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.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Optimist

The Optimist’s take on two brothers’ quarterlife crises as they share a motel room during a particularly fraught weekend both engages with and pokes fun at its subject matter—the post-college Sturm und Drang of being an American twentysomething— but the play’s self-awareness cannot disguise or excuse the sometimes trite and cliché moments of self-revelation.

Chris Thorn and Matt Burns in The Optimist

Reviewed by Ilena George

In an Econo Lodge room strewn with papers, clothing, mattresses and other detritus, twin brothers Declan and Noel attempt to come to grips with their father’s remarriage to a woman who may have been his mistress while he was still married to their mother. Noel finds violent and creative outlets for his rage against his father, involving his father’s love letters and a home-made boxing ring. On top of all the family issues, Noel’s first girlfriend died suddenly and is being laid to rest on Monday.

The brothers are both inwardly focused, overeducated and loquacious to a fault. “We’re just a couple of chickenshit, dippy-ass little wussies,” declares one of the brothers. Declan (Chris Thorn), is a horny and scatological intellectual who spouts out ten-dollar words in an often droll and disaffected manner (“I’m a soft bipolar, Noel. Please. Allow me some undulations of disposition. You know, humans are quite surprising if you give them the chance.”). But that’s not to say that his one-liners don’t zing; to wit: “The soul, too, has a virginity and must bleed a little before bearing fruit.” Playwright Jason Chimonides’ script abounds with witty remarks, dirty allusions, and random tangents where high art and popular culture collide and explode.

The other brother -- Noel (Matt Burns), the eponymous optimist -- feels everything more acutely than most people. A common reaction of his is to curl up on the floor, overwhelmed by everything from his friend’s ashes, to his ex-girlfriend Nicole’s (Caitlin FitzGerald) boyfriend’s llamas’ names. “It’s not hip to feel so much these days,” says Nicole (who is also in town for the funeral), claiming he belongs in the 19th century among the romantic poets. In contrast to his brother’s relentless monologues, Noel is more physically and aggressively expressive; he decides to challenge his father to a boxing match in the boxing ring he created within the motel room.

The play is its best when at its most idiosyncratic: between Chimonides’ often hilarious script and the sometimes frantic energy of Jace Alexander’s direction, the brothers are unique and compelling. But chipping away at this distinctive lacquer reveals a plot that is more ordinary than anything: Noel is still in love with Nicole and his feelings for her come bubbling up and add to the mess all over the room. The dialogue between Noel and Nicole as they try to navigate toward each other just doesn’t spark the way the rest of the play does. As the straight foil to the brothers’ particular brand of crazy, Nicole appears dull in comparison to the two brothers, who are, at times, literally bouncing off the walls. Too much navel-gazing makes the denouement drag and the play ultimately sacrifices its unique and witty repartee for the heavy and familiar bludgeoning of a relationship drama.

[As an aside to the kindred spirits who will find this news exciting, beginning April 8th the role of Declan will be played by Ryland Blackinton, guitarist for the band Cobra Starship.]

The Optimist by Jason Chimonides, directed by Jace Alexander
Ground UP productions at The Abingdon Theatre (312 W. 36th Street)
Tickets: $20 (212) 352-3101,
March 20th- April 12th, Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Romeo and Juliet

What if your only hate and your only love were the same person? Theatre Breaking Through Barriers toys with Shakespearean convention using just four actors to cover all the parts in “Romeo and Juliet.”


By the time Romeo meets Juliet in Theatre Breaking Through Barriers’ production, in seemingly the same way a million Romeos have met a million Juliets, they’ve already met before. Rather, the characters haven’t met before, but because TBTB’s production covers 41 roles in “Romeo and Juliet” using just four actors, they have met as Lady Capulet and Paris, and Romeo’s best lady is also his best friend Mercutio. It’s a novelty and a gimmick, but it bears out long enough to highlight some good performances and many entertaining ones.

The ensemble uses costumes and accents to set their characters apart from each other, populating the streets of Verona with cowboys, hipsters, b-boys and an old lady in a wheelchair with a pistol. (A decent Bill Murray and an eerily good Christopher Walken also turn up.) The Capulets are a genteel Southern family whose lives revolve around their belle (Emily Young), who they have matched to a nerdy suitor (Young as well). But all bets are off when she meets Romeo, played by Gregg Mozgala with an attractive fluidity to his emotional journey. All actors in the troupe -- besides Young and Mozgala, Nicholas Viselli plays Lord Capulet among others and George Ashiotis, the Friar among others -- are to be lauded for their versatility on stage, but Mozgala seems willing to give himself over to madness more so than others who perform the role. He climbs up towards Juliet with a palpable yearning, not content to stand below her balcony.

The consequence of this is that Mozgala’s other roles fade into the texture of the show, as do Young’s when she isn’t Juliet and Viselli’s overall. Ashiotis, on the other hand, balances two roles (the Friar and the Nurse) so deftly that it took the audience several minutes to realize when they held a conversation behind the column why neither of them were making an appearance downstage -- a rare moment of levity in the play’s back half.

In his program note, director Ike Schambelan explains that Shakespeare’s troupe contained as few as four actors in its early years, so it’s possible that the first performances of “Romeo and Juliet” were done under such a cast constraint (although in their fat years they had as many as nine actors for the repertory). It’s a clever constraint, but is it completely worth it other than as historical artifact? For its new insights into the classic work, and the puzzling out of the many roles included, it’s worth a second glance.

Now through April 6
At the Kirk Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
For more information visit

Saturday, March 29, 2008

What's My Line?

More cool than kitschy, more memorable than simply memorabilia, the live stage version of What's My Line? is both irresistibly honest and hokey at the same time. Men are gentle again, wearing tuxedos and pulling out chairs, and women aren't just women -- they're dames: gowns, gloves and all. It's a throwback to another time, but the comically "risque" questions are just as funny now as when this ran on late-night TV for 25 years, and with new panelists and guests "competing" (for fun) each week, it's simple commercial fun.

Photo/Genevieve Rafter Keddy

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Way back in 2006, I entered The Atlantic's "Word Fugitives" contest, trying to come up with a word for "nostalgia for a time when I wasn't alive." Though I didn't win (that honor went to chronderlust), I'm glad I have the opportunity to use mine now, because I'm severely precedentimental after seeing What's My Line? Sure, I could always flip on GSN and tape one of the many late-night reruns (it ran from 1950-1975), but, far more satisfyingly, I could also head down to Barrow Street Theatre, and check out the live version playing there. More cool than kitschy (though there's certainly a wide variety of old-school gimmicks and cutesy pandering), the premiere "episode" (the 75th hosted by J. Keith van Straaten, but the first in New York City) suffered only from some technical issues, issues which it more than compensated for with its the host's hokey charm and the hilarious contrast between the panel's tuxedos and gowns and the set's flimsy yet funny charm. (There's even a house band, Shane Rettig & The Occupations, not to mention a hostess, Patti Goetticher, a pleasant dinner-theater Vanna White.)

The format for What's My Line? is simple: four panelists (a new set every week) try to guess the "line" (read: old school for "job") of several ordinary guests with less-than-usual occupations. The catch is that they're only allowed to ask yes or no questions, and if they run into a "no" ten times, the guest "stumps" the panel and "wins" the game. (To be fair, the panelists aren't paid, and the contestants all get complimentary tickets to Barrow Street Theater, win or lose.) To top off the evening, the panelists are blindfolded (more like blind-goggled, in a retro-chic fashion) and must guess who the Mystery Guest is, a task made only slightly easier by the knowledge that this person is a celebrity.

For this special premiere, the panel featured Barry Saltzman, a staple of the live show's CA incarnation (he's been on 17 times), Stephanie D'Abruzzo (the sweetheart and sass of Avenue Q), Betsy Palmer (an original What's My Line? panelist and, more notoriously, the original "Jason" in Friday the 13th), and Michael Riedel (NY Post columnist and co-host of Theater Talk, which helps explain what drew me -- and I'm very happy it did -- to What's My Line?). As for guests, the only trouble What's My Line? will have is in topping Patricia Porterfied (now Pat Finch), who appeared three times on the original show -- as the first panelist (hat check girl), a five-year-veteran (Broadway performer), and the last panelist (the farewell show). You couldn't ask for better symmetry than that: it's the sort of human element reality television "writers" only dream of. Hard to top the other guests too -- Alan Rosen, who brought enough food from his "office" to share with everyone (which is nice considering he runs Junior's Cheesecake), and Liang Wong, the youngest principal cellist in the history of the NY Philharmonic Orchestra (no surprise, either, if the two quick movements he played for us were any indication). And who's not happy to see Norm (George Wendt), the night's Mystery Guest?

The live version of What's My Line? is only supposed to be 75 minutes long, but I hope they reconsider; the night I went, not counting the technical delays in starting, was almost two hours. But these were full hours, not long hours: time well spent admiring how alike we all are, even given our different jobs and personalities. More than that, it's time well spent laughing -- not just at the staging, or the specific sort of questioning necessary to "win" (elimination-heavy questions are key, such as "Would I find this at the drugstore, hardware store, or grocery?" to which led D'Abruzzo to exclaim, "What? That's how people spoke back then!"), but at the good humor of the panelists, who are as serious about winning as they are comical when losing. Ms. Palmer, who's been down this route before, knows the drill better than the rest: "Does this piece of wood have to do with music? Can I put this piece of wood in my mouth? Does this piece of wood have a hole?" It's a shame that J. Keith van Straaten has a time-limit that forces him to moderate just enough to keep them on track (though at least he's funny about it); I could live off of questions like "Are you now a grown-up version of what you were then?"

What's My Line?
Barrow Street Theater (27 Barrow Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $25.00
Performances: Mondays @ 8:00


A New York premiere of a farce by James Sheridan, this Heiress Production is being billed as a benefit for Miracle House. The play itself focuses on being a modern-day Moliere, a comedy of manners that is "a witty story of of the twists and turns of a multi-millionaire and the family members who hope to become his heir." Will money speak, both for the characters of the play and the producers of the show? Or will they find only cold hearts and icy stares?

Photo/Isauro Cairo

Reviewed by John Rice

Affluenza is the “extreme materialism which is the impetus for accumulating wealth and for overconsumption of goods.” James Sherman diagnoses this cancer of The American Dream by satirizing it through farce. And in our contemporary world where seemingly all Americans think that fame and fortune are their birthright, this play should be a little contagious too.

The play takes place in a Chicago penthouse (distractingly painted red), and Sherman matches the text to the luxury by writing in verse. The script is a beautiful symphony of humor, canted by the sort of greedy people Moliere had fun with.

Affluenza is the story of a wealthy old man (William) and the people who want his money: his son, ex-wife, too-young-for-him girlfriend, and everyone else who comes into his Midas touch. The story is framed by Eugene (which sadly fits because Paul Herbig is a wooden actor) who has come to stay with his uncle so he can learn about real life. When he’s not being used as a bulletin board for his eBay addicted cousin Jerome (played by the very articulate Stephen Squibb) he mostly blends in with the furniture. Eugene’s failure as a framing device is a big problem because the audience can’t fully appreciate the comedy if they can’t see this as being morally ridiculous too.

Even with that there’s still an enjoyable silliness to the plot. Bernard the butler (Philipe D. Preston)—who also acts as William’s attorney, a preacher, and a rabbi—is trying to get Jerome and Eugene to be quiet, or get out. In comes the ex-wife, Ruth, who is so desperate for more plastic surgery that she is willing to throw herself into traffic to collect insurance money. Nancy Evans is delightful as the salty older woman but the character disappears for most of the play.

Unable to maintain order, Bernard finally has to wake the master, who is napping before his date with his young female friend, and the audience gets their first taste of William. Michael Saenz, who plays the master, is too young and strong to be playing a man who is expected to keel over and put out like a broken ATM: he sticks out as another sore thumb in the production. William’s girlfriend, Dawn, wins the audience over with her brilliant smile and non-Barbie doll appearance to the fact that she’s not out for money, until an impromptu marriage ceremony allows her to reveal that she is, in fact, a gold digger. (Mary Willis White still gets credit as a very original and capable choice, even though she produced the show as well.) And thus the characters start on a scheme to remove her from the household that has everyone running in and out of rooms and hiding behind curtains.

When you think of what makes a great farce, Affluenza falls short. The play is silly, no doubt about it, but in a form that’s known for being irrationally “all-out” the audience is left wanting more than this tame TV-condensed farce. The characters need more development and some of the jokes about the business world are so last year. This is not a perfect play but it is rhythmic and funny—the fact that I wanted more proves that. It is certainly enjoyable and should be at least as widespread as the malady for which it is named.

Heiress Productions @ Theatre Row: The Lion Theatre (410 W. 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $20
Performances (through 4/6) Wed. - Sat @ 8pm | Sun @ 3pm.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Fifth Column

This wishy-washy work by Ernest Hemingway (thankfully, his only) is a series of scenes forced together into a lifeless three-act play. It's got booze, but no passion: it's not even strong enough to be Williams-lite. What may have -- could have -- once been a startling look at the truths of American involvement in foreign war is now a cold, passive revival of a dream that never was.

Photo/Richard Termine

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

In his introduction to The Fifth Column, Ernest Hemingway writes that "while I was writing the play the Hotel Florida, where we lived an worked, was struck by more than thirty high explosive shells. So if it is not a good play perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty some shells helped write it." Like the statement, his play is wishy-washy: at some points, an ironic, self-deprecating look at the lifeless insistences of counter-espionage, at others a cheesy romantic comedy styled in the mannerisms of '30s movies (the play was written in 1937), and also a play about slow, hot days -- Tennessee Williams with the booze, but without the passion. Everything about Jonathan Bank's direction of this play is slow, including the scene changes, and perhaps that's meant to help the text itself seem more urgent -- but it's a failure, even in the interrogation sequences. What once may have been a startling look at the dirty truths of war is now a passive play filled with cryptic remarks and unfinished characters. (This is most obvious in Max [Ronald Guttman], who always seems eager to fight for the party, but just as ready to beg out of any actual consequences: "Please, please, please. I go.)

At heart, The Fifth Column tells the story of the doomed love between Dorothy Bridges -- " a bored Vassar bitch" -- and Philip, a notorious drunk and all-around mannerless man (not only does he steal Dorothy from Robert Preston [Joe Hickey], but he takes the guy's room, too). To that end, Heidi Armbruster is magnificent: she plays a bright-eyed optimist, too conceitedly American to know any better, and makes as a great foil for Kelly AuCoin's easy-going sarcasm. But as Philip, Mr. AuCoin is far too groomed and nothing shakes up his character: not the heavy drinking, not the night-time excursions looking for insurgents, not even the flirtations with the local tramp, Anita (Nicole Shalhoub). As a result, there's never any chemistry between the antihero and the dim damsel, and their love is as artificial as the quips that spring from their lips. Even the boozing, which can be a sort of heroic or romantic character trait, is cheery and edgeless -- so much so that if not for Jane Shaw's sharp sound design waking us with the crisp sounds of midnight shelling or the roiling chants of dissenters outside, there'd be no indication of Madrid being a war zone.

Perhaps, in an escapist sense, that's what Hemingway does here, retreating to the safety of writing from within the walls of a hotel that's actively being shelled. Hemingway even creates two personalities for Philip, a stark and dismal day-time self, and a starry-eyed night-time self. (Neither Hemingway's writing nor Mr. AuCoin's performance adequately capture this mood.) The result is a play that seems written day by day, in a mess of jangled nerves, and which was never cohesively edited back into a whole. There's no focus in the scenes either: at one moment, the play is making tacky jokes about Spanish citizens, with Carlos Lopez milking a terrible accent for comic relief in his role as the needy Manager. In another, Hemingway is boldly condemning American ignorance: Dorothy tells the maid, Petra (Teresa Yenque), that the shelling was lovely, as only someone disassociated from violence can. Petra replies: "In Progresso, in my quarter, there were six killed in one floor. This morning they were taking them out and all the glass gone in the street. There won't be any more glass this winter." What sells it, however, is Mrs. Armbruster's casual response: "Here there wasn't any one killed."

One could argue that The Fifth Column works as semi-historical documentation of the author's service as a war reporter, or as an intriguing contrast for Hemingway's novels. I don't agree that this play -- or this production -- works (unless one's battling insomnia), but I would urge them, simply on the occasional strength of pseudo-domestic life on the fringe, and the early signs of American foreign ignorance, to archive this play. I'd urge them to archive it today.

The Fifth Column
(2 hrs. 40 min.)
Mint Theater (311 West 43rd Street)

Tickets (212-315-0231): $45.00 - $55.00

Performances (through 5/18): Tues. - Thurs. @ 7 | Fri. & Sat. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 2

Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Harlem to the Bronx

ProACTive Artists deserves plaudits for staging two short Israel Horovitz plays. They also deserve credit for choosing both an Obie-winner, The Indian Wants the Bronx, and the rarely performed Rats. They deserve appreciation for every piece of their efforts. Unfortunately, we cannot applaud them for giving Horovitz’s dialogue and stage directions much life off the page. This double-bill gives us the chance to enjoy Horovitz but leaves us pondering the depth and power that we didn’t see.

Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow

Massachusetts-born playwright Israel Horovitz holds the curious honor of being a celebrated American playwright whose sensitive, topical, and very American works are most popular in Europe. At home, his name rings familiar to many, but half the time it turns out we were thinking of Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (Israel’s son). The off-off-Broadway crowd will know Horovitz’s Line, now in its 33rd year at the Thirteenth Street Theater, but only two of his pieces have appeared on Broadway. Producers might do well to increase the visibility of his worthy work – after all, he has published over fifty plays. For this reason, ProACTive Artists deserves plaudits for staging two of Horovitz’s one-acts. They also deserve credit for choosing both an Obie-winner, The Indian Wants the Bronx, and the rarely performed Rats. They deserve appreciation for every piece of their efforts. Unfortunately, we cannot applaud them for giving Horovitz’s dialogue and stage directions much life off the page. ProACTive Artists’ production at Manhattan Theatre Source provides the valuable opportunity to get acquainted with these two pieces, but leaves us pondering the depth and power that we didn’t see.

Both Rats and The Indian Wants the Bronx feature only three characters. Appearing first in the double-bill, the 20-minute Rats includes city rat Jebbie, king of the Harlem sewers; country rat Bobby, a greenhorn from Greenwich; and a human baby. Clad in old sweatpants and dirty furry vests, Jebbie (Roy DeVito) and Bobby (Delanie Shawn Murray) exude so much rattiness, we barely need the play’s title to hint that they’re not human. After an initial scuffle, Bobby explains his journey’s purpose (to get in on rodent-friendly Harlem territory) and Jebbie admits to his own rise from (or in this case, to) the gutter. Their respective tales bring up compelling parallels between the rat and human realms: vermin too want to move up in the world, to a place where they can find comfort and collect property (Bobby brings fine cheeses, his family heirlooms, for bartering purposes). Soon it dawns on us that, for a rat, an affluent human neighborhood constitutes unlivable poverty while human squalor provides a rat with everything he needs. In a disturbing comparison to human residents of tough neighborhoods, we also learn that when you’re a rat, you can expect to die young and often by another’s hand.

Throughout this swapping of personal stories, DeVito and Murray paint a convincing picture of the literal rat race, with droll takes on how a Harlem and a Greenwich rat might speak. But when the attention moves to the baby in Jebbie’s room and we learn that Bobby wants to kill her while Jebbie wants to protect her, we should see a real rotation in the tension and power between these two. Instead, little in the actors’ demeanors shifts. A weak spot has shown up in Jebbie’s hard shell and he should be panicking, but the assured and aggressive roll of DeVito’s rough-and-tumble speech barely alters. Murray, on the other hand, has revealed too much too quickly about his ruthless Bobby, and his viciousness does not deliver the sudden jolt it should. However, a piece as intriguing as Rats cannot help but sharpen our appetite for urban decay. ProACTive Artists has made a good choice in putting it first, and as the lights dim and stagehands place garbage cans onstage for the next play, we’re ready for more New York grunginess.

In The Indian Wants the Bronx, the lone Gupta (Himad Beg) stands at a bus stop at night amidst fallen leaves and newspapers, when Murph (Doug Schneider) and Joey (Josh Farhadi) come jostling in. Guffawing, whooping, yelling, “Pussyface!” at someone in an upstairs window – we’re not surprised when, the moment they spy Gupta, the slurs start to flow. So complete in their ignorance they can’t decide on Gupta’s country of origin, the remarks range from “Turkie” (as in Turkish), to lumping Indian from India with American Indian and asking, “You got any little Indians running around your teepee?” As the two punks, Schneider and Farhadi sport spot-on Bronx accents and have interesting, ethnic, New Yorky faces; in his cap and jeans, Farhadi looks enough like a classic Manhattan kid to offer a Wall Street businessman a shoeshine or a paper. They strut around and heckle Gupta, playing keep-away with his ID card and showing him a photocopy of Murph’s bare behind. Schneider and Farhadi do a fine job portraying street thugs, but they don’t develop beyond the horseplay to the real grit, and soon we see that the same problem that occurred in Rats is occurring here. Merely delinquent at the beginning, Murph should evolve into the “bad” guy in contrast with Joey’s “good” (or “better”) guy; the concept comes through, but the performances don’t. Schneider never builds Murph into the scary sadist he is. For Farhadi, the problem lies not in getting stuck but in finding a sticking point. Less dangerous than Murph but more volatile, Joey lets certain things set him off (he commits the first act of violence against Gupta), but the portrayal doesn’t have enough of a foundation to explain why. As Murph’s cruelty increases, Joey’s own private battle drives him away, physically and mentally, from Murph and Gupta, but we’re not sure where the emotions came from, and during his silent moments, we forget that he’s there.

Awkward staging creates a few other problems. Although Joey and Murph taunt Gupta with increasing aggression, they don’t seem to be blocking his exit in any way. Yet through taunt after taunt, Gupta stands tolerantly by the bus station until the threats have him really, really worried - why didn’t he run at the first, second, or third sign of trouble? Gupta also has ample time to avail himself of the phone booth next at the stop. The booth later comes across as a horror movie prop when Murph lets Gupta talk to his son -- only to cut the cord -- but until then, nothing’s stopping him from popping in a dime. Why should both victim and tormentor ignore such a significant escape route for so long? As Gupta, Himad Beg gives the most convincing performance here, mastering the difficult task of acting as though he understands nothing. However, he cannot understand so little that it wouldn’t occur to him to try to get help.

The late 1960’s New York of Rats and The Indian Wants the Bronx has since experienced Giuliani, gentrification, Gucci – today the city might seem to have little in common with its former self. Yet we still recognize it in these plays, as the rats, the bus stops, the foreign visitors, and the rowdy punks never went away. In From Harlem to the Bronx, we do see New York. But we want to forge beyond the dingy apartments and discarded newspapers to Jebbie’s bristling fur, Bobby’s bared fangs, Joey’s knitting brow, Murph’s eyes sharp with menace. This evening, we have to settle for something more like a photograph.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

In The Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about a cheery community in Washington Heights has been scrubbed clean of any hard-hitting drama, but it's still a fresh, fun new show in its own right. In The Heights is best when it's playing to the larger-than-life atmosphere, rather than when it focuses on the rather simple problems of its individual residents. The whole confection is completed by Andy Blankenbuehler's merengue-flavored choreography, Howell Binkley's fireworks in the light department, Thomas Kail's constantly moving, urban-flowing direction, and Miranda's fusion of familiar Broadway tropes with the shaken-up spasms of rap or the multicultural beats and grooves of a whole new rhythm.

Photo/Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

"Why learn the language when they still won't hear you?" asks a character from Lin-Manuel Miranda's cheery musical about community, In The Heights. It's a valid concern, but really of no more consequence to Miranda's show than it is within the show, for this young, charismatic actor/writer/musician has learned the language of Broadway, and his transfer to the Great White Way is a smooth one. He's greatly assisted by Andy Blankenbuehler's merengue-flavored choreography, Howell Binkley's (fire)working light design, and Thomas Kail's constantly moving, urban-flowing direction, but most of all, by his fusion of familiar Broadway tropes with the shaken-up spasms of his rapping, or his multicultural rhythms.

Of course, that line about language is also the one problem In The Heights is still saddled with. The person scowling that line is Benny (Christopher Jackson), and it's the one all-too-brief moment of racial angst in this play -- the only moment, in other words, of real drama. Kevin (Carlos Gomez), is a proud Puerto Rican, and while Benny might be good enough for his car service, he's not good enough for daughter, Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), though you'd have to bring your own cultural knowledge to know why. The rest of the individual plights are dim echoes of those familiar Broadway tropes: Usnavi (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is trying to build the courage to ask out Vanessa (Karen Olivo), the salon girl working next door to his bodega; Sonny (Robin De Jesus), Usnavi's cousin, is trying to make something bigger out of his street smarts; Daniela (Andrea Burns) and her cohort, the ditsy Carla (Janet Dacal) are all about the gossip; Nina's got a secret she's keeping from her parents (she lost her financial aid because she couldn't study at Stanford while also working the two jobs she needed to afford it); hell, even Piragua Guy (Eliseo Roman) has a story to sing about "scraping" by.

There are a few slivers of truth -- the harshness of Olivo's grim posture, the comic timing of De Jesus, and Miranda's energy -- but most of the solo songs are either too slick (as with Jackson's song "Benny's Dispatch") or lack conviction (Gomez's "Inutil," which needs far more sorrow and regret in the words "useless") and power (Priscilla Lopez's "Enough," which was out of her vocal range or not miked properly: either way, not enough). In this respect, I found even Olga Merediz (as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's proud and doting mother) to be a bit underwhelming in her big number, "Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)," in which we learn that Abuela has just won $96,000. (Deciding how to split up that much money is good for a song about hopes and dreams -- the aptly titled "96,000" -- but it's far from being a dramatic spine.)

These are problems in miniature, though, and In The Heights does far better when it's larger than life. After all, this isn't so much a dramatic musical as it is a show about community: what defines a neighborhood and, more importantly, what keeps it going. The people are essential, but not as individuals, and this is what Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler tap into with their direction and choreography. Most of the smaller songs are punctuated by slow, subtle movements in the shadowy backgrounds of Anna Louizo's realistic street-side set, and all of the segues between numbers or scenes are handled deftly with brief dances -- buttons, if you will -- that bottle and tie together the mood of the musical. Furthermore, in order to be a true fusion of styles, Miranda needs a lot of people on stage at once, which is why ensemble songs, like "In the Heights," "96,000," and the finales to both acts are so effective.

You can boil the message of In The Heights down to one famous phrase: "There's no place like home." When Miranda and company are at the top of their game, truer words have never been spoken -- even for those in the audience who don't live in (or have never even been to, or heard of) Washington Heights. They do an excellent job of conjuring up the neighborhood, even if they obviously exaggerate the sights and sounds as they downplay the violence. (It turns out that Graffiti Pete is actually an alright guy, the people who fight in the local clubs -- well, they're first and foremost great dancers -- and although a store gets looted, nobody's hurt.) Besides, while there may be a trend for edgier new musicals, there's something to be said for flavor and style over substance every once and a while. I'd still primarily recommend Passing Strange or Spring Awakening, but the commute to In The Heights -- a fun, fresh new musical -- ain't that bad.

In The Heights (2 hr 30 min)
Richard Rogers Theatre (226 West 44th St.)
Tickets: $21.50 - 111.50
Performances: Tues. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 2 | Sun. @ 7

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Lone Wolf Tribe's Bride is that weird sort of wonderful that brings butterflies to the stomach and flashes of color to the eyes. Inventive, unique, and a superlative work of theater, Kevin Augustine's hybrid puppet/human epic is an intensely fascinating show.

Photo/Richard Termine

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Yes, I'd marry this show. Lone Wolf Tribe's Bride is that weird sort of wonderful that brings butterflies to the stomach and flashes of color to the eyes. Inventive, unique, and a superlative work of theater, it is so intensely fascinating that one can imagine settling down with it for the long haul. Not that director Ken Berman, ever lets Kevin Augustine's show settle down: it begins with a floating head pushing itself against a plastic scrim, as if trying to pierce the barrier of some Asian horror flick, and ends in a giant goddess's embrace, pallid and veined, as if the monsters of Akira were drawn by R. Crumb. For the 85 minutes that span those moments, Bride is a macabre dance that fuses miniature puppets (Augustine) right out of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas with a large set (Tom Lee) pockmarked with anachronistic terminals and gramophones straight from Terry Gilliam's brain.

In other words, Bride is a twisted, clever work of theater: the first thing Father (Kevin Augustine) does, after Monkey (Rob Lok) wakes him up, is to shoot himself. (You would too, with a switchboard full of backlogged prayers.) As comedy would have it, Monkey runs over to "The Book" (a sort of "best of" compilation of the Koran, Torah, and Bible) and, scanning it with a pen that reads the words aloud, reminds our definite antihero that he is, unfortunately for him, "everlasting." From there, He attempts to come up with a good idea, shaping bits of crumpled paper into the next messiah, a creation that, step by step, slowly grotesques into a child-sized puppet. (And by any definition, God is the original puppetmaster.)

Bride isn't exactly easy on religion; aside from the fact that Father seems to be senile, he's also a dessicated, yellowed figure walking around in a tattered bathrobe and garters. (Ana Marie Salamat's make-up is horrifyingly good, and Shima Ushiba's costumes are just real enough to help us imagine ourselves in His position.) Nor is it forgiving to mythology: Father is the one and only god because he's killed all the others, and those bits about "salvation" and forging "a covenant of peace" have conveniently been charred out of his Book. It isn't even kind to him as a person: he isn't a kind Father -- he's prone to zapping Monkey with what little energy he has left -- and he cruelly pushes his son (literally twisting him in half when he becomes the puppeteer) to complete a dance that's symbolic of a crucifixion or passion play.

For all this darkness, Bride remains a stark and beautiful work of art. As Father imagines his perfection, James Graber appears, flawlessly dancing what the crusty puppet can only gawk in wonder at. (And yes, these puppets can gawk -- with haunting familiarity.) Later, as the son imagines what his father has in store for him, he plunges deep into the skeleton-strewn depths of hell, walking through smoke and and over white bones as he looks at all the dreams that have not just died, but been chewed to death by red-eyed rats. (Beauty exists even in nightmares.) All that's saying nothing of the puppeteers themselves (Lindsey Briggs, Jamie Moore, Jessica Scott, Alissa Hunnicutt, Frankie Cordero), ninja-clad stealth artists who make more of the play by making less of themselves.

What's most astonishing is that, despite using puppets, there is nothing small about this show. (Hell, there's even a fully discordant band, led by Andrea La Rose and featuring soprano Rachel Carter White.) From the epic plot to the full use of P122's wide upstairs space, Bride features a larger-than-life atmosphere that is filled with beauty, surprise, and heart-thudding creativity. So yes, I do; I wouldn't have my plays any other way.

Bride (85 min.)
Lone Wolf Tribe @ PS122 (150 First Avenue)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances (through 3/30): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 7

Monday, March 24, 2008

Michael Riedel: LIVE

Admittedly, I'm too young to have seen the game show "What's My Line?" but I'd like to call attention to the live adaptation of the concept, now making its East Coast premiere for one reason: Michael Riedel, the co-host of Theater Talk, will be one of the celebrity guests. This week's debut features host J. Keith van Straaten, along with BETSY PALMER (Longtime regular panelist on TV's "I've Got a Secret" and recurring panelist on original "What's My Line?"), MICHAEL RIEDEL (co-host of "Theater Talk" on PBS) STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO (Tony-nominated star of Avenue Q), and BARRY SALTZMAN (Los Angeles stage actor and most frequent panelist on Los Angeles production of "What's My Line? - Live On Stage").

The show runs Monday nights through April 28th, and is $25.00 (212-239-6200). Check it out at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street): more information at We'll have a full report for you tomorrow:
“What’s My Line? – Live On Stage” follows the format of the classic TV game show that premiered on CBS in 1950: Four celebrity panelists try to guess the occupation of a guest, asking only yes-or-no questions. This stage show, however, is not broadcast; the only audience is the folks who show up in the 199-seat theatre. It’s a real game with real people with real occupations and genuine celebrities --the show is not scripted and runs approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Epistolary friendships, New York City apartments, and the trouble with intimacy and neighbors collide in Missives. Leah and Ben's correspondence is first a way for two lonely people to make a connection, but when Ben dissappers, will they provide clues as to why?

By Ilana Novick

Those of us living in New York City apartment buildings may go years before knowing anything about the neighbors with whom we share a building but not a life. In an always ruthless real estate market, if a neighbor goes missing some may be more concerned with the size, layout, and cost of the abandoned apartment, than the safety of its last occupants. Missives is the story of a relationship between next door neighbors who forge a connection through letters slipped under each other’s doors. They rarely acknowledge each other’s presence in person, instead choosing to remain epistolary confidants, bonding through ink and paper. When one of the two disappears, the police rely on the other to try to piece together why. The question is whether their letters can help solve the disappearance. Can two people who barely spoke to each other be best friends? Was writing letters an adequate substitute for personal interaction? Or was it better? Did the structure and privacy of writing the letters allow the neighbors to let down their guard and reveal secrets they would not have been able to in person?

Ben, a white gay man of frequently changing but never revealed occupations begins the correspondence on a whim, with a letter to Leah, an African-American legal secretary, after seeing her argue with a date. Her withering gaze, and the attitude with which she tells to her potential love interest in no uncertain terms to get lost, intrigues Ben. He wants to get to know this feisty woman more, but is afraid of breaking the privacy. The direction and blocking of the characters in the set suffer from the same problem at the center of Ben and Leah’s relationship; a lack of direct, in-person interaction. The actors are essentially reciting the contents of their letters. They talk to each other, but not with each other, sitting on separate couches representing their mutual apartments. Visually, their physical separation on stage only makes each of them seem more alone, despite the constant declarations of closeness that they claim the letters provide.

Richard Gallagher plays Ben with the worst and most exaggerated stereotypes of a gay man, all faint lisp and limp wrists, but the tenderness with which he reveals himself to Leah, and the random, yet charming way he decides to write to her in the first place, after seeing her come home from a date, makes him endearing. Shamika Cotton as Leah is much less animated, often frowning, hesitant to start the correspondence in the first place, but ultimately charmed by the novelty.

Leah spends the play in pajamas and a hooded sweatshirt, the outfit of relaxation, but also, fashion-wise, of defeat. Her personality and movement, slow and awkward, don’t transcend her outward appearance. As exaggerated as Ben occasionally is, he seems to be more responsive to Leah’s letters; lying on the floor feet up and eyes wide when telling juicy dating stories, and suddenly shifting to sitting up with perfect posture, legs crossed, eyes alert, when Leah is talking more seriously about her mother. By contrast Leah is much more static in her movement and emotions. Even when she’s supposed to be happy her expression and her clothing just make her look tired.

Ben also has an advantage because he’s also given another person to interact with, this time directly, in the form of a boyfriend named Steven (Ryan Tresser). The relationship adds some momentum to the plot, and gives more of a context to Ben’s life. His chemistry with Steven is palpable in the glances they share as Steven wraps his arms around his waist, as they playfight and smile while watching TV or writing joint letters to Leah. Ben is permanently smiling with him, even as he senses the relationship won’t last. Steven and Ben write to Lisa for a period, which adds a much needed outsider’s perspective on the relationship. The addition of a third member to the group adds some life to the text of the letters. But as soon as the relationship with Steven ends, so does the chemistry between the two remaining characters.

The concept of a relationship restricted to letters raises questions about how truthful friends and neighbors alike can be with each other in person. As much as their letters reveal—everything from Leah’s marriage (to a husband the audience never sees) to her mother’s death, to Stephen and Ben’s meeting to their dramatic breakup to their mutual obsession with the Soap Opera “Through the Hourglass”— whether aside from romances either of them ever have any friends, any interests besides soap operas, even whether Leah has any other clothes.

Neither Leah nor the audience know any more about Ben by the end of the play than they did when they first began writing. Leah had invested her emotions in a relationship, and she walked away with the knowledge of an average neighbor, muttering a quick hello at the elevator before disappearing into each other’s mutual apartments, and lives. For all that Missives is a play about breaking down the anonymity between neighbors, it ends while still being just as anonymous.

Missives runs from March 20 to April 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30, Sundays at 3:30 in theater C at 59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. Tickets are $18 and available at the theater box office or at

The Conscientious Objector

Brought to life by a practically flawless cast, Michael Murphy's The Conscientious Objector is both affecting and galvanizing.

photo: Theresa Squire

Reviewed by Cameron Kelsall

I was surprised to learn about Martin Luther King's transformation from peaceful civil rights activist to fiery anti-war orator during my freshman year of college, in a course specifically designed to unpack the politics of the movement. Knowledge of the events of his life that occurred between the March on Washington and his premature death seem to be rarely taught in American schools; I assume that most people would be surprised to learn that he was serving as a union agitator in Memphis at the time of his death. Luckily, playwright Michael Murphy has crafted a first-rate drama around King's struggle to break free from his image as a non-threatening black face acceptable to white America. Brought to life by a practically flawless cast, The Conscientious Objector is both affecting and galvanizing.

The play begins with Dr. King's (DB Woodside) indecision regarding a response to the burgeoning Vietnam War. Does his standing as a Nobel Peace laureate require him to become involved in the national peace movement? Will his coming out against the war injure his amiable relationship with President Lyndon Johnson (the extraordinary John Cullum), and, in turn, the bevy of civil rights legislation about to be introduced in congress? The words of his father reverberate in his head--"We [African Americans] serve to show that we are loyal Americans, we're worthy"--but he cannot shake the feeling that if the first generation of black men to have real opportunities are sent to die in Southeast Asia, a great deal of his work will have been for nothing.

Mr. Woodside, an actor primarily known for his television work, makes an assured and commanding New York debut in this challenging role. There isn't a false note to his performance. When King's initial subservience to President Johnson gives way to righteous opposition, Mr. Woodside is able to match Mr. Cullum--at seventy-eight, still a formidable opponent for any actor--blow for blow. The old addage that "behind every great man there's a great woman" is brought to life in the performance of Rachel Leslie, as Coretta Scott King. Ms. Leslie is able to communicate the profound impact that Mrs. King's moral compass had on her husband's decision to become more than just a myopic civil rights leader. From the large cast--of which Jonathan Hogan is another particular standout, in a host of small but pivotal roles--only Jimonn Cole, as the almost militant anti-war activist James Bevel, falls into the trap of fire-and-brimstone caricature.

As with his first play, Sin (A Cardinal Deposed), Mr. Murphy has culled a good deal of his dialogue from the public records of actual situations. It is a testament to his skill as a writer that his scenes never feel like walking and talking history lessons. (A note in the handbill makes the distinction that some moments were invented by the author for dramatic purposes) Carl Forsman, his frequent directorial collaborator, paces the drama with a fluid hand, and the action moves smoothly to a shattering climax. F. Scott Fitzgerald's famously glib statement that "there are no second acts in American lives" has become a cliche often disproved, and I can think of no better example than Martin Luther King. The Conscientious Objector shows that, with the benefit of time, we are able to recognize that some second acts are as equally rewarding as what came before.

The Conscientious Objector
The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (Ticket Central): $40
Performances (through April 19): Tuesday at 7; Wednesday-Saturday at 8; Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rainbow Kiss

A lot of so-called mature plays out there just talk about how awful life is and lapse into theatrical tricks when it comes down to showing the gritty truth. Simon Farquhar's Rainbow Kiss doesn't pull any tricks, just like it doesn't pull any punches: this is the year's most jolting play. With exceptionally physical direction from a fearless Will Frears and outstanding performances from the cast, most notably the anti-heroic Peter Scanavino, Rainbow Kiss is a must-see play.

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Part your lips, stick your tongue out, and take a deep breath, because Rainbow Kiss is, hands down, the most jolting play this year. As unsettlingly angry as any of Martin McDonagh's plays (only without the farce) and as comically tragic as anything from Conor McPherson (without the mysticism), Simon Farquhar's first play is messy only in its Scottish slang and depiction of life: it takes the best of Abby Spalleen's (Pumpgirl) grimy poetics ("I'd piss barbed wire to see her again"), the rhythmic cursing of Mark O'Rowe (Terminus), and the dissonant energy of the Play Company's last playwright, Robert Farquhar (Bad Jazz), and puts them all to shame. Will Frears, with his intensely physical direction, gives legs to this bleak world, and his outstanding casts uses those legs to run down the audience (I still shiver thinking about Scobie's entrance).

The play opens with sloppiness of life: Keith (Peter Scanavino) fumbles with the keys to his flat as he tries to get Shazza (Charlotte Parry) into his apartment and into his pants. His apartment is dark, the wallpaper has cracked, and trash hangs from the doorknob, but for a while, in the reckless flush of whiskey and the carefree flicker of pot, all that fades away, and all that empty clutter is kept at bay. It can't last, and the rest of the play teeters on the verge of that first orgasm, with Keith trying to hold on for one more second, only to find himself losing it, always losing it. Keith, like his neighbor and best friend Murdo (Robert Hogan), is a good loon, but when it comes down to it, he's just a "spare prick at an orgy" who is perpetually told -- not even harshly, but nicely, easily -- to just fuck off. Sitting alone, taking his medication, and looking after his baby, he's just dying, slowly.

It's no surprise, then, that Keith and Murdo often consider suicide. (They've jokily labeled the veranda of their slum a "suicide suite," one that's all set with a "ready-made escape route if the pressures a high-rise living get too much." As Keith says: "That's the thing about living so high up. The only direction you can head for is down.") Their jobs are shite -- Keith works a literally dead-end job in Directory Enquiries ("You just find the number and press a button and the computer reads it out ti them"), and Murdo has just lost his job as a seasonal Santa ("I told a kid ti fuck off") -- and so is their neighborhood: fourteen-year-old drug dealers freeze to death on the streets, seven-year-old prostitutes offer blow jobs for fivers, and the coppers are too frightened of the crime to come around. Shazza is Keith's last hope: he has even mortgaged his present to a loan shark, Scobie (Michael Cates), for a shot at her in his future.

What makes Rainbow Kiss so powerful, though, is that it's not all talk. Keith doesn't just tell Murdo that he canna cope on his own; we can see it in the play. Each scene is another nail in his coffin, each blow worse and more desperate than the last. Will Frears piles on the disasters, unrelenting in his pace (there's even a gloomy presence to the scene changes), but it's Mr. Scanavino, as Keith, who sells the play. It would be all too easy for him to emote his way into melodrama, but instead, he twists and turns, running headlong from lust to love to panic to fear: a man drowning in needs, trying desperately to stay afloat with his futile actions.

I would nae change a thing in Simon Farquhar's play: the repetition of scenes and themes fit Keith's redundant life, and the dialogue is so punishingly good that I'd be more than happy to listen to more. (Not enough people thank the dialect coach, but Stephen Gabis deserves notice.) This is a mature, intelligent, realistic play that puts Farquhar at the top of his game . . . but don't think for a minute that he's playing around.

Rainbow Kiss (2 hours)
The Play Company @ 59E59, Theater B (59 East 59th St.)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $35.00 [$5 Student Rush]
Performances (through 4/13): Tues. - Sat. @ 8:15 | Sat. @ 2:15 | Sun. @ 3:15

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Man of La Mancha

Room5001 Theatre's production of Man of La Mancha relies on only eight men and two guitars to tell the story of Don Quixote. This production relates Man of La Mancha to contemporary events while keeping the characters in the time and place of the Inquisition. The concept is unique, but does not necessarily aid the telling of the story.

Courtesy/Ruiz Photos

Reviewed by Amy Freeman

Man of La Mancha tends to bring to mind grand images: Don Quixote fighting a windmill, expanses of desert, a servant on a hobby horse. However, Room5001 and Duo Theater's production of Man of La Mancha conjures up an entirely different set of images. The curtain rises to reveal six men wearing orange jumpsuits that bring Guantanamo Bay to mind. Cell doors are heard opening and shutting in the distance, loudly resonating through the theater. Cervantes and his servant Sancho are led in, wearing burlap sacks on their heads, escorted by a masked guard who carries a rifle. Cervantes has been arrested by the Inquisition and joins the other prisoners in the holding cell to await trial or whatever may come.

The connections between modern day torture, the tactics of the Inquisition, and Man of La Mancha are easy to make. Torture techniques are designed to make the prisoner forget who they are, to force them to reveal all, even untrue details while in a state of forgotten humanity. Alonso Quijana, aka Don Quixote, has forgotten who he is, with potentially dire consequences. The woman he has renamed Dulcinea clings to her real name, Aldonza, suggesting that in the midst of torture, prisoners struggle to remain their true identity. What does it say then, that in the end, Aldonza goes along with Quixote, insisting that she is Dulcinea? What was originally an inspiring moment becomes a frightening concept when viewed through the lens of torture.

In this production, everything stands in for something else, given the prisoner's limited means in acting out the play. The stand-ins further highlight Quixote's delusion—Aldonza gives him a dirty rag, he believes it a luxurious fabric. The musical numbers are performed using only two guitars, plus the occasional bucket and chain as percussion. The limited instrumentation seems to help the songs rather than hurt them—they sound fresh and energetic. Sancho's song, “I Like Him” is upbeat and cute and drew laughter from the audience. Yet the laughter seemed out of place, considering the circumstances, and made the production suffer from mood swings, going from goofy and rambunctious to solemn and brutal within seconds.

Room5001's production relates Man of La Mancha to contemporary events while keeping the characters in the time and place of the Inquisition. While the connections are intriguing, there are some issues with the production. It is difficult to understand the actors because they are shouting and occasionally they speak too fast. Additionally, the story suffers when stripped down so much. With everyone wearing orange, it becomes difficult to distinguish between characters, save for Quixote, Sancho, and Aldonza. While such difficulty could be interpreted as suggesting that prisoners lose their individuality and uniqueness, it also makes the play hard to follow.

The idea to connect the play to modern-day prisons is unique but the production doesn't quite go far enough in making the connection—the upbeat music prevents it from becoming too dark at any time. Still, the concept is an innovative one that takes some risks in changing the music and using an all-male cast (which makes sense considering that the prisoners are enacting the story).
Man of La Mancha is saved by the familiarity of its story, but without that, it would be difficult to understand what exactly is going on.


Man of La Mancha (1 hr. 45 min.)
Room5001 and The Duo Theater (62 E 4th Street)
Tickets ( $20.00
Performances (through 3/30): Thurs-Sat. at 8PM, Sun. at 3PM

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Reviewed by Ilana Novick

James Frey, Margaret Seltzer, and now, Silas Park? It seems that every week brings more news of writers fabricating their personal stories, of books being marketed as memoir when they're really just good old-fashioned fiction. These revelations make a timely backdrop for TBA’s story of Silas (Lloyd Suh), a failing Korean-American playwright who after being ditched by his actress girlfriend Maya (Michi Barrel) for a play in Chicago, holes up in his apartment, refusing all human contact while he writes a new set of short stories, stories he hopes will soar where his plays have landed with a thud. The question is whether these “Semi-True Tales of Heartbreak” are really his tales to tell.

The play begins with the time-honored dividing of possessions that occurs during the first stages of a breakup. Suh’s stumbling movements and sarcastic, whiny attitude are the picture of arrested development. Disheveled and disoriented, he attempts to pull himself together fast enough to convince Maya to stay. He claims never to have liked people in the first place, that Maya was the only one who understood him, who could lighten him up a little. As Maya, Barrel is terrific at conveying, simply in her face, just how hard this must have been. The creases next to Maya’s eyes, the twitching in her lips, the way her brows scrunch instinctively as she gathers her belongings, listening to Silas’s pleas for her to stay, wordlessly suggests just how much pressure this is for her. As Silas talks, despite his attempts to be funny (“Who cares about Steppenwolf anyway?”) the movements in Maya’s face suggests years of bottled-up tension as the result of being both his girlfriend and his surrogate therapist.

With Maya gone, Silas refuses to leave his apartment, and writes stories he claims are based on his own experiences of abuse, and cancer, and jail. The cluttered, dusty set, with its beaten-up furniture, clothing strewn around the floor and dishes festering in the sink, enhances the sense that Silas has entered his own world, one which follows none of the rules of cleanliness and order that applied when he lived with Maya. The only only object treated with respect is his computer, which he uses to write stories involving his supposedly troubled past. The alchemy of the short story turns these horrific events into something, relateable even marketable, and soon a hotshot young agent named Derrick is outside his window, shouting to the shut-in writer about book deals, advances, and previews in the New Yorker. Silas’s past resonates with Derrick, and with everyone Derrick shows the story to. It even resonates with the sushi-chef, Maxie, who poses as a delivery person just so she can meet the man whose stories she thinks so perfectly capture her own troubles with cancer.

Will fame and recognition save Silas’s soul and allow him see that his voice matters? That telling his story will help others, in addition to getting the income that he so desperately needs? At this point the story follows an uplifting but somewhat formulaic path: depressed writer makes good, finds personal happiness through the redemptive power of a book deal. Just when it seems as if the stakes aren’t high enough, in comes a twist in the form of Silas’s long lost brother Finn (J. Julien Christopher) from Los Angeles, who bursts into the apartment, raging over what he claims is an act of libel on Silas’s part. Silas never had cancer, and was never arrested, beaten up, or sexually abused. These stories are based on events of his adoptive brother's and father’s lives: not Silas’s. Christopher walks into Silas's apartment banging on the door, visibly shaking with anger and hurt. His performance is an effective combination of bravado and sadness: he chokes back tears even as he's ready to punch Silas in the face.

Silas is not entirely unaware of the consequences of his actions, but shutting himself off from the world certainly made it easier for him to write without anyone questioning the accuracy of his claims. If he does not speak to anyone, no one can question him. The way he explains it, he didn't consciously set out to steal his families stories simply to gain fame; he just feared that his own stories weren't engaging enough for his friends and potential audience to appreciate them. Silas thought stretching the truth was the only way to gain love, in both his personal and professional lives.

This explanation raises a few questions regarding both Silas's actions, and in a larger sense, those of writers such as James Frey. Is Silas at fault for stealing his adopted family’s life stories for artistic gain, or is the public and our current literary climate to blame for driving Silas to lie in the first place? Instead of working towards resolving these questions, the play tries to give Silas redemption through promoting Maxie’s own stories of her life and cancer, going as far as seeking out Derrick in the middle of Central Park, to give him her poems. It’s an altruistic act, maybe even a redemptive one, but it seems a little too neat and convenient. Sure, it’s great that Silas can leave the comforting cradle of his self-pity to help a friend, but it seems too much like an attempt to create a happy ending for a play that, up to this point, has proudly shied away from them.

CSV Cultural Center 107 Suffolk Street
Performances (through 4/5): Thursdays at 8(except for 4/3), 3/31 at 8pm, 3/22, 3/29, and 4/5 at 3pm, 4/5 at 8pm, and 4/2 and 4/3 at 8pm.
Tickets available at or by phone at (212) 352-3101. Adults: $18, Students: $11.

The Scariest

The Exchange attempts to reconnect to traditional horror by riffing on classic tales like "The Monkey's Paw," but what's lost in translation is relevance. The Scariest fails to leave any impact on the audience and is, at best, cute.

Photo/Morrigan McCarthy

Reviewed by John Rice

What is horror? What is it to be scared? In our modern world of desensitized gorefest movies, we’ve forgotten that the horror genre claims its roots in thought. Scaring someone is just a continuation of the Greek principals of drama—shocking you into catharsis. Giving you a guiding pathos. In this way, horror is very relevant to how we live our lives. Good horror should make us think about our lives, and our selves. The Scariest, a collection of horror scenes from The Exchange (formerly The Jean Cocteau Repertory Company), attempts to reconnect with this traditional idea of horror by presenting pieces based off some of the classic horror stories of all time (W.W. Jacobs's’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for example) together with contemporary pieces. What’s lost, however, is relevancy. The show fails to leave any impact on the audience and is, at best, cute.

The ensemble cast is technically proficient, but doesn’t move the audience. The exceptions are Angel Desai, who plays a wide variety of characters with feeling, and Andy Grotelueschen, who showed some passion in an adaptation of “Monkey’s Paw”—the second of two adaptations. But precision from your actors without passion is far from The Scariest and the audience is never frightened.

For some reason, none of the playwrights could develop a play without the use of directly addressing the audience—a contemporary theatre cliché which comes off as amateurish. The Scariest consists of plays commissioned just for this show, and to that I say yikes! because made-for plays tend to not have that long-lasting freshness that makes viewers care. I was right. The scenes mostly rehash very familiar material. There are nine plays in total, and four of the playwrights have conspired to include a Rod Serling look alike who tells us “scaaary stories.” Two adaptations of “The Monkey’s Paw” teach us to “be careful what you wish for.” We can’t possibly be moved by things we’re so tired of.

But at times there are small perks of personality to this impossible task. Laura Schellhardt’s play “The Apothecary’s Daughter” (inspired by Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”) brings a lot of over-the-top humor to a period piece with the array of poisoned lovers who, “not so much perish as pass out," even though a father who talks from behind a screen (like the teacher from Peanuts) can be too much. Even one of the Serling plays, “Lobster Boy,” has potential because of characters dealing with pain reception, boxing on a swimming pool cover, and Powerpoint presentations, but it would have been better received if those characters were actually on stage. The best of the lot, by far, is the most personal—Kristin Newbom’s play based off The Book of Revelations (which only sounds like an artsy cliché, but it’s not). Her play is a zany opera of Johnny Cash music, the playwright “bod-casting” into multiple puppet bodies, the two witnesses (from Revelations), and a Tom Cruise lecture on scientology that makes it relevant for the contemporary audience. I hope that Newbom takes this idea further because “Revelations” is a very compelling in its zaniness.

The real asset of this show is its design. Clint Ramos’s set, a weathered gangplank in the shape of a cross, really makes use of the space, allowing actors to enter from all sides of the audience. Plus, the plastic sheet walls add to the creepy industrial effect and allow Christopher Studley to project silhouettes of actors in his toying with shadows. Lindsay Jones’s sound was like cheesy Japanese anime but other than that, the production vales add to the experience of this show.

The Exchange is “committed to creating theatrical classics of the future.” The Scariest does not, by any stretch, meet that goal. This show will not last beyond this moment in time, so if you would like to chuckle over some classic horror head down to The Green Room.

The Scariest
The Exchange @ The Green Room (45 Bleecker Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $20.00
Performances (through 3/30): Tues. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 3

Fight Girl Battle World

Looking to have a qwarding good time? Then check out the high energy, action comedy adventure Fight Girl Battle World, a theatrical send-up of science fiction with some innovative fight choreography up its sleeve. Hot chicks, sarcastic robots, and bad-ass aliens: rarely does theater get so blatantly entertaining.

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

If you open your play with a series of outtakes between an action-figure Boba Fett and his tonton buddy, you've either got huge balls or you know exactly who your audience is. Vampire Cowboys Theater, the undisputed king of the action parody genre, has huge balls and they know their audience, returning to the same ground they covered in last year's Men of Steel, only this time, with a science-fiction spin: Fight Girl Battle World. They've got the vocabulary ("kilofraks," "durk," and "qward," for starters) and the hot guns and hotter girls to prove it. They've got a soundtrack that would make Quentin Tarantino proud: chase scenes set, tongue-in-cheek, to the Bob Dylan's "Handy Dandy," infiltration scenes accompanied by Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic," a hyperspace riff on 2Pac's "California Love," not to mention a climactic fight set to Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life." Beneath it all, Qui Nguyen's even got a passively subversive riff on the creation myth, as the last woman alive, E-V (Melissa Paladino), is sent on a quest by General Dan'h (Temar Underwood) to "bump uglies" with the last man alive, Adon-Ra (Noshir Dalal), a quest that pits them against the villainous President Ya-Wi (Jon Hoche).

Not that you'll have to read into anything in Fight Girl Battle World: the bad guys have sinister laughs (Elena Chang's Mikah Monoch), horrible accents (Andrea Marie Smith's Commander G'Bril), and ridiculous facial hair (Kelley Rae O'Donnell's Zookeeper); meanwhile, the good guys are filled with sarcastic quips (Paco Tolson's LC-4, a k a, the most endearingly arrogant robot since Marvin the Paranoid Android) and roughish charm (Maureen Sebastian's J'an Jah, not just a pilot, but the male of her species). Exposition is straight-up laughed at (after breaking in to kill the president, Adon-Ra explains: "I could go into the long explanation, but it'd be merely expository"), and Robert Ross Parker's direction seamlessly jumps from scene to scene, with actors suddenly dropping out of sight as others pop up into view, like a revolving reel on an old toy viewfinder.

You won't have to think about much, either: the dialog is filled with geeked-out in-jokes for both sci-fi and theater buffs ("Z-Class starfighters" and the diss "Wanna phone home?" go right up there with a play LC-4 wrote called "Death of a Space-Man"), and whether you get them or not, you'll laugh just from the pure energy and charm of the whole cast. Even the slowest bits of the play -- like a reminder from some sort of Smokey the Ursa Minor that "only you can prevent humanity" -- have a purpose, like letting you (and the actors) catch their breath right before another fight scene.

Oh, yes. There are fight scenes. Qui Nguyen doubles as the choreographer, and he take the opportunity to try out a lot of techniques I've never seen before. In an early clip of a "grainy video", the shifting positions of a flashlight behind a scrim cast amplified silhouettes that jitter against the screen, playing with depth perception and height. In another, Nguyen uses body doubles to allow him to play with perspective, a cinematic move that helps him nail the instant replay. And, c'mon: the dude also turns a puppet spacefight into a martial arts showdown: "What in the qward was that?" asks Dan'h, as three actors fly hand-guided ships at one another. "I think they just bit us." Granted, there have been smoother fight scenes on stage before (like in The Jaded Assassin), but they've never been so funny. (And kudos to the actors without professional training: that makes their physical control even more impressive.)

Given the current trend of film adaptations (Spider-Man, Batman, and The Addams Family musicals), it's only a matter of time before Broadway taps someone for Star Wars: The Musical. Hopefully they'll ask Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker for some advice, because they've done a really durking good job.

[For another take, read Sarah Krasnow's review.]

Fight Girl Battle World (1 hr. 40 min.)
Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company @ Center Stage, NY (48 West 21st St.)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 3/30): Thurs. - Sun. @ 8:00

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hello Failure

Hello Failure is focused on the rich, excellent, substantive lives of seven submariner's wives who come together to discuss their feelings of isolation and purposelessness. However, Kristen Kosmas presents her material with overlapping text, fragments of thoughts, and gasps of self-confession that abruptly surface (and just as abruptly submerge), and the end result is often hard to grasp. The play is fixated more on the nuances of the conversation than what's actually behind the line ("sub"-text), and this self-inflicted meta-realism seems to be, like the characters, compensating for an absence of purpose.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Oh, the horrors of being a submariner's wife. If we take Kristen Kosmas's word for it, every moment becomes excruciatingly poetic. If you're Rebecca (Kosmas), you feel submerged in a too-large home, until one day you can't ("I can't. Not today. Not today I don't think I can. Maybe never again.") bring yourself to get out of the bathtub. Or if you're Karen (Aimee Phelan-Deconinck), you feel trapped in the confines of a meaningless life, which you'd be fine with, if only the people at the soup firm could remember your name. And then there are the other four wives: Kate (Joan Jubett), whose self-obsession keeps her as closed off as submarine steel from the ocean; Gina (Tricia Rodley), who channels her frustrations into rage; Netta (Maria Striar), who tries to manage her own crises by carefully controlling everything around her; and Valeska (Janna Gjesdal), who has to maintain her own hippie-like perspective, lest the optimism chip away far enough for others to see her pain. Not to mention the New Girl, Margerie (Megan Hart), who -- in fear of her own fragility -- makes herself out to be incredibly strong in person. Perhaps you recognize something of yourself in them -- Hello, Failure, you might say -- or simply understand what might drive Karen to try learning Japanese, Kate to have an affair with her hairdresser, Netta to create another person out of her own happier past, or Rebecca to write letters to the long-dead, Civil War submarine innovator, Horace Hunley (Matthew Maher), in whom she feels she can safely confide -- even when he shows up in her bathroom.

All this is rich, excellent, substantive stuff. However, the way in which Kosmas has chosen to present it -- in overlapping scenes, fragments of introductory text, or gasps of self-confession that abruptly surface (and just as quickly submerge) -- is often hard to handle. These seams of isolation fit the characters more than they fit the framework of the play, and this self-inflicted style seems to be, like the characters, compensating for an absence of purpose. Ken Rus Schmoll navigates through those choppy waters with real purpose (and I suspect his work with Clubbed Thumb has well-prepared him for such deliberately damaged narratives), and as a result, there are pockets of scene work that hit like bursts of fresh air.

In one, Margerie leads the group in a meditative exercise: "You will never have a normal life," she says. "And that is OK . . . you will love your abnormal life the way an abnormal tiger mother loves its abnormal tiger baby. You can be at parties with other tigers who are normal tigers and you won't even bat an eye, it won't matter to you one bit because you are abnormal, and that is the way it was meant to be and that is the way it is and that is the way it will always be." What works here, and in the play, is that no excuse is made for the way these people are, and no easy solutions are offered: it's not so much learning to swim rather than to sink, it's learning how to breathe underwater once you've already sunk.

At another point, Karen, who often speaks in an aloof and distracted manner, tries to explain her recent enrollment in Japanese classes: "Because I. Because of my mind. Because I want to learn new ways of using my mind. Because I'm tired of all the old familiar ways that my mind wants to use itself. Because I want to make new pathways. Forge new paths. Like a barbarian almost, chopping away at the wilderness. I want to chop away at the wilderness of my mind. Like someone with a machete. . . ." She is having an affair with language in the same way that Kate is having an affair with Shlomy (Michael Chick), a gay hairdresser -- it's just another point of contact, a different approach.

I suspect that my resistance to the play is that it's too aware of itself, of its own structure: it's meta-realism, in which clever characters (and cleverer actors) speak well of the pain, but substitute the discussion of trauma for the actual experience of it, and leave with only the most artificial catharsis, having really dealt with nothing. These seven absent husbands are parts of the problem, but their stories are untold, and there's no way to make the expression of absence in a play ever feel complete. Kosmas compensates for this by injecting two men into the play: failing with Shlomy, a spineless character who comes across as a physical prop for Karen (and later, an improbable option for Karen), but succeeding with Horace, a quiet but commanding foil for everything Rebecca's struggling against (Mr. Maher, who has a distinct lisp, has the ability to making passivity seem either sweet or sinister, depending on the volume of his voice).

Ultimately, Kosmas has to turn to the present audience, turning her actors into a Greek chorus of tragically flawed (but suddenly -- unfortunately -- homogeneous) people who apologize for their inability to look within. It is, as they and Kosmas say, easier to look out, rather than look in. "Who wouldn't? Because sure / if you can think about all that out there / and there's plenty of it out there to think about / I say if you can think about all that then / why think about all this instead? / If you can think about all that then / you don't have to think about what is." But is that the sort of play -- the sort of ending -- that can actually challenge us to do something more? Hello Failure is most important when it's confronting what is; unfortunately, it's at its best when it's confronting what isn't.

Hello Failure (1 hr. 40 min.)
Shady Lane Productions @ PS122 (150 1st Avenue)
Tickets ( $15.00
Performances (through 3/22): Mon., Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 6:30