapping away at her laptop with a backdrop of anonymous craigslist (craigslist is never named, but it is obvious based on the depictions) personal ad posters stating their cases. They are cleverly shown in silhouette, appearing high and low behind a panel divided into partitions. "Missed Connections" ads and regular ones are explored and will inspire a chuckle even if you've never visited such a site, but their presentations go on far too long for comfort. Ginger remains engrossed in her perusals, preferring to browse through ads than socialize in the real world, but her brooding demeanor starts to get on her vivacious roommate Ella's (Maggie Benedict) nerves. Ginger, originally from Akron, Ohio, has been living with her roomie in New York for 6 months, and has yet to unpack or make new friends with the exception of her sometime lover Wray (Jason Odell Williams). And I use the term "friends" lightly because the two people in her New York life don't really know her.

Despite Benedict's charm, the stage never comes alive, not even when The Woman (Alana Jackler), a ghost with a horrible wig and terrible gore makeup, starts to visit Ginger. Immediately, your mind will start to go to work trying to figure out the identity of this woman who calls herself Sarah Paisner. For the most part, the script does a good job of keeping the mystery going, but unfortunately, what unfolds onstage puts you to sleep. Becoming lost in anonymity is the center of this play, but it doesn't make for exciting theater. The pacing is slow and you'll start to think that Ginger is as dull as a doorknob until we get to the real reason why her past is so guarded. Ginger is not what she seems, and The Woman doesn't start visiting her by happenstance. Ginger is hiding out in New York to escape her batterer husband James. She's left behind 2 kids in Akron to assume a new identity. Unfortunately, she not only assumes a new identity, she robs one that's already established. Unnerved that James will find her after calling her kids from a payphone, Ginger discovers The Woman, already deceased, in an alley. She surmises that no one could possibly be looking for this woman since she wound up in an alley, so she decides to scar up this woman's face and pass her off as Sarah Paisner, her own real identity. Seemingly a victim in the beginning, by the time the play ends, you'll realize that the real Sarah Paisner has a nasty, narcissistic edge. But you'll have to have patience to last that long, and you'll have to care once you realize what Lane is cooking up. Your interest might fade before that on both ends.

The premise of the play is engaging, but Lane doesn't spend enough time developing it. Rather than finding more places to insert harbingers of the climax, she fills those holes with details that are either uninteresting or veering in a different direction. Sir Craig pops up way too many times in the form of both creepy and earnest personal ads, and the subject of domestic violence is introduced, but not threaded into the plot well. In spite of being a battered wife and having the aberrant sexual streak that is created within her as a result, Ginger is not a very sympathetic character. The attempts to make Merry appear even remotely sexually deviant fall flat due to direction and perhaps her own reservedness. And if she can't drum up any sympathy for being beat up and being desperate, it's even worse for the other, half-developed, characters. As the Woman, Jackler is a half-menacing, half-cackling ghost, but the persona she creates doesn't mesh well with the true identity, or lack thereof, of her character.

Does Anyone Know Sarah Paisner? has a good core story, but it lacks focus. At 80 minutes, there's not a lot there to pare down, but there is enough there to be re-imagined. If the playwright spends more time revealing who Sarah Paisner is, perhaps we'll want to figure out the rest. As it stands, the revelation isn't worth the wait. By the time you get your meal, you'll already be fed up with the service.
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Through March 2nd.
Tickets: $18. 212-352-3101
Gene Frankel Theatre 24 Bond Street, New York, NY 10012

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thicker Than Water 2008

This collection of one-acts seems to be happier treading water, letting its under-35 playwrights get their feet wet, than in diving into anything serious. Even the laughs go no deeper than the kiddie pool, and with the exception of Justin Deabler's uncomfortably exaggerated Red, Blue, and Purple, the evening seems squandered on incomplete and marginal new plays.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

I see a lot of one-act festivals as part of my work with New Theater Corps -- I find that they're a great way to catch up-and-coming artists, to see boundaries being pushed in experimental short pieces, or simply to showcase artistic and directorial talents. So I'm disappointed with the output of the under-35 Youngblood group, which, if Thicker Than Water 2008 is any indication, is happier treading water, getting their feet wet, and playing in the kiddie pool, than diving into anything serious (or funny). At best, the seven plays here put the cute in dysfuncutetion (as with Amy Herzog's 508); at worst, they sing -- badly (Delaney Britt Brewer's hippie folk musical about familial reconciliation It'll Soon Be Here).

The two exceptions are Courtney Brooke Lauria and Matt Schatz's musical, Co-Op, which is at quirky enough musically to get away with a stale tale of shy strangers, and Justin Deabler's excellent Red, Blue, and Purple, which dares the audience to watch as Dylan (Miguel Govea) meets for an uncomfortably revealing coffee with his former best friend, Nina (Kelli Lynn Harrison), whose shaky mental condition and conversion to religion -- "I Heard God speaking to me at the hot buffet -- are all just a bit too much for him, especially when she tries to help him switch back to heterosexuality.

The directing is efficiently done, but that's the last thing you want to hear in a review focusing on new one-act plays. It's also not enough, as the actors so often fall back on overemoting when they run out of things to actually say. Michael Sendrow's For Candy: A Dead Letter Written has an interesting concept -- a son gets a long-lost (and forgotten) letter from his now-dead mother -- but the suspense is literally throttled to death by the father's (Grant Shaud) patented Looks of Portent. Daria Polatin's La Fete (The Holiday) is full of caustic snaps from a teenage daughter dragged along on her mother and stepfather's honeymoon, only to settle for a hastily resolved happy ending. And while I'd love to say that Thicker Than Water simply suffers from not having enough time, Emily Chadick Weiss's Both wastes the entire 50-minute second act cracking similarly embarrassing jokes until they're neither embarrassing nor funny.

I've seen great stuff from Youngblood artists before, so maybe this is just their way of getting it out of their system, pissing, if you will, into a wide ocean of thick, middling water. But hey, would it be too much to ask for some waves?

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Thicker Than Water 2008 (2 hr. 25 min.)
Ensemble Studio Theatre (549 West 52nd Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 3/1): Thurs. - Sat @ 7:00

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mortal Decisions: A Diary of the Donner Party

Stu Richel’s one man play Mortal Decisions: A Diary of the Donner Party gives a trim overview of the events that led to the Party’s becoming stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and resorting to now infamous acts of cannibalism in order to survive. But in cautiously reining in the melodrama, Richel holds back on some of the drama inherent in the Donner Party’s tragic story of an American pioneer dream gone horribly awry.


Reviewed by Ilena George

As part of the Metropolitan Playhouse’s season on Virtue (“the eighth deadly sin”), Stu Richel’s Mortal Decisions promises a critical look at the Donner Party—at the mistakes made and whether the figures whom history has forgiven or damned truly deserve their posthumous fates—from the perspective of James Frazier Reed, one of the Party’s influential leaders. With the help of an illustrative, if rudimentary, map hanging behind him, Richel diagrams the path the Party took across the country, explaining their choices at each fork in the road, examining who was to blame and praising the unsung heroes whom history has overlooked. Having come into the show with little knowledge about the fateful events of 1846-1847, I definitely walked away from the show with a better understanding of this piece of American history.

“[We were] pioneers, but not frontiersmen,” Reed explains; the Party’s members were stalwart but still not prepared for the conditions they found themselves in when their journey west began taking far longer than they expected and food and other supplies dwindled to nothing; desperation began setting in, as well as a willingness to commit desperate acts. Although the Party had up to 87 people in its ranks, Richel’s selection of which members of the Donner Party to describe, and sometimes depict for a line or two, is generally well done and easy to follow. Only the timing of events was sometimes muddled: there were several attempts made by different groups to rescue the people stranded in the mountains and it was unclear who was coming and going, and when.

Conveying all the hope of pioneers beginning a journey and the impotent rage of someone who knows the consequences of a poor decision and is unable to stop it, Richel’s delivery carries emotional weight but is still marked by its restraint. It seems that in trying to avoid the melodrama that could be a pitfall in the telling of this particular story, Richel has avoided some of the drama that makes the Donner’s tragedy compelling. Despite his claims to freshly appraise the group’s actions, as well as those of its individual members, Richel chooses as his narrator a member of the Party who was not present to witness the group’s cannibalism, which he mentions but does not explore in detail. Richel’s account paints a vivid picture of people stretched to the limits of their physical and emotional endurance, but where exactly does the critical perspective step in?

During the talkback, Richel parceled out a few tidbits from his vast pantry of knowledge on the subject—for instance, that Reed was caught in the Spanish American War and could not return to help the stranded members of the Party. I couldn’t help feeling that the play would have benefited from the seasoning these details would have provided.

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Mortal Decisions: A Diary of the Donner Party
Metropolitan Playhouse (220 East 4th Street)
Tickets: (212) 995-5302: $15 General Admission, $12 Seniors, $10 Students
February 8th-16th, Friday and Saturday at 8pm

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Lifeblood

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble puts on a beautiful work of political intrigue and dark drama that manages to be subtle and broad, funny and tragic, and well-staged throughout. The final act of Glyn Maxwell's The Lifeblood is a bit disappointing across the boards, but for the most part, this play is filled with rich villainy, scathing wits, and desperate souls.

Photo/Gerry Goodstein

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

For a moment, there's a brief lilt of classical music, a spotlight on an elegant tapestry, and the glimmer of hope -- and then the crushing sound of a cell door slamming shut. It's an abrupt introduction to Mary Stuart's world, a place where wire fences incongruously mesh with Elizabethan costuming. It's also a good way for the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble to kick off their new season with Glyn Maxwell's The Lifeblood, for it allows them to show both the beauty in this British poet's dialogue and the dark intrigue of his drama. It's also a chance to mix the broad strokes of the plot -- the delicious machinations of spymaster Francis Walsingham (Craig Smith) to find an excuse to execute former Queen Mary (Elise Stone) -- with their subtle exchanges.

The play starts deep into the eighteenth year of Mary's imprisonment/banishment in a modest mansion in Staffordshire (a place where "even the name is a form of punishment"). Though she keeps up her own appearance, her tapestries are damp and in disrepair, and Sir Amyas Paulet (Mark Waterman), her bitter jailer (as much a prisoner as she), has just sent away all of her staff, save for her loyal (although also bitter) aide, Claude Arno (Joseph J. Menino). Unable to physically prevent the deterioration around her, Mary turns to her hopes and dreams, seizing on a cypher provided by Thomas Gorge (Jason O'Connell) to help her communicate an escape. She becomes a woman of letters and subterfuge, and her every insult and thought is parsed and hidden beneath her broad smile, a tact that Elise Stone well embodies in the role. Though she stands diminutively, she cuts her enemies down ruthlessly, as when she remarks to Paulet, who has been reading her letters, "The ink is acid, so read them closely, dear." How comically caustic. Unfortunately, Sir Gorge actually works as a double-agent for Walsingham, and though he repents his betrayal later, after falling for the beautiful queen -- "Did you fuck her?" roars the delightful Walsingham, a crude yet absolutely methodical villain -- Mary's fate is sealed.

Robert Hupp's staging goes a long way to make all these betrayals work: he uses the shadows of the background to present ominous figures listening in during the happier moments of the first few acts, has them creep to the foreground, flittering from under the stairs and behind the wire fence. The space never changes, but Hupp's use of it keeps changing the way in which we perceive Mary's circumstances: as with the classical music that opens the show, there's the hint of beauty, a beauty which is stripped away more and more until Mary is left standing alone on the stage, desperation snaking its way into her voice, as she pleads with us -- the audience -- to exonerate her. (This neat trick is done by seating Walsingham and his fellow jurors behind the audience.)

The play rests on Mary's shoulders, and Stone's mix of sarcasm, sadness, and stubbornness carry that weight rather well. It should come as no surprise, though, that after her eventual beheading, the play falls apart: the final scene magnifies some of the inconsistencies in acting that are glossed over by Maxwell's clever writing. This brief moral of an ending doesn't ruin the show, but it does weaken The Lifeblood, and that's a shame, for it otherwise runs so clearly.

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The Lifeblood (95 min.)
Connelly Theater (220 East 4th Street)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00

Performances (through 2/23): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 3

Cherubina

A crippled schoolteacher exacts revenge on a publisher who rejects her poetry by inventing an alluring and mysterious character to go with a pseudonym. Based on a true story that unfolded in St. Petersburg, Russia, this production has a great cast, good direction and tons of passion. Although the script can be occasionally wordy, Paul Cohen creates a wonderful portrait of an artist defrauded by his own elitist grip on truth and beauty.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Random House's Unabridged Dictionary defines poetry as "the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts." Cherubina's Nikolai (Teddy Bergman) claims that he measures poetry by its ability to unsheathe soulfulness and pain. So when his schoolteacher friend Elisa Ivanovna (Amanda Fulks) sends him a poem to publish that he doesn't think embodies these qualities, he rejects it despite realizing with his partner Max (Jimmy Owens) that it's not half-bad. Although Elisa feels the sting of rejection, she doesn't go down for the count. She believes that her poetry is good, and was only rejected because she is crippled and doesn't have the physical beauty to match the beauty of her writing. With the assistance of Max (as much her friend as Nikolai's), she sets out to prove that a correlation exists between physical beauty and applauded art.

After assuming various accents and personas, Elisa finally becomes Cherubina, a Russian nom de plume with great beauty borrowed from the photograph of a former student. From there, she spins a web of lies that express themselves through letters and phone calls exchanged with Nikolai. At first fueling the fire for sport and then to debunk Nikolai's confidence in recognizing art, Max starts to question Nikolai's rapture with the mysterious Cherubina and his decision to arbitrarily publish her purposefully shoddy poems. The lies soon take on a life of their own when rumors that Elisa did not initiate start to circulate in their society. Soon, there are sightings of the dark-haired Cherubina partaking in cultural events and spending time with counts. Harmless fun and indignation balloon into a situation that becomes ominous for all parties involved.

Set and lighting designer Gina Scherr allows the actors to create some of that danger by bisecting the stage into the office of the literary paper downstage, and a forest scene upstage. A duel that's not entirely serious between Max and Nikolia opens the play and foreshadows the tension that will ultimately be created between them, but not to the drama's detriment. The intensity of the characters is immediately displayed by the wonderful cast, all nailing their roles and showing great chemistry in the often two-character scenes. Fulks and Owens work particularly well together, aligning their devious minds while also showing great intimacy and silent affection for one another. Fulks ambles around on her lame leg with purpose, never letting us forget that her unfortunate accident tints almost all of her decisions. Alexis Poledouris keeps both Cherubina and the true natures of everyone's relationships deliciously mysterious. Although Cohen's wordy dialogue may be a little more revealing than the actors, who loves who and who despises who is cleverly hidden in the performances.

Cohen's script is reminiscent of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, but with its own twists. Set in 1913 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the wooden furniture and phones may be vintage, but aside from Cherubina's sultry Russian accent, the audience doesn't get much of a sense of a distinct Russian setting. We do, however, get a distinct sense of romance by the heavy aroma of perfume wafting into the audience from Cherubina's letters. Love and passion is definitely in the air, even if it's based on lies. And by the time all of the characters are stripped down to the bone, you'll have shared a journey with them that is entertaining, humbling, and moving.
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Through February 23rd. Sanford Meisner Theater
164 Eleventh Ave New York, NY 10011 Ticket Price: $18
Ticket Information: TheaterMania: 212-352-3101; http://www.theatermania.com/

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Offending the Audience

Of all the philosophical, anti-theatrical contradictions in Peter Handke's forty-year-old play Offending the Audience, director Jim Simpson may have achieved the best one by casting The Flea's young theater company (The Bats): they bring the talk of inaction to life in a wonderfully active way, trilling their lines, merging powerfully together as a Greek chorus, and looking extremely attractive in the process.

Photo/Max Ruby

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The bad news is that after forty years, Peter Handke's play, Offending the Audience, no longer does so. The good news is that after forty years, Peter Handke's play, Offending the Audience, no longer does so: instead, it's an lively bit of non-theater that's been stripped down to negations and contradictions, and then dressed back up in turtlenecks and flawless dictions. In fact, it's so elegant that it's rarely shocking, unless you're surprised to find what could very well be a mixed-gender group of Deal or No Deal models speaking lucidly about the world of the stage that they are deconstructing: "We have no need of illusions to disillusion you."

But for a mob of 21 young actors -- playing themselves as they play with Handke's words -- they don't do much to smash through our staid conventions. They stand in place a lot, or sit, parallel to us, on a long bench across the wide-screen space of the Flea's underground theater. When they come up to the knee-high divider between us and them, they only occasionally cross it, and though they make eye contact, most of the crowd responded in kind, enough to the point where it actually seemed to unsettle some of the actors -- a few refused to acknowledge us at all, throwing their insults away on empty chairs instead. (Not that they weren't ever successful; I think I did fairly well matching Ronald Washington's gaze considering he was inches from my front-row face, but I eventually flinched.) Perhaps director Jim Simpson meant for this to happen: perhaps this unoffensive bit of play (that is not, they repeat, not a play) is meant to break down our barriers by not breaking them down. It is, after all, a play of contradictions.

The biggest and most delightful reversal is that all this talk of inaction is brought to life in a wonderfully active way: the actors trill their lines, merge powerfully together as a Greek chorus, and all look extremely attractive while doing so. Out of respect to the hard-working cast (and as practice for the few cast members who seem flat), I recommend that you stick around for Act II. If you can get past their intimidating wall of silence, you'll realize at last that once all the fun and games are over, the essential truth of the show -- that audience and actor are intrinsically no different -- shines through. That is, we may be "Merovingian dark agers," or "bimbos and bimbets," hell, even "killer pigs," but then again, so are they. So are we.

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Offending the Audience (*AT LEAST* 60 min.)
The Bats @ The Flea (41 White Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $10.00
Performances (through 2/23): Thurs. - Sat. @ 9:00

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Main(e) Play

There is something familiar about The Main(e) Play - two siblings, growing apart, facing each other amid the mess of their childhood … but familiarity is not always a bad thing – in fact, it is often underrated. The familiar – as long as it is not the repeated – can resonate.

Reviewed by Amanda Cooper

We all have stereotypes in our mind – whether we recognize it or not. With The Main(e) Play, the stereotypes on stage are, in many ways, the expected for a play placed in a small blue-collar town. Centering around two brothers, Shane and Roy, the entire story takes place in the living room of their childhood house. Shane (Alexander Alioto) has just come back home to Maine for Thanksgiving. He’s an actor in New York who is regularly working, and currently receiving notoriety for his appearance in a national GAP commercial. Roy (Michael Gladis), on the other hand, has never moved out of the house they grew up in. He’s had the same job laying cement for years, and is raising his troublemaker son as a single father.

There is something familiar about this play - two siblings, growing apart, facing each other amid the mess of their childhood … but familiarity is not always a bad thing – in fact, it is often underrated. Storylines can feel closer to home. Characters, and their choices can hit our emotions harder. The familiar – as long as it is not the repeated – can resonate.

For the most part, the recognizable aspects of The Main(e) play work in its favor. We watch Shane trip over his nephew’s Legos; we see him sprawled asleep on the floor, amid a post-coital mess of bedding. These are the mistakes, big and small, that are real everyday for so many of us. His brother Roy, comparatively, has grown passive; the mistakes he makes are of not making any: He lives with his past choices, waiting to see if change will stumble upon him.

And then there’s Jess, Shane’s ex, who consistently seems to gravitate toward Shane, no matter the stickiness of the situation (she's currently dating Roy's best friend). It is poignantly unclear whether Shane falling back into Jess is a result of dwelling in the past, or of building something new out of the wreckage.

Alioto and Gladis have contrasting acting styles, but they are both skilled, and their different approaches highlight the ways these two brothers will always be different from each other. Most importantly, the two are comfortable enough with their characters to make apparent that there is more stirring within them each than is said aloud. The cast is rounded out by three others – an agreeable Susan Dahl as the ex, Jess; Curran Connor, who is an appropriately large presence as Roy’s buddy Rooster; and Allyson Morgan, who cameos as an entertaining teen girl scout.

Perhaps most refreshing is the lack of any huge, messed-up-past for these anti-heroes. Instead, we learn about the tangible life-changing events that brought these two to their life impasses. True, this is a story that is modest in scope, and so the overall effect does not add up to a theatrical revelation. But the result is a play which actually succeeds in its goals, relating its point of view, and allowing the audience to gently re-examine some of our own perspectives, and if we are lucky, even some of our own past choices.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Conjur Woman: A Folk Opera

A slave woman uses black magic to turn her lover into a tree in an effort to keep him from being sold to another plantation owner. Given its style, it seems well-suited for the fringe or festival circuit. Under the Radar Festival, which just closed recently, comes to mind. Although Obie-winner Sheila Dabney is a compelling performer, she is upstaged by the supporting band.
Photo of Sheila Dabney by Jerry Vezzuso
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

There are no bells and whistles to behold in Beatrice Manley's Conjur Woman. An extravagant set and costumes are replaced by a wooden-slat background, stripped wood furniture, a long, suspended rope that foreshadows too much, and slave garb. But performer and vocalist Sheila Dabney provides more than enough stimuli to keep the audience invested: she sings of and with pain and impossible dreams, and puts on a caged, desperate persona that leaves a handprint with its touch. The production, however, does have some flaws.

Jasper McGruder makes his harmonica sing the soulful intro to the show, and is followed by composer Yukio Tsuji on percussion as they take centerstage. The musicians pave the way for Dabney, but for a 50 minute show, their intro runs too long. Also, because the band is placed centerstage, they get more than equal footing with Dabney, which confuses the focus of the production. Whereas the supporting orchestra is set apart from the performers in classical operas, here Dabney is made to compete with them. When Dabney appears onstage, however, she does come on strong.

Produced by La Mama's Experimental Theater Club, Conjur Woman unfolds like a libretto, but it's a libretto with a loose, sometimes obscure narrative due to the heavy dialect that Manley intended for the role and one-dimensional songs. The gist of the premise is clear: Conjur Woman has used black magic to turn her lover into a tree, and hides him in the forest. Unfortunately, all the trees get chopped down and sculpted into logs, and now she can't find him. It is a heart-wrenching situation that Dabney handles well, but sometimes the long, drawn-out vocals sound garbled even though they're soulful. Also, because the songs are almost all about dealing with this one crisis, the narrative seems more like a vignette rather than a fully-fledged, sequence-by-sequence story.

Director George Ferencz works with Dabney to shape an uninhibited performance that moves from desperation to rage, subtle sexiness, and sorrow. Dabney is fully immersed in the story, but on rare occassions, it appears as if it is an inward struggle that the audience can only share partially. Much of that ties into her placement on the side. Since it doesn't feel as if the production revolves around her, some moments that we take away from her performance seem stolen.

Conjur Woman is an honor to black history month because it explores slavery in a fresh, poignant way. It illuminates the pain of separation in the face of degradation. Although it may not succeed in all areas, it does showcase Dabney's emotional and vocal range and leaves a lasting impression.
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Through February 10th. La MaMa e.t.c. is located at 74A East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue & Bowery in NYC. Performances run Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for seniors and students and can be purchased by calling 212-475-7710 or visiting http://www.lamama.org./