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, June 26, 2009

This Isn't Paradise

Richard Hymes Esposito uses This Isn’t Paradise to focus on the uphill crawl toward success in the real estate business. Set at a boutique midtown agency, twentysomething male brokers log fourteen-hour days as they sign new clients and argue with landlords. But just as they can’t sell their twelve-plus percent fees to their clients, neither can the show sell itself to the audience.

Elizabeth Woodard and Richard Hymes-Esposito/Photo by

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Though the setting is as modern as it gets, Richard Hymes-Esposito’s This Isn’t Paradise seems dreadfully old. The cube rats of this Manhattan real estate office are anxious about the current economy and excited about the new opportunities Obama is providing to a more diverse population, but these worries and upbeat remarks quickly become overused. The end result doesn’t so much reflect the current economic climate as bitterly dispute it.

Robert (played by Hymes-Esposito) is a senior broker, who, as an alpha dog, alienates coworkers and intimidates clients. Despite the long hours, endless apartment showings, and “lots of money” he makes the agency, he also spends a good amount of time shadowboxing around the cubicle, bragging about the time he puts in at the gym, and spouting anti-liberal rhetoric. But while Hymes-Esposito’s able to write this part, he’s never able to inhabit it. Skinny, slightly hunched over, and with a nasal voice and scraggly facial hair, Hymes-Esposito is no cocky white-collar suit. He argues in a raised near-whine, he hovers eerily while fraternizing, and he has absolutely no rapport with clients, which makes one skeptical of his status and five-year track record.

Worse, Robert’s comments are ignorant one-liners that cut off the possibility of stimulating conversation. Esposito’s insights on politics and the economy are as deep as the New York Post’s headlines, and the only thing that makes it bearable is David H. Holmes, who plays a coworker chock full of amused responses. He’s pitch-perfect as a slacker, and he manages to be adorable and insulting at the same time. When he’s with Esposito, This Isn’t Paradise finds its pace, becoming a rapid-fire tug of war between two equally sarcastic minds.

The same can’t be said for the new junior broker, Heather (Elizabeth Woodard), a sexy, savvy single mom who is eager to make commission—but not at all open to Robert’s advances. However, she’s never given a chance to develop—instead, she’s used as a left-wing foil for Robert and as a sex-pot, made to enter each scene in low-cut wrap dresses and skin-showing camisoles. Woodard plays her shallowly, too, taking on an infuriating plastered-on flirty-ditzy persona. If she’s learning something on the computer, of course she touches her coworker’s arm; if a coworker is stressed, of course she gives him an empathetic, lingering hug. It’s hard to believe, and far from a progressive take on either the current job or real-estate market.

Given the ill-fitting 70s soundtrack (soul and motown hits from Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five), the whole production resembles a pre-Reagan recession—not a post-Obama one, complete with Second-Wave Feminism workplace ethics and racial bias in the hiring process. In fact, the only modern thing about this play is Craig M. Napoliello’s set design, which tacks real estate maps of the Tri-State area onto the upstage wall, sets up rows of dreary desks replete with the general office equipment, and then playfully puts a bobble-head figurine of Barack Obama on one of them. It’s not enough to update the rest of the play, which is muddled and unbalanced, and if you’re deciding whether or not to sit through This Isn’t Paradise, the title says it all.

This Isn't Paradise (2 hours; one 10-minute intermission)
The 78th Street Theater Lab (236 West 78th Street)

Tickets ( $18

Performances (through 6/29): Mons.-Fris. @ 8pm; Sats. @ 3pm & 8pm

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Roses on the Rocks

A play about a teenage Latina prostitute confronting her dead pimp’s wife is a flawed yet surprisingly tense and moving study of love and power, despite what the synopsis makes it seem.

Reviewed by Ryan Max

A 14-year-old, HIV positive, brassy Latina prostitute confronting her dead pimp's wife is either the premise for the year's edgiest comedy or most melodramatic tear-jerker. Luckily, in the able hands of writer Ellen Boscow and director Richard Caliban, this play becomes a tale of ego, power, love and (possible) redemption as two women—Peggy, the wife, and Blossom, the teenager girl—try to carve their own happy experiences from the sordid mess thrust upon them.

Blossom first appears attempting suicide in grand fashion, pointing a knife at her chest on a dark and stormy rock (the storm courtesy of flashing lights and fantastic live cello and violin accompaniment). But the ghost of Bill, her pimp, appears and stops her. Bill, dressed somewhat like a pirate in a long coat and boa, appears benevolent, preventing the young girl from going through with her brash act. But the ambiguity of Bill's motives are what give the first act its tense power, which seems almost inadvertent for a play that embraces such a strong feminist viewpoint (and for a playhouse that keeps copies of the journal "Estrogenius" behind glass in the lobby). The man is the most intriguing and powerful character: the women remain beholden even to his ghost.

Following his intervention, Bill requests (nay, demands!) that Blossom visit his wife, Peggy, who is as white as can be. Now Bill's fun begins: at first it looks like he’s making amends for his double life by reconciling his prize prostitute (of many, we learn) with his doting, bland, wife. He appears only to Blossom (he refuses to say exactly why) and urges her to slowly transgress more and more of his wife's delicate boundaries. Peggy is in mourning, and hence not very welcoming to Blossom's assertions that, no, she was not one of Bill's charges at the shelter, but in fact his whore and sex toy. As Bill whispers these bombs—for instance, he thought Peggy’s pussy was too hairy—to his unsuspecting widow (through Blossom’s ear), his pleasure becomes clearer and more disturbing.

The actor playing Peggy, Rachel Jones, acts out the naive wife's shock and unbearable discomfort with incredible realism. She trails off, fakes smiles, and fumbles for words so evocatively that it is hard not to run on stage and give her a hug. For her part, Laura Montes, asBlossom, plays the bombastic Latina stereotype with unexpected subtlety, letting her prickly attitude soften ever so slowly as Bill's grip on her loosens. And Scott Sowers, as Bill, is an asshole, and he is very good at it.

From here, The Roses on the Rocks becomes a desperate struggle between the three characters. Peggy strives to redeem her naiveté and implied complicity with Bill by legally adopting Blossom and embracing this embodiment of Bill's dark secret life. Blossom slowly and reluctantly fights to wrest control of her own life from Bill. And Bill, despite his claims that death has made him a superhero, fights to manipulate both women into surrendering their happiness and love to him and him alone.

The first act’s struggle and shifting loyalties between characters make for potent material. In particular, Bill's attention toward Blossom grows more and more disturbing. Imagine watching a balding middle-aged man with a gravely voice (and dressed vaguely as a pirate) grope the teenager, telling her he owns her and describing how he once ripped the clothes off her "slender, nasty, little-girl doll body."

Other scenes aren’t as intriguing. In one that comes dangerously close to hysterical and sentimental melodrama, we learn that Peggy and Bill once had a child of their own, but it only lived for one day. "Dear God, make our baby cry and smile again," Peggy pleads. In this dreamy sequence (it’s often hard to tell what’s real and what is not) Bill puts on a devil mask and makes a deal with her: he will take the baby (not coincidentally named Blossom) to hell for 15 years at which point she will judge whether Peggy is fit to be her mother or not. The whole deal with the Devil is somewhat confusing and forced. The audience now has to piece together the bet with the devil rather than absorbing the truly fascinating stuff of Bill's fight for power over these two women from beyond the grave. This along with Bill's habit of breaking out in rhyming soliloquy ("Urchin venom spines that gleam / Fish heads dipped in gasoline") are the most serious threats to the play's integrity. They swerve the action between surrealism and the cheesily supernatural, the latter of which reduces the strength of the former. It’s no surprise that the strongest thread in the play—the domestic drama of the milquetoast Peggy struggling to smile through the adoption and acceptance of Blossom, and Bill's attempts to derail both of their attempts at happiness—is firmly grounded in reality of human relationships.

Each character's quest for self-determinacy and control is focused on a central image: Peggy's is based on a creepy doll named "First Bloom" (the play is heavy on the flower imagery), which was made from her child's death mask and her own hair for $15,000—the same price Bill paid for his own Blossom. Blossom's quest is to reclaim what she was before Bill bought her at age 9, and manifests in memories of her mother, played by an actress who dreamily swirls on stage and provides her daughter a benevolent balance to Bill's violently sexual machinations. And Bill's quest amounts to shattering these dreams for both women, often quite literally, especially when it seems like they are becoming closer and comforting one another.

Bill's attempts to turn each woman into a controllable puddle of dependency become more and more fevered, only to suddenly dry up. The second act falls into a predictable second act and loses the seething tension of the first act. The first act was a rose growing, against all odds, from a rock. The second act is more like finding moss there instead.

Once Bill transforms from slyly sinister to outright barbaric, the power drains quickly from the play. He makes the last scenes a trying combination of brutality and boredom. Thankfully the lingering strength of the first act is never totally erased, and the actors are strong enough to keep the audience invested in the fate of the characters. But it is ironic that a play so committed to its feminist message ultimately leans on the male character for so much its narrative force. The finale is mercifully short and vague about the outcome of the battle for Blossom’s soul, but it is a shame that such a strong start couldn’t be followed up with a better finish.

The Roses on the Rocks (1 hour 40 min; One Intermission)
Manhattan Theater Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets ( $18
Performances: Wednesday - Saturday @8pm through June 27, with additional performance June 27 at 2pm

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fifth of July

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July has no shortage of laughs and dramatic revelations of secrets and personal turmoil. Despite the 1970s setting, featuring sex, love, drugs, and anti-Vietnam War sentiments, director Peter Jensen’s revival presents a wonderful, soap opera-like glimpse into the life of an ostensibly normal Missouri family that is relevant even today.

Image: Courtesy of T. Schreiber Studio

Reviewed by Nicole C. Lee

When American playwright Lanford Wilson wrote Fifth of July in 1979, and premiered it in New York City in 1980, he portrayed American life in the wake of the Vietnam War. At the time, the show was relevant and possibly controversial, drawing real-world comparisons to the state of American society and culture. T. Schreiber Studio produces this 2009 revival about a gay Vietnam War veteran, which is still relevant today.

Like any good soap opera, Fifth of July supplies the audience with an assortment of characters, each with their own personal problems and issues, to satisfy the dramatic appetite. Sally Talley (Lucy Avery Brooke) is the matriarch of the family, who is both stubborn and delightful, comically attempting to speak to UFOs in the sky. Aspiring singer Gwen Landis (Jamie Neumann) and her guitarist friend Weston Hurley (Jonathan Orsini) epitomize the 1970s: engaging in free love (Gwen and her husband John have sex while everyone expects they are changing their clothes), smoking pot, snorting cocaine, and expressing their condemnation of the Vietnam War. Jamie Neumann puts on a stand-out performance as the tripped-out Gwen, who amusingly--and abruptly--transitions between passionate outbursts of anti-war protests and paranoid apprehensions about funerals. At the center of the drama is Ken Talley, who returns to his life in Lebanon, Missouri after losing his legs in combat. The Talley family, including Ken’s aunt Sally, Ken’s sister June (Ellen Reilly), and June’s precocious daughter Shirley (Lily DePaula), intends to spread the ashes of Sally’s late husband Matt, who died one year ago.

While this production is arguably a historical look into American life in the 1970s, audiences might look to Fifth of July as a prediction of what is to come for current American war veterans returning home. Ken Talley (David Villalobos) appears happy and well-adjusted to his post-war life, living with his lover Jed (Edward Campbell), but later confesses his fear of resuming his role as mentor and teacher to his students, given his current disability. He seeks to escape this by selling the family house and moving away. That Ken Talley is homosexual bears little controversial weight on audiences of the 2009 production. The real question is the universality of Ken’s feelings after experiencing war and whether or not it parallels the veteran experience today. David Villalobos' performance illuminates this question, most notably in the last scene when a physical confrontation with John Landis (Michael W. Murray) ends with Ken falling on his back. A pin drop could be heard at this moment, as Villalobos is forced to remain completely still from the waist down.

T. Schreiber Studio’s production of Fifth of July coincides with the Broadway revival of Hair, the anti-Vietnam War musical set in the 1960s. While both shows focus on similar issues and the greater implications of war on the human spirit, Fifth of July is not the rebellious hippie that Hair is. Still, the revival of both shows suggests the public acknowledgment of the historical parallelism between the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the current – and seemingly perpetual – Iraq War today. Despite the weight of Fifth of July’s dramatic implications, audiences will enjoy the show’s successful balance between humor and conflict. Director Peter Jensen does a wonderful job of making the play an ensemble piece, a quality that is often overlooked in more mainstream theater shows.

Fifth of July (140 minutes, one 10-minute intermission)
T. Schreiber Studio (151 W 26
th Street, 7th floor)

Tickets ( $25
Performances: Thursday – Sundays @ 8PM, through June 21

Friday, June 12, 2009


Punkplay, the first of three plays in the “summerworks” festival at the Ohio Theatre, is an exciting, ferocious new play by Gregory Moss, transcending its subjects of punk, the 80s, and adolescence to form a kind of intense and meaningful fever dream, an ode to individuality and, for all adults struggling to make sense of their youth, a nostalgic and insightful look back.

(Zegen and Anfanger, photo c/o Carl Skutsch)

Reviewed by Max Rosen

Punkplay, an excellent new play by Gregory Moss being presented as part of the Clubbed Thumb’s “summerworks” festival, is much more complex, introspective, and intelligent than it sounds. In the hands of a less exciting writer, the story of two boys in 80s America discovering punk rock in the shadow of the Cold War might have degenerated into any of a number of inferior plays--losing itself, say, in meaningless apocalyptic fantasies or T.S. Elliott rants (about darkness and decay and subversion), or happily devolving into a nostalgic ode to punk fandom. Instead, Moss 's play transcends the obvious traps of its subect: it is neither a meaningless exercise in apocalyptic fantasy nor a nostalgic episode of energetic but empty fandom, but a complex, atomic play--never for a moment clichéd, simple, or meaningless. When Punkplay flirts with the apocalypse, as it often does, it does so for specific and important reasons; when its characters choose punk, they do so as part of a powerful statement about the nature of cultures and counter-cultures, freedom and control. Directed with insight and passion by Davis McCallum and acted with sincerity and energy by Alex Anfanger, Michael Zegen, Carie Kawa, and Matt Burns, Punkplay is an adult play with the energy of an adolescent fever dream: brimming with life, Moss’s work surrounds its protagonists with puppets, surrealist sequences, intense punk rock interludes, three-dimensional characters, violent and virulent language, and a powerful and compassionate analysis of the rarity of true individualism, the whole chaotic and mesmerizing whirlwind forming into a fabric of hormonal urgency that, like the play’s intensity, is a metaphor for adolescence itself.

If that all sounds very abstract and intellectual, it is and it isn’t. At its core, Punkplay is a coming of age tale—an extremely funny, and appropriately awkward one. It begins in the Spring (as symbolized by the word “Spring” on the wall of Mickey’s room, one of several such signs delineating objects as “porn” or “records”). Mickey (Zegen), a middle-class suburban kid, meets Duck (Anfanger)—the proverbial, world-wise subversive. After running away from home (after a disagreement with his father, or because Duck finds glamour in being an outcast), Duck moves in with Mickey. As the seasons go by, Duck becomes, in his own mind, a beacon of enlightenment; he disparages Mickey’s consumer culture and offers him (or really pressures him into accepting) its antithesis—punk rock. Duck is oppressive and often nasty—he indicts everything in Mickey’s life he doesn’t understand or like as not “punk enough,” including Mickey’s taste in girls, music, and fashion.

The boy's dynamic, often shrouded in energy or homoeroticism, but never forgotten by the playwright, is established at the very beginning of the play: the first time Duck enters Mickey’s room, he criticizes it for not being anti-conformist enough (full of, say, rock pictures and signs of entropy), and Mickey responds that he keeps it that way because he “likes it clean.” To Duck, individuality is subverting an individual’s own desires or self to a counter-culture—to Mickey, it is less defined than that but far more individual—a quieter embrace of personal taste that asks for no confirmation from the outside world. These takes on individuality define the two characters: Duck is angry and insecure, and his love of punk and supposed hatred of America is increasingly dogmatic, whereas Mickey is more genuine and open, and increasingly confused as to why everyone is always trying to tell him how to act.

As the play continues, Duck becomes meaner and more controlling as Mickey begins to understand the nature of the rules of “punk”—as Mickey, in effect, grows up, leaving the simplicity, artificial safety, and ultimately fear of Duck’s world behind—and the play builds well to its inevitable confrontation. When Mickey finally rejects Duck’s oppressive adherence to the “punk lifestyle,” he does more than simply question why he is expected to submit to unwritten, totalitarian rules (the fabric of societies, of the American 80s, and certainly, of high schools)—he questions whether or not punk is really subversive at all, striking out at the idea of “counter-culturalism” itself. “You talk just like them” Mickey says to Duck, referring to the “jocks” and the "cheerleaders": the language of punk, at least for Duck, is just as homophobic, just as repressed, just as boring, in effect, as the 80s family values it pretends to despise. As Mickey finally steps into the real world (as symbolized by a clever, if strange theatrical usage of roller skates), he does so by rejecting the false security of conformity and dogma--whether it wears a polo shirt or the glam moniker of a punk rocker.

Broadly, Moss’s play is a coming of age story for Mickey, a funny, sexual, earnest play that hides violent and powerful truths just beneath its innocent and entertaining exterior. And, yet the play is about more than Duck or Mickey. The 80s, Moss suggests at the beginning of the play, are like the grundel of America (caught between the balls and the asshole, so to speak). But, though he says it in a clever and irreverent way, what Moss really means is that the 80s are the collective adolescence of modern America, and in this respect, the play is not just a coming of age for Mickey, but a coming of age for American society itself. The play, witty and fun as it is, hides patches of darkness at its edges—Moss packs in allusions to the cold war, a reference to the AIDs crisis, virulent homophobia—and any student of modern history knows that soon the internet will tear holes in the claustrophobic little white box of Mickey’s room, its only avenue to the world a tiny television set that, tuned correctly, peeks out at the Soviet Union with childlike innocence. The 80s, a time of dogmatic family values and equally dogmatic counter-cultures, will soon close with dramatic changes in American society, and violent revelations. And this connection, between the classic coming of age story, and America’s coming of age, is perhaps the smartest and subtlest revelation of Moss’s play. For even as the play lures its audience in with its clever lines, its feverish sexcapades, and its nostalgia for the dark ages before the internet transformed the innocence of Mickey and Duck into an anachronism, Moss’s work, like adolescence, like the 80s, hides beneath its surface violent truths on the verge of ripping the comforting fabric of childhood asunder. Go see it, while you can.

Punkplay (1:40 minutes)

Clubbed Thumb @ Ohio Theatre (66 Wooster Street)
Tickets: or 212-352-3101: $18, (Students, $15)
Performances (through 6/13): Mon-Sun (except Wed.) 8:00 pm

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Anyone who decides to write a play about or take on the role of the Modernist poet Ezra Pound, a clandestine homosexual who openly made anti-Semitic and anti-American comments, certainly has his work cut out for him. William Roetzheim’s one-man show Pound and lead actor Jeff Berg takes on this complicated literary figure at one of the most complicated times of his life. With the help of his audience, they even create a new ending to it.

Jeff Berg as Ezra Pound / Photo by Kate Gibson

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Ezra Pound, the Modernist poet, became a controversial expatriate when he fled during World War II to regularly dispatch ludicrous left-wing commentary on American economics and politics from Rome. When he returned, he was accused of treason, but was deemed too mentally unstable to stand trial and so never faced charges. Until now: at Theater Row, William Roetzheim is giving him the trial he never had, and each night the audience acts as the jury and provides the final verdict. (Inside every program is a double-sided card: guilty/innocent.) It’s up to Jeff Berg, who plays Pound and six of Pound’s testifying peers, to keep the proceedings evenly balanced. He succeeds, running the gamut from vulnerable and condoning to unapologetic and obstinate. Roetzheim’s script is an invaluable resource—thorough, well-researched, and bias-less—but it’s Berg’s performance that makes it more than just another drama rooted in historical fiction; it truly paints a portrait of a poet’s life.

Pound’s signature stream-of-consciousness lends itself to Roetzheim’s vignette-style monologues as the play (and spotlight) revolves around the different witnesses brought into the courtroom to be interrogated. Berg takes on a total of seven different characters, from the Department of Justice’s prosecutor (his deep Southern drawl and Bible-Belt morals) to members of Pound’s literary circle (Berg embodies both Allen Ginsberg and Ernest Hemingway in this play, and as Pound he reminisces of Lost Generation comrades during his time in Paris such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein) to the irrational and impossible Pound himself. By dividing the stage into zones, Roetzheim makes it easy for the audience to identify scene transitions without harsh fadeouts or the untimely use of music, and also gives Berg space to transform. This clear staging showcases Berg’s range of tones, limitless energy, and his fun-loving, engaging approach to his role: at times he flirts directly with the audience, and even takes one onstage with him as a dance partner while talking of the parties he attended in Europe.

As an effeminate Italian socialite who knew Pound in Rome, Berg sits center stage, legs crossed at the knees and his hands folded over them, leaning forward. His one signature accessory is a black scarf, which he drapes around his neck for added flair. Then, crossing downstage, he leans against a wall, close to the front row. His voice lowers, his eyes narrow, and his shoulders widen, giving him a sense of height and burliness. He adds to this brute masculinity by wrapping and unwrapping that scarf with the methodically slow confidence of someone who enjoys fighting: suddenly, he is Ernest Hemingway. Berg strings his sentences along with a smooth confidence, believably reciting the emphasized, powerhouse lines Roetzheim scripts, which he obviously based on Hemingway’s prose. As the play progresses so does Pound’s madness, and Berg’s ascension into these depths is just as believable and jarring: his monologues become impassioned rants where he raises his voice uncontrollably and takes shorter breaths.

While audiences may need to brush up on their American literature to follow all the namedropping, Pound is no dusty regurgitation of literary criticism. True, it has enough high-brow appeal to indulge poetry buffs but it’s also fun-loving and stimulating thanks to the intelligent but never patronizing script and the brilliant lead actor. Jeff Berg performs with so much assurance, it’s obvious he’s done his homework, bringing honor and homage to the challenging topical landscape Roetzheim has laid out. Together they fuse the two genres of poetry and theater without watering down either, making for an incredibly well-researched script about a man who has reached his breaking point and the special opportunity for audiences to directly react to all of it.

Pound (1 hour, 15 minutes; no intermission)
The Studio Theater at Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets ( or 212.714.2442): $18
Performances (through 6/19): Tues. @7pm, Weds.-Sats.@8pm

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War

What if the Cold War had ended in the 1950s due to a robot invasion which demolished the entire North American continent? In Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, a grim group of radio hosts residing in post-apocalyptic Russia run a weekly show rooted in retro Americana idealism, complete with live soda-shop ballads and pop-culture quizzes. And yes, the binary themes and concocted characters are just as zany as this all sounds.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

An innovative combination of doo-wop, political nihilism, and just a splash of sarsaparilla, Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War takes us back to a time when the football star always got the girl and Russia made up half of Europe. It’s 1959 and the Russians have barely survived a worldwide attack from extra-terrestrial robots – the damage is so palpable that their radio signal often cuts out or the power shuts down during the play. Clearly, their country is still recovering. To boost morale, the Victory Studio, sponsored by Soviet Free Radio, hosts a weekly radio show featuring three personalities and a live band. On this particular night, we learn about Samuel and Alasdair, two brothers growing up in middle America (affectionately coined by the Russians as the “Corn Belt”) during the 1950s, and their love for the girl next door, Susie Q.

It’s a story of USSR versus USA in both ideals and ethics, but also an endearing sense of camaraderie and brotherhood, and the shattering effects of world war. The actors march into work weary and sullen, but brighten up along with the blinking red lights on the switchboard, ready to greet their listeners. They've got thick accents, but authoritative ones: they call out a slew of advertising copy with the speed and enthusiasm of an auctioneer on amphetamines. Joe Curnutte, the host of the show (and the play’s co-writer), handles introductions and segues with slick cunning; he is comfortable in any capacity and switches gears at lightning speed, whether reading lines for both brothers in a scene or jumping in on a duet during interludes. Indeed, all of the actors switch between stretching their vowels in chatty Midwestern accents as characters in a story and the rigid, halted Russian dialect they assume when announcing breaks in the program or talking amongst themselves offline.

The host has two supporting personalities: Anastasia Volinski (Stephanie Wright Thompson) and Mischa Romanav (the play’s other co-writer, Marc Bovino). The show’s resident know-it-all, Romanav is a renowned scientist and writer whose fame has dwindled along with his confidence. Clad in professorial glasses and a black turtleneck, Romanav is a shy, soft-spoken man who often needs encouragement before speaking directly into the microphone to answer questions asked of him. On breaks he acts just as timid, keeping to himself and taking slow sips of coffee. His counterpart, Volinksi, commands her listeners with bold, direct dialogue that leaves no question of stage fright.

Volinksi marches onstage in the first scene wearing a practical skirt, matching jacket, and perfectly pinned-up hair, all of which gives her an edgy Eastern European demeanor. She coyly betrays all when channeling classic American ballads such as Sam Cooke’s You Send Me or Patsy Cline’s She’s Got You. As Volinski, Thompson has a girlish vulnerability, and in the end, her fascinating yet subdued allure wins audiences over. In a sobering monologue later in the play, for example, she reveals how she didn’t seek out becoming a singer so much as fell into it, balancing out the brassy, upbeat points of the play with a real sense of tragic romance.

Director Lila Neugebauer continues to play up this theme with subtle staging. When Thompson first walks onstage in her pulled-together outerwear she immediately changes out of heels and into slippers, an action that forces her for the rest of the play to stand on a telephone book in order to reach the microphone. Her dreamy vocals are accompanied by Alexi “Tumbleweed” Petrovya (Michael Dalto) whose sometimes bluesy, sometimes twangy guitar stylings and a cappella percussion really makes one wonder which country this radio show broadcasts from.

Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War takes a notoriously pleasant point in history and gives it a startling alternative ending. Writers Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte incorporate peppy 1950s colloquialisms in their witty script-within-a-script format to truly transport the audience to another time, but not quite a simpler nor familiar one. Their take on Russian survivors post Cold War is also refreshingly fleshed out and empathetic: these are not boilerplate Commies etched out of old Bullwinkle cartoons. These characters are truly enamored with American pop culture such as rock ‘n’ roll and I Love Lucy, who are just as terrified by the unrecognizable interwoven radio dispatches of air bomb sirens and panicked dialogue they hear cutting into their otherwise regularly scheduled programming. 1950s American idealism has never been so surreal.

Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (80 minutes; no intermission)

The Brick Theater (575 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg)
Tickets ( or 212.352.3101): $15
Performances: Saturday 6/27 @ 2pm, Sunday 6/27 @ 7pm, and Thursday 7/2 @ 7:30pm

Friday, June 05, 2009

Into the Hazard

The worst thing Into the Hazard has to worry about is a surfeit of riches. The presentation--particularly from the actors--is more than enough to balance out the stray haphazard modernization, or over-the-top flourish. Jessica Bauman has succeeded in making one of Shakespeare's slower histories, Henry V, into a dynamic show for today.

Photo/Lisa Dozier

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Jessica Bauman's adaptation Into the Hazard might as easily have been titled "Once More Unto the Breech." That's because, despite the multimedia dress-up, it's just an abridged adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, pentameter and all. The good news is, Bauman's show is "suffering" from a surfeit of riches. All the bells and whistles meant to contemporize the tale of a young and untried king being thrust into war are ultimately unnecessary--but they look pretty cool.

For instance, it may not add much to have King Henry address a camera instead of the audience when he marshalls his troops via an "address to the nation," but Austin Switser's excellent video design sure makes the faux programming from the History Channel and FOX News look believable. It doesn't really matter that Emily Pepper dresses the cast in suits, but it's a nice touch that after the intermission--as the war starts--everyone's wearing fatigues. (When's the last time you saw a "noble" or a "king" actually risk their life?) Finally, there's absolutely no need to reduce the cast to only six actors--except that they're all so good, and it's nice to see such range. The one visual image that Bauman uses to enhance the text is entirely nontechnical--an ever-growing mound of combat boots, plopped center-stage, helps us to see the casualities. In this case, going overboard doesn't hurt the underlying play--it's as if Bauman is as blessed as the English troops, to throw all those ideas into the fray and wind up with only a few scratches.

This polish is owed to the cast's buffering. From the slightly overboard antics of Trevor Vaughn's roguish Pistol, whose confidence is all lip-licks and wide-eyed winks, to the broad brogue of Luis Moreno's Fluellan, whose sturdiness snaps into focus thanks to a leek, this is one of the most energized tellings of what is often portrayed as one of Shakespeare's slow history plays. And if these dings sparkle, watch the outstanding actors shine. As Exeter, David McCann is the stern solemn advisor to Henry--but as the squeaky, complaintive Nym, he is irrepressibly goofy. Furthermore, his portrayal of a captured French soldier begging to be ransomed is full of raw emotion.

Many of these compliments are also due to Scott Whitehurst: not only does he nail the postures and accents of characters as diverse as the French King and the Archbishop of Canturbury, but he makes their more technical speeches a joy. And you should see him play a looser role--like that of the violent Bardolph or the disgruntled soldier, Williams! Even Nick Dillenburg has an opporunity to double-up, matching his solid portrayal of Henry with that of the shady Dauphin. As for Erin Moon--she's unfortunately underused in this play of mostly men, but not underappreciated for the life she gives to Katharine, who is forced to wed Henry in one abbreviated scene, and the Governor of Harfleur, who resignedly surrenders to Henry's wrath.

Given all this, the haphazard moments--screens from a military FPS, a goofy vlog, and a weird French sitcom--are easily overlook'd. With a president--er, director--like this, we're happy to go Into the Hazard.

Into the Hazard
Walkerspace (46 Walker Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $15.00
Performances (through 6/20): Sunday/Monday @ 7 | Thurs. - Sat. @ 8

Thursday, June 04, 2009

When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?

Photo/Kristen Vaughn

Teddy, a young former soldier, has a grudge against America. Since he can't punish an entire country, his anger finds a target in an unsuspecting diner. The crowd comes in for eggs, but ends up caught in a hostage crisis, casualties both of Teddy's dissapointment, and the society that created it.

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

Steven, aka Red (Ben Schnickle), can’t seem to relax after his graveyard shift at Foster’s Diner in New Mexico, in the revival of When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? The relentlessly chipper attitude of his co-worker Angel (Heather E. Cunningham), who takes the morning shift, just makes things worse for this moody young man. Unfortunately, he can’t even really think about getting away on this slow Sunday morning, because a young army drifter named Teddy (Christopher Patrick Mullen) has decided to hold all the customers hostage. Mark Medoff writes about more than money, though: he shows that while Teddy’s actions are reprehensible, they are also a product of the cultural conflicts of America in the late 60s. It's this question that keeps the play from becoming mindless violcene. It’s not just a fight between Teddy and the diner patrons, but between generations and classes—in other words, between the fifties and the sixties.

Before Teddy’s entrance, the most exciting aspect of the play is the pitch-perfect set: a jukebox with flashing lights, faded chalkboards with specials that never change, Formica everything, and the clanking of dishes—you can almost smell the bacon and eggs cooking. As Red, Schnickle is suitably scowling and moody, but he never says exactly why he wants to leave so badly, so while all of his scowling and railing against his small town is meant to evoke sympathy in the audience, it comes off as needless whining. In their slacks and ties, violinist Clarisse (Matilda Szydagis) and her husband Richard (David Blais) look more like walking targets than actual people, though they become the former the minute Teddy walks in with Cheryl (Casandera M.J. Lollar) and a gun. Red's angst seems like the point of the play at first, but Teddy and his gun quickly take over, raging against both the diner, and the society it belongs to.

Is Teddy is legitimately railing against a society that forced him into the army, or simply taking the diner hostage for the hell of it, preying on the defenseless staff and customers just because he can? It's this question that makes the story intriguing, and despite the violence, impossible to look away from. It's challening the auidences sympathies-is it possible to empathize both with the helpless patrons, and with the seemingly evil man who is holding them hostage? Mullen's posture and swagger, along with leather jacket and haircut, make him resemble a less-pale Mick Jagger. Whatever his reasons, the more appalling he acts, the more impossible he is to ignore, whether that’s forcing the customers to dance together, stealing a violin, stripping his hostages, or shooting his victims.

When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? (2 hours, 1 intermission)
Spoon Theater (38 West 38th Street)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success)

The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success) is an aesthetically pleasing production, and as always, Hopkins’s music is intriguing and singular. Her creations are strange beasts, integrating her off-kilter musical compositions within a movement-oriented multimedia theater extravaganza. This time around, though, the story line feels outwardly hokey and slap-dashed together: it’s one long setup for the more personal second half, at which point she takes us on a journey through her emotional, muddy past, sharing how it seeps into her creative present.

Review by Amanda Cooper

I am a Cynthia Hopkins fan. Her creations are strange beasts, integrating her off-kilter music compositions with a movement-oriented multimedia theater extravaganza. I have seen – and loved – both previous installments of her Accidental Trilogy, of which this production, The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success) is the third and final part. Hopkins’s latest is the weirdest, most autobiographical, and most emotional of the three. But it is also the most overindulgent and inconsistent.

Set in a science fiction future, the first half of the piece is narrated by two planets, which tell the story of the demise of the humans and human-like Druoc. The performance is handled via projections and the onstage antics of Hopkins (with the help of Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, along with talented director DJ Mendel). After this first part (which makes sense sometimes) wraps up, Hopkins takes us on a journey through her emotional, muddy past, sharing how it seeps into her creative present.

The Success of Failure… is aesthetically pleasing, and as always, Hopkins’s music is intriguing and singular. But whereas the lopsided plots of her past two productions also only made semi-sense, they were kept afloat by their forward momentum, originality, and deadpan humor, not to mention the successful fusion of multimedia elements with song and dialogue. This time, the story feels outwardly hokey and slap-dashed together: one long setup for Hopkins’s personal second half. As for this part, it’s purposefully painful, both for audience and performer, as Hopkins recounts to us, in beautiful prose, her dangerous, alcoholic, and even suicidal tendencies, perhaps provoked by her mother’s premature death.

In her first two shows, Accidental Nostalgia, and Must Don’t Whip ‘Um, Hopkins mixed harsh personal history with character fiction. What was autobiographical and what wasn’t, was satisfyingly unclear—we could feel for Cynthia Hopkins, and the clear pain she has felt over her life, but we could remain removed from the direct events and fallout. The Success of Failure… removes this mystery, which turns our empathy to pity, and, at times, resentment: is this a therapy session for Hopkins?

My hope for Cynthia Hopkins: Artist (if I am allowed to have one), is that she has now shed enough of her demons to move on, to show her fans what is beneath that pain, and the further insight and strange beauty she is capable of creating.

The Success of Failure (or The Failure of Success) 1 hour, forty minutes, no intermission
St Ann's Warehouse (38 Water Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn)
Tickets $22.50 and up
through June 7, 2009