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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


The subject of quite a few episodes of Oprah gets a more courageous portrayal.

Anna and her mother say "cheese."
Photo Courtesy JMTC

Reviewed by Ryan Max

Benny, a new play written by Suzanne Bachner, is a familiar story, told in fragments: a child decides to search for her biological parents against the protests of her loving adopted parents. But the similarities to any tear-jerking identity quests end there, as we get a far more nuanced and intimate portrait of Anna (a.k.a. Benny, what she was called as a baby in foster care). Her first meeting with her biological mother—the point at which Oprah would break out the Kleenexes—falls comically flat. From there, it is Anna’s often unsuccessful relationships with the men in her life (father, therapist, lover[s]) that really make the glimpses we see swirl into a compelling picture.

Benny’s structural conceit is nothing new. Chopped up narratives have been in vogue ever since Memento tore through town, and, since then, lots of lesser writers have used it to liven up otherwise dull stories. So it is a great relief that Benny takes a typically melodramatic storyline, adds truly funny, intimate, and disturbing moments, and then chops it up. It’s a recipe that works well, for the most part.

Dispensing with a smooth, linear narrative forces Benny to live and die on the strength of its component pieces. This sometimes hurts the play: momentum is lost between scenes that have no direct narrative link, so strong moments are swiftly extinguished. Additionally, each scene is forced to operate like a two-man one-act, leaning heavily on a conflict confined to a single moment. And yet, these isolated scenes often work in Benny’s favor. The scenes that trace the arc of her relationship with Shane, her husband, are almost painfully intimate. From their first stages of romance (Anna kissing the dimples in Shane’s back), to their wrenching separation, each glimpse into their relationship is both illuminating and deeply affecting.

Creative staging and direction make other scenes just as impacting. For example, one scene with Max (the infinitely hateable blowjob enthusiast / family friend who starts an inappropriate relationship with Anna when she is a 12-year-old girl and he is a much older lawyer) has Anna speaking to both Max and her father but with each man occupying a parallel plane within the play. That is, both are on stage, but while she speaks to one, the other is placed in a sort of suspended animation. This yields some vital theater: at one point, the condescending creep Max holds her hand in one time while she is talking to her father in another, but the moments exist simultaneously onstage. Her father, despite his flaws, cares deeply about Anna, and it’s very disturbing to watch Max caress her hair while she spills her guts to her dad.

Any bildungsroman has to choose which events from the protagonist’s life are worth portraying. Here, the impact of such choices is magnified by Benny’s structure. Because the story pops in and out of Anna’s life, we only see the points of high drama and miss the smaller moments in between. At one extreme, they fall in love; at another, he comes home drunk and hits her: there’s little to flesh out the relationship. This often works in Benny’s favor. The play suggests arcs that allow the audience to fill in the blanks, and is never so vague to be meaningless. But occasionally it leaves the audience cold, for the same reason that it’s easier to watch strangers divorce than to see your own parents do the same.

Given our limited glimpses into Anna’s life, it’s a shame that many scenes fail to enrich her story. Repeat viewings of Anna struggling through meetings with her biological mother, for instance, flatten things out. Thankfully, Benny manages to escape the dull fate of so much daytime talk-show fodder, thanks to the talent of its creators and cast. That brings the tally to something like, Good Stories: 1; Oprah: A zillion. Keep fighting the good fight, Ms. Bachner.

Benny (90 Minutes; no intermission)
June Havoc Theatre (312 W. 36th St. 1st Floor)
TICKETS []: $15 Students and Seniors, $18 General Admission
PERFORMANCES: Saturday 8/01 @ 3pm

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Body Language

Jenny Contuzzi’s new play, Body Language strives to explore a relationship dynamic where one party is completely satisfied while the other craves something more. While her writing falls flat, the two leads provide the believable chemistry to keep the production bearable, and at times even gripping. The cast does such a superb job that Contuzzi’s one-dimensional writing can’t keep up; the Body Language is unconvincing and in need of stronger dialogue.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Jenny Contuzzi’s Body Language deals in stereotypes: Mary, a young, attractive woman works at a diner, takes night classes, has the love of her kindhearted, blue-collar boyfriend Mike, and yet also has a “dark secret” that keeps her from accepting his love. Mike is equally in love with Mary, and when they’re alone they giggle, cuddle and whisper flirtatiously. While Mike’s ready to make their relationship official, however, Mary has doubts. This would be her fully functional relationship: she’d be safe, without fear of pain or danger. The problem is that Mary likes getting hurt.

As Mary, Amy Miller Brennan does an impressive job with a limited role that only provides extremes, either someone unwilling to admit her secret desires or one so completely infatuated with her hunky construction worker boyfriend that she feels guilty about any deeper needs. The neat writing makes it hard to believe she hasn’t resolved this inner conflict already, Brennan’s Mary still comes across as real and relatable. Similarly, while Andrew Daly makes a dopey and naïve Mike (when he’s head-over-heels), he switches from lap dog to perceptive caregiver a little too easily. When he finds out Mary has been punching walls because she likes the pain and the bloody knuckles, he sets up professional boxing equipment in the garage and registers her for self-defense classes. Despite such a far-fetched rendering of two lovebirds so blind to each other’s core personalities, director Nathaniel Shaw still manages to pull stellar performances out of the cast. Daly’s rock-solid portrayal of Mike transcends the script; he doesn’t just catch Mary’s emotional curveballs, he adds action to Contuzzi’s listless writing. Together Miller and Daly take a one-dimensional play that neither reaches a conclusion nor allows for a cliffhanger ending, and transform it into a chronic, troubled character study about making relationships work despite common behavior like lying, deceit, and guilt.

As for Brennan, who plays a more complex character, she takes advantage of Mary’s deceptive, chameleon-like personality to keep the audience guessing which “side” of Mary they’ll see next. At one moment she stands completely still, only moving her eyes; the next, she sits forward in her seat, all smiles, ready to impress her next employer. When she shows up at an old acquaintance’s apartment looking for something she knows Mike can’t give her, she looks petrified, eager, and hungry all at the same time. The man waiting for her, Theo (Jeffrey Trunell), truly “dominates” Mary even before touching her, barking demands as soon as she enters and leering in close when doing so. The way he handles his tools in front of Mary leave little to the imagination, providing a sick yet memorable performance for such a small role. It’s technically sharp, too: Ryan Metzler’s lights support the play’s back-and-forth by switching at each dramatic bolt between jarring electric blues to soothing yellows, for a stimulating, alternating hot-and-cold effect.

As a modern female playwright, Contuzzi takes a very complex issue and brings it to light against the backdrop of suburban America (Mary buys Mike a grill for his birthday, Mike sets up a tent in the backyard the night he proposes to Mary). She also incorporates the many different layers behind self-abuse, both emotional and physical, such as the lengths some people with go for a cathartic release not provided by mainstream society. All the elements of a truly heavy piece of theater are here, but while it has the right bodies, it’s got the wrong language. If you always hurt the one you love, Body Language needs to take the kid gloves off so that we can feel the love through the pain. Right now, instead of understanding Mary’s deep-set agony, the audience just feels a little shaken up.

Body Language (60 minutes; no intermission)
Dorothy Streislin Theater at Abingdon Theatre Company (312 West 36th Street)
Tickets []: $18, students and seniors $15

Performances: Wednesday 7/29 @ 6:30pm; Sunday 8/2 @ 2pm


Talia Gonzalez and Bisanne Masoud confront society’s growing reliance and obsession with social networking websites in FaceSpace. This clever and comedic play posits the question: what if the conniving creator of your social networking website could give you bad advice?

Reviewed by Nicole C. Lee

When the Internet first became available to the average Jane and Joe, the “it” thing was to get an email address. Soon people began claiming their own websites and web pages, filling it with personal content. Now, anyone who is anyone has a MySpace or Facebook account, just two of the many social networking websites occupying our time. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, the concept is simple: Facebook and MySpace accounts link you to your friends. The numerous features and applications attached to these websites however, is what make them popular and, therefore, addictive. Talia Gonazalez and Bisanne Masoud confront this latest tech fad’s popularity in FaceSpace. The play follows Simon (Mike Carlsen) and Anne (Lindsay Ryan), two everyday people who are avid users of FaceSpace (the play’s fictional social networking website). The creator of FaceSpace is Tom, who begins the show by addressing the audience and introducing us to Simon and Anne’s FaceSpace profiles.

Tom (Jon Levenson) is the personification of FaceSpace. Visible only to the audience and main characters, he advises – or more accurately taunts, teases, and criticizes – Simon and Anne. He advises Simon to hook up with various girls whose relationship statuses suddenly change to ‘single’. He whines when Anne fails to log in to her account daily, or as often as he would like. Tom also advises Anne, who’s profile is bare, to lie and fabricate details of her life to attract Simon. In an Iago-like fashion, Tom successfully persuades Simon and Anne to make unwise decisions that inevitably lead to complications in their lives. Once this happens, Simon and Anne decide to ignore Tom’s guidance and delete their FaceSpace profiles, leaving Tom feeling lost without them.

The production requires minimal props and is simple in set design; a white screen covers the back wall of the stage on which the characters’ FaceSpace profiles are projected. The lighting design by Jana Mattioli assists in separating Simon’s storyline from Anne’s. Jon Levenson is chameleonic as Tom, presenting himself as a macho, sexist persona to Simon and then as a bubbly, carefree airhead to Anne.

Though FaceSpace is wonderfully comedic, quick-paced and contemporary, it also possesses a more serious undertone: the ever-changing and ever-growing power of technology in our lives. The breaking of the fourth wall by Tom at the beginning of the play essentially involves the audience in the story, and the story is not as far-fetched as one might think. As of yet, social networking websites do not rule our lives by providing horrible life and dating advice. For those who spend countless hours logged into their account however, is this scenario that far off? To what extent moreover, do such technological inventions go from enhancing our lives to ruling them? The bottom line with FaceSpace: don’t just sit at the computer posting things about your life, go live them!

FaceSpace (90 minutes, no intermission), part of Midtown International Theatre Festival
MainStage Theater (312 West 36th Street, 4th floor)
Tickets ( $18
Performances: through August 1

Monday, July 27, 2009


A short play filled with witty dialogue takes a turn at picking apart the pretensions and cruelty of the upper class.

Reviewed by Ryan Max

From the first glimpse of the all-girls prep-school dorm room set, to the first word out of these quick-witted Brits, it’s pretty clear that Numbers isn’t about how righteous and generous the upper class is. The all-female cast hashes out this tale of class tension in flurries of finely calibrated dialogue: the audience laughs exactly when they are supposed to, and the pause after each precision-guided line ("If she can't do anything better with her hair, how can she do anything better with the school?") is just long enough to let the laughter rise and fall without breaking the rhythm.

The three girls that we are introduced to first--Katherine, Isabel, and Jennifer--are deeply involved in discussions of what Katherine will do when she is named head girl of the boarding school in which they reside. They play little games where they take turns shouting out future plans and husbands' careers ("Married to a painter!"). And about half an hour into the hour long play, they are more or less in the same place that they started: prep school girls chattering about exactly what people imagine prep school girls chatter about.

Only in the play's second half does the expected comeuppance interrupt their little orgy of arrogance. Their fourth roommate, Hetty, enters and reveals that, in fact, she has been chosen as the head girl. Hetty here stands in for the lower classes: she is quieter, nerdier, and not as obsessed with status as her soon-to-be-former friends. After their initial shock turns into disdainful and increasingly cruel attacks against Hetty, the girls begin to turn on one another.

All of this drama may be intended to speak to the vitriolic response of assumed privilege and power when it is questioned or challenged. The way that Hetty gets Jennifer to defect to her side (by using her older brother, on whom Jennifer has a crush, as bait) may be intended to reveal how flimsy their convictions are, and how self-serving their motives. But, much like the MacGuffin stolen diary that the girls use against Hetty, these devices are too quick and easy of narrative fixes. They may be great tools to reveal the ugly side of those who use them, but they don't work so well as tools to make a compelling story.

Numbers is an enjoyable play, full of deft dialogue and acting. But with a central conflict that is too long in coming and a narrative pushed along by easy fixes, it falls short of the scathing indictment of class pretension it set out to be.

Numbers (1 Hour; No Intermission)
Where Eagles Dare Studio Blackbird (347 W. 36th St., 13th Fl.)
Tickets: No Performances Remaining at the Midtown International Theater Festival

Monday, July 20, 2009

Haunted House

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

There are no multimedia screens, no experimental dance breaks, no tricky narrative surprises; compared to most new American plays, Daniel Roberts's Haunted House is positively "analog." Or at least, that's the word that Lucy (Diana Cherkas), a tech reporter, uses to describe the Dunn family--Cy (Jordan Charney), Peter (Jason Altman), and Wendy (Meghan Miller)--though in her distinctive lingo, she means this in a quaint, charming, and yes--"beautiful"--way. Her arrogant boyfriend, Moses (Jason Blaine), puts it more directly: "You guys are so fucking real; it's sort of disconcerting." All of these descriptions apply not only to the Dunns and their haunted house, which represents a fast-fading and more innocent past--but to Roberts's script, which outs him as one of the most talented traditional dramatists working today.

If you were to relive the seminal moments of your childhood, your cynical modern self might easily dismiss them for their cheesiness. But Haunted House treats the past with respect, respectfully preserving the familiar odors and the time-honored dust, taking pride in what others dismiss as pedestrian and ordinary. Roberts understands that what we assume to be irrelevant is far from meaningless, and so he evokes a genuine sorrow, the sort comes from losing hold of what we don't even realize is precious. He also finds the most elegant ways of putting it, as when Lucy compares loneliness to "a single gig of RAM," or when Wendy describes magic as the way "the molecules that separate everything from everything" just disappear when she touches her lover.

A good haunted house is only as good as its ability to secret away its gears, and this is where Brian Ziv's direction plays such a vital role. He embeds every object on stage--from the plastic scythe to the static columns of Dominos--with real life. He finds nice parallels too, from the way he uses Julia Noulin-Merat's set to look in through the windows of both the actual Dunn house, and their haunted one, showing the time-worn hauntings of each. Above all, he heightens the terrific dialogue by ensuring that the actors each bring quirks to their role, from the way Charney's Cy sweeps up his ghoul's cowl with generations of grand English tradition behind him, to the way that Blaine's Moses never wastes a movement, bearing full-on scorn with the ease of his trademarked pencil-snap.

The cast is the other thing Haunted House has going for it--no mere mechanical creepy-crawlies, these. Not for a minute could we see Cherkas's nerd-chic Lucy as anything less than fully fleshed, from the way she melts into the giddy joy of feeling thirteen again, to the way she battles her impulses to try and find what she really wants. These internal struggles are even visible in someone like Peter: while he may be the obedient, simple son, Altman keeps him from being a sheep, and his sudden movements are all the more surprising--and understanding--for that. All the characters, especially the way Miller shows Wendy's hidden romance, have such strong feelings that when they clash, it's hard to know who to root for.

There are tons of hidden rooms in Roberts's writing: you can read it as a deep-down allegory for the "corruptive forces of modernity"--that is, apathy, which is full blown in Moses, a "faith-eist" who actively believes in nothing. But you can also just experience it for the terrific ride that it is: those goosebumps won't be from horror, but from hearing and seeing such sad, beautiful truth.

Haunted House (90 min.)
Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 8/8): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:00

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thérèse Raquin

Neal Bell's terrific adaptation of Émile Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin puts a stake through the heart of dry naturalism, using Ibsen's modernism and Jim Petosa's romantic direction to cleverly mix morbidity with dashes of sweetness: ravenous passion, indeed. The cast excels--haunted not just by ghosts, but by genuine emotions, and the show justifies every bit of its poetry.

Photo/Stan Barouh

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Not to take anything away from Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin . . . no, wait, let's: even for 1867, Zola's novel is torpid; Neal Bell's terrific dramatization, however, is a torrid smash. Assisted by Jim Petosa's wonderfully poetic stagecraft, Bell has put a stake through the heart of dry naturalism. His version, currently running in repertoire at the reliable PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project), puts the focus back on the immediate needs of the characters, glossing over the book's detailed, yet all too distanced, notes on "temperament."

Instead, he brings a bit of Ibsen's modernism to the work, showing Raquin's blossoming from stark apathy ("I can't be frightened to death; I'm already dead and this is hell") to ravenous passion, and then her murderous fall ("I wanted to hammer his sleeping face in"). Petosa adds a fair share of romanticism to the slow, sensual movements--from the yawning distances that open the play to the tight, circular clasps of its middle and the eventual locked-in doom of the ending. And for good measure, both put more weight on the circumstances of the play, so that what was shocking 150 years ago (the adultering Laurent hides under his lover's discarded clothes) is still shocking today (Laurent's now hiding under his lover's dress, pleasuring her as she attempts to casually sip a cup of tea in front of her aunt; in the next scene, Laurent will be kissing that aunt with that mouth of his).

Once, it was enough simply to follow in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe; today, we care more for the agonizing humanism of the characters than the spectral visitations of their temperament. And this is where Bell and Petosa excel: we first meet Thérèse (Lily Balsen) as she sits in the foreground, looking out into the audience, doing her best to ignore her aunt (Helen-Jean Arthur), who chatters as idly as she embroiders, and the consumptive coughing of her cousin, Camille (Willie Orbison), shown here as a faint shadow behind a scrim. The scene is simple enough: if she's doomed to marry this man, she might as well act as dead as she feels--she certainly has no desire to while away her time at dominoes with Camille's social circle (Peter B. Schmitz, Michael Kessler, Stephanie Spencer, and Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki). But when she meets Laurent (Scott Janes), a roguish painter and old friend of Camille's, she can't help but come alive in his arms.

These are clever themes to mix: a sense of morbidity with a dash of sweetness. Balsen, who carries herself like a younger, more innocent Helena Bonham Carter, nails the role by sweeping her evils under the rug of childishness. Her sexual awakening--accompanied by immediate, all-consuming lust--believably drowns out any morals she might have . . . which makes it all the more plausible that later, in the wake of such wrongdoing, she might have genuine regret. She is haunted by a ghost, yes (and here, Orbison finds the morbidity for his actual sweetness), but what really gets to us is how she haunts herself. Janes comes across more as a rugged foil for Balsen--his needs are, you might say, as masculine as his character--but even still, it's a crisp performance. Even Ms. Arthur, who spends most of the play in doddering territory, turns in an exceptionally refined performance: her character learns of her children's betrayal, but only after she's had a paralyzing stroke that makes it impossible to do anything but seethe (and, thanks to stage magic, orate).

It is very easy to be poetic--to say that one's expression is as empty as an air shaft. It's harder to justify the reasons behind that expression (as Bell and Petosa have done), and harder still to actually paint that expression on the stage (as Balsen has done). Thérèse Raquin is filled with such excellent translations and interpretations, and while that's easy to say, it won't at all be hard to believe for those who have seen it.

Thérèse Raquin (2hrs 5min, 1 intermission)
Atlantic Theater 2 (330 West 16th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $20.00
Performances (through 7/26): In rep with The Europeans, see website for dates.